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The Iraqi Military After Mosul: A time for consolidation

The liberation of Mosul represents a watershed moment; it is the greatest military victory that the Iraqi military has enjoyed since 2003 and one of its greatest victories since its foundation in 1921 during the period of the monarchy. Iraq’s military can now proudly hold its head up and point out to those who mocked its defeat in 2014, that unlike the Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army militias, Al Nusrah Front and its successors, the Syrian Kurdish and their allied Syrian Arab militias, the Iraqi Army won the first and the most substantial victory of any military force against the Islamic State. But the fight was not conducted alone, and has not been without considerable cost.

Now it is imperative that we turn our attention to the rebuilding of Iraq’s security forces with a realistic view of the challenges and the required capabilities. The rebuilding of the security infrastructure will have strategic political, security and even economic implications that will help to define Iraq as a nation and its relations with the International Community, the United States, and its neighbors.

The Iraqi security forces, rebuilt by the Coalition Forces from 2004 with much expenditure of blood, sweat and treasure, faced their most significant challenge in June 2014 with the Islamic State’s (IS) clean sweep across north and west Iraq. Iraq’s security forces were comprehensively defeated by IS at that time. Then, almost a year later, the Iraqi military was driven from Ramadi, and again it was widely criticized for having failed to hold the strategically and politically important city.

Now the Iraqi security forces, which includes the regular army, the Federal Police and the (mostly Shiite) popular militias, but spearheaded by the elite Counter Terrorism Service and enabled by essential US-led Coalition air and artillery support, have won the first serious victory against IS. The war, however, is far from over. Cities like Al Qaim on the Syrian border remain to be liberated and there are innumerable small villages and towns, aside from these cities, that are under the control of IS or its allies. And when the urban centers are liberated, the IS insurgency will presumably return to the desert and the shadows, from which it will launch periodic terrorist attacks. We’ve seen this before.

In 2007 IS’ predecessor, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, was suppressed by the surge of US forces and the tribal uprisings in Anbar and other majority Sunni areas. But by late 2009, they had returned with spectacular bombings against government ministries in August 2009; and from then on IS operational tempo increased step by step and then accelerated with the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011. As early as Spring 2012, IS had great freedom of operation in Mosul. By 2013 IS controlled most of Anbar province, and in a fateful week in June 2014 IS swept across most of northern and western Iraq, only stopping at the outskirts of Baghdad.

Hence, Iraq’s security forces will be required to fight an internal insurgency for years to come.

So what should the force structure of the Iraqi security forces look like?

Firstly, let’s take a look at what we have at this point.

The regular Iraqi army, which was originally intended to be a 12 or 14 division force of around 250,000 men, with armor, artillery and mechanized units. Today, the 6th Division is tasked to protect Baghdad. It is probably the best equipped and best organized unit of the regular army. The 9th Division (with its M1 Abrams tanks) was tasked to protect the northern approaches to Baghdad, but in recent months has seen action in Mosul, including urban combat in the old city of western Mosul. The 16th Division was also involved in combat in Mosul’s old city, which marks its return to full active duty after a disappointing lack of combat contribution to the recapture of Ramadi in late 2016. The 17th Division appears to have performed well in southern Ninewa, and the 15th Division has likewise won praise for its actions during the campaign against Talafar on the Syrian border. The 10th Division performed a supporting role in the late 2016 liberation of Ramadi. The 5th Division worked well with militias and special police units in operations against Beiji and its oil refinery, but would likely have been unable to handle these operations by itself. In the Haditha area of Anbar the heroic 7th Division has somewhat recovered from the hammering it took between 2012 and 2014 and working with local tribal militias has successfully kept IS out of that area of the country since 2014. But Iraq’s regular army is profoundly understrength.

The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) developed out of the Iraqi Special Operations forces which in turn grew from the seed planted by the 36th Commando Battalion that first saw action in 2004’s battle of Fallujah and which was still fighting in Mosul in recent months as part of the CTS. The CTS was recently elevated to the position of a ministerial level body with almost $700m in funds from the 2017 Iraqi federal budget, after struggling for years to be granted its own reliable budget.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, the paramilitary forces raised initially by former PM Nouri Al Maliki and inspired by Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa of June 2014 know in Arabic as Al Hashd Al Shaabi) number anywhere from 30,000 up to 100,000. They are majority Shiite, but not completely, and Sunni tribal and minority community such as Christians and Yazidis have also formed militias under the rubric of the PMF. Despite a supposed common identity and command structure, the PMF is not at all a monolithic body, and can be quite neatly divided into two opposing factions, the pro-Iran faction and the pro-Sistani faction. The Al Abbas Combat Division, Imam Ali Division and Ali Al Akbar Brigades are rightly regarded as loyal to Sistani and the Iraqi state. Note, these groups did not oppose Coalition military support in the Talafar operation, unlike groups such as Asaib Ahl Al Haq, Iraqi Hizballah and Saraya Al Khorasani, which withdrew from the Tal Afar operation in protest at the Coalition involvement and are closely aligned with Iran.

