ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is fighting many battles in western and northern Iraq. ISIL takes advantage of the fact that Iraqi forces are not willing to just go charging into ISIL controlled territory. That is sort of suicidal, but ISIL fighters don’t seem to mind and ISIL convoys continue to advance at every opportunity. Most of these advances fail, either because the local resistance is too strong or because the vehicles are spotted by coalition aircraft and bombed. Coalition leaders believe this air support has killed about a thousand ISIL men a month in Iraq and Syria since last August. While the air support is helpful the most effective forces the Iraqis have are Kurdish troops (and militias) and largely pro-Iran Shia militias.
There are also a growing number of Sunni militias in the west (Anbar) because like the Sunni tribes in eastern Syria, these Sunni tribes quickly grew hostile towards ISIL rule. Thus some troops plus Shia and Sunni militias are holding on in Anbar (and trying to liberate Ramadi) while troops and Shia militia are stalled in the advance north from Tikrit to Mosul. In the north Kurds continue to advance slowly from the north. ISIL continues to make terror attacks against all who oppose them (which means most Iraqis).
An American investigation into why Ramadi suddenly fell to ISIL in May found that the acting commander of the Ramadi forces ordered the retreat on his own. This general was a staff officer who was temporarily in charge because the regular commander had recently been wounded. This is another example of the shortage of competent and experienced officers in the post-Saddam Iraqi army. The basic problem with Iraqi forces since 2003 has been bad officers, in particular officers more interested in politics and getting rich (via corrupt practices) than in running an efficient army. This is not a new or unique problem in the Iraqi Army.
Since 2011 (after the Americans left) the Shia politicians running the government chose politically reliable Shia officers over those who were merely competent at their jobs. That led to the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of a mid-2014 ISIL offensive. That should not have happened, but it did and will again unless the Iraqis put more emphasis on competence than political loyalty when selecting military officers. This is a problem throughout the region but has always been worst in Iraq. For generations Iraqi troops were the least effective and had the worst officers. Saddam had to deal with that problem and now the elected Shia leaders do as well. The West has tried to turn this around.
After 2003 the American strategy in Iraq was simple; hold elections and get the elected government strong enough so that it could take care of itself without American troops. There was one major flaw in this plan, the fact that the majority Shia and Kurds had been excluded from leadership positions in the military, police and government for decades. There were obvious reasons for this (the Sunnis were in charge) but after 2003 loyal (to an elected government) security forces required experienced Shia and Kurdish leaders, who had to be created from scratch.
There were some Sunni officers and officials that could be trusted, but most were suspect. That’s because of another problem you encounter in much of the Arab world; family, tribe and religious affiliation count for more than national loyalty. This makes sense when you remember that there are no Arab governments that are “just and reliable” in the Western sense. The only institution the individual can depend on for help was the family, tribe or religious organization. Thus you keep hearing about “Arab tribal leaders” getting involved in whatever was happening in Iraq.
Early on American advisors found problems with the new security forces. Since 2006 the quality of the Iraqi security forces, especially the army was tracked by American advisors. Progress was slow and the primary cause of poor performance in Iraqi units was corrupt officers. Too many people in Iraqi society are for sale. This can have deadly results if you are an army officer or police commander. Morale quickly collapses in a unit when the troops realize their boss is only in it for the money. The American advisory teams worked out various drills to try and get rid of corrupt commanders but they often find several higher layers in the chain of command were also corrupt.
The senior U.S. commanders ended up having tense meeting with senior government officials, or the prime minister himself, over this. Getting rid of dirty generals was (and still is) difficult if the general is well connected politically. For this reason, experienced Sunni Arab officers were preferred for a while, even if they were hated by the majority Kurds and Shia Arabs. The Sunni Arab guy knew he is on a terrorist hit list for just wearing the uniform, but usually had the idea that if he did well the new government would protect him and his family. These men served as role models and mentors for less experienced Shia officers. While officers are divided by a bloody religious and political history many were united by professional respect, and necessity. But in the end religion and ethnicity proved more important than anything else.
