U.S.-Trained Iraqi Army Failed To Stand Up To Insurgents

Steve Inskeep talks to retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, an author of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, about U.S. military strategy and policy during and after the Iraq war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The collapse of Iraq's military is raising broader questions about U.S. strategy around the world. President Obama wants to rely on U.S. allies whenever possible to battle extremists. Iraq is a country where the United States tried this - partly by choice, partly by necessity.

In fact, the U.S. had eight years to train Iraqi forces before the U.S. had to leave in 2011. That raises a question we put to retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. He's an Iraq war veteran who co-authored "The U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual." John Nagl had some influence over U.S. thinking during those eight years of training Iraqis. Why wasn't eight years enough?

JOHN NAGL: It takes, literally, generations I think to train a culture of command responsibility for your troops that rewards people for good performance, that does not rely upon their political decisions or their religious affiliation for their promotion potential.

INSKEEP: I seem to recall U.S. military trainers talking about their efforts to persuade Iraqi recruits to think of themselves as Iraqis rather than as members of a particular religious sect.

NAGL: And I think that that succeeded with the recruits. The problem is that that training didn't extend to the prime minister, the president of Iraq, the general officers who were hired and fired based in no small part on their personal loyalty to Maliki and the sect they belonged to, rather than their military competence. And so we've seen troops who wanted to fight but who were out of food, out of bullets, who couldn't find their general officers commanding who, frankly, fled at the first sign of gunfire.

INSKEEP: I want to listen to a little bit of a recent report by my colleague, Alice Fordham, who's been reporting from Iraq and talked with Iraqi soldiers who had been - as well as police - who had been trained by the United States at some point in the past. Let's listen to what one of those gentlemen said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BAHER IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: That's Baher Ibrahim. He says they lost the battle against ISIS in their area last Friday. The security forces were outnumbered, outgunned, and he says they were ordered to flee.

IBRAHIM: (Through translator) Planes didn't come. Aid didn't arrive. Support didn't come to us. Nothing came.

FORDHAM: Like many Iraqi troops, he received training from American soldiers back in 2009. He says it was excellent. But now morale among the forces is so low that about 10 of his friends deserted even before this crisis.

INSKEEP: Unbelievable list of problems there - one of them, at the end, just being morale. People were not in a position where they wanted to fight.

NAGL: No, it was heartbreaking for me to listen to those words - for many of us who worked to stand up Iraqi police, Iraqi army over the course of the last decade. One of the ways to mitigate the problem we've been talking about would've been to have left an American advisory presence in Iraq - something that I and many other people - military people - recommended. We could have fought against these sectarian influences, and we also could have helped with the logistics and air support and intelligence support. So we really I think missed an opportunity to head this disaster off at the pass. If we'd left them there, a lot of this I think never would've happened.

INSKEEP: Now let's note that we're in a situation where President Obama would like, where it's possible, for extremist groups to be battled by military forces in the countries where they are rather than the United States military. And he proposed in May a $5 billion counterterrorism fund which appeared to be designed to help support those kinds of efforts. Does the lesson of Iraq tell us anything about whether that kind of strategy can succeed?

NAGL: I think it tells us that that sort of strategy is enormously difficult. Its chances for success are increased if we put American advisers with these units for the long haul, providing access to the American advantages of intelligence, airpower, medical support. We then dramatically increase the chances that those units will be able to do the fighting and the dying on our behalf to accomplish shared, mutual objectives.

INSKEEP: And what do you say to people who, when they hear advisers, think that's how the United States began its involvement in Vietnam - that anywhere where we send advisers, that's a larger war waiting to happen at some point?

NAGL: The fact is that we are engaged in a very large war. We think that because we left Iraq, that the war ended there. It didn't. The fact is that we are engaged in a long-term struggle against radical Islamist extremists, and the cheapest way for us to influence that fight in terms of dollars and in terms of American blood is to do it through the use of American advisers, rather than through the use of direct American combat troops - boots on the ground. But it is the only way to win this fight over the long-term.

INSKEEP: John Nagl, it's always a pleasure to talk with you.

NAGL: Pleasure talking to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's an Iraq war veteran and co-author of "The U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual."

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