A new NATO training mission to Iraq will have to deal with a complex political environment in which Iran is growing in influence.
The NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) was formally announced by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the July 2018 NATO Summit. Canada, which leads the mission, has tapped Major-General Dany Fortin of the Canadian Armed Forces to be its first commander.
“We expect this new mission to become fully operational in early 2019, with contributions from NATO Allies and partners. Most Allies are contributing to the mission,” said a NATO official, who also noted that Australia, Sweden and Finland who are partners of NATO will also take part in the mission.
While the formal training mission will begin next year some worry that even a counter-terrorism training mission will only serve to benefit the region’s main state sponsor of terrorism – Iran.
“I worry about [the NATO mission] because I don’t think we will ever see Iraq the way it was before 2003,” said retired Marine Corp General James Conway who served two tours in Iraq.
“What do we want to see as an outcome? How does this play with the Shia militias? If we see a stronger centralized Iraqi army as an outcome that would be good but, if the outcome is a greater role for the Iraqi Shia militas in deciding military outcomes in Iraq, that is not a good outcome.”
Shift in priorities
The largest contingent will be Canadian with 250 troops and four CH-146 Griffon helicopters committed to the operation. For Canada, the mission marks a shift in priorities in the mission against ISIS. Trudeau has sought to shift Canada’s role away from combat operations against ISIS into largely non-combat roles in 2016.
Canada’s deployment of 250 advisers is the largest to the mission though the contributions of the other nations which have pledged to support the mission vary greatly. Slovakia is set to send a deployment of 42 dependent on parliamentary approval while there are a mere two soldiers from Australia.
The training mission will focus on civil-military cooperation, civil emergency planning, military medicine and include a maintenance program for some of the Soviet era equipment held by Iraq. The NMI will also include training on countering improvised explosive devices – a clear need of the Iraqi security forces.
However, there appears to be some disagreement in who will benefit from this training. In a hastily organized press-conference this past July, then Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi told journalists the training would include the Peshmerga, leaving open the possibility that militia unit members as individuals could receive such trainings.
Integration of militia groups
The current Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has yet to comment directly on the issue but, has made the further integration of militia groups also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) as a key part of his polices. This past week his government announced that the PMF would receive equal pay to career Iraqi Security Forces – a policy first proposed by his predecessor. The move has angered some in the Iraqi ranks who have worked years to obtain their ranks.
“The mission staff advise and train Iraqi security personnel under the effective control of the Iraqi government. Therefore, neither the Peshmerga, nor other Iraqi militias will be trained within the framework of the NATO Mission Iraq,” said the same NATO official when asked if paramilitary forces would be included.
However, who is a member of the Iraqi Security Forces and who is a member of Shia militia groups can be hard to figure out. Some individuals are listed on both rosters. Corruption remains a serious concern in the Iraqi military. In 2015, a review of the Iraqi Army discovered 50,000 “ghost soldiers” on the Iraqi payrolls. The Shia militia forces often earn income from Iran, business ventures, and other sources.
Last year, Qatar paid as much as $1 billion in ransom to Shia militias, which may have ended up in the hands of Iran or (in the Qatari version) the Iraqi state but, in a political landscape in which Iran continues to grow in influence, the difference maybe increasingly academic. Some members of the PMF have been accused of committing war crimes by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
These difficulties aside NATO has a track record of working in the Balkans and Afghanistan to help forge non-sectarian, multi-ethnic, and often multilingual fighting forces. The NMI mission is a non-combat one and builds on the Training and Capacity Building Initiative for Iraq that was launched in 2017 and completed last month but, there is still much work to be done.
Al Qaysi is the former Director of Intelligence Analysis for the Directorate of Military of Intelligence with Iraqi of Ministry of Defense worked closely with a previous NATO training mission to his country. Over the years NATO has trained thousands of Iraqi service members in various capacities.
Al Qaysi stressed that the Iraqi Security Forces need to improve their counter-terrorism capacity and to learn the lessons of the recent fight against ISIS to better operate in “urban areas against an unorganized enemy.”
“The Iraqi Army needs to develop its combat doctrine,” General Majid Al Qaysi, a former Iraqi general who retired in 2016, “NATO can help develop an appropriate training doctrine for combat and….also help with IEDS measures… this is a critical need at the present time.”