Why does the Iraqi Army Keep Running Away from ISIL?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Commen) | —

Baghdad was shaken by the news that the Iraq army and police in Ramadi ran away from the advancing forces of Daesh (ISIL, ISIS). As a result, good American weaponry again fell into the hands of the extremists.

Diya’ al-Wakil, former Iraqi military spokesperson, has the same question, and he attempted some answers.

He asks: Why did the army and police and counter-terrorism forces retreate before the advance of the Daesh fighters?

Was the retreat a result of strategic or tactical errors?

What about psychological warfare?

Why would forces supported by close air support and heavy artillery retreat before small guerrilla groups?

Al-Wakil explains that Daesh takes cover in densely populated urban alleyways and fights from them, so that it is impossible to bomb them. This technique, he says removed the advantage the regular army has, since it becomes impossible for the the coalition air force to strike the enemy or for heavy artillery to be deployed.

Next, there is poor coordination between units. The coalition’s air forces were not effective because thy did not give the required support to the fighters on the ground because of poor integration.

The political divisions in Baghdad over whether to arm Sunni tribal levies properly and over whether to allow Shiite militias from Iraq’s south to deploy in Sunni al-Anbar province took these ancillary forces out of the fight.

Poor morale in the Iraqi army and effective psychological warfare by Daesh. This must be effectively countered if the army is ever to make progress. (He means that Sunni troops and police in al-Anbar Province are targeted by Daesh as “apostates,,” playing on the guilt some of them feel because they are serving a Shiite government.)

Ahmad al-Shamari argues that the Shiite militias or popular mobilization forces are not nearly as undisciplined and sectarian as they are depicted in the press.

related video added by Juan Cole:

Reuters: “Islamic State takes Ramadi, thousands flee”

49 Responses

  1. Doesn’t your question really beg the issue of motivation?

    It seems to me that small groups of highly motivated fighters operating under the flexible direction (or something short of direction) of creative and entrepreneurial generals, would run circles around whatever cut n’ paste, by-the-numbers army might be “stood-up.”

    “Stood Up” is the actual phrase used internally amongst those responsible for fielding the Iraqi army, and it seems to inadvertently speak volumes.

    There is a place for organization and planning, but it always boils down to fighting and dying for something.

  2. Their hearts are not in it, which is scarcely surprising, many are likely there only for the money, and the units can’t have acquired the camaraderie needed to fight on in fraught and dangerous situations. The US meanwhile should perhaps consider adapting the weapons it provides with a disabling mechanism which the soldiery might be encouraged to activate before throwing them away as a means of ensuing they are not subsequently turned against them.

  3. i was watching laurence odonnell last night. he had a segment on the politics of “if we knew then what we know now” despite that many of us like nancy pelosi “knew then what we know now” but then he had a segment on ramadi detailing the cost both then and now. but “if we know now what we knew then” why are we still bombing ramadi? when will we just let these people be? they have been in the ramadi region for a very, very, very, very, and very long time. it is their home. let them be. stop blowing shit up and wasting our money.

  4. i mean, why can’t we get the message? 2003, they didn’t want us there. 2015, they don’t want us there. even on msnbc we don’t get the message. THEY DONT WANT US THERE.

    • They really don’t want Daesh/IS there either, and this monstrous group only exists courtesy of the US under the wise leadership of Bush.

      The US broke it, and now owns it.

  5. Mohammed

    sleeper cells inside Ramadi activated; imagine being attacked from snipers from all directions; you no longer know friend from foe

    • Ah, so! Some few are commencing to understand the new face of war. Understanding that there is no favorable percentage in: standing toe-to-toe against Abrams tanks or helicopter gunships; engaging in fixed-position artillery duels; defending against vertical envelopment; ducking napalm; and fighting conventionally against overwhelming forces with superior weapons & logistics, irregular forces have found that a strategy based upon the age old concepts of stealthy “guerrilla” warfare negates the advantages of even the world’s most advanced weaponry. In short, the sneaky SOB’s do not take and defend objectives, and they certainly do not fight us the way that we want them to fight us; we-the-good-guys find it necessary to fight orthodox, committed “inferior” forces at times and places of THEIR choosing. . . and at the first signs of our gaining an advantage, they simply disappear. They melt back into the background where, if we follow them to continue the action, collateral damage to noncombatants further justifies their contention that WE are the heartless aggressors . . . Mao & Che both outlined the trail to victory for asymmetrical warriors,but somehow the lessons keep escaping us.
      Experience is a stern, cruel teacher, but fools learn under no other.

