Re-analysing Islamic State’s route to Iraq: Systematic fall and decline of bureaucratic-military relationship in Post-US invasion, a probable cause?


Anant Mishra is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs

The systematic fall of the city of Mosul in mid-2014 by self-proclaimed Islamic State shocked and awed not only the military and intelligence community all over the world but also highlighted the fragile military and civilian administrative institutions in Iraq. With widespread fall of Iraqi cities, the civilian administration and military leadership relentlessly blamed each other on rampant fall of four highly armed and well-trained military divisions. The military leadership blamed civilian bureaucracy for providing inadequate financial assistance, whereas the latter accused military leaders of systematic corruption, large-scale desertion, poor training mechanisms and violent struggle within the ranks. Undoubtedly both the institutions were correct, but one of the principal reason which led to systematic fall of Mosul was bureaucratic-military relations. The administrative head of civilian bureaucracy was under the then Prime Minister’s leadership, with no over-watch mechanisms set-up in place, the military slowly and gradually became highly ineffective, inefficient and sectarian.

Fearing a coup d’état from middle military leadership, the then premier Maliki (Prime Minister between 2006 to 2014), maintained a firm grip over the military personally. To an extent, Maliki systematically involved bureaucratic oversight and interference in key military decisions. He took decisions on promotions within ranks and equipment assimilation, playing the role of institutionally established political actors (Ministry of Defense and the Parliament’s Security and Defense Committee) oversee civil-military relationship. Furthermore, he limited the participation of armed forces in defense-centric policies and its evaluation, Maliki diminished their institutional/organizational capacity and tactical, operational ability during combat, depriving the government of necessary vital expertise. Moreover, for other reasons, the Iraqi Commanders at Brigade and Battalion level were equally unmotivated and unwilling to carry out essential tasks or participate in decision making.

The traditional Iraqi Army was disbanded in 2003 due to their intense relationship with Saddam Hussain, yet the majority of the officer corps was reinstated post-2005 because the reconstruction of the Iraqi army was too time-consuming lawlessness in the country. However, their return to the service coped up with the loss of necessary expertise, the consequences of such abrupt inclusion in a war-torn society, was to the grave to count: rampant corruption, systematic segregation mistreatment between new and old recruits, followed by the absence of much-needed feedback. These reinstated officers and enlists did not trust the American military doctrine used to reconstruct the Iraqi Army. More importantly, these officers drastically failed to establish a real understanding with higher commands or to share their traditional institutional knowledge, training, and expertise to the Maliki government.

Politically induced sectarianism further broke the military backbone within the armed forces, which was irreparable. The hiring of civilian bureaucracy in Post-2003 Iraq was predominantly based on ethnic and religion, and this pattern exceedingly replicated merit-based appointments in the upper echelon. There were specific quotas or the muhasasa. The quota system drastically affected the appointments in the officer corps exclusively of the upper echelon— which were predominantly Sunni Arabs, through quota, the Shia Arabs and the Kurds now outnumbered the traditional Sunni appointees.

Post-war construction and negative exercised outcome

The rampant re-construction of Iraq’s civil-military relationship post-ousting Saddam came at a time when the insurgency was at its peak. During the time of American forces battling remnants of Saddam loyalists, Washington hurridly established a new government in the later months of 2003. Since Washington had already planned to withdraw all boots on the ground by 2007, this plan excessively pressured much fragile and novel Iraqi military institutions particularly in a time when insurgency against the American led forces was increasing. The American troops were not prepared to combat insurgency which forced them to deploy vital resources against the insurgents, which further prevented critical nurturing of Iraqi forces.

Recruitment and training of Iraqi forces were further stepped up in 2005; however, when insurgency rose to its peak, in 2007, the recruitment experienced a massive dive. Roughly fourteen thousand troops were indited in the Iraqi military after every five weeks. In a time span of approximately six years, the Iraqi army grew almost quadruple of their traditional size, with over 200,000 officers and enlists. However, roughly every officer had to go through training procedure, and the training did not last for more than three to five weeks, when compared to US military training mechanism, the Iraqi soldiers were indited post boot camp.

