With the Islamic State pulling ever closer to Baghdad, the Obama administration believes rebuilding the shattered Iraqi military could require up to 1,000 foreign trainers from the United States and its top European allies.
- By Gopal RatnamGopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News.
The difficult and dangerous task of retraining Iraqi security forces to take on the Islamic State militants who’ve made impressive gains in the north and west of Iraq will require large numbers of trainers from the United States and NATO nations, according to a person familiar with joint assessments by the American-led coalition and the Iraqi government.
The expanded retraining effort being proposed by the United States may require as many as 1,000 foreign trainers from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Australia to restore the beleaguered Iraqi security forces to a battle-ready state led by American advisors, said the person who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made. The United States already has about 1,500 advisors in the country, and Western European allies have signaled their ability to send hundreds of trainers each, the person said.
While Britain and France are participating in airstrikes against the Islamic State and Germany is supporting Kurdish rebels in Iraq, getting those countries’ parliaments to approve sending ground troops into a war zone to train Iraqi forces is likely to be enormously complicated politically given the war fatigue in Washington and other Western capitals.
Alongside the significantly expanded training mission, the U.S.-led coalition also wants to create an Iraqi national guard force of about two to three brigades or as many as 15,000 troops drawn from Sunni tribes in Anbar province. Those militiamen reporting to provincial governors would be charged with keeping the Islamic State out of the Sunni heartland. Many of those tribesmen and their leaders participated in a 2006 uprising called the Anbar Awakening that helped the United States defeat al Qaeda in Iraq, only to turn on the government of then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who refused to pay the fighters or fold them into the standing Iraqi military after the violence subsided.
The United States has proposed that the guard units be recruited, trained, and paid by Iraq’s Defense Ministry, as opposed to how it was done during the 2006 uprising, when the United States recruited the tribes and had Baghdad pay for them, the person familiar with the discussion said. Some of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors may help defray the cost of retraining Iraqi troops and the cost of the national guard units, the person said.
The United States still is in the early stages of assembling an effective coalition to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State, as U.S. President Barack Obama has described the mission. But getting countries to sign up while questions about the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain unanswered is at the heart of the Obama administration’s challenge. Many Sunni Arab nations and NATO countries want to see Assad go, while Obama has declined to get the United States involved in what he sees as an intractable civil war in Syria.
The one issue on which many countries agree is the need for Iraq’s military — gutted as a result of Maliki removing talented Sunni officers and replacing them with Shiite loyalists — must be reconstituted to fight the Islamic State. Western officials, particularly those in the United States, were stunned by how rapidly the Iraqi Army collapsed in the early stages of the Islamic State’s assault, fleeing by the tens of thousands and leaving behind large quantities of American-provided weaponry.
The key question of how the region’s Sunni Arab countries will contribute to retraining Iraqi security forces is part of the intense discussions between the White House and the government of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Both sides are trying to strike a balance between inviting such involvement and angering Iran, the Shiite power whose support is critical to Abadi’s tenure.
The United States is hoping that many NATO members will readily consent to sending their troops to train Iraqi forces, particularly after troubling revelations that citizens from Western Europe and Australia are both victims of the Islamic State and participants alongside the militant group. The British Parliament in September overwhelmingly approved airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq after the militant group posted a YouTube video of the beheading of captured British aid worker David Haines. The group also has killed another British aid worker, Alan Henning. France and Germany also have signed up to support rebels fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.
Arab countries have been reluctant to wholeheartedly support the U.S. strategy because it’s still unclear how the Obama administration hopes to tackle the Islamic State without addressing the group’s presence in Syria, which would require the United States to answer the question of what happens to Assad. Some U.S. officials are beginning to see Assad as a vital, de facto ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
In the two months since Obama authorized the use of force against the Islamic State, the military effort has been confined mostly to airstrikes. Those airstrikes have barely succeeded in helping Iraqi Kurdish forces retake the strategically vital Mosul Dam and protect Iraqi Kurdistan, and the strikes have failed to prevent the militant group from conquering almost all of Anbar province and coming close to overrunning the Syrian border town of Kobani. The militants also drew to within 15 miles of Baghdad’s international airport, home to hundreds of U.S. troops, before being beaten back this weekend.
Defense officials from the United States and some European countries have said that without an effective ground force to supplement airstrikes — 487 to date — the Islamic State’s advance cannot be halted. In September, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said nearly half the Iraqi military, or 24 out of its 50 brigades, were incapable of fighting the Islamic State.
In 2013, Iraq had an active-duty military of 271,000, with roughly 193,400 in the Iraqi Army and the rest in a small naval force, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Interior Ministry had another 531,000 troops, mostly composed of local police units, according to the institute. No estimates of the current force size are available because many Iraqi units dispersed this year when the Islamic State began attacking from the west.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who led the international coalition in Afghanistan, and Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, completed one round of discussions last week with some of the Arab nations and plan to visit more countries in the Persian Gulf region next week.
Military chiefs of 20 nations that have agreed to contribute to the anti-Islamic State effort met for the first time Oct. 14 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to coordinate their respective roles in the fight against the militant group.
"There are not quick fixes involved," Obama said Oct. 14 after meeting with the military leaders. "We’re still at the early stages. As with any military effort, there will be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback."
In seeking contributions, the United States has listed a broad set of ways countries can support the fight against the Islamic State, ranging from participating in military action to something as prosaic as "exposing ISIL’s true nature," using an acronym sometimes used to refer to the militant group. Using such a wide umbrella, the United States now counts more than 60 countries in the coalition.
Getting Turkey to turn its military might against the Islamic State has been the toughest challenge for the United States because Ankara is trying to balance conflicting goals — seeing Syria’s Assad gone while not yielding ground to Kurdish enclaves where rebels who have been battling Turkey for decades are now facing the wrath of the Islamic State.
Ankara’s refusal to come to the aid of Kobani — a Kurdish enclave — has inflamed Kurds in Turkey, leading to a Turkish airstrike in the southeast of the country that shattered a two-year-long cease-fire between the two sides.
Turkey has said it won’t go after the Islamic State unless the U.S.-led coalition contains Assad by creating a no-fly zone and a buffer region along the Syria-Turkey border to shelter refugees.
But the Obama administration has resisted the idea, fearing that such a move would draw the United States deeper into the three-year-long Syrian civil war that has failed to dislodge Assad. Dempsey, the top U.S. military official, in 2013 told Congress that setting up a no-fly zone may cost as much as $1 billion a month and put American pilots at risk of Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
After resisting calls by lawmakers and several cabinet members to arm Syrian rebels, Obama in June proposed a $500 million fund to train and arm moderate groups opposing Assad. Congress approved the request in September. Obama’s critics, both at home and abroad, say that his delay in arming the moderate rebels led to the creation of the Islamic State.
The differences between the United States and Turkey flared into public view this week when top U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, said that Turkey had agreed to allow its bases to be used against the Islamic State, only to have Turkey quickly say that no deal had been reached.
Still, the United States and Turkey share the same goals in the fight against the Islamic State, the person familiar with discussions said.
While Turkey is not looking to militarily dislodge Assad, it is keen to set up an "exclusion zone" that will serve a dual purpose — stop both Assad and the Islamic State from attacking within that region — the person said. As for Washington’s opposition to setting up such a zone, the person said, the United States may have to rethink its position "because the very best strategies constantly adapt" to changes on the ground.