Eric V. Thompson
Dr. Thompson is director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA).
In May 2003, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, announced the formal dissolution of the Iraqi Republican Army. While Bremer has been widely criticized for this decision — and blamed for the breakdown of security in Iraq that followed — this fateful act created a veritable clean slate for the development of a truly new Iraqi military. 1
With the end of the formal occupation of Iraq and the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004, the coalition began a sustained effort to build new national security forces to help restore the security, sovereignty and independence of Iraq. Following the December 2008 expiration of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1790, authorizing coalition forces to operate in Iraq, the Iraqi government formally took over responsibility for the development, training and employment of Iraqi forces. While the United States has committed to continuing to support the development of Iraqi security forces, the Iraqis now have the lead in the development of their military capabilities.2
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has a plan for the development of this new Iraqi military. The plan is broken into two stages. The first covers the period from 2006 to 2011 and focuses on building a force capable of defeating the insurgency and bringing security to Iraq. The second stage covers the further development and expansion of the Iraqi military to defend the sovereignty of Iraq from prospective outside intervention in the 2011-15 time-frame. The Iraqi plan is ambitious and it is far from clear whether the government in Baghdad will be able to bring it to fruition.
This article examines the implications of the redevelopment of the Iraqi military and the impact that reemergence of a sovereign and armed Iraq may have on the Gulf security equation. While it does not make predictions about future Iraqi actions, it does seek to portray plausible development paths for the Iraqi military and consider implications for Iraq’s neighbors, the broader Gulf security dynamic and U.S. interests in the region.
The Iraqi Military Today
The military that the Iraqi government controls today looks very little like Saddam’s forces of the 1980s or 1990s. In 1990, Saddam had the world’s fourth-largest army. It comprised over 50 divisions, including sizable armored, mechanized infantry and artillery units and an air force with over 500 combat aircraft. Saddam’s military was designed to take on a major regional power, namely Iran, and it was frequently employed in operations against Iraq’s Kurdish population.
Today, Iraq’s army has around 180,000 soldiers.3 It is focused on developing capabilities to address Iraq’s insurgency and to combat terrorism. Accordingly, the vast majority of these forces are light infantry. According to D.J. Elliott, it appears that at the end of the first stage of the Iraqi military-development plan, the army will still have a significant light-infantry component, accounting for approximately eight of 20 planned divisions.4 The Iraqi army is also planning a large air-mobile component, perhaps up to four divisions. In addition to light infantry, the Iraqi government is investing in equipment and training for light armored forces. These investments include up-armored Humvees (UHVs), light-armored vehicles (LAVs) and refurbished armored personnel carriers and reconnaissance vehicles purchased from Russia and France during the Saddam era.5
The Iraqi naval fleet currently consists of five Predator-class patrol boats and several aluminum-hulled, outboard-driven Fast Attack Boats (FABs). The Predators originally were designed as riverine patrol craft, so their armament is light, their seakeeping abilities are limited, and they cannot sustain extended deployments. They are fairly low-tech patrol craft and are not armed with missiles or any air-defense capability. The FABs are essentially large, center-console Boston Whalers. These patrol boats and FABs are contributing to the defense of the Iraqi oil terminals in the Northern Arabian Gulf and patrolling waters between the platforms and the Iraqi naval base at Umm Qasr. The Iraqi navy has plans to procure several new patrol boats and patrol ships, but contracting problems have arisen. The United States is in the process of transferring 26 Defender-class response boats that the U.S. Coast Guard uses as inshore patrol craft.6
Iraq has a small marine corps as well. The primary missions of this force are to provide point defense for the oil platforms, boarding teams for the Iraqi navy, security and perimeter defense for Iraqi shore installations, and additional security forces to supplement Iraqi army units in southern Iraq.7 The size of Iraq’s marine corps is set to grow as the Iraqi navy — and Iraq’s maritime infrastructure — expand.
The Iraqi air force today comprises a mix of training and utility helicopters, C-130 transport planes, fixed-wing trainers and propeller-driven reconnaissance aircraft. The primary duties of the Iraqi air force are distinguished-visitor (DV) transport, logistics support to ground forces, casualty evacuations (CASEVAC) surveillance, air mobility to special-operations forces (SOF), and security patrols. The Iraqi air force has purchased rocket pods and rockets for a few of its helicopters and is taking delivery of Hellfire missiles to add a limited ground-attack capability from fixed-wing aircraft in the coming year.