This sudden hustle in training and recruitment left the officer corps discontent, as, middle and upper echelon officers took years to enhance their skill and experience. By 2008, over 73% of officers and roughly 69% of enlisting positions were filled, a massive divide which would take approximately ten more years to regain its usual strength. Officers were the steering wheel of the Iraqi military. Exclusively in scenario’s where the military foundations were re-laid, in case of Iraq’s post 2003-military build-up, the roles and responsibilities of the officer corps became vital in strengthening bond within the military.

Desperately looking for experienced officers, Washington began to indite officers who had served during Saddam regime. This subsequent reliance led to the appointment of over 70% of officers and roughly every General Officer Commanding, with experiences from Saddam’s regime.

Furthermore, the Defence and Security Committee drastically failed to strengthen Iraqi military’s foundations. Members of the committee rarely met at the parliament since insurgency, and violent clashes with US military forces made it difficult for them to travel; notably when a bomb exploded and killed a member of the committee during parliament briefing. The explosion within the walls of well-fortified green zone highlighted exponentially rising insurgency with an ability to strike even within Green Zone.

During the initial post-Saddam term, the parliament was forced to adjourn for numerous sessions since not less than a quarter of quorum members had turned up. Additionally, specific religious community intentionally boycotted parliament sessions to express their dissatisfaction.

Moreover, members in support of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, along with al-Iraqiya party and Pro-Kurdish parties intentionally declined to participate in parliament quorums. This resulted in unvigilant governance, which continued till 2008. Only until the fall of 2008, when the government did realize the extent of insurgency and violence, government institutions (partially) agreed to maintain oversight. The Iraqi government could urgently call few officers during sessions and continued to fight against absentees. Furthermore, the divisive victory of Maliki’s party in 2010, literally hindered the functioning of the Iraqi government throughout that year. In the years before Maliki, neither did the Defence and Security Committee employed measures to overwatch the defense sector nor the parliament established any concrete steps to institute or strengthen defensive capability of the country. The presence of parties during quorums in parliament significantly reached two-thirds by 2011. Moreover, when Islamic State took began taking over significant Iraqi territories, the attendance exponentially grew to over 86%.

Similar to constraints faced by many Iraqi Ministry in implementing reconstruction program, the Ministry of Defence too witnessed numerous unavoidable hurdles. Since the traditional plan of the Coalition Provisional Authority was only to implement necessary reforms within the Ministry, instead it began re-structuring the Ministry itself. For the first time in history, the Ministry of Defence comprised of civilian bureaucracy rather than military.

It did, however, portray an image of bureaucratic control, with a new institutional structure but with no traditional organizational or operating principle. Additionally, the rapidly growing Ministry of Defence was extensively understaffed, which forced US military and Iraqi partners to side-line it from participating in critical defense-centric decisions. Furthermore, the Ministry was hastily established in less than six months, and employees were appointed without notifying Iraqi partners; this resulted in the establishment of an organization which was institutionally fragile, unstable, immature, devised exclusively for Iraqi partners who took no responsibility of it.

In the background of rampant violence and insurgency, Washington began re-construction of critical institutions without considering the extensive distorted relationship between civil and military leadership, particularly reinstituting infrastructure for Iraqi partners without their participation or insight, exclusively in a scenario of fragile distributed religious-ethnic society.

Maliki’s actions, reactions, and consequences: Killing the Iraqi military instincts

The then newly elected Premier Maliki, who assumed power just months before the US officially handing over Iraqi military control to the government in late 2007, was concerned towards Iraqi military’s interference in national politics. A cautioned leader, who had witnessed subsequent military intervention in Iraq’s national politics in the past, knew the possible outcome. He had seen toppling of three governments in successive coup’s; furthermore, since its independence in 1932, Iraq had witnessed six coups and numerous counter-coups along with seven unsuccessful attempts by the military to gain control, of which, three had occurred during Saddam Hussain’s regime. Maliki was determined not to witness the similar fate.

Moreover, before Maliki’s rise to power, Iraqi political leadership had devised ‘coup-resistant’ tactics which were mainly employed at senior military leadership. However, Maliki applied harsh measures, which was not only limited to centralizing critical military decisions under his command but also systematically exploiting the military to retain influence over elected leaders from different sects, to exclude them from participation.

