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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
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

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

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.

Contributors

Interim President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq
LahibHigel