      • We talk about conventional forces in urban areas being unable to defeat irregular guerillas fighting for a cause on their own soil as if this is the new reality.
        Eisenhower’s foreign policy was based on the fact that nuclear war was unthinkable and small wars unwinnable.
        Fifty years later we still don’t get it.

      • Guerrilla forces cannot beat tanks. Traditional guerrilla forces are best used in areas with a lot of cover where only small arms can be employed. The only downside of a tank in an urban environment is if the streets are too narrow for the tanks to maneuver in. Also, guerrilla warfare is usually fought by small groups using ambushes. What ISIS is doing is not traditional guerrilla warfare. War In The Shadows by Robert Asprey is a two volume history of guerrilla warfare and it provides what are the necessary conditions for successful guerrilla warfare and what you need to defeat it.

  6. There’s a good article in the NY Times detailing the ISIS takeover in Ramadi and how they took advantage of a sandstorm nixing air cover. There had to be a reason for NO AIR COVER. Without control of the skies it’s IMPOSSIBLE for Daesh to win in Iraq.

  7. I made similar comments for another article of Juan but got shot down. In a nutshell, Iraqi army must be only an army in name. Our soldiers get paid too, but they don’t run away or leave their wounded comrades behind. How does Iraqi governmnet treat those who desert? Why aren’t arms depots have a mechanism where they can be blown up if needed? I know honor code is very strong in these societies, so how come there is no stigma for those who flee the combat? I don’t think the Iraqi military spokesman answered any of my questions.

    • How about performance reports? Does anyone have any idea of how many medals and citations for outstanding performance were issued to the trainers who appear to have achieved very little, if anything, to brag about?

  8. The US “trained” Iraqi regular forces but we TRAINED ISIS cadres.

    Since we fought Saddam’s mujaheddin irregulars in 2003 and on through the chaotic years of civil war and Surge, these cadres fought the most lethal military force on the planet.

    After a decade of combat against theUS, Daesh can claim to be the best trained military force in the world

    • It’s also well documented how the Daesh/IS leadership was forged from former Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda cadres in the US run Abu Graihb prison compound. This is indeed a threat entirely created by massive blow-back from Bush’s ineptly conducted, criminal war.

  9. Could it be the Iraqi troops don’t have adequate reasons to put their lives on the line and be the equivalent of cannon fodder?

  10. John Jay Myers

    I would guess because they probably are just in the military for a paycheck… not to fight people in their own country who hate us… when they hate us too. As long as we are involved there will never be peace.

    • Sorry to be so blunt, but this sounds just like convenient US ethnocentrism. At this point this is no longer about the US, but rather long standing conflicts that have been arrested as long as Saddam ruled with an iron fist. Now the power vacuum, super-charged by the Arab spring uprising in Syria, turned into a free wheeling civil war of many actors.

      At this point the crumbling American empire doesn’t factor prominently.

  11. the USA has a serious deficiency in our national capacity to translate national security objectives into specific courses of action.
    Our “National Security Advisor” position has always been filled by political hacks, rather than competent professionals. Ambassador Rice isn’t unique in her incompetence.
    .
    What can be accomplished through military force ?
    .
    What are our national interests with regard to who governs Ramadi ?
    .
    What threat does ISIL pose to the USA ?
    (as opposed to the question of “how can the imagined threat posed by ISIL be manipulated for political gain ?”)
    .
    .
    ISIL is no threat to me.
    I am in far more danger of being killed by a Motorcycle Club, or even the local police, than in an attack by ISIS.
    .
    But another important issue deserves to be considered:
    the people of Ramadi can act to protect their interests. If they don’t want to be under ISIL rule, they can do something about it. Give them time, give them support,
    but don’t send US soldiers in.

    • An ISIL controlled state with oil revenue would quickly become a major security concern. My understanding is that the strategic goal is to prevent this from happening.

      • quax, your posts are spot on, IMO. ISIL won’t become a controlled state with oil revenue because that would lead to a much bigger Sunni-Shia war. Iran will stop them if the U.S. doesn’t. The Republicans would have a field day if Obama backed off and let Iran take the lead.

        • “The Republicans would have a field day if Obama backed off and let Iran take the lead.”

          The Saudis would also be very unhappy, which could easily spin completely out of control.

  12. The U.S spent $22 billion to “train and equip” the Iraqi Army. No figures on what has been wasted since that time. I would imagine it is an ongoing project. Have to keep all those arms merchants in business.

