ISIS’s success is more about Iraq than about the Iraqi army

While ISIS consolidates and extends its gains in Iraq, capturing the mostly Sunni (but also mostly Turkmen, not Arab) city of Tal Afar in the north and pushing toward Samarra, which is also mostly Sunni but is home to one of the holiest Imami Shiʿa shrines in the world, a considerable amount of discussion has focused on the massive collapse of the Iraqi army that allowed ISIS to take Mosul several days ago. If the reports are to be believed, then tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers literally dropped everything, including a whole bunch of military equipment that ISIS has undoubtedly been happy to receive, and ran south in the face of an attack by a few hundred ISIS fighters. But it seems to me that a lot of the reasons being kicked around to explain what happened are focusing on merely the results of a much more fundamental problem.

A group of very learned security types wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that the Iraqi army has been crippled by two issues: an inability to develop intel in Sunni-dominated parts of the country and a politicization of the army itself, with a big side of corruption. After Saddam was toppled, we (the Americans) decided to implement the now-notorious De-Baʿathification Policy, removing anyone associated with Saddam’s Baʿath Party from government, the military, etc. This wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract; the Baʿathists had done enormous damage to Iraqi society and high-ranking members of the party should have been removed from public life at a minimum. But like everything else about Iraq, we screwed this up. Instead of reforming the existing army, we decided to totally disband it and build a new one from scratch. Same with civil servants, even really low level ones. This was ridiculous overkill, and not only did it cripple Iraq’s institutional capabilities by getting rid of apolitical folks who had valuable experience in running a military and running a country, but once the new government was formed and Nouri al-Maliki was elected its prime minister, it became more a “De-Sunnification Policy.” The fewer trained officers in the army, the more openings for Maliki to promote his cronies and pals (corruption, politicization), and the fewer Sunnis in the army, the less chance of developing sources in the Sunni population (intel).

Also too, here’s the New York Times assessing the Iraqi army’s poor readiness and Maliki’s politicization of army leadership, which just echoes this other stuff and is typical of what is being written about the military dimensions of the fall of Mosul. The BBC got in on the “what went wrong” game as well. It cited as causes for the collapse the decision to blow up the army and make a brand new one, the failure to properly train and equip that new army, America’s decision to withdraw and the consequent loss of leverage over Maliki (though I’m still trying to figure out how we could’ve played that differently), and the army’s increasing sectarianism, both in terms of composition and use (as Maliki’s personal Shiʿa militia). That last one is the one that leads to the deeper issue I’m talking about.

ISIS is, if nothing else, an ultra-Sunni militia. It’s led by a guy whose nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tells you two things: that he’s from Baghdad (actually most people think he was born in Samarra, but he studied in Baghdad, plus it probably reflects an intention to be from Baghdad — i.e., to have conquered the city — in the future), and that he’s a Sunni (“Abu Bakr” is not a name that invokes happy Shiʿa thoughts, for obvious reasons). It is also, undeniably, not a group that anybody especially likes. It doesn’t play all that well with others in part because it likes to take and hold territory, purge that territory of other influences, and institute its brand of ultra-orthodox Islam instead of putting all its focus on fighting the big enemy and worrying about that other stuff later. It also doesn’t exactly endear itself to the people living under its control, because of that ultra-orthodox Islamic governance. So what does it say that most of the Sunnis who fled Mosul in the wake of ISIS’s attacks are now flowing back into the city, preferring to live under ISIS’s control than under the Iraqi government’s? It says that the Sunnis in Nineveh (and in Anbar as well) have major problems with Maliki and the way he treats Sunnis, but as Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell points out, they’ve also got a general beef with post-Saddam Iraq and the way that their community has so dramatically lost power, despite their widespread (and factually inaccurate!) belief that Sunni Arabs are at least a plurality in the country, if not an outright majority.

What it also says is that the conditions that allowed ISIS to so easily move in and take Mosul are only superficially about the Iraqi army, and much more about Iraq itself, and whether or not there really is an “Iraq” at all. Yes, in the barest sense of the term, there is a state called “Iraq” occupying the borders that mark it on any map, but there’s no nation there, no sense of community among its disparate parts. Sunnis in Mosul saw the Iraqi army as almost an occupying force, partly filled, as it is, with Shiʿa from the south, and what’s worse is that the Shiʿa in the army essentially seem to have seen themselves in the same way. They ran not because ISIS was overwhelming them in numbers, and not because they didn’t have the proper arms or training to fight, but because they couldn’t be sure that the entire Nineveh Province wasn’t about to rise up and come over them like a wave (and it does seem like a lot of other Sunni fighters joined in with ISIS here), and because, once their leaders bugged out, there was no sense of national unity or pride that compelled any of the rank and file soldiers to stand their ground and defend the city. They weren’t defending their home, after all; for most of them, home is in the south. For the Sunni Arabs in the army, they saw no reason to stand and fight their kinsmen on behalf of a government that they don’t beleive actually represents them. And for Kurdish troops, well, why get in the middle of somebody else’s fight? Nobody saw any reason to risk their lives in defense of “Iraq” as it appears on a map, since very few of them place any national value on that “Iraq,” and certainly not in defense of the Maliki government that saddled them with a bunch of political cronies as their top officers, and that has utterly failed (to the extent it ever really tried) to engender that sense of common nationhood among its citizens, Sunni and Shiʿa alike. Nobody thought in terms of “nation,” only in terms of “tribe.”

This has implications for how the fighting may go on from here. ISIS is probably at the limits of its expansion into Iraq. Moving any further would require taking Samarra, and since they would be even money to destroy the Al-Askari Mosque if they do so, it’s likely that the Iraqi army and the Shiʿa militias that are being formed/reformed really will make a tough stand there. ISIS has got most of the rest of the Sunni-dominated parts of the country under its control, which means that further advances south will confront an Iraqi army whose soldiers really are fighting to defend what they see as their home. They won’t cut and run so easily now. Baghdad still has a mixed population, though it’s more segregated that it was before the war, but while the potential for street violence there is pretty high it’s unlikely that ISIS could take the city without a total breakdown by both the army and the militias (and the militias include some pretty seasoned fighters).

However, without some enormous pushback from the Iraqi army, likely in cooperation with Iran and/or the US (which still might not work, and would at any rate make the underlying problem worse, not better), ISIS can probably hold on to Mosul for quite some time. It’s controlled Al-Raqqah, in Syria, for nearly a year now, despite its harsh methods of governing. The only way to get them out of Mosul would be for the people of Mosul to decide to throw them out, and there’s no reason for them to do that so long as the only alternative is Maliki, or any continuation of Shiʿa-centric governance. It’s probably impossible to convince the Sunni Arab community that it’s not actually a majority at this point, but it is possible for a new administration in Baghdad to govern the country in a way that doesn’t punish the Sunnis for being a minority, or doesn’t try to punish them retroactively for Saddam’s abuses. That could involve federalizing the country into Sunni Arab, Shiʿa Arab, and Kurdish regions, which would give the Sunni Arabs more control over their own destiny while also acknowledging the fact that this whole episode has put the Kurds in a much stronger position than they were before, especially now that they have direct control of Kirkuk. Then, maybe, under the right national government, over time, you could begin to see the emergence of a common Iraqi national identity that would supersede these ethnic and sectarian divisions and really start to form a nation where now there’s just a collective mess.

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