Maliki established paramilitary units and intelligence establishments which were then tasked to monitor actions by the military. Maliki, on numerous occasions, interfered in the relationship between officers and enlists.

Maliki then created the Office of the Commander in Chief, which was tasked to assert control over the armed forces, which he carefully harnessed to avoid sister security institutions which were stakeholders of civil-military relationship. Initially established as a liaison office by the Primer, Maliki appointed Farouk al-Araji, who was not only his ally but a veteran in the Saddam Hussain’s military and attained the rank of the Adjutant General and subsequently became the General of the armed forces. He not only rescinded the decisions at Ministry of Interior and Defence but also took precedence over judgments on crucial security matters. Operating outside the traditional chain of command, Farouk al-Araji was only answerable to the Prime Minister.

On taking over decision-making capacity of the Ministry of Interior and Defence, the post of Commander in Chief transformed into a centralized power, taking decisions at all security matters, incapacitating the decision-making processes of many ministries. However, Maliki decision to centralize power was faced challenged by many civilian ranks, but they were unable to gather support and were too weak to question the powers of the Prime Minister. The oversight capability was mostly inadequate, and increasing deterioration in domestic security further moved attention of relevant authorities to immediate issues.

Officers openly criticising Maliki’s centralisation of power were not only side-lined but also subsequently replaced and punished. Once such example was of the then Defence Minister Abdul Qadir Obeidi, who took efforts to eliminate subsequent politicisation of critical ministries and armed forces, was accused of maintaining a relationship with the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, an unproven accusation and was barred from filing nomination in 2010 elections.

Furthermore, Shia cleric leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr along with Masoud Barzani, a Kurdish leader, openly criticised Maliki and his actions. Sadr, who was heading one of the largest politico-military groups and a former Maliki ally, openly criticised Maliki. Maliki sent Sadr into an exile and disbanded his militia movement permanently.

Although, returning to Iraq in 2011, Sadr, aggressively criticised Maliki in open forum warning the then Maliki government to presume the responsibility to defend the people of Iraq while taking staunch actions against the corrupt and inefficient officers in security establishment who were hungry for power and recognition. The then President of Kurdistan in Iraq, Barzani, openly criticised Maliki of being an authoritarian and presuming command over all armed forces. Barzani, then, put an end to his cooperation with Maliki government and raised the Kurdish flag for succession to power. Citing unconstitutional behaviour and poor leadership, Barzani called for immediate dissolution of Iraqi military leadership and accused Maliki of taking command over all security matters. He then criticised the head of parliament, the cabinet and the President for refusal to act against authoritarianism.

In the absence of strong opposition, Maliki employed numerous measures to exercise control over security matters. He formulated regional headquarters and unified law enforcement and military operations in all major provinces that had experienced worst violence in the 2007, giving leadership charge to loyal generals. Maliki then exploited such commands, and over-ride numerous decisions made by security establishments and relevant ministries.

He then formulated multiple battle plans without a formal recommendation from crucial stakeholders and deployed military units on his own will, apprehending and prosecuting individuals on charges of dissention.

On Maliki’s orders, the Commander in Chief brought numerous elite units under their control. The Ministry of Defence’s control over unit movements and mobilisation was effectively challenged and overridden and undermined. Moreover, the headquarter of the Special Operation Forces was also transferred from Ministry of Defense to the Office of the Commander-in-Chief and subsequently became Maliki’s guards and was primarily used to target his political opponents specifically. Earlier, in order to target a specific individual the approval from National Security Ministerial Committee, comprising of the Prime Minister, the Iraqi Military Joint Chief of Staff, along with the Minister of Justice, Interior and Defence, was necessary. Maliki, in late 2010, declared himself the Commander in Chief, a post in accordance to the Iraqi constitution was assigned to the Prime Minister, to which the legislation was neither passed nor the powers of the position disclosed. Irrespective to this, Maliki declared absolute authority as Commander in Chief, while calling for re-counting of votes during the 2010 elections subsequently dismissing leadership from the Commission on Anticorruption and Integrity.

