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Built and trained by the U.S. at a cost of some $25 billion, the Iraqi Army quickly collapsed in the last few weeks against well-equipped rebel fighters. For the Americans tasked with helping to create the country’s security force, it’s a disturbing, though not unexpected, blow.
America Tonight asked three veterans who trained, advised and fought alongside the Iraqi Army about how such an enormous investment in blood and money could seemingly vanish so quickly.
“They weren’t soldiers because they wanted to be soldiers,” explained Marine First Lt. Dave Jackson, who fought with Iraqi forces during his two deployments to Iraq. “They were soldiers because they wanted a job.”
He said the decision in 2003 to dissolve Saddam Hussein’s army created a vacuum of structure and experience. Gone were its senior officer and senior enlisted corps, and he said what the army built instead never reached the level of a professional force.
“No matter how many billions of dollars you spend you cannot buy experience. You cannot buy legacy. You cannot just manufacture that out of nowhere,” Jackson said. “…They've been set up for failure from the beginning.”
“Imagine being in a country where you can't communicate with the people that you're working with, but it's your job to train them to form a cohesive army,” said Matt Pelak, who as an infantryman in 2004 took part in the monumental task of building an Iraqi Army from scratch.
The Iraqi soldiers lived with the Americans on their base. Pelak said they trained them daily in basic soldiering skills, such as how to shoot and move in formation.
“How can you accomplish that goal if you can't communicate with the people you're working with?” he said. “It seems absurd, so why not dedicate time and energy to training soldiers and making sure they can speak the language? It seems like a no-brainer to me, for some reason we didn't do it.”
By the end of 2011, the Iraqi security forces totaled hundreds of thousands of troops, said Austin Long, a military advisor in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. They were also provided with an extraordinary amount of training and equipment, from small arms like AK-47s and M-4s to top-of-the-line M-1 tanks.
But the army was never as good in reality as it sounded, he said.
The failure of the Iraqi government to understand how or adequately deal with the fractious nature of their society and allowing that to permeate throughout their military force, that's something we can't control.
Marine First Lieutenant
“On paper, there were hundreds of thousands. It's not clear exactly how many of those actually existed, because there was a real phenomenon of ghost soldiers, or ghost policemen,” he explained, “where there'd be 800 on the payroll for this battalion or this police station, let's say, but maybe only 300 actually existed, or showed up for work. And somebody else pocketed the salaries of the other 500.”
He added: “Even in 2010, talking to U.S. military advisors, they would say things like, ‘Cronyism and bribery is rampant.”
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also appeared to use the army to advance his own interests.
“The Maliki government has spent a lot of time over the past five years alienating the Sunnis,” Long said. “And that's not how you create an effective security force that has high morale. It was a little bit of a rotten edifice to begin with.”
Pelak added: “We invested time, we invested lives, we invested money to get Iraq to the point where hopefully it would govern itself. Unfortunately the government that's in power in Iraq chose not to do the right thing and chose to put their own interests ahead of the country's interests and I think that's why we're in the situation we're in now.”
The veterans who helped build Iraq’s Army from the ground up admit the effort wasn’t exactly perfect. But they say the bulk of the blame lies squarely with the government in Baghdad.
“The failure of the Iraqi government to understand how or adequately deal with the fractious nature of their society and allowing that to permeate throughout their military force, that's something we can't control,” said Jackson, the Marine.
Long, the military advisor, agreed.
“Put yourself in the shoes of an Iraqi policeman, or Iraqi soldier in that environment,” he said. “It's pretty easy to understand why they ran away, particularly if they weren't from the region. ‘Why am I going to fight and die in Mosul if I'm from Southern Iraq, or Baghdad even,' right?"
He added: “This whole combination of factors means that I think a lot of these guys -- surprised, not very well supported, not very well led -- they just took off.”