Recent advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (which recently renamed itself the Islamic State) in Mosul and Tikrit captured the attention of many analysts, many of whom were surprised at the stunningly weak performance of the Iraqi Security Forces. But those forces did not collapse overnight: they had been failing for over a year before they finally crumbled on June 10th. There is no doubt that ISIL has grown militarily in the past four years, but that was not the sole cause of their recent gains. In areas such as Fallujah, it took extended guerrilla operations and urban warfare to keep out government forces, but in Mosul, Tikrit and other recent ISIL offensives, retreat was voluntary and disorganized rather than forced by heavy fighting. Based on interviews with a variety of active and former Iraqi soldiers, along with civilians living in their area of operations, and supplemented with open-source research, we identified a number of institutional and political challenges that left the 2nd Division of the Iraqi army vulnerable to the sudden collapse it experienced in early June. Corruption, neglect, and a shortfall of combat-effective resources and personnel crippled the Iraqi military’s capability and widened ISIL’s range of strategic options in Nineveh province. Many problems the 2nd Division faced are widespread within ISF and likely to complicate its counterinsurgency effort.
The 2nd Division of the Iraqi army bears primary responsibility for military operations against ISIL in Nineveh province. It shares security duties under Nineveh Province Operations Command with the paramilitary 3rd Division of the National Police, which falls under the Interior Ministry. In late 2013 and early 2014, as ISIL launched major offensives in Anbar and declared an Islamic government in Fallujah, Mosul suffered a significant increase in violence. Gunmen, ambushes, and suicide attacks aimed at security personnel in Mosul were a frequent problem, although soldiers did not describe intense or territorially-oriented contestation from ISIL as had occurred in Anbar. On June 6 and 7, car bombings and firefights precipitated an increase in deaths in southern and eastern areas of Mosul. Following that, forces under Nineveh Province Operations Command retreated in disarray, with many soldiers reporting their positions collapsed without a shot fired. They left behind weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and no government opposition to ISIL within Mosul itself.
Although the collapse of forces in Mosul shocked many in the region, many causes of their collapse can be attributed to systemic internal factors throughout the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) generally, and forces under Nineveh Operations Command in particular. Despite facing a lower tempo of enemy operations through June 2014 compared to the earlier Anbar offensive, Iraqi forces under Nineveh Operations Command struggled to implement an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Low capacity and poor relations with the population created a feedback loop compromising ISF’s ability to push ISIL out of Nineveh. ISF choked Mosul with checkpoints, seeking to prevent militants from maneuvering about the city, while Iraqi National Policemen frequently detained local citizens. These approaches alienated the local population while catering to relatively low capabilities within the 2nd Division. Checkpoints put minimal strain on poorly-trained and disillusioned soldiers but resulted in the mistreatment of the local population, without serving as an active measure for seeking out and dismantling insurgent groups. Corrupt military and police practices, such as soliciting bribes for the release of detainees or extorting business owners, only compounded this problem.
The deployment of this “checkpoint force” occurred within the broader context of operational mismanagement and poor discipline of the 2nd Division as an institution. The Iraqi military’s inability to hold Mosul and its other setbacks across northern Iraq do not simply reflect their adversaries’ increasing strength, but also the culmination of systemic maladies within the structure of the Iraqi military itself. High levels of ISF corruption, alongside Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s manipulation and politicization of the military, undermined combat effectiveness and created a welcoming environment for ISIL to walk into these territories instead of fighting their way through. The nature of these impediments will constrain Baghdad’s short-term options for confronting ISIL and shape the long-term options for a military response.
Corrupt Corrosion in the Iraqi Army
On paper, the 2nd Division appears modern in structure with overwhelming advantage in manpower and firepower. In practice, these units are undermanned, underequipped, and undertrained, due in large part to misallocated resources. Prior to 2012, the 2nd Division commander, Staff General Naser al-Ghanam, tried and failed to enforce military discipline and discourage corruption, much to the chagrin of the rank and file. When Maliki recently transferred al-Ghanam’s corrupt and ineffective successor, it became clear that corruption ran deeper than just one person. A proposed replacement, Akram Saddam, allegedly declined to take command of the unit. Although Maliki’s office claimed that Saddam had changed his mind, a 2nd Division officer and Iraqi media outlet reported that he had refused to pay the bribe associated with the position. It was a stark sign of a problem Iraqi interviewees claimed is systemic within the military under Maliki.
In the Iraqi army, leadership at the division level maintains enough sway over logistics and pay to embezzle and extort lower ranks. Many officers to see their units as businesses with reliable revenues rather than combat outfits. “You don’t earn a [commanding position]: you buy it,” a Captain in the Iraqi army said. The administrative structure of Iraqi forces aggravates this problem. For example, high-ranking officers are supposed to budget food purchases for their soldiers and deduct money for them out of their salaries. In practice, officers pocket most of this money, and establish revenue quotas for subordinates. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets and cook themselves, adding additional duties onto already undesirably long working hours.
