Iraq’s implosion

Guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes

Ten years ago I was a British Army reservist, mobilised for Operation Telic and serving in southern Iraq from May to November 2004. My feelings at seeing the swift takeover of Ninewa, al-Anbar and Salah a-Din provinces by the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS), the barbaric atrocities which these ‘insurgents’ are committing against Iraqi civilians and captured soldiers, and the contemptible performance of the Iraqi military and security forces (less the Kurdish peshmerga) are best expressed by the cartoonist and ex-US Marine Maximilian Uriate here.

I thought HP readers might be interested in an attempt – offered as dispassionately as possible – to explain the ignominious rout of the army which the Americans and British had trained over the past decade, and to offer some tentative suggestions on what to do next. I offer it based on my own readings, media reportage, and also (where appropriate) my own experiences and memories of serving in Iraq, remembering that my own musings can be rendered obsolete by chaotic events on the ground. Perhaps I’ll save my more emotional and visceral views on the war for another post.

As both Kenneth Pollack and Risa Brooks note, the problem with Arab military performance in the post-colonial era is that the key strategic objective of the ruling elites is regime defence rather than national defence.[i] Armed forces are not structured and organised to defeat a foreign enemy, but to prevent a monarch or dictator from being ousted in a coup. This is clearly illustrated by the examples of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya,[ii] Saudi Arabia,[iii] Syria,[iv]and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,[v] and it is evident indeed with Nuri al-Maliki’s military now. The collapse of Iraqi governmental authority and the ISIS onslaught are a reflection of his own inadequacies as a prime minister, as well as the alienation of the Sunni Arabs and Kurds that has occurred during his government.[vi]

This is not to say that the Americans and British are blameless. We know about Paul Bremer’s utterly stupid decision – backed by George W. Bush’s administration – to disband the Iraqi army in April 2003, and to deprive tens of thousands of its officers of their pensions, without taking their weapons. Given the fact that there were a considerable number of ex-Iraqi personnel willing to serve their country – and who were not tainted by pro-Saddam sympathies – the decision was borderline criminal.[vii] The Coalition Provisional Authority (or ‘Can’t Provide Anything’) wasted months of effort by relying on Vinnell and other worthless private security contractors to train the new police and military, until the US Army took over this responsibility in mid-2004. If one considers also the loss and graft associated with the occupation, [viii] then we can see a wasted effort in training ‘friendly’ armed forces which can only be compared to the Chinese Guomindang in the 1940s, and the Armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Britain did not fare much better. When the US Army and USMC finally got round to embedding and intermingling soldiers and marines with Iraqi forces in Baghdad and Al-Anbar during the ‘surge’ of 2006-2007, the killing of six Royal Military Police in Al-Majar al-Kabir in June 2003 meant that British soldiers did not actually serve alongside and mentor the troops and police that they were training until after the ‘Charge of the Knights’ offensive in Basra in March-May 2008.[ix] The occupation of southeastern Iraq between April 2003 and August 2007 was also conducted in a lamentably incompetent manner at the ministerial and chiefs of staff level. In Basra in particular, the raising of local security forces was a matter of quantity rather than quality, which is why they were infiltrated by criminals, militiamen, and insurgents from the Jaish al-Mahdi.[x]

During my tour we saw an array of rival ‘security’ units at work – the Iraqi Police Service (IPS), the Facilities Protection Service that guarded the oil fields, the Iraqi National Guard (ING) that was the precursor to the current Iraqi army, all of which were feuding violently with each other and frequently clashing over the various mafia rackets they were involved in. IPS officers paid for their positions in the police, as this provided opportunities to use their authority to extort payoffs from civilians. It is a matter of national shame that the UK did not come to grips with this problem while we had the chance ten years ago, and address the corruption that was contaminating the local security forces and alienating the citizenry.

That said, Maliki has had no shortage of opportunities to make a difference over the past eight years. ‘Charge of the Knights’ did cow the militias of Basra,[xi] and the ‘surge’ and the tribal ‘awakening’ among the Sunni Arabs of al-Anbar Province did also create the conditions for a grand bargain between the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds which would avoid a re-run of the sectarian carnage of 2006-2007.[xii] Maliki was also the first leader in Iraq’s history to rely on an electoral mandate rather than coercive force or the seizure of power at gunpoint. But as a prime minister he has used the Shia-dominated security apparatus to crack down on his political rivals, whilst also marginalising the Sunnis as a whole. With the ‘awakening’ the US military created a temporary alliance between Maliki’s government and the Sunni tribes that allowed all three to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and also gave encouraged the Sunnis that they would have a future in post-Ba’thist Iraq. Iraq’s prime minister has destroyed that alignment through a combination of personal political ambition and sectarianism.[xiii]