While relatively little information about Iraqi Special Operations Forces (SOF) is available in the public domain, these forces are widely considered to be the most capable component of the Iraqi military today. The Iraqi SOF consist of at least three battalions. These include the 36th Commando Battalion, a counterterrorism battalion and a support battalion. These forces have worked closely with U.S. SOF and have developed advanced capabilities in reconnaissance, cordon and search operations and direct action. They are also beginning to develop an air-assault capability.
OPTION ONE: A GCC-LIKE MILITARY
There are two plausible options that the Iraqi government may choose for the development of the new Iraqi military. To elaborate the difference between these options, it is useful to focus on the character and capabilities of future Iraqi militaries, rather than the intentions or likely actions of any future Iraqi government that controls these militaries.
The first plausible option is for the Iraqi government to develop a military that is similar to those of its brethren on the Arab side of the Gulf. This would not entail a radical departure from the development trajectory laid out by coalition authorities in the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSCT-I). Such a military would promote Iraqi security by generally focusing inward.
While there is some variation among the military forces of the Arab Gulf states — the size of the forces, the demographic makeup of personnel and the types of equipment they field — there are several common threads among them. The most significant commonality is the role they play in regime defense. This is distinct from the protection of national frontiers. It focuses on ensuring the continuation of the current regime by protecting key people, locations and infrastructure; demonstrating loyalty to the political leadership; responding to destabilizing actions by neighbors; and, when necessary, suppressing regime opponents (home-grown or foreign). Regime defense requires sufficient mobility to move from barracks to key installations and locations on short notice; sufficient armament to overwhelm irregular forces, breakaway units or mobs; appropriate intelligence capabilities for monitoring internal developments/actors; and reliable communications with civilian leaders.
Regime defense is rarely left to military forces alone. In most cases, Interior Ministry forces, police units (national police forces as well as Mukhabarat), intelligence agencies, royal guards and other paramilitary forces also play a role. Military forces can either operate independently in this mission or coordinate, to the degree permitted by the government, with these other forces. In larger states, there can be specialized military forces or units to ensure regime survival. Examples of such forces include the Special Republican Guard under Saddam and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG).
A second role of military forces in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states is to support the stability and security of the state by demonstrating the ability of the government to bring force to bear in response to perceived threats. This includes being able mobilize and marshal forces at the border to deter or respond to prospective disruptive acts by states or non-state actors. While GCC militaries are generally inadequate to fight off an attack from the conventional forces of a major regional or external power, these forces are able to respond to small-scale incursions, especially by irregular forces or non-state actors. This role also entails the ability to conduct “shows of force” that are designed to demonstrate to internal and external opponents that the regime is cohesive, in control and able to bring firepower to bear. In many cases, this also means an identifiable, if limited, offensive capability. This capability is usually manifest in the purchase of modern strike aircraft, but it can also be implied by the possession of missiles, large warships, attack helicopters or capable special-operations forces. While all governments in the region desire highly capable, well-trained and well-equipped forces, this security and stability role does not necessarily mean that military forces will be able to defend the state from all potential adversaries.
The third important role that military forces in the region perform is facilitating and promoting partnership with outside countries. Arab Gulf militaries do this in two important ways. The first is through the large-scale purchase of military equipment from countries that may play a key political or military role in protecting the purchasing state from outside aggression or internal turmoil in times of crisis. While the uniformed leadership may play only a limited role in particular procurement decisions, the ability to absorb, operate and display this equipment to demonstrate a long-term relationship, a political partnership, and/or potential long-term and lucrative commercial connections can be very important to regional governments. The procurement of military equipment may also — although not always — entail a long-term training, maintenance and support relationship between Gulf governments and foreign defense suppliers.
The second way that Arab Gulf militaries promote partnership with outside countries is through fielding forces with appropriate equipment and infrastructure to enable exercises, training and other military-to-military contact to build familiarity, interoperability and confidence. This relationship enables Gulf militaries to facilitate combined operations with forces that come from abroad to support regional governments in times of crisis. By fielding equipment such as F-16s or F/A-18s, M1A1 or Challenger or Leopard tanks, Apache or Lynx helicopters, F-100 or Perry Class frigates, Gulf countries create conditions under which partner militaries can exercise and train with their militaries. This also entails developing a support infrastructure — such as the runways at Al-Udeid, Prince Sultan Airbase or the piers at Mina Sal-man and Jebel Ali —that can be utilized by both Gulf-country militaries and those of prospective outside coalition partners.
