Saturday, June 13, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox

ISIS Fighters Celebrating
No matter how you slice, dice, or spin it, the U.S. war on terror in the wider Middle East has been an unmitigated disaster, arguably amounting to one of the greatest disasters of our time. The region is far less stable and America is far less free and secure than we were when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and Muammar Gaddafi sat on his thrown in Libya.  And, the people we were intent on liberating from tyranny have enjoyed little of our cherished freedom and democracy.  Now the group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) is currently posing our most serious threat in the region, far more than our previous bogeyman, al Qaeda. Like a famished pacman, ISIS is gobbling up cities and towns in Iraq and Syria. Who or what is responsible for its rise, military success and expansion?

Fingers of blame for the rise and success of the Islamic State point in many directions. Neoconservative Republicans and military hawks blame Obama for leaving an insufficient American military presence in Iraq when the U.S. pulled out in 2011 and being too tardy and timid in responding to the ISIS threat. Democrats tend to emphasize the Bush Administration’s stream of blunders as paving the way for radical Jihadi extremists.  Travelers on the far left blame the neocon interventionist agenda and Obama for continuing it. Military leaders harp on the Iraqi army’s incompetence and lack of will to fight. Some analysts point to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni repression as a key factor. The Islamic State's exceptional recruiting, persuasion, and fighting skills, facilitated by financial and weapons support from Sunni sympathizers in the Middle East region,  most importantly Saudi Arabia, have also been cited as key reasons for ISIS' ascent. Still others maintain that Shiite militias and weapons sent to Iraq by Iran were mainly responsible for the ISIS insurgency.  

I've been trying to make sense of the blame game for some time, not an easy task given the aversion to facts that underlies many opinions on the subject of the Islamic State.  To help sort out my thoughts, I've written an essay that looks at the main accusations leveled in the ISIS blame game. To spare Phronesis readers a long single post, the essay will be divided into five separate parts.  The first (below) will touch on the alleged responsibilities of the Bush Administration and the Iraqi Army. The second will address the claimed culpability of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, and the third the role of ISIS itself.  President Obama's suspected responsibility will be the focus of the fourth post.  The fifth and final post, admittedly from a non-expert perspective, will attempt to make sense of it all.

The Bush Administration’s Responsibility

Bush Clueless
A Clueless President?
The Islamic State’s rise and military and political success is seen by many observers as a direct consequence of the Bush-Cheney-Bremer decision in the wake of Shock and Awe to remove the Ba'ath Party's influence in the new Iraqi political system and disband the Iraqi army. These poorly thought-out decisions deprived Iraq of the skilled administrators and well-trained soldiers and experienced army and police officers necessary for the establishment of stability and order in the aftermath of the U.S. dislodging of Saddam Hussein.  It also put many armed and trained Iraqis out in the streets, jobless and angry. It is argued that this set the stage for the subsequent sectarian struggle that would culminate in the resurgence of al Qaeda and its morphing into ISIS.

CheneyThe Cheney cabal preferred to create a New Iraqi Army, essentially from scratch.  This led to delays in establishing order and suppressing various militias. It also compromised putting an Iraqi face on security and lessening the burden on the coalition military.  The Shiite-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia which took orders directly from the prime minister, who appointed loyalists and centralized all military decision making.

The disbanding of Saddam's army was done against the wishes of the U.S. military, which advocated keeping the Iraqi forces relatively intact since it had structure, discipline and credibility in Iraq. It deprived the military of a generation of Sunni expertise and experience and left the Iraqi army in the hands of inexperienced leaders gripped by sectarian and ethnic bias that has undermined their ability to lead effectively. In ending the careers of Iraq’s most experienced military officers, it also relegated a large number of talented military men to the ranks of the unemployed. It is not accidental that several of the top leadership positions in the ISIS army are held by Ba’athists from Saddam’s army.

The removal of Sunni dominant Ba’athist Party members from the public sector, many of whom served as civil servants, teachers, doctors, engineers and technocrats, deprived the country of critical talent essential for a smooth transition to a new order. In depriving thousands of mostly Sunni public employees from their livelihoods, and stripping them of their pensions, de-Ba’athification also produced a large pool of disgruntled Sunnis with little to do. Many of these would commit their talents and expertise to the Sunni insurgency and later join ISIS. It can be argued that without the administrative and military skills Ba’athists bring to the insurgency, ISIS would not be able to carry out its agenda.

The U.S. occupation left Iraq an economic and political basket case—a failed state in the clearest sense of the term. Much of the money for development, infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian assistance simply disappeared, presumably into the pocket of corrupt Iraqi officials and private elite, as James Risen has written about in Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. The shattered economy added to the collective discontent, which was later exploited by the extremist insurgency.

Bush and Maliki
Bush and Maliki: Partners in  a Disaster?

The Responsibility of the Iraqi Army

Furious American policy makers and military leaders have blasted the Iraqi army for its poor fighting ability. It appears to prefer retreating to fighting. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter joined a chorus of critics in accusing the Iraqis of lacking the “will to fight." A lack of will is compounded by poor leadership. The army is led by officers with little expertise and experience. Its soldiers are poorly trained, despite the billions of dollars the U.S. committed to the training mission. The New Iraqi Army was not created as a fighting force; it was established as a loyal protector of the Shiite-led regime. In this capacity, it, along with Shiite militias, served as a vehicle for the ruthless repression of Sunnis.

ISIS Fighters in Ramadi
ISIS Fighters Take Ramadi
The Iraqi Army has performed poorly on the battlefield. Its generals are continually out-thought and out-maneuvered by their Islamic State counterparts. The gap in tactical and fighting skills was clearly on display in the fights over Mosul and Ramadi. In Mosul, it took only some 800 ISIS fighters, with assistance from local Ba’athist military cadres, to take the city of over 1.8 million people. Even ISIS was shocked by how quickly the Iraqi Army collapsed.

Iraq Army soldiers are also weary. They have been fighting continuously for over a year with little support, and no relief, from the government in Baghdad. With little time to rest and recuperate—to get away from the battle—it isn’t surprising soldier morale is low and the army is quick to retreat.

Maliki and His Army
Maliki and His Army: Cronyism on Display
Sub-par commanders, poorly trained soldiers, inadequate communication about ISIS maneuvering, a lack of supply and support, and low morale has resulted in an ineffective fighting force. This is certainly an important reason why the Islamic State has prevailed in land battles. The inability of the Iraqi Army to provide security for Sunnis in cities and towns has driven many of them into the ISIS camp, which many perceive as the only entity able to keep them safe.

Next Post: the role of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki

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