The one bright spot in all this is the Kurds (of Iraq and Syria). Since the early 1990s the Iraqi Kurds were autonomous (with British and American help) and they had always been more effective soldiers than the Iraqi Arabs. The Kurds still suffer from tribal and clan divisions as well as corruption, but to a much lesser extent than the Arabs. Thus a disproportionate number of Western trainers are being sent to the Kurds, who are only about a fifth of the Iraqi population. The Kurds are considered reliable enough to work with Western commandos and protect ground control teams (that can call in air strikes). Kurds regularly assist the American and British commandos in carrying out their most dangerous tasks; reconnaissance inside ISIL territory.
The Iraqi Arabs resent this “favoritism” and envy the success of the Kurds (who are Moslems) in keeping Islamic terrorists out of Kurdish territory. Thus the Shia Arab dominated government blocks aid for the Kurds (especially weapons shipped in for all). Some Western nations have intervened and provided (via air transport) weapons to the Kurds despite protests from the Iraqi government. But the Kurds still found themselves less well armed than Iraqi Arab forces. Thus whenever you see Kurds using Iraqi Army vehicles it is usually because the Kurds captured them from ISIL (who have captured over a billion dollars’ worth of Iraqi Army weapons and equipment since Mosul was captured a year ago). The Kurds also became quite adept at improvising.
Meanwhile the smaller (about 50,000 fighters) Syrian Kurdish forces are struggling to get the American government to get them off the international terrorist list (for supporting the Turkish Kurdish PKK rebels in the past). The Turks remain very hostile to armed Syrian Kurds even though these Kurds are responsible for killing a lot of ISIL gunmen who want to turn Turkey into a religious dictatorship. The Americans do recognize the Kurdish contribution. For example the U.S. has provided weapons and equipment for 12 Iraqi brigades. Three of those brigades are Kurdish and getting the stuff to the north (from Basra in the south) is still difficult (because of government reluctance to arm Kurds plus corruption and gangs that plunder imports).
In Iraq the Kurds there note that they have suffered lower casualties than the (about 8,500 with 14 percent killed) Iraqi Arabs and that’s a major reason for the better performance of the Kurds. In the Kurdish forces the leaders are more competent, much less corrupt and that means they look after the welfare of their troops. The most effective Iraqi Army units follow the same pattern but only about ten percent of Iraqi troops (including police commandos) operate on this level.
The success of the Kurds in the north is also a liability. That’s because the Kurds keep Islamic terrorists out of their territory by aggressively patrolling their borders and quickly responding to the presence of any terrorists who do get in. That requires the attention of the majority of Kurdish military personnel. Thus as good as they are there are not enough Kurdish troops available to bail out the many hapless Iraqi Army units. The Kurds have made it clear that they will slowly advance in the north and push ISIL forces back into Mosul. When, and if, the Iraqi Arabs do the same from the south, the Kurds will work with the Iraqi Arabs to push ISIL out of Mosul. So far the Kurds have been more successful north of the city than the Iraqi Arabs have been to the south.
American advisors recently admitted that their effort to recruit and train 24,000 Iraqi soldiers and police for the Mosul operation has not been successful. Only about 37 percent of the required recruits were obtained. This is in large part because Sunni leaders urged Sunni Arabs to stay away from the American training effort while pro-Iran Iraqi Shia leaders urged their followers to do likewise. More Kurds were willing to join but many of them were already committed to defending the north. While it not considered politically correct for Iraqi Arabs to join the security forces, militias are another matter. Sunni Arab militias tend to be based on tribal affiliation or the need to defend your town or neighborhood. Same with the Shia Arabs, who also have the option to join pro-Iran militias organized by Iraqi Shia clerics.
Another element in all this is the dismal performance of the Iraqi security forces. Who wants to join an outfit that is regularly and easily defeated. To make matters worse Western trainers and advisors find themselves more welcome with Sunni tribal militias than with Shia ones, who are heavily influenced by Iran which does nothing to hide its anti-American attitudes.
