WASHINGTON — The Iraqi army’s failure to fight after the United States spent some $20 billion and the lives of many U.S. troops to train and advise them holds a number of lessons, including some that may apply in Afghanistan.
The stunning collapse in the face of a far smaller al-Qaida affiliated force may have been sparked by internal political and ethnic divides, but bad planning and failed diplomacy on the part of the United States played a major role, defense analysts said.
The Iraqi army is running scared from fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which overran Mosul in recent days despite being heavily outmanned and outgunned. It has taken other towns across the country’s north as well, and is pushing toward Baghdad.
Analysts said the person most to blame for the current crisis is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has systematically marginalized the country’s Sunni population and purged the Iraqi army of talented officers in an effort to make it more loyal to him. The political shakedown of the military echoes the effect of a U.S. decision in 2003 to abolish Saddam Hussein’s army and then allow Shiite leaders to prevent the return of experienced soldiers who had been loyal to the dictator.
As a result, his government appears to have lost the loyalty of Sunnis, who now increasingly support Sunni insurgents like ISIL. Then the military began to crumble.
With a heavily politicized, poorly led military and the brutal tactics of ISIL on full display in areas the group had already overrun — including mass killings of Shiites and Sunnis loyal to the government — many troops panicked, stripped off their uniforms and fled, said Rick Brennan, a former top U.S. planner in Iraq and senior political scientist for the RAND Corp.
“They had no desire to sit and die and be beheaded,” he said. “Once a military organization starts to crumble and your buddies are leaving, it becomes hard for unit cohesion to be maintained.”
Iraq might look far different with a small force of U.S. advisers in the country to help with missions such as close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, analysts said. But that potential disappeared when the United States and Iraq were unable to reach a status of forces agreement to provide legal protections to U.S. troops, resulting in a complete troop pullout in 2011.
Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was charged with establishing the Iraqi military in 2003 and 2004 and has been referred to as the “Father of the Iraqi Army” said Maliki’s intractability on a status of forces agreement, or SOFA, is now preventing the country from receiving needed military assistance from the United States.
As few as 1,000 U.S. advisers might have been able to do the job, said Eaton, an analyst with the left-leaning National Security Network.
“I believe that had we left a corps of advisers with plugs into ISR and logistics and air support, then we would be in a different place than we are now,” he said.
The Pentagon announced Friday the United States would begin providing more ISR help to the Iraqi government.
But other analysts said President Obama’s stated intention to end the war in Iraq led to continual downward pressure on the planned number of advisers, until it fell to a small fraction of what military planners originally hoped for.
When the administration settled on just over 3,000 troops to remain, plus another 1,500 on a rotational basis, al-Maliki may have considered it a “drop in the bucket” not worth negotiating seriously for, said Brennan, a retired Army officer.
“There may not have been a strong desire to keep U.S. forces there on the part of the United States, and so our departure created a wide range of problems,” he said.
The potential breakdown of Iraqi forces was foreseen years ago.
“The U.S. military warned of this stuff — we knew of it,” he said. “It’s the whole reason for the [post-2011] plan that was in place.”
James Carafano, a national security analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation and 25-year Army veteran, said Obama appears to be following the same playbook he used in Iraq.
“The president is looking for the smallest possible number he can get away with,” Carafano said. “It’s the minimum amount of forces that can protect and sustain themselves, not the minimum number that can support and sustain the Afghan military.”
Eaton said supporting Afghanistan’s government could be more complicated than supporting Iraq’s. But the Obama administration, which last month said it would maintain thousands of U.S. advisors for two years if a status of forces agreement is signed, is on the right track, he said. The plans call for 9,800 U.S. advisors in the country in 2015, dropping to half that number in 2016 before a withdrawal at the end of the year.
“Afghanistan on so many levels appears to be a lot more difficult than Iraq, because they have so much less to work with. They don’t have wealth, they don’t have literacy, and they have similar ethnic problems,” he said. “I think Afghanistan is going to be a big challenge, but it appears that we will retain a force structure there that will allow the incubation of viable forces for a while. That should help us out.”
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said ignoring formerly vital local forces during a U.S. pullout was destructive in Vietnam and Iraq
The “Sons of Iraq,” armed Sunni groups credited by President George W. Bush with helping stop terrorism during an earlier Sunni insurgency in 2006, later were disbanded by the Shiite-dominated Defense Ministry, and former members now appear to be supporting ISIL in its campaign against the Shiite-dominated government.
If the U.S. still had boots on the ground in Iraq, he said, it likely could have exerted pressure on Maliki to work with Sunni groups as happened previously, several analysts said.
The Afghan Local Police and other local forces in Afghanistan have likewise played key roles in fighting violence, but there seems to be no plan to support them after 2014, Cordesman said. If the withdrawal of support recurs, it could help create chaos, he said.
“Nobody has really clearly articulated what we’re going to do with local and tribal forces, which were critical in Vietnam and got abandoned and underfunded when we left,” said. “It was the same in Iraq. Essentially you not only lost a key element of your force structure but you saw it turn against you.”