One reason for the imbalance is military skill and commitment to the fight: The Iraqi security forces that are taking the field are facing off against battle-hardened officers trained under Saddam Hussein who have spent the past 12 years moving in and out of Anbar province fighting both American and Shiite-led Iraqi forces.
Those former officers, in turn, have been given relative freedom to operate, with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delegating command responsibility to his field commanders, said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that develops programs to help Iraqi youth. Having grown up in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, these leaders understand the terrain very well, “and their level of intelligence collection is straight out of the Baath Party playbook. Very precise, very personal,” Ali said.
The Islamic State commanders, Ali said, also know the province’s tribes and social structures, helping the group identify which can be co-opted and which would need to be defeated militarily.
The Islamic State’s advantages on the battlefield represent a long-term unintended byproduct of the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime melted away. A generation of Sunni military expertise was essentially turned out onto the streets and eventually lost to the insurgency. The situation worsened in recent years when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government purged even more experienced Sunni commanders from the security forces and promoted less capable Shiite officers and commanders.
An immensely poor – nay, a calamitous – decision, caused by the US government’s complete lack of preparation for the occupation which necessarily followed the invasion, increasingly costly since it was made, and which will cost the poor Iraqis, and people of many other nations, dearly over the next few years.
And aggravated by President Obama’s precipitous withdrawal of US forces from the country in 2011, giving al-Maliki a free hand to stack the deck with Sunni-hating Shiites:
For years, Maliki’s Shiite-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia, brutally suppressing Sunni leadership and taking orders directly from the prime minister, who appointed loyalists and consolidated all military decision-making in his own office. Many Sunnis, furious at their treatment, began coalescing around the tribal militias and Islamist groups that eventually evolved into the Islamic State.
- question your assumptions;
- finem respice – when making decisions, consider the consequences of your actions;
- take the time, and make the effort, to get it right.