Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraqi security: It’s not quite as simple as Colonel Núñez seems to think it is

A response to last week's column.


By Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jim Dubik, PhD.

By Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jim Dubik, PhD.

Best Defense guest respondent

Colonel Núñez is exactly right in his suggestion that we get beyond the blame game and on to actions that increase the probability of success in the coming Iraqi counter offensive to restore their national border and eliminate ISIS as a threat to their sovereignty. He is also right in saying that the collapse of the portion of the Iraqi Army that fell apart in early 2014 has more than a single cause. But his analysis of the problem and his recommendations that flow from that analysis are incomplete.

From my perspective, three intertwined causes resulted in the poor performance of the Iraqi Army. The first cause was, in fact, two sets of policy decisions taken by the Maliki government—one domestic, the other security. Domestically, the Maliki government created enemies by the way it excluded and targeted Sunnis. These domestic policies fanned the embers of a not-yet-defeated insurgency to the point that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) not only grew but became a stronger and larger Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). At the same time, the Maliki government eroded the budding proficiency of its Army by ignoring the chain of command, using instead the Office of the Commander-in-Chief (OCINC), which operated out of the Prime Minister’s office. OCINC asserted de facto operational and bureaucratic command and control of the Army. In the process, command positions were bought and sold, corruption grew, professionalization and training halted, and confidence of Iraqi soldiers in their leaders and institutions diminished significantly. The Prime Minister became both the Minister of Defense and Interior, aggregating all except the most mundane decisions to himself and, thereby, stunting any growth in the continued development of either ministry. Last, he shoved aside the Chief of the Iraqi Joint Forces and the military reform program that he wanted to implement. These policies, aggressively executed from 2011-2014, hollowed out the fledging force that the U.S., the coalition, and NATO had trained. The result: simultaneously a growing threat and shrinking Iraqi army capacity.

Second, AQI—then ISIS—conducted an almost two-year campaign to rebuild its networks, reconstitute its leadership, and erode the diminishing confidence of the Iraqi Army in its leadership. This campaign included prison breaks, assassinations, intimidations, raids, targeted IED attacks, and other forms of terror. From 2011 to 2014 the size, complexity, lethality, and frequency of the attacks AQI-then-ISIS conducted increased, all while the Iraqi Security Forces capacity decreased.

Third, the U.S. left. Regardless of where one stands as to whether we could have stayed or should have stayed, the fact is that our departure in 2011 had a negative effect on the Iraqi Security Forces and the overall political and security situation. The State Department’s plan to continue development of the Iraqi Police fell apart, and the Defense Department’s desire to continue the professionalization of the Iraqi forces was reduced to about 150 people in an Office of Security Cooperation (OSC) working out of the U.S. embassy and focused on Foreign Military Sales. The leaders of Multi-National Forces, Iraq; Multi-National Security Transition Command, Iraq (MNSTC-I); then the OSC as well as the Ambassador and others in the Embassy accurately reported many of the problems that Colonel Núñez lays out in both public testimony and private correspondence. Others published articles and opeds and spoke to a variety of media saying that the Iraqi Security Forces could not defend their borders and had significant developmental work yet-to-be-done. None of this was a surprise to anyone paying attention.

Disparaging the hard work of those whose job it was to create, then expand and develop the Iraqi Security Forces as “not the A team” or “the junior varsity” and saying that the leaders of this effort were less than honest are cheap shots. Creating an army while at war and as a government is forming is not a simple “advise and assist” mission. No doubt, and I’m the first to admit this, all of us could have done better—in theater and in Washington. Equally without doubt, by the end of 2008, the quality of the Iraqi Security Forces was well beyond what anyone thought possible at the beginning of 2007. The overall size and proficiency of the Iraqi Security Forces was on an upward trajectory—partly because the enemy’s ability was on a downward trajectory but also because of the improved force generation, training, leader development approaches put in place by MNSTC-I as well as the expanded U.S./Iraqi partnership program run by Multi-National Corps, Iraq. This overall improved position—even as all acknowledged that the work was far from complete—was the result of the concentrated work done by the very people the Colonel disparages, and importantly, by senior political and military Iraqi leaders— sometimes at great risk to themselves and their families.

There is no need to retrain the entire army, but a good bit of training is required for the units that will take part in the coming counteroffensive. Training is the means by which skill improves and confidence grows. These units will also need better leadership and more competent staffs. The improvement of the Peshmerga is a key, just as is the creation of a Sunni force of some type. These two irregular forces will have to be integrated into the overall counteroffensive. And the use of the Iraqi Counter terrorist forces will have to shift from shock infantry, as they are being used now, to a more precise special operations force as they were before the U.S. departure.   A successful counter offensive requires sustained logistics, maintenance, and supplies; integration of air and ground action; and coordinated maneuver along several axes of advances.

Colonel Núñez focuses on the tactical. Such a focus is necessary but insufficient. He is right to say that once the counteroffensive begins, the Iraqi Army should have U.S. advisors with at least some of its advanced conventional and special operations force elements. But more than special forces advisors are necessary. Conventional air and ground campaign planners logisticians, and staff trainers, for example, are just as important to success as those who conduct training in fighting skills.

Perhaps the most decisive element of the counteroffensive, however, is what follows successful riddance of ISIS. What might be called the Iraqi “hold and build” phases. Sufficiently effective and impartial governance as well as a mix of military and police operations that protect all Iraqis from predatory behavior must advance the Iraqi government as legitimate in the eyes of all Iraqis, not just some. Without this, a successful military counter offensive will be a “flash in the pan” and provide no long term improvement to the county’s or the region’s security situation.   Also part of “what follows” is a strategic-level “hold and build” that renews the sustained effort at professionalizing the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the Iraqi Joint Force Staff, and the forces themselves—programs that were in place prior to 2011.

All this suggests that the U.S. should commit itself to long-term assistance to both Iraqi’s security forces and ministries. That support has already been re-started. Let’s hope it continues beyond battles of the coming counteroffensive.

We need not “re-do” a surge of U.S. combat troops to accomplish our security objectives in Iraq, Syria, and the region. The Colonel is right to say that the counter offensive must be an Iraqi effort and that Prime Minister Abadi has already shown his willingness to improvements over his predecessor’s domestic and security policies. And he is right yet once more saying that our help is essential, the right thing to do, and long overdue.

The present security situation in Iraq, Syria, and the surrounding region is counter to core U.S. security interests. The regional instability has increased the threat to U.S. citizens and economic interests, to U.S. military personnel and installations, and in a very real way to the U.S. homeland. And the current situation motivates similar groups outside the region. The current regional situation has also had similarly negative effects on our allies, as the conference in the U.K. aptly demonstrates. Success in the Iraqi counter offensive will have a direct and positive effect on what happens in Syria, the region, and well beyond. Failure is not an option. Blame is not the issue. Rather, the issues are:

–a correct understanding of what got us here,

–an acknowledgment that our own security interests are at stake,

–and a sufficiently executed coherent strategy to better our strategic position.

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Jim Dubik, PhD., is the former Commanding General of Multi-National Security Transition Command, Iraq (2007-2008). Since his retirement in 2008 he has traveled several times to Iraq as a private citizen. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.


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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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