The Case of Iraq
A military that is GCC-like is not a far stretch from the force that MNSTC-I has been working to develop for Iraq for the last several years. The new Iraqi army is being designed to play the dual roles of protecting the regime from sources of internal instability and providing some degree of defense against incursion or nefarious action by non-state and irregular forces. The Iraqi army that the coalition has been building to date is not capable of power projection and is not designed to defend Iraq from incursions by the conventional forces of its neighbors.
The new Iraqi army, of course, is being built as a counterinsurgency and counterterrorist force. As such, it has many attributes of Arab Gulf militaries, albeit on a larger scale. The Iraqi army is relatively light and mobile and is designed to protect critical infrastructure and personnel. It is also capable of collecting intelligence in order to interdict destabilizing actors. When political conditions are right, it is designed to be capable of entering hostile urban environments to root out militias, insurgents or high-value individuals.
As the development of an independent Iraqi government continues, the role of regime protection is coming to the fore. In an early demonstration of its regime-defense role, one of the Iraqi army’s first acts at the expiration of UNCSR 1790 was taking responsibility for protecting the Green Zone, the area of Baghdad where the central government is located and most key regime figures reside. The Iraqi air force’s few C-130 cargo aircraft frequently are used as primary transport for key regime officials in order to ensure their safety.8
The Iraqi military is already well on its way to being able to conduct the kinds of facility/area defense activities that GCC militaries are designed to undertake. For example, the navy and marine corps participate alongside coalition forces in protection of Iraq’s two offshore oil platforms, the Khor al Abdullah Oil Terminal and the Al Basra Oil Terminal in the northern Arabian Gulf. Given the current force-structure development plan and the training and manning pipeline of these services, the Iraqi navy and marine corps should be able to take over this mission within two to three years.
These Iraqi units are developing the specific capability to defend the country’s two off-shore oil terminals from attacks by terrorists or insurgents. The navy and marine corps are not yet on a trajectory to be able to defend these platforms from an organized military assault by the conventional forces of an outside country. Nor are they developing a force capable of “war at sea” against local or far-flung rivals, or amphibious operations along the lines of the U.S. Marine Corps.9 As such, the maritime capabilities that the Iraqi military is developing are in many ways parallel to the infrastructure-protection role of other Arab Gulf military and security forces.
The Iraqi air force has limited capabilities to patrol and monitor Iraq’s borders. The small number of Iraqi intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft and its few qualified pilots limit the ability of the Iraqi air force to play a role in protecting Iraq from insurgents or irregular forces.10 Moreover, its ability to pass ISR information to Iraqi ground forces in a timely manner is hampered by limited equipment, training and experience. A logical expansion of Iraq’s ability to defend its borders and territories from limited incursions or attacks by outside forces would be a credible air-defense capability. Iraq’s northern border is frequently violated by the Turkish air force engaged in reconnaissance, bombing or close air support to Turkish forces on the ground battling Kurdish separatists operating from Iraqi territory.11 While no GCC air force would likely be able to take on an opponent of the size and caliber of Turkey in air-to-air combat, most GCC countries have modern ground-based air-defense capabilities to deter such limited incursions. In the absence of a large Iraqi air force, a modern air-defense system, such as the Patriot, HAWK, Crotale or advanced Russian or Chinese surface-to-air missile systems, might provide Iraq with a sufficiently credible deterrent to keep the Turkish government from sending warplanes to operate with impunity over Iraqi air space.
In GCC countries, the ground forces have been pressed into action to take on threats from dissident groups. An example of such action was the Saudi Arabian National Guard’s operation to retake the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.12
The Iraqi government already has shown its willingness to bring force to bear against regime opponents. In 2007-08, the southern Iraqi city of Basra was a battleground for competing Shia militias. Muqtada al Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) emerged as the preeminent force, gradually establishing its control over the region.The Maliki government considered the expansion of JAM control to be a direct threat to the legitimacy and primacy of the central government in Baghdad. The March 2008 battle in Basra was the clearest case to date of the Iraqi government’s desire to use its military to quell internal dissent. Despite the less than stellar performance of the Iraqi army in the opening days of the battle, the Iraqi government kept up the fight for a week. Ultimately back-channel negotiations and significant air and logistics support from the coalition allowed the Iraqi forces to establish control over Basra and claim their first victory. With the conclusion of the fighting, Prime Minister Maliki turned his forces north for follow-on offensives in Sadr City and Mosul. The Sadr City operation ended up being more of a show of force after negotiations with the JAM leadership to assure that there would be little or no resistance to the entry of Iraqi forces into the neighborhood. The Mosul assault entailed actual combat against forces belonging to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that had taken up positions there. Coalition forces had largely disrupted AQI across much of Iraq, with Mosul as one of the few remaining outposts. The Iraqi army again relied on coalition support, but demonstrated that it was capable of the sorts of operations that would demonstrate Baghdad’s resolve to take on opponents with the direct application of force.
