Getting to Iraqi Ownership of Iraqi Security

January 26, 2015

“This has to be about you. This has to be your campaign plan.” This is what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey said to Iraqi leaders when he visited the country in the fall of 2014. General Dempsey delivered his most extensive public remarks on efforts to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) at November’s Defense One Summit. Rather than seizing control of an entire country and gradually transitioning it back to the host government as its capacity grows, as the United States did in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, General Dempsey explained that, this time, the U.S. is leaving Iraqi forces in control and only augmenting them where absolutely necessary. The method starts and ends with Iraqi ownership of Iraqi security. This highlights a significant change in the U.S. approach to Iraq (and instability elsewhere), the import of which might easily be missed.

One of the vexing questions in Washington, D.C. for the last several months regarding the counter-ISIL campaign runs something like this: “We had over 100,000 troops in Iraq, and nearly a decade to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces. If the result was a force that fled in the face of a much smaller non-state actor, how can we possibly train an Iraqi force now that will perform differently, especially without the leverage a large occupying force provides?”

Part of the answer lies with new Iraqi leaders who have a different mindset. General Dempsey compared the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and his team to their predecessors and concluded, “The new leaders are more thoughtful and have an instinct toward inclusivity.” Mr. Abadi recently described his approach to governance: “Exclusion breeds extremism, so our new government includes Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as well as representatives of the major political parties.” He added, “As we rebuild our security forces, we are combating corruption, incompetence and fragmentation.” Matching deeds to words, he fired nearly 50 generals and Ministry of Interior officers. The United States should reinforce this kind of behavior to the maximum extent possible by conditioning its assistance on continuous, tangible progress by Iraqi leaders in the areas of inclusive, effective governance and counter-corruption.

A second part of the answer lies within our work to train and assist the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). We must avoid regressing into a mentality of “Iraqi good enough,” where we allow lower standards for Iraqi trainees than we do for ourselves. We need not remake the Iraqi Security Forces in our own image, but we do need to derive mutually agreed upon measures of performance and effectiveness with the Iraqis. We must then hold those we train accountable to those standards by conditioning each subsequent phase of security assistance on performance in the previous phase. If we are once again going to invest billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in this effort, then we owe it to the American people to leave behind a truly capable force.

Most important though, we must whole-heartedly embrace the new approach regarding Iraqi ownership described by General Dempsey: Leave the Iraqis in charge, responsible and accountable for the defense of their own country; do for the Iraqis only what they absolutely cannot do for themselves; and, simultaneously train and equip them so they eventually can do those things as well. Said another way, we must consistently instill, nurture, and insist on Iraqi ownership of Iraqi security. This could prove to be far greater leverage than previously imagined.

The Old Approach: An Anecdote from 2012

The following story, typical of life in Iraq in 2011-2012, illustrates the danger of lack of Iraqi ownership of their security. I was one of the many U.S. military advisors in Iraq as the robust American military presence ended in 2011. One of the more surreal moments of the deployment occurred on the 18th of December as CNN announced, “The last U.S. troops have now departed Iraq.” It was surreal because I was watching the broadcast from Baghdad. I was one of “the 157” — the U.S. military personnel who would stay behind in the newly formed Office of Security Cooperation–Iraq attached to the U.S. Embassy. As part of the Senior Advisor’s Group, a handful of American colonels who were dispersed throughout the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, I witnessed many of the negative consequences of years of Iraqi overdependence on U.S. forces.

In February of 2012, I was an observer at a meeting in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense in which the Iraqi equivalent of our Chairman and his Joint Chiefs of Staff were convened. The issue on the table was how to procure and deliver aviation gasoline to the Iraqi airfield in Kirkuk, the site of Iraq’s new pilot training program. The context of the meeting is significant. The F-16 fighter was arguably the crown jewel of U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation. The Iraqis wanted it in a bad way and delivery of the F-16s was supposed to begin in the fall of 2012. A small number of initial-cadre Iraqi pilots were being trained in a nearly two-year-long ‘training pipeline’ in the United States. However, Iraqi leaders wanted their own basic pilot training capability and they had stopped sending new groups of Iraqis to the training pipeline in America.

