Turkey is playing a prominent role in NATO’s training mission in Iraq. To what end?
We’re flipping things around again this week. Our chief political scientist speaks with Adnan Khan, who has been in Baghdad this week reporting on the situation in Iraq as the country transitions from the war against Daesh to stabilization. Mr. Khan has been embedded with the Canadian military, which has taken the lead on a new NATO mission tasked with professionalizing the Iraqi military. It is a race against time. With reports that Daesh fighters are preparing to launch another insurgency, the need for a capable fighting force has never been more urgent. Can NATO succeed where the U.S. has failed?
►Ilter Turan: Adnan, one thing that’s very interesting during our preceding conversation is that there is now a NATO training mission in Iraq led by Canada. What is this NATO mission trying to do? Because when you look at Iraq, it was not a NATO intervention but NATO members were involved. It is perceived mainly as an American affair. Now you have Canadians, and presumably other NATO countries, on a training mission. What is the aim of this mission?
Adnan Khan: I think it’s important to note that when this war in Iraq was originally launched in 2003 NATO stayed out of it. it was only later that NATO became involved but really only from a training perspective. There was a training mission about a year and a half ago but it was
very poorly funded. It wasn’t backed robustly by NATO members. In recent years, the primary focus has been the war against Daesh, led by Operation Inherent Resolve, which is an international coalition put together by the U.S. that includes many NATO countries, including Turkey. But it is not under NATO auspices.
This new NATO mission, which evolved out of the NATO Summit in Brussels in July last year and was launched in October, shifts the focus away from fighting Daesh and puts more resources into training, to essentially get the Iraqi army to a professional level. Inherent Resolve is still ongoing but many NATO countries in that coalition have now shifted over to the NATO mission. One of the motivations for that is, you know, when we look back at the rise of Daesh in Iraq, one of the reasons it was able to take a big city like Mosul was because the Iraqi army was so poorly trained. It was guilty of abuses against the local people in Mosul and basically didn’t even stand up and fight Daesh when it came into the city. Iraq would like to avoid a repeat. What they’re doing is trying to really institutionalize the military - set up military schools that are self-sufficient and build sustainable defense institutions.
►Ilter Turan: Who else is involved?
Adnan Khan: Some of the key members are Spain, the UK, Australia and Turkey. Brigadier General Rasim Yaldız is currently heading up the Advisory and Training Division. Command will be on a rotational basis with Major General Dany Fortin from Canada commanding this initial set up phase. It’s a broad based NATO initiative and each country is taking on different aspects of helping the Iraqis build up their defense institutions, whether it be the Engineering School where they deal with mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to institutional components like administration or even procurement of weapons.
►Ilter Turan: This is interesting because it was the Americans who basically destroyed Saddam Hussein’s army and now they’re trying to rebuild an equally professional one; and, of course, it takes a lot of effort to “professionalize people.” But in the meantime, this gave an opportunity for militia forces to develop. Here in Turkey, when we look at newspapers, we always read about the Shia militias. What role will they have and what will their relationship be to the professional army?
Adnan Khan: This is still a big question mark. The NATO commanders I spoke with are all very concerned because the Shia militias are not part of this training mission. General Fortin made a very good point when he told me that NATO wants to train security forces in Iraq that are under the control of the Iraqi government. It’s still unclear whose orders the Shia militias follow. In some instances, there are militias who take orders from Iran so, NATO has decided not to include the militias.
►Ilter Turan: This reminds me of the Ottoman experience when in the process of trying to modernize the Ottoman military, the Sultans had to deal with the Janissaries, a similarly undisciplined force. In the end it took a rather bloody struggle to end their existence. I’m not sure if there is a peaceful way to deal with this, particularly in light of the fact that some of these militias may be connected to Iranian patrons. I would just wonder what sort of things would be needed to be done in order to allow Iraq to have one military. There is obviously a sociological, cultural and maybe an economic basis for these rival military organizations to have emerged.
Adnan Khan: Well exactly. One of the main issues that even the Iraqi generals I spoke with recognize is that without a political solution these kinds of divides are just going to deepen. There’s a lot of concern that even this training mission, because of outside influences on the government as well as the deep fissures within the government, that no matter how much training you give the army you’re inevitably heading toward more conflict and possibly even setting up the conditions on the ground for a group like Daesh to re-emerge.
►Ilter Turan: Let us hope that doesn’t happen. My impression looking at it from here has been that the confidence people have in their government seems not to be particularly high. Is that a misjudgment?
Adnan Khan: No, that’s exactly true. It’s interesting that Baghdad has really changed since the mid2000s when I was covering the war in Iraq. Baghdad was an extremely dangerous place. Entire neighborhoods were in conflict with each other - Shia neighborhoods versus Sunni neighborhoods. Now the city has come back to life. There’s quite a bit of activity again. People are out; shops have opened up, restaurants have opened. But when you talk to people, what they consistently say is “Listen, we finally have some peace and we’re enjoying it for the moment, but we don’t expect it to last.” The government is corrupt and there is this overarching feeling that things could fall apart at any moment. There’s a total mistrust in the government.
►Ilter Turan: Let us hope that things get better. I think the more effective a democratic system is the less corruption there is. Let us hope that other countries serve as an inspiration for the Iraqis to stamp out corruption that destroys any pretense of good governance and undermine the citizens’ faith in the system.