This Is Not Your Father’s Iraqi Army
The Iraqi military improved after the Islamic State’s invasion, but it still has a ton of problems
by PAUL IDDON
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Iraqi Army suffered an abysmal and historic failure to defend the major city of Mosul from the Islamic State. Iraq has suffered the consequences of that military collapse ever since.
But the Iraqi Army has changed. It is taking the fight back to the Islamic State and has regained more than half of Mosul, the terror group’s last urban stronghold in the country. Iraq’s elite police and special forces units spearheading the battle are poised to retake the rest of the city in 2017.
The Iraqi Army is also, still, hobbled by corruption.
The war with the Islamic State has seen Iraq carry out its first air strikes in well over a decade. These include strikes on I.S. targets in neighboring Syria carried out by Iraq’s new F-16 jet fighters.
On the ground, the largest Iraqi armored assault since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait took place in July 2016 with the recapture of Qayyarah Air Base from the Islamic State. Iraqi’s Russian-made Mi-28 and Mi-35 helicopter gunships have also provided support to ground offensives, with pilots demonstrating combined arms tactics.
These examples are in no way insignificant.
The United States struggled nearly a decade to rebuild an Iraqi Army it shattered during the 2003 U.S. invasion. Worse, the Coalition Provisional Authority Order 2 of 2003 disbanded the Saddam-era military and fired its 250,000 soldiers. This, of course, contributed to the insurgency which would embroil U.S. troops for the rest of the decade.
The post-2003, donor-funded Iraqi Army invariably played secondary roles to what were primarily American operations — with limited exceptions. One of the most prominent, the offensive against the Sadrist militia in Basra in March 2008, did not produce a clear cut victory.
When the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in 2011, the Iraqi Army seemed to be — at least on paper — a force able to hold the country together and combat security threats. To the stunned bewilderment of the U.S. government, the Islamic State’s 2014 blitzkrieg into Mosul shattered the Iraqi Army and the illusion of a minimally-capable fighting force.
The main problem was that corruption had eroded the Iraqi Army’s strength and morale. At least 50,000 Iraqi soldiers existed only on paper. Their officers maintained this fiction since they had a comfortable arrangement whereby they received a fraction of the state salaries paid to these fake soldiers. In effect, the Iraqi Army had become a money-making opportunity for its officers, many of whom abandoned their soldiers to be massacred as the Islamic State swept into northern Iraq.
A retired Iraqi four-star general identified the problem to The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn as “corruption, corruption, corruption,” and explained that the situation was so bad that Baghdad may well have been “paying for a battalion with a nominal strength of 600 men, but which in fact had only 200 soldiers.”
Such corruption resulted in few, if any, actual training exercises ever held in the lead-up to Mosul’s fall. Such exercises are essential for any army to prepare for the contingencies that will be inevitably occur in warfare.
Consequently, a wholly false image of the army’s effectiveness, strength and even size was presented to decision-makers in Baghdad and indeed the outside world. Reality, which the Islamic State introduced, has a way of intruding on the convenient fantasies which armies and governments create for themselves.
But the Islamic State was also a deadlier enemy than even the U.S. military faced during the 2003–2011 occupation. During the I.S. assault on Ramadi, the terror group leveled a fortified Iraqi position by smashing through a concrete blast wall with an armored bulldozer.
“And what [the Islamic State] did was then shot through this gap a series of five-ton trucks, each one of them — they used seven in this main attack — each of them having exactly the same explosive power that Tim McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing … they did this seven times,” Douglas Ollivant, a national security analyst at the New America Foundation, noted in a 2016 speech at Arizona State University.
“The next time you hear about ‘Iraqi will to fight,’ ask if your favorite unit that you fought with, how would they do if subjected to this, not once, not twice, but seven times.”
The Islamic State seized Ramadi, but the Iraqi Army also adapted. Today, the Iraqi military is — for the first time this century — taking the lead on the battlefield with the United States and its allies supporting from behind with warplanes, artillery, logistics and training support; along with Special Operations Forces in armored vehicles equipped with remote-controlled gun turrets.