Practices such as selling valuable fuel on the civilian black market and the embezzlement of money meant for food reduce readiness and willingness to fight. “[Corruption] takes more than soldiers’ food rations. It takes their dignity and self-respect as well,” an Iraqi officer explained. These units are left with a command climate where illicit payments are more important than effective operations or combat performance. Although many forms of corruption are detrimental to soldiers, some create mutually beneficial arrangements. Higher-ranking officers often keep absent soldiers on the payroll, offering soldiers the opportunity to leave or never even report for duty in exchange for pocketing a portion of their salaries. Consequently, many estimates of Iraqi force strength include these absent soldiers, dubbed “aliens,” a problem soldiers in 2nd Division attested they were familiar with. Not only do these practices reduce manpower, they also undermine the unit cohesion of soldiers still on the battlefield. Knowing that their fellow soldiers are still receiving some pay after effectively deserting, units lose—or fail to develop—an esprit de corps necessary to sustain strenuous operations. In Mosul this was compounded by ISIL assassinations of soldiers returning from leave. For many, incentives to desert or go AWOL became compelling.
The Unintended Consequences of Coup-Proofing
Iraq’s military also suffers from political constraints on professionalism and efficacy. Maliki’s process of power consolidation “coup-proofed” and politicized the military through promotion of loyal officers, moving specialized counterterrorism units outside of the normal military chain of command and retaining personal control of the Interior Ministry. The creation of corrupt patronage networks rewarding generals buttressed a process of ideological filtering of potential opponents. Research suggests that coup-proofing significantly degrades military efficacy. Because coup-proofing encourages parallel or competing security forces in order to prevent subversive collusion, it also discourages cooperation between security force elements. Additionally, coup-proofing fails to reward effective military leaders, because initiative and the political clout of success makes an officer a potential threat.
Maliki’s politicization of Iraq’s special operations forces, as well as the Interior Ministry—to include elite counterterrorism forces—fomented mistrust about Iraqi security forces’ intentions and encouraged neglect of general law enforcement and war-fighting capabilities. One American who served with Iraq’s special operations forces complained that its Regional Commando Battalions had lost their targeting components as a consequence of political micromanagement of their intelligence sections. A former U.S. commander of the Multinational Division-North observed the effects of Maliki’s dismissal of potential Sunni opponents from the officer corps. “Even as I was leaving [in 2008], those Sunni leaders were being replaced by people that didn’t know Mosul; commanders that didn’t know Talafar,” putting the 2nd Division at disadvantage in understanding local conditions. Research on ethnic exclusion as a particular consolidation mechanism in militaries, of which Maliki’s reduction of Sunni officers is an example, suggests that Maliki’s attempts to prevent a military coup contributed to the resurgence of civil war.
Sectarian Mobilization and Popular Support
Many sectarian concerns have roots in local conditions and non-state actors rather than the military itself. Unlike many Shi’a recruits, Sunni troops living in areas where ISIL and anti-government militias operate may put their families at risk. A captain stationed in Mosul noted that many of the Sunni soldiers of 2nd Division were the first to desert due to fear of ISIL retaliation against them and their families. “[Local officers and soldiers] are the first to be under ISIL’s fire,” he said. “ISIL can easily reach them and the army does very little to protect them.” These concerns are not unique to Sunni portions of security forces. When the predominantly Shi’a National Police cracked down on Shi’a militias in Basra Province and Shula and Sadr Cities in Baghdad, many Shi’a soldiers deserted out of fear of retaliation against them and their families by criminal Shi’a militias. Consequently, even in the lower ranks sectarianism gives incentives for soldiers to desert during conflicts in their home region.
