The Failure of the Iraqi Army: America’s $25 Billion Paper Tiger

Yves here. This article is a vivid illustration of imperial collapse: the hare-brained overconfidence that a loopy plan for securing Iraq would work, and the willingness to pour money into it because we didn’t have the manpower or appetite to do the job ourselves.

By Nick Turse, a fellow at the Nation Institute and the author, most recently, of Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, as well as Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nation, and is a contributing writer for the Intercept.Originally published at TomDispatch

There’s good news coming out of Iraq… again. The efforts of a 65-nation coalition and punishing U.S. airstrikes have helped local ground forces roll back gains by the Islamic State (IS). 

Government forces and Shiite militias, for example, recaptured the city of Tikrit, while Kurdish troops ousted IS fighters from the town of Sinjar and other parts of northern Iraq. Last month, Iraqi troops finally pushed Islamic State militants out of most of the city of Ramadi, which the group had held since routing Iraqi forces there last spring.

In the wake of all this, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter touted “the kind of progress that the Iraqi forces are exhibiting in Ramadi, building on that success to… continue the campaign with the important goal of retaking Mosul as soon as possible.”  Even more recently, he said those forces were “proving themselves not only motivated but capable.”  I encountered the same upbeat tone when I asked Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, about the Iraqi security forces.  “The last year has been a process of constructing, rebuilding, and refitting the Iraqi army,” he explained. “While it takes time for training and equipping efforts to take effect, the increasing tactical confidence and competence of the ISF [Iraqi security forces] and their recent battlefield successes indicate that we are on track.”

“Progress.”  “Successes.”  “On track.”  “Increasing tactical confidence and competence.”  It all sounded very familiar to me.

By September 2012, after almost a decade at the task, the U.S. had allocated and spent nearly $25 billion on “training, equipping, and sustaining” the Iraqi security forces, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.  Along the way, a parade of generals, government officials, and Pentagon spokesmen had offered up an almost unending stream of good news about the new Iraqi Army.  Near constant reports came in of “remarkable,” “big,” even “enormous” progress for a force that was said to be exuding increasing “confidence,” and whose performance was always improving.  In the end, the U.S. claimed to have trained roughly 950,000 members of the “steady,” “solid,” Iraqi security forces.

And yet just two and a half years after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, that same force collapsed in spectacular fashion in the face of assaults by Islamic State militants who, by CIA estimates, numbered no more than 31,000 in all.  In June 2014, for example, 30,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi troops abandoned their equipment and in some cases even their uniforms, fleeing as few as 800 Islamic State fighters, allowing IS to capture Mosul, the second largest city in the country. 

Blaming the Victim

“When U.S. forces departed Iraq in 2011, it was after helping the Iraqi government create an entirely new Iraqi Security Force following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” Major Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman with U.S. Central Command, explained to me last year.  It almost sounded as if the old regime had toppled of its own accord, a new government had arisen, and the U.S. had generously helped build a military for it.  In reality, of course, a war of choice — based on trumped up claims of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction — led to a U.S. occupation and the conscious decision to dissolve Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military and create a new army in the American mold.  “[T]he Iraqi security forces were a fully functioning element of the Iraq Government,” Kellogg continued, explaining how such an Iraqi military collapse could occur in 2014.  “However, the military standards established and left in place were allowed to atrophy following the departure of U.S. troops.” 

More recently, Colonel Steve Warren brought up another problem with Iraq’s forces in an email to me.  “The Iraqi army that we left in 2011 was an army that had been trained for counterinsurgency. That means route clearance, checkpoint operations, and IED [improvised explosive device] reduction, for example.  The Iraqi army that collapsed in 2014 was… not trained and… not ready for a conventional fight — the conventional assault that ISIL brought to Mosul and beyond.”

Both Kellogg and Warren stopped short of saying what seems obvious to many.  Kalev Sepp, the adviser to two top American generals in Iraq and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and counterterrorism, shows no such hesitation. “We had 12 years to train the Iraqi Army… We failed.  It’s obvious.  So when this lightly-armed insurgent group, the so-called Islamic State, invaded the country, the Iraqi army collapsed in front of it.” 

It’s taken billions of dollars and a year and a half of air strikes, commando raids, advice, and training to begin to reverse the Islamic State’s gains.  According to Warren, the U.S. and its partners have once again trained more than 17,500 ISF troops, with another 2,900 currently in the pipeline.  And once again we’re hearing about their successes. Secretary of Defense Carter, for example, called the fight for Ramadi “a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group,” while Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the Islamic State had “suffered a major defeat” there. 

Still, the tiny terror group seems to have no difficulty recruiting new troops, is ramping up attacks in the district of Haditha, carrying out complex attacks in Baghdad and the town of Muqdadiya, and continues to hold about 57,000 square miles of Syrian and Iraqi territory, including Mosul. With questions already being raised by Pentagon insiders about just how integral the Iraqi security forces were to the retaking of Ramadi and doubts about their ability to clear cities like Mosul, it’s worth taking a look back at all those upbeat reports of “progress” during the previous U.S. effort to build an Iraqi Army from scratch. 

Nothing “Succeeds” Like “Success”

After the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush administration began remaking the battered nation from the ground up.  One of the first acts of L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian official in the occupied country, was to dissolve Iraq’s military.  His plan: to replace Saddam Hussein’s 350,000-man army with a lightly armed border protection force that would peak at around 40,000 soldiers, supplemented by police and civil defense forces.  In an instant, hundreds of thousands of well-trained soldiers were unemployed, providing a ready source of fighters for a future insurgency.

“In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis… Indeed, the progress has been so swift that… it will not be long before [the Iraqi security forces] will… outnumber the U.S. forces,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested in a cheery assessment in October 2003. 

