Why is the Iraqi military unable to handle fighting ISIS without US intervention?


Answer by Jon Davis:

A lot needs to be understood to really get an accurate picture of what is happening in Iraq today. The news does much to increase confusion by overly reporting certain major raids, attacks, as well as massacres, that are happening, but they don't do a good job of explaining the strategic contextual overlay of the country today.

Much of this work is based off other answers I have written on the subject the modern Iraq conflict. Also, the article, and the question cites the organization calling itself "The Caliphate", but is also known as the Islamic State, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). For clarity and expediency, I usually use the acronym ISIL.

How Powerful is "The Caliphate"?

Maps that look like this are the best representation for the extent to which ISIL has an operational presence. Yet even they are extremely incorrect in the story they tell.

To be more accurate, the map below should probably be used to understand the scale at which ISIL is operating. Here, you see that ISIL really does act far more like a terrorist power than a legitimate state. The black areas are the actual bases of ISIL control. This is where they have free reign, functional support from the population, are able to actively recruit, and can move about with relative freedom. The deep red areas are places where they might be expected to raid and attack. This, however, doesn't mean they now control that territory. It really just means that one might run into them there on a very unlucky day. The map above represents areas with which they claim and where attacks may occur. This in no way is the same as "control". The most accurate way of thinking is that they control very narrow regions connected by routes and highways in which their presence is very widely felt.

To really understand the scale of ISIL control, this map is also appropriate.

This is a population density map of Iraq. The Northwestern section is known as the Al Anbar and Ninevah province. The main population centers lie along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There are some cities in Al Anbar that are significant to the past decade's insurgency efforts, such as Ramadi and Fallujah, however, for the most part this region is vacant desert. This is also where I lived for more than a year as a United States Marine in 2005 and 2007. You will see if you overlay the maps, that ISIL operates in a rather under populated region of Iraq. You'll see that the majority of the population of Iraq exists in the Eastern half of the country and that ISIL control seems to stop, in many places, at the point where desert becomes city. This statement is to exclude Mosul. The taking of Mosul was a key turning point as it gave them a very large population center to operate in. This is, however, only one of the major cities in the region.

As yet, though, control isn't the right word for what ISIL has in their main sanctuary territories. They have operations, but they don't "control" much of anything. As of yet, they have no functioning civilian infrastructure. They have no adequate means to improve the quality of life for their "citizens" besides bribery. They also have no means of providing services such as emergency health, transit or sanitation. The only services they provide are religious and military, a combination which has never been a safe thing to exist, absent all else. Even then, the military doesn't serve a protection role for the people of the region. It is merely an the enforcement arm of the criminal empire that is ISIL.

Where Iraq, the nation as a whole, suffers is that the Islamic State is being tactically proficient in that they aren't outright attacking the Iraqi army in the way that they are attacking the Kurdish Regional Government's military, the Peshmerga. The conflict between the Peshmerga and the Islamic State is happening in a much more "conventional" type of war. There are actual pitched battles, warriors view one another in open conflict, assets are taken and exchanged. Territory is claimed and held. These two forces are somewhat evenly matched, as well. As mentioned before, Islamic State's tactics vary greatly from how they fight the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. Neither have strong air capabilities, so the tactics are really a modernized replaying of WWI style tactics with new weapons. Even that may not be an appropriate analogy.

Where the conflict between Iraq and Islamic State is different is that, to the central part of the country, most of Islamic State's actions have been raids to loot and destroy. Here you can see their insurgency roots built around "fight another day" tactics, hardened by victories won in Syria and against the Kurds. They take on full insurgency mentalities in their actions going on around Baghdad: fast acting strikes with small forces, bombings, kidnappings, random mortar and rocket fire, civilian targeting, both of groups, individuals, and commons.

Elaborating on the nature of insurgencies, they are very hard to combat. Even if you were to consider "fighting dirty" as well, the problem is finding the insurgents, not necessarily in beating them face-to-face. When you consider the size of Iraq and the ability of the insurgent fighters to hide in and among the civilian population effortlessly, it shouldn't surprise anyone that a single insurgency fighter can easily evade detection from hundreds of well-funded professional soldiers. So long as the insurgent has support from the locals, which can be gained from coercion, bribery, or loyalty, it is very difficult for officials to discover them.

Now considering the ruthlessness of Islamic State, I would have to wonder how many civilians, even those completely against them, would be willing to provide information on account of fear for their lives and the lives of their families. I've said before that civilians in conflict areas can not be trusted. This isn't because they are always not good people. To the contrary. Quite often they see that insurgent more often then they see the good guys, whoever the good guys may be in this case. That insurgent knows who they are, where they live and who their family is. It may not even be possible for the government to give a willing corroborator the protection he needs if he volunteers information. I personally, would respect any man who put the safety of his family over that of the security of his state, though I am saddened greatly by the situation he has been placed under. That is why it is so hard to trust civilians in conflict zones. They simply don't have the freedom to tell you the truth, even if they want to.

