Today, parts of Iraq are under siege. The attackers are a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group originated in Iraq in 2011, according to The Economist, and has since appended Syria to its name and invaded there as well. However, in 2011, the Islamic State of Iraq, as it was known then, was nearly defeated by a joint force of US and Iraq soldiers. Since that time, the government in Baghdad has made decisions that may have allowed ISIS to gain a foothold. However, part of the reason for ISIS conquering territory so quickly is that Iraqi soldiers have been deserting, some even changing allegiances, according to NPR. The people who live in the area currently controlled by ISIS are predominantly Sunni, a branch of Islam, whereas the rest of Iraq is mostly of the Shia branch (similar to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and the wars that were fought between those two religious groups).
The United States Army, which trained large portions of the Iraq Army, has a very low desertion rate. So I wanted to know more about what causes desertion, certainly the US Army has had its fair share of fear in many wars, and yet the army didn’t fall apart due to desertion. I called up and interviewed my friend, Specialist Andrew Watkins, US Army, Iraq veteran 2009-2010, about his experiences with his unit and on base. He served in the west of Iraq, near Basra and the Iraq-Iran border.
SPC Watkins said no one in his unit deserted, and he was unaware if someone had on his base, despite times of low morale. During his first few months in Iraq, he said his unit slept on cots, and were not served food often, and when it was it was not great. They lived in black tents, with no insulation and no air conditioning. Iraqi heat could soar well above 100 degree Fahrenheit. Even during this time, he said, no one talked about desertion, if anything they kept themselves busy to avoid thinking about the poor conditions. The base organized sporting events of all sorts to keep the soldiers occupied, and of course, sent them on 8 hour convoys and posted them on guard duty. Later, however, conditions improved, the tents were insulated, air condition units were installed, and bunk beds arrived… morale improved.
If, even when conditions were at their worst, no one talked of desertion, or made the decision to desert, how could it be happening so much in the Iraq Army? Were the differences between the US Army and the Iraq Army that great? After all, the US Army trained the Iraq Army, supplied them with equipment, “showed them the ropes,” so where were the differences? I asked what he thought could make someone desert. He shared with me a story of another unit on the base. A soldier was transferred in to another unit a couple months after Watkins arrived on base, two weeks later, after being harassed and abused, the soldier walked to the lavatory and shot himself. This certainly explains some desertion. Being ridiculed is not pleasant, and, especially when in a foreign country during a war, it may seem like the only ways out are desertion or suicide (unfortunately that soldier chose the latter).
Harassment may be part of the issue in the Iraq Army. Sunni soldiers could be harassed by Shiite comrades, or commanders. Depending on how widespread the mistreatment is (which has been reported by NPR), it could lead to a portion of the desertion we are seeing now. It still seemed though, that harassment alone could not account for armies being overrun so quickly. So, I asked about his experiences with the Iraq Army and Iraq Police, or IA and IP as he called them. At first, he said he had little interaction with either the IA or IP, but while asking another question he threw in a “side bar.” He said, that while he hadn’t had much interaction on base with IA or IP soldiers, it seemed that Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, had very little control over the Army throughout Iraq. That individual units or armies, seemed almost independent of Baghdad, especially in areas like Fallujah or Mosul which are currently under ISIS control. Furthermore, he said that commanders and soldiers in the Iraq army had shifting allegiances and some were almost like double agents, soldiering for whichever side would pay. Watkins didn’t think this was out of some sort of malice, but out of necessity to survive. Many of the inhabitants lived in mud housing near where he was based, and the Iraq soldiers, it seemed, were fighting to support their families.
This seems to get to the heart of the issue. Despite what Iraqi soldiers have told NPR, that US training was excellent, the Iraq Army suffers from potentially large portions of people who aren’t in it to fight for their country, but simply make a living. Group that with harassment, being passed up for promotions based on religious affiliation, broken command structure from Baghdad to the ground, potential lack of pay, and a ruthless enemy and the large scale desertion currently being seen in Iraq begins to make sense. Finally, I asked if SPC Watkins thought there was a domino effect, that as some soldiers began deserting more would follow. He said he certainly believes that to be true.
- Economist Article on the evolution of ISIS
- NPR Article on Iraq Army Collapse, but without a poignant interview
- Desertion Rate Infographic for the US Army 1970-2007
- Article claims thousands of Iraqi soldiers are deserting