Why are we in Iraq training an army we’ve trained for 11 years?

OBAMA  CHAGRINNED IRAQI ARMYIRAQI ARMYOur colleague asks this important question. Here is Prof. Arthur Lerman’s letter to the editor, BERGEN RECORD, NJ:

From: Lerman, Arthur
Thursday, June 26, 2014 2:33 PM
Subject: Your Views: Iraq Army Crumbling

To the Editor:

Regarding “For seasoned vets, a sense of sadness” (Opinion, June 23):

The writer, retired Army Major General, Robert H. Scales, finds that an important reason for the Iraqi “army…crumbling at first contact with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters” is insufficient training.  In spite of a training program dating back to 2003, U.S. officers still need “at least five more years and 25,000 trainers.”

My question is, how come the opposing army is doing so well without the eleven years of training that the Iraqi forces have already had?

Arthur J. Lerman

256 Edgemont Terrace

Teaneck, New Jersey 07666-3404



It is a valid point indeed. A great deal of money that could have been put to use in sorely needed areas  for US domestic needs has gone into the Iraqi conflict in general and the bolstering of the Iraqi army specifically. This alone merits all of the attention it is getting

Although the “ISIS” insurgent army is spreading out and hitting points that were supposed to be well protected by Iraqi forces taking quite a bit of territory, the best explanation I’ve heard for the underperformance of the Iraqis (and there are other but this seems to make some sense): for better or worse the Iraqi armies were trained for localized insurgencies and keeping areas secure in local areas. They have been well regarded in their work at that level.

A coordinated and widespread insurgency such as the current one, with considerable outside aid, is something more strategic, than tactical, and seems to have flummoxed the Iraqi forces by the suddenness and vigor of the uprising. The Iraqi forces did well at the company and brigade level after the U.S. withdrawal (and before), these actions focused of local policing.

We will keep track as the Obama administration goes forth with its plan for advisors and some equipment. An more analysis of how the formidable ISIS grew under the radar of US and Iraqi intelligence will be forthcoming. This is as much a failure of intelligence as it is one of the army itself.

3 thoughts on “Why are we in Iraq training an army we’ve trained for 11 years?

  1. Hi all. I just wanted to follow up a bit on Prof. Shiels’ comments on my letter:

    Shiels: “…the best explanation I’ve heard for the underperformance of the Iraqis…the Iraqi armies were trained for localized insurgencies and keeping areas secure in local areas. They have been well regarded in their work at that level. A coordinated and widespread insurgency such as the current one, with considerable outside aid, is something more strategic, than tactical, and seems to have flummoxed the Iraqi forces by the suddenness and vigor of the uprising…”

    Lerman: Yes, I see. But in 11 years that was the only focus of preparation? I mean no thought of taking on a more general assault? After all, with hostile countries/forces all around, there wasn’t also preparation for the more ordinary things an army does?

    And there are the other reasons for lack of preparedness which our current commentary has not yet addressed:

    Also from General Scales, “For seasoned vets, a sense of sadness” (The Record, June 23): “The Iraqi civilian leadership hastened the army’s demise, of course. As they began to leave, the U.S. advisers watched as Shiite cronies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began the horribly corrosive process of purging Sunni officers. Until then, most of the good Iraqi officers had an allegiance to country over religion. Many were charismatic. These began disappearing from the ranks as soon as we drove off for Kuwait.”

    And what of the Sunni Awakening movement, the Sunni tribes that were induced to join with the U.S. to prop up the al-Maliki government? The al-Maliki government turned on them too, leaving them with no incentive to continue their support.

    In this regard, here are some paragraphs from “Onetime U.S. allies in Sunni Awakening sit out new Iraq conflict,” Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2014:

    Why “defend a corrupt government that has cast aside or jailed [these] former fighters and systematically oppressed [them].

