Sunday, July 06, 2014

Counting Iraq's Army

The collapse of the Iraqi security forces in the north was merely the most obvious portion of the collapse that has been going on since we left Iraq.

In early 2009, I noted that Mosul was still an al Qaeda problem. With our help, Iraq could handle it, I wrote.

But the Mosul problem was not solved before we left at the end of 2011.

Without us, al Qaeda got stronger up there. I heard a retired US general say that the Iraqi forces around Mosul were demoralized after enduring two years of bombings and assassinations.

Just sitting and taking it could not be done forever. So when ISIL struck amidst an uprising of Sunni Arabs, those ground security forces were primed to run. This was not a sudden development but the end stage of a long enemy campaign.

Contributing to the problem was the overall decline of the Iraqi forces since we left and weren't there to combat corruption. The latest Strategy Talk includes this discussion, including the statement that half the Iraqi army was gone before the Mosul debacle because of that corruption.

I assume this means all ground security forces and not just the army. So not only is the common misperception that Iraq has a million-man army wrong--two thirds are security guards and police--but the idea that Iraq still had a million-man security force is wrong. Call it 450,000 on duty now, after the the long slow erosion plus the collapse of the northern garrisons.

All throughout the Iraq War counter-insurgency phases, I droned on about the eventual need for us to stay after defeating the enemies to combat corruption and preserve rule of law. But we did not stay at the end of 2011, and corruption has hollowed out the Iraqi military.

Corruption led to weapons deals wasting money with bribes (remember the fake bomb detectors that Iraq bought?)

Corruption led to commanders stealing the pay of their troops, leading to troops leaving service to go home and leading those who remained to be less than confident in their leaders.

Corruption led troops and commanders to sell ammo, weapons, and equipment. If you aren't getting paid, how else do you survive? And if those above you are doing it and getting away with it, why not?

This led the Iraqi government to not bother to stockpile much for emergencies since it would be stolen and not in the warehouses when needed anyway.

Corruption and lack of rule of law led to lack of training and the replacement of combat leaders with loyal political leaders. Which made the vast majority of the ground forces much less effective. By the time ISIL struck in force in early June, the Iraqi army was mostly a "checkpoint" army only capable of static operations against minimal opposition.

So this general problem eroded the Iraqi security forces from within while ISIL eroded the northern Iraqi forces from the outside.

While we were in Iraq even when we weren't fighting any more, we kept these problems down to low levels. After 2011, everything we restrained began to erode what we'd built at great effort, lasting only long enough for us to boast that Iraq was secure and stable, justifying our exit.

This means fewer than 500,000 ground security forces are available to fight. And just 150,000 are in the army (although survivors of the northern units are being formed into new units). Many of the best of those army troops are committed to Fallujah and other parts of Anbar province--some stripped from Mosul--where the January ISIL offensive took a lot of ground or committed to defending the seat of government in Baghdad.

Few Iraqi troops with any level of competence are available for mobile combat operations. Some of these troops--regulars and special forces--bolstered by Shia volunteers, local Sunni Arab tribes still opposed to al Qaeda, Iraq's limited air power, and American surveillance and advice began a counterattack to secure Tikrit.

Hopefully, the Anbar front holds while the Baghdad front gains priority on troops, supplies, and attention.

With the Kurds holding their region, even this reduced force should be enough to defeat ISIL if the Iraqis can whip them into shape to fight and if they get proper air and fire support as well as logistics assistance.

Hopefully our advisers help with this. And we can ship ammo and small arms. And provide recon and surveillance assets. And some air power (with ground controllers) so Iraq has precision fire support rather than barrel bomb-types of air support.

And it would help a lot if the Iraqi government reaches out to the Sunni Arabs to keep as many in the fight against ISIL as possible and to break the ISIL-Sunni Arab links that have allowed ISIL to gain ground in the west and north this year.

If we don't help the Iraqis win this war, Iran, Syria, and Russia will help Iraq, and then Iraq really will be mostly under control of Iran as so many have wrongly charged Iraq was since we defeated Saddam.