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The Iraqi Military’s Downward Spiral

The best article on Afghanistan that I have read recently is an article about Iraq. Specifically, this article in the Wall Street Journal on the travails of the Iraqi military in facing an insurgency spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq is now called). 

The “nut” graph: “More than two years after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, as the country prepares for its first post-occupation parliamentary elections on Wednesday, its demoralized, underequipped military is losing the fight against Islamist militants, who are better armed, better trained, and better motivated, according to Iraqi and American generals, politicians and analysts.”

Further down, reporters Matt Bradley and Ali Nabhan expand on some of the Iraqi security forces’ problems. They write:

Even the most basic maneuvers can stymie the Iraqi military. Regional commanders who lack basic knowledge of military logistics often are clumsy when transporting food for soldiers on the move, leaving many enlistees to scrounge for themselves or go hungry, say officers and observers. 

Without meals, some soldiers simply leave. Though there are no official statistics, military personnel cite desertion as a persistent and growing problem, particularly for troops deployed in Anbar and other areas to the north where ISIS is active.

This is dismaying considering how much time and effort the United States spent in standing up the Iraqi security forces. By the time that U.S. troops pulled out at the end of 2011, the Iraqi security forces numbered more than 600,000 and appeared, at least on paper, to be more than capable of safeguarding their country.

Appearances, it turned out, were illusory. The Iraqi troops are perfectly capable of fighting if well-supplied, -supported, and -led. But supplying them–much less planning their operations and providing the kind of integrated intelligence and fire support they need–is beyond the rudimentary abilities of the Iraqi military. U.S. advisers filled in the gaps, but now they are gone and Iraq is spiraling downward.

This is a warning of what could happen in Afghanistan. As I learned on a visit to Kabul and Kandahar last week, the Afghan Security Forces, which now number 370,000 (counting the local police), are more capable than ever. They can take the fight to the Taliban but they lack the ability to execute their own logistics, planning, budgeting, intelligence, and other important tasks. Those gaps are currently being filled by American advisers, but no one knows what will happen after this year. 

Both the leading candidates for president–Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani–have pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Accord, which would allow U.S. forces to remain. But it is far from clear how many troops we are willing to leave behind. U.S. commanders want at least 10,000, but the White House is leaking figures of 5,000 or fewer. 

As I note in the Wall Street Journal today, it would be disastrous to leave fewer than 10,000 behind. However solid the Afghan National Security Forces look today, coming off their safeguarding of the first round of presidential balloting, the experience of Iraq shows how quickly even a much bigger army can crumble if American support is withdrawn.


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