November 13, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Iraqi Forces Central to Fight Against Islamic State

• The November 7 announcement that an additional 1,500 U.S. advisors and trainers would deploy to Iraq reflects a U.S. assessment that Iraqi forces, despite some modest successes, are not yet ready to assault the major urban strongholds of the so-called Islamic State

• The key to lasting success of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is winning Sunni popular support, more so than tactical competence or the size and quality of its arsenal

• The ISF’s dependence on Shi’a militia forces is hindering efforts by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to win over Sunni tribes and local leaders

• The peshmerga militia forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government have proved effective against the Islamic State because of their cohesion, competent leadership, and removal from the sectarian divisions among Iraq’s Arabs; however, the peshmerga’s reach is limited to northern Iraq.


The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are still reeling from their collapse in the face of the Islamic State offensive in June. Four out the ISF’s 13 divisions melted as the Islamic State seized Mosul and other Sunni-inhabited cities along the Tigris River, leaving U.S.-supplied weapons to fall into the Islamic State’s hands. The ISF was not only poorly led—a product of an appointment process that favored allies of the Shi’a Muslim-dominated government—but also was viewed as a Shi’a “occupier” of Sunni areas. Lacking local support and the political will to risk their lives to maintain control of Sunni areas, the mostly Shi’a ISF commanders simply fled, and their units collapsed.

The collapse prompted the United States and several coalition partners to send in advisors and trainers to assess the ISF, help it plan operations, and prepare it to try to recapture the lost ground. U.S. assessments after the collapse reportedly found that only half of the ISF—about 130,000 personnel of a force of more than 250,000—is capable of working with U.S. and partner advisors against the Islamic State. According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, the U.S. definition of a “capable” ISF brigade is one that is not only competently led and fully armed, but also fully integrates both Sunni and Shi’a Arabs.

The Islamic State’s advance in June caused the Iraqi government to immediately turn for help to its patron, Iran, and the Shi’a militia forces Iran had helped create after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Shi’a militias put away their weapons after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, but quickly rearmed to prevent Baghdad and other Shi’a-inhabited cities from being captured. Yet, the ISF’s reliance on these militias has caused Iraqi Sunnis to question whether the government of Prime Minister al-Abadi is any less sectarian than was the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The U.S.-led ISF training program announced November 7—which is to train nine ISF brigades (about 2,500 personnel)—will not include any Shi’a militia fighters. However, the continued cooperation between the ISF and Shi’a militias will complicate the ISF’s efforts to win the support of the Sunni population.

The Obama Administration has sought to address these sectarian dynamics. The November 7 announcement indicated that Sunni tribal fighters “under the control of the Defense Ministry” would receive coalition training as well. These fighters are the 20,000 or so “Sons of Iraq” (of the Sahwah, or Awakening) that helped U.S. forces defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is this component of the training program that will be crucial to the U.S. strategy, in that Sunni Iraqis will only trust Sunni security personnel. It is likely that the U.S.-backed ISF will be used to clear areas of Islamic State fighters, and leave the Sunni tribal fighters and a newly created Sunni “national guard” to police Sunni areas thereafter.

Far more effective than the ISF to date have been the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s peshmerga, who have become a linchpin of the U.S. strategy. Since U.S. airstrikes in Iraq began in August, the peshmerga have pushed Islamic State fighters back from Irbil and from Sinjar mountain, and have recaptured the town of Zummar, the crucial Mosul Dam, and a border crossing at Rabia. The success of the peshmerga is largely because of their unity of purpose and command, and deep commitment to preserving the autonomy of the Kurdish-controlled north.

The peshmerga’s limitation to northern Iraq prevents the force from making broad gains against the Islamic State, but also reduces political complications. The Kurds have been protectors of the Christian, Yazidi, and other minorities living in the north. KRG leaders have made it clear that the peshmerga will not deploy to central Iraq nor other areas dominated by Iraqi Arabs—areas where Kurdish forces would not be welcomed. This restraint led Baghdad to approve the transfer of some U.S.-supplied ISF weaponry to the peshmerga. Peshmerga retreats in the face of Islamic State advances on Kurdish-controlled territory in early August were largely due to the disparity in armaments between the peshmerga and the Islamic State fighters. The November 7 announcement held that the United States would further bolster peshmerga capabilities by training three peshmerga brigades along with the nine ISF brigades.

U.S. strategy aims to equip, train, and advise ISF and peshmerga forces to the point where they can push Islamic State fighters back substantially. However, without greater efforts to win over the support of the Sunni population, gains by Iraqi forces are likely to be temporary. The key to the long-term success of the strategy will be to minimize the role of Shi’a militias and Shi’a-dominated ISF units, and emphasize the security role of pro-government Sunni forces such as tribal fighters and the new national guard. Doing so will ensure that Islamic State elements will not be welcomed back into cleared Sunni areas of Iraq. Because peshmerga gains will be in Kurdish and minority-inhabited areas of northern Iraq, peshmerga successes are likely to be sustainable over the longer term.


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