BAGHDAD, IRAQ – A confidential Pentagon memo on the fighting in Iraq suggests that problems in the Iraqi Army have reached the point where it is now even running desperately short of deserters.
The memo, written by the U.S. military’s Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, says that Iraqi desertion levels “have plunged to dangerously low levels. Rather than running away in battle, many Iraqi units are now only able to walk away at a brisk but determined pace.” Instead of whole battalions breaking and running, the memo says, a typical Iraqi division is lucky to field even a single platoon able to flee in terror.
When militants from the Islamic State overran Mosul in 2014, thousands of Iraqi soldiers shed their uniforms and fled into the desert. By contrast, when the Islamic State overran Ramadi in May, just 300 Iraqi soldiers were observed hijacking cars and motorcycles in a desperate bid to escape.
“What we’re now seeing is many Iraqi soldiers eliminating the basically redundant step of actually joining the army before deserting it,” said Lawrence Bailey, a specialist on the Iraqi Army at the Institute of War. He cites the example of Ammar Aswad, a young man from Karbala who recently decided not to enlist.
Aswad told Duffel Blog, “Ever since I was a small boy I dreamed of putting on an [Iraqi] army uniform, then taking it off, burning it in a shallow pit by the road and stealing the clothes from the first man I met. But now I ask: why should I leave home to enlist, train, shirk my duties, and desert, when I can stay at home and just lie about the whole thing?
“It’s also much easier on my feet,” he added.
The Pentagon memo has suggested the Iraqi Army could improve its desertion rate back to 2013 levels by cutting back its normal career attrition and occasional executions, hiring Kenyan Olympians to improve Iraqi long distance running, and producing a slick ad campaign suggesting Saddam Hussein is actually alive and returning to power.
It specifically singled out the Iraqi officer corps for criticism, claiming that without proper leadership Iraqi conscripts were unable effectively desert. Some had even been observed accidentally firing their weapons at the enemy before dropping them and running.
Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi angrily denounced the memo, as well as public comments by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter questioning the Iraqi Army’s “will to flight.” Al-Obaidi claimed that as soon as the bullets start flying Iraqi officers can still be found leading the charge to the rear.
The Pentagon did note one positive effect: Iraqi Army uniforms and boots, typically discarded by an Iraqi soldier seconds after hearing the first gunshot, are now in plentiful supply. This has led to a boost in Iraqi officer morale, as they can now supplement their normal salaries by selling this equipment on the black market.