A GCC-like Force Structure
Given the destruction of the bulk of Iraq’s modern weapons and the dismantling or occupation of much of its military infrastructure by coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the new Iraqi military’s “clean slate” stretched to equipment as well. The new Iraqi army has not inherited much usable military equipment that would tie the new military to old suppliers such as Russia. Instead, in the first few years, the coalition provided funding for the acquisition of equipment to outfit the Iraqi military, and in the last two years, the Iraqis have begun to purchase hardware directly, predominantly from American and other Western suppliers.
Today, the Iraqi military’s equipment, facilities, maintenance capacity and infrastructure are looking very much like those of its Arab Gulf neighbors. The presence of U.S.-manufactured SAFE Boats in Iraqi waterways and harbors, its Bell helicopters and Cessna fixed-wing aircraft (soon perhaps to include F-16s) patrolling the skies, and M1A1 tanks and USMC-standard LAV25s soon adding punch to Iraqi mechanized units mirror the equipment in many GCC countries. This equipment will provide a direct link to U.S. manufacturers, Department of Defense-administered procurement programs, and U.S. instructors and advisers.
As Iraqi forces continue to grow and receive new equipment, they will be in a position to provide a link to the U.S. military’s training and exercise programs. This may include in-country training and the periodic deployment of U.S. forces to Iraq for combined training. The infrastructure required to support Iraqi units with this modern Western equipment will be well-suited to receive Western forces for training and perhaps support them in times of crisis. The training and professional military education that will be offered to Iraqi personnel abroad will strengthen and diversify the ties between Iraq and its Western military partners. Moreover, the “shrink and share” portion of U.S. consolidation and troop reductions under the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) will likely see U.S. and Iraqi forces working out of shared operating and logistical hubs for some time to come.
OPTION TWO: A REGIONAL POWERHOUSE
The second plausible option for the government in Baghdad is to pursue the development of a military that will enable Iraq to return to what many Iraqis consider Iraq’s rightful place in the region, namely a regional powerhouse. Such a military would mimic many of the attributes of Iraq’s previous military. It would be large. It would include air, ground, naval and special-operations forces and would be outfitted with some notable high-tech weapon systems. It would include infantry, armor, artillery and air-assault capabilities. It would also likely include specialized units that are loyal to key leaders in the government. This second option would be an Iraqi military that is designed to play expansive roles in both internal and external security.
To enforce internal security, this military would be designed to suppress the current insurgency and protect the government from future separatist or insurgent movements. Given the scale of both past and present separatist and insurgent forces, such a military would be quite large, perhaps well upwards of 25 divisions.13 It would be dispersed to several operating locations to ensure that it could react quickly to internal and external problems, as well as to create visible signs of regime strength across the country. It would have the kind of armament and mobility to root out insurgents and separatists by bringing overwhelming force to bear on villages, compounds and mountain redoubts. This would mean sizable inventories of attack helicopters, armored vehicles and artillery.
This force also would be designed to protect Iraq’s territorial integrity from intrusion by neighboring states through both deterrence and, when necessary, large-scale combat operations. This regional powerhouse military would seek to match and, where possible, overmatch the capabilities of its regional neighbors in order to deter aggressive or irredentist action. Examples of such capabilities include fourth-generation fighter aircraft, a long-range day/night all-weather air-toground attack capability, modern missile boats, land-attack cruise missiles, and/or an advanced ballistic-missile capability.
Under this option, the Iraqi military would have power-projection capabilities. While these would not be global (for example, on a par with European powers), the ability to send columns into neighboring countries, strike targets with aircraft launched from Iraqi bases, or launch ballistic missiles hundreds or thousands of miles are plausible. Power-projection capabilities would not only allow Iraq to defend its territory but also enable Baghdad to threaten neighbors with punitive action. Unquestionably, this would enable the Iraqi government to play a major role in regional security.