Major General Paul Eaton, tasked with rebuilding the Iraqi Army, similarly articulated his upbeat vision for the force.  Schooled by Americans in “fundamental soldier and leadership skills” and outfitted with all the accoutrements of modern Western troops, including body armor and night-vision equipment, the new military would be committed to “defend[ing] Iraq and its new-found freedom,” he announced at a Baghdad briefing in January 2004.  Soon, Iraqis would even take over the task of instruction.  “I would like to emphasize that this will be an Iraqi Army, trained by Iraqis,” he said. “As Iraq is reborn,” he added, “we believe that her armed forces can lead the way in unifying” the country. 

“Paul Eaton and his team did an extraordinary amount for the Iraqi Security Force mission,” his successor Lieutenant General David Petraeus would say a couple of years later.  “They established a solid foundation on which we were able to build as the effort was expanded very substantially and resourced at a much higher level.”

Retired Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp, who traveled to Iraq as an adviser five times, had a different assessment. “General Eaton was direct in letting me know that he wanted to be remembered as the father of the new Iraqi Army,” he told me. “I thought his approach was conceptually wrong,” Sepp recalled, noting that Eaton “understood his mission was to create an army to defend Iraq from foreign invasion, but he completely overlooked the internal insurgency.” (A request to interview Eaton, sent to the American Security Project, a Washington D.C.-based think tank with which the retired general is affiliated, went unanswered.) 

General Eaton would later blame the Bush administration for initial setbacks in the performance of the Iraqi Army, thanks to poor prewar planning and insufficient resources for the job.  “We set out to man, train, and equip an army for a country of 25 million — with six men,” General Eaton told the New York Times in 2006.  He did, however, accept personal responsibility for the most visible of its early failures, the mutiny of a freshly minted Iraqi battalion en route to its first battle in April 2004.

In the years that followed, America’s Iraq exploded into violence as Sunni and Shiite militants battled each other, the U.S. occupiers, and the U.S.-backed Baghdad government.  On the fly, U.S. officials came up with new plans to build a large, conventional, heavily armed force to secure Iraq in the face of sectarian strife, multiple raging insurgencies, and ultimately civil war.  “The Iraqi military and police forces expanded rapidly from 2004 to 2006, adapting to the counterinsurgency mission,” according to a report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.  As chaos spread and death tolls rose, estimates of the necessary numbers of Iraqi troops, proposals concerning the right types of weapons systems for them, and training stratagems for building the army were amended, adjusted, and revised, again and again.  There was, however, one constant: praise. 

In September 2005, as violence was surging and more than 1,400 civilians were being killed in attacks across the country, General George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, reported that the security forces were “progressing and continuing to take a more prominent role in defending their country.”  He repeatedly emphasized that training efforts were on track — a sentiment seconded by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.  “Every single day, the Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better and better trained and better equipped and more experienced,” he said.

“I think we did a very effective job of training the Iraqi military recruits that were brought to us,” Casey told me last year, reflecting on U.S. efforts during his two and a half years in command.  The trouble, he said, was with the Iraqis.  “The political situation in Iraq through 2007 and even to this day is such that the leadership of the Iraqi government and the military never could instill the loyalty of the troops in the government.”

At the time, however, American generals emphasized progress over problems.  After Petraeus finished his own stint heading the training effort, he was effusive in his praise. “The bottom line up front that I’d like to leave with you today is that there has been enormous progress with the Iraqi security forces over the course of the past 16 months in the face of a brutal insurgency,” he boasted in October 2005, adding that “considerable work” still lay ahead. “Iraqi security force readiness has continued to grow with each passing week.  You can take a percentage off every metric that’s out there, whatever you want — training, equipping, infrastructure reconstruction, units in the fight, schools, academies reestablished — you name it — and what has been accomplished… would still be remarkable.”  (Messages seeking an interview sent to Petraeus at Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., the investment firm where he serves as chairman of the KKR Global Institute, were not answered.) 

In November 2005, President Bush voiced the same sentiments.  “As the Iraqi security forces stand up, their confidence is growing,” he told midshipmen at the Naval Academy.  “And they’re taking on tougher and more important missions on their own.”  By the following February, General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was similarly lauding that military, claiming “the progress that they’ve made over this last year has been enormous.”

The next month, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, who succeeded Petraeus as commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) and later served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, chimed in with glowing praise: “What we’re seeing now is progress on a three-year investment in Iraq’s security forces.  It’s been a big investment, and it’s yielding big progress.”

I asked retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, how so many American officials could have seen so much progress from a force that would later collapse so rapidly and spectacularly.  “I think there’s a psychological need to see progress and, of course, it’s helpful to parrot the party line.  I do think that, psychologically, you need to be able to persuade yourself that your hard-earned efforts — this time spent away from home in lousy conditions — actually produced something positive.”

Kalev Sepp, who traveled all over Iraq talking to the commanders of more than 30 U.S. units while conducting a seminal counterinsurgency study known simply as the “COIN Survey,” told me that when he asked about the progress of the Iraqi units they were working with, U.S. officers invariably linked it to their own tour of duty. “Almost every commander said exactly the same thing.  If the commander had six months left in his tour, the Iraqis would be combat-capable in six months.  If the commander had four months left, then the Iraqis would be ready in four months.  Was a commander going to say ‘I won’t accomplish my mission.  I’m not going to be done on time’?  All the other units were saying their Iraqis were going to be fully trained.  Who was going to be the one commander who said ‘I don’t think my Iraqi unit is really ready’?”

Official praise continued as insurgencies raged across the country and monthly civilian death tolls regularly exceeded 2,000, even topping 3,000 in 2006 and 2007.  “The Iraqi security force continues to develop and grow, assisted by embedded transition teams,” Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq, announced to the press in May 2007.  “Yes, there are still problems within the Iraqi security forces — some sectarian, some manning, and some to do with equipping.  But progress is being made, and it’s steady.”  A 2008 Pentagon review also indicated remarkable progress with 102 out of 169 Iraqi battalions being declared “capable of planning, executing, and sustaining counterinsurgency operations with or without Iraqi or coalition support,” up from just 24 battalions in 2005.