To meet the Iraqi request, the U.S. Air Force had expended tremendous effort over several years to build such a program in Kirkuk, and the program was operational when U.S. forces departed in December 2011. Also germane to the discussion was that Iraq was, at that time, already pumping more than three million barrels of oil per day out of the ground, an amount then worth more than one billion U.S. dollars each month. The Maliki government was not strapped for cash. Yet despite the importance of the Iraqi pilot training program to their coveted, future F-16 program, the combined efforts of the most senior officers in the ISF were not sufficient to get gas delivered to Kirkuk, and as a direct result, Iraqi pilot training operations ceased for months.

Cause of the 2014 Failure of the ISF

The blame for the disintegration of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIL in 2014 lies principally at the feet of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He valued personal loyalty over professional competence, and on that premise, purged much of the talent from the senior ranks of his security forces. He created a corrupt, patronage system that extended deeply into the military and police forces. He inflamed sectarian enmity by systematically expunging Sunni influence from Iraqi governance and allowing, if not encouraging, ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods around Baghdad. He reneged on promises to include Sunnis in government after they rose up against al Qaida in Anbar and he alienated Sunnis in Ninewa with continuous refrains of de-Ba’athification. Maliki’s actions paved the way for ISIL to enter Mosul against little opposition.

However, the United States contributed to the failure of the Iraqi military in two substantive ways. First, Washington’s ambivalence about whether troops would stay beyond 2011 lulled many Iraqi military leaders into a state of complacency. They simply did not believe U.S forces would leave until the event was upon them. Second, U.S. forces knew full departure was a very real possibility. However, due to the pressure of the imminent deadline, they sometimes slipped into a mindset best captured by the phrase, “Iraqi good enough.” Both of these shortcomings can be remedied by the new approach: Iraqi ownership of Iraqi security.

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

The debate over the merits of keeping troops in Iraq past December raged throughout 2011, but Administration efforts to extend the deadline ceased when the Iraqi government was politically unable to guarantee sufficient legal protections for any U.S. troops remaining. Uncertainty about the withdrawal date had many repercussions on the ground in Iraq. Commanders and planners were tasked to prepare for several, very different potential outcomes: leave thousands of troops in place; draw down to zero; or draw down to some number in between (the target number shifted often).

Since “zero option” remained a strong possibility, the Iraqis would have to be prepared to provide their own security across the full range of military and policing functions. Training them to this level presented a daunting task, made even more difficult by an additional factor: ISF leaders were by and large convinced that the United States would not leave Iraq in 2011. In fact, many Iraqi military leaders desperately hoped the United States would stay because they had the best of both worlds: all the perquisites of command, (plus the graft derived from the salaries of ‘ghost soldiers’ on their rolls), and none of the responsibilities — if anything went wrong, they could blame U.S. forces for their failures. They were therefore unenthusiastic about taking ownership of their own security.

Iraqi Good Enough…Wasn’t

The pressure of the looming departure deadline, combined with frustration about lack of Iraqi initiative and ownership, gave rise to increasingly frequent use of the phrase, “Iraqi good enough.” Usually preceded or followed by a sigh, the phrase meant, “Their performance (in a given area) doesn’t meet our standards, and it’s probably not going to anytime soon. But judging by their lack of urgency, it’s good enough for them. It’s Iraqi good enough.” Regrettably, ISIL showed otherwise.

The New Approach: An Anecdote from 2014

General Dempsey described a specific event during a recent trip to Iraq that exemplifies the new approach. While visiting a combined U.S.-Iraqi operations center, an Iraqi request arrived for an airdrop on Sinjar Mountain. Rather than step into the process, the Chairman sat back and watched the U.S. and Iraqi leaders interact to see how it would unfold. Standard practice in times past would have been for the U.S. commander to immediately order U.S. forces to conduct the airdrop. This time, however, the U.S. commander told the Iraqis the following: “You have C-130Js.” (The C-130J is a state-of-the-art, airdrop-capable, tactical-airlift aircraft. Iraqi pilots were fully trained and airdrop-qualified in the C-130J, and the Iraqis even had the material on-hand that they wanted to airdrop). “We will provide you any expertise you don’t have, but you have what you need to accomplish this mission.”

The general finished the story by saying, “The only thing we provided at that point was the expertise to actually rig the parachute extraction system,” and the mission was a success. He concluded, “That’s the right answer, by the way, so that they do what they can do and we fill in the gaps and continue to build their capability.”

This is a true sea change in U.S.-Iraqi security relations, and this is very good news.


Colonel Kris Bauman, USAF, PhD, is a Senior Military Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington, D.C. He holds a doctorate in International Studies from the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff