The Iraqi government has accepted only a fraction of fighting vehicles the U.S. has offered to provide it, indicating leaders in Baghdad desperately holding their country together amid the Islamic State group onslaught may be trying to appease multiple masters.
Amid the rise of the Islamic State group late last year, U.S. News reported the U.S. military was hoarding more than 3,000 fighting vehicles in nearby Kuwait, mostly the mine-resistant, ambush-protected combat trucks known as MRAPs that played a key role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This stockpile, made up largely of equipment withdrawn from Afghanistan, was designed to give war planners options and bolster Iraq’s military forces as they disintegrated in the face of Islamic State group violence.
More than six months later, only 300 MRAPs have actually gone to the Iraqi government, U.S. News has subsequently learned, defying logic among observers who question why the besieged nation would not accept a deal that bolsters its defenses and improves greatly on its outdated fleet of vehicles.
In short, why wouldn’t Iraq want more of a good thing?
“[Three hundred] is not a token, but it’s not 3,000,” says Stephen Biddle, a former senior adviser to Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus during the Iraq War. “In strict military terms, the MRAP is an upgrade. Why would an army at war not accept a free upgrade?”
Defense officials would not offer any explanation, beyond that the final number is all the Iraqi government asked for. Requests for comment to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington were not returned in time for this report.
The infamous MRAP was designed to improve upon the proportionately thin-skinned Humvee, and is part of the reason why the Iraqis primarily employ Humvees now. The U.S. had little use for the Cold War-era all-terrain vehicles amid the demands for protection against roadside bombs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So during the last decade, the military offloaded many of them, including more heavily armored versions, to strategic partners in Baghdad through policies designed to trim waste from American stockpiles while bolstering the armories of friendly militaries.
The 300 MRAPs were provided directly to the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces from the stockpile in Kuwait, and the remainder of the equipment was shipped back to the U.S. for normal postwar processing, says Danish Maj. Jens Lunde, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group. Other materials the U.S. has supplied to Iraq include intelligence and surveillance equipment, refrigerators, fuel and generators.
Repurposing such components from the Afghanistan drawdown has saved the U.S. war effort against the Islamic State group $275 million, Lunde says. The U.S. spends on average $8 million per day on the campaign, totaling around $3 billion so far.
The U.S. government completed delivery of 250 MRAPs to the Iraqi government by Jan. 4, says Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, with 25 of those vehicles provided to the Kurdish peshmerga forces. The remaining 50 MRAPs had attachments used to destroy mines and were delivered between April and May. Fifteen of those went to the peshmerga.
Iraq’s seemingly halfhearted investment, however, is puzzling to some who have been following the shaky government’s progress through its decade of war. After all, even if some of the MRAPs were in a state of disrepair, the Iraqi government still could use them to cannibalize parts for the functioning fleet, continuing what has become a common practice among developing militaries in the region.
Yet adding a new kind of vehicle to military inventories requires familiarizing soldiers with the equipment itself, training mechanics or hiring contractors to maintain them, and paying for spare parts to keep the vehicles operational. This reality means a government may be better off focusing on the equipment it already has and knows how to use instead of embracing newer – and in this case, better – technology.
The option to simply give away such equipment also is limited by both U.S. military policy and congressional rules, meaning Baghdad is at least supposed to pay something for the discounted vehicles, which may have led to a bit of bargaining. And an expert with experience in the last war says such transactions with the Iraqis are never that easy.
“They were willing to take anything the U.S. was willing to give, but whenever you talked their paying for something, it led to long, drawn out negotiations,” former Army officer Rick Brennan, who helped oversee the transition from military to civilian power during the last Iraq War, says of past negotiations with Iraqi officials. Previous efforts to sell the country M16 assault rifles, for example, never reached a final contract after encountering pricing obstacles.
Another possibility is that accepting some vehicles, though far from all of them, helped keep business flowing, ensuring perhaps better dealings between the Shiite-led government and its American benefactors in the future.
The relationship often comes with strings attached. The U.S. had previously considered, for example, withholding airstrikes against the Islamic State group until Baghdad reformed its government to be more inclusive toward the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. American warplanes ultimately began dropping bombs anyway, as the extremists’ assaults grew too difficult to ignore.
“Maybe they’re trying to play hardball like they did frequently when we were there,” says Brennan, now with the Rand Corp. “They’re pretty sly negotiators. They were able to effectively get what they wanted from us for a long time.”
Indeed, Baghdad has continually petitioned the U.S. for better and more advanced military equipment. Leaders earlier this month boasted of F-16 fighter jets they finally received to help with the air campaign.
But the Obama administration remains dissatisfied with the Iraqi government’s ability to inclusively oversee all of its people. Ousted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave great preference to his fellow Shiite Muslims, leaving minority Sunnis feeling disenfranchised by the central government and causing some to be at least passively complicit as the Islamic State group ravaged parts of the country.
“I could imagine we wanted more from the Iraqi government in exchange for those vehicles than the Iraqi government was willing to offer,” says Biddle, now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “So, we decided not to provide those vehicles.”
Iraq may then be kowtowing to a different master, Biddle says. Accepting 300 MRAPs may be just enough to help American leaders believe they remain Iraq’s greatest patron, but not so many that it attracts unwanted attention from Iran, which has also prioritized backing an Iraqi government managed by fellow Shiites.
“They’ve been trying to have it both ways for a long time,” Brennan says. “Since the U.S. has left [in 2011], Iran has gotten even more entrenched throughout both the economy as well as the security structure.”
“I think there is a good possibility the government of Iraq is trying to balance that.”
During the height of the Iraq War, some advisers – including Brennan – warned that the U.S. wanted to see a successful relationship more than its Iraqi counterparts. As a result, Iraq was usually able to wait long enough to get a better deal than what the U.S. initially offered – like, for example, when the U.S. began conducting airstrikes without waiting for full reforms from the central government.
Now, there are more players at the table.
“It’s not 2011 anymore,” says Brennan. “Choices have been made since 2011 and we’re in a new era, and they’re competing for arms and equipment just like any other nation we’re partnering with.”