U.S. troops train Iraqi soldiers in 2010. After the collapse of the Iraqi army this year in the face of Islamic State forces, U.S. officials are training a smaller number of higher-quality Iraqi units to fight the jihadists. (Khalil Al-A’nei/EPA)
After learning hard lessons rebuilding foreign militaries over the past dozen years, the U.S. military is shifting its strategy against the Islamic State, choosing to train a smaller number of Iraqi soldiers rather than trying to stand up an entire army anew.
At their peak, Iraqi combat forces, painstakingly built and paid for by the United States during the last Iraq war, numbered about 400,000 troops. By the time the Islamist militant group launched its advance across northern Iraq in June, the Iraqi forces had shrunk by as much as half, depleted by years of corruption, absenteeism and decay.
When the Islamic State completed its seizure of the city of Mosul, four Iraqi army divisions and another from the federal police had disappeared, shrinking the original combat force to as few as 85,000 active troops, according to expert estimates.
As the Obama administration scrambles to counter the Islamic State, commanders have decided against trying to rebuild entire vanished divisions or introduce new personnel in underperforming, undermanned units across the country, according to U.S. officials. Rather, the officials said, the hope is to build nine new Iraqi army brigades — up to 45,000 light-infantry soldiers — into a vanguard force that, together with Kurdish and Shiite fighters, can shatter the Islamic State’s grip on a third of the country.
“The idea is, at least in the first instance, to try and build a kind of leaner, meaner Iraqi army,” said a senior U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning.
The development of a spearhead force is unlikely to address the larger decay across Iraq’s security forces and institutions, a more complex, deeply rooted phenomenon that undermines the country’s stability. The force is also insufficient on its own to retake strategic cities such as Mosul.
But U.S. officials and others said the training of a smaller number of high-quality units could enable Iraqi security forces to make significant headway against the Islamic State — supplemented eventually, U.S. officials hope, by a new “national guard” that could bring an array of armed groups operating across Iraq under provincial government control.
Members of the Iraqi Shiite militia al-Karrar Brigades, seen demonstrating their skills this month at the end of training with the Iraqi army, volunteered to fight alongside Iraqi forces against the Islamic State group. (Khider Abbas/European Pressphoto Agency)