Best Defense

Getting beyond the blame game on Iraqi security: What we should be doing now

By Colonel Joseph R. Núñez, U.S. Army (Ret.) Best Defense guest columnist The narrative that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki politicized the Iraqi military leadership, which explains their military units collapsing in the face of attacking ISIS forces, is flawed. Those of us who spent years in Iraq saw many reasons for the fumbling, bumbling, and ...

iraqiarmy

By Colonel Joseph R. Núñez, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

The narrative that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki politicized the Iraqi military leadership, which explains their military units collapsing in the face of attacking ISIS forces, is flawed. Those of us who spent years in Iraq saw many reasons for the fumbling, bumbling, and stumbling Iraqi military performance. As with any problem, there is more than a single cause. It is true that many Iraqi generals were corrupt and incompetent. Additionally, religious and ethnic divisions hampered professionalism.

Beyond this, the United States did not train the Iraqi Army well. Instead of using high quality active duty U.S. Army units (such as Special Forces who were successful in training counterinsurgency forces in Colombia) to develop an army from scratch, the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq (MNSTC-I) was a bastard organization. Composed of individually assigned active duty and reserve personnel, along with a multitude of contractors, this was not the A team. The training mission lacked quality, cohesion, competence, and specialty alignment. We had retired infantry officers advising on electronic communications. The two senior logistics advisers were not logisticians — one was an engineer, the other an information technologist. The result was that the training mission took a back seat to marrying men with equipment to rapidly create Iraqi divisions.

Why does this matter today? All of the jockeying to create a coalition that can employ ground forces to destroy ISIS and reclaim Iraqi territory is surely dependent upon a core of Iraqi forces to maintain respect for legitimacy and sovereignty.  If Iraq is to endure as a state, its own people will need to fight to reestablish security.  We cannot do it for them, but we can help. Thankfully, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is willing to make key changes to improve Iraq’s military for real national defense.

The Iraqi military we created was not designed to defend borders and wage conventional warfare; rather it was assembled and trained to maintain internal security.  Manning checkpoints and establishing garrisons were Iraqi priorities for years.  The military was a huge jobs program that ignored illiteracy, sectarian loyalty, and poor motivation.

If former MNSTC-I commanders — which include General Martin Dempsey — were asked about the overall quality of the Iraqi military, the honest answer would have been not good. From logistics to tactics, discipline to availability, and from low level leadership to planning, the Iraqi forces deserved failing grades. Some blame rests with the Iraqi military, but a significant share of this failure rests upon the shoulders of the United States through MNSTC-I, an odd collection of active and reserve officers, and a huge staff of mostly lackluster contractors who were “junior varsity.”

If Iraqi forces are to succeed in battle with multinational support, a number of actions need to occur.

–First, while more competent active duty officers and sergeants are retraining the Iraqi Army (and this will take a long time), other indigenous forces must be bolstered immediately with more Special Operations trainers. The Kurds need their Peshmerga forces to be equipped directly by the United States and to receive expanded training in unit tactics. The Peshmerga are tough fighters, but their experience is in mountain fighting and ambushes, not conventional warfare.

(Concurrently, Sahwa fighters need to be resurrected, expanded, trained, and provisioned. These capable nationalist fighters need a written guarantee that they will not be marginalized because they are Sunni, which did occur under Maliki, with the United States doing little to change it. The Sahwa are the connective security tissue between the police and military, and they know the people and terrain within the “Islamic State” better than anyone else. As irregular forces, they too need Special Operations trainers.)

–Second, Washington should encourage Baghdad to shift Shiite militias and their Iranian trainers further to the south. That will pull them away from Sunni areas and provide them an opportunity to defend Shiite areas. This will reduce atrocities and improve Sunni morale.

–Third, if training indigenous forces is the class, then battle is the final exam. How are we to know how our students are doing if we are not directly observing them? Having advisers on the front line is truly a force multiplier and a risk worth taking. Yes, beyond observing, they should be coaching, mentoring, and encouraging their Iraqi counterparts as they fight ISIS. It is the right thing to do and long overdue.

Colonel (Ret.) Joseph R. Núñez, Ph.D., spent more than five years in Iraq between 2007 and 2013. After serving as a professor at the Army War College, he deployed to Baghdad in support of the Department of Defense advisory effort and then worked for the Department of State.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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