Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces Between U.S. Drawdown and Withdrawal
Middle East Report N°99
26 Oct 2010
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Much is at stake in the never-ending negotiations to form Iraq’s government, but perhaps nothing more important than the future of its security forces. In the seven years since the U.S.-led invasion, these have become more effective and professional and appear capable of taming what remains of the insurgency. But what they seem to possess in capacity they lack in cohesion. A symptom of Iraq’s fractured polity and deep ethno-sectarian divides, the army and police remain overly fragmented, their loyalties uncertain, their capacity to withstand a prolonged and more intensive power struggle at the top unclear. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken worrying steps to assert authority over the security apparatus, notably by creating new bodies accountable to none but himself. A vital task confronting the nation’s political leaders is to reach agreement on an accountable, non-political security apparatus subject to effective oversight. A priority for the new cabinet and parliament will be to implement the decision. And a core responsibility facing the international community is to use all its tools to encourage this to happen.
Iraq’s security forces are the outcome of a seven-year, U.S.-led effort, which began after it comprehensively uprooted and dismantled remnants of the previous regime. This start-from-scratch approach entailed heavy costs. It left a dangerous security vacuum, produced a large constituency of demoralised, unemployed former soldiers, and fuelled the insurgency. The corollary – a hurried attempt to rebuild forces through rapid recruitment, often without sufficient regard to background or qualifications – brought its own share of problems. Iraq’s increasingly fractured, ethno-sectarian post-2003 politics likewise coloured recruitment and promotions. Facing a spiralling insurgency, the U.S. felt it had no choice but to emphasise speed above much else; today, some one in seven Iraqi adult males is under arms. And so, even as they have gained strength in numbers and materiel, the army, police and other security agencies remain burdened by this legacy of expediency.
Considering this backdrop, some indicators are surprisingly positive. Violence, albeit still far above what ought to be tolerable, has levelled off in the past two years. Iraqi security forces have taken the lead in several important operations. Recently, they have withstood three noteworthy tests: the departure of close to 100,000 U.S. troops since January 2009; the March 2010 parliamentary elections; and, over the past several months, political uncertainty prompted by institutional deadlock. If insurgents remain as weak as they are and find no fresh opportunity to exploit political fractures, security forces operating at less-than-optimal levels still should face no serious difficulty in confronting them. On the regional front, while neighbours are actively involved in Iraqi politics, none has displayed aggressive behaviour that would suggest a serious military peril in the foreseeable future.
Measured by their professionalism and logistical capabilities, and assessed against likely threats, the security forces remain a work in progress, yet are faring relatively well. But strength is only one criterion used to measure their sustainability and not necessarily the most pertinent. The security apparatus was built for the most part in response to a contingency that is no more (a sprawling and deadly insurgency), in conformity to a governing paradigm that has become moot (drawing a relatively clear line between the political system on the one hand and those who contest it on the other) and by a party that, militarily at least, is on its way out (the U.S.). Today, the main threat to the political order does not emanate from an organised insurgency that wishes to topple it and oust the occupiers. Rather, it emanates from within: the fractured nature of society and the political class which in turn promotes the security forces’ fragmentation and politicisation.
The structure of Iraq’s security forces reflects both the modalities of their creation and the character of the overall polity. Ex-regime elements, militia members, former insurgents and Kurdish forces were fitfully integrated into security institutions which became the prey of competing ethnic, sectarian and political forces. The result is a set of parallel, at times overlapping forces that often fail to coordinate tasks or share intelligence and that, in the main, still lack both a unified vision and a unified sense of mission. A severe political breakdown – during the current process of government formation, for example, or over future elections – could reverberate throughout state institutions, including the security forces. This is when the second criterion, cohesiveness, will matter most, the question being to whom individual units and their commanders will answer: to the state as a supposedly neutral arbiter of disputes, or to individual political leaders who command authority over political factions, ethnic groups or confessional communities.
The U.S. has both promoted this pattern – by heavily focusing on churning out new security units without sufficient regard to their cohesion and contained it, by virtue of its extensive presence throughout the security apparatus and political system. With the drawdown and impending full withdrawal by the end of 2011, and the resulting weakening of the U.S. role, the risk of a balkanisation of the security forces likely will increase. In this context, the inability to form a government following the 7 March 2010 legislative elections, should it endure, could have serious repercussions on a security apparatus that remains fragile in its structure, composition and capacity.