Years later, Odierno, still in charge of the command, then known as United States Forces-Iraq, continued to tout improvement.  “Clearly there’s still some violence, and we still need to make more progress in Iraq,” he told reporters in July 2010. “But Iraqi security forces have taken responsibility for security throughout Iraq, and they continue to grow and improve every day.” 

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, was also upbeat, noting in 2010 that the $21.3 billion already spent to build up the then-660,000-man security force had “begun to pay off significantly.”  Don Cooke, head of the State Department’s Iraq assistance office, agreed.  “We have built an Iraqi security force which is capable of maintaining internal security in Iraq… And four or five or six years ago, there were people who were saying it was going to take decades.” 

In October 2011, as U.S. forces were preparing to end eight years of occupation, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offered up his own mission-accomplished assessment.  “You know, the one thing… we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself.  We’ve taken out now about a hundred thousand [U.S.] troops [from Iraq], and yet the level of violence has remained relatively low.  And I think that’s a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country,” he said of the by then 930,000-man security forces.

Winners and Losers

As the U.S. was training recruits at bases all over Iraq — including Camp Bucca, where Iraqi cadets attended a U.S.-run course for prison guards — another force was also taking shape.  For years, U.S.-run prison camps were decried by many as little more than recruiting and training sites for would-be insurgents, with innocents — angered by arbitrary and harsh detentions — housed alongside hardcore militants.  But Camp Bucca proved to be even more dangerous than that.  It became the incubator not just for an insurgency, but for a proto-state, the would-be caliphate that now lords over significant portions of Iraq and neighboring Syria.   

Nine top commanders of the Islamic State did prison time at America’s Camp Bucca, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader who spent nearly five years there.  “Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America,” Andrew Thompson, an Iraq War veteran, and academic Jeremi Suri wrote in a 2014 New York Times piece. “Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following… The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.”

So how could U.S. officials have so successfully (if inadvertently) fostered the leadership of what would become a truly effective fighting force that would one day best the larger, far more intensively trained, better-armed military they had built to the tune of tens of billions of dollars?  “The people we imprisoned didn’t leave with skills when they finally got out of prison, but they did leave with will,” says Andrew Bacevich.  “What we were doing was breeding resentment, anger, determination, disgust, which provided the makings of an army that turns out to be more effective than the Iraqi Army.”

General George Casey, who went on to serve as Army Chief of Staff before retiring in 2011, sees the failure of Iraq’s Shiite government to reach out to minority Sunnis as the main driver of the collapse of significant portions of the country’s army in 2014.  “You hear all kinds of reasons why the Sunni forces [of the Iraqi military] ran out of Mosul, but it wasn’t a surprise to any of us who had been over there.  If your country doesn’t support what you’re doing, there’s no reason to fight for them,” Casey explained in a phone interview last year.  “People probably give short shrift to what we in the military call ‘the will to fight.’  When it comes right down to it, that’s what it’s all about.  And we can’t instill the will to fight in the heart of a soldier from another country.  We just can’t do it.”

“We can talk about how appalling Daesh is,” adds Kalev Sepp, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, “but their fighters believe in what they’re doing and that adds a particular steel to one’s backbone.”  Bacevich, who has recently finished writing a military history, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, echoed this sentiment, noting the stark difference between U.S.-trained Iraqi forces and their brutal opponents.  “Whatever else we may think of ISIS, their forces appear to be keen to fight and willing to die in order to promote their cause.  The same cannot be said of the Iraqi Army.”

And yet, in the wake of the implosion of Iraq’s security forces, the United States — as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, its campaign against IS — began a new advisory and training effort to assist and re-rebuild Iraq’s army.  In June 2014, President Obama announced that up to 300 advisors would be sent to Iraq.  The size of the U.S. presence has increased steadily ever since to roughly 3,500. 

“As per policy we do not disclose specific numbers of troops and their roles,” Colonel Warren, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, explained to me.  He did, however, note that there are approximately 5,500 Coalition personnel from 17 partner nations including the United States conducting advise and assist missions and training at “Building Partner Capacity sites.” 

Despite the poor results of the prior training effort, even some of its critics are hopeful that the current mission may succeed.  “American advisors could have a positive effect,” Sepp, now a senior lecturer in defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me.  He explained that a pinpoint mission of training Iraqis to take back a particular city or defend a specific area stands a real chance of success.  Casey, his former boss, agreed but insisted that such success would not come easily or quickly.  “This is going to take a long time.  This is not a short-term thing.  People want to see ISIS defeated — whatever that means — quickly.  But it’s not going to be ‘quickly’ because the problems are political more than military and that’s going to take the Iraqis some time to come to grips with.”

Doomed to Repeat It?

History suggests that time is no panacea when Washington attempts to prop up, advise, or build armies.  In the early 1950s, the U.S. provided extensive support to the French military in Indochina — eventually footing nearly 80% of the cost of its war there — only to see that force defeated by a less advanced, less well-equipped Vietnamese army.  Not long after, the U.S. began an expensive process that continued into the mid-1970s of building, advising, equipping, and bankrolling the South Vietnamese military.  In those years, it ballooned into a million-man army, only to disintegrate two years after the U.S. ended its own long, unsuccessful combat effort in that country. 

“The assumption that we know how to create armies in other parts of the world is a pretty dubious proposition,” Andrew Bacevich, a veteran of that war, told me.  “Yes, Vietnam was a vivid demonstration of a failed project to build an effective army, but you don’t even have to cite Vietnam.  Iraq obviously is another case.  And more generally, the Pentagon exaggerates its ability to create effective fighting forces in parts of the developing world.” 

Indeed, recent U.S. training efforts around the globe have been marked by a string of scandals, setbacks, and failures.  Last year, for example, the Obama administration scrapped a $500 million program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian rebels.  It was supposed to yield 15,000 fighters over three years but instead produced only a few dozen.  Then there’s the 13-year, $65 billion effort in Afghanistan that has yielded a force whose rolls are filled with nonexistent “ghost” troops, wracked by desertions, and hobbled by increasing casualties.  It has been unable to defeat a small, unpopular, Taliban insurgency now growing in strength and reach. The short-term loss by U.S.-backed Afghan forces of the city of Kunduz late last year and recent Taliban gains in Helmand province have cast a bright light on this slow-motion fiasco.  

