A recent report by the Inspector Generals (IGs) of the Pentagon, State Department and United States Agency for International Development found that Iraq was facing institutional shortcomings with its security forces. They also criticized the Iraqi counterinsurgency operations. The warnings they made are remarkably similar to ones voiced in 2005-06. It raises questions about just how much the Iraqi forces (ISF) have progressed over the years, and more importantly if the Iraqis are capable of dealing with the insurgency on their own.
The IGs reported systemic weaknesses within the Iraqi forces. Those included micromanagement, inefficient systems within the Defense and Interior Ministries, and ghost soldiers. For example, the ISF retains many of its traditions from the Saddam era. That includes highly centralized and top down administrative systems that require sometimes the most minor of tasks be approved by the very top such as the chief of staff or even the prime minister’s office. Iraq is still using paper for its administration. Those documents can be lost or duplicated. Together this slows and constrains any decision making. Finally, there was no progress in merit based promotions, no use of modern human resource techniques, and still ghost soldiers meaning ISF members that either never show up or don’t exist and whose salaries are collected by others such as their commanding officers.
When it comes to planning and carrying out operations the ISF suffered from poor intelligence and command and control issues. The Iraqis are still largely dependent upon the United States for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Pentagon said the ISF was incapable of analyzing and combining intelligence. Instead the U.S. does those tasks. Some of the systems the Iraqis have for these tasks are improperly used. For instance, drones are mostly used to micromanage units by their commanders rather than collect information on the Islamic State. The IGs said that the ISF also had an institutional reluctance to share information. Instead, everything is sent to the top and then is rarely disseminated. The army and police also didn’t have the means to track their units and relied upon the U.S. for information about their own operations. That was also a reason why commanders used drones to keep up with their forces instead of for intelligence. Iraqi commanders also relied upon personal cell phones to give commands to their units. There was no security on those communications. The Americans believed it could take a generation for Iraqi officers to change their culture and for institutions to adapt new practices to solve these problems.
The Inspector Generals had questions about the U.S. training program in Iraq as well. It rose concerns about whether there were enough advisers out in the field with the Iraqi police. If all the Americans did was see the Iraqis for a short period of time at a base, there was no way to assess how effective the police were in their operations. In fact, because of that the IGs weren’t sure whether the U.S. was improving the police or not. There were continued worries about whether the equipment being handed over to the Iraqis was going to the units due to corruption.
Finally, there was criticism of how the Iraqis operated. The ISF ran 24 hours checkpoints but they made no night patrols due to a lack of training and equipment, which allowed huge amounts of freedom for the insurgency. The U.S. led Coalition operated drones at night and that information was passed onto the Iraqis, but they didn’t do anything substantive with it. The large sweeps that the Iraqis are constantly carrying out are usually ineffective as well. Western journalists went on an operation in Salahaddin where no Islamic State members were killed or captured in two days. As soon as the ISF was done there were at least two dozen IS attacks in the area showing that they had simply slipped away during the sweep, and then returned afterward. Human rights groups have criticized the ISF for its heavy handed tactics and civilian deaths. The State Department reported that the Iraqi forces acted with impunity, meaning there were no consequnces for any abuses. State felt that undermined the rule of law and hindered reconciliation.
These criticisms are almost exactly the same as those made in 2005-06 when the Iraqi forces were just being constructed. For example, anfound structural problems in the Defense Ministry including a top down system, lack of promotion mechanisms, corruption, and U.S. forces having to do many major tasks for the Iraqi units. In October 2006 the that the ISF was relying upon the U.S. for intelligence and that there were not enough U.S. advisers, while the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found that the hundreds of thousands of weapons it turned over to the Iraqis and feared where they might end up. While there has obviously been progress within the Iraqi forces since they were created there are still huge institutional obstacles to overcome.
The IGs report found that the Iraqis were still highly reliant upon the U.S. to carry out basic tasks, that the Iraqi bureaucracy was a grave hinderance to effectively managing the Iraqi forces, that corruption was still an issue, and that the Iraqi operations were largely ineffective. Many of these issues were found back in 2005-06 and have not been solved in the decade plus since. If the Iraqis were working in a passive environment these might not be big issues. The problem is the Islamic State is rebuilding and the IGs paper raised questions of whether the Iraqis were up to the task of countering the group. The fact that the ISF were not providing adequate security and were abusing civilians does not bode well. With attacks at a low level right now the ISF can get away with that, but it is providing plenty of space for IS to return. The bigger question is what happens if violence starts escalating. The report doesn’t give confidence in the Iraqis abilities to react adequately. The U.S. is attempting to provide training and support to the Iraqis to increase their capabilities, but the IGs aren’t sure what kind of effect that is having, again raising more questions than answers.
Cloud, David, “Worry Grows as Iraq’s Defense Ministry Falls Short of Expectations,” New York Times, 8/3/05
Glanz, James, “U.S. Is Said to Fail in Tracking Arms for Iraqis,” New York Times, 10/30/06
Lead Inspector General, “Operation Inherent Resolve, And Other Overseas Contingency Operations,” 7/1/18-9/30/18
Ricks, Thomas, “U.S. Military Is Still Waiting For Iraqi Forces to ‘Stand Up,’” Washington Post, 10/1/06