Considering how many of the local population actually are in support of them only compounds the problem. For that we would have to understand the dynamic of the country.

If you look to the above maps, you will see how the Islamic State has found its base of power in the Sunni Arab portions of the map. Kurds occupy and control most of the blue and the green is controlled by the Iraqi government. This has been the general pattern for at least a few months, where the Islamic State grew rapidly to encompass the vacuum in the Sunni Arab (yellow) region.  Since that time, there have been only a few major exchanges in territory between the three. This map also explains the recent Yezidi and Christian massacres that have been occurring in the purple strips, surrounded by yellow near Mosul.

One has to wonder if ISIL would have quite so much leverage if they were to operate, and try to occupy, large portions of territory which are not of a favorable ethno/religious setting to them. That is what they will face if they try to extend their reach outside of the Al Anbar and Ninevah provinces.

How Powerful is the Iraqi Military?

Taking the rest of Iraq won't be that easy. The rest of Iraq is highly populated and well defended by forces which are happy to defend their sovereignty. As I said before, the green region is mostly inhabited by the Iraqi army today. These forces are different from those of Al Anbar. They are mostly Shia Arab, a sect which is opposed greatly to the mostly Sunni uprising in the Western deserts. Another thing worth mentioning is that these sects have bitter rivalries going back almost to the beginning of Islam. These rivalries were nothing like we see today looking back only a few decades ago. At one point in the last century Sunni-Shia intermarriage was at 40%, but the hostilities have been greatly escalated between them in the recent era. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, the Shia of the country were disenfranchised greatly, so they, much more than their Sunni equivalents, embraced the initial opportunity presented by a democratic Iraq better. Fearing a complete purge at the hands of Sunni extremists, these are the people who will fight for survival and continued political efficacy.

Second, is that this military is much more capable than their Al Anbar, Nineveh, and Syrian counterparts. They embraced the new Coalition backed regime much faster and in much greater numbers. That means that their military has a much higher average experience level and much more veteran experience fighting the insurgency, many even dating back to early in the Iraq War alongside Americans. There are problems with this though, which I will get to later.

And lastly, there are the numbers.

From these tables you can see the most important element of this debate. The Iraqi Army is more than 13 times larger than even the largest estimates of ISIL's current strength level, especially considering that about half of them are tied up in Syria, and especially considering that this does not account for the additional 250,ooo extra the Iraqi still have in its reserve. What this means for ISIL is that they won't be able to successfully occupy much more of Iraq without significant pushback from the regionally loyal Shia Arab military.

This doesn't mean that we won't still hear of attacks running rampant. You will hear about that every day. These people are insurgents. They don't fight in open pitched battles against the military. They attack soft targets which can be easily converted into cash while avoiding major direct conflicts. When push comes to shove, they will retreat into the shadows to fight another day.

So the real question, now, is why doesn't the Iraqi military have the capability to stop the Islamic State if they are so heavily outnumber them? Let's look at two major problems of the Iraqi military that will show how size, or even funding, and training, don't always determine fighting capability.

Regional Loyalties

Many have stated that Iraqis have just dissolved in the presence of opposition. It is true that the capturing of Mosul from a force of 30,000 Iraqi soldiers by just 800 ISIL insurgents was an embarrassment, not only for the Iraqi, but for the Coalition forces who invested billions in building up their defenses against such an occurrence.

Iraqis basically fled every region they've controlled since the beginning, up to Baghdad but it is more complicated than that. The Iraqi military is comprised of different regions, each of members recruited from that region, which were established essentially to preserve the peace in their regions and protect from outside invasion. The problem with this set up is that if a popular uprising takes place within the region you are in, where you are from, the military members are tied to that in a way Western militaries don't accurately fathom.

In the United States, a unit in the Marine Corps or Army may be made of members from Texas, New York, California or anywhere else. Geographic location of origin takes no part in the act of deciding what units a warrior join. This creates a randomized, homogeneous "American" military that is loyal more to the United States overall, rather than any one state, party, or ethnic group.

The Iraqi military, however, is very different in that most of the military, military police, and other governing bodies, are from the local districts in which they are operating. This was, at first a logical arrangement, where local militias formed to fight off the insurgency and then were later absorbed into the Iraqi Army. The problems develop later when they are vulnerable to being sympathetic to the cause of the new insurgencies or worse, are vulnerable to threats against family and friends inside the region. For that reason, many in the Iraqi army of Al Anbar and Nineveh provinces, specifically, abandoned their military obligations for reasons much more complicated than surrender or retreat.

The facts, however, don't change. The territory was lost.


Along with a military that has a questionable strength of loyalty, the largest thing that holds back its ability to fight is that it has been reformed, and in some ways gutted, to prevent a military coup against Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki over the past several years. Joshua Keeting with Slate gave an editorial on "Iraq’s Built-to-Fail Military". There he describes the process where Maliki systemic rebuilt key parts of the military to ensure his ability to maintain control of the county.

