When the United States left Iraq in 2011, the Pentagon said the Iraqi security forces it had spent tens of billions of dollars training were more than up to the job of securing the country's borders and preventing extremists from reigniting the kind of civil war that devastated the country during the long U.S. occupation.
Top American commanders conceded that the Iraqi forces didn't have a strong air force and that there were legitimate concerns about how the army would maintain its equipment or handle a sectarian crisis, for example, or plan and execute missions based on its own intelligence capabilities.
Still, U.S. officials confidently proclaimed that the Iraqi security forces were on the right track as they bid the Iraqis adieu.
"The Iraqi army and police have been rebuilt and they are capable of responding to threats; violence levels are down; al Qaeda has been weakened; the rule of law has been strengthened; educational opportunities have been expanded; and economic growth is expanding, as well," then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Baghdad ceremony in December 2011, just weeks before the last American troops left the country. "And this progress has been sustained even as we have withdrawn nearly 150,000 U.S. combat forces from this country."
Those optimistic assessments were catastrophically wrong. Iraqi troops have literally melted away rather than fight militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, abandoning their uniforms and enormous amounts of American-supplied vehicles, weaponry, and ammunition as they fled south. The Iraqi military Panetta boasted about three years ago has become corrupt and politicized, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki replacing skilled Sunni commanders with Shiite loyalists. Whatever capabilities it once had have decayed dramatically, and the Iraqi military has proven feeble in the face of a determined enemy. In a recent speech, Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said 60 of Iraq's 243 army combat battalions had basically disintegrated. Putting them back together, he said, would be a Herculean effort requiring U.S. advisers to "help Iraqi forces pick themselves up and dust themselves off."
"The key is to take baby steps -- win small, easy battles first to rebuild confidence for the larger battles farther north," he said in a June 17 address.
Even baby steps may be hard for the shattered Iraqi military. Indeed, with ISIS advancing closer to Baghdad and Secretary of State John Kerry pressing Maliki to make a serious outreach effort to the country's Sunnis and Kurds, it's clear that warning signs that Iraq's forces weren't up to the task were missed or went unheeded. The 300 troops President Obama is now sending to Iraq to advise the Iraqi forces and to assess their capabilities will likely identify many of the same issues that were just under the surface three years ago. Experts had said at the time that the Iraqi forces would have challenges addressing sectarian tensions because of their dominance by Shiites -- and, even more dangerously, by the ways Maliki has used them to crack down on the country's embattled Sunni minority to further his own political aims.
In late 2011, James Dubik, the retired three-star American general who led training of Iraqi forces until 2008, noted that the country's military still needed to hone its counterinsurgency training, wasn't capable of deterring external threats, and didn't have the capabilities required to sustain itself in a long-term fight. Indeed, today some believe the Iraqi army has become a "checkpoint military" -- good at static security, but flawed when it comes to actually fighting militants on the battlefield.
Military officers intimately familiar with the decline of the Iraqi security forces over the last few years point to a number of factors for the circumstances in which the Maliki government now finds itself. Top on that list is the departure of American forces in 2011. While a residual American force would not have prevented the current crisis, which has its roots in political dissension in Baghdad, many argue that it would have at the very least helped Iraqi forces manage it better today.
"The warning signs were all there," Dubik said Monday. American military leaders who had spent years fighting in Iraq were convinced -- as they are now in Afghanistan -- that a residual American force was necessary to sustain the gains the United States had helped the Iraqis to achieve since training formally began in 2004. "This was not a military decision; this was a policy decision," Dubik said.
To Dubik, the best analogy to describe the condition in which the United States left Iraqi forces in 2011 is in the form of a spear: American forces had successfully created the "tippy end" for Iraq, but the rest of the spear -- the maintenance of equipment, the logistics skills required to conduct operations, medical capabilities, and the like -- were still on the "to do" list.
"We left before we were done," he said.
Dubik and others say that all the planning that went into building and maintaining a robust Iraqi security force was premised on the notion that some American trainers and advisers -- if not a small number of combat forces -- would remain even after Iraq took over primary responsibility for securing the country. But when negotiations between Washington and Baghdad broke down over a security agreement that would have allowed American forces to stay in Iraq and all but a small contingent of U.S. troops left, signs quickly emerged that the Iraqis weren't ready.
"Withdrawing all U.S. forces before Iraq becomes self-reliant in external defense would create an unintended deterrence gap," Knights wrote in a June 2011 report. Knights noted then that Iraq's Defense Chief at the time, Gen. Babakir Zebari, thought the United States should stay until at least 2020. "Given its domestic political concerns and legacy of past military actions, however, Iraq might not be self-sufficient in external defense even by 2020, at least as defined by the United States," Knight wrote.
The Pentagon's own assessment of the Iraqi security forces, which include the army, police, and counterterrorism forces, among others, hinted that there were problems in the offing.
"With the exception of logistics and sustainment, the [Iraqi Ministry of Defense] is currently on track to achieve its [Minimum Essential Capacity] objectives to provide oversight of the Iraqi armed forces prior to U.S. Forces withdrawal in December 2011," said to a Defense Department assessment of Iraqi capabilities published in June 2010 -- the last time the biannual report to Congress was published. "In addition to logistics and sustainment, the current [Ministry of Defense] challenges are in the areas of planning and budgeting, procurement, and information technology."
The same report notes shortfalls in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, as well.
"They do not have their own unmanned aerial system capability and are largely reliant on the United States for ISR support," the report said. "ISR development is a major focus in the next period to include assisting the ISF with procurement and fielding of this critical capability. Finally, the ISF are still developing the ability to analyze, integrate, and disseminate intelligence sufficiently."
The Pentagon report still painted a somewhat rosier picture of Iraqi security forces' capabilities generally, though Iraqi units' ability to conduct "independent" operations was an issue. The GAO later knocked the Pentagon for its confusing use of the terms "independent" and "fully independent" in its Congressional reports, as the watchdog agency said the terms easily caused confusion, hinting at the idea that the U.S. military was putting the Iraqi security forces in the best light.
"In order to provide the Congress and other decision makers with a clear picture of ISF capabilities, DOD should clarify its use of the terms 'independent' or 'fully independent' as they relate to the assessed capabilities of ISF units, especially with regard to the logistical, command and control, and intelligence capabilities of those units," the GAO said.
But with essentially no American forces left in Iraq after 2011 to help the Iraqis, few of those capabilities were allowed to mature, experts point out.
Meanwhile, Maliki himself has contributed significantly to the problems in Iraq. Not only has he built a government that is seen among Sunnis as excluding them -- leading many Sunni leaders to back ISIS -- but Maliki is thought to have injected sectarian politics into selections for top command posts, filling them almost entirely with his fellow Shiites.
"There's no question that as time went by and particularly as Maliki came into a more open political struggle with the Sunni members of the government that he was using the security services more and more as an instrument of control and less and less than for a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism campaign," said Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who studied Iraq extensively for years during and after the Iraq war. "We weren't surprised at all by the decline."
Cordesman said the problems in Iraq really began last year and that he and others attempted to warn American policymakers of the pending disaster. In January, Cordesman authored a report, "Iraq in Crisis," that detailed the reasons behind the failing political and security institutions in Iraq.
"Nobody paid much attention here," he said.