The 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has launched a set of reflections and recriminations over the decision to invade and subsequent bungling of the occupation. But another frustration with U.S. policy in Iraq deserves attention, as it has profound implications for U.S. policy today: the United States’ failure to build the Iraqi military. Building a competent Iraqi military was a pillar of the U.S. strategy to establish and maintain security in Iraq, which would enable U.S. forces to exit what was an increasingly unpopular war.
The United States builds better militaries when partner leaders implement the vital policy reforms the United States recommends, and U.S. security assistance fails when U.S. influence fails.
Despite the centrality of the security assistance effort to U.S. foreign policy—the billions of dollars, eight years, and tens of thousands of personnel dedicated to the task—the Iraqi military never developed basic battlefield proficiency, and in the summer of 2014, less than three years after the U.S. withdrawal, the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division melted away in the face of small numbers of lightly armed Islamic State fighters.
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