Above: Abbas Combat Division PMU with 40mm automatic grenade launchers.

Another fighting force, sometimes identified with the PMU but in reality completely separate, is the Saraya Al Salam of Moqtada Al Sadr. This group grew from the Jaysh Al Mehdi, which fought the Coalition in 2004, but the remnants of which was reborn as Saraya Al Salam in 2014. Saraya Al Salam operates independently of other paramilitary forces and independently of the Iraqi military and police, but coordinates with them. Saraya Al Salam controls considerable areas, such as the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Operating on the principal of trying to achieve best practice within what is practically achievable, we now turn to the future force structure of the Iraqi security forces.

The Counter Terrorism Service has proved itself the premier fighting force in the country. It has high morale, good organizational structure, is well trained and disciplined. It has led the campaign against IS, and has taken tremendously high casualties with at least 40% of its troops killed or seriously injured during the battle to retake Mosul. The CTS has been consistently underfunded, and under resourced, but has still managed to perform at a very high level.

There have been calls to either reduce the size of the CTS and take it back to its more traditional role as a counter terrorism force focused on small unit raids against terrorist suspects, or to expand the CTS and make it the backbone of a new branch of the armed forces with higher level capabilities than the regular military – something akin to Saddam’s Special Republican Guard.

Above: CTS and Iraqi soldiers outside of Mosul, late 2016.

However, we think that the CTS is just right. Despite its small size it took the lion’s share of the recapture of Iraq from IS. As a disciplined, motivated, nationalistic, multi-sectarian and highly professional force, it has proven itself. Making it smaller would embolden those forces who would undermine the Iraqi state – whether it be hard line Iranian affiliated militias or remnants of IS. Making it larger, however, would undermine the espirit du corps that has made it such an effective fighting force, would probably lower the entry standards, and also tend towards breaking down its high level of discipline, which depends on its small size and accountability to small team leaders.

Expanding the CTS might also run the risk of creating a force that could eventually threaten Iraq’s democracy – History, especially Middle Eastern history, is replete with examples of dictators emerging from elite military units. Or an Iraqi Prime Minister could be tempted to use the CTS as his own personal army, since it reports directly to him. Iraq’s democracy is fragile, it needs to be carefully nurtured at this time and building up the CTS from what it is now to a larger force, risks creating another center of power that will almost necessarily compete with the government that it serves.

The next question concerns the PMF. What will become of it? In large parts of the country its forces still control territory, and have assumed an air of permanence, particularly in Salahaddin and Diyala provinces. If these fighters return to their homes in southern Iraq, what will they return to, other than unemployment? It is likely that the PMF will evolve into something like a national guard, and even without the title, this is a reasonable outcome. However, units from the south need to return to the south, and in liberated areas local citizens need to take up the role of guaranteeing security until provincial police forces are developed with the capability to carry the burden of local security.

Highly capable personnel from the PMF should be integrated into the regular Iraqi military, but only as individuals and only once they have completed more formal military training. Iraq should resist the evolution of the PMF into a permanent new force with a government ministry to support it. This creates an alternative power structure at the time that Iraq does not need that and more fragmentation of authority.

Then we turn to the regular military forces. When the US withdrew at the end of 2011, it left an Iraqi military that was at best half ready. Certain key functions depended, at that time, on US support. Training, medical support, and, in particular, logistics and supply were almost entirely reliant on the US. These elements, especially logistics, are essential for a military to operate. US and Coalition efforts now need to be focused on rebuilding these essential elements vital to the Iraqi military’s operational effectiveness. But we also need to recognize that this will take many years and indeed we should accept that in the event of another national emergency, such as the IS onslaught of June 2014, the Iraqi military may still have to call in US or allied assistance, just as American allies (for instance NATO during the Libya campaign) generally require US assistance for most military operations. We should not make the goal an Iraqi military that is entirely self-sustaining, but rather we should make the goal an Iraqi military that can maintain itself and deal with daily threats but in the event of emergency has the ability to operate in an interoperable fashion with allied, particularly American and NATO, forces.

