How could an Iraqi army trained and supplied by the United States during a decade of occupation so quickly collapse and run away, putting the entire post-Saddam Hussein enterprise, and perhaps the Iraqi state, in jeopardy?
The answer was given to me by General Martin Dempsey before he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2005 Dempsey was in Baghdad, in charge of training the Iraqi army for the day when American troops would depart. Dempsey and his staff told me that it was comparatively easy to train men to fight. It was harder to train an army in logistics — how to keep an army in the field.
But hardest of all, and beyond America’s control, they said, was how Iraq’s political leaders would use their army. It would all depend on whether the army and police would be for the nation as a whole, or for a particular faction. An army might be technically proficient, but if its top leaders were corrupt and factionalized it would sap morale and motivation and erode soldiers’ willingness to fight — especially against a more motivated enemy.
We know now that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, freed from the fetters of the American tutelage, failed to instill a sense of Iraqi national purpose, supporting his own Shia faction at the expense of the minority Sunnis. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, would not have prevailed so easily had the Sunnis of northern Iraq not been so alienated from Baghdad.
Critics of President Obama are saying that American troops should have stayed in Iraq longer, the same as revisionists say that the Republic of South Vietnam would not have fallen if we had stayed the course in Vietnam. But one has also to ask, how long were Americans going to have to stay on when public support at home had crumbled and the fighting was already a decade long? And can foreigners ever accomplish much when the host government no longer wants them? Maliki threw in his lot with Iran, not the United States, and Iran wanted the Americans out.
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