In addition there is also the increased concentration of power on the prime minister’s own person. Maliki now also holds the portfolios of Interior and Defence Ministers – putting him in charge of the armed forces and police – and his control over the Office of the Commander in Chief gives him direct control over military and security forces– notably the armed units of the ‘Counter-Terrorism Service’, the special forces, the Baghdad Brigade which protects the ‘Green Zone’, and the 1st and 2nd Presidential Brigades.[xiv]

You may have spotted two comparisons that can be drawn between Iraq’s current prime minister and its president from 1979 to 2003. The first is that both fostered the growth of paramilitary forces personally responsible to them. The second is that both of them became effective commanders-in-chief despite their complete lack of military experience.

The ‘coup-proofing’ of a state’s armed forces involves the deliberate division of the command structure, so that no general has the ability to marshal the forces needed for a successful military putsch.[xv] It also involves the selection of commanders based on political allegiance – or clan or ethnic identity – rather than professional competence. It can also involve the creation of parallel militaries set up for regime defence (like the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, and the ‘Quds’ and ‘Fedayeen Saddam’ militias established by Saddam).[xvi] The result is that defence and security requirements – not to mention military efficiency – are sacrificed in the interests of regime protection.

Last Friday the BBC featured a telling interview with a deserter from the Iraqi army, Muammar Naser, who stated frankly that during the occupation he had seen US officers were in the thick of battle against the insurgents alongside their troops, whereas last week his division had collapsed against ISIS without firing a shot because its officers ran away.[xvii] The tradition of ‘leading from the front’ that Corporal Naser saw with the Americans is also inherent in the British armed forces, and was epitomised by the death in action of Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thornloe, the commanding officer of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, in Afghanistan nearly five years ago.[xviii] In contrast, Iraqi army commanders abandoned their men as soon as ISIS went on the rampage. Napoleon is supposed to have observed that there are no bad soldiers, only bad officers; and if the first instinct of the Iraqi army and police commanders in combat was self-preservation, it is not surprising that their subordinates chose to flee.[xix]

I may be speculating here, but I would not be surprised if Maliki’s security forces are rotten to the core, and are afflicted by a more fundamental problem of corrupt command and leadership. When regimes prioritise political reliability over competence in their armed forces, the following characteristics often emerge: Promotion becomes based on sycophancy not merit. Initiative in command is often discouraged; officers who are proactive in combat with the enemy may also have the imagination and gumption to storm the presidential palace.

If there are no incentives for basic military efficiency and duty of care towards subordinates, discipline goes to pot, and officers and men alike look for opportunities for graft. Commanders run under-manned units, falsely claim that they are at strength, and then pocket the pay of ‘phantom soldiers’. The sense of esprit de corps that guarantees unit cohesion breaks down under stress of combat, and as a result militaries disintegrate quickly in battle. Do not be surprised if reports of all of the above emerge in any assessment of how Maliki’s forces broke in the face of the ISIS onslaught.

The situation should be salvageable. ISIS is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front; its barbarity towards civilians in Syria and Iraq is such that even al-Qaeda considers it beyond the pale. In its current incarnation, it cannot provide the focus for a Sunni insurgency and there is evidence to suggest that some Sunnis are fighting back. Recent footage from Samarra showed a local sheikh, ‘Abu Salim’, organising locals to defend the city against the jihadis.[xx]

Yet when citizens look to autonomous paramilitary forces rather than the government for protection, it is a sign that the latter’s credibility and legitimacy are under threat. As was the case with the Shia death squads running loose in the sectarian civil war of eight years ago, it also carries risks to state stability.[xxi] Maliki indeed recognised this when he cracked down on the Jaish al-Mahdi in 2008. Right now there is a disturbing possibility that the fight against ISIS can become a Sunni-Shia bloodbath, particularly if the former are automatically associated with the insurgents by the latter. Iraq can become the next Syria.

Nuri al-Maliki has an opportunity – possibly his last – to avert this disaster. He needs to make it clear that the defeat of ISIS is a truly national interest for all Iraqis, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. He can appoint generals to lead the battle who actually have the experience and training needed to command troops in combat, rather than any nonentities who got their jobs by paying bribes or kissing arse. He can offer Sunnis and Kurds a grand bargain which gives them a clear stake in Iraq’s future, a share of its natural wealth, and can reverse the authoritarian measures that have concentrated political and military power in his own hands. Whether he belatedly finds the wit or wisdom to offer genuine promises of national reconciliation – and makes good on them – is up to him.