While the future of the Iraqi government’s relationship with its neighbors remains unclear, under this second option, the government in Baghdad would have sufficient power to hedge its bets vis-àvis all other regional powers. This would include having capabilities to defend itself from some future regime in Tehran (were there to be a regime change in Iraq’s eastern neighbor, for example) and would have sufficient demonstrable military strength to enable Baghdad to shape the perceptions of its Arab neighbors. Specifically, this would mean maintaining military capabilities on par with, or superior to, the other regional leaders in select areas, such as air, armor and/or naval power. If the Iraqi government were to pursue this second option, it would likely invest in a few very high-end conventional capabilities, such as land-attack cruise missiles or Russian “triple-digit” surface-to-air missiles and unconventional weapons. Through a combination of mass, technology, loyalty and capability, this future Iraqi military would be designed to intimidate neighbors and overwhelm domestic opponents.
IMPLICATIONS FOR REGIONAL SECURITY
A GCC-like Iraqi Military
A GCC-like Iraqi military that is focused on internal security, outfitted with modern Western weapons and able to defend its borders from minor incursions by regional countries or the nefarious actions of non-state actors has some clear advantages for the United States, the coalition and Iraq’s neighbors.
Such a military suggests a relatively stable Iraq. An Iraqi government that pursues this kind of military is likely to be one that looks for partnership with its neighbors and does not seek to dominate the security equation in the Gulf. A GCC-like military would likely welcome military-tomilitary partnerships with outside countries to include training, exercises, personnel exchanges and other security-cooperation activities. A GCC-like military would have a predominance of Western equipment, which would enable coalition integration and interoperability and facilitate the use of military infrastructure by Western forces in cases of emergency. It also suggests long-term supply and support arrangements with Western contractors and suppliers. It would also likely result in continued U.S. visibility in Iraqi military capabilities, organization, force disposition, leadership and concepts of operations. This would be a “win” from the perspective of several important players inside and outside the region.
For the Turks, this outcome would have the dual advantage of an Iraqi state that is both focused on containing separatists and insurgents, and incapable of limiting Turkish military responses against Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. For Kuwait, given the history of enmity between the two states, an Iraqi military that is focused on internal threats rather than power projection would be welcomed. For Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, an Iraqi military that is focused on internal security and stability and on containing the flow of extremists into or out of Iraq would be a great relief. The fear of an uncontrolled exodus of fighters from Iraq as the coalition withdraws has loomed large for these governments.
Interestingly, this option for the future Iraqi military would in many ways be beneficial to both the United States and its primary rivals in the region, namely Iran and Syria. For Washington, an Iraq that has built a military focused on maintaining internal security, countering terrorists, controlling its borders and countering non-state actors would align very well with U.S. interests in the region. If that Iraqi state eschewed power projection, welcomed U.S. equipment and training for its military, and did not seek to influence neighboring states with threats of force, the United States could essentially declare victory in its campaign to overthrow Iraq’s regime.
For Iran, an Iraqi government that is focused on internal security provides the dual benefit of adding security along Iran’s western frontier and ensuring that the Iranian military does not have a peer competitor for military influence throughout the Gulf region. If Iraq is not pursuing military power in order to hedge against Iran, cajole its neighbors or assert its leadership in the region, Iran would, by default, be the most significant military power among the Gulf States. Moreover, Tehran could continue to focus its attention on those capabilities that have the greatest effect (even if that effect is only saber rattling) against the United States and Israel without having to compete with, or hedge against, a resurgent Iraqi military. For Syria, an Iraqi government that is not a regional military leader only serves to protect Damascus from a return to the rivalry of previous decades that was in many ways a distraction.
However, the emergence of a GCC-like military in Iraq has its pitfalls for Iraq’s Arab neighbors and, arguably, the United States as well. First of all, this kind of Iraqi military would provide little in the way of a bulwark against Iran. While it is unclear whether the future government of Iraq will end up in Tehran’s orbit, aligned with the West or with some other strategic orientation, a GCC-like military would offer little credible power to balance Iran even in the best-case scenario (i.e., Iraq committed to partnering with the West). In the case of GCC countries, it is the relationship with outside powers that is the deterrent to any prospective Iranian aggression. One need only look at the 1980s to see that Gulf states with limited security ties to the West were subject to destabilizing intervention and even military attacks against their territory and their resources (including tankers and, in the case of Kuwait, its main harbor). While the United States may find a friend in a GCC-like Iraqi military, Washington would still need to rely on its own military capabilities to deter or respond to Iranian aggression. This is not to assert that Iran is hopelessly and inevitably aggressive. Rather, it is to say that another GCC-like military in the region does little to change the regional security balance in ways that will significantly diminish the need for the United States to continue to guarantee the security of its interests and friends in the region.
