Jeff Collins: Paper tigers and the failure of ‘Iraqization’

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced the beginning of the American withdrawal from South Vietnam. In exchange for removing half-a-million military personnel the United States would funnel billions of dollars in equipment to the South Vietnamese military so that it could prosecute the war against the North, a process known as ‘Vietnamization’. In doing so, the South Vietnamese armed forces emerged as one of the world’s most formidable militaries. But yet it was a paper tiger, collapsing a mere two years after the removal of the last American military forces in 1973.

Like the South Vietnamese military before it, on paper the post-Saddam Hussein military of Iraq is impressive: 250,000 troops backed by 2500 armoured vehicles, 400 tanks, 278 aircraft, and 129 helicopters. Following an almost identical approach as that used by Nixon, both the Bush and Obama administrations focused on building up the Iraqi military so that it could take the lead in fighting the insurgency in exchange for an American withdrawal in 2011.

‘Iraqization’ saw the U.S. spend, between 2003 and September 2012, $25 billion on creating, equipping, and training the Iraqi armed forces. The Iraqi government itself spent billions more – via a U.S. aid package – on purchasing F-16 jets, Apache gunships, precision Hellfire missiles, M-16 assault rifles, ScanEagle reconnaissance drones, and M1A1 Abram tanks; essentially, the same equipment used by the U.S. military.

What remains remarkable in light of last week’s events is how none of this really mattered. Four of the country’s 14 army divisions practically folded in the face of less than 1,500 ISIS militants, who were outnumbered 15-to-one. As such, the problem of Iraqization, much like it’s South Vietnam predecessor, is that it tried to establish a unified, nation-building professional military model onto a politically unstable government.

In short, the failure of the U.S. in not accounting for, or at least ensuring prolonged stabilized communal relations on the political dimension after 2011 automatically undermined the military effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces which have turned into, what one observer calls, a Shia army on steroids, targeting the Sunni minority.

Sadly, the failure of the Iraqization approach is not limited to Mesopotamia. The United States has seen a similar repetition of blowback in other communal, conflict-riven countries: Mali, Libya, and Afghanistan. While American airstrikes may halt the ISIS tide the absence of a serious political compromise between Iraq’s communities ensures more bloodshed and fracturing.

The Hustings