What accounts for the Iraqi military’s failure? Many problems stem from the Bush Administration decision to disband the existing Iraq military in 2003 and build a new one from scratch. Intended to rid the institution of officers linked to Saddam Hussein, the move instead left thousands of armed men unemployed and embittered. This contributed to a security vacuum within Iraqi society and fed a vicious anti-U.S. insurgency. Many high-ranking officials who served under Saddam have now become senior commanders with ISIS.
The Iraqi army is also notoriously corrupt, a legacy of Nouri al-Maliki’s years as prime minister. Fearful that a strong military would pose a threat to his power, al-Maliki replaced top commanders with political patrons drawn from his Shia sect, undermining any attempt to establish a merit-based system of promotion. So-called “ghost battalions” draw salaries despite never reporting for duty, and the forces who do remain are no match for fanatical ISIS fighters. “Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause,” William Astore, a former U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, wrote last year in the American Conservative.
But the main problem with the Iraqi military is the problem with Iraq as a whole—the country effectively no longer exists as a unified state. Kurdistan, for all intents and purposes, acts as an independent country. Much of the Sunni population lives in territories controlled by ISIS. The rump Iraqi government, meanwhile, operates in close cooperation with Iran, who funds Shia militias that act as a paramilitary force. The Iraqi military, then, is less a cause of the country’s failures than a reflection of them.