These efforts have hardly been anomalies. A U.S.-trained Congolese commando battalion was, for example, implicated by the United Nations in mass rapes and other atrocities.  One effort to train Libyan militiamen ended up stillborn; another saw militants repeatedly raid a U.S. training camp and loot it of high-tech equipment, including hundreds of weapons; and still another saw advisers run out of the country by a militia soon after touching down. Then there were the U.S.-trained officers who overthrew their governments in coups in Mali in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2014.  In fact, a December 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service noted:

“Recent events, particularly the battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban over K[u]nduz, the inability of [Department of Defense]-led efforts to produce more than a ‘handful’ of anti-Assad, anti-Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, and the collapse of U.S.-trained forces in Iraq in the face of the Islamic State, have called into question — including in the Congress — whether these [building partner capacity] programs can ever achieve their desired effects.”

Despite all of this, the Pentagon remains committed to creating another Iraqi Army in the American mold with, as Colonel Warren recently explained to me, “modern American equipment, modern conventional training, and of course, supported by air power.”  The U.S. has, he notes, already spent $2.3 billion arming and equipping this new force. 

Andrew Bacevich once again sees crucial flaws in the American plan.  “Our trainers, I suspect, are probably pretty good at imparting technical skills… I’m sure that they can teach them marksmanship, how to conduct a patrol, how to maintain their weapons, but I can’t imagine that we have much of a facility for imparting fighting spirit, sense of national unity, and that’s where Iraqi forces have been deficient. It’s this will versus skill thing.  We can convey skills.  I don’t think we can convey will.”

For his part, Secretary of Defense Carter seems singularly focused on the skills side of the equation. “ISIL’s lasting defeat still requires local forces to fight and prevail on the ground.  We can and will continue to develop and enable such local forces,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in June 2015.  “That’s why [the Department of Defense] seeks to bolster… Iraq’s security forces to be capable of winning back, and then defending and holding the ISIL-controlled portions of the Iraqi state.”  Last month, Carter assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was still “urging the Iraqi government to do more to recruit, train, arm, and mobilize Sunni popular mobilization fighters in their communities.”

This presumes, however, that there is a truly functioning Iraqi state in the first place.  Andrew Bacevich isn’t so sure.  “It may be time to admit that there is no Iraq.  We presume to be creating a national army that is willing to fight for the nation of Iraq, but I don’t think it’s self-evident that Iraq exists, except in the most nominal sense.  If that’s true, then further efforts — a second decade’s worth of efforts to build an Iraqi army — simply are not likely to pan out.” 

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      1. Skippy

        Next question is whom got the live ammo… if our team didn’t.

        Skippy…. really used to hate that…

  1. brian t

    OK, so now we know what’s not working, what do “we” do next? Just leave it? Then half the population of Iraq will join all those Syrians on the road to Europe. (It might look like a lifeboat at the moment, but you know what happens to an overloaded lifeboat.)

    No, I think we now have to consider a New Colonialism. Start somewhere coastal such as Basrah, take it over permanently, and rebuild it as a safe zone for the people of Iraq and any Westerners who can be persuaded to stay. Somewhere with some oil, preferably, since someone’s got to pay for it all. Defend it aggressively against all enemies, outside and inside, and ignore pseudo-liberals who think we’d be infringing on anyone’s “rights”. (You don’t like it? Leave, and see how much Daesh cares about your “rights”.)

    The “liberate and leave” policy hasn’t worked. Instead of telling the people of the Middle East what to do, then watching from a recon drone as they don’t do it, it’s my opinion that we need to show them what to do, in person, literally from the ground up. Lead by example, as it were: “this is how you do it”, and make no bones about the fact that we’re doing it because the locals are unable to do it for themselves. The “West” may be at least partly to blame for the situation in the Middle East today, but that should not stop us doing whatever is necessary to fix it.

    1. James Levy

      First, you are presupposing that “we’ know what we are doing and that the people who brought you the subprime crisis and the bailouts (not to mention Abu Graib) know what we are doing and can “set an example”. We have every resource imaginable in the USA and still have growing poverty and inequality, a crumbling infrastructure, and are about to be pounded by global warming. Second, where are the money and the cadres to carry out your plan going to come from? Third, if they don’t like it, how many of them are you going to torture and kill until they submit, and what happens if, like Vietnam, they have no intention of ever submitting? Genocide?

      Modern communications and ideology have made imperialism untenable. And neoliberalism has eroded the values that make nations stick together and stay the course of events. All these things (save Islam itself) were created in the West. We are as subject to their limitations as the people in Baghdad. To paraphrase Jesus, it’s pull the plank out of our eyes time, or none of this is going to matter because civilization itself is likely to be overwhelmed.

      1. brian t

        No idea why you would bring the financial markets in to this, since that was the actions of a tiny minority who don’t need to be involved in foreign policy. Financing? Oil. Abu Ghraib? Bad idea, don’t do it again. Your dismissal of the concept assumes we are doomed to repeat our mistakes, starting with giving those at fault the opportunities to make the same mistakes again. Is that all there is? No more “big picture” thinking, just a slide in to obscurity, hamstrung by collective guilt?

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          A diversion and an unconvincing one at that. He’s discussing the abject incompetence of what passes for leadership in the US. If we can’t handle our own comparatively simple domestic messes, which BTW have wrecked the productive economy needed to finance these foreign misadventures. what basis do you have for thinking we’ll do any better than we have over the last nearly 15 years, which is to create failed states? And the article further shows our military chooses to fall back on delusion when confronted with a problem that is difficult, and probably insurmountably so.

