Even as the American public, politicians, and pundits speak of putting boots on the ground in the Middle East, yesterday, Counterpunch posted Tariq Ali’s interview with Patrick Cockburn on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Cockburn speaks about why the Iraqi army failed in Mosul in the face of a few thousand ISIS fighters. The point he makes is that the Iraqi army was set up as a corrupt organization. His reporting showed that when the Americans set up the new Iraqi army, they insisted that supplies should be outsourced: (brackets by the Wrongologist)
So immediately a colonel of a battalion nominally of 600 men would get money for 600 men, [but] in fact there were only 200 men in it, and [he] would pocket the difference, which was spread out among the officers. And this applied to fuel, it applied to ammunition…
At the time of the fall of Mosul, there were supposed to be 30,000 troops there. Cockburn estimates that only one in three were actually physically present. From Cockburn: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)
Because what you did was: you joined the army, you got your full salary and then you kicked back half that salary to your officer, who spread it among the officers. So I remember about a year ago talking to a senior Iraqi politician, and who said ‘look, the army’s going to collapse if it’s attacked’. I said surely some will fight, he said: ‘no, you don’t understand. These officers are not soldiers, they’re investors’!
Cockburn goes on to say:
They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment. Of course you had to buy your position. So in 2009, you want to be a colonel in the Iraqi army, it’ll cost you about $20,000, more recently it cost you about $200,000. You want to be divisional commander, and there are 15 divisions, it will cost you about $2 million.
Finally, the conclusion by Cockburn:
Of course, there are other ways of making money. Checkpoints on the roads act as sort of customs barriers and a tariff on each truck going through would be paid. So that’s why they ran away, led by their commanding officer. The three commanding generals got into a helicopter in civilian clothes and fled to Erbil, the Kurdish capital. And that led to the final dissolution of the army.
So, the Iraqi army didn’t become corrupt. It was set up to be corrupt from the start.
If Cockburn knew this, and the Iraqi general he interviewed knew this, then the US authorities in Baghdad knew this as well! It also begs the question of where the money went that we were spending to train the Iraqi military: If it was a fake army, why was Washington spending all this real money?
We need to keep this in mind as the drumbeats build for troops on the ground.
Let’s draw an inconvenient parallel. Robert Farley, Professor at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, observes that the Obama administration has decided to rely on air power in its efforts to limit the power of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and asks whether air power could have won in Vietnam:
Taking a look at the strategic, tactical, and joint aspects of the use of air power in Vietnam, we can get to an answer of “Maybe, but…” with an emphasis on the “but.” The US could have used airpower more effectively in Vietnam than it did, but even the most efficient plans likely could not have saved the Saigon regime.
The South Vietnamese government did not have legitimacy and support of its population. If US airpower had been used in the most ‘effective’ possible way, Vietnam might have survived longer than it did, but a corrupt regime that lacked widespread legitimacy with its own population was not going to survive in the long run.
Iraq is analogous to South Vietnam. It is a corrupt regime that lacks support of a significant minority of its citizens. To the Sunni community, amounting to about 20% of Iraqis, ISIS is a better overlord than the Iraqi army or the Iraqi Shia militias.
However, tactically air power may be more successful in Syriraqistan. It can slow ISIS from taking new territory, but it’s not going to dislodge them from where they sit, without killing a lot of civilians.
The question still comes down to “How many civilians are we willing to kill?”, because the first thing an enemy with no air defense learns is not to hang around in the open where they make easy targets. Indeed, today, the White House acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes will not apply to US military operations in Syria and Iraq.
Obama’s problem was saying the objective was to “destroy ISIS”. We can’t “win” the war against ISIS. We can keep them bottled up, and that’s where bombing can help. We can destroy ISIS’s fuel, weapons supplies, and vehicles.
If we do that for long enough, ISIS could collapse on its own – it’s a creature of war and expansionism, and its crowd of foreign and local fighters will get restless and start turning on each other if they can’t conquer new areas.
If boots are required, they will have to come from the neighborhood.