As we remember our fallen soldiers today, the capture of Ramadi and Palmyra by ISIS presents a grimly ironic prospect. In the face of this debacle US leaders are predictably divided. Opponents of the Obama White House want to turn the clock back to 2007, and deploy US ground forces to address the threat. The President blames the crisis on the Iraqi army's lack of combat readiness, proposing that more training is needed. Both propositions are demonstrably absurd.
The idea that US ground forces will be of help ignores the problem of working towards a coherent "end game" in that scenario. Given a large enough commitment of blood and treasure US forces could no doubt drive ISIS from its territorial stronghold and end its aspirational "caliphate," but this hypothetical leaves us with the unanswerable question of "what next?" American troops would be left occupying large swaths of western Iraq and eastern Syria, most likely under constant attack from fragmentary groups of nationalists and Islamist militants. The US would be faced with the choice of declaring war on the Assad regime and occupying Syria in the style of Iraq 2003, or of formally partnering with Damascus and turning over ISIS strongholds to the army that has recently used poison gas on its own people.
Just as US ground forces will be of little help in the current situation, more training for the Iraqi army will produce no good results. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. military (army, navy, and marines) had less than 350,000 personnel. By 1945 the U.S. had more than 12 million men and women in arms and had defeated some of the best-equipped and most experienced armed forces in the world, deploying citizen-soldiers that had been given roughly seven weeks of training on average. US advisers have been training Iraqi soldiers for more than ten years. Why would the nation that produced more than 12 million fighting personnel in less than 4 years during WWII fail to achieve an operational force many times smaller given a decade in which to accomplish that feat? Beyond this, if training is so key to military success in this conflict, how can we possibly explain the career of ISIS itself, whose soldiers lack virtually any formal training of the kind lavished upon the Iraqi army?
If US ground forces and more training are not the answer, what would help in the fight against ISIS? As I wrote almost a year ago, the Iraqi military lacks the basic equipment and combat capabilities of that of a genuinely sovereign nation. At the time that ISIS captured Mosul, the Iraqi Air Force had two Cessna prop planes modified to carry Hellfire missiles. One year later, the Iraqi military can field a dozen antiquated Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-25 combat jets. A dozen jets represents a vast expansion from two Cessnas, but it is still an infinitesimal fraction of the more than 950 aircraft that the Iraqi military could deploy at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. The US has sold Iraq 36 F-16 fighters, but has withheld delivery of the planes, citing security concerns. Even if the Iraqis had taken delivery of this shipment the Iraqi military would be a paper tiger, incapable of defending itself from comparably sized neighbors that can field hundreds of fighter aircraft (Iran, for example, has more than 600 jets in service).
Compare the state of Iraq's air defense with that of of the Republic of South Vietnam in 1975. When the US withdrew from that country, it left South Vietnam with the fifth largest air force in the world. The VNAF possessed more than two thousand aircraft, including more than five hundred transport and attack helicopters and more than 150 F-5 Freedom Fighter combat jets. If all of that firepower produced utter military collapse in 1975, can we be surprised that the Iraqi military has demonstrated poor esprit de corps when it has been equipped with only the smallest fraction of its operational needs?
The Iraqi army does not fight poorly because it lacks training, but because its officers and men know that it is not a real army, and that the government it serves is a client of the US and Iran. The possibility that the government in Baghdad might fall if ISIS prevails is not enough to motivate discipline and resolve, as it is clear to all concerned that Baghdad does not have final control over the lives and destinies of the Iraqi people, but must defer major decisions to Washington and Tehran. This situation will only change when the Iraqi military is fully armed and given the combat power to put it on a par with the military forces of Iraq's neighbors.
The Iraqi military has not been fully armed because the US government has forbidden it. The reasons for this are manifold, but they all boil down to a single overarching reality: no one knows what will happen when Iraq becomes truly sovereign again. When Baghdad no longer needs to depend upon Washington or Tehran for its defense it will be free to construct its own foreign policy. It might pursue partnership with Tehran to the exclusion of Washington (or vice versa). It might strike out on its own and abandon both of its prior patrons. It might cancel all oil contracts made under the current regime. It might elect for war with a neighbor, or with the autonomous enclave established by the Kurds.
Moreover, it is not only the foreign posture of Baghdad but its own internal dynamic that will be transformed by genuine sovereignty. The Iraqi military's lack of a credible air wing does not only make it more pliable to the will of the US, but also to the authority of its civilian masters. An army that can not defend itself against that of its neighbors has little scope to rebel against the civil executive, as its ultimate security can only be effected diplomatically. Once the Iraqi military is fully armed it may slip the leash and produce a new Saddam Hussein, whose whims would be anyone's guess. If the army rebels Iraq could be plunged into a civil war that would make the current state of unrest pale by comparison. Any of these scenarios could end with scenes very reminiscent of 1975, as US helicopters lift desperate embassy employees out of the Green Zone.
Restoring full sovereignty to Iraq is thus a serious gamble with an array of potentially terrible consequences. It is the inevitability of arriving at this juncture that made the initial invasion of Iraq such a criminally foolhardy idea to begin with, and that should restrain any thinking person from contemplating another massive deployment of US ground forces to the Middle East. One thing, however, is for certain. The Iraqis will not fight ISIS until they have a real army, and until that happens the Islamic State is here to stay.