In July 2009 the former mayor of Tel Afar in Ninewa Najim Abed al-Jabouri authored a paper for the National Defense University warning of sectarianism and political influence in the Iraqi Security Forces. The report, “An Iraqi ISF Assessment after U.S. Troop Withdrawal” warned that the U.S. must protect the security forces from Iraq’s political parties before it withdraws in 2011 or face a possible civil war. While touching on an important issue, there are some major problems with Jabouri’s argument.
Jabouri starts off by saying that many American officials have warned about politicization of the security forces. He notes General James Jones’ report on Iraq’s forces, General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and the Defense Department’s quarterly reports to Congress, have all mentioned political meddling in Iraq’s army, police, and Interior and Defense Ministries. This is the first issue with the paper. General Jones’ report from September 2007 mentioned that the Iraqi police were open to political influence because they were locally recruited and thus under local political leaders’ sway. It also talked about the sectarian nature of the Interior Ministry and the lack of top leadership. At the same time it found that the Defense Minister was independent of politics. Later in the paper Jabouri actually seems to admit this by saying that the Iraqi Army is less influenced by politics as the police because the U.S. has spent much more time training and mentoring the armed forces. Newer reports like one by the United States Institute of Peace from August 2009 has found that Interior Minister Jawad Bolani has successfully instituted a series of reforms of the ministry, and cleaned up a lot of the previous problems. A further issue is that the two quotes used, one by General Odierno and one by the Defense Department, mentioned politics and sectarianism were still problems in Iraq in general, but never mentioned the security forces. That’s not to say that Jabouri’s thoughts are off, but the examples he gives don’t quite support his point.
Next Jabouri goes over Iraqi concerns about their forces. According to him Iraq assessments see problems with political meddling, lack of professionalism and training, and logistics and organization as the major issues facing the army and police. He gives examples of political influence over the army by saying the 8th Division is under the influence of the Dawa party, the 4th Division under the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the 7th Division under the Anbar Awakening, and the 5th Division under the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). Here Jabouri does a much better job. In Anbar for example, almost all of the soldiers and police were recruited from the Awakening tribes. During the standoff between the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish peshmerga in the Khanaqin district of Diyala in August 2008, a Kurdish led Brigade in the province refused to take orders from Baghdad, while another commander and 200 of his soldiers in Ninewa quit and marched back to Irbil. Maliki has also tried to centralize control of the Army divisions by placing his supporters in command positions. There is definitely political influence in the security forces; the question is to what extent.
Jabouri is afraid with U.S. forces withdrawing, the different sectarian parties will launch attacks to try to undermine the security situation and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s standing, which could have wide ranging affects upon the country. If the security forces are not able to deal with the violence, then Iraqis might look to other groups like militias or insurgents for protection. He’s also afraid that this could escalate into civil war, where the security forces will loose its national character and become solely beholden to each one of the ruling parties. Jabouri writes that the attacks will seek to test the security forces’ strengths and weaknesses. Yet if they are already under the control of the political parties as he argues, wouldn’t they already know the capabilities of the security forces? A second problem is why would the political parties escalate these attacks into an open armed conflict with each other? What event could be the cause of this breakdown? All of the parties are planning for the 2010 parliamentary elections, and are trying to figure out whether to oppose or support Maliki. While Iraqis are increasingly blaming political actors for the increase in bombings lately, there have been no retaliations for the attacks, and people are demanding more from their security forces instead. Things could obviously change after the balloting or some event could spiral out of control, but for now the status quo is based upon political, not armed struggle.
Jabouri writes that there are six steps to reform the security forces. First is to have a renewed push for reconciliation and to support free elections. The Obama administration and U.S. military have been talking about both. Jabouri also says that former soldiers that are not getting any government support should be paid their pensions. This could help with reconciliation because many of the former soldiers are Sunnis, but this doesn’t seem like a way to keep the political parties’ hands off the security forces. Second, corrupt officers should be removed and time limits should be set on officers, because many get their positions through political connections. Third, there are already laws on the books prohibiting political meddling. The judicial system and media could play a role here as well enforcing the laws and exposing backroom deals. The Prime Minister is one of the main actors trying to strengthen his control over the security forces however, and it may be hard to determine which of his actions are legitimate and which are not. Fourth, Army battalions should be moved around the country to break the hold the local ruling party has over them. He cites the example of Maliki’s deployment of army units to northern Iraq, and his attempt to lesson the Kurdish influence in those forces. The problem is that this was a political move by the Prime Minister, just the type of action that Jabouri is seemingly writing against. Fifth, conscription should be brought back so that the armed forces are truly national in character. On the other hand, Jabouri’s last suggestion is to reduce the Interior Ministry’s forces because they are too large, and the most open to political influence.
Finally the paper has four steps for the U.S. to take to achieve these goals. First the U.S. needs to be forceful with Iraqi leaders to make sure that they get the message that America wants to fix these problems before it leaves. Second, Iraq’s neighbors need to be brought into the process. All of the countries that Jabouri mentions however are Sunni ones. Why would the Shiite or Kurdish parties listen to them? They have little influence in Iraq right now. Third, the U.S. needs to use its media assets to increase transparency within the security forces and ministries. Last, the Iraqi Army needs to turn to national security, which will them a goal that is less political than internal defense
Jabouri writes about an important issue. There are undoubtedly political influences in the Iraqi forces, especially the local police. The U.S. is also loosing influence every month as they plan for their withdrawal. At the same time, Jabouri brings up many issues that are not relevant to his point like using quotes by American officials that don’t mention the security forces, arguing that Sunni Arab countries could influence Iraq’s political parties, and saying that Maliki’s use of the armed forces to pressure the Kurds is an example of lessoning political influence. More importantly, he warns over and over of a civil war, yet Iraq’s problems are being largely dealt with on the political field today. There is a real possibility of an armed clash between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga that everyone is talking about. Other than that though, all of the major disputes are over Maliki’s growing power, not sectarian divisions. In fact, opposition to Maliki unites a wide swath of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish parties. That being said, many of the paper’s suggestions for solving the problem of politicization are good such as moving Iraqi units around, which is already done to some extent. That should be mixed with a rotation of officers rather than term limits, something the armed forces are unlikely to adopt. The real problem could be stopping the Prime Minister from naming commanders, as that would be extremely hard to prove as a political move rather than just an exercise of his executive power. Overall, Jabouri could’ve done a lot better with a more focused argument and better analysis to prove his point.
Abouzeid, Rania, “Arabs-Kurd Tensions Could Threaten Iraq’s Peace,” Time, 3/24/09
Amos, Deborah, “Ethnic, Sectarian Discord Threaten Iraq Security Gains,” All Things Considered, NPR, 8/13/09
Ashton, Adam and Issa, Sahar, “Iraqis remaining cool despite attacks on mosques, minorities,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/14/09
Cordesman, Anthony Mausner, Adam, “Withdrawal from Iraq, Assessing the Readiness of Iraqi Security Forces,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2009
Al-Jabouri, Najim Abed, “An Iraqi ISF Assessment after U.S. Troop Withdrawal,” Strategic Forum, July 2009
Jones, General James, “The Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq,” Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, 9/6/07
Paley, Amit, “Uncertainty After Anbar Handover,” Washington Post, 9/2/08
Perito, Robert and Kristoff, Madeline, “Iraq’s Interior Ministry,” United States Institute of Peace, August 2009
Serwer, Daniel and Parker, Sam, “Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections,” United States Institute of Peace, May 2009