Another phenomenon further complicates the picture. Since 2008, Maliki has sought to assert greater personal control over the security forces. His main argument related to safety and initially was not without foundation. Iraq had barely begun to emerge from a sectarian war; parliament was unable either to pass laws regulating security agencies or approve nominations to key posts. But his remedy was at least equally dangerous. Without parliamentary oversight or legal basis, the institutions he established are accountable to him alone. Even some Iraqis who originally accepted this as dictated by circumstance argue it has lost any justification. Although regular forces also have been known to engage in unlawful conduct, these new security bodies are believed to carry out extra-judicial operations, uncoordinated with the defence or interior ministries, unmonitored by parliament and unregulated by oversight agencies. Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies are widely decried – one reason why some opponents resist granting him a new tenure and others will acquiesce only if his powers are seriously diluted.
Iraq’s security forces have improved the safety of their citizens, but these problems present longer-term threats that urgently need to be rectified. The new legislature faces the critical challenge of setting up a transparent framework that clearly defines the role and mandate of various security institutions and imposes accountability and oversight, while ensuring immunity from undue political interference. Agencies that lack a basis in law ought to be either dismantled or properly regulated and overseen. This will be no easy task, considering that parliament has not met for months, that it is itself deeply divided and that it will confront a large, competing list of priorities. But it will be all the more important as the U.S. military presence winds down. The two countries could yet agree to prolong that presence in some fashion – a decision the new government will have to weigh relatively soon but that in no way would diminish the need to establish more cohesive, accountable and non-partisan Iraqi security institutions.
To the Caretaker Government of Iraq:
1. Take steps to restore confidence in security forces and minimise risks that extrajudicial practices will continue under the next government by in particular:
a) dismantling security and intelligence agencies that are without legal basis, including the Office of the Commander in Chief and the Office of Information and Security;
b) reintegrating the 56th (Baghdad) Brigade and the Operational Command centres into the regular army, with commanders reporting directly to their superior army officers; and
c) presenting a detailed plan to the Council of Representatives ensuring law-based regulation of the Counter-Terrorism Service and Counter-Terrorism Command with proper independent control and oversight.
2. Ensure, pending appropriate legislation, that counter-terrorism forces and other security agencies fully coordinate their operations with the interior and defence ministries.
3. Close down any detention centres not operating under the justice ministry or bring them under that ministry’s jurisdiction, and end all torture.
4. Continue to integrate former insurgents into security forces or provide them with public sector employment and offer them adequate protection against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other violent groups.
5. Streamline the work of intelligence agencies with a view to improving intelligence-sharing and coordination by clearly delineating responsibilities and strengthening the mandate of coordinating bodies such as the National Intelligence Coordination Council.
To Iraqi Political Parties:
6. Form a broad-based, inclusive coalition government reflecting an arrangement that redistributes power between the prime minister and other senior positions, balancing between the prime minister’s need to govern effectively and the risk that his authority be exercised without effective oversight and control.
To the Iraqi Council of Representatives:
7. Codify in law the power-sharing arrangement described above.
8. Legislate within six months of the government’s formation a new security architecture in which roles and responsibilities of all security and intelligence agencies are clearly defined and subject to effective independent oversight, notably through parliamentary committees.
9. Review all extra-parliamentary appointments to senior command positions made by the previous government (including in its caretaker capacity), and approve or reject such appointments on the basis of merit.
To the Next Iraqi Government:
10. Ensure that all security forces are covered by a new law to be passed by parliament.
11. Prosecute officers suspected of human rights violations or corruption.
12. Diversify the ethnic and confessional composition of security forces deployed in specific areas.
To the Kurdistan Regional Government:
13. Integrate party-affiliated security (asaesh) and intelligence (parasten and zaniyari) agencies into a single institution under the Kurdistan regional government’s control and the regional parliament’s oversight.
14. Initiate discussions with the federal government over the future integration of those agencies and that single institution into the national police under the interior ministry’s authority.
To the Governments of Iraq’s Neighbours
and the United States:
15. Assist Iraqi parties in forming a broad-based, inclusive coalition government based on an arrangement that redistributes and shares power between the prime minister and other senior positions.
To the United States Government:
16. Be more transparent about which parts of the Iraqi security apparatus it works with and how.
17. Use military assistance as leverage to press the next Iraqi government to ensure proper regulation of its army, police, anti-terrorism and other security forces and their respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Baghdad/Washington/Brussels, 26 October 2010