It’s a move we have seen before. Like in the late 2000s, Washington is again withdrawing troops from Iraq (to 3,000) after having them deployed for more than half a decade. As in the past, that change has been pushed through by the president himself and is therefore more reflective of his own politics than the policy of the US State Department or the military.
Learning from History
But if history really is an indicator, it could be a cause of worry, not just for the US but Iraq and the wider region. As happened when Obama pulled the troops back after taking the presidency, there is a possibility that the withdrawal will leave Baghdad ill-equipped to ensure the country’s security.
Ever since the US waged war in Iraq on shaky grounds that saw the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his military brass, Iraqi forces have been in shambles. For most operational and counterinsurgency purposes, they have been heavily reliant on Washington and the coalition troops.
Rather unsurprisingly then, when Obama made almost a complete withdrawal from Iraq it left a vacuum that the local security apparatus couldn’t fill. As a result, militants gained ground and the world saw the rise of the Islamic State. The same risks are relevant today when American troops leave the country.
The Major Reduction in US Military Presence
Let’s assess the capabilities of Iraqi security forces to better understand where they stand this time and whether the US withdrawal will have a significant impact on their performance. However, before that, the relative scales must be kept in mind. When the Obama Administration announced the pulling back of troops, there were over 135,000 American boots on the ground, which were reduced to just 88,300 in 2010 before being brought down to a mere 760 in 2013.
In contrast, American presence in the wake of Islamic State rule was much more minimal, with the number of troops barely exceeding 5,000 throughout. Therefore, unlike in the past when the US security forces were quite active on the battleground, this time their role was limited to training the local military, intelligence sharing among other things.
Hence, the gap isn’t going to be as big as the last time, but big challenges remain.
Assessing the Battle-Readiness of Iraqi Troops
To begin with, much of the success of Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State can be attributed to Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), an organisation that directly comes under the Iraqi Prime Minister instead of the Ministry of Defense which controls the army, and oversees the Special Operations Forces.
A 10,000 or so strong force, the CTS does not have the military mass to undertake the security of the country as a whole and is specifically trained in counterinsurgency. For that purpose, Iraq would need foot soldiers to guard its 440,000 square kilometres of territory and 4,000 km border. However, that is lacking so far.
At the moment, Baghdad has an army of just 165,000, as per Global Fire Power. This leaves a troops-to-population ratio of way below the recommended 20:1000 or 25:1000. Another speculated 200,000 or so fighters belong to the Peshmerga, but that comes under the regional Kurdish government which is not known for friendly relations with the center. It’s important to point out the existence of Popular Mobilization Forces as well, again roughly with a strength of 150,000-200,000 comprised mostly of Shiite youth and famous for its proximity to Iran. So even if the overall number of boots are plenty, they operate in silos with often opposing interests and a history of animosity.
How Self-Sufficient is CTS?
There might also be a catch to the perceived superiority of CTS: for much of its existence, it barely carried out independent operations and heavily relied on other agencies, such as the police or coalition support. Where it was on its own, for example in Ramadi in 2015, when attacked by the better-equipped ISIS, the elite unit had to defend the city for 16 months before eventually retreating.
That battle resulted in heavy losses, including many casualties and the loss of around 200 tactical vehicles, raising question marks over its self-sufficiency.
Iraqi Military Spending is Way Up
Meanwhile, Iraq’s military expenditure saw a major spike as it surged by over 20% to $7.599 billion in 2019, from $6.318 billion on a current dollar basis, according to the database of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. As a share of GDP, that represents a jump of 60 basis points to 3.5%, from 2.9%.
That increase can partly be reflected in the country’s growing appetite for new equipment. In 2017, the country bought 73 T-90 and T-90SK tanks from Russia of which over half entered its service the following year. Overall, the Iraqi army has 309 tanks, 4,739 armoured vehicles and 120 towed artillery.
The army also has to its name 135 combat aircraft and awaits deliveries for 36 more. This strength is much superior to the air force’s respective figures of 59 – mostly comprising the American F-16C and Russian Su-25 and 26, as per the latest data.
For Iraq to have a stable future, it is imperative that the country builds self sufficiency and regains its sovereignty: something that cannot coincide with the US keeping its troops deployed down there. The solution has to be political, cutting across ethnic and sectarian lines in a particularly diverse country, and the military will follow. And if anything, the last year’s protests showed us that the population is not only ready but hungry for that solution, one that overhauls the current moth-eaten system.