The Americans are also dismayed to find that their calls (now often demands) for reducing corruption have not had much success. The problem is that despite sustained and very public calls for less corruption there are few prominent Iraqis who are willing to change their corrupt ways. The culture of corruption in this region is ancient and strong. While some (like a few of the smaller Arab Gulf States) have been able to reduce it noticeably, that is the exception in the face of the fact that worldwide more prosperous states tend to be those that are the least corrupt.
Efforts to get the Iraqi Arabs to “be more like the Kurds” faces some difficult cultural problems. The Arabs have an attitude that all their problems (with corruption, Islamic terrorism and centuries of economic, scientific and cultural backwardness) is all because of foreign attacks on Islam. In part the Arabs hate the Kurds because, although Moslem, the Kurds do not buy into these conspiracies and simply move ahead trying to improve their situation. The Kurds have had more than their share of bad breaks. Like many mid-size ethnic groups the Kurds were never able to establish their own nation and for thousands of years have been subjects of one empire (Iranian, Roman, Turkish and so on) or another. A century ago they were part of the Turkish homeland because the Turks recognized the Kurds as worthy allies (but still part of the empire). Turks even like to call the Kurds “mountain Turks”, a name the Kurds did not like at all. After World War II the Kurds living near the Turkish city of Mosul found that they were no longer Turkish subjects but now part of the largely Arab nation of Iraq. This was done by the victorious allies (mainly Britain and France) to deny the Turks (now a country, not an empire and reduced to its present borders) oil, which had recently been discovered in the areas around Mosul and Kirkuk. Needless to say the Arabs, long unwilling subjects of the Turkish Empire, did not welcome the Kurds (who were often the Turkish enforcers when the Arabs got out of line). The Turks recognized and used Kurdish military skills and Arabs feared the Kurds because that. Meanwhile, the Kurds in general were angry that the allied promise of a Kurdish state (once the Turks were defeated) was not kept. That was mainly because the Turks, now pushed back to their homeland, made it clear that there would be a major fight if the allies tried to keep all the promises made at the expense of the Turks. The war weary allies backed off after a brief war and the Kurds were screwed again.
The West is aware of the many problems in the region and has responded in many ways. One of the more frequently used tactics is to insist that the Arabs clean up their own act and not depend on others to do it for them. Western leaders, even some of those deep into the multicultural tolerance angle are telling the Arabs that it is the widespread Moslem support or tolerance for Islamic terrorism that keeps that nasty business going. While only about a quarter of Moslems are tolerant (“understand the need for”) Islamic terrorism and only a few percent actively support it that is sufficient to keep Islamic terror groups supplied with recruits and various forms of support. In short, the Islamic terrorism problem is largely a Moslem problem and Moslems have to step up and deal with it. This is gaining more acceptance among Moslems, but slowly and that’s enough to keep ISIL and al Qaeda in business, which largely consists of killing Moslems.
Meanwhile Iran is pushing the idea that Shia and Sunni and non-Moslems should units to defeat ISIL. This makes sense, although the Arabs believe the Iranians are really more interested in trying to displace Arab Sunnis as the leaders of the Moslem world. Iran represents the Sunni (about ten percent of Moslems) minority while the Sunnis of Arabia represent the Sunni (80 percent of Moslems) majority. Most of the terrorism in the world is caused by Moslems and most of those Moslem terrorists are Sunnis, inspired by radical ideas developed and sustained in Arabia. All this contributes to the general sense of chaos found in the region and throughout the Islamic world.
June 3, 2015: In the north (Hawijah) a coalition hit a major ISIL operation that turned vehicles into car bombs. There were multiple secondary explosions as bomb components went off. The car bomb factory was well hidden from aerial observation. Fortunately there were many anti-ISIL locals willing to pass on information to Iraqi forces and the coalition to pinpoint the location of the facility for an air strike.