One such example is the elite and highly trained force known as the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). These warriors were considered "the most adept counter insurgency fighters in Iraq". They have had more experience and worked alongside American troops prior to the 2011 withdrawal. Since that point, however, Maliki has removed ISOF from Iraq's version of the Department Defense, placing them in a sort of personal force, acting as their own personal commander and chief. What he, in effect, has done, is to create a "praetorian guard" to defend his own regime. This has left them in an operational standstill, not being able to be fielded against ISIL, which is the type of mission they were created to do.

Secondly, many of the Sunni forces which showed a willingness to work with the Iraqis, such as the Awakenings Council, have since been disenfranchised. The Awakenings Council were a group of Sunni Arabs from Al Anbar that joined forces with Americans early in the Iraq war and aided significantly in the capture and defeat of many insurgent forces of the region. Eventually, as conflicts there died down, command and oversight of the organization, along with payment for services moving forward, shifted from the Americans to the Iraqi military where it was believed they would not be paid for the assistance they provided. Eventually, a large portion of the council was absorbed into the Iraqi Army and the rest disbanded. The sort of half-hearted welcoming the Sunni collaborators to the Iraqi government received has been a major aspect in various movements against it. Besides religious fanaticism, also tied into ISIL are allies who are just Sunni nationalists not wanting to see a theocracy, as well as those just looking for a paying job who just so happen to have military experience. Because they have been kept at arms length by the Maliki regime, or in many cases dismissed by the hundreds, they have joined up with anti-government forces.

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, Sunni purges of the Iraqi military have taken place over the past decade. High ranking, experienced and very competent officers have been replaced by Maliki loyalists. Most of the time, these loyalists are far from capable officers over the roles they have been given. In other areas, the officer corps has fallen to complete corruption, where officers are not promoted based on merit, but on whether or not they pay their commanders a bribe for the right. This sort of practice is detrimental to the morale, discipline, and leadership of a military. This overall watering down of the Iraqi officer corps has led to drastically reduced troop training and operational effectiveness since the American departure two and half years ago.

The truth is that coup-proofing would sound like a very logical thing. If you look at situations across the Middle East, military coups have made life extremely difficult for many a authoritarian dictator or even elected officials. In Syria, the military showed what can happen when a strong military turns its back on the dictator. In Egypt, the military was responsible for not one, but two changes in power over the last six years. The same story repeats in Libya. One can imagine it being a wise decision for Maliki to stack the odds against a such an occurrence in the young Iraq.


What we have currently is that the three major forces of Iraq are stalemated for various reasons. The situation is complex, but can't last forever. The Islamic State has expanded its reach throughout the operational vacuum that existed and now has little where else to grow so easily. Now they only really succeed in land grabs when confronting Kurdish fighters, of which they are a pretty even match. In the last week the American military has opened up with various strikes to the benefit of these Peshmerga forces as well to help stranded minorities in the region. The lumbering giant, be it ever useful or not, is not fully engaged in the fight. So the big question remains, what is keeping the Iraqi army from pulling its act together?

Perhaps they are simply severely under competent in the role of protecting Iraq outside of the borders of Shia territory. Perhaps no troops have found the fortitude to fight against such a barbaric enemy, even given their vastly superior numbers. Perhaps no one is willing to fight for a government, and a Prime Minister, they don't have faith in. Occam's Razor would say that is the case, but the straight forward predictions in Iraq have never panned out six months later. I suspect, as with many things, the story here is much more complicated.

One theory I am willing to venture, and that is really all it is at this point, is that someone very powerful in the confused Iraqi government is allowing all of this to happen for a reason. Perhaps "allowing" is the best the term, but extremely aware that many things are currently happening to their benefit. I believe that a future coup could take place. Worse yet, I'm concerned that someone from the regular government could take advantage of this opportunity. There may be a desire to let ISIL and the Kurds continually fight one another. At some point, there will be nothing left to prevent a complete takeover by the Iraqi army, later. More troubling, is that the American assistance in the form of air strikes without direct action from Iraq is only helping this initiative. It is leveling the playing field between the advancing Islamic State fighters and the Kurds, now defending territory untouched by the Iraq War and only an hour's drive from their de facto capital of Irbil. What is most disturbing is that, if we, the Americans and Western world don't move with diligence and prudence in our actions, we may very well be propping up the next "Savior" of the Iraqi people as we have before, only to find that he was the one person who wanted all this to happen; the rise of sectarian violence; the fall of Northern Iraq; the collapse of the military; the Yazidi and Christian genocide; the war between Islamists and Kurds; and the intervention of American forces to weaken the opposition further. At some point, there will be nothing left to fight the Iraqi, especially if ISIL continues to soe hate and discontent among those who have fallen under their regime.  Once that happens, I really don't see the Iraqi having a very difficult time fighting back. The problem I have is, will we be able to trust the person in the middle leading them when that happens, or will we, the Western world, just be blamed for setting up another tyrant in the cradle of human civilization?

Further Reading:

Thanks for reading!

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Why is the Iraqi military unable to handle fighting ISIS without US intervention?


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