Think of this as a little imperial folly update — and here’s the backstory. In the years after invading Iraq and disbanding Saddam Hussein’s military, the U.S. sunk about $25 billion into “standing up” a new Iraqi army. By June 2014, however, that army, filled with at least 50,000 “ghost soldiers,” was only standing in the imaginations of its generals and perhaps Washington. When relatively small numbers of Islamic State (IS) militants swept into northern Iraq, it collapsed, abandoning four cities — including Mosul, the country’s second largest — and leaving behind enormous stores of U.S. weaponry, ranging from tanks and Humvees to artillery and rifles. In essence, the U.S. was now standing up its future enemy in a style to which it was unaccustomed and, unlike the imploded Iraqi military, the forces of the Islamic State proved quite capable of using that weaponry without a foreign trainer or adviser in sight.
In response, the Obama administration dispatched thousands of new advisers and trainers and began shipping in piles of new weaponry to re-equip the Iraqi army. It also filled Iraqi skies with U.S. planes armed with their own munitions to destroy, among other things, some of that captured U.S. weaponry. Then it set to work standing up a smaller version of the Iraqi army. Now, skip nearly a year ahead and on a somewhat lesser scale the whole process has just happened again. Less than two weeks ago, Islamic State militants took Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. Iraqi army units, including the elite American-trained Golden Division, broke and fled, leaving behind — you’ll undoubtedly be shocked to hear — yet another huge cache of weaponry and equipment, including tanks, more than 100 Humvees and other vehicles, artillery, and so on.
The Obama administration reacted in a thoroughly novel way: it immediately began shipping in new stocks of weaponry, starting with 1,000 antitank weapons, so that the reconstituted Iraqi military could take out future “massive suicide vehicle bombs” (some of which, assumedly, will be those captured vehicles from Ramadi). Meanwhile, American planes began roaming the skies over that city, trying to destroy some of the equipment IS militants had captured.
Notice anything repetitive in all this — other than another a bonanza for U.S. weapons makers? Logically, it would prove less expensive for the Obama administration to simply arm the Islamic State directly before sending in the air strikes. In any case, what a microcosm of U.S. imperial hubris and folly in the twenty-first century all this training and equipping of the Iraqi military has proved to be. Start with the post-invasion decision of the Bush administration to totally disband Saddam’s army and instantly eject hundreds of thousands of unemployed Sunni military men and a full officer corps into the chaos of the “new” Iraq and you have an instant formula for creating a Sunni resistance movement. Then, add in a little extra “training” at Camp Bucca, a U.S. military prison in Iraq, for key unemployed officers, and — Voilà! — you’ve helped set up the petri dish in which the leadership of the Islamic State movement will grow.
Tom Engelhardt, book editor and writer, is the founder of TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media. His books include The End of Victory Culture, The United States of Fear, and Shadow Government.