There’s a giant caveat, however. The Iraqi Army is leading primarily with elite brigades which spearheaded past battlefield victories such as the recapture of Ramadi in 2015–2016. This has led some observers to fear these crack troops are under too much strain, increasing the risk of burnout.
The Iraqi government has attempted to eliminate ghost soldiers and punish politicians for handing out corrupt contracts, but these steps have been halting and corruption remains an endemic problem, according to Iraq analyst Joel Wing who writes at the blog Musings on Iraq.
“The Iraqi government never tackles corruption because it is not only institutionalized, but is part of how the ruling parties run the country,” Wing told War Is Boring. “Dishing out crooked contracts, handing out jobs, creating ghost soldiers and the like are all part of the patronage networks the parties have to maintain followers and win votes.”
“Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi tried to get rid of some ghost soldiers on the payrolls,” Wing added. “The former Defense Minister Khalid Obeidi went after some politicians for corrupt contracts — but that was because he was being accused of the same and was dismissed by parliament.”
“Otherwise, there has been no real moves.”
It is Iraq’s nepotistic political structure that continues to drain the Iraqi Army and poses one of the biggest obstacles to a lasting peace. Today, the problem is corruption. During the Saddam era, the problem was a military structure which favored loyalty to the Ba’athist regime over ability.
When Iraq invaded Iran’s Khuzestan province in 1980, Saddam micro-managed the campaign even though he personally had no formal military experience. The invasion initially gained substantial ground, but ended in a complete failure.
Iranian volunteers rushed to the front to repel the Iraqi invaders. By June 1982, Iran forced the Iraqi Army back over the border in the Battle of Khorramshahr. Tehran launched a counter-offensive against Iraq which prolonged the war by another staggering six years. More than 400,000 people lost their lives on both sides combined.
Given the evident failures of Saddam’s micro-managing style, he gradually replaced his commanders with new ones, selected for their merits and professionalism rather than their fealty to him.
“Saddam weeded out incompetent commanders (many of whom were friends, loyal supporters and even relatives), and when he found competent commanders he stuck with them,” Kenneth Pollack wrote in his 2002 book Arabs at War.
After Iraq lost the Al Faw Peninsula to Iran in early 1986 — which threatened the strategic port city of Basra — Saddam allowed his commanders to conduct operations and make important decisions on their own. This change in policy saw more Iraqi victories on the battlefield, culminating in the end of the war two years later.
Following the Iraqi recapture of Al Faw, subsequent Iraqi offensives “effectively destroyed Iran’s remaining ground power, leaving the country defenseless and forcing Tehran to accept a ceasefire,” Pollack noted. “The Iraqis could have driven into the province as easily as they had in 1980, but this time their military operations were decisive and efficient.”
Pollack also argued that the rapid Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in early August 1990 demonstrated that professionalism in the military over loyalty greatly enhanced Iraq’s military capabilities. However, Saddam’s decision to fight the United States and the various powers assembled behind it proved to be the beginning of his downfall.
The superior firepower of the U.S.-led coalition decimated the Iraqi military on the battlefield. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers deserted. Those who remained stood no chance versus technologically advanced adversaries who severed their communications and bombed them in the open desert.
While Saddam was able to crush subsequent Shiite and Kurdish uprisings to his rule with brute force, he ceased being a major threat to neighboring states, nearly all of whom — except Iran and Syria — have good relations with the United States and are purchasers of U.S. military hardware.
By 2003, the Iraqi Army put up relatively little resistance, and Saddam didn’t even bother putting his remaining MiG-25s in the air, instead choosing to bury them in the desert. Shortly after the regime’s defeat the army was controversially disbanded by the United States.
Today, Iraq’s new military remains far from perfect. It is heavily reliant on special forces and heavy firepower while regular soldiers are often under-trained and, as Wing observed, endemic corruption remains an issue. It has progressed considerably, but still has a ways to go.