THE BLOG
07/21/2014 07:19 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

Why Defeating ISIS in Baghdad Is a Long Shot

Co-authored by Michael Pregent, former U.S. Army officer and Intelligence Specialist.

Watching Iraqi security forces (ISF) crumble in Northern Iraq several weeks ago and suffering defeat yet again in Tikrit is painful to swallow. Hoping for a best outcome in the long run is not looking better. Our experiences highlight the fact that ISF won't get anywhere from Baghdad soon. In concert, 300 American advisers armed with conventional military tools of thought won't be of much help. Why? ISF have been down this humiliating road before and realities on the ground are ever more complicated than during previous US deployments. US advisers need to understand the synthesis of past and the present, and be equipped to plan and advise Washington accordingly.

This latest episode of Iraqi forces failing on the battlefield is the third iteration since Saddam Hussein was forced from power. The first incident was in April 2004, during Fallujah's first flare up. US forces were engaged in a battle against a nascent insurgency in Fallujah and Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA) leadership determined that Iraq's newly trained army battalions should join the effort. The deployment would signal Iraq's new security services were ready to begin defending their own territory and US forces could further draw down from the initial invasion. The operational concept was to deploy Iraqis in a direct support role, not into the middle of the ongoing brutal house-to-house fray.

The Iraqis never made it to the fight. Their leadership protested it was not their role to take on its civilian population inside Iraq's borders -- a point hammered home time and again by US instructors during their training and as expressed in the enlistment contract. Upon reflection, CPA leadership realized forging Iraqi senior military leadership in tandem with its new security forces was vital to prevent this recurrence.

Late 2007/early 2008, Maliki picked a fight against Sadr's militia in Basra and Baghdad. Iraqi leadership was in full complement and at the helm of operations -- at least bodily. US combat units were fully deployed in partnership roles and hundreds of embedded US military advisers were embedded in Iraqi units. In this iteration, Iraqis determined they would fight in earnest against their own citizens. Maliki viewed Sadr's militias as a grave political threat. His security forces saw them as an anathema.

Iraqi senior leadership and their nascent systems proved unable to tackle their own task. In Basra, combat support and logistical systems could not get it together without quick US refurbishment. Several major ground units refused to fight until emergency US forces arrived. Early on the senior Iraqi commander was relieved because he proved inept after months of show and bravado, right up to the start of hostilities.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) proved to be unfit for the fight from the outset. The majority of senior subordinate commanders proved indecisive and refused to follow through on their operational planning commitments to their US counterparts. As in Basra, several units refused to become decisively engaged or fight. An entire Iraqi Brigade simply walked off early on. We learned it was sectarian influenced.

US commanders spent an inordinate amount of time keeping their counterparts focused and in the fight. On several occasions US commanders and advisers personally led Iraqi forces into battle. It was not without cost. US blood spilled due to Iraqi leadership shortcomings and their operational intransigence.

In wake of continued battlefield mishaps, US commanders pleaded for the BOC commander to relieve one of his subordinate commanders. The BOC commander eventually capitulated but his appointed replacement refused to step in. The fired commander was reinstated much to the chagrin of US officers and junior Iraqi commanders. The behavior of Iraqi senior leaders made it hard on the Iraqi units that were in the fight to win. They realized that if it were not for their US counterparts they would have been on their own. In sum, American front line leadership, firepower and on scene support won the day in Basra and Baghdad.

At present, the issue with ISF is not a lack of firepower but complete disenfranchisement by the security establishment and large tracts of the Sunni population. It's a two-headed coin that will not be relieved in the near term given the damage done and continued current political entrenchment. Tribal and other irregular forces are embedded with ISIS or forming their own defenses. These amalgamations will fight along sectarian, family and tribal fault lines, but they will not fight for a nationalistic consciousness called for by Maliki.

In Baghdad and its environs, the same Shia militias that Maliki condemned to death and US forces so hardily fought only a few years ago are back and better armed than ever. ISF and police are "absorbing" these militias by the battalion. Ominously, Iran and their supporters are now clearly out of the shadows. As US advisers focus operational direction to the North and West, their rear and flanks are now in the hands of hostile Shia militias and Iran.

Given ISIS is a composite force of convenience -- defeating them means not just bombing them but also splitting their Iraqi support base away. Out of operational necessity, re-inviting disenfranchised Sunnis and Kurds back into the effort to divide and conquer ISIS and hold their territories is not out of the realm.

What exactly the US military can influence given ISF history and current realities is an open question. All eyes will be on Baghdad for a quid pro quo for any deal or assistance to turn things around -- not the US. Once again, as we did for many years before and are doing in other theaters. Great tactics and courageous soldiers trying to overcome bad/flawed strategy will never work on its own.