SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi recently revealed that there are 50,000 “ghost soldiers” who haunt the payrolls of the Iraqi Army. Many see the phenomenon as a factor in the army’s defeat at the hands of the Islamic State, and as an example of how Prime Minister Abadi is trying to initiate reform.
How corruption like this is handled will tell the tale of the army’s future, and of the U.S.’ investment.
The current Iraqi Army is a U.S. construct. The second official act of the U.S. occupation in Iraq was to disband Saddam-era forces and create a new Iraqi Army. This would ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers over $20 billion dollars.
What did they get for their money?
The Iraqi Army the U.S. wrought was created within the climate of the insurgency. It was thus never really a national institution, but rather a loose collection of fiefdoms divided along sectarian lines.
Sunni units were based in Sunni areas and led by Sunni generals, Shi’ites were in their areas and, of course, the Kurds and their peshmerga were off on their own (the peshmerga also benefited greatly from never having been disbanded in the first place). The U.S. accepted these divisions out of expediency. The alternative, a non-starter, was to wait until sectarian problems were resolved first.
Disbanding Saddam’s army meant throwing out experienced military leadership, Iraq’s professional soldiers. Many just melted away, while some took up with the insurgency. The United States was left to re-create an officer corps from scratch, but even under the best of circumstances, training effective leaders takes time. The job was rushed, with predictable results: amateurs were put in charge, given that the U.S. had thrown out all experienced, professional soldiers.
Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its stomach; Marine Corps General Robert Barrow reminded us that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. From its early days, the factors that birthed the new Iraqi Army also spelled its own doom. A weak Baghdad government divided along sectarian lines meant resources were never allocated based on need, and that the kind of oversight necessary to avoid “ghost soldiers” did not exist.
The problems were often masked. An Iraqi unit desperate for spare parts could either fight a long battle with Baghdad, or appeal to the local American military commander for help. The commander, under pressure himself to report success, typically gave in. The Iraqi system was never forced to mature or allowed to fail, at least until the Islamic State appeared.
A system seen as ineffective to some was seen by others as an opportunity. In 2009, an appointment as a colonel required a $20,000 bribe. The same job today costs $200,000. Divisional commander positions run about $2 million.
Of course, such bribes are seen as an investment by those who pay them.
A commander wanting to make money off their position could sell off army gas and spare parts, create unsanctioned checkpoints to harvest bribes from motorists, and sell electricity if they controlled a large generator. Iraqi commanders have the power to skim budgets, withhold salaries from their own real subordinates, and even create ghost troops to justify budget increases.
The ghost troops served another purpose, too: covering soldier absences. During my time embedded with the American army in Iraq, it was a given that any Iraqi unit we worked with would be missing a percentage of its soldiers. Some American military advisors used a 10 percent rule of thumb, while others pegged it as high as 30 percent.
Where were the Iraqi troops? Lacking a reliable banking system, some soldiers left to physically carry their salaries home. Others were absent as they worked at outside jobs to feed themselves — food budgets were often skimmed by their commanders. The soldiers often bribed those same commanders to avoid punishment for their absenteeism. These strains become more acute under fire: many soldiers in Mosul had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets. When the markets closed under Islamic State attack, the soldiers had no choice but to flee.
As for the idea that exposing these ghost soldiers shows a commitment by Prime Minister Abadi to fight corruption, the real test is in what he does next.
Likely under American pressure, Abadi took this first step. But watch what does, or doesn’t, happen now. How many senior commanders’ heads will roll? What, if any, central and systematic auditing procedures will be put in place? Will AWOL soldiers be held to higher standards? Will the food procurement system be reformed? Will American funds be withheld pending real progress?
Answers to those questions will answer the most important question of all: will Abadi and the United States really fix the Iraqi Army, or is the latest move meant only to create the appearance of change ahead of more American money pouring down the same hole?