For the GCC states, a GCC-like military in Baghdad may be comforting in that its power-projection capabilities will be modest and that such an Iraqi military would be prone to cooperation with outside, and perhaps even regional, states. Even so, as Baghdad has shown on several occasions, even modest military forces can cross poorly defended borders with devastating effects. More importantly, the Arab Gulf states are unlikely to welcome the regime in Baghdad into existing economic and security structures such as the GCC, despite the wishes of the U.S. government.14 The GCC is an exclusive club of similarly led, similarly ordered, and culturally interwoven states. The GCC countries have shown no interest in expanding this brotherhood. One needs only to look at the case of Yemen to see how the GCC can keep other aspiring nations at bay. Among GCC capitals, there will be enduring suspicion of a Shia government in Baghdad and deep suspicion of its military and political aspirations in the region. In the end, a GCC-like Iraqi military is not likely to result in a GCC-like partnership between Iraq and the Arab Gulf states, despite the wishes of Secretary Gates.
A Regional Powerhouse
The development of an Iraqi military that is a regional powerhouse would pose challenges to the interests of both regional and external countries. Iran might benefit in the near term, but the implications over the longer term are not necessarily positive. Nearby Arab countries would be wary of Iraq’s capabilities and might increase investments in their own militaries and invite additional powers into the region. The United States would likely maintain significant military presence in the region in the face of a strong Iraqi military, although for slightly different reasons than it did during Saddam’s rule.
In the near term, the development of an increasingly independent and capable military in Iraq serves Iran’s interests in three ways. First, the rapid development of an increasingly capable Iraqi military will likely encourage coalition countries to draw down their forces in Iraq as rapidly as possible. The mantra of the leadership of Multinational Forces-Iraq (MNF-I) has been that the presence of coalition forces was designed to generate security in Iraq and to train Iraqi forces to take over that security mission. The development of capable Iraqi forces removes the rationale for a long-term coalition troop presence in a training role, a presence that is not welcomed in Tehran. Second, a strong Iraqi military is likely to give the government in Iraq increased confidence, assertiveness and independence; significant signs of the latter are already emerging. This serves Iran’s interest; it underscores the choices made by the Iraqi government to assert its independence and stand firm against Western influence. Third, as long as the close political relationship between the Maliki government and Tehran continues, an increasingly capable Iraqi military enhances the ability of Tehran to shape and influence the Gulf security dynamic.
Over the longer term, the emergence of an Iraqi military that is a regional powerhouse may undermine Iran’s influence in Iraq and may counter Iran’s objectives in the region. If the Iraqi military is to become a regional powerhouse, the Iraqi government will likely have had to find a way to include all of Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic communities in the force. As such, the influence of pro-Iranian Shias in the senior ranks may be diluted by the necessary presence and accommodation of Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, both of whom are skeptical of Iranian influence in Iraq. Additionally, Iraq’s military under Saddam >had a fiercely secular identity, in part to reflect the Baathist ideology of the state, but also in part to minimize sectarian and ethnic identity and loyalty within the ranks. If the new Iraqi government either promotes a secular ethos in the military or allows one to develop, this would likely mitigate Iranian influence and might lead the Iraqi military to resist contact with, and perhaps even seek to counter the influence of, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), especially the Qods Force.15
Additionally, the Iraqis tend to be strongly nationalistic. This continues to be manifest in the senior ranks of the new Iraqi military.16 A sizable number of Iraq’s senior military leaders were part of Saddam’s military; many were involved in combat operations against Iran in the 1980s. If Iraq’s military returns to a position of regional powerhouse, it is not unlikely that Iraq’s military leaders will press the government in Baghdad to assert the military’s independence from Iranian influence. As Iraq’s military becomes more prominent and present along Iraq’s land, air and sea borders, there will be increasing opportunities for tension and even flash points as Iraqi forces come into contact with Iranian forces, especially irregular forces, intelligence operatives and the IRGC. As the Iraqi navy takes over defense of Iraqi territorial waters and oil platforms, it may soon be Iraqi forces, not coalition forces, firing warning shots at Iranian vessels coming across into Iraqi waters.17
For the Arab Gulf states and Jordan, the emergence of Iraqi forces as a regional powerhouse is a double-edged sword, one edge being the prospect of Iraq once again returning to the status of a military bulwark against Iran. As long as there is a political partnership between Baghdad and Tehran, this edge will remain relatively blunt and will be unhelpful as a bulwark against Iran. As such, an Iraqi military that is a regional powerhouse does little to bolster the security of Arab states vis-à-vis Iran. Only with a significant shift in players and/or the relationship between Tehran and Baghdad would this edge possibly be sharpened to enhance the security of these Arab governments.
