In Iraq, Where There is No Will, There is No Way

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated in May 2015 that the Iraqis lost Ramadi because they lacked the will to fight. They outnumbered their Islamic State opponents, but the Iraqis had no strong desire to maintain control of Ramadi at the risk of death. Carter was met with stiff opposition from the Administration following his comments and quickly forced on his heels. However, his words likely exhibited some truth. Iraqis are now a few weeks into their campaign to take Ramadi back from the Islamic State with the help of American advisors and operations going “as planned.”

In June, as President Obama announced plans to deploy an additional 450 American service members to train Iraqi security forces, Judy Woodruff of PBS asked retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich if it was the right move. Bacevich said, “I’m sure they will be able to transfer some important skills to the people that they train, but will they be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem with the Iraqi forces that have basically been taking a licking from ISIS?”

America has given much to Iraq in very serious terms of both blood and treasure. Funding for the counter-ISIS fight in Iraq is escalating tremendously – now to the tune of $9.1 million per day. The familiar excuse of using military assistance or intervention to prevent the region from becoming a safe-haven for international terrorists at all costs is outdated. As Bacevich stated in response to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s support of the previous strategy, U.S. military assistance in this area will foster greater instability, not stability. Re-training new recruits, shipping in weapons and trying to funnel aid directly to Kurdistan may keep American assistance in the game. But what should America’s role be in the counter-Islamic State fight?

Barry Posen and Stephen Walt pose a policy of containment as the most realistic answer. Unfortunately, America is in a position where they want stability and prosperity for Iraq more than Iraq wants stability and prosperity for itself. Iraqi national will is lacking and willpower cannot be taught through American advisors. Will is something that must be inspired. Will is driven by some underlying cause toward action. In the case of the Islamic State social movement, numerous individual underlying causes contributed to widespread collective action. Unfortunately, underlying causes to motivate Iraqi security forces to fight for their government are few and far between.

The social movement aspects of ISIS are more binding than the unifying structures of the country of Iraq. Those fighting for an Islamic State are the same previously fighting against coalition forces and the Iraqi government. ISIS is the current “soup du jour” that gives some Iraqis hope for something better, or at the very least, something different.

How did Iraq get in this position following such great success under General Petraeus and the “surge?” Why are Iraqis less willing to fight now than before? In fact, it was only a matter of time – the environment is what changed, not Iraqi ambition. As the saying goes, perhaps it was not the apples that were bad, but the barrel.

There have been glimpses into what could be – Iraqis fighting intensely, often dying for their beliefs or interests, especially in the northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. The problem is that those beliefs or interests are not nationally unifying. They are not powerful enough to serve as a catalyst for comprehensive movement toward a common end state. In fact, the social movement aspects of ISIS are, in some cases, more binding than the unifying structures of the country of Iraq. For the most part, those fighting for the Islamic State are the same people as those who were previously insurgents fighting against coalition forces and the Iraqi government. They are not some foreign army – ISIS is simply the current “soup du jour” that gives some Iraqis hope for something better, or at the very least, something different.

Endorsed Corruption, Inevitable Failure

One of the omnipresent factors in low-intensity and post-conflict environments is corruption, as the United States has become painfully aware over the past 14 years. Corruption is a term that is thrown around freely in regard to developing societies, but in the case of Iraq it facilitated and fostered the rise of ISIS. The problem with the Iraqi military is not with numbers of troops trained and the number of forward air support personnel the U.S. can put on the ground, it is fundamentally a problem of corruption with the leadership.

The disbanding of the Ba’ath Party was a key step in the facilitation of an environment in which corrupt activities would prosper and a major reason Iraq is in the current predicament. The disbandment opened the door for social unrest and corruption to take hold. Key power brokers and political parties exploited the rebuilding of the Iraqi defense infrastructure to the greatest extent possible by masterfully injected appointees into key positions. There were some legitimate appointments to leadership positions and those few individuals have been forced to find a way to swim amongst the corrupt administrative structure, however more yet have fizzled out.