Iraqi security forces’ presence in Nineveh and Anbar provided ample cause for local alienation. The relationships between many ISF officers and sectarian militias and sectarian agendas generally undermined the legitimacy of security forces. One egregious example was Nineveh Province Operations Commander, Staff Lieutenant General Mahdi al-Gharawi, a Shi’ite National Police officer who escaped prosecution for running torture sites even as Maliki forced high-ranking Sunnis out of the security forces elsewhere for political reasons. Although Maliki charged Gharawi with desertion after the June collapse in Nineveh, many other Iraqi officers have ties to or sympathies with, or are otherwise beholden to, Shi’a militiamen. Even in areas where Kurdish (rather than Shi’a) forces operate, sectarian behavior in other areas shapes Sunni perceptions across Iraq. Asaib Ahel al-Haq (AAH), an Iranian-backed Shi’a militia, undermined government legitimacy when evidence emerged of it fighting in support of ISF in Anbar and even conducting attacks using military resources and manpower. Given the increasing role of Shi’a militias in Baghdad’s security strategy, those ties are likely to persist as irregular forces supplement Iraq’s security forces. Many Sunnis are deeply concerned about the remobilization of Shi’a militias in Baghdad and Diayala. Long before Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for Shi’a to volunteer against ISIL following Mosul’s collapse, Shi’a militias such as AAH had extended their reach into Syria’s civil war and stepped up their operations in Shi’a areas and in Diayala Province. The cumulative effect of the sectarian question, from the Sunni public’s perspective, is to undermine potential cooperation between ISF and the population while encouraging armed Sunnis to collaborate with ISIL rather than oppose it.
Poor Training and Local Relations
Disaffection, desertion, disobedience, and public mistrust are relatively inconsequential in peaceful conditions, but they degrade military ability for sustained combat operations. Two Iraqi officers, one of whom was stationed in Mosul and “resigned” from the army two months before its fall, said their soldiers often refused to follow orders when directed to engage in intense fighting. Soldiers fleeing Mosul described rumors of a political conspiracy in the ranks to help ISIL’s advance, and ISIL capitalized on soldiers’ fear that they and their families would be targeted if they fought as rumors spread. Soldiers had little faith in the military’s ability to protect them, their families, or prevent infiltration. Nor had the military prepared them well for combat. A second lieutenant claimed his soldiers had never been to a firing range, even in basic training. Corruption and politicization have undermined the military’s legitimacy as an institution and its function as an organization, reducing it to a state where innuendo and psychological operations could push units towards collapse without prolonged direct combat. One officer said he had to retreat once after his soldiers declined to enter an ISIL stronghold. “I don’t blame them,” he said. “No one wants to die for something he doesn’t believe in.”
Many residents found ISIL less noxious than government forces. ISF was unable to provide security in Mosul; it was a nuisance at best and an outright menace to some Iraqis at worst. Reports indicate that concern about a disproportionate and ineffective Iraqi military response weighed on some residents as much as the prospect of ISIL occupation did. Fear of Iraqi troops following a sectarian agenda bolstered Sunni militant and civilian bandwagoning with ISIL.
The collapse of the 2nd Division in Mosul reflects problems systemic within the Iraqi military, but also a set of local dynamics between insurgent, population, and ISF that may differ elsewhere. This suggests resistance ISIL faces in ethnically mixed or predominantly Shi’a areas, such as Baghdad and Diayala, will provide the Iraqi Army with an opportunity to consolidate combat power and mobilize Shi’a sectarian sentiment. However, an influx of volunteers into a corrupt military will cause a repeat of previous challenges. Although special operations units such as the Golden Brigade demonstrate the ability of somewhat smaller units to maintain higher standards of readiness and capability, it remains to be seen whether small foreign assistance operations and new equipment will be able to effectively bolster these conventional forces.
The current U.S. effort to send Special Forces advisers to Iraq will likely have limited effects in such a context. There are well-performing and cohesive units within the Iraqi military, particularly special operations forces, who could benefit from better operational planning, intelligence, and targeting support. Unfortunately, it is less clear whether a few hundred trainers could undo the systemic damage of corruption that follows Iraqi troops from basic training through combat deployment, particularly when its existence in high ranks is linked to deliberate civilian political choice. Because sectarian militias frequently report to influential politicians, it is unlikely that military advisers will be able to reduce the profile of their operations. Sectarianism and concerns about political loyalty will continue to shape military staffing and popular perceptions until, in the longer term, the conventional Iraqi military can develop the capabilities for combined arms, maneuver, and counterinsurgency operations against ISIL, or, in the nearer term, the political leadership can find buy-in from the base and opposition on how to integrate Sunni militant groups participating in armed rebellion alongside ISIL. Systemic reform of the ISF (absent foreign supervision and support far beyond proposed deployments) will require changes from the political leadership and a willingness to push out ideologically loyal but corrupt and sub-par officers whose appointments are lucrative for government officials.
Yasir Abbas is an associate at Caerus Associates and focuses on governance, security, and development in Syria. Prior to joining Caerus, Yasir worked as an interpreter with the United States Army in Iraq between 2005 and 2009 and as a cultural and political adviser to the U.S. Army.
Dan Trombly is an analyst at Caerus Associates specializing in illicit organizations and armed conflict. He has co-authored monographs on the use of small arms by terrorist organizations and Chinese policy in Afghanistan, and has previously researched insurgent and criminal violence in Latin America.
Photo credit: DVIDSHUB