          1. Sluggeaux

            As Yves points out, it is the abject incompetence of American “leadership” which makes our magical belief in our military superiority delusional. I think that Nick Turse, by dint of being born after the fall of Saigon, brings a fresh perspective here. One important thing missed in most discussion of this topic is the importance of Lambert’s Second Rule of Neoliberalism: “Go Die!”

            Turse mentions the absolutely critical role of prisons such as Abu Graib and Camp Bucca in the formation of resistance movements to the grossly incompetent “Coalition Provisional Authority”-style occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Trace the lives of the perpetrators of the Paris murder-attacks of 2015, and you will also find that they all lead to the vast prison at Fleury-Mérogis south of Paris, and the desolate communities in its shadow.

            I can testify from personal experience (not as an inmate) that the Neoliberal vision of prisons as sewers down which to flush inconvenient human beings is a recipe for violent resistance movements. Prisons and detention centers have always been at the center of the Neoliberal occupations, and they are as much a component of our failure as is the military impossibility of sorting out the “skill versus will” equation.

    2. washunate

      Yes, we leave. US policy is responsible for displacing millions of Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, and others. The absolute very best obvious no brainer thing we could do is stop causing such displacement. We don’t need a new colonialism. We need a renewed respect for national sovereignty and human rights.

      The first rule of holes, as ever, is stop digging.

  2. TomDority

    I seem to recall congressional testimony by resigned generals that outlined the failures. I believe they resigned because they could better serve their troops by testifying and working to highlight the cluster fu** that was the Iraq war and how those running it (Bush and Co., in my view…criminals) completely ignored centcom study, advice and warnings. Appears no mention in above article… if what is said above is anything new.

    1. James Levy

      It can’t be repeated too often or with too much of the ancillary evidence. And it goes beyond Bush and his criminal cronies, for sure. it is an indictment of how America does things–arrogantly, brutally, and ineptly. Obama is no different. Clinton was no different. Nixon was no different. Johnson was no different. We beat the Germans and assumed that we were 10 feet tall and knew it all. We still do. Our money, technology, firepower, and the distance of the war zones has deluded us into staying with the same faulty game plan since Korea. It never gets rethought because we are smarter and better than everyone else (in out own minds) and this image must be buttressed at all costs. We cling to it like a national psychic life raft. You need look no further than Hilary and the Republican candidates to validate my case. How much Bernie needs and buys into it we will find out anon.

      1. SufferinSuccotash

        “We beat the Germans”.
        Fallacious thinking begins with a false premise. “We” most certainly did not beat the Germans in WW2; we, the Russians and the British together beat the Germans and it required an enormous effort all the same. A better case can be made for the war against Japan, but even there the US wasn’t going it alone by any means. In fact, the US hasn’t fought and won any significant war in its history without help from allies, except for the ones with a bankrupt and chaotic Mexico in the 1840s and a decrepit Spanish Empire in the 1890s.
        What’s it going to take to cure the US of this delusional arrogance about its military prowess?

        1. fresno dan

          Agree 100%
          “What’s it going to take to cure the US of this delusional arrogance about its military prowess?”

          Unfortunately, one of the worse things for the TRUE well being of this country that Saddam Hussein did was run the first gulf war so ineptly – and the US media, which loves VIDEO, was willing to unleash full propaganda/market forces to essentially be the great advertising agency for the US military/foreign policy industrial complex. And than the dems start saying we’re the “indispensable nation” and you have hubris raised a trillion fold.

          It wasn’t all that long after Kennedy said we would bear any burden that we decided that we were in fact not going to bear any burden.

          And it wasn’t all that long after we had ground troops in the 2nd Iraq war that Americans got pretty tired of mid-east involvement.
          I think “Lindsey boots on the ground Graham” demonstrates that America caterwauls loudly but carries a small stick.
          We’ve had ever more droning – how’s that working out???

          It is interesting that for all the strum and drang, our two parties are in lock step on the issues of enriching the wealthy, impoverishing the poor, and endless war, with the candidates vetted and approved by Goldman Sachs. But the fact that the last few cycles has only given the electorate ersatz choices appears to be coming to an end.
          A republican who says Iraq was a mistake?!!??
          A democrat who is a socialist??!!!
          I think we will still end up with an establishment president this time (but who knows? what if there is a serious recession????). But its been 50 years of stagnation and falling behind for most people – the fact that Sanders and Trump are as successful as they are is an omen.

        2. James Levy

          In general, I agree that the Allies beat the Germans, but the US soldier very often held his own against the Germans and bested them on significant occasions. I must point out however that among professional military historians the idea that the German Army was superior to the US Army unit for unit (which I believe was true) has been denounced (they’d say discredited, but then again they are wildly biased in my opinion). All you have to do is see the public and professional adulation heaped on Rick Atkinson’s trilogy or Band of Brothers (which are really hagiography masked as history) to see the state of the debate among historians.

          1. Banana Breakfast

            There’s really no basis to say, because by the time of the Normandy landings the Germans were 1) for all intents and purposes already beaten by the Soviets, and the Western Allies just sped up the process and kept all of Germany and France from becoming Soviet style command economies, and 2) the US was in such a superior position logistically, with incomparably more manpower, industrial capacity, and natural resources, that there were only a handful of “unit for unit” engagements.

        3. Bill Michtom

          While the Vietnam Syndrome has been defined as

          the public aversion to American overseas military involvements, following the domestic controversy over the Vietnam War–Wikipedia

          what we have been seeing for the last 60 years or so is the real Vietnam Syndrome:

          invading a country for no useful reason, slaughtering up to millions of innocent human beings, spending hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars, all to support the bottom line of the Miliary-Industrial Complex and satisfy the twisted egos of the small-penis brigade that runs the military.

        4. Chris

          Corrrect , ” we ” ( Americans ) did not beat the Germans ! Australians volunteers beat back the Japanese on the Kokoda trail half starved, sick men, suffering dysentry, malaria, poorly trained and under equipped took on a much larger disciplined experienced force and held them back, same for the Australian division holding Tobruk and defending Greece and also Crete. The Brits and Australians and Kiwis were fighting the Germans and the Japs years before Americans were. Go look up WW2 history, my own father and uncles were fighting in spitfires and on the beaches of Dunkirk.