In effort to appoint officers loyal to him, Maliki interfered in military appointments. Instead of seeking parliamentary approval for military appointments, Maliki appointed numerous officers by initially citing his decisions to be temporary in nature, and massively recruited individuals with less or no military experience in the officer corps. These integration officers were exclusively tasked to run and monitor a spy agency answerable only to Maliki. Decisions taken by upper military echelon were frequently overturned, and those who tried to restrict interference by Shia militia, were immediately sacked side lining military COI or chain of command. Moreover, Kurdish officers were terminated from military service and subsequently replaced by Maliki loyalists. Importantly, officers supporting Maliki were not questioned or held accountable for their failures during internal investigation or counter-terror operations.18 The Maliki trend of appointment subsequently diminished merit-based promotions.

Maliki’s blunders had enormous consequences: the Iraqi armed forces were too weak to conduct a coup d’état. Furthermore, the military, in spite of numbers on their side, miserably failed to employ countermeasures against the Islamic State which resulted in subsequent fall of Mosul.

“Fall like a house of cards”: Frustration, Discontent within security establishments

Failure of civil-military cooperation was not limited to Maliki regime’s autocratic governance, armed forces and military institutions shared equal responsibility. From the top, the wedge within upper echelon was growing, which severely compromised military’s leadership to communicate with civilian bureaucracy.

There was massive discontent within the officer corps, which was rampant from multiple decision failures. Loyalists and young recruits regained middle and lower rankings whereas officers corps were concentrated to the rank of Colonel and below. This further sandwiched most experienced soldiers in numerous units, creating a culture insensitive atmosphere notably when the top leadership comprised mostly of Sunni officers trained under Soviet-Baathist alliance, whereas the non-commissioned and junior commissioned ranks received their training under the US, were predominantly Shia.

There was profound discontent between the two groups: the non-commissioned officers and JCO’s adapted US military decentralized structure, whereas the middle-ranked officers resisted. The experienced officers were more comfortable with the traditional chain of command under which they fought Iran-Iraq, Kuwait or the Gulf. This chain of command was primarily based on rigid structures, the predominant use of artillery and inadequate communication within ranks.

Furthermore, the introduction of advanced training mechanisms which allowed a swift transition of experienced military officers was implemented only at the lower positions. Moreover, The National Defence College in Iraq and Iraqi War College, which could have provided necessary training to upper echelon military leadership, began functional in late 2011.

In a class capacity of not more than 30 students, the Iraqi NDC had few officers in one course. Washington, however, did try to bridge the rift between upper and lower ranks, even instituted a particular working group, but many middle-ranking officers resisted, seeing this as an intrusion and violation of traditional military knowledge.

Moreover, the upper echelon military ranks failed to openly and constructively instigate or participate in dialogue with civilian bureaucratic leadership. Witnessing an aura of mistrust and sectarian-politicisation of military positions, coupled with the sudden imposition of US army traditions, and systematic dissolution of their traditional military knowledge, was a predominant preview of middle and lower-ranking officers. Keeping the new encroached military culture aside, Iraqi military leadership retained the minimal disciplinary procedures with no room for constructive discussions or criticism, with a concentration on specific upper echelon officers for decisions. The officers, on one occasion, declined to enhance their military knowledge or adopt new innovative military skills, depriving civilian bureaucracy of their extremely vital expertise and insight.

This further depleted the participation of officer corps in healthy yet necessary decision-making processes in the domestic and external security sector. The officer corps was throughout silent, and responsibility fell mostly on senior officers who then maintained traditional knowledge of civil-military relationship which they learned pre-Saddam Hussain regime.

Sectarianization of the Iraqi military

The systematic sectarianization of Iraqi military post U.S. invasion, corroded the command structure of the military. However, in the pre-Saddam Hussain era, sectarianism was rampant but silent, although post US invasion, the new political order emphasised it. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed individuals mainly on religious sect basis, and this was further reinforced by systematic de- Ba’athification, which further fuelled violence within the community. This paved the way for political benefactors which used sectarian violence to influence communities and seek their votes. The voting pattern became predominantly sectarian. The impact was primarily seen at national levels, where Iraq’s constitutionally allocated quota system was meticulously exploited to appease certain sects, which resulted in preferential treatment in the military, diminishing its image as a national entity. The ethnic centric quota system was exploited both at official and unofficial levels, which remain restricted at the officer corps, leaving behind predominant Shia sect at lower ranks.

