Clear—Hold—Build. Since the departure of the occupation force U.S. combat mission in December, 2011 Baghdad’s regimes failed at every phase of the clear—hold—build trifecta. That is, until now. With something that resembled Islamic State(IS) capitulation losses in Tikrit and Ramadi the regime has urgent need to graduate to the next two critical phases of clear—hold—build; specifically, “hold” and “build.” However, this regime’s skilled capacity is so paltry lacking that the government may ultimately fail at the end-states of enduring stability and security—the things sought by Coalition forces, 2003-2011.
The want-ad is tongue in cheek; however, it is an accurately reasoned rendering of Baghdad’s most pressing need; which if unmet will lead to an undoing of hard earned gains. When more Iraqi territory was held by the IS, the smaller Iraqi Army was better sized for its then smaller area of responsibility. That less Iraqi territory is controlled by the IS today does not necessarily translate into more terrain controllable by the regime.
As the IS retreats withdraws from Iraqi cities towns, countryside, and uninhabited spaces, the resulting uncontrolled spaces are in fact vast, marginally administered areas where the regime cannot back up writ with force. In an unhelpful coincidence, both the Iraqi Army and police forces face the vexing challenges of growing their ranks while simultaneously re-growing themselves as potentially viable institutions. While the Army and police forces at every echelon in formerly IS controlled areas can legitimately assert that IS militants are absent in force, the Army and police forces cannot rapidly leap to their institutional end states of top to bottom competence. Meanwhile, the domestic door-to-door fight for the future of Iraq unfolds somewhere within its borders everyday. Much of Iraq remains ruled by the law of raw force at the local level.
Where to go from today’s predicament are massive challenges in two dimensions: first, the militias could be part of a strategic evolution of Iraqi state defense, but use of them in their current form is self-limiting. Second, the regime has no end state vision of its Army and police forces other than their use to eventually expel IS militants from Iraq; that vision is insufficient to attain even that goal.
The First Dimension. After the Sh’ia militia participated in the regime’s first win against the IS in Tikrit, the militia informally stepped into the role of holding some sections of Tikrit when the regime had no other forces to first stabilize then conduct the wide area law and order mission. Intermittently, partially, or not paid at all, militia were a poor choice to hold and defend Tikrit from continued IS predation. Instead, some militiamen became the predators. Self-recruited volunteers and loosely trained, militiamen could not be counted upon to maintain order and conduct local policing until trained law enforcement personnel could be deployed in bulk within Tikrit. Out of necessity to address chronic personnel retention challenges within the Army, it developed a relationship of dependency upon the militia to mass combat manpower in the field.
Further complicating matters, the regime has ever only had something akin to indirect authority over the militias; additionally, the regime is unable to control what weapons enter Iraq to benefit the militias. Then there are the sectarian complications that militias bring. Given Iraq’s traumatized sectarian divides, the militias add their greatest value when they operate as the home guard within and not beyond the boundaries of their respective sectarian populations. Inasmuch as the militias were difference makers at Tikrit and again at Ramadi, they complicate “hold” operations by operating in ways that make it difficult for their members to be held legally responsible for their actions.
The Second Dimension. Recently, the regime made a decision to cut its pay program for militiamen. When militiamen feel the effects of a lack of pay in a country where finding steady work is extraordinarily difficult, they will drift away from an active affiliation with the militias. Unguided by a sound strategic manning roadmap, the regime will by the onset of spring, find itself grappling with the operational limitations and strategic consequences imposed by a smaller combat workforce. Moreover, the government austerity that is the cause of manpower reductions in the militias is the same over-arching force that will prevent offsetting recruitments in the Army and police forces. Plans to grow the Army and police forces remain stymied by weaknesses in personnel vetting, materials accountability, and availability of funds.
Meanwhile, the regime is relocating forces from the Ramadi fight and elsewhere into central Iraq as part of clearing operations that are intended to converge on several locations south of Mosul later this year. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense seeks to launch an operation to retake Mosul so as to have the city returned to government control by the close of 2016. But, there are just a few reasons why that goal is unattainable. With modest growth in the Army, insufficient police forces expansion, security institutions still not fully baked, unreasonably confident military leadership, state directed decreases in militia manpower funding, inept strategic planning, and a mounting national deficit collectively conspire to restrict the regime’s security options. This author is not the only skeptic when it comes to Iraqi capacity and ability to take back one of Iraq’s largest cities from IS control.
The bottom line is that if the regime runs head on toward a premature Mosul fight with some but not all of the combat manpower power it needs, it may find itself operationally depleted with no strategic combat force reserve…and a year or more to wait for a replacement force to be recruited and reconstituted. There are many options but only a few make sense. The option that makes the most sense is for the regime to do what it has said it will not do: allow a foreign, perhaps multi-national force into select areas of Iraq to take on the “hold” mission while the regime regroups then launches a much needed domestic “re-build” effort as part of a broader clear-hold-build strategy. However, this Sh’ia led government…like the previous one, does not acknowledge that underlying the IS movement in Iraq was a domestic insurgency inflamed by the al-Maliki administration’s policies and prejudices; causes that continue with the al-Abadi government. When the IS is ultimately repulsed from Iraq, the insurgency will arise…again. The causes of the insurgency remain; unresolved, unacknowledged, and unaddressed.
Baghdad, the want-ad is free. It might come in handy.
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