Appointments to positions of power in the Iraqi government following the U.S. invasion in Iraq were seen as a window of opportunity for many Iraqis. The ability to gain control of some aspect of central government funding became the key to local power and the ticket to prosperity. One example was Brigadier General (BG) Jassem in Kirkuk. He was appointed as base commander at an Iraqi training base called Forward Operating Base K1. After being released from prison for his high ranking Ba’ath Party position under Saddam Hussein, BG Jassem began skimming off the top of the dining facility food and fuel allocations.

This was quickly followed by the acceptance of bribes for favorable treatment, the employment of “ghost soldiers,” otherwise known as fadhaiyun or spacemen by the Iraqis, and kickbacks on contracts for the rapidly expanding training infrastructure. Within a few years, BG Jassem had three houses with pools and exotic animals. He was also quick to throw his soldiers into the base jail if they crossed him, or in one case, accidentally ran into his vehicle with a HMMWV. The potential for corruption and abuse of power only grew with the retrograde of U.S. forces. Americans were widely aware of the corruption, but the problem was so widespread it became a part of the culture and the U.S. could do nothing to stem the flow.

Looking forward, a source very close to the Iraqi defense ministry states the Iraqi commander in charge of the operation to retake Mosul is a political appointee who has never commanded a battalion. 1stBrigade, 25th Infantry Division may have a thing or two to say about leading combat forces against a well-established enemy in Mosul. They took numerous casualties in the long period of intense fighting that ensued in November 2004 under the leadership of a very experienced U.S. colonel. Again, U.S. forces can train Iraqi soldiers and police to conduct a cordon and search, but they cannot will the same soldiers to fight for an illegitimate commander with little experience in combat.

When the Islamic State first forayed into Iraq, Mosul was one city ripe for harvest. Zeyad Omar, an Iraqi Army battalion commander in Kirkuk at the time, commented on the corruption and abuse of power that plagued Mosul and the surrounding area. He said by the time the Islamic State made its way to Mosul, the local Iraqis were begging for relief from the Iraqi Army and police. Illicit security taxes and flash checkpoints plagued the city. Captain Seba, a flight engineer from Mosul, cites the same issues. “Corruption and abuse of power by the Iraqi army and police left people feeling powerless to defend themselves when Islamic State militants overran the city.” Perhaps this is not necessarily the fault of the Iraqi security forces, but simply a result of opportunistic behavior or “the barrel.” This type of corruption and abuse power is rooted in the Iraqi defense culture, with the idea that one must get as much as he can, while he can and then get out. Opportunistic behavior increasingly defines Iraqi society.

Opportunistic Behavior

Iraqi security forces are trainable – they have the mental and physical acumen to shoot, move and communicate. They have proven their ability to fly aircraft and interact with the government and people through civil affairs. However, these capabilities are completely overshadowed by the Iraqi cognitive dissonance and necessity of self-preservation. There are not many people in the world who are better at staying alive than Iraqis. Even the term Iraqi is misleading – and this a fundamental point.

There is no unifying factor in Iraq to gel the country toward a common end state – toward stability and some level of acceptable, enduring peace. ISIS is presently one of the more substantial unifying factors in Iraq. But the gel of ISIS will eventually wear off and the trifecta of divergent interests and corrupt aspirations will maintain a certain level of instability that Saddam Hussein was only able to manage through brutal oppression. Or the Islamic State may win.

General Petraeus argued recently, “We know that they [Iraqis] will fight, but they will only fight if they have good leadership and the support and knowledge that somebody will have their back if they get into a tough fight.” Sergeant Adwani, an explosives specialist who fought in Ramadi, says, “It’s a common thing for us to see our commanders abandoning us.” Zeyad, mentioned previously, was one of the last commanders in the Kirkuk region forced to turn his equipment over to the Kurdish Peshmerga as the Islamic State was bearing down in 2014. Zeyad stated he had very few soldiers left at that point, most had already fled to live another day. He was faced with the decision to either turn over his equipment to the Peshmerga, or risk the chance of it falling into the hands of the Islamic State.