The other edge of the Iraqi sword, the more relevant to regional security from the perspective of GCC countries, would be the one that faces the Arab side of the Gulf. For these Sunni Arab states, this edge of the Iraqi sword would be dangerously sharp as long as there is a Shia government in Baghdad. The history of Iraqi military aggression against its neighbors is not yet forgotten in Riyadh and Kuwait City, nor in the capitals of the other Arab countries along the Gulf. The emergence of an Iraqi regional powerhouse would not be welcomed by these states. Gulf states are skeptical of the intentions of the Iraqi government, and no Gulf military currently has the capacity to stand up against an Iraqi military that is large, capable and well-armed. There are signs that Gulf countries may already recognize the implications of the prospect of the emergence of an Iraqi military that may become a regional powerhouse. Saudi Arabia is currently undertaking a major upgrade of its naval capabilities, and its recent purchase of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft may well serve as a hedge against expanded Iraqi capabilities to influence the Gulf security dynamic.18
The tendency among GCC states has been to look to outsiders in order to enhance their security in the face of regional powers with greater military capabilities. The Kuwaiti government’s appeal to the British in the face of Iraqi threats in 1961 and its subsequent appeal to the international community in the face of attacks against its oil tankers in 1987, and Saudi Arabia’s embrace of Western military power in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, reflect this.19 Despite over a decade of U.S. dominance as the outside provider of security following Desert Storm, the Gulf states may look to alternative, or at least additional, outside suppliers if the Iraqi military emerges as a regional powerhouse. The recent UAE decision to allow the French military to establish a base in Abu Dhabi may indicate such a calculus.20 Of course, Gulf countries could seek a degree of accommodation with Iraq, and even Iran, in order to enhance their security, but the weight of history suggests that these states will seek outside support.
For the United States, an Iraqi military that is a regional powerhouse will likely lead to the continuation of a high degree of U.S. military presence and engagement in the region. As the Iraqi military expands in capabilities and capacity, the U.S. military will seek to shape and influence the development trajectory of Iraqi forces. This will likely mean exercises, training, professional military education, arms sales and other security-cooperation activities designed to shape and influence the Iraqi forces in ways that promote the development of a professional, civilian-controlled, Western-oriented interoperable force. In addition to seeking to shape the development of the Iraqi forces themselves, the United States is likely to use sustained military-to-military engagement as one of many tools — to include diplomacy, economic support, and so on — designed to pull Baghdad closer to the West and further away from Tehran. If the Iraqi government chooses this option, the U.S. military presence in the region will also likely be sustained in order to demonstrate commitment to the security of Gulf countries in the face of increasing military capabilities on the northern end of the Gulf. Similarly, the United States will want to continue to show resolve vis-à-vis Iran, even more so if a powerful Iraqi military emerges at a time when relations between Baghdad and Tehran are warm.
WHAT KIND OF IRAQI MILITARY?
While predicting the future is always a risky undertaking, especially in this volatile part of the world, there are some indications of which option the Iraqi government is pursuing. In January 2009, the Iraqi government reportedly committed to a contract to buy 2,000 retrofitted Soviet-era T-72s tanks.21 In March, Baghdad formally requested permission to purchase 140 M1A1 Abrams tanks, armored personnel carriers and hundreds of Stryker wheeled armored vehicles.22 Iraq is reportedly seeking to purchase F-16s or similar high-end fighter/attack aircraft.23 While it remains to be seen whether the government in Baghdad will be capable of procuring such equipment and effectively integrating it into the new Iraqi military, these requests may be an early indicator of Baghdad’s intentions. The kind of force structure suggested by these prospective purchases is one that is much closer to the regional powerhouse outlined above than the more modest militaries of the GCC states.My own discussions with senior Iraqi civilian and military officials suggest that there is a strong desire for Iraq to build a strong military that is capable of defending Iraq from internal and external threats: one that is outfitted with modern weapons systems, that is representative of the strong military tradition within Iraq, and that will assure Iraq can take its “rightful” place as the most capable and influential force in the region. While it will be many years before Iraq is able to fully develop its military, and it is not yet clear whether Baghdad will be able to ensure that this force is integrated, cohesive and self-sustaining, the United States would be well-served to consider that the Iraqi government is likely pursuing a future Iraqi military that looks a lot more like the one they had in the 1990s, than the counterinsurgency force that the coalition has been working so hard to build.
