In Iraq, let the leaders lead

Iraqi volunteers, wearing new uniforms, gather after a speech Monday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who announced a plan to arm and equip civilians who volunteer to fight jihadist militants.
AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi volunteers, wearing new uniforms, gather after a speech Monday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who announced a plan to arm and equip civilians who volunteer to fight jihadist militants.

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.

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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.

The difference between the two Vietnams was political, not religious or ethnic. But the north was better at mobilizing its people, while the South could not shake off corruption or the perception that it was an American puppet. “Vietnamization,’’ training the South Vietnamese to stand on their own feet to fight, was America’s hope.

And yet in the end, the world was as shocked as it is today at how the South Vietnamese army simply melted away when the North Vietnamese mounted their final offensive.

A few years after visiting General Dempsey in Baghdad, I visited General William Caldwell in Kabul. Caldwell was in charge of building up Afghan forces to defend themselves when the Americans left. Caldwell had a harder task than Dempsey, given the multiple ethnic rivalries woven into the Afghan fabric, and had to contend with Afghan soldiers turning their guns on their trainers. But what looked good on paper in Kabul looked less good in the countryside, where Afghan forces and police were often bitterly resented by the put-upon populace. As in Iraq, corruption is rampant in Afghanistan, army desertion levels dangerously high, and troop motivation low. And like it or not, Islamic militants in both Afghanistan and Iraq do not lack motivation. Unfortunately, motivation rises with militancy. That’s why it is naive to think that Obama backing moderate Islamic rebels in Syria would have prevented the rise of ISIS.


As the American invasion of Iraq empowered the Shia, the invasion of Afghanistan simply turfed out the traditional rulers, the Pashtuns, and empowered other ethnic groups. The truth is it was never in America’s power to force Afghanistan’s ethnic rivals to put aside their differences, nor was it possible to force national reconciliation among Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds in Iraq. Only Afghans and Iraqis themselves can do that.

It is also true that it is very hard for foreigners to inspire armies or run counter-insurgencies in foreign lands. Foreigners can provide training and equipment, but it is always up to local leaders to motivate their forces or fail. This was as true in Saigon. It’s true in Iraq today, and will be in Afghanistan tomorrow.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.