Middle East


Iraq: Consequence of Military Training

U.S. Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. (Photo: cmccain202dc, Flickr)

"The people made this uprising. It wasn't just Da'ish (ISIS). The Shi'ites are unfair to the Sunnis. They screw them over," said Iraqi citizen Razgar Mohammed last week. He's just one of many now fleeing a country once again in the grip of sectarian warfare.

For years, Iraqi Sunnis were fighting Iranian Shi'ites under Saddam Hussein, who was aided and abetted by Western military strategy and industry. That was followed by years of Sunnis fighting intervening Western forces. And here we are today: Iraq is shaping up as a failed state, with Britain and the United States having spent billions of dollars on military training of more than 500,000 Iraqi personnel. The ramifications of such military intervention by the West are now raining down in the guise of well-trained splinter groups in Iraq, which have been subjected in one way or another to an abundance of military apparel and expertise. Instead of advancing political integration, the heavy militarization of Iraq seems to have sharpened sectarian hatred and warfare.

The events of this week should be "a wake-up call for the Iraqi government," U.S. President Barack Obama said in reference to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's failure to include Sunni and Kurdish representatives in Parliament. Meanwhile, most Iraqis are either signing up for battle or leaving. On hearing that Mosul had fallen to Sunni militants, Abu Ali Alakabaie, an Iraqi Shi'ite commander in Syria, promptly packed and left for Baghdad. "After ISIS occupied Mosul, we decided to come back from Syria to back the security forces here," Alakabaie said. He is but one of the many commanders who have been exposed in some way or another to the Western military expertise in Iraq. "We now have great experience in guerrilla fighting," Alakabaie said. He's joining a growing number of Iraqi militia commanders and fighters activating fighting skills that they've honed in Syria through years of fighting the same Sunni militants now attacking Iraq.

With every battle fought, military skills increase. Now more than ever, geopolitical accord is required to resolve civil wars and increase political stability. Iran, for example, may well have had strategists and fighters in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, but the geopolitical crossfire between Iran and the United States is only exacerbating the current instability of Iraq and Syria. U.S. strategies primarily geared toward increasing military training and defense in these conflicts seem to preclude, to a large extent, forging avenues of political dialogue between regional stakeholders such as Iran. Some analysts say the major players in the Iraq and Syria crises are often both allies and antagonists. They unite on one front one day and then at cross-purposes the next. Either way, their battles seem to have pronounced sectarianism rather than progressive political integration.

Counterterrorism strategies culminating in regional sectarian foment

The Iraqi Army, on which the United States spent $20 billion training as a multi-sect force, is today manifest with sectarianism. It never could fight "enemies of the Iraqi state" as a unit. It couldn't determine them. This now looks like one core failing of Western military strategists. Another lies in applying the label "terrorist" to define the enemy required for counteracting. The ISIS military thinks differently.

"The ISIS military command in Iraq has exercised command and control over a national theater since at least early 2012 ... functioning as a military rather than as a terrorist network," wrote analyst Alex Bilger of the Institute for the Study of War. "What is very dangerous is that all these forces now have the same goal," added Jordanian expert on Islamist groups Hassan Abu Hanieh. An Islamic caliphate has been the often-stated goal, and to this end it seems ISIS has forged a clear direction. "ISIS has been able to take advantage of the diffuse fighting forces," said Hanieh. ISIS appears to have a regional strategy based on Syria and Iraq as one interchangeable battlefield, allowing it to mobilize resources and manpower in pursuit of military objectives, said a U.S. counterterrorism official.

This seems to be the bottom line of sectarian foment stirred up and spread around by decades of the strategic maneuverings of Western military strategists. ISIS has applied the muddied waters of "uniting in the face of a common enemy" as a mobilizing force far and wide. And today's "counterterrorism" strategies are proving to advance their cause—another failing of Western military strategists.

Experts say militias are now different from those of the worst days of sectarian fighting. At an Iraqi Army base, for example, one Shi'ite commander who identified himself to reporters only as Mohammed is currently training soldiers on counterterrorism strategy. Sounding almost patronizing, he said, "What's going on now is just a copy of what we did in Syria, planning and suggesting the movement of the troops." Deputy Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami expressed confidence to Payvand News regarding recent developments in Iraq. "Undoubtedly, the trend of extreme groups' movements in Iraq will be reversed." Comparing the situation in Iraq to that of Syria, where Iranian forces are supposedly aiding President Bashar al-Assad, he added, "Things were reversed in Syria," inferring the same would happen in Iraq.

Like many others, the IRGC commander blamed the United States and Western states for Iraq's crisis. "Incidents that are taking place in various countries, such as Iraq, are the result of the U.S. and Western governments' military interference," he said. "In fact, the colonialist policies of the United States boost the presence of extremist terrorists in Iraq and the recent events there," the Iranian supreme leader's representative Hojatoleslam Ali Saidi added.

In the meantime, another generation of fighters is rising through the ranks. Instead of learning economic or political or medical skills, the youth of the region are pouring into recruitment centers to fight. "Not only can I shoot an AK-47," said a high school student, "but I can fieldstrip it too."

The messy mix of rivalries is coming home to roost for Western military brass, not just via the strength of ISIS but in terms of with whom to now align to counteract them. Iran, once part of the "Axis of Evil," exemplifies the consequences for Western military experts of manifesting animus for their own strategic ends. The myriad fighting forces in the region—from Hezbollah to Hamas, from ISIS to the IRGC of Iran—that have been in one way or another rationalized as terrorist forces by the United States have not progressed the vital geopolitical accord required in the region to transcend the many splintered political protagonists.

"Help from Tehran would be provided within the frameworks of international law and the official request of Iraq and the Shi'a-led government in Baghdad," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently said. Iranian Shi'ite militias-in-formation are presently maintaining they are not anti-Sunni. Nevertheless, as one analyst notes, distrust is apparent amongst these Shi'ite militias. And that is only a mirror image of the Sunni militants' views of the Shi'ites.

Geopolitical progression and regional defense regulation

"Iraq's going to need more help," President Obama said last week. "It's going to need more help from us, and it's going to need more help from the international community." Today Obama announced that the United States will deploy as many as 300 military advisers to Iraq to aid security forces in fending off Sunni militants. If Obama is currently intimating reorienting U.S. counterterrorism strategy, that means instead of fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States plans to effect military counterterrorism from the Middle East to North Africa. Sounds like spreading the fire on broader scales.

"One act of violence provokes another act of violence," said Nancy Pelosi, U.S. House minority leader. "And here we are." Many in the U.S. government assert that today's strife in Iraq and Syria derives from former President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many decades of military interventions in the Middle East have created political voids riddled with geopolitical schisms. Instead of progressing regional political integration, overt Western military interventions have fomented religious rivalries at both the state and sectarian levels, none more so than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Another factor that has been effective in the rapid progress of the ISIS in Iraq is the support of Israel and Saudi Arabia, aimed at challenging the security of the Islamic republic," Amir Musavi, head of Iran's Center for Strategic Studies, said. Saudi Arabia and Qatar invested a lot into creating chaos in Syria, advised Ali Saidi. He sees the reasons behind ISIS's rapid advances in Iraq concerning the failed strategies of Saudi and Qatar in Syria. "So they've opened a new front in Iraq to lift the morale of those to whom they made promises." All of which analogizes the negative consequences of state discord within the region.

There seems no end to regional schisms and strategic alliances in the Middle East. Instead of open political discourse on regional concerns of energy security, environmental security, and the global coordination of defense security and regulation, Western counterterrorism strategies prevail. There is no effective control over the WMDs in the region. Instead there is military training on how to use weapons by Western experts.

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