Standing Up the Iraqi Army

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 4 months ago

” … the evidence indicates that the Iraqi Security Forces will not be able to secure Iraqi borders against conventional military threats in the near term … the ISF will be unable to fulfil their essential security responsibilities independently over the next 12-18 months,” Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq [1].

“Restoring Iraq to military self-sufficiency will require at least a decade.  For that alone, Iraq will remain an American protectorate well into the next decade …”  John Pike, [2].

If only the issues with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) could be summed up by saying that they needed to learn to do calisthenics better or target with their rifles, training the ISF would take several months.  Undoubtedly, this is what the uninitiated think when the administration talks of “standing down when the Iraqis stand up.”  How long can it take to train a soldier?  Even if one includes consideration beyond individual training to unit level tactics such as satellite patrols, squads rushes, flanking maneuvers, room clearing, and so forth, this would add months – maybe a year at the most.

But the almost insurmountable problems with the ISF present themselves under three rubrics.  The first has to do with the nation-state of Iraq, and the degree to which it can function without the sectarian divides that have hindered the progress of the government thus far.  After all, the military is not immune from society’s ills any more than other institutions.

These sectarian divides have actually evolved not only to sectarian taunts but to shooting between various units in the ISF.  In summer of 2006, Kurdish fighters who had joined the ISF were targets of Shi’a members of the ISF.

Early this year, a 700-strong Kurdish Iraqi army battalion, originally from the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, deployed to Balad, 50 miles northwest of Baghdad, to bolster a single Shi’ite battalion mustered from local residents.

The large Sunni minority living around Balad protested the Kurdish unit’s presence, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Coffey, a member of an ad-hoc Military Transition Team that was helping train the Kurdish battalion. Residents including some Iraqi military personnel fired at patrolling Kurdish troops, and on at least one occasion, the Kurds fired back — one of the few recorded incidents of fighting within Iraqi Army ranks.

Yet by the summer of 2007 this had all been turned on this head.  Kurdish fighters were seen as savior for at least one Sunni family.

Bristling with weapons, the men arrived on the back of three pick-up trucks, then surrounded the modest house in the once “mixed” suburb of al-Amel, in western Baghdad. A black-clad gunman jumped down and hammered on the thin metal gate. There were “bad people” on the loose, he shouted to the residents cowering inside. They should pack up and go and live “among your own people—for your own protection”. He and his men would helpfully put their belongings on the back of the trucks. For safety’s sake, the family should go immediately. As this ultimatum was being given to the terrified Sunni Arab family by the Shia gunmen, a group of Iraqi policemen, also Shias, leant on a police car and idly puffed away on their cigarettes, just 50 yards up the street, indifferent to the crime of sectarian cleansing being perpetrated under their noses.

That scene has become all too common in al-Amel—and in many other mixed districts. Since the bombing of the Shias’ shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in February last year, many mixed and middle-class areas have become either mostly Shia or mostly Sunni, depending on which side of the main road you live.

Yet on the occasion described above the Sunni family managed to sit tight, in the house they had built some 30 years ago in what was then a palm grove. They were saved by the arrival, in the nick of time, of a contingent of about 100 Kurdish soldiers, some of the 3,000-odd former Peshmerga fighters (literally, “those who face death”) who have joined Iraq’s national army and have been controversially deployed in Baghdad as part of the “surge” of troops, mainly American ones, to beef up security in the bloody capital.

As they neared the besieged house, the Kurdish soldiers shot over the heads of the Shia gunmen, identified by locals as members of the Mahdi militia loyal to a Shia firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr, and told them to leave the area. They swiftly complied. There was no American soldier in sight.

The Shi’a within the ISF have increasingly caused problems with the Sunni population, failing to engender trust.  The surge also allowed U.S. troops to provide adequate coverage when this had been missing from earlier in the campaign.  U.S. troops are now also seen as protectors against Shi’a ISF members in areas in which they previously didn’t have the manpower to patrol.

As the Americans patrol the Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah, people keep turning to them for help. One man asks them to bring in a fuel truck stopped by Iraqi troops. Another complains that Iraqi soldiers just beat up his brother.

