Iraqi Army soldiers patrol in Baghdad's Adhamiya district, on April 18, 2013.
Iraqi Army soldiers patrol in Baghdad's Adhamiya district, on April 18, 2013. // Karim Kadim/AP

The One Thing the U.S. Can’t Train the Iraqi Army To Do

The U.S. armed forces have spent considerable time, resources and talent building up and training Iraqi security forces to enable them to maintain a reasonable degree of stability in that war-torn and divided country. Why, then, did tens of thousands of Iraqi troops, including two army divisions, discard their weapons and uniforms, abandon their equipment and flee from a small attacking force of lightly equipped fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? 

The major reason was lack of a parallel effort to establish governing institutions capable of earning the loyalty and commitment of its soldiers. 

At the time that ISIL took over Mosul without even token resistance, and continued its advance toward Baghdad, Iraqi active duty armed forces of the Ministry of Defense numbered over 200,000, with more than 500,000 police under the Ministry of the Interior. The Iraqi army had more than 300 main battle tanks, including 140 U.S. M1A1 Abrams Tanks, about 3,000 armored personnel carriers, including more than 400 U.S. M113A2s, and more than 70 helicopters. 

The collapse of Iraqi security forces certainly was not due to an insufficient number of trained troops or inferiority in equipment and firepower.  There is no doubt that our trainers successfully inculcated in the Iraqi soldiers the tactical combat skills necessary to deal with numerically inferior hostile insurgent forces. 

What cannot be taught, however, is motivation or incentive that can be called morale or confidence in, and commitment to, the nation’s institutions and leadership, both military commanders and political authorities. This intangible element, essential to success in combat, depends on the legitimacy of domestic governance, not admonitions from foreign military advisors. 

The U.S. must accept at least some of the responsibility for the incompetent, corrupt and non-inclusive Iraqi government and its institutions. We supported a second term of another four years for Nouri al-Maliki as primeminister after the 2010 election, despite his obvious malfeasance during his first term, and although a rival coalition bloc, led by a moderate Shiite, Ayad Allawi, had won a majority of the seats in Parliament. 

Maliki has since become even more authoritarian in excluding and oppressing the Sunni minority, and consolidating his political power, to include replacing military commanders we had trained with his unqualified political supporters. On April 10, 2012, Allawi warned in an op-ed published in The Washington Times that sectarianism was in full force and that Iraq’s fledgling democracy was in serious jeopardy. He did not call for the return of American combat troops or advisors, but went to the heart of the problem by urging U.S. pressure on Maliki to form an inclusive and reformed government. 

Maliki has misplaced blame for the military success of ISIL on the failure of the U.S. to deliver the F-16 fighter aircraft and helicopters currently under contract; and he has issued a clarion call for outside military support, particularly air power, to stem the ISIL tide. But he has rejected the critical governance issue by calling for “reconciliation,” not reform, and turning down Allawi’s proposal for an inclusive National Salvation Government. 

President Barack Obama has sensibly ruled out sending in U.S. ground combat troops, and has called for a reformed Emergency National Unity Government in Iraq as a precondition for providing supportive air strikes. But with ISIL insurgents able to blend with the Sunni population, U.S. air strikes are likely to be as counter-productive as the commitment of American ground combat troops.

With the mobilization of Shiite militias, it is highly unlikely that Baghdad will fall to ISIL fighters. Obama sent a small contingent of Marines to beef up security at the American Embassy in Baghdad and several Special Forces teams to assess the security situation on the ground. During a press conference on July 3, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Staff Martin Dempsey stated that “political inclusiveness” in the Iraqi government “will be an important factor in determining what we do there.” Without an inclusive government, he said, “the future [of Iraq] is pretty bleak.” 

Current U.S. security strategy envisions training indigenous military forces to counter hostile forces and insurgents. What we should have learned from the Vietnam experience, and what the recent collapse of Iraqi troops confirms, is that the legitimacy of the parent government and its institutions is as necessary to success in combat as well-trained troops. Anything less is a recipe for failure.

Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard is senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation and former president of the National Defense University.