  13. Sooner or later, the Daesh killers will wind up like they did in Tikrit or Kobani. Taking Ramadi was one thing. Holding a city just 60 miles from Baghdad will be a whole different ballgame. How long can they withstand a sustained counterattack. How will they get resupplied? They overextended themselves in Kobani and paid the price. The same thing will happen in Ramadi.

    • But what if the strategy of the puppetmasters behind ISIS is to EXPECT that only the most vicious, murderous Shia militiamen will be able to dislodge ISIS from each city in turn? They know those militiamen will destroy everything and commit atrocities.

      Maybe the purpose of ISIS is to be sacrificed as part of a strategy to make it impossible to ever put Iraq back together again. It has been pointed out by others here that Saudi Arabia wants to break the land bridge between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and Iran wants to maintain it. So ISIS ruining Iraq fits Saudi Arabia’s goal. If Iran retaliates too dramatically, Saudi Arabia will go to all-out war and ISIS will quickly be forgotten.

  14. I think it is better that we focus on the question Juan is asking and not go into tangential topics. Yes, we know US has spent billions of dollars, but that is not the question at hand. What we want to know is why Iraqi government forces flee in the face of ISIS assault.
    As I suggested above, there must be a total breakdown in Iraqi society when its men are not willing to fight. What motivation is greater than your home being invaded, women raped or sold into slavery, and you are summarily executed if you are defeated? We need to look at the social psychology of the Iraqi society. I don’t have an answer.

    • “What motivation is greater than your home being invaded, women raped or sold into slavery, and you are summarily executed if you are defeated?”

      For all these reasons these soldiers, to the extent that they are from the Shia South, will fight if Daesh/IS actually advances on their home turf.

      It should be obvious that this “Iraqi” army only abandons the Sunni dominated territory.

      To cling to the notion of Iraq as an integrated nation is at this point either willful ignorance or wishful thinking.

    • For a government to be successful, especially in a developing country, the government must be seen by the populace to be legitimate and effective. It is obvious that in Iraq large parts of the population don’t see the government as being either one of those things. Most governments are overthrown not because the opposition is strong, but because the existing government is so weak and not popular.

  15. When was it …. 2005 06 07 .. when Joe Biden proposed that Iraq should be three semi-autonomous regions; Shia, Sunni and Kurdish? Looks like ISIL is helping that along by consolidating a lot of territory for the Sunni peoples. People laughed at Joe Biden then but it might just come true unless Shiite officials realize they have to trust the Sunni tribes and arm them to combat ISIL.

    • It is important to remember that “national” borders in the entire Middle East were drawn on a map by a small number of extremely arrogant British and French empire builders, NOT by the locals. There is absolutely no reason why the borders in the Mid East shouldn’t be redrawn by the locals however they want. This is just part of the whole decolonization process where power gets restructured along locally logical patterns. The decolonization process is ALWAYS bloody and messy, but the more the USA meddles, the longer, messier and bloodier it will be.

      The BEST thing the USA could do is just grab a beer, wine or soda and some popcorn and watch the action on our HDTVs while making “gentlemen bets” on what the final result will be.

      NOTE: no matter what the USA does, the final result will be defined by the locals. All the USA can do is get beat up by all sides.

      • A very convenient view now that the US inadvertently created the Daesh/IS barbarity.

        Not only do the Iraqis not even receive a US apology, no they also get US voyeurism of their plight.

        Frankly, this is a pretty despicable attitude.

        • If one thing should be obvious since WWII, it is that even major powers are very limited in how they can control and/or change events in other countries. For every successful outcome, there are probably ten unsuccessful ones. One’s attitude, wishes, or hopes cannot change that.

      • And what if Iran refuses to accept the partition of Iraq and gets its prime minister to accept a massive intervention? Saudi Arabia will retaliate, and Saudi Arabia owns our asses in several ways – as we’ve seen in Yemen. Breaking with Saudi Arabia to stay out of the war will affect everything from the value of the US dollar to the global flow of energy supplies. I mean, I’m ready for those effects, but our citizens have a right to know what’s coming.

  16. Thanks for this. Yes, it’s always been a bizarre thing. We’ve heard endlessly for decades about how the US is going to “train” troops in this country and that country. All over the world we “train” troops. That’s supposed to be a good thing, to boost their fighting power.

    So now here we have an Iraqi army filled with troops who’ve been “trained” and supported and armed by the US completely helpless in the face of a terrorist guerilla band who has never been trained by the US — except in the reverse sense of being battle-hardened by fighting AGAINST the US.