In accordance to the Constitution of Iraq, 2005, appointments taken place through merit were fair, although the term “fair” remained fluid and undefined. Although the quota system was limited to officer corps, specific appointments were also influenced by quota. On the contrary to Lebanese military, the command post within the Iraqi army is not designated to a particular religious sect, which highlights Iraq’s sectarian independence. However, on practically, the process paved the way for many religious denominations to lobby for preferential treatment, which severely compromised transparency and established meritocracy in the system, recruiting outside the lines of Lebanese sectarianism induced organizations.

The representation could not be fair because of unsystematic spreading of multiple sects and ethnicities within the military ranks. The Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds were heavily concentrated within the middle ranks, most of the officer and upper echelon were Sunni Arabs. In an effort to restructure the military on ethnic and sectarian lines, a large percentage of Shia officers were quickly promoted, which angered Sunni Arabs. This was a shift from traditional recruitment lines since during pre-Saddam years, Sunni Arabs and dominated military leadership and post-2003, Shia officers were given quick promotions, which become one the principle reasons behind acute discontent within military ranks; was further reinforced by political interference in recruitment and promotions further reinforced this discontent. Traditionally ethnic and sect-based quotas did not pose any issue, but liberalizing the criteria for promotion of Shia officers created immense discontent within Sunni Arabs.

In command stations and regional headquarters where ethnic and sect-based proportions were marginal in compared to the region itself, clashes occurred. The notorious Fifth Division which had a predominantly Shia majority were accused of committing mass atrocities, and crimes against humanity in their deployed Sunni dominated Diyala Governorate.

The principal issue here is beyond the militaristic realms, laying predominantly in regional politics. Kurdish communities remained distant from strengthening or maintaining a robust Iraqi military as their long-term objective remained independence. Sunni population, on the other hand, continued to struggle against a discriminated system, making sure that their voice was heard. Shia political leadership, however, continued to fuel sectarianism, this ensured their dominance in the government.

However, it will be incorrect to point towards the absence of nationalism in Iraq merely, political party such as al-Iraqiya remains nationalist and has gained significant influence in regional politics, progressing even ahead of Maliki’s party in 2010 elections with more than 24.7%, however, it will be safe to say that, sectarianism did profoundly influence the Iraqi military. This further compromised their ability to combat IS in functional, organized unit. The ability to not believe in a cause or a notion much beyond them resulted in large-scale desertion within the Iraqi army, which was widespread from regional headquarters to command levels, which sealed the fate of Mosul. The absence of sheer trust coupled by immense discontent within the military ranks, which hindered in the creation of a capable, dedicated national military.


After intense clashes between the Iraqi military and Islamic State, the Iraqi army was able to successful retake Mosul from IS control. The author witnessed the return of nationalistic sentiments within the Iraqi army, which was thoroughly absent. This was possible because of numerous initiatives were taken by the Iraqi government. Post fall of Mosul, Iraqi government carefully analyzed its failures and released a report citing possible reasons behind the incompetent military force. They initiated a list of 36 officers which had been mostly responsible for military’s ineffective response against IS. Those responsible also included former Premier Maliki, the then governor of Nineveh Province, former defense minister al-Dulaimi, the head of Iraqi land forces and his deputy, followed by the head of Nineveh command.

The Iraqi government then dismissed over 59 officers while retiring over 300 officers from military service. The Office of the Commander in Chief was permanently abolished, a thorough investigation was launched to route out corruption and US military training program for Iraqi armed forces development was aggressively launched.

Appointed to the office of Prime Minister in 2014, Haider al-Abadi carried numerous progressive initiatives. He decentralized government institutions, established a dedicated organization to combat corruption, abolished the Vice President office, and de-sectarianized armed forces. This resulted in systematic coordination between civil and military leadership which not only boosted the morale of armed forces but also made it possible for them re-take Mosul. The Defence Ministry was empowered, the Parliament was further strengthened, and military leadership was checked by responsible civilian bureaucracy. Al-Abadi not only ended sectarianism but rei traduced meritocracy and abolished the quota system, which strengthened military architecture. These reforms as mentioned earlier not only re-instated confidence within the military ranks but reinstated trust within the Iraqi community which they not only induced a sense of nationality but also made a part of themselves.

Author Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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