Interview

Spring Offensive Against ISIS in Iraq ‘Unrealistic’

Former Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi sits down with Foreign Policy to discuss the challenges of rebuilding the Iraqi army and the need for U.S. assistance.

MUSTAPHA AHMAD/AFP/Getty Images
MUSTAPHA AHMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq’s former defense minister, Abdul Qader Obeidi, says the Iraqi army needs at least a year and a lot of U.S. help to take on the Islamic State.

Former Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi says the planned spring offensive to retake provinces captured by the self-declared Islamic State is unrealistic because Iraqi military forces need a year of training before embarking on such a mission. Even then, Iraqi forces will need substantial outside assistance in the form of close-air support, army aviation assets, and logistical help to mount a cohesive battle against the militant group, Obeidi said during a recent interview with Foreign Policy.

Obeidi served as a senior military advisor to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from 2011 to 2012. Before that he was the country’s defense minister from 2006 until 2010. In that role he established the new Ministry of Defense and laid the foundation for recruiting, training, and equipping Iraqi military forces.

Obeidi joined the Iraqi army as a second-lieutenant in 1969, rising through the ranks during Saddam Hussein’s regime. After the 1991 Gulf War, Obeidi was imprisoned for about a year for speaking out against Hussein’s invasion plans for Kuwait.

Obeidi now lives outside of Washington, D.C., and, spoke, through an interpreter, to FP.

FP: What are the challenges in rebuilding the Iraqi army?

Obeidi: First there should be budget available to pay for this. So far there’s no budget for 2015 and we’re already at the end of 2014. This is an important aspect. To train the forces and get them engaged in a battle and produce a desirable result — in peacetime, you’d need a year to prepare them.

FP: But the U.S. and its allies are talking about a battle for Mosul in the spring. Is that possible?

Obeidi: That’s unrealistic. The reason is, we used to fight pockets of resistance in the past, now you’re going to be fighting a force that’s holding an entire province. At the same time, the most difficult battle is fighting in the cities. This requires specially trained forces. When we build such a force they need life support: logistics including ammunition, food, water, fuel…. It’s an entire system. You need a logistical system in place before you build a fighting force to operate in Mosul.

FP: How much force do you think will be required to retake Mosul and the province of Nineveh from ISIS?

Obeidi: It’ll take about three divisions or nine brigades and an entire system. One Iraqi division is about 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers. You’re looking at about 45,000 soldiers; if you want to prepare them well against an enemy that is ready to fight to death. You know ISIS … most of them come from somewhere else and they’re not prepared to go back there and are prepared to die.

It’ll be a tough fight. At the same time, if we want to accomplish the same result with what we accomplished with the support of U.S. forces, Iraqi forces need the fire support and power. When we used to fight with American troops, there were special pieces of artillery. Americans used a special ammunition guided through satellite and had pinpoint accurate fire. Without such accuracy there’s going to be a lot of destruction.

In the battle of Fallujah in 2004, when there was resistance from inside homes, the artillery used to fire one shell directly on one target. Without such accuracy you’ll have too much destruction. It was available but now it’s not available because the Americans are not there.

FP: What kind of an enemy does ISIS represent? A conventional force or an insurgency?

Obeidi: In the provinces they occupy they fight like a regular army and in cities but at the same time in Baghdad, in Diyala, and in certain parts of Karbala, Babylon province they fight as terrorists, using suicide bombers, terror attacks. They combine it as they see operational needs. In the provinces they occupy most of the time when there’s an attack on them they use suicide individuals who drive trucks and cars. They use suicide bombers as shock troops and this requires certain specific training to deal with. It requires entire armor pieces to hit such trucks and not the RPG the Iraqi army is now using. Also requires fire-and-forget type ammunition. You need army aviation like Apache helicopters, and close air support.

In Mosul what’s needed to support ground forces is artillery pieces like we discussed. You need attack helicopters and A-10 type fixed-wing aircraft for close air support. The most important thing is when do you have time to prepare and train these forces? There’s a unity of command that’s required.

FP: How many trainers do you think are needed to train 45,000 Iraqi troops?

Obeidi: It starts from a platoon level all the way to the division level. Each platoon requires three trainers at least. Each platoon is about 20 to 25 soldiers. There’s individual training, then tactical training. The problem is to have a formation moving from small units to large units, coordination, command and control. You’ve to train them on small weapons, that’s not difficult. The tactics for a platoon, company, battalion, and brigade — this is the most important thing and very difficult to train.

And then you’ve logistics on top of that. There are some very important aspects to that. It’s related to the morale of troops. Medicine, for example…. If you can’t evacuate an injured soldier then that affects the troops. Iraqi soldiers don’t have a health care system.

