By William J. Astore –
In June, tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces in Nineveh province north of Baghdad collapsed in the face of attacks from the militants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), abandoning four major cities to that extremist movement. The collapse drew much notice in our media, but not much in the way of sustained analysis of the American role in it. To put it bluntly, when confronting IS and its band of lightly armed irregulars, a reputedly professional military, American-trained and -armed, discarded its weapons and equipment, cast its uniforms aside, and melted back into the populace. What this behavior couldn’t have made clearer was that U.S. efforts to create a new Iraqi army, much-touted and funded to the tune of $25 billion over the 10 years of the American occupation ($60 billion if you include other reconstruction costs), had failed miserably.
Though reasonable analyses of the factors behind that collapse exist, an investigation of why U.S. efforts to create a viable Iraqi army (and, by extension, viable security forces in Afghanistan) cratered so badly are lacking. To understand what really happened, a little history lesson is in order. You’d need to start in May 2003 with the decision of L. Paul Bremer III, America’s proconsul in occupied Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to disband the battle-hardened Iraqi military. The Bush administration considered it far too tainted by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party to be a trustworthy force.
Instead, Bremer and his team vowed to create a new Iraqi military from scratch….
So here’s the $60 billion question: Why did such sustained U.S. efforts bear such bitter fruit? The simple answer: for a foreign occupying force to create a unified and effective army from a disunified and disaffected populace was (and remains) a fool’s errand. In reality, U.S. intervention, now as then, will serve only to aggravate that disunity, no matter what new Anbar Awakenings are attempted.
Upon Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 and the predictable power vacuum that followed, score-settling ethno-religious factions clashed in what, in the end, was little short of civil war. In the meantime, both Sunni and Shia insurgencies arose to fight the American occupiers. Misguided decisions by Bremer’s CPA only made matters worse. Deep political divisions in Iraq fed those insurgencies, which targeted American troops as a foreign presence. In response, the U.S. military sought to pacify the insurgents, while simultaneously expanding the Iraqi constabulary. In military parlance, it began to “stand up” what would become massive security forces. These were expected to restore a semblance of calm, even as they provided cover for U.S. troops to withdraw ever so gradually from combat roles.
It all sounded so reasonable and achievable that the near-impossibility of the task eluded the Americans involved….