    “some are quietly striking deals with more moderate factions fighting alongside ISIS, including ones led by former army officers and ex-functionaries of the outlawed Baath Party…”

    “the fact that some of Iraq’a most devoted anti-Al Qaeda fighters are now tolerating or even siding with the extremist ISIS illustrates how badly relations have deteriorated between Sunni tribes and Maliki’s government…”

    “The government pledged to integrate 20% of the fighters into the army and police and provide civil service jobs for the rest, but experts who tracked he program said many former Awakening members were left out. Some quit the jobs because of low or inconsistent pay. Maliki’s government allied with others in a bid to divide the movement, analysts say.”

    “As the government arrested hundreds and perhaps thousands of Sunni politicians and civil servants in 2010 and 2011, allegedly for Baath Party or terrorism connections, many former Awakening fighters also were rounded up by an increasingly Shiite-dominated security force that regarded them as thugs or worse.”

    Lerman: So that’s it! According to these paragraphs, the al-Maliki government drove its Sunni allies—in the army, in the tribes, in the civil service—away. They are either sitting on the sidelines as the ISIS assaults the government, or are actively cooperating with the ISIS assault.

    Another question: This is not the first time that the U.S. has chosen unimpressive allies. Why did we choose them in the past? How do we work with the unimpressive Maliki ally now? And will we choose better allies in the future?

    Art Lerman


    • One more angle which I think is important on this al-Maliki government/ISIS/Sunni Awakening triangle: According to the Shashank Bengali article cited above,

      “The aging ex-general…Mustafa Kamil Shibib was an important U.S. ally against Al Qaeda in Iraq militants, leading 2,000 Sunni Muslim fighters who helped drive the insurgents out of south Baghdad by 2008 as part of a tribal uprising called the Awakening.

      With much of Iraq now besieged by an Al Qaeda splinter group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Shibib is in no hurry to pick up his weapons again…”

      “If ISIS were to show up here, I would step aside and point them in the direction of the Green Zone,” Shibib said, referring to the former U.S.-run enclave in central Baghdad that is now the seat of the Iraqi government. “If they have any quarrel, they can take it up with them.”

      It’s just that this indicates that, in addition to ISIS and the official Iraqi army, there are still a number of other groups in Iraq with access to arms and which at any time may decide to join in civil war.

      So, even before the rising of the ISIS, the official Iraqi government in no way fit the definition of a sovereign government—i.e., the only legitimate and de-facto wielder of military/police force in a society. (And, it appears, from Shibib’s statements, if the ISIS defeats the official Iraq government forces, it will also be short of sovereign control.)

      So the task (which may now be shifting to a newly nominated-non-al-Maliki leadership—see newspaper reports of August 12, 2014) is not just to beat back ISIS, but to impose sovereign state power throughout Iraq.

      And maybe the only way to do this is to give all groups in Iraq a feeling that they have fair/democratic input into the decisions of the Iraqi government, and that even decisions they disagree with will still be protective of their most important concerns. Only then might those groups give up their arms for peaceful participation in the political system.

      But given where things are now, with a field of violence including the official Iraqi army, the ISIS, the Awakening groups such as that of General Shibib, and perhaps al-Maliki himself trying to hang on to power—backed by “relatives who command special security forces” (NYTimes, August 12, 2014)—the newly nominated non-al-Maliki leadership may not even get this task off the ground.


  2. I think, responding to this, that ISIS and the lesser groups that have emerged well after the US withdrawal, have fulfilled the more negative predictions for Iraq made as the US was phasing out. Obama has responded, characteristically, with a measured, focused targeting of ISIS and other forces where they appear most threating– with air strikes. He is probably using the best of a range of “only-negative” options. As with Vietnam, there is no way that he or any US president is going to go in with some sort of post withdrawal surge (Hillary’s noises notwithstanding). Nor has he elected to “do nothing.” There is no way to predict the outcome: some seem to feel that ISIS is more potent than Most of the dire predictions 2 years ago.

    As for the Maliki government, surely it is flawed, but I would not say that it lacks sovereign credibility or standing. It is no longer being micro-managed from the US, if it ever was, and it faces obstacles that the US helped create and some of its own making. As with Karzai in Afghanistan, the US helped create a government in an environment where there was a high probability of flawed execution, some corruption, some favoritism. A remote comparison might be the difficulties of the fledgling American government in 1783-89, with far fewer centrifugal forces facing it than Maliki faces.


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