Here's a little something from the member of my alternate-history forum whose handle is CalBear about how the ineptitude of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is responsible for the success of ISIS. Take it away, CB:
We have all witnessed the almost stunningly weak performance of the Iraqi Army in its on-going struggle against ISIL. The destruction of multiple brigade size Iraqi Army formation totaling over 20,000 troops by roughly 1,500 ISIL fighters was, for most Westerners, our introduction to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The sight of thousands of Iraqi troops abandoning all their equipment, including uniforms as well as weapons and armored vehicles to some black pajama clad guys in pick-up trucks was puzzling to the point of disbelief. How could this possibly have occurred?
There is no single answer to this most reasonable of questions. It is important to consider exactly how the Iraqi Army of 2014 can to be, and what could cause the sort of collapse seen not just in Mosul but in a series of engagements between the regular Iraqi Army and ISIL.
Iraq’s pre-2003 military was utter destroyed by Anglo-American formations during the ill-starred 2003 Iraq War. A force that had never really recovered from its utter defeat in 1991’s Desert Storm campaign, was dismantled by advancing U.S. and British Armored formations in a text book assault. In the aftermath every member of the Iraqi Army, from the newest recruit to the most senior commander, was essentially fired. Starting in 2004 the Coalition began to reconstitute the military, initially using private military contractors, and then under the instruction of NATO trainers (primarily U.S. Special Forces). Initially the training was designed to create a “counter-insurgency” force capable of assisting and eventually replacing UK & U.S. forces on the ground fighting the “Insurgents” (actually an al Qaeda led force primarily made up of non-Iraqi “foreign fighters”), with the training expanding into the creation of a professional national defense force as the AQ threat was effectively eliminated. By the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq on December 31, 2011 the training had, by most accounts, been largely successful in creating a professional force that thought of itself as “Iraqi” not the Sunni/Shi’a division that is a constant background to all Iraq politics, and a divide that various groups had manipulated to their own goals during the post 2003 War’s chaos. The Iraqi Army was, it was hoped, going to be an example of cooperation and professionalism that would serve as a template for the rest of Iraqi society as it transitioned to full democracy. On January 1st, 2012, this looked very hopeful.
Clearly this hope was soon to be dashed. What happened? The short version is Nouri al-Maliki happened.
Effectively the hand-picked U.S. choice for prime minister of the new Iraqi Republic in 2006 thanks to what the U.S. concluded was a sufficient strong anti-Iran stance, he was re-elected in 2010 some nine months after elections of the new Parliament. al-Maliki began to dismantle the carefully constructed Iraqi professional officer corps, replacing senior officer who had been chosen based on merit and potential by U.S. trainers, with political allies. As he did so, the non-aligned Army began to fracture along sectarian and ethnic lines. Sunni/Shi’a and Arab/Kurd became more important than qualification for promotion. This in turn, led to the degradation of the junior officer corps, and perhaps most crucially to the effective collapse of the military’s supply system. Al-Maliki created three brigades with the specific job of protecting the regime (i.e. him) from possible overthrow. The forces received the best equipment and were kept in full supply. Much of the rest of the supplies needed to support the day-to-day operation of the combat forces was either stolen after purchase, or never actually obtained, with the cash diverted to personal accounts. Forces on the borders of Iraq, where the blow-back of the Syrian Civil War was already having impact, were left with insufficient equipment and often without any pay for weeks, even months. It was these forces that collapsed when ISIL struck.
Unpaid, hungry, poorly led at the most senior military levels, with battalion officers who were selected for political reliability more than command skills, these forces lacked what the military calls unit cohesion (and is usually referred to as morale). As each level of command fled the battle field, those below felt increasingly abandoned until a critical mass was reached where a rout was nearly inevitable. Despite suffering remarkably low casualties (estimated total combat KIA among Iraqi forces at Mosul total well under 200, out of a force exceeding 20,000) units found themselves unable to face the much more motivated and far better led ISIL units that were attacking them. What had been an Army Division sized force became a panicked mob that stampeded, abandoning everything in its wake. Lacking competent leadership (reports indicate that senior commanders fled either by helicopter or car even before combat began, with General officers telling Colonels, Colonels tell Captains and so on to flee before the advancing ISIL forces) once the rout began there was no stopping it. Mosul was lost, as was much of non Kurdish Northern Iraq, without any sort of serious effort by Iraqi troops to prevent it.
Today, thanks to the corruption, political meddling, and on-going string of defeats, the military built with such care by the U.S. is in utter disarray. American military advisers have reported that less than half of the combat units in the Iraqi Army can be trusted by U.S. troops due to infiltration by various sectarian groups, none of whom have the Iraqi nation best interest as a driving force. One can hope that being faced with the brutality of ISIL, these diverse groups will come together for the greater good, with a new sense of purpose and recently elected political leadership. Only time will tell.
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