FP: Does the Iraqi army have some ability to provide training?

Obeidi: There’s already some training capability available. I left a lot of excellent trainers and training centers. They can train at the level of companies but for battalion, brigades, and divisions you need additional help from outside.

To wage a combined battle of artillery, aviation, we need serious help. I suspect that the current Iraqi system cannot support that. If there’s a battle and you’ve a decisive battle the auxiliary support would have to come from allies … artillery, combat support has to come from the U.S. and allies, especially the medical support.

There has to be a medical system that can evacuate, treat, and rehabilitate them. Combat hospitals are not available. Without that you can’t convince soldiers to go into battle. Until 2009, 80 percent of our medical support came from the U.S.

FP: What happened to creating Iraq’s own medical support for troops?

Obeidi: It deteriorated after 2009 and I contested that. Medical command was one of my projects and I even had a 400-bed hospital on the plan in Baghdad. But that never happened.

From 2011 to 2013, 90 to 95 percent of the plan to modernize the military stopped, especially the logistical system. The most important aspect is the medical evacuation system.

The allied coalition has to understand that training ground forces and aerial support from planes at a higher elevation we may achieve some result but it’ll take a long time to do so and with tremendous losses for the Iraqi forces. We’ve to remember that more than 2 million elderly, women, and children are evicted from their homes.

FP: When the U.S. left Iraq in 2011 there were about 50 brigades in the security forces. Does the country need such a big military force?

Obeidi: There were 14 divisions under the Ministry of Defense forces or about 42 brigades. At the same time the Ministry of Interior had 20 brigades, also the anti-terrorism forces had 12 brigades. This is what was available. They used to be engaged and deployed throughout the country. Unfortunately in the beginning of 2014 the Iraqi leadership engaged this force in a battle that drained their ability in Anbar province. That went on for a long time. The enemy they faced, ISIS, used to carry on operations to drain the Iraqi forces. Half of the forces I mentioned earlier were destroyed or ineffective. The rest of it is in poor morale and psychological condition and cannot engage in a decisive battle.

Therefore in June 2014 what happened in Mosul, Kirkuk, Salahuddin was a complete collapse of this force because they were exhausted.

FP: What do you think of the idea of forming several brigades of national guard drawn from Sunni tribes?

Obeidi: I’m a military man. If you tell me you can produce this number of brigades from these tribes, I find this to be a painful news. These are simple people. They’re unprepared and cannot engage in a bloody battle. They can’t prepare real troops to fight a real battle. Second, the idea of national guard in these provinces…. We tried from 2003 to 2005 and it was a total failure.

FP: Why was it a failure?  

Obeidi: They used to be formed by the sheikhs of the tribes and the connected people in these provinces. Most of these forces were just names on paper with no actual individuals. Therefore, like in Anbar, they used to say they had three or four brigades but there was no real security until we were able to form forces from the Ministry of Defense. We were forced to cancel all this experimentation with the national guard. We have to know that the ISIS operatives in Anbar are mostly from the province. The national guard you’re forming they’ve to face two situations: either fight in a realistic engagement or they’ll have an undeclared truce with ISIS. In the end ISIS will do what they want under the eyes of these tribes and the national guard will be drawing salaries after reaching a truce with ISIS and they’ll be free to do what they want.

These tribal guard members will be afraid for their families. ISIS will not target the soldiers but target their families. I don’t know the specifics but from my experience it was a complete failure.

FP: Will the idea fail even if it’s supervised by the Ministry of Defense?

Obeidi: We tried to do the same thing at that time. When we took the tribes back to their towns to control the place, they made accommodations with the insurgents and didn’t do their jobs.

FP: Instead of forming a national guard why don’t you form regular brigades under the control of the Ministry of Defense? You’re bringing these tribes to a camp, training them, and calling them national guard but why don’t you call them a national force and make them part of the army?

Obeidi: The problem will be if we pacify Anbar province (with these tribes) and then take the fight to Nineveh, can you use these forces? These forces will refuse to go there. If you’ve regular army they’ll go anywhere. For the same money, expense you can get a regular force.

FP: Do you think there’s a need for ground troops from outside Iraq to come in and supplement Iraqi forces?

Obeidi: A ground operation cannot be just a soldier with a rifle. As I said you’ve to have logistics, no soldier is going to fight without logistical support. This is a huge deficiency in the Iraqi forces. There’s no air support.

FP: So you’re saying logistics, fire support, and medevac must come from outside?

