To blame the policies of the Obama administration for the remarkable success of ISIS and other Sunni militant organizations in Iraq is erroneous to say the least. The inability of Iraqi Security Forces to effectively challenge ISIS and groups like it stems all the way back to the policies of the Bush administration. Soon after invading Iraq, the Bush administration made a catastrophic decision to disband the Iraqi army. The one unifying institution in the entire country was dismantled, sowing the seeds of sectarian conflict which continue to plague the country to this very day. It was the army in which Sunnis and Shia served together. It was the army that offered many Iraqis a source of income, many of whom would otherwise have been poor. It was the army that could stabilize Iraq. But for whatever reason, personal vendetta or miscalculated foreign policy, the Bush administration ignored these obvious benefits and inadvertently created a glaring security vacuum.
By dismantling the Iraqi army, an entire organizational structure was destroyed. The Iraqi army was regimented, organized, and armed quite adequately. Yet the Bush administration obviously considered it more feasible to create an entirely new army from scratch; reinventing the wheel if you will. Iraq was forced to abandon a defense strategy it relied upon for several decades, a strategy which was fit to deal with local circumstances. Nevertheless, the Iraqi army was demolished, leaving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis without a job. Likewise, the masses of unemployed Iraqis gradually became frustrated with the slow and poorly managed reconstruction process, making them ripe recruits for sectarian militias rivaling those which ravaged Beirut in the 1980s.
ISIS has managed to take so many Iraqi towns simply because the Iraqi army of today is a shadow of its former self. It is poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly motivated. And while the Iraqi army vastly outnumbers the roughly 10,000 ISIS fighters scattered across various Iraqi cities and towns, it is intimidated more by the bombastic rhetoric of the group than its actions. In actuality, ISIS is a poorly trained force of mercenaries, which in the long run, will undoubtedly experience fractures and exhaust resources necessary to sustain a war on two fronts. Basic battlefield realities make this a foregone conclusion. Even so, Iraq continues to cower in fear of a bunch of thugs who can be defeated if stood up to.
If the Iraqi army of yesterday was around, ISIS might never have existed. The Iraqi army gave Iraq a sense of unity and pride. And in spite of the crimes the army was forced to commit under Saddam, I truly believe the majority of Iraqi soldiers would have cooperated with American and NATO troops, and refrained from the vicious cycle sectarian vengeance that has caused so much turmoil. Because, in preserving the Iraqi army, we would have allowed the Iraqi people to retain a certain sense of honor and dignity.
Had the Iraqi army remained in place, American troops might have been able to return home much sooner, the famed troop surge might not have been necessary, and Iraqis just might have been able to set aside their sectarian differences in the interest of common defense. It is terribly sad to wonder what would have been had the Bush administration simply made the right decision. To think that Iraq might have actually been able to manage internal security without constant help from the US and NATO is baffling to say the least. The US may have been able to save itself trillions of dollars or even finished the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The possibilities are endless.
Instead, we are left with the intractable challenges of terrorism and sectarian conflict, challenges which are not going to go away anytime soon. We can blame the Obama administration for leaving Iraq too soon, a claim which I still have difficulty understanding, or we can acknowledge the historical precedents that caused Iraq to be so dysfunctional today. We can argue that the Obama administration’s supposedly faulty policy on Syria strengthened ISIS, or we can admit that disbanding the Iraqi army was one of the worst foreign policy mistakes of recent memory. Regardless of whom you attribute blame to, history never lies.