This does not necessarily mean that the new Iraqi military will be a regional aggressor or will seek partnership with Russia or China over the United States. There are many signs that the Iraqi military will be professional, will follow civilian leadership, and will buy Western equipment and welcome contact with Western forces. However, if the United States insists on pushing the new Iraqi military to remain a counterinsurgency force and to look more like its CGG brethren, Washington may well be deluding itself. It risks becoming seen as uncooperative and unhelpful to the government in Baghdad.
It is time for the United States to recognize that the Iraqis have their own vision for the future of their military. We should seek to shape, influence and partner with that force, rather than hold on to a vision of the future Iraqi military that developed in the early days of the occupation and that represents our sensibilities rather than those of the Iraqis. Failing to recognize that the Iraqis may already have chosen their path will only lead to tension, frustration and a potential decline in our influence over this important Iraqi institution in the coming years.
>1 Bremer subsequently claimed that the decision to formally disband the remaining elements of Saddam’s security establishment was coordinated and approved at the highest levels in Washington. See, for example, L. Paul Bremer III, “How I Didn’t Dismantle Iraq’s Army,” The New York Times, September 6, 2007.
2 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq on the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities During Their Temporary Presence in Iraq, Article 4, Section 4.
3 According to the U.S. Army, available at http://www.army.mil/-news/2008/06/26/10361-iraqi-army-showsgreat-growth….
4 D.J. Elliott, “Iraq Develops Its Light Combat Divisions,” The Long War Journal, November 20, 2008, http:// www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/11/iraqi_light_division.php.
5 D.J. Elliott, “Iraqi Army Develops Its Light Armored Forces,” The Long War Journal, November 27, 2008, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/11/iraqi_army_planned_l.php.
6 “26 New Small Boats Help Strengthen Iraqi Navy,” Navy Times, November 10, 2008, available at http:// www.navytimes.com/news/2008/11/coastguard_iraqinavy_110908/.
7 Discussions with senior Iraqi official, Baghdad, 2008.
8 While this may be an inefficient use of this aircraft, it does provide security and freedom of movement to senior regime officials.
>9 Instead, the capabilities being developed by the Iraqi maritime services are primarily infrastructure protection, maritime security, law enforcement, intelligence collection and interdiction of smugglers and insurgents. Discussions with Iraqi Navy personnel, Umm Qasr, 2007.
10 The current Iraqi Air Force inventory includes three Cessna Caravans for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, three armed Caravans, and six King Airs 350s for ISR. David A. Fulghum, “New Iraqi Airborne Strike Capability Spotted,” Aviation Week, October 14, 2008.
11 See, for example, “Turkey in New Iraq Air Strikes,” BBC News, December 23 2007, available at http:// news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7158399.stm.
12 Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Making of the Modern Gulf States: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman (Ithaca Press, 1999), p. 150.
13 Twenty-five divisions could top 300,000 soldiers, which would be approximately twice the size of the Iraqi Army as of 2008.
14 Recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicated that “Iraq should be included in regional forums for economic and security cooperation, and considered for membership in Middle Eastern organizations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council” (Manama Dialogue, December 13, 2008).
15 The Islamic Republic’s primary avenue for shaping and influencing militant groups and militaries outside Iran.
16 Author’s observations from multiple interviews with senior Iraqi military leadership, 2007-08.
17 “Handover of Point Defence Duties on ABOT to the Iraqi Marines,” UK Royal Navy website, http://www. royalnavy.mod.uk/server/show/ConWebDoc.4737.
18 For an overview of Saudi military enhancement programs, see, for example, Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia Enters the Twenty-First Century: The Military and International Security Dimensions (CSIS, 2003), p. 196.
19 For an excellent overview of Kuwait’s efforts to secure its security during the 1960s, see the CIA study, “Gauging the Iraqi Threat to Kuwait in the 1960s: UK Indications and Warning,” by Richard A. Mobley, Studies in Intelligence, Fall-Winter 2001, No. 11.
20 Riad Kahwaji, “French Base in UAE Signals Regional Strategic Shift,” Defense News, January 28, 2008, available at http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=3329629&c=SEA&s=MID.
21 “Iraq Plans to Buy 2,000 Tanks” Defense News, January 12, 2009.
22 “M1 Abrams Tanks for Iraq” Defense Industry Daily, March 15, 2009.
23 “Iraq Seeks F-16 Fighters,” The Wall Street Journal Online, September 5, 2008, available at http://online. wsj.com/article/SB122056503871901333.html.