Why Won't Iraqi Troops Fight Like Americans?

06/24/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has complained that Iraqi National Army soldiers have demonstrated "no will to fight" against the Islamic State (IS); the fall of Ramadi was their fault. American soldiers attached to Iraqi units might be needed to "stiffen their spines."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was rightly skeptical; any people who believe in their country will be motivated to defend it. Did Americans need outsiders to encourage them to fight after September 11? Or Pearl Harbor? Or 1776?

The question we should ask is why Iraqi soldiers do not feel the same way about Iraq that American soldiers do about their country.

The fundamental problem is that Iraq is not really a country. There is consequently no unified national military force with an unambiguous goal of defending the borders and preserving the existing government.

Iraq is one of the results of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after WW I when the British (who as one of the victors sought and obtained the "mandate" for that region in order to protect their oil interests) patched together Basra, Mosul and Baghdad and created Iraq. Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds had their own interests. None really bought into the concept of "Iraq." It was held together by force under Saddam, not by the loyalty and commonality of its citizens.

The U.S. may want to see the current boundaries of Iraq maintained--although why we are so attached to a particular Ottoman legacy is another question that should be examined--but the people who live there do not see the territory in the same way. The boundary problem is compounded by a Shi'a dominated government in Baghdad that has at best marginalized everyone else. Sunni in Anbar feel both threatened and cut adrift (and perhaps nostalgic for Saddam) and Kurds want their own country.

Soldiers in the Iraqi Army, which the U.S. has tried to develop as a national force analogous to ours, are predominantly Sunni. This might give them some incentive to defend Sunni Anbar--now wanting protection against the Sunni Islamic State, which overplayed its hand with its extreme violence. However, the Army is poorly supplied by the Shi'a government, and its officers are of minimal competence, notorious for buying their positions and siphoning off supplies, and generally uninterested in the welfare of their troops; officers were often the first to desert. The Sunnis in Anbar want to be armed to defend themselves. However, the Baghdad government may well suspect that some of them previously supported IS, as they initially welcomed Sunni al Qaeda in 2007. Baghdad may also fear that armed Sunnis might turn their weapons against the Shi'a central government.

Shi'a militias, supported and sometimes led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, in contrast seem militarily competent and well directed. The militias have an unambiguously pro-Shi'a agenda and have successfully fought IS. The nature of Iranian support is worth noting. Shi'a Iran is a real country, 2500 years old and not an artificial remnant of the Ottoman Empire. Despite internal conflicts over the post-1979 theocracy, Iran is a unified country with professional military institutions. Where they are fighting, we can expect to see professional command and control and we should not anticipate Iranian soldiers deserting and fleeing.

Sunnis in Anbar may not be enamored of the IS, but seem even less interested in having Shi'a militias in their province. As recently reported, Sunnis displaced from Tikrit by IS are returning to find that Shi'a militias looted the city after expelling IS. Even tribes with both Sunni and Shi'a members are divided, with Sunni afraid of Shi'a militias and Shi'a suspicious that Sunnis collaborated with IS.

The real wonder may be that Iraq hasn't collapsed entirely from all these internal contradictions, animosities, and conflicting agendas.

The U.S. answer to this mess has been more training for Iraqi National Army troops, but training in the absence of competent and legitimate leadership and a unified country is of minimal use. Individual Iraqi units may be "trained" in tactics or weapons skills, but why do we think they would they stick around to participate in the fight if they have no confidence in their leadership or reason to risk their lives for the Baghdad regime?

Those who live within the current boundaries of Iraq will have to figure out for themselves whether they want to split up, reconfigure, federalize or make some other accommodation with one another. That should be their choice, not ours. We should not feel that we have to defend Britain's post WW I decisions.

Until the "Iraqis" sort it out, we should at least stop berating them for not feeling American-style loyalty to the arbitrary construct that is present day Iraq.