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Why Iraq Paid for 50,000 Soldiers Who Didn’t Exist

One of the latest stories from Iraq is that some 50,000 “ghost soldiers” haunt the rolls of the Iraqi Army. They have been added to the rosters so that someone can skim away all or part of their salaries. The story has been played for Daily Show-like laughs, has been cited as a cause for the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS, has been used as an example of corruption in Iraq and conversely, acknowledging it used as an example of how the new Prime Minister, Haider Abadi, is fighting corruption. It may in truth be a little of all of those things, but it is most of all a brief flash of light in the darkness of how the Iraq Army works.

The Iraqi Army of today is a U.S. construct. As one of the very first acts of the Occupation in 2003, the United States famously disbanded the Saddam-era Iraqi Army (and thus helped supply armed, trained men to the blossoming insurgency.) At some point American strategy shifted toward the Bush Administration’s proclamation of “As They Stand Up, We’ll Stand Down,” a mantra that meant the U.S. would take it upon itself to create a new Iraqi Army to take over internal security and border protection. This would need to be done quickly, as Americans grew bored and/or weary of the seemingly endless war in Iraq. The standing up of this army cost American taxpayers over $20 billion dollars.

What did they get for their money? Not much, except for the seeds of the present mess in Iraq.

The Iraqi Army America wrought was by definition created within the climate of the insurgency. It was thus never really a national army, but rather a loose collection of regional forces and fiefdoms divided along mostly religious and sectarian lines. Sunni units were based in Sunni areas and led by Sunni generals, Shia 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.) America accepted these divisions out of expediency; the non-starter of an alternative was to wait until all sectarian problems were resolved first, and then reconstitute the army.

Disbanding Saddam’s army meant throwing away most of the senior, experienced military leadership. These generals and mid-level officers were Iraq’s professional soldiers. Many melted away or immigrated to neighboring Sunni countries, while some took up with the Sunni insurgency. Lacking experienced leadership, the U.S. was left with creating an officer corps from scratch. Experience matters in most things in life, and really matters in jobs that require leadership. Even under the best of circumstances that all takes time (leaders are made, not born), and the U.S. was creating the new Iraqi Army under anything but the best of circumstances.

Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its belly; another general reminded that it is logistics, not tactics, that win battles. From its early days, the factors that “miscreated” the new Iraqi Army doomed its ability to police and supply itself. Central authority was lacking; the combination of a weak central government and a force 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 masked by U.S. expedient acts: an Iraqi unit desperate for spare parts could either fight a long battle with baghdad for what it needed, or appeal to the local U.S. military commander for help. The commander, under pressure himself to report success, typically gave in. The Iraqi system never was forced to mature or allowed to fail, at least until the Americans departed and ISIS appeared.

Procurement became an excuse for plunder. Soldiers in the Iraqi army basically pay for their own food via a salary deduction. In practice, officers pocket most of this money instead of buying supplies for the troops themselves. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets. When the markets close under ISIS attack, the soldiers have no choice but to flee.

A system such as that seen as ineffective to some meant opportunities to others. In 2009, a lucrative appointment as an army colonel required a $20,000 bribe. The same job today costs $200,000. Divisional commander positions run about two million dollars. Why would such military jobs be worth that much money?

As an investment. Iraqi commanders purchased for their bribe money opportunities to skim budgets, withhold salaries from their own troops, or even create the ghost troops to justify budget increases. The ghost troops likely served another goal, covering soldier absences. During my own time in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army, it was a given that any Iraqi unit we worked with would be missing a percentage of its soldiers. Some American advisors used a 10 percent rule of thumb, others pegged it as high as thirty percent. Where were the Iraqi troops? Some shuttled between their unit and their home towns. Lacking a reliable banking system, soldiers needed to physically carry their salaries home to their families. Because food budgets and the salaries themselves were often skimmed by their commanders, some troops kept working at outside, part-time jobs. With variable unit discipline, some soldiers just took time off as they saw fit, often bribing their own commanders to avoid punishment. Soldiers would sell off Army gas and spare parts, create unsanctioned checkpoints to harvest bribes from motorists, sell electricity if they controlled a large generator, or even their own weapons, to raise extra cash for themselves.

As for the thought that uncovering these ghost soldiers shows a commitment by Prime Minister Abadi to fight corruption, the real proof is in what he does next. Likely under U.S. pressure, Abadi took this first step to expose a limited dollop of corruption inside his failed army. But watch what does, or doesn’t, happen next. How many senior commanders’ heads will roll? How many will be fired or publicly demoted? What if any central and systematic auditing procedures will be put in place?

Answers to questions such as those will answer the most important question: will Abadi and the U.S. really seek to fix the Iraqi Army, or is the latest move simply another short-term expedient, meant to create the appearance of change ahead of more U.S. money pouring down the same dry well?

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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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