The Americans used to be loathed in Azamiyah, a longtime stronghold of insurgents and the last place where Saddam Hussein appeared in public. Now the animosity has given way to a grudging acceptance, because the people of this northern neighborhood want American protection from a foe they hate and fear even more: the mainly Shiite Iraqi army.

“We feel safe when the Americans are around,” says a computer engineer who gave his name only as Abu Fahd. He stopped going to work because of his fear of militiamen at the Shiite-dominated Health Ministry and now makes a living selling clothes.

“When we see the Iraqi army, we just stay home or close our shops.”

The altercations and lack of trust doesn’t just affect the population.  In Western Iraq – Sunni territory between Baghdad and Fallujah, the ISF have had altercations with not only the Sunni “awakening” (e.g., 1920s Brigade), but U.S. forces as well.  Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, a 41-year-old California native who has spent the previous months cultivating his relationship with Abu Azzam (an “awakening” leader), managed to de-escalate just such an encounter in June of 2007 between his friend the Sunni leader and an ISF Brigade.

… the Iraqi brigade, which is predominantly Shiite, was assigned a new area and instructed to stay away from Nasr Wa Salam, Colonel Pinkerton said. But he said he believed that the Iraqi soldiers remain intent on preventing Sunni Arabs, a majority here, from controlling the area. He cites a pattern of aggression by Iraqi troops toward Abu Azzam’s men and other Sunnis, who he believes are often detained for no reason.

Recently, and without warning, Colonel Pinkerton said, 80 Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles charged out of their sector toward Nasr Wa Salam but were blocked by an American platoon. The Iraqis refused to say where they were going and threatened to drive right through the American soldiers, whom they greatly outnumbered.

Eventually, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead and American gunners aiming their weapons at them, the Iraqi soldiers retreated. “It hasn’t come to firing bullets yet,” Colonel Pinkerton said … Pinkerton’s experiences here, he said, have inverted the usual American instincts born of years of hard fighting against Sunni insurgents.

“I could stand among 1,800 Sunnis in Abu Ghraib,” he said, “and feel more comfortable than standing in a formation of Iraqi soldiers.”

The second problematic area has to do with broad, general corruption across the entire ISF.  Earlier in the 2007, “American units that patrolled with Iraqi forces in west and east Baghdad found that Iraqi officers sold new uniforms meant for their troops, and that their soldiers wore plastic shower sandals while manning checkpoints, abused prisoners and solicited bribes to free suspects they’d captured.”

Interviews with U.S. soldiers, and reporting from accompanying them on patrols, made it clear that there are profound problems with the Iraqi troops, ranging from worries that they’re operating on behalf of Shiite death squads to aggravation with their refusal to carry out basic tasks such as wearing flak vests.

In a west Baghdad neighborhood where bodies often turn up beside the road, facedown on the pavement with bullets in their heads, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Brendan Griswold looked on last week as Iraqi soldiers patted down three men at a checkpoint and thumbed through their documents. The Iraqi soldiers found a fake Iraqi passport on one of the men, whom they suspected was Jordanian and possibly an insurgent.

Griswold didn’t stir, determined to let the Iraqis conduct the search on their own.

“I like going out with some of them. But some of the others are hard to control; they run away when things happen,” said the 24-year-old 1st Cavalry Division platoon commander from Leavenworth, Kan.

An Iraqi soldier approached him. “Where do we put them?” he asked.

Griswold pointed to the Iraqi army Humvees in front of him. Iraqi soldiers grabbed the three men, opened the back trunks of their Humvees and started to stuff them inside.

“No, not in there,” Griswold yelled, as he cussed under his breath and walked over to supervise.

After he made sure the detainees were seated in the Humvees, the convoy drove to an Iraqi army intelligence office. The Iraqi troops led the three men into what looked like a darkened closet. Griswold asked the Iraqis not to abuse the detainees, then shook hands and said goodbye. As he left the intelligence building, he asked his interpreter what the Iraqi troops would do to the detainees.

“They were asking them how much they would pay to be released,” the interpreter replied with a grin.

