My apologies for all of the Iraq themed posts this week – but as it’s related to my fiction writing (hopefully seen here shortly) I’ll attempt to make one more point without boring the everloving crap out of you in the process. I’ll have my analysis of the latest Kardashian wedding in light of Bruce Jenner’s transgender conundrum complete sometime next week.

In all of the coverage of the collapse of the Iraqi military over the last week, I’ve not seen many people – not even at the far-left Salon.com – asking a simple question. Why, if the US military trained and advised Iraq’s security forces, did they fold so quickly in Mosul, Tikrit, and elsewhere?
The answer is complicated but it can be boiled down to one word – culture. Iraq’s culture in many ways, big and small, is not receptive to American-style military training. I’ll lay out what I consider to be the largest factors below.
Non-Commissioned Officers. The strength of the US military is in its NCO corps. A commander delegates a significant amount of responsibility to his NCOs, from basic discipline to training to the freedom to execute missions in the most effective manner. Officers are often forced to give orders with incomplete information and trust that their junior officers and NCOs will complete the mission within the commander’s intent.
Iraq’s military does not have a comparable NCO corps. Their military operates on a principle of "wasta" – an Arabic word that loosely translates to "influence." Where the US military promotes officers and NCOs as a result of merit, many middle-eastern militaries promote people because of their influence, their relatives, or their tribal affiliations. One Iraqi Brigade Commander I advised allowed his 15 year old son to tag along with him to work – sometimes on patrols as well – where he would issue orders to enlisted soldiers. He had no authority to do so other than his father’s "wasta."
The results were predictable. Iraqi units were – when compared with their US counterparts – far less disciplined. Without NCOs empowered to uphold standards and make corrections everything from simple uniform discipline to actual mission execution suffered. Iraqi NCOs were paralyzed and chose not to take the initiative in any sense of the word. To do so would be to risk punishment – even if it was the right thing to do. Junior Iraqi officers as well as NCOs would often tell American advisors that they couldn’t address an issue without an order from their superior officer. This led to a strange dynamic within the advisor community. We often asked senior American officers to address issues with their counterparts that no senior officer should have to address (and they often refused).
Tribalism/Sectarianism. This affected all Iraqi units to one degree or another. Army and police units were often manned by men from the same region in which the unit was operating. There were good practical reasons for this – soldiers were paid in cash and used that money to support their families, meaning they needed to be close by. And due to the nature of the counterinsurgency fight, a soldier who has grown up in a specific neighborhood is more effective patrolling that same neighborhood. He knows the people, knows the land, and knows when something is out of place.
I would often observe checkpoints in Baghdad and when I asked soldiers why they chose to search some cars and let others pass through, in many cases it was because they didn’t recognize the people in the car.
But because people of common background and religion tend to live near each other – especially in post-Saddam Baghdad – this meant that many units were either decidedly Shia or Sunni. Some Iraqi units would, instead of upholding the law regardless of religious differences, go out of their way to harass a specific religious group within their area of influence.
Tribalism itself was less of a factor the closer you came to a large metropolitan area, but it was a large factor in rural provinces like Anbar. So much so that the turning point in Anbar came when the tribes turned against Al Qaeda. The extent to which they have allied in recent months with ISIS is likely a comment on Maliki’s leadership and his unwillingness to make political concessions to the Sunni.
In his remarks today Obama used this as an excuse not to consider returning US troops to the region, but in my opinion it was precisely the presence of US troops which brought Sunni tribes to the table in 2006/7. They may not trust Maliki, but they did trust the US to be a neutral arbiter and to keep Maliki honest.
