As Sgt. Mark McDonald absorbs the spectacle of a relatively small band of jihadist militia swiftly capturing huge swaths of Iraq, he feels a personal connection to the events unfolding: He spent a large part of the years 2006 to 2008 stationed in Iraq as part of American Marine unit tasked with training Iraqi security forces to defend their country.
He knew at the time that the prognosis was not great. McDonald, who joined the Marines right out of high school in 2004 and served in Al Anbar province, and Army Platoon Sgt. Mario Hernandez, who did three tours between 2003 and late 2008, both spoke to the International Business Times. Separately, the two men had come to the same conclusion: The United States had not succeeded in training the Iraqis and left the country too quickly, and the fact that tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers are fleeing their posts now is not surprising.
The men say the Iraqis they worked with didn’t seem committed to the mission -- partly, perhaps, for financial reasons -- and that the Americans were hampered in their efforts to communicate and to enforce good order and discipline.
“The thing about the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army that we all saw while we were over there is that they’re very easily corruptible," McDonald said. "They actually make less than we do. Which is terrible -- I mean, they hardly get paid anything and then you have al Qaeda over here, who is basically just throwing cash to people telling them to go do these random deeds.”
“We were kind of limited not only by a language barrier but also by, you know, we are allowed to discipline [only] our own,” said McDonald. “If we catch an Iraqi on post asleep, we can’t do anything. We have to go downstairs and get his command to go up there and usually that didn’t end up resulting in anything--any kind of punishment or anything. So the next time he went on post again, he just fell asleep again.”
The Iraqis weren’t trying to sabotage the operations. “Most of the time it was honestly just unresponsiveness,” said McDonald, who now lives in Alabama. “Lack of paying attention during the patrol, falling asleep in defensive positions, not checking the cars how they should be at the different checkpoints.”
Platoon Sergeant Hernandez, who is currently in the reserves in upstate New York, saw similar failures of training.
“The stuff we were teaching them was simple, not special operation crazy tactics or maneuvers,” he said. “They could regurgitate it back to us but when it actually came to operations, at least the ones we were paired with, they had difficulties actually conducting the specific tasks … to the standards that we trained them.”
McDonald saw a stark difference between his first time training Iraqi servicemen in 2006 and his second experience just a year later.
During his first tour, “they were extremely responsive. There were several of them that were former Iraqi National Guard and they were the most experienced ones… they wanted to learn. The second time I went over there in 2007, they were a lot less responsive. It was almost as if they just held out a piece of paper and said ‘Who wants to become an Iraqi police officer?’”
The pace of combat had slowed in 2008, McDonald said. “Maybe it got boring to them.”
Mark Hertling, a retired general, told the Associated Press that the Iraqi security forces simply had not been trained well. “While we were there, we were helping them train. We were protecting them. ... Holy smokes, I mean we were training them and operating with them ... and here it is three years later, and it's a different military than we trained.”
But both McDonald and Hernandez say the act that most significantly undermined the Iraqi security forces was the U.S. pullout in December 2011.
“All of a sudden, it was almost overnight, they were like, ‘Everybody pack up, we’re going home,’” McDonald said.
“We are seeing the results of leaving too early,” Hernandez said, talking about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and its successful takeover of several major Iraq cities. “Go back in time, I would have never left.”
“This is not about ISIS strength, but the Iraqi security forces’ weakness,” according to an unnamed former senior Iraqi war veteran who spoke to the New York Times. “Since the U.S. left in 2011, the training and readiness of the Iraqi security forces has plummeted precipitously.”
The U.S. troop pullout followed a dramatic drop in funds spent for Iraqi security forces. According to a 2010 audit by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the funds spent on the Iraqi security forces dropped rapidly from 2006 to 2010: $1.9 billion was spent in total in 2006, over $900 million specifically for training and operations. In 2010, only $106 million was spent in total on this fund: a little over $80 million on training and none for infrastructure.
If the United State were to go back Iraq, said Hernandez, “it would take a process of years to retrain the Iraqi security forces. As Americans, we think things only take a few years. We’re dealing with a different society, a different culture. They have different time expectations.”
Sergeant McDonald said he has spoken with many former comrades and they agree that “we made a big mistake leaving when we did.” President Obama has said America will not send combat troops, but McDonald thinks the only way to complete the original mission is for the U.S. to put boots on the ground again. “I honestly agree with starting there at the ground up,” he said.
“At this point, if we weren’t to go back it would--just in my personal opinion--feel like a waste, what I did for the past 8-and-a-half years,” McDonald said. “I feel like we started something and we didn’t finish it.”