The World

Iraq’s Built-to-Fail Military

Maliki has increasingly relied on special operations troops like these.


Photo by ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

At the same time that it’s planning an offensive to retake the ISIS-controlled city of Tal Afar, the Iraqi government has dismissed dozens of officers who will face trial over the embarrassing military collapse last week. Most shockingly, the 30,000 soldiers stationed at Mosul turned and ran rather than face just 800 ISIS fighters.

The incident was also embarrassing for the United States, which spent billions training the Iraqi security forces, but the weakness of the country’s conventional military has been evident for some time, as noted last week on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

This surprise would have been much less damaging, however, were Iraqi security forces not thoroughly politicized and corrupt.  In 2010, the International Crisis Group quoted a U.S. military adviser’s bleak assessment: “Cronyism, bribery, kickbacks, extortion… [are] commonplace and… getting worse. Commanders are not chosen for their ability, but rather based on whether or not they have paid the Division Commander the fee he demands.”

At times, Maliki’s government has seemed to be almost purposely corroding the military’s preparedness:

In one instance a few years ago, a leading Sunni general in northern Iraq whom American officers lauded for his operational skills was ousted and replaced by a Shiite officer. And since the last American forces left Iraq, United States officials said the government in Baghdad had failed to finance and maintain the same training missions.

“This is not about ISIS strength, but the Iraqi security forces’ weakness,” said a former senior American officer who served in Iraq. “Since the U.S. left in 2011, the training and readiness of the Iraqi security forces has plummeted precipitously.”

This policy makes political sense if you consider Maliki’s primary goal to be protecting his own rule rather than combating existential threats to the security of Iraq.

I’ve written about this a bit in reference to Qaddafi’s rule in Libya, but authoritarian rulers—and Maliki is clearly at least headed in that direction—often prefer not to have a strong and professionally organized military. As Hosni Mubarak learned a few years ago, strong militaries can turn on you when the going gets tough. But such “coup-proofing” obviously comes at the expense of the military’s preparedness for outside threats.

Maliki made it abundantly clear to U.S. officials that one of his primary concerns was the possibility of a military coup organized by Saddam Hussein’s former officers. The best protection against such a scenario is not a large, well-trained, multiethnic military but a small elite fighting force selected on the basis of loyalty. In 2012 Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies described how Maliki was constructing such a force:

From 2007 he focused on the military, undermining the chain of command by expanding and taking control of the office of the commander in chief. He appointed a loyal general to oversee the ‘operations centres’ that coordinated security in troubled provinces. Finally, Maliki set up a separate institution for elite US-trained, special-operations troops so that he, rather than the Ministry of Defence, exercised control over them; this in essence created a praetorian guard. In sum… Maliki fractured the military, ‘coup-proofed’ himself and tied the military’s actions to his whims.

The linchpin of this praetorian guard, Iraq’s Special Operations Forces, or ISOF, has been described by U.S. commanders as the country’s most capable counterterrorism force, but has also operated “in legal and financial limbo, neither part of the Defense Ministry chain of command nor assigned to an agency approved and funded by parliament.”

Shane Bauer wrote in The Nation in 2009, “Established by a directive from Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, the [Counterterrorism Bureau] answers directly to him and commands the ISOF independently of the police and army. According to Maliki’s directive, the Iraqi Parliament has no influence over the ISOF and knows little about its mission.”

A RAND Corp. report last year noted that beginning in 2011, Iraq’s counterterrorism service “experienced a gradual ‘Shi’afication’ ” and that “the percentage of “Shi’a in CTS classes became disproportionately high.”

By that year, the report states, Maliki

had successfully surrounded himself with loyal forces assigned to the 54th and 56th Brigades and the 6th Iraq Army Division, located in Baghdad. Prime Minister Maliki had also used his powers to personally promote loyal officers and retiring officers he suspected would be independent. The debate within [U.S. Special Forces] was whether Prime Minister Maliki was simply consolidating power and coup-proofing the government or whether he was taking systematic actions that would enable him to serve as an authoritarian leader with military forces at his disposal to buttress the power of a nascent and corruptible legal system to target political adversaries.

And indeed, Maliki has been accused of employing the special forces in operations against political opponents.

It’s not exactly a surprise to learn that the army divisions that collapsed last week were the multiethnic divisions far from the capital, unenthusiastic about dying to protect Maliki’s government, while more loyal and professional, predominantly Shiite units close to the capital have mostly been holding strong. This disparity in preparedness was likely a feature, not a bug. 

It’s also not a surprise to see that it’s special operations forces that are engaged in the battle at the Baiji refinery and the efforts to retake Tal Afar.

But what Maliki seems not to have anticipated is that threat he was most concerned about—Baath Party remnants—and the one his American backers were most concerned about—extremist insurgency—would combine into one overwhelming threat. Special operations forces, a few loyal units from Baghdad, and irregular Shiite militias may not be enough to meet it.

The military Maliki has built may work to keep him in power in Baghdad but could be incapable of keeping the country from falling apart.