The third problematic area has to do with Middle Eastern culture and what it brings (and doesn’t bring) to its armed forces.  Norvell B. De Atkine has written an analysis entitled “Why Arabs Lose Wars” that should be required reading for every field grade officer who deploys to Iraq, and perhaps Non-commissioned officers as well [3].  The problems are numerous, but De Atkine focuses in on officers and the cultural tendency for over-centralization, discouraging initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information, and the discouragement of leadership at the junior officer level.  Stepping down in the chain of command, De Atkine then focuses in on one major difference that separates Western armed forces from the rest of the world.

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training programs and to the enlisted men’s sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping the military’s effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective.

De Atkine summarizes the perceptive analysis with this sobering comment.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the cultural gulf separating American and Arab military cultures. In every significant area, American military advisors find students who enthusiastically take in their lessons and then resolutely fail to apply them. The culture they return to — the culture of their own armies in their own countries — defeats the intentions with which they took leave of their American instructors. Arab officers are not concerned about the welfare and safety of their men. The Arab military mind does not encourage initiative on the part of junior officers, or any officers for that matter. Responsibility is avoided and deflected, not sought and assumed. Political paranoia and operational hermeticism, rather than openness and team effort, are the rules of advancement (and survival) in the Arab military establishments. These are not issues of genetics, of course, but matters of historical and political culture.

An interesting and more personal account of the nature of the society and how it impacts the ISF is given to us by David J. Danelo [4].

When jundis sign up to serve in the Iraqi Army, they do not enlist for any length of time. There’s no such thing as a one-, two- or four-year commitment, because it would be both impractical and unenforceable, given the current state of Iraq … An accurate count of Iraqi soldiers is almost impossible. “When they go home on leave, we have no idea how many are going to come back,” says one U.S. military adviser to the Iraqi Army. “Some are kidnapped or killed. Some just run away” … Lieutenant Muhammad: “I Haven’t Been Paid In 10 Months” … Warrant Officer Omar: “No One in My Family Knows I’m in the Army” …

And so the story goes, from corruption, to desertion, to lack of family support for ISF members, to poor or no pay, to sectarian differences, to poor training, to the lack of an NCO corps.  The story is about cultural differences and sectarian divides rather than the ability to perform with a firearm.  The project in which the United States is engaged with respect to the ISF is no less than one of cultural transition – a change of paradigm.

Going forward, it is in the interest of the United States to have an “enduring strategic partnership … one of the follow-up items that both the Iraqis and the Americans need to work on to make sure that we can have a presence there that helps continue to support the region and helps the burgeoning democracy in the heart of the Middle East,” as stated in the White House press release.  But the Iraqi government is prepared to allow the US a long-term troop presence in the country and preferential treatment for American investments in return for a guarantee of security including defence against internal coups.  Due in no small part to the state of the ISF, a strategic relationship is in the interests of the Iraqi people as well.


1. The Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, General James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.), Chairman.
2. Experts Say Iraqi Forces Not Ready,
3. Why Arabs Lose Wars, Norvell B. De Atkine, Middle East Quarterly, Dec. 1999, Vol. 6, No. 2
4. Is the Iraqi Army Ready?,, David J. Danelo.


  1. On December 3, 2007 at 8:12 am, LT Nixon said:

    As always, interesting insight. The issue of delegation seems to be a big problem with the Iraqi Security Forces. I think it has to do with the lack of dissemination of information and central control dating back to the Baath regime. I hear about Iraqi Generals having to sign off on things that you would expect lowly LT’s like me to be signing off for in the US Armed Forces! It makes everything slow, slow, and more slow. Of course the Iraqi Security Forces have improved quite a bit this last year. I’m still waiting for the Iraqi government to get their act together.

  2. On December 4, 2007 at 11:22 pm, cab8505 said:

    Hmmm….if culture impacts the ISF will the cultural changes inculcated into the ISF impact the Iraqi culture at large?

    Let’s mark the calendar for December 2017 and revisit this question at that point.

  3. On December 18, 2007 at 2:45 am, Brian H said:

    I’ve been pushing and recommending de Atkine’s article for years. Here’s the link:
    Why Arabs Lose Wars.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Featured,Iraq,Policy,Politics and was published December 2nd, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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