Obeidi: All that has to come from outside. Maybe you can get some support from Iraqi trainers who are capable. If I fly a helicopter who’s going to direct the fire? There has to be a fire controller on the ground. Can that be an Iraqi? This is a problem. If you fly Apaches or a British helicopter, who’s going to direct the fire power?

FP: Can the Iraqi forces fight with the equipment they have?

Obeidi: That’s very limited. Because the helicopters I left behind, Eurocopter, Bell 407 the Iraqis can use these for fire support. But the Russian Mi-28 and Mi-25 they were delivered to Iraqi forces in a quick manner with very limited training. I know from my contacts … it’s one thing for a helicopter to deliver fire-power but to lead a force and support a force to liberate a city like Mosul it’s a different story.

FP: What about the U.S.-supplied M1-Abrams?

Obeidi: There were 140 M1 tanks. The losses were about 60 to 70. Many were destroyed in Anbar province because they were poorly deployed and hit by RPGs and other explosives and ISIS only got a few of them. Repairs and maintenance also limited on these tanks.

FP: What do you make of former Prime Minister Maliki? American officials say he ruined the country’s capabilities?

Obeidi: If you talk about Maliki from 2006 to 2012, he had good results. Remember there was a lot of peace and stability. Until 2010 conditions were good. Maliki’s big mistake was not keeping American forces even though many Iraqi officials tried to keep them.

There’s a document in the possession of the Iraqi government and the chief of staff. There’s also a document copy at the Pentagon. I was responsible for the document prepared in 2010 to 2011. It says the Iraqi military is in dire need for a U.S. residual force to stay behind to support Iraqi forces when in need and continue training them. Iraqi army will not finish its training and equipping until 2020. The Army is not ready to engage in battles that require engagement to the level of a division. The first request was 30,000 U.S. troops. It was rejected.

FP: Who rejected it?

Obeidi: Maliki and all the Iraqi political parties. This was a request from the Iraqi army. Then we reduced it to 15,000, then 10,000, then 5,000. Gen. [Lloyd] Austin [CENTCOM commander] and I were working together on this issue but these were rejected. The Iraqi government rejected. Frankly, Maliki was in favor but he was unable to publicize the idea because he was afraid of his political opponents. Political leaders when we met with them they agreed but in media they said the opposite. Iraqi security forces in their entirety wanted U.S. forces to stay, especially air force, helicopters, technical knowhow, technology to fight terrorism, scanners, bomb explosion, and cooperation in the intelligence arena.

The document specifically identifies these areas of cooperation. It was signed by the Iraqi chief of staff, four of his assistants, commanders of ground forces, army aviation, air force and intelligence.

I didn’t sign. I was responsible to bring everyone in the room. In 2011, I was a senior military advisor to the prime minister.

FP: Do you think U.S. troops must be deployed again to Iraq?

Obeidi: Yes.

FP: How many?

Obeidi: This is difficult to assess, but special forces are needed. Also we need Air Force, Army aviation, especially intelligence gathering, either equipment or personnel. Also fire support and medical support. This is very much required.

If we have the U.S. soldiers, Navy seals, and Army rangers they can round up the ISIS forces by now.

FP: You’ve said that the Iraqi militias must be outlawed. Why?

Obeidi: In 2008 the militias were all gone but now they’re the norm. After June 2014 … [the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali-al] Sistani declared jihad against ISIS. We should not be fighting as militia. They should be formed as units that the state is responsible for and supervising them. The Shia militia is fighting as militia and their chain is the political party. Tomorrow if we defeat ISIS, what are we going to do with these militias?

FP: Should the Peshmerga also be outlawed?

Obeidi: Peshmerga are a different issue. When I was a minister the peshmerga used to be a part of the Ministry of Defense. We decided that they were the Iraqi security forces in the mountains because they were well trained. Also had planned to have two divisions of the Iraqi army to operate alongside the peshmerga. The Peshmerga is a force that’s controlled by the Kurdish.

But the Badr militia, Hezbollah, Mahdi army … these others have no control. Friends and families can’t leave their own township because they’re afraid of the militia.

FP: You’ve said Saddam Hussein’s former aides must be released from prison? Why? What difference would that make?

Obeidi: People like Tariq Aziz … why are they still in prison? There are lessons to the current military people. Those people were just executing orders. The current military officers are saying they’re reluctant to follow orders because the former officials were jailed for following orders.

This is part of the political reconciliation. It’ll have an effect.

FP: Former members belonging to Saddam Hussein’s government are said to be leading ISIS. So by releasing some former officials you think you can win over some of the ISIS leaders?

Obeidi: This is a very good possibility.

Gopal 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. Twitter: @g_ratnam