US, UK and other coalition assistance should also be targeted at further streamlining and enhancing the Iraqi Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) procurement system. The US Foreign Military Sales program provides a de facto procurement system since it handles almost all the process once a simple request is received from the client. The UK and other coalition allies should utilize similar approaches in order to ensure that the right equipment is delivered in a timely fashion.

Above: M1A1 tank delivery at Umm Qasr.

Iraq’s military needs to take advantage of the reduction in operational tempo following the liberation of Mosul re-equip and rebuild its military. But what type of military will Iraq build, now that it has a chance to assess the threats facing the country and the successes and failures of the past decade or so? Preventing a return of IS, or civil conflict like that which occurred in 2006, is going to be the main task facing the Iraqi military in the short to medium term.

Internal security in Iraq is primarily a counterinsurgency function. The defeat of IS is not the end of this struggle, and the struggle will require a long-term commitment. Since its formation in the 1920s, Iraq’s army has almost always had a broad internal security function, and while that is not necessarily ideal in a democratic society, it is hard to see that this function becoming redundant in the near future.

In 2007, then Prime Minister Maliki instituted joint operations centers in areas which suffered high insurgent and terrorist activity. These operations centers consolidated military, police and intelligence personnel under one roof and reported directly to the Prime Minister. In many ways they function in a manner analogous to the US combatant commands (CENTCOM, PACOM etc). While the operations centers tended to reduce to irrelevance the Ministry of Defense’s Joint Headquarters in Baghdad, which irritated doctrinal purists who wished to build the MoD in the mold of a British defence ministry, Maliki was in essence transforming the way his security forces operated, making them more directly responsive to local conditions and also more directly responsible to the Prime Minister by cutting out the JHQ bureaucracy. The Chief of Defense forces thus became more like a US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rather than an operational commander as he would have been in a British defense ministry structure.

This has had the side benefit of disconnecting the most senior military officer in the country from the direct command of soldiers, which of course further coup-proofs the elected government. Iraq’s record as the Arab country with the most coups during the 20th century means that this is not an insignificant consideration. In the situation of national emergency that Iraq still faces today, the operations centers have functioned well and should be continued as an effective means to unify and direct security resources to fighting terrorism and insurgency. The PMU should be brought under the command and control of the operations centers are quickly as possible.

Moving from organizational questions to warfighting – what type of military does Iraq need? Does it need a 14 Division army divided into brigades with heavy armor as was once envisaged by the Coalition and the first post-Saddam Iraqi governments? Of course not. Iraq’s 14 Division army was largely conceived as a means to generate employment, drain the insurgency of recruits, demobilize militias and generate a sense of national pride amongst a large segment of the younger generation.

Already by 2010 plans were being considered to begin right-sizing the army to a much smaller and more mobile force over the following 48 months. The failure of 2011’s Status of Forces Agreement and then the rise of IS in 2012, 2013 and 2014 derailed all these plans. The type of warfare that Iraq has seen over the past decade is indicative of what it can expect to see over the next ten years. While Syria remains a failed state and Iran remains divided between radical and moderate factions, we can expect that Iraq’s insurgents, terrorists and militias will operate with external acquiescence and support. Local grievances will also contribute to a residual, self-sustaining and ongoing insurgency. Iraq’s military is unlikely to face a ground invasion of division strength or above in the near or mid-term, rather it needs flexible, mobile, hard hitting forces that can move quickly to support intelligence-led policing efforts and the community based police forces.

The US and NATO have discovered over the past decade and a half that the brigade combat team is about the right organizational size for the counterinsurgency task, and thus this paper supports the concept of Iraqi army units organized at the brigade level and responsible to provincial operations commands. These units would be supported by Iraqi Air Force assets, intelligence assets and CTS as required. To move and fight these forces also need the right vehicles. HMMWVs are a suitable workhorse for different branches of the ISF, but are vulnerable to explosives. Iraq has experimented with and been badly burnt by Ukrainian sourced BMPs and should be wary of ex-Soviet equipment. In combat, the M113 has proven itself both as an infantry transport vehicle and (outside its stated capabilities) as a fighting vehicle. But it needs upgrading or replacing. Iraq’s soldiers should not be going into battle in M113’s with sandbags stacked on the roof to create a makeshift gun turret.

Above: Soviet era BMP 2, from NATO recognition manual.

