There is perhaps no greater need for security sector reform than in a state on the verge of dissolution. Indeed, a good proportion of its security forces may have already left the field of battle in the face of foreign forces or insurgents. Such is the recent case of Iraq. Despite being numerically superior and better equipped, the US-trained Iraqi Army that confronted Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) insurgents quickly changed into civilian clothes and literally dissolved into the civilian population of Mosul, a city of two million.
One could look to professionalism and training as well as other organizational military indicators to assess this loss. But one should also look to the legitimacy of the current Iraqi regime and the relationship between religion and the state in seeking explanations for this fiasco.
While few anticipated this collapse, recent events also hinted that the Iraqi Army was not an elite fighting force. The Iraqi Army offensive against Sadrist militias in Basra and other southern cities in 2008 stalled until the US military contributed firepower and air support. As this event reveals, the Iraqis might not have even been up to the job just a year before US forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and were re-positioned to nearby forward operating bases, and just three years before the United States withdrew completely.
Moreover, a number of assessments of Iraqi units indicated that many of their soldiers had a penchant for not showing up to work on time, sometimes without proper uniforms. Of course, some Iraqi units demonstrated high levels of discipline. But these by no means constituted the general state of the Iraqi Army.
In addition to the defects found in the Army, another problem was the extent which soldiers understood their rights and responsibilities under Iraqi military law. One project that came to the Human Terrain System’s (HTS) Reach Back Research Center had to do with this question. One of our teams was charged with training local Iraqi soldiers in the Iraqi equivalent of the US Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Iraqi version early in the occupation closely followed the American version, but this was changed with the end of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the return of Iraqi sovereignty.
The version that passed the Iraqi parliament was an amalgam of elements from Ottoman rule and US military law. But it at least afforded a forum for troops who felt wrongly treated or wrongly accused. Yet, as HTS teams discovered, Iraqi soldiers had not been briefed about the rights acquired under this law that provided due process against their own chains of command. HTS was able to secure a copy of the new law and disseminate and train it through our teams. But one can only imagine how soldiers might have felt when they learned that their rights had been kept from them and therefore compromised.
By far, however, the largest problem that emerged under Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure was the prime minister’s sectarian bias. Many of the previous regime’s military commanders were already purged, so Maliki had free rein when it came to new appointments.
In Baghdad Province alone, Maliki appointed his first cousin General Abud Qanbar Hashim al-Maliki as head of the Baghdad Operating Command. In addition, another Sunni general married to a Shia member of Maliki’s office staff, General Nasr, commanded a brigade in a predominantly Sunni area. He was known to be blind or even supportive of terrorist attacks on Sunni homes that were intended to create more space for Shia residents. Brigade commanders in southern Baghdad Province, and south to Basra, were also Shia with loyalties to Maliki. Many speculated that this was designed to protect Maliki from future coups, but it now appears to be part of a general strategy to give power to Shia at the expense of Sunnis.
Sectarian conflict is hardly new to those involved with international policy making, as anyone familiar with the Thirty Years War that preceded the founding the Westphalia state system can attest. The Iraqi power sharing agreement of 2010 emerged from the same sort of fatigue that led to the settlement and treaties that constitute the Peace of Westphalia. After an egregious sectarian civil war in 2006 and a stalled national election in 2010, Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds in Iraq developed what seemed to be a workable power sharing arrangement, involving both some agreement with the Kurds about Kirkuk and the sharing of senior offices by Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds.
However, contrary to the spirit of this agreement, a Maliki-friendly appellate court held that Maliki’s State of Law coalition could join in a post-election Shia coalition with the Sadrists and ISCI to hold a majority of seats and form a new government. This ruling denied any opportunity to the non-sectarian Iraqiya Party to pull together a coalition government, despite winning a plurality of the Council of Representatives seats.
Things began to look more positive when Tariq al Hashimi, a leader of the Sunni IIP party, rose to the vice presidency in 2011. But this situation proved short-lived, as Maliki filed murder charges against Hashemi relating to an alleged death squads that killed Shia enemies during the 2006 civil war. Hashimi fled to Kurdistan and eventually took refuge in Turkey, during which time he was sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. The key question is not whether he was guilty but rather why charges were brought against him in the first place – when so many from the Shia side, like al Sadr, were also guilty of murder during Iraq’s civil war but weren’t similarly charged.
Since many Sunnis were similarly detained and imprisoned with little or no due process, it is small wonder that Al Qaeda attacks against Shia targets have become more numerous or that Sunni populations invaded by ISIS have been somewhat accepting of their occupiers. Sunni commanders and rank and file soldiers in the Iraqi Army are also loath to fire upon Sunni insurgents in defence of a state that has offered them increasing levels of discrimination or persecution.
There is also every reason to doubt the efficacy of prior solutions to this problem, such as the Anbar Awakening or Sawha movement – when the US made common cause with Sunni tribal sheykhs and their followers to set up a neighborhood watch against al-Qaeda. Back then, the US was paying the Sons of Iraq (SOI) through their sheykhs, while promising the SOI future employment in the Iraqi security forces. It was therefore very much in the interest of young tribal members to form this home defense organization. However, with Maliki failing to deliver on these promises, there is no patriotic or financial reason why these men and their sheykhs would go down this road again.
What is at the heart of this matter is the wisdom of the US in allowing the creation of mass based religious parties during the occupation. This has proven to be a serious mistake and one that could have been avoided if we heeded the examples of Muslim countries, like Ataturk’s Turkey, that banned religion from state activities. The creation of religious parties as the main agent of political representation and action forms an important explanation for what followed, which will be further explored in Part Two of this post.
Lawrence Katzenstein holds a PhD from Rutgers University and first became involved with post-conflict governance as part of the Human Terrain and Analysis team embedded with the 1st Cavalry Division at Multinational Division, Baghdad, 2008-2009. He subsequently worked at the HTS Iraq Reach Back Research Center in Newport News, Virginia, the CJ3IO AT CENTCOM, and the SOCOM Red Team.