      2. geoff

        Worse, the Soviets beat the Germans and we (Americans) took the credit. The U.S. Army has not decisively won a war since 1865, and they kind of lost the peace on that one, too.

        1. SufferinSuccotash

          Tnx for the reminder about the Civil War. When I said “significant war” I meant “significant foreign war”. Needless to say, skirmishes with Native Americans and banana republic interventions don’t count as “significant”, though if you read some accounts of Custer’s Last Stand you’d think the battle was bigger than Austerlitz and Cannae combined.

        2. vlade

          nope. with uk out of of war in 1940, Germany would dominate Europe, Med and middle east, effectively making it impossible for economic blocade. Germany as is was starved of resources, and hd to win quickly – it simply didn’t have resources and capacity to fight a prolonged war (see say Wages of Destruction).

          Lend lease also played a major role, and it’s a massive quesiton what would happen w/o it. More than 60% of trucks, 75% of rolling stocks, 50% of rail, 40% of airplane fule, over a third of all explosives, iir most wireless and wired phones, over 4million tons of fuel etc. etc was deliverd, and w/o it, red army would suffer. either with lack of equipment or lack of manpower, either of which could be fatal to it – especially if uk was out of war and germany controlled europe.

          it’s possible us could have won war on its own (with germany controlling europe and and all of european Russia), but tht would be only if they got nukes and the ability to deliver (reltivelty uncontestd, which is doubtful if germany controls all of europe) them before germany did.

          so in other words, it was combined allied effort tht won ww2, and it’s entirely possible that it would fail without contribution of almost any of them (counterfactual – commonwealth is out of war = uk doesn’t have forces to defend north africa, germany takes suez and middle east)

          1. washunate

            Not sure you guys disagree? I agree it was a combined allied effort. Mostly, it combined the production capacity of North America with the armies of Europe. The US Army wasn’t involved in Europe until well after 1940.

  3. James Levy

    You can get people to fight long and hard if they have a professional ethos and will work for their pay or if they are deeply motivated by patriotism, ideology, or religion. The current government in Baghdad provides no context for creating such attitudes. In fact, such attitudes are hard to find outside of the religious zealots of Islam or the confines of old, established nation-states like Russia or cultural zones like India. Good armies these days are, simply, hard to find. It is doubtful in my mind that the US Army today is as good as the one that fought in Vietnam up through 1968; it certainly isn’t as good as the one that won WWII. It just has a lot more firepower (which itself seems to rob the soldiers of initiative and drive).

    American tactics today are pretty simple: go out, find the enemy, and then call in artillery, airstrikes, and attack helicopters to wipe them out. Works OK if the other side is dumb enough to play ball and you have undisputed command of the air. These are not the tactics you want to teach a nascent army. You want them to learn aggressive infiltration tactics built on speed and surprise. These countries will never have the money or the trained cadres to operate, maintain, and supply all the high tech firepower aids the US soldier takes for granted. They need to foster excellent infantry that looks to the guys next to them and not up in the sky or back to the rear for courage and inspiration. It’s a daunting task and the Americans neither understand it or have the patience to inculcate it.

    1. fajensen

      All the Americans needed to do after Saddam was to buy the Iraqi officers. But, that would have been too easy and probably would only cost a billion US or so, which is not a lot of pork to stateside stakeholders, especially since the Iraqis already had the guns and equipment suitable for the job in hand.

      I think it desired to build complex and technological armies that are totally dependent on the American logistics chain right up to AWACS and air support – that way they can be “turned off” if the client state begins to get ideas and there is megabucks to be made by defense contractors and cronies in the meantime.

    2. fresno dan

      Good points.
      Everything I read about the Iraq surge is that it was essentially a bribery operation – as long as the money was flowing, and plenty of it, it worked. Problem is that people can say anything for money, and those motivated by money are typically the kind who are NOT willing to die for a cause and will trade sides when they are paid/threatened by your opponents.

      I also think that what US ground troops thought of the locals in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq – the fear and loathing of the indigenous people when you can’t distinguish between who is an insurgent versus someone who “supports” US forces leads in short order to the majority of people in the country we seek to “liberate” being actively hostile to US troops in short order. And as you mentioned, all this indiscriminate bombing to save Americans leads to a lot of “collateral” damage, i.e., the people we are ostensibly there to save.
      I read once that only about 30% of Americans were for the US revolution, 30% opposed, and the remainder unaffiliated. I would imagine that the majority of Iraqis, and maybe the vast majority, do not particularly support US troops in their country. It seemed to me US troops did not make the average Iraqi safer. I think most Iraqis came to believe, logically, that we were not there to make Iraqi lives better, but for our own purposes… I find it hard to believe that Iraqis will want to try this again.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        The opposition number also included those who were wary of war, but like anything, the headline number was as important as what young people were doing. In 1775, half the population of the colonies was under 18 and largely not English. They had no nostalgia for the Parliament in London or a German king, and half the population of Iraq in 2003 was under 18 and not American. They definitely had no nostalgia for the U.S.

        Violent or kinetic separation was always going to happen.

  4. TomDority

    Tactics are only needed if one has a mission, goal or purpose….. war, what is it good for…..absolutely nothing.
    Terrorism….. who creates the definition? It is not a tangible to fight against…it is a tactic.

  5. Ignim Brites

    The critique of the original decision to invade Iraq was that it was a war of choice. This is an oblique way of saying that it was unjust. But what is the justice of Obama’s wars of choice against ISIS and the Taliban and the remnants of Al Queda? Not hearing any ideas about that from Bernie Sanders or any candidate for that matter.

    1. fresno dan

      We have pretend choices. We still have this idea that the worse thing in the world is isolationism.
      Until we really suffer, we will keep fooling around, despite the overwhelming evidence that our involvement makes things worse.
      At least their is a crack in the facade with Sanders and Trump. I think if will take another cycle until people come to realize that the important issues of the economy and war are not being run logically or rationally.

