A few weeks ago, in a major policy address at West Point’s graduation, President Obama outlined his military strategy going forward from Iraq and Afghanistan. The US, he announced, would avoid direct engagements as much as possible, and focus instead on training and equipping the national armies of our allies instead. To some, this bold new direction had a familiar ring, but we were assured that we had learned our lessons from Vietnam, and would proceed mindful of the pitfalls of such a course.
A front-page headline in today’s New York Times, however, seems to cast something of a shadow on this assertion:
Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight
Oops. It obtains that the Iraqis have lost control of Mosul, their second-largest city, which is now in the hands of ISIS, a “militant” army so toxic that even al Qaeda has broken relations with them. This comes on the heels of the fall of Fallujah, another major city and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting earlier in the war, to the same happy band. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one major city may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two seems like carelessness.
In any event, the troops which we have so carefully “trained and equipped” for so many years now have quite literally, by the thousands, cut and run, leaving behind their arms, armored vehicles, artillery and even their uniforms (so that they could more easily blend in with fleeing refugees). According to the Times:
American officials who had asserted that the $14 billion that the United States had spent on the Iraqi security forces would prepare them to safeguard the country after American troops left were forced to ponder images from Mosul of militants parading around captured Humvees.
So it appears that the surest way to transform a ragtag militia of badly-equipped amateurs into a superbly-armed and terrifying death machine is to train and equip their opponents, who, although handsomely-caparisoned and of splendid kit, lack one key element of a successful fighting force:
In interviews, several deserters cited the ferocity of the battle as their primary reason for leaving. They spoke of nerve-racking patrols in remote areas or in contested cities, surrounded, at times, by hostile residents. They searched booby-trapped houses and traveled roads full of bombs. Most terrifying, though, they said, were the snipers.
“The ferocity of the battle?” What in hell did they expect — good manners? “Patrols in remote areas?” “Hey — can’t we do this someplace more convenient? Do we have to go somewhere — um — remote?” And, of course, there’s always the folks at home back think about:
Some soldiers said their families begged them to leave the service. One 25-year-old deserter said his mother was so terrified of the fighting that she burned his uniform every time he returned home on leave.
So they ran. There were bullets. And bombs. And snipers. Hell, people were trying to kill them. No wonder they feel “exhausted and bereft.” And frankly, for all my sneers and snarky comments, I don’t blame them a bit. Why should they fight and die for the sake of corrupt fatcats sitting smugly in their Bagdad lairs? What are they doing, but extending a centuries-old sectarian Shia-Sunni battle with no end in sight? What can they expect to gain from their own deaths? Will their families be any more prosperous? No. Safer? No. In fact, the only reason they enlisted at all was for the money, and they quite properly figure that a live beggar has more options than a dead corporal. So they desert, and who the hell wouldn’t?
But all is not lost. Accepting the futility of expecting their own soldiers to fight, the Iraqi government has proposed an alternate solution to the problem:
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki [pictured above striking the traditional combat stance of a regular Iraqi infantryman] ordered a state of emergency for the entire country and called on friendly governments for help.
What sort of “help” might he reference? Well, we gave them guns, ammo, armor, artillery, aircraft, and the uniforms they tore from their own backs. We gave them training. We spent hundreds of billions of dollars. And we sent back a lot of flag-draped coffins to mothers here in the United States, who also feared for their children who went in harm’s way. That last contribution may provide a clue. Freely translated, we can read Mr. al-Maliki’s appeal as:
“Please excuse us, but since our fellows clearly have no stomach for this kind of thing, would you all please send us your young men and women again to do our dying for us, like you did for so many years not long ago?”
Perhaps we should pay less attention to Mr. al-Maliki, and more to Bashar al-Halbousi, an Iraqi deserter:
“The state is weak,” Mr. Halbousi said. “This will be an endless battle.”