What the USA, Britain and other Western powers can do is offer intelligence support and niche capabilities (notably air power and special forces) to help the Iraqis turn the tide against ISIS and recover control of their country. In this respect, we should be listening to the likes of ‘Abu Salim’, who are begging for air strikes to support their fight-back. It is fair, however, that such assistance should be conditional on the implementation of political and socio-economic reforms which can bridge the rifts between Sunnis and Shias, and Arabs and Kurds. In the absence of such aid, Maliki is going to turn to other sources of help. Iran and Bashar al-Assad are both waiting in the wings. Neither are likely to care much about internal reform in Iraq.

Above all, we should collectively abandon the self-serving hand-wringing and sanctimonious post-mortems about the invasion and occupation of Iraq that have dominated the political and media debate, and which have also inspired some particularly contemptible attempts at legal ambulance chasing. The war happened. We cannot turn the clock back and stop Saddam’s overthrow from occurring – and indeed if we are honest, we should look at Syria right now and question the idea that leaving a Baathist tyrant in power would have made Iraq more ‘stable’ than it is currently.[xxii]

The question now is whether we are collectively prepared to accept the humanitarian and strategic consequences of letting Iraq descend into the nightmare of all-out civil war and state collapse. Seven years ago Nick Cohen told opponents of the Iraq war that they could oppose Anglo-American occupation but also offer their support to Iraqis who wanted to rebuild their country, and establish a new order based on peace rather than terror, the rule of law rather than despotism, and the sharing of national wealth rather than its appropriation by a tyrannical elite. He asked them whether they recognised the legitimacy of the latter’s aspirations, and (if they approved of them) what support they were prepared to offer to help them achieve them. Those questions still stand.[xxiii]


[i] Risa Brooks, ‘Politco-Military Relations and the Stability of Arab regimes’. Oxford: Oxford University Press/International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Adelphi Paper No.324, 1998. Kenneth Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991, Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press.

[ii] Lindsey Hilsum, Sandstorm: Libya from Gaddafi to Revolution. London: Faber & Faber 2013, pp.57-58, pp.134-137, pp.141-145.

[iii] Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine. London: Penguin 2007, pp.81-83, pp.128-134.

[iv] Pollack, Arabs at War, pp.447-551.

[v] Kevin M. Woods et al (ed.), The Iraqi Perspectives Report. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press 2006.

[vi] Toby Dodge, Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism. Abingdon: Routledge/IISS 2013.

[vii] Michael Gordon & Bernard Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. London: Atlantic Books 2006, pp.479-485.

[viii] Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. London: Allen Lane 2006, p.372. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. London: Bloomsbury 2007, pp.142-163.

[ix] Brigadier Justin Maciejewski (Retd.), ‘‘Best Effort’: Operation Sinbad and the Iraq Campaign’, in Jonathan Bailey et al (ed.), British Generals in Blair’s Wars. Aldershot: Ashgate 2013, pp.157-174.

[x] Michael Knights & Ed Williams, The Calm before the Storm. The British Experience in Southern Iraq. Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus Paper No.66, 2007.

[xi] Colonel Richard Iron (Retd.), ‘Basra 2008: Operation Charge of the Knights’, in Blair’s Wars, pp.187-199.

[xii] Strictly speaking I should say ‘Sunni Arabs’ here, because the majority of Kurds are Sunnis too, but I will use ‘Sunni’ as a short-hand term for the former.

[xiii] International Crisis Group (ICG) Middle East Report No.144, Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State. Brussels: ICG 14th August 2013.

[xiv] Marisa Sullivan, Maliki’s Authoritarian Regime. Washington DC: Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Report No.10, April 2013.

[xv] James T. Quinlivan, ‘Coup-proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East’, International Security 24/2 (1999), pp.131-165.

[xvi] Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011, pp.129-161.

[xvii] Newsnight, broadcast on BBC2, 2230, 13th June 2014.

[xviii] Toby Harnden, Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Defining Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan. London: Quercus 2011.

[xix] News at Ten, broadcast on BBC1, 2200, 12th June 2014.

[xx] The News at Ten on BBC1 on 13th June 2014 Abu Salim’s wife, son, and two of his daughters had been murdered by ISIS.

[xxi] Ariel Ahram, Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State-sponsored Militias. Redwood City CA: Stanford University Press 2011. Andrew Hubbard, ‘Plague and Paradox: Militias in Iraq’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 18/3 (2007), pp.345-362.

[xxii] ‘Two Arab countries fall apart’, The Economist, 14th June 2014.

[xxiii] Nick Cohen, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost their Way. London: Fourth Estate, 2007, pp.280-288.