Despite Iraqi Army having the most modern US equipment as well as large numerical advantage, it has performed badly against Islamist fighters of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, also called ISIL). Before going into how and why, a little history is needed.
ISIS has first appeared on scene after the US invasion of Iraqi in 2003. It was taking actions to broaden the scope of Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq by targeting Shiites, and it has been trying to take over Shiite territory for far longer. Since US troops withdrew in 2011, ISIS has focused its attack on government targets.
ISIS itself has been greatly helped by US neoliberal policies established after 2003 – a process of “de-Baathification”, which essentially disbanded the Iraqi military while not providing any new jobs for dismissed soldiers, as well as dismantling the social state present while providing nothing in exchange. These soldiers – who were now out of job and angry at the new regime – formed the core of the initial insurgency, and now form the core of ISIS. Al Quaeda, which arrived in Iraq after the US overthrew Saddam’s regime in 2003 (radical groups were not present in Iraq before US invasion), was disbanded after Sunni populace turned against it in 2006-2008. But Maliki government’s sectarian policies infuriated Sunnis and helped ISIS’ formation. In 2011 ISIS successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government, and on February 3rd, 2014, Al-Quaeda has renounced ISIS as “too extreme” after ISIS disobeyed a direct order from Al-Quaeda leader to reduce a number of civillian casualties.
Large amount of funding for ISIS has been coming – at least until relatively recently – from Saudi Arabia, a US ally. United States have also provided a large number of weapons to rebels fighting Syrian governmental forces; most of these weapons have found their way into hands of ISIS fighters, as ISIS was (and is) the largest and most competent group opposing Al Assad.
ISIS’ advance across Iraq and Syria has been extraordinarily fast. This despite the fact that it does not posses much in terms of military hardware, and is heavily outnumbered by its opponents (Iraqi Army has 1 million men, compared to ISIS having 100.000 at most – and possibly far less, maybe as little as 20.000 – in both Iraq and Sirya). In comparision, United States have spent 25 billion USD on training and equipping the Iraqi military. So far, however, ISIS has mostly managed to take over areas in north of Iraq, where Sunnis are a majority. These maps clearly show the situation. ISIS also only acquired some heavy weaponry recently, when Iraqi military abandoned a number of tanks and helicopters while escaping Mosul.
ISIS is actually using maneuver warfare, thus acchieving far greater effective presence than simple numerical comparision would indicate, as following quote shows: “They’re like ghosts: they appear, strike and disappear in seconds.”. Its opponents however seem to be primarly relying on World War I style static warfare. It also has secure rear areas in Sirya and Iraq, one of the most important factors in determining success of any insurgency. Iraqi government is doing nothing to adress these issues, instead concentrating elite units around Baghdad.
This is a repeat of Coalition war against Iraq in 2003 – poorly motivated Iraqi military units massively surrendered to Coalition military, and in some cases to journalists. Others tried to run, and only very few were willing to fight. Those that did fight were utterly outmatched, and not because of the technological disparity. Leadership was also incompetent, and most Iraqi units never even engaged the Coalition forces as excessive centralization meant that orders never reached them in time, or weren’t given. Between June 10 and June 13, 2014, at least, ISIS advanced as quickly against Iraqi government forces as US military did against Saddam’s forces in 2003 invasion, capturing two towns north of Baghdad on June 13. (This is also a deathknell to any claims that it was US hardware superiority that decided the success and outcome of 2003 invasion).
Core reasons that were responsible for Coalition’s success against Iraqi military are also responsible for ISIS’ success against the same: ISIS’ fighters are motivated to fight, while Iraqi military is, as always, low on morale – nothing more than a shiny rabble. In fact, it is possible that Iraqi military (or some of its elements) might even be cutting deals with ISIS. Mosul fell quickly because Iraqi Army units defending it surrendered. Four generals were sacked for dereliction of duty; however, in a properly motivated and trained military, most weight is at low-level commanders, meaning that they can continue to fight even if top brass is completely eliminated. In the end, two Iraqi divisions – numbering 30.000 troops – were defeated by 800 Islamic fighters. They didn’t fight, but simply turned tail and ran, leaving all equipment to militants. At the same time, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been relatively successful in fighting the ISIS, despite not being nearly as well equipped as the Iraqi military.
