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Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces between U.S. Drawdown and Withdrawal
Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces between U.S. Drawdown and Withdrawal
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects
Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects

Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces between U.S. Drawdown and Withdrawal

The main threat to Iraq’s political order today emanates not from an organised insurgency but from within the political system itself.

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Executive Summary

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.

Baghdad/Washington/Brussels, 26 October 2010

Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects

Originally published in Valdai Club

A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.

The past year’s uprisings shook countries – Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon – that their predecessors had passed by, showing a continuity in roots and purpose. They have in common their anti-establishment sentiment and anger at elites incapable of meeting citizens’ basic needs. But each has its own internal focus and dynamic.

In Algeria, people converged on urban squares when an aging and ailing president announced he would pursue a fifth term in office. In a move to prevent a popular movement from bringing down not just the leader but the entire regime, the military stepped in, replacing the president, targeting some particularly corrupt figures in his entourage, appointing an interim government and organising presidential elections. The protesters have rejected such moves as insufficient, and many have stayed in the street, calling for a more systemic overhaul.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain.

In Iraq, popular grievances, on display almost as an annual ritual in the past few years, burst out into the open in early October following the demotion of a popular special-forces general, a hero of the fight against the Islamic State. The streets in predominantly Shiite areas filled with people calling for a corrupt and inept government to go. They met with success – the prime minister and his cabinet resigned – but also with a violent response from security forces and paramilitary groups, which killed hundreds. Yet the protests have continued, squeezed by tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which are turning Iraq into a battleground for their own dispute.

In Lebanon, a tax on WhatsApp use triggered a storm of protests that soon targeted the entire ruling elite for having brought the country to the edge of financial ruin. As in Iraq, the demonstrations’ tenor has been non-sectarian – a breath of fresh air in two countries where sectarian politics have dominated so long and done so much damage. In Lebanon, politicians have openly acknowledged their own role in precipitating their country’s financial implosion, but have resisted stepping aside. In a way, and incongruously, they have been enabled by the protesters themselves, who like elsewhere in the region have failed to put forward an alternative vision, a leadership, organisation or a plan of action.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain. They may even have worsened as a result of the violence that has already rained down. Yet, while the people in the squares may have been intimidated to retreat in some instances, their threshold for pain may be rising, along with their anger. This wicked dance between rulers and subjects is likely to determine the region’s shape for years to come.