Shaping Iraq’s Security Forces

The crisis in Iraq threatens to destabilize the entire country and extend far beyond Iraq’s borders. Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken control of cities, government offices and foreign consulates, ransacked banks, and released prisoners as they seize Mosul and Tikrit in their drive towards Baghdad. Iraq’s troubles stem not only from the resurgence of Al Qaeda and ISIS militants, but also from the threat of internal corruption, failures in governance, political repression, and inability to incorporate the country’s sizable Sunni and Kurdish communities into a national alliance.

As the Burke Chair in Strategy’s Shaping Iraq’s Security Forces report makes clear, “Iraq lacked the internal incentives – and checks and balances – necessary to make them function once US advisors were gone”. As the report points out “successful force building takes far longer than the US military was generally willing to admit,” and “a command culture that supported initiative and decision-making at junior levels…could not survive the departure of US advisors and loss of US influence”.

No one within the region can defend against the kind of violent Islamic extremism that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) represents, and the threat it poses to Iraq, Syria, and the wider region is incredibly destabilizing. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Maliki poses an equally destabilizing threat of a different kind. He cannot govern, and he represses and divides. In fact, he threatens to become another Saddam Hussein, albeit one without the same "charm" and effectiveness.

The key problem, however, is that Maliki has corrupted and undermined the army, police, and justice system in his consolidation of power and personal advantage. For years, Maliki has intimidated and driven key Sunni figures out of his government, ignored agreements to create a national unity government, alienated the Kurds, and tried to repress legitimate Sunni opposition in ways that have contributed to steadily rising violence and civilian deaths. These failures in governance by Prime Minister Maliki’s government date back to 2010-2011, long before ISIS captured Fallujah and Ramadi in December 2013, and seized control of Mosul and Tikrit in June of 2014.

He used the Army and police in ways that alienated Sunnis in Iraq's West and North, used them to attack peaceful protests, and failed to keep his promises to offer jobs and promotions to the Sons of Iraq. He also has corrupted the security forces, using promotions and interim appointments for his own political advantage, and let the army and police steadily deteriorate. Pay and support had riding problems, positions and promotions were for sale, desertions increased and there were more and more ghost soldiers -- men listed as present but not actually there.

Weak police forces started to hide in their stations after the army failed to suppress peaceful Sunni protest camps in the West. ISIS then exploited this situation, poorly organized heavy weapons attacks failed, and the army showed it could not conduct urban warfare effectively or deal with irregular attacks on its troops. The army did hold together in a mixed Sunni-Shi’ite area like Samarra but imploded in hostile Sunni Areas like Mosul and Tikrit.

The United States now faces a major dilemma. It must try, yet again, to deal with Maliki in spite of his conduct and broken promises to the United States and Sunni tribal leaders since ISIS invaded in December. It must deal with the possibility that Iran intervenes on Maliki's behalf, or that ISIS becomes a far more existential and enduring threat. The fact remains, however, that Maliki is an incompetent authoritarian thug. U.S. aid must be carefully rationed and made conditional. The United States must press for efforts to bring the Sunnis and Kurds into a true national government, it must deny aid where new human rights abuses occur, and quietly send the message that it would scarcely object if a new Shi’ite leader emerged who would make such a government a reality and put the nation above himself.

ISIS is now fighting on two fronts. It is making major gains in northern and western Iraq, and simultaneously trying to take over a far larger portion of the rebel held areas in Syria. Its stated goal is to create a broader Islamic Caliphate. However, it currently faces serious challenges in Syria from the Al Nusra front and other rebel forces, and it has not shown it can make serious gains against Assad's Iranian backed allies – Hezbollah.

It is also far from clear that Syrian urban and moderate Sunnis would ever accept ISIS’s rule, much less the region’s Alewites, or that Iran and Hezbollah would not further reinforce Assad if ISIS really threatened to take Syria's major population centers. Moreover, ISIS can never get US or European support, or official support from key Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Kuwait.

ISIS will also face growing challenges the moment it moves on Baghdad and Iraq's Shiite south or against the Kurds. It would threaten a key oil exporter, directly challenge Iran, and challenge the key Southern Gulf states, possibly uniting states that otherwise are de facto enemies. Oil is simply too important to let ISIS seize all of Iraq, although any kind of unified front or rapid effective resistance to this level of ISIS gains does not seem likely at this point.

What could be far more difficult, however, is preventing ISIS from creating at least a temporary enclave in western and northern Iraq and some parts of eastern and northeastern Syria. Part of Syria is already a power vacuum that Assad seems willing to let fester and contain, at least until he can control all of Syria's major cities and central Syria.

The US-trained Iraqi Security Forces lost unity, morale, leadership, and effectiveness. Good officers left or were pushed out or sidelined. Unit cohesion dropped steadily, service support became a major problem, desertions and ghost soldiers increased, and sectarian tension grew. The police deteriorated steadily and mixed corruption and abuses with a tendency to retreat to their stations whenever serious resistance occurred.

Maliki became his own worst enemy, ignoring warnings from US advisors, dealing with Iran, and steadily losing confidence from Arab states while alienating the Iraqi Kurds. His force could not deal with urban warfare, tried to shell or bomb their way to victory, deserted under pressure, and found themselves under constant threat from low level ISIS and Sunni tribal attacks. Some Iraqi forces still fought, as was the case in Samara, but much of the West and North turned against Maliki in spite of the abuses and extremism of ISIS.

This explains the collapse of the Iraqi force around Mosul, mass desertions and abandoned equipment and the other advances taking place, which now include Iraq's largest refinery. It also raises serious questions about whether Iraq can move forward as long as Maliki remains its leader. He may still be able to bribe some key Sunni tribal leaders, and ISIS may soon alienate many Sunnis in the areas it occupies, but Maliki has emerged as something approaching the Shiite equivalent of Saddam Hussein, and is as much a threat to Iraq as ISIS.

Iraq desperately needs a truly national leader and one who puts the nation above himself. Without one, ISIS may become a lasting enclave and regional threat -- dividing Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish sections -- or drag Iraq back to the worst days of its civil war and create another Syria-type conflict in the region.

Sam Khazai