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Why the Iraqi army collapsed (and what can be done about it)

The collapse of Iraqi security forces this week has been nothing short of catastrophic. A surprise offensive against the city of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has rapidly unraveled the military and police forces that the United States spent years training, arming, and equipping. Now the militant group has seized much of northern Iraq.

Although ISIS had been resurgent for months, no one predicted that Iraqi security forces would simply disintegrate when facing a few thousand militants. Though stunning, such collapses are not unprecedented, and history highlights two key causes: poor intelligence, and the politicization and corruption of security forces.

Poor intelligence underlies many large-scale surprise attacks, which can panic even well-trained security forces. But security forces subject to politicization and corruption are even more likely to collapse under such conditions. In armies that recruit and promote members based on their political loyalties and/or ability to pay large bribes, leadership and morale understandably deteriorate. These fundamental deficits prevent the military from responding effectively to surprise attacks. The result is a shock that rapidly collapses the force.

The fall of South Vietnam is a classic example. In March 1975, South Vietnamese intelligence failed to identify a major North Vietnamese offensive against the area called Ban Me Thout. Soon the entire region was in jeopardy, and South Vietnam chose to withdraw. The country’s senior leadership — chosen more on the basis of cronyism than competence — then made a series of blunders in managing the withdrawal. It quickly turned into a rout as troops fled to protect their families, abandoning weapons and ammunition to communist forces. The rest of South Vietnam then began to fall with a speed that surprised even Hanoi, and the war was over within two months.

Iraqi intelligence and military politics exhibit similar problems today. Bureaucratic infighting and alienation of the Sunni minority have made collection of human intelligence in Sunni regions challenging. Since the 2011 U.S. withdrawal, Iraq also has lost access to U.S.-provided technical intelligence. These deficits enabled ISIS to launch a large-scale offensive in the country’s second-largest city largely undetected.

This surprise would have been much less damaging, however, were Iraqi security forces not thoroughly politicized and corrupt. In 2010, the International Crisis Group quoted a U.S. military adviser’s bleak assessment: “Cronyism, bribery, kickbacks, extortion… [are] commonplace and… getting worse. Commanders are not chosen for their ability, but rather based on whether or not they have paid the Division Commander the fee he demands.”

As a result, the initial panic from Mosul spread rapidly through demoralized and poorly led Iraqi security forces to Tikrit, Bayji, and other cities. Although it is unlikely that ISIS will now seize all of Baghdad, it may be able to extend control into northern, western, and even some southern suburbs that were among the group’s strongholds in 2006.

Despite these dramatic reversals, however, history suggests that the Iraqi government does have the ability to remedy some of these problems if it wants to. To be sure, they are deeply embedded in Iraqi politics, as Marc Lynch has rightly noted, so we should be appropriately cautious about what can be achieved. But the United States and regional allies such as Jordan could provide additional technical and human intelligence to Iraq, which would then provide better warning of ISIS movements in the future.

The problem, however, is that this might require returning a limited, low-profile contingent of U.S. forces to Iraq. Politicization and corruption are harder problems to solve, yet there, too, history shows that countries have overcome these deficits to generate greater military effectiveness—even in a short timeframe and with relatively limited resources.

In the late 1960s, for example, Jordan faced a growing threat from the Palestinian Fedayeen. To prepare for the eventual confrontation that famously occurred in Black September, King Hussein established a secret Special Branch to build an intelligence network within the refugee camps and main towns, monitor all Fedayeen activity, and recruit informants. This intelligence unit ultimately proved vital in securing Jordan’s victory in 1971.

Meanwhile, Iraq itself provides an example of improved military effectiveness resulting from reformed personnel policies. Convinced during the final years of the Iran-Iraq War that the Iranians might win — despite tremendous infusions of foreign weapons, aid, and loans into Iraq — Saddam reformed his elite units by promoting more officers based on merit and allowing them to rapidly scale up rigorous training. The result was greatly improved Iraqi combat leadership and fighting skills, producing the victorious counteroffensives that ended the war in 1988.

The takeaway today? Even with better intelligence, Maliki is unlikely to reverse the collapse of the security forces unless he professionalizes them. And that, in turn, is unlikely unless he decides that his own political survival depends on it. So far he seems to be doubling down on politicization by inviting help from Iran and re-militarizing the Shia. Under these circumstances, sending more U.S. weapons and ammunition to Iraq won’t solve the problem and actually risks strengthening ISIS if it continues to capture materiel from panicked Iraqi forces.

Beyond Iraq, policymakers need to take a hard look at Afghan security forces, which have been assessed more in terms of quantity than quality. A rapid collapse of the security forces brought about the end of the Communist regime there in 1992, three years after the Soviet withdrawal. Unless Afghan security forces develop good intelligence capabilities and limit politicization and corruption, history may repeat itself.

Keren Fraiman is a recent graduate of MIT’s Security Studies Program and has been granted a START Terrorism Post-doctoral Research Award for 2014-2015. Austin Long is Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Caitlin Talmadge is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University.