The Inept Iraqi Military

Jassem Al Salami surveys the fruits of all that American aid and training:

The Iraqis’ aerial tactics are sloppy. Instead of orbiting a target area at a safe distance in order to gain full awareness before attacking, Iraqi pilots tend to fly straight in firing rockets and guns at close range. The absence of zooming optical gear might explain that reckless pattern. These tactics not only compromise the aircraft’s effect on the battlefield, they also expose Iraqi pilots to ISIS ambushes. The Iraqi army has already lost at least one helicopter west of Baghdad.

Iraqi armored units are no better than the air force and army aviation. ISIS rides mostly in “technical” armed pickups, whereas the Iraqi army possesses modern M-1A1 main battle tanks and BTR-4 armored fighting vehicles plus older T-72 and T-55 tanks and BMP fighting vehicles. ISIS cannot match their firepower. But almost no Iraqi armor has even appeared on the battlefields in Mosul, Tal Afar and Kirkuk—except in videos depicting ISIS fighters destroying abandoned vehicles. Perversely, the only tanks that we can confirm have taken part in the fighting are the six T-55s now belonging to ISIS.

Dividing the military with sectarian meddling, in Zaid al-Ali’s words, was just one of many ways in which Nouri al-Maliki has squandered his country’s hard-fought security gains over the past few years:

On the day Tikrit fell, Iraq suddenly changed: Violent government-backed militias were suddenly allowed to operate openly in Baghdad and Baquba, manning checkpoints and organizing security without any oversight. Senior Iranian military commanders landed in Baghdad to help organize the city’s defense. Finally, in an effort to rally his base against ISIS, Maliki called for volunteers to take up arms against the militants and extremists — ignoring the fact that the military’s problem was never a lack of manpower. It was the clearest admission of failure possible.

Maliki micromanaged the security forces for years, and in the end he didn’t even trust them, choosing instead to let foreign-backed militias and untrained volunteers defend the capital. Meanwhile, one week after Tikrit’s fall, Baghdad had done nothing to free it from ISIS, abandoning its citizens to their fate and allowing the militants to reinforce their positions free from interference.

This was no accident, Keating suggests:

I’ve written about this a bit in reference to Qaddafi’s rule in Libya, but authoritarian rulers—and Maliki is clearly at least headed in that direction—often prefer not to have a strong and professionally organized military. As Hosni Mubarak learned a few years ago, strong militaries can turn on you when the going gets tough. But such “coup-proofing” obviously comes at the expense of the military’s preparedness for outside threats. Maliki made it abundantly clear to U.S. officials that one of his primary concerns was the possibility of a military coup organized by Saddam Hussein’s former officers. The best protection against such a scenario is not a large, well-trained, multiethnic military but a small elite fighting force selected on the basis of loyalty.

Even so, Kirk Sowell expects the Iraqi army to beat ISIS in direct fighting:

In Tal Afar this week, ISIS was initially able to gain some ground there because it’s out in the west, harder to resupply. But after the government sent more units out, they were able to regain the initiative. ISIS has around 10,000 fighters, and the Iraqi army still has 200,000. ISIS doesn’t have an unlimited supply of personnel, so these direct fights – like in Tal Afar – just drain them.

Syria has a much greater impact on Iraq than Iraq has on Syria. Having this rear base in Raqqa has been great for ISIS – it’s what allowed them to organize and recruit and train their fighters. If you take parts of Anbar and Nineveh, in Iraq, and Deir Ezzor and Raqqa and parts of Hassakeh, in Syria, that’s the so-called Islamic state. But these aren’t areas they totally control, and once Baghdad sends high-quality [military] units up to Mosul, ISIS is not going to be able to hold its ground or form an administration or anything like that.

But Zack Beauchamp points out ISIS’s skill advantage over the Iraqi forces:

[Nathaniel] Rosenblatt and [Yasser] Abbas [of private research firm Caerus] say there’s been an influx of skilled Saddam-era military leaders and soldiers into ISIS’ ranks. “When you look at some of the reports about the leadership under [ISIS commander Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi,” Rosenblatt said,  “those second-in-command guys have very strong ties to Saddam’s army.” Acquiring lots of weapons, money, and experience over the course of the Syrian war allowed them to translate that new training into real military effectiveness.

It’s hard to overstate how much of advantage this training and professionalism gives the Islamist group. “ISIS knows how to use smaller units” effectively against larger forces, says [researcher Phillip] Smyth. They’re “very efficient, and you have to deal with that.”

This matters greatly. An undisciplined force, one whose movements aren’t well coordinated or can’t deploy proper tactics for taking city blocks, can be beaten by a much smaller opponent that knows what it’s doing.