Carter, claimed the Iraqi security forces have yet to develop the “will to fight,” and alluded to the possibility of Iraqis somehow developing the will to fight, but how likely is such an outcome? It is clear some in the Iraqi government do not want the U.S. in Iraq. The head of the Iraqi parliament’s defense and security committees, and Shia militia commander, essentially stated Secretary Carter’s remarks were propagandistic and only intended, “…to make the Iraqi army look weak as justification to invade Iraq again.” However, Secretary Carter and General Martin Dempsey seem to be urging patience as some legislators and thirsty defense industries are urging the deployment of more “boots on the ground.”

There is no unifying factor in Iraq to gel the country toward a common end state – toward stability and some level of acceptable, enduring peace.

Something Worth Fighting For – or Not?

Americans are now busy training Iraqi security forces in tactical proficiency, again. What happened to the thousands of soldiers already trained by coalition forces? Some applied that training (and their salaries) to the ranks of ISIS. Some, like Zeyad, fled to neighboring countries. Most, however, are simply surviving. It is not in their interest to fight – in the absence of something greater, it is in the interest of Iraqis to make it through the day and live tomorrow. The preservation of self is becoming a familiar way of life.

It is difficult to define the Iraqi way of life. There are Sunni tribal ways of life, Shia ways of life and there is the Kurdish way of life. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Ba’ath Party assisted somewhat in the unification of the three major ethnicities. Somehow, the authoritative and charismatic management of the Ba’ath Party was able to transcend ethnic lines and interests. Recent history in Iraq is one of bifurcation and survival. The stronger each individual ethnic enclave becomes, the weaker the country becomes as a whole. The factor with the greatest unifying potential is Islam, but even this incredibly galvanizing religion is not strong enough to take root – at least not on the side of the Iraqi central government.

Certainly U.S. forces can defeat the Islamic State in combat, but again the question is should they? Considering the widely divergent interests and near impossibility of unity and social stability in Iraq, the answer may be no. Even if the Islamic State were defeated, significant diplomatic hurdles must be overcome with the public institutions and governing structures that have become very weak and/or monopolized in Iraq. Iraqis will not fight if they do not have something or someone to fight for. They need something to believe in and America is not in the position to provide that relief.

In the meantime, all America can hope to do is contain the spread of the Islamic State. Empowering regions such as Kurdistan can assist greatly in a strategy of containment – although we would be naïve to think Kurdistan may have not already brokered an agreement with the Islamic State in the face of a greater enemy and the potential for secession. Similarly, it is in the interest of Iran to pursue a strategy of containment. Obviously, a strategy empowering Shia militias has its own ramifications. Whatever the strategy, America should be hesitant to put U.S. servicemembers in harm’s way when the Iraqi government does not have a monopoly on force or the institutional structure, unity, and legitimacy to sustain relative stability.

[Photo: Flickr CC: DVIDSHUB]



  1. Tom McCabe 6 August, 2015 at 19:12 Reply

    The Sunni and the Shia are not ethnic groups–they’re interpretations of Islam. How did you miss something that basic?

    “During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Ba’ath Party assisted somewhat in the unification of the three major ethnicities. Somehow, the authoritative and charismatic management of the Ba’ath Party was able to transcend ethnic lines and interests.” Ridiculously charitable. They did it by creating a classic fascist system and use of massive force.

    “The factor with the greatest unifying potential is Islam, but even this incredibly galvanizing religion is not strong enough to take root – at least not on the side of the Iraqi central government.” Are you serious? The central factor in the civil war today is the division between the Sunni and the Shia Arabs and who should be the dominant force in the Iraqi Government.

    • Fred 6 August, 2015 at 19:36 Reply

      Look up the definition of ethnic Tom. Good job though, Sunni and Shia are interpretations of Islam – way to go!

      I don’t think he would argue with you about the Sunni/Shia competition over the government. He was talking about unifying factors…

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