  6. TedWa

    Not exactly about Iraq but about our involvement over there – The basic problem is the leaders should never ask only the military if we need war or not. Of course they’re always going to say yes. If you’re going to ask the military if war is needed, then you have to listen to all input.

    “The Sacked : Karl Eikenberry: Commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan before he was made ambassador, Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, had seniority over both Petraeus and then war commander General Stanley McChrystal when it came to experience in that country and theater of war. He was the author of cables to the State Department in late 2009, which carried a stinging rebuke to the conduct of the war and unconcealed hostility toward any new policy of escalation. The Eikenberry cables were drafted in order to influence the White House review that fall; they advised that the Afghanistan war was in the process of being lost, that it could never be won, and that nothing good would come from an increased commitment of US troops.

    Petraeus, then Centcom commander, and McChrystal were both disturbed by the cables—startled when they arrived unbidden and intimidated by their authority. Obama, astonishingly, chose to ignore them. This may be the single most baffling occasion of the many when fate dealt a winning card to the president and yet he folded. Among other such occasions: the 2008–09 bank bailouts and the opening for financial regulation; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the opportunity for a revised environmental policy; the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns and a revised policy toward nuclear energy; the Goldstone Report and the chance for an end to the Gaza blockade. But of all these as well as other cases that might be mentioned, the Eikenberry cables offer the clearest instance of persisting in a discredited policy against the weight of impressive evidence.”

    1. tegnost

      one quibble with your comment
      “The basic problem is the leaders should never ask only the {bankers} if we need war or not”.
      Remember General Shinseki

    2. fresno dan

      “; they advised that the Afghanistan war was in the process of being lost, that it could never be won, and that nothing good would come from an increased commitment of US troops.”

      It goes beyond dems and repubs – there is a …dare I say it? “deep state” or an American ideology that we just have to be involved. Part of this is the inability – just flat out mental defect that prevents the clear acknowledgement of reality. Self deception. We can’t admit it was a bad idea to begin with, AND that it can’t be fixed. We can’t admit that we LOST. We can’t admit the best thing to do is run away. Its like “Peace with Honor” all over again…
      Our Best and the Brightest simply cannot come to terms with the idea that the most powerful (or so we incessantly yammer) nation on earth can’t defeat…a few thousand…. tens of thousands? A hundred thousand? fighters with essentially only rifles. Out satellites, our nuclear missiles, our warships, and multi million dollar aircraft….does nothing to impose our will on these people.

      We have LOST in Afghanistan and Iraq. We were able to own up to it in Vietnam fairly quickly, but with our volunteer force and drones we can be over there for …well, decades.

      1. James Levy

        From what I learned in PoliSci the evidence is that discordant information that threatens the cohesion of the group (in this case, the group that controls US foreign policy, which is a small one) is immediately discounted. The quality of the information does not matter. If the information threatens the stability of the community, it is banished. Solidarity trumps reason. Obama would have to have gone out on a limb and set off a firestorm within his little circle of advisors if he listened to Eikenberry. George Ball tried the same thing with Johnson in Vietnam, and everyone closed ranks against him, and anyone who brought up his points from that point forward was frozen out.

        To his credit, and I dislike the man, Kennedy stood firm against ALL of his advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis and risked a revolt of the generals and most of his NSC over his handling of the situation. Almost all of them were for air strikes and an invasion. Kennedy held out for the blockade and diplomacy. Such courage hasn’t been seen in the White House since.

        1. TheCatSaid

          You imply that the decision was Obama’s. I don’t think that’s the case.

          Obama has had to take orders from others since he was elected his election was bought by a group of shareholders.

          “Apostles of Power” spells it out.

        2. Synoia

          discordant information that threatens the cohesion of the group…is immediately discounted.

          Ah. Denial? What a surprise. Typically coupled with an Authoritarian behavior and inability to think laterally.

    3. TheCatSaid

      How did those cables come to light? Are the published in the book you mention, or were they released sooner?

      1. Felix_47

        In the New York Times and addressed to Ms. Clinton……..who is and was incompetent to really understand them……given her long record of military service……and her experience as a law student……

  7. Synoia

    In Iraq, what is the cause in which a young Iraqi male has to believe in, so that he is ready die for it?

    No cause – no effective army.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      The U.S. army and the British army before it could function a certain way because the soldiers were never actually concerned foreign armies would be rampaging through their homes while they achieve a “strategic objective.” At least not in a long time.

      As far as the Iraqi government goes, it’s still the imperial approved government.

    2. Felix_47

      Hitting on German girls on the Reeperbahn…….Read the Original Sin: the sexual motivation of religious extremists written by Janet L Factor referred to on this blog………

  8. washunate

    There’s good news coming out of Iraq… again. The efforts of a 65-nation coalition and punishing U.S. airstrikes have helped local ground forces roll back gains by the Islamic State (IS).

    I’m not sure what the author is getting at here? The ‘failure’ in Iraq is not that Iraq has splintered along sectarian lines (Kurds, IS, Shiittes). That outcome was broadly desired by the Anglo-American authoritarians (think Joe Biden directly referring to dividing Iraq into three different regions).

    Rather, the failure from the standpoint of the American empire is that Russia, Iran, and China haven’t folded the way they were supposed to in eastern Europe and the near East (with an assist in the chaos from the more wild card nature of what exactly Turkey is doing, since Turkey is culturally much less western than Russia yet militarily is aligned with NATO while Russia is NATO’s primary target).

    US airstikes aren’t rolling back IS. Russian and Iranian support for the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq is doing that. IS is a loosely NATO aligned faction, not an independent third party in conflict with NATO.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Huh? Iraq has the second biggest oil reserves in the world, and it’s the good stuff, light, sweet crude, which the US consumes heavily to run our cars. You can’t develop oil in a war-torn country. Stabilizing Iraq was a necessary condition for developing its oil.