Iraq needs to seriously look at options for troop transport and fighting vehicles. And Iraq does not need more tanks. It already has about 140 M1 tanks on its books (although many are non-operational due to maintenance issues and many were also damaged in combat, perhaps only a few dozen are combat ready at this time), as well as the T72, but their record in combat against IS is poor. Iraq lost at least 5 M1s to anti-tank guided missiles deployed by IS, and also found it difficult to properly maintain and field main battle tanks against insurgents whose main transport and fighting vehicle was the Toyota Hilux pickup truck modified into a Technical. It’s worth noting that Turkey has also recently found main battle tanks a costly and ineffective tool to use against insurgents. A good quality infantry fighting vehicle is what Iraq needs to support the urban and rural insurgency operations that can be expected over coming years. Iraq also needs drones and high quality intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment.

Any revamped insurgency will likely be supported by elements outside Iraq’s border, especially in Syria. Thus, Iraq’s border will have to be secured. The border forts we built need to be re-occupied, with a focus on Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance support, properly supplying them with logistics and providing reinforcements quickly. This means providing drones, radars, a direct link back into the nearest operations center, road building, and probably attack and transport helicopters to reinforce and supply should the roads become impassable. Close interaction with local tribal communities on the border is essential to provide eyes and ears for the troops deployed in the forts. Certain local tribes and communities should be employed to provide a border security and surveillance function.

The Iraqi military logistics system is still greatly deficient, and its ability to support operations across the vast areas required is limited. All efforts to rebuild the logistics system need to begin at Iraq’s logistics hub in Taji, north of Baghdad. Noting that this will be an expensive undertaking, funding from Coalition partners to help Iraq build an effective logistics system is essential. Private contractors to support Iraqi logistics will be necessary at first, and indeed, there is no reason that the Iraqi military could not continue to utilize private contractors for the foreseeable future, just like its Western military allies. But Iraq’s military logistics system was also damaged by corruption.

The inflation of troop numbers to generate fake salaries by unscrupulous commanders also generated inflated supply contracts from which massive amounts could be skimmed off into private sector profits. Soldiers’ food and supplies were being used to line the pockets of corrupt officers. More centralized control needs to be taken over the supplies given to soldiers. A system like that in the US military, where the Common Access Card is used to monitor and track soldiers’ supplies and food, must be instituted across the Iraqi armed forces.

Such an RFID chipped card with a magnetic strip could also function as a payment card and be linked to soldier’s salaries and also be used to transfer pensions to widows and dependents and pay for various government services. But cultural change is also important: Delegation is a concept that has become foreign to Iraq’s military leadership, and this must be changed. The burden of paperwork to approve quite minor decisions distracts senior leaders from leading.

Delegation of authority for decisions should be made on a project management basis – certain officers should hold delegated authority for decisions relating to a particular project, whether it be refurbishment of an army base or supply of rations to a particular unit. The practice of pushing all decision making upwards to the Minister has the dual effect of significantly delaying important decision making and creating a culture of risk aversion among officers that inhibits their ability to lead their troops.

The current lack of delegation has done nothing to diminish corruption, so fear of corruption should not be used as an argument against delegation. Moreover, adopting a project management approach should help to more clearly demonstrate responsibility – for success, failure and corruption. And Iraq needs also to bring back its military factories. Iraq’s military is a significant weight on the economy, but if Iraq can go back to producing more of its own military equipment and supplies, that might even help to kickstart a revitalization of other state owned enterprises, which have languished since 2003.

Iraq needs to take the reduction in operational tempo in the post-Mosul period to rebuild its military, and it needs to do this quickly. While Iraq faces many threats, the most serious threat is a renewed IS insurgency and the potential for a return to serious inter-communal conflict. The recent Kurdish independence referendum adds additional complications to Iraq’s fragile ethno-sectarian mix. Hence, it needs to accept that while it may not be ideal, the military’s role will primarily be to maintain internal security and it must be prepared to conduct low to medium intensity warfare for at least the next decade.

Iraq’s military needs to be highly mobile and enjoy short lines of communication, it must embrace delegated authority to enhance leadership and logistics support, joint capabilities and interoperability with allied (primarily US) forces. But Iraq’s military, more than anything, needs to maintain its morale and the great success of the last few years should be acknowledged and celebrated. Perhaps Iraq could now reintroduce a system of military honors and awards, starting with an IS campaign medal being issued to all who served, both in the regular and irregular forces.

We now have a tremendous opportunity to consolidate Iraq’s military success. Iraq has proved beyond doubt that it is a vital partner against terrorism. Sustaining the gains against IS will require long term engagement and a deeper debate on the thoughts and issues raised in this paper.

Dr Norman Ricklefs served as the advisor to the Secretary General of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and as the advisor to the Ministry of Interior. He now runs the private sector consultancy NAMEA.

Main photo: Iraqi Army MI-8 helicopter and U.S. Army Blackhawk byTravis Zielinski.

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