The American Adviser's Quandary: What More Can Be Done In Iraq?

A recent American assessment of Iraq's military has come to some bleak conclusions. What more can U.S. advisers offer an Iraqi security force they have already spent years training?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One sign of a divided state is a divided military, and Iraq's armed forces are in turmoil. Tens of thousands of troops have taken off their uniforms and fled, rather than fight Sunni extremists. This, despite the fact that the United States spent years and billions of dollars training and equipping the Iraqi army. Well, now American advisors are back, trying to see what can be salvaged.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman covered the Iraq War and joins me now. And, Tom, let's start with the Iraqi military. What explains its collapse at key moments over the past months?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, the Iraqi soldiers have told reporters that their leaders fled, and they fled along with them. Around the city of Mosul, an estimated 20,000 Iraqi soldiers put down their weapons and took off their uniforms. And that's what allowed the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State to grab so much territory, and that's how this current crisis escalated.

Now, I've talked to American generals and officials who served in Iraq, and they place a lot of blame on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They say, for years, listen he replaced the best Iraqi officers with essentially hacks and yes-men, not those were competent leaders.

SIEGEL: But this is an army that the United States trained, and for years, U.S. officials have claimed that it's a solid fighting force. I've heard you back during the war report on American commanders in Iraq, talking about how well the Iraqi Army was doing.

Were they just sugar-coating things?

BOWMAN: You know, I think they were, in many cases. And I reported from Iraq from 2006 through 2008. And, Robert, I dug up some of my old stories, and one was from 2006. And General George Casey, the top commander at the time, predicted that in the next year and a half or so, the Iraqi forces would be independent and need very little help from the Americans.

Then I found a story from a year later, 2007, and a major report found it would take another 12 to 18 months. So a competent and independent Iraqi military was always just over the horizon.

SIEGEL: Just 18 months away. The U.S. worked with Iraqi troops for seven to eight years. Isn't that enough time to have built a better force than Iraq now has?

BOWMAN: Well, you should be able to build a pretty basic force during that amount of time. But by the time the U.S. left in 2011, they said the Iraqis would still need some specialized advising and training. One of those areas was logistics; being able to supply your army with food, and ammunition, and so forth. And the other is intelligence; how to pull together various strands of information to mount a military operation very quickly. Now both of those skills are difficult and take time. An American said the Iraqis still needed several more years of advising. And of course, all U.S. troops left the country at the end of 2011, because they just couldn't reach a diplomatic deal to keep them there.

SIEGEL: There are now a small number, up to 300 American troops, in Iraq to help the Iraqi army. Given the state of the Iraqi force, what can they actually do?

BOWMAN: Well, some are there to assess and advise the Iraqi army, determine whether they can work with any of these units, or whether some are just too far gone.

Other Americans are there in operation center. One in Baghdad, one in the Kurdish North. Basically, providing intelligence to help go after the Sunni extremists who've taken over so much territory. Now, some of the assessment is complete, and now the question is - will they do more, and what more can it do? Airstrikes are still a possibility.

Another option is working with Kurdish forces in the North. They're one of the ethnic groups in Iraq, and they're more cohesive.

And another thing is to try to drive a wedge between Sunni tribal leaders and the extremist group. That's what the U.S. did back in 2006, and that helped turn around the war, at least for a time.

SIEGEL: For a time. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: It's NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.

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