It's still not clear where the 750 US troops now deployed to Iraq are going to be, or what they're going to be doing. On Tuesday, however, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that one of their most important tasks will be to assess whether Iraq's military and police are up to protecting their territory and/or taking back the parts of the country overrun by hardline Sunni militants.
Dempsey explained that some of the troops are there to man a joint operations center with Iraqi security forces to give a better picture of how the situation is evolving. Others, he added, will visit Iraqi units to help decide what possible actions the US could take if the situation worsened and it needed to step up assistance and protect a government it lost almost 4,500 lives and spent over $800 billion to install.
"Will they hold? What's their makeup? Are they still a force that represents all Iraqis?" Dempsey asked. "When we have that assessment in hand… we'll make some decisions about whether there's other kinds of support that we can provide."
Yet, the answers to Dempsey's questions are not immediately obvious.
On paper, at least, the Iraqi military looks strong. It benefited from a $25-billion US training and equipment program after Saddam Hussein was removed from power, and according to a Global Firepower (GFP) index last updated in March Iraq had 271,500 active frontline personnel and 528,500 active reserve personnel. It also had 357 tanks, including a number of US M1A1s and Russian T-72s, alongside thousands of other armored vehicles. Its air power is less formidable, GFP said, with three fixed-wing attack aircraft, four attack helicopters, and a larger number of transport aircraft, although that has now been boosted by the supply of Russian jets.
There are obviously, however, some serious problems at play. When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran Iraq's second biggest city of Mosul, it routed an Iraqi army force of around 30,000 with less than a thousand gunmen. The fall of Mosul's seemingly formidable defenses came as a shock to many observers, particularly as it came at the hands of such a small force.
Around 60 of 243 Iraqi army combat battalions cannot now be accounted for and have lost all of their equipment, Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow with the Washington Institute, estimated at a recent policy forum.
The Shiite-led government may not be seen as something worth fighting for Sunni recruits, particularly in a fight against Sunni militants.
Colonel Mahmoud Ahmed Hussein, who heads the Kurdish peshmerga fighters on the front between Erbil and Mosul, previously told VICE News that there were serious and inherent problems with the Iraqi troops. “ISIS is not that powerful, the weakness is the Iraqi army… which couldn’t fight for more than an hour before they left and they even left their weapons,” he said.
So why is the Iraqi army so woeful? Soldiers who had left their posts in Mosul said their commanders betrayed them, absconding before the ISIS attack had even begun. However there are likely other, broader factors too, not least of which may be interference from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Since he came to power, analysts say, Maliki has replaced experienced military leaders with cronies and fellow Shiites. During a discussion in May 2012, Dr Toby Dodge, International Institute for Strategic Studies Senior Consulting Fellow, said that the PM had been appointing loyalists to protect himself from a military coup. "From 2007 he focused on the military, undermining the chain of command by expanding and taking control of the office of the commander in chief. He appointed a loyal general to oversee the ‘operations centers’ that coordinated security in troubled provinces,” he said.
According to Dodge, Maliki also established and controlled a separate body of elite US-trained troops: “This in essence created a praetorian guard."
This likely protected Maliki but left the rest of the country vulnerable. It also led to an increasingly sectarian, rather than united army. The Shiite-led government may not be seen as something worth fighting for Sunni recruits, particularly in a fight against Sunni militants.
Politicization and sectarianism of the military has been compounded by corruption. It was already a major issue at the time of Hussein's ouster, but has worsened significantly since then, analysts say, and promotions and appointments are regularly bought rather than earned, leading to corrupt officers in charge.
In turn, this leads to under-manned, under-equipped units and deteriorating relationships with local civilians. A Crisis Group interview conducted in 2010 with a US officer who had served on an advisory team was damning. “Cronyism, bribery, kick-backs, extortion, and even the threat and use of physical intimidation and violence within the [Iraqi security forces] is commonplace and is getting worse,” the officer said. "Falsification of patrol reports, theft of government supplies for sale on the black market, and imprisonment of anyone who stands up to such crimes essentially crushes individual initiative and any desire to do the right thing.”
However, Knights, who has spent time embedded with a number of Iraqi army units, told VICE News that after the humiliating defeats in Mosul and the surrounding area, the Iraqi army looks stronger and is beginning to fight back. "They've shifted back into counter-attack and they want to be on the offensive," he said, adding that when there was still an international presence on the ground before US withdrawal, American or British leadership would often give Iraqi troops the guidance they needed to "live up to their own ambitions."
As a result, Knights said, US advisors, if deployed on a local enough level, could make a real difference in the Iraqi army's attempts to take back the country. Air support, which is still an assistance option for the US, could make even more of one, thanks to the morale-boosting effect it tends to have. "It's good for Iraqi security forces morale to see fast air units [jets as opposed to helicopters] plaster the enemy. When you're thinking of going into a set of palm groves or onto a ridge and see the area get smacked with cluster bombs, it is very helpful."
That would also reduce the insurgents' ease of operations, especially in open areas where convoys and the like will be highly obvious. This could help solve a problem that the Iraqi military has had since the US left, Knights says. "They [the Iraqi military] can find and fix [or pin down] the enemy, but they haven't had air assets to get there fast enough and hit the enemy where they are being fixed."
Now, he adds — thanks to the Russia-supplied jets and any additional help from the US — this will be less of a problem and may help turn the tide. "We'll see enemy leadership targets go down and desert encampment stuff start to get hit, which will be very negative for ISIS."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck