A former insurgent’s guide to ISIS and Iraq

A former insurgent’s guide to ISIS and Iraq

We need to rethink the way the Iraqi army fights ISIS, a former insurgent argues. A guest post by Roland Bartetzko.

In the last weeks, the self-proclaimed “Caliphate” in Iraq has been losing a lot of ground to government forces.  Although it is far too early to announce a winner or a loser, it is obvious that the Iraqi army will play a key role in consolidating these victories.

Unfortunately, however, even after billions of dollars spent in military assistance and after numerous training missions, the Iraqi armed forces still perform poorly. News about troops going AWOL or being stranded in the desert without food and water, incapable local commanders or the purchase of faulty military equipment are making headlines.

After the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul in 2014, a large number of analysts went to work and identified the causes for this humiliating defeat: Corruption and mismanagement were eroding all efforts to turn the Iraqi armed forces into an effective fighting force. Some officials even stated that the Iraqi soldiers “show no will to fight”.

The problems however are deeper rooted and for some of them the Iraqi side hardly can be blamed alone. Our view about what an army is supposed to be and what it should do is very different from what people not only in Iraq, but in many parts of the world would agree with.

Defending the country vs. defending the government

For most of us the military is an organization that provides security, protects our borders, and in recent times has even been deployed to guarantee ours and our Allies political and economic interests around the globe.

We pay a part of our taxes for the armed forces and rightly expect that this money is spent in the most efficient way. We want something in return for our money. Our military planners expect the Iraqi armed forces to work exactly in the same way.

This is not only the case for Iraq: from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Albania and Afghanistan, many of our allies simply don’t share our views.

In many troubled nations the primary role of the military is to serve as an instrument to keep the country together. We often refer to these places as “multi-ethnic” entities. Some of them were former colonies or protectorates and their borders were defined in international conferences where ethnic or religious boundaries were widely ignored and neglected.

Iraq is one of these countries. Multi-ethnic states regard their military first of all as a factor to support national cohesion and unification and not as a fighting force. Plagued with an ineffective and weak government, the Iraqi military has been in many ways the central power’s main tool to exercise control over the country.

It is in fact policing the country and has often been called a “check point army.” In many countries – and not only Iraq – militaries do not understand the importance of legal acts limiting the use of military force in domestic policies. Our concept of a “citizen soldier” is alien to them.

Copy-pasting military structures

The Iraqi military structure mirrors a Western army system with divisions, brigades, and battalions. These structures have been proven to be efficient, but only if one has an effective and competent leadership with a strong discipline.

These preconditions do not exist in Iraq: The Iraqi armed forces suffer from a terribly incompetent high command and their lack of discipline means that orders from the top are not being executed or only with great delays.

Fighting a counterinsurgency demands a different military structure, with authority given to smaller units and a greater use of Special Forces.

Defending the country and waging a war has never been the Iraqi military’s top priority, although this might not be what their officials announce. It should come as no surprise that these troops are not prepared or motivated to fight.

Corrupt economy

The army is an important factor in the Iraqi economy which is providing an income and financial source, not only to their soldiers, but also for those soldier’s families and many small businesses.

The billions in foreign aid that the Iraqi military has received and from which a great part has disappeared have further added to its economic importance.

Unlike in corruption cases in the West, in grass root corruption economies, a lot of embezzled funds don’t end up in offshore bank accounts, but flow back into the local economy. As the corruption is more widespread there are also more persons profiting from it.

With very low wages, bribes have become an important part of many government officials’ incomes. To help one’s family is a matter of honor and therefore nepotism is not perceived as something negative, but as a crucial element in every family’s struggle for survival

Corruption in Iraq has become a way of living. Government and military corruption go hand in hand and one cannot fight the latter without addressing the former.

Bureaucracy: The other enemy

The Iraqi military has been cultivating the habit of dealing internally and on the lowest possible level, even with serious infractions. Informal hierarchies often exist parallel to the official ones and are difficult to wipe out.

While internal controls just add another layer of corruption, the effect of introducing external control and auditing bodies’ is often to swell up an already gigantic bureaucratic apparatus.

The negative impact of a large and complex bureaucracy on a military’s efficiency is often underestimated. Planning, auditing, and procurement procedures have to be tailored down to fit the local requirements.

Coup proofing

Even if it would be possible to successfully eliminate corruption and mismanagement in the Iraqi armed forces and create an effective and disciplined fighting force, there is yet another issue. The central government would feel threatened by such a non-corrupted and efficient military elite.

Not inhibited by legal acts which are limiting the use of military force in domestic affairs, such a military could become a destabilizing factor. This is also one reason why it is so difficult to gain any support for more thorough military reforms from the Iraqi government.

Outlook on the Iraqi insurgency

Surprisingly given all these problems, Iraqi soldiers have shown that they are capable of maintaining discipline and are ready to fight if the right environment is provided to them.

The recent successes of the Iraqi Special Forces and the so called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) are promising signs. The US government, recognizing that at least for the moment there is no chance to improve the efficiency of the Iraqi government troops, has learned to value these local units in their fight against ISIS.

It should have been recognized that the Iraqi armed forces were never supposed to fight a war in the first place, even less so a counterinsurgency. It would, however, be a much bigger mistake to abandon the Iraqi armed forces now and solely continue to carry on with local forces.

The Iraqi army plays an important role in the country’s future. They are the backbone of their country’s unity and are a very important economical factor.

Although a decentralization of the Iraqi military is an absolute necessity, it also bears its dangers. Many of the “tribal forces” were involved in war crimes in the past. The troops that are doing most of the fighting are the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or tribal militia.

These PMF militias consist of more than forty different groups and are only formally attached to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Many of them are Shia groups that receive military aid directly from Tehran. They are despised by the Sunni population and there were clashes reported between them and the Iraqi armed forces. Empowering these troops further will cause problems in the future.

One day the fighting will be over and, as they might be seen as a threat to the unity of the country, these units have to be disbanded and their fighters integrated into the Iraqi armed forces. These are complex processes and have to be carefully planned.

The fight against ISIS has clearly shown that we and our local allies have very different understandings and ideas about the military. To just mirror image our model and our expectations on every army that we want to “build up” does not prove to be working. To produce effective solutions, our militaries have to learn to understand a completely different mindset. When we address the role of the military, the duties of a commanding officer or the problems of corruption, we need to make sure that we are all talking about the same things.

Roland Bartetzko served in the German Army, the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) during the Bosnian War and with the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) during the 1999 Kosovo War. Last year he published a study about radical Islam in Kosovo. Bartetzko has a university degree in law and is currently working for a law firm in Pristina, Kosovo.

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.