    I guess you could make the argument that ISIL is so powerful in part because they’ve been “supplied” arms by the US, but only inadvertently and through error and blowback.

    That an Iraqi army trained and armed by the US has lost a provincial capital to a terrorist group and then had their/our weapons taken by the victors is a spectacle almost too scary and tragic to mentally take in.

    Why is there this assumption that people in third world countries need to be “trained” by the US, and that that makes them better fighters?

    • In the real world, where an 8 year old can be taught to “spray and pray” with an AK-47 in less than an hour, there is very little training actually needed. the smart ones avoid getting killed while killing lots of the other side. The dumb ones have always received the “Darwin Cannon Fodder Award.”

      The whole USA training Iraqis thing was just stupid arrogance on the part of American politicians.

      BTW – American soldiers receive just 10 WEEKS of basic combat training and then 4 to 52 weeks of specialty training. In that ten weeks the USA soldiers learn how to stay alive long enough to kill some of their opponents and once they are getting shot at, they quickly figure out how to increase their own odds and decrease the lives of their opponents (and yes, I have been in combat)

      FYI – If you want to know much more about modern personal weapons, read CJ Chivers book, “The Gun.”

      link to amazon.com

      “Fun Fact” from “The Gun” – there are over 100 MILLION AK-47 and equivalent weapons on earth with thousands more being made each and every day of the year. That is, there is roughly one AK-47 for every 50 humans on earth. Have a peaceful day.

    • We’ve had success in training the militaries in Central and South America. Unfortunately, that training has most often led to the slaughter of ethnic minorities and civilians in the name of fighting terrorists and/or giving impetus to top officers to overthrow civilian governments in coups. They get all this US training and they think it qualifies them to run a country. They very rarely are.

  17. Enough of this awful, bogus charade already. It’s time America and the rest of the world recognize the Kurds as an independent nation, arm them to the teeth and let them sort out the Daesh scum. The Kurds are the only ones who have the will and the ability to crush Daesh. They are tough, secular, they are our friends. Juan, can you please enlighten us as to why this is not happening?

    • They will fight fiercely to protect Kurdistan. They have no reason to fight for the Shiite government in Baghdad.

      • What makes you say that? Since the US saved them from Saddam they have been close allies of the US and they have opened up Kurdistan to private development.

      • Define “communist” and explain why that matters these days considering that Russia, China, Cuba and most of the other “communist” counties are not really “communist” anymore. Why should anyone care? Communism, socialism and all the other “isms” are just alternate ways to govern a country and no single way to govern is any better than any other (that is, all forms of governance have MAJOR flaws, especially the USA method of governance)

    • Okay, so now let’s apply our same blowback criteria to the Kurds. How do we know our weapons won’t be used by the Kurds to create a greater Kurdistan by seizing territory in Syria, Turkey and Iran? We can’t really trust anyone.

      • Syria is a failed state and Kurds defending their territory against Daesh/IS is highly desirable. Turkey and Iran have strong armies, the Kurds won’t be foolish enough to engage in conventional warfare with them, and heavy weapons are only good for the latter.

        No trust needs to be invested to justify this support for the Kurds.

  18. Bottom line: a multi-ethnic, multi-faith county like iraq cannot be ruled by a government dominated by one sect on the basis of the beliefs of that one sect.

    • BUT . . . the situation is where it is, because one (minority) sect ruled Iraq for decades creating lots of anger.

      The Kurds and Shia were badly mistreated by the Sunni minority for decades, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the current situation.

      Given that Iraq is an artificial “country,” we should just do what Biden suggested many years ago, encourage the split up of Iraq into three countries: Kurdistan, a Sunni nation and a Shia nation.

      The Shia in Iraq are Arab not Persian so they will want to be separate from Iran, but allied with Iran.

      Once the borders are defined, then the non-ISIS Sunni in the new”country” will have to decide what to do about governance, which I suspect will lead to the end of ISIS.

      • But any arrangement in Iraq has effects on the Shia-Sunni rivalry that has grown all over the Middle East. Iran needs Iraq as a bridge to protect Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia clearly does not respect the rights of non-Sunnis to have any self-government anywhere. It previously tried to seize control of Lebanon by using a corrupt Sunni billionaire as a puppet. Hezbollah made it clear that the Shia would never accept this.

        So how do you get a regional settlement protecting EVERY Sunni and non-Sunni enclave from their limitless willingness to oppress each other?

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