      1. washunate

        Stabilizing a decentralized, weakened Iraq split along sectarian lines. First the US has to break the idea of a strong, centralized Iraq before the preferred model can be instituted. This is the actual failure: splitting the country up into stable regions of Kurdistan, Arab Sunni, and Arab Shia was actually much more difficult than the Anglo-Americans thought. It’s a delicious historical irony when one is in the right mood to enjoy it; just as a century ago we thought it was easy to draw lines on a map, so too today we thought it would be easy to change those lines.


        Iraq was (relatively within the region) one of the most secularized, integrated, cohesive, “modern” states in the near east a few decades ago, from transportation infrastructure to education to family life to the workplace. People of different sects, faith backgrounds, and ethnicity could marry, live together, work together, and so forth, especially in the major historic and cultural melting pot centers like Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul.

        Once Saddam was no longer useful in the Iran-Iraq war, destabilizing that sense of national identity in favor of sectarian strife was a fundamental effort of US foreign policy over the subsequent quarter century or so. I agree oil is a major factor in the Fertile Crescent/Axis of Evil/Grand Game/Whatever. National identity is one of the major barriers preventing the American authoritarians from moving in for the oil (and not just in Iraq; look at Libya and Syria, and Venezuela too, for other examples of US meddling for reasons based at least partially on fossil fuels and the international monetary system.).

        Here’s the establishment mouthpiece NYT itself. Biden even uses the term Third Way. Gotta love that guy, one of the best warmongers of our time. And Gelb has kept a lower public profile, but his ten years as President of the Council on Foreign Relations speaks for itself. I have a soft spot for CYA attempts by officials and intellectuals to blame everything on Bush even as they all supported the war effort when it counted. Indeed, it was the Democrats and the Serious People who were most critical in supporting sanctions in the 1990s and attacking anti-war perspectives in the early 2000s.

  9. Oneaboveall

    You know, for all the talk about the cowardice of the Iraqi army, there might be a point to their actions. If they believe that the Shiite-led government doesn’t represent them and shafts the Sunnis, why should they fight fellow Sunnis on the Shiites’ governments behalf? This sounds like rational self-interest to me.

    For some reason, I’m reminded about the US gov’s crackdown on OWS. For the life of me, I can’t understand how law enforcement and the military in this country is willing to do everything (indeed, anything) on behalf of an oligarchy that cares nothing for them, acts only in its own interest, leaves them to twist in the wind as soon as they are done with them, and robs them only slightly less than the rest of the sheep. Why haven’t they pulled an Iraqi army and said “&%$# this @#%$” ?

  10. George Phillies

    “…French military in Indochina — eventually footing nearly 80% of the cost of its war there — only to see that force defeated by a less advanced, less well-equipped Vietnamese army….”

    That’s historically imprecise. At the key battle — Dien Bien Phu — General Giap had substantial artillery superiority; his weapons were heavier and outranged the French.

    1. Pespi

      To build an effective army, first you need to desire an effective army as the outcome of your spending. I would argue that this was not the case. The army was built to fail, in away that would justify further US military presence.

      1. Pespi

        Oops, didn’t mean to reply with that comment. Was just going to say that there are a lot of general misconceptions about the french war in indochina. The majority of their troops weren’t from the metropole, they were north africans, indochinese, and foreign legionnaires.

        It was a weak colonial army, that should have stayed home, against stout homegrown resistance.

  11. H. Alexander Ivey

    Quite right. Clearly, since they won, the North Vietnamese had superior, not inferior, military hardware.

    Militarian historians have a hard time resisting the underdog approach of telling history. They too often start from a “who should have won” moral point of view and reverse engineer out why they didn’t win, instead of grasping the entirety of a war and explaining why “they” lost due to the factors stated by Clauswitz.

  12. john

    Name one successful US intervention (overt/cover)
    And sadly this will continue until other nations develop the intellectual maturity
    and gumption to laugh at the US

  13. Paul Greenwood

    How long did the Army of South Vietnam take to collapse ? How long will the Afghan Army take ?

    How long would the IDF last without US supplies ?

    How long did the British Army last in Helmand ? In Basra ?

  14. Felix_47

    We have succeeded in destroying Germany with this Syraquistan crap. Having spent two years in AFG and IRQ on the ground I can say that it was obvious that all the sex starved poor young men (only the rich get a lot of sex because they have multiple wives) wanted to get out and go to Europe even then. We simply opened the door. And ISIS? It is about sex and sexual domination and no more…….just as the Koran is when read literally.

  15. Justicia

    If the purpose of a system is what it does (not what is said about what it does) then the outcomes of our foreign military adventures suggest that the purpose of the US war machine is not “victory” as such, but the feeding of defense contractors and jobs for the “volunteer” army.

    Add in the possibility that our policy objective is permanent instability in the Axis of Oil to justify a US military presence there, then the logic of failure as “success” becomes apparent.

  16. Andrey Subbotin

    Funny how that long aticle does not mention the most basic thing

    The army of occupied Iraq was an army of quislings, hired by occupiers to keep their countrymen down. It maybe was good for shaking down people at checkpoints, but of course its soldiers were not willing to die for their country, if they were they would be shooting at americans, not taking their money.

    No amount of training would change that.

  17. Aussie

    the good old ISF ? yea right !……riddled with shia and sunni hatreds going back hundreds of years, local tribes and allies, corrpution, the koran as the basis for civil, political and religious life over there and then a ” western ” style of training and leadership imposed upon people who will NOT ever think western ?, this is a joke and corruption of the worst kind, so some with American ideas want to impose pax Americana on the middle east ? go right ahead ! its been what 10 plus years so far ? and how many billions wasted ?.

    The Russians were the ONLY ones destroying crude oil trucks going to Turkey before the buffoons who run the US Military started doing their bit, the so called Allies ( Americans, Australians, British, French ) Air forces with all that firepower achieved what in months and months of air bombing of IS ? zilch, zippo, nada.

    All for public consumption for a pliable lap dog media and dumbed down public.

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