Lack of combat multipliers. As good as the American Infantry is, it would be nothing without the other branches of the military. Artillery, Armor, Aviation, Engineers, Intelligence, and Maneuver Support elements all play a part in an effective combined arms operation. With the exception of their Infantry, Iraq is deficient in every other area. To the extent they have an Armored force, it’s comprised partly of old Soviet-era tanks and partly of M1 Abrams tanks. Their rotary and fixed wing air assets are not nearly as numerous or effective as they need to be. Their artillery is almost nonexistent, and their intelligence capabilities, while heavily weighted toward human assets, does not come close to approaching our capabilities. There aregood reasons for this– Iraq simply didn’t have the infrastructure to support many of these assets.
"Inshallah."This is an Arabic term which means "If God wills it." There is a strain of fatalism in the Iraqi culture. Inshallah is a way to avoid making a firm commitment to anything because Allah may intervene at any time and change the circumstances. Meetings never start on time and timelines are always fluid – two things anathema to a good military unit. Any advisor who’s ever worked with an Iraqi unit has had this conversation at some point or another:
You: "Did you talk to Colonel X?"
Me: "Yes."
You: "Is he going to do Y or Z?"
Me: "He said Inshallah."
You: "Is that a yes or a no?"
Me: "Inshallah."
New advisors always got agitated by that answer until they came to realize it was usually the only one they were going to get.
This brings out another point that US advisors had trouble wrapping their minds around. Religion permeates every facet of Iraqi life. Something as simple as answering a phone call requires thirty seconds of praising Allah before any real conversation can begin.
There’s a little known book titledThe Quranic Concept of War,written by Pakistani General S.K. Malik, which discusses this intersection of warfare and the Islamic faith.
Writing in the introduction, LTC Joseph C. Myers states the themes of the book:
"Critical themes of Malik’s work is that ‘just war’ or jihad in Islam is inherently spiritual warfare, religious warfare, and to the extent that Islamic forces have spiritually prepared themselves, they will ‘strike terror into the hearts’ of Islam’s enemies. This terror as Malik describes in detail, is both physical and metaphysical, because Islamic warfare is intrinsically part of a cosmic struggle for the reign of Allah’s will on the earth between the forces of God, dar al-Islam, and that of dar al-Harb, those who dwell in ignorance and darkness of the true knowledge of God."

Here Myers hits on the key to understanding ISIS’ barbarism in Iraq – terror serves two purposes. It removes a physical threat (killing an ISF soldier, for example) and at the same time the terror (beheading, execution, etc.) causes those who are not killed to question their faith. If you can only win a battle through faith then the ability to decrease or shake your opponents faith is of the utmost importance.
Of course neither Malik nor the Jihadis of today address how a godless American military can be so proficient in battle, but in our current discussion it’s also irrelevant. Our culture doesn’t reward religious purity. Their culture does.
There are many other minor points I could make, but I’ve covered the major ones. US advisors in Iraq had their hands tied in many ways and were unable to create as much change as we would have liked. This was yet another argument for a prolonged military presence in the country – cultural change takes a considerable amount of time, much more than the 5-6 years we were able to give it. There were glimmers of hope and soldiers who "got it." But these were generally junior soldiers who didn’t have enough "wasta" to affect any change within their unit.
Here’s another depressing thought – nearly all of the criticisms of the Iraqi military I lay out in this piece also apply to the Afghan military in one form or another, except that the Afhan military is in many ways less developed than the Iraqi military was when we left. If we abandon Afghanistan in the same way we abandoned Iraq, we would in all likelihood see a similar result in that country.
UPDATE: Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker echoes my thoughts about Maliki and sectarianism:
"Those were important reasons to stay, but the most important went largely unstated: it was to continue to act as a restraint on Maliki’s sectarian impulses, at least until the Iraqi political system was strong enough to contain him on its own. The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of a lack of engagement by the White House. Today, many Iraqis, including some close to Maliki, say that a small force of American soldiers–working in non-combat roles–would have provided a crucial stabilizing factor that is now missing from Iraq. Sami al-Askari, a Maliki confidant, told me for my article this spring, “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be cooperating with you, and they would become your partners.” President Obama wanted the Americans to come home, and Maliki didn’t particularly want them to stay."
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