Aside from structural weakness of Iraqi state itself, poor motivation of the Iraqi military and ISIS’ own motivation, there are other reasons for ISIS’ success. ISIS seems to be following Mainstein, Guderian and Boyd in their approach to war. It approaches war primarily on the moral level, with strategic/tactical level of war being based around the maneuver warfare. As this post shows, ISIS uses local numerical advantage to punch through the defense lines, then spread across the rear areas and wreak havoc.
Main ISIS’ advantage however is most likely social instead of military or organizational. It is an (until recently relatively small) group with strong social feeling, which contrasts with its opponents who tend to be more individualized. Iraq in particular is highly fractured with no national feeling. Shia and Kurdish militias, with their far stronger sense of purpose and national identity, fare better against ISIS than Iraqi state military, which is regularly defeated by ISIS.
Should NATO put boots on the ground in Iraq in order to fight ISIS? Yes and no. While wars cannot be won without having boots on the ground, and strategic bombardment actually has little to no strategic benefit, rushing in would be counterproductive – any civilian casualties would serve to bolster ISIS, and ISIS could claim that it is fighting a Jihad against Western Crusaders. Only effect that air strikes carried out by NATO so far had was an increase in ISIS recruitment rate, but NATO countries should also not take over fighting; main responsibility should be placed on the legitimate Iraqi government and Kurds, with NATO only taking up a support role (logistic, advisory and training role). United States lost the war in Vietnam the moment US regular troops were sent there – presence of foreign troops definetly did not endear Saigon regime to the populace. In Spain, Spanish peasantry raised against French rule – not because it was opressive (in fact, it gave peasants land and freedoms they never had before), but because it was not Spanish.
ISIS understands all that, and seems to want to draw West into the ground conflict. To that end, it is carrying out executions of Western journalists and reporters. Reason for that is that ISIS can draw on tribal allegiances, as well as a fear of West, to bolster their ranks. Directly fighting a number of great powers (plus possibly the only world’s superpower) can also serve to bolster ISIS ranks by showing it as a credible threat. Such an effect is already happening (albeit on a far smaller scale) with ISIS successfuly capturing a number of Iraq’s cities, which in turn brings in money, hardware and manpower.
That being said, Iraqi military clearly needs help, so Western militaries could provide training, intelligence, engineering and logistics support, plus possibly limited combat role (special ops). But only US interest seems to be in defending the Kurdistan region, where US oil firms – Exxon Mobil, Chevron etc. – have major investments. Same help should be provided to the Kurdish Peshmerga as well as Syrian regular army – while too strong to be defeated by insurgents, Syrian army is also too weak to defeat them. But Assad won’t yield, and is far better option than ISIS is. Peshmerga are an effective fighting force, and Saddam had to negotiate with them, while Iraqi regular army might become an effective fighting force with some time and patience.
However, ISIS will, in the end, destroy itself. As a number of atrocities it performs increases, and accounts of disillusioned fighters get out, it will loose legitimity – first signs are already appearing, as large number of Sunni civilians are leaving ISIS-controlled areas. But what will happen until then? It is impossible to tell. Napoleon’s maxim should be always kept in mind: moral is to physical as three is to one. In order for ISIS to be destroyed, it has to loose any and all moral superiority it might claim – and neither military intervention or air strikes help with that.
US and West in general should establish a clear goal and focus on it. As bad as Assad is, any notion of removing him from power should be forgotten as long as ISIS is active, else someone even worse may come in his place – and that “someone” is likely to be ISIS.