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The bloody cost of a having a ‘political’ army

October 29, 2009

In today’s Op-Ed section of the NY Times, Najim Abed al-Jabouri (former mayor of Tal Afar) explains why political and ethnic-based divisions within the security services can cause massive setbacks for nation-building and security efforts.

October 29, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

For Every Iraqi Party, an Army of Its Own

By NAJIM ABED AL-JABOURI

SUNDAY’S coordinated suicide bombings in Baghdad, which killed more than 150 people, were a brutal reminder of how far Iraq still has to go in terms of security. While things are far better than a few years ago, one huge task remains: getting the public to trust the Iraqi security forces.

From 2005 to 2008, I was the mayor of Tel Afar, a town in Nineveh Province in northern Iraq that become the model for the “clear, hold and build” strategy credited with turning the war around during the surge. In some ways, the story of Tel Afar is indicative of what we are now seeing on a larger scale in Iraq.

In 2004, Tel Afar was plagued by insurgency and terrorism, the result of missed chances and poor decisions by both the American and the Iraqi governments. In early 2005, however, I was approached by Col. H. R. McMaster, an innovative American brigade commander (he is now a brigadier general) who agreed with me that security efforts should focus on gaining the confidence of the people and not only on killing the enemy. We went to work building bridges with the population.

First, the American and Iraqi security forces were taken out of their bases and moved full-time into city neighborhoods. Recognizing that the local police force was dominated by a certain ethno-sectarian group and that members had harmed people of other religions and ethnicities, I fired any police officer with a record of violence or other unprofessional actions. Then I recruited officers from other ethnic groups, and integrated all the units. Shiite worked with Sunni, and Turkmen and Kurd worked with Arab.

We also put a new focus on meeting the needs of the people — not just keeping people safe, but trying to avoid violence from starting by encouraging Tel Afar’s different groups to talk to one another. Once we gained widespread trust in our impartiality, we could be fairly sure that any resident who saw something suspicious would quickly report it to the authorities.

The Iraqi government needs to apply these same principles to the national security forces. Both the military and the police remain heavily politicized. The police and border officials, for example, are largely answerable to the Interior Ministry, which has been seen (often correctly) as a pawn of Shiite political movements. Members of the security forces are often loyal not to the state but to the person or political party that gave them their jobs.

The same is true of many parts of the Iraqi Army. For example, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, has been under the sway of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Shiite party that has the largest bloc in Parliament; the Eighth Division, in Diwaniya and Kut to the southeast of the capital, has answered largely to Dawa, the Shiite party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; the Fourth Division, in Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq, has been allied with one of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

More recently, the Iraqi Awakening Conference, a tribal-centric political party based in Anbar Province (where Sunni tribesmen, the so-called Sons of Iraq, turned against the insurgency during the surge) has gained influence over the Seventh Iraq Army Division, which was heavily involved in recruiting Sunnis to maintain security in 2006.

These political schisms are partly responsible for coordinated terrorist attacks like those on Sunday or the so-called Bloody Wednesday bombings of Aug. 19, which killed more than 100. The aim of such assaults is to pull the rug from under Prime Minister Maliki in advance of the January elections. Mr. Maliki has used the security gains of the last two years as his political trump card, a strategy that gave Dawa huge gains in provincial elections last February. However, if attacks on the government rise, his opponents will harp on them in order to break Dawa’s political momentum.

I do not suggest that the political parties committed these crimes directly. But ethno-sectarian political party influence over the security forces indirectly makes it easier for enemies of Iraq to carry out their attacks.

The Iraqi government also made a huge mistake by failing to find a place for the Sons of Iraq in the national government. This was because of pressure from ethno-sectarian parties and their gatekeepers in the Defense and Interior Ministries, who didn’t want the political balance in the forces to be altered. The Sons of Iraq, who had thrown in their lot with the new Iraq, are now politically marginalized and unemployed and may be more susceptible to settling their political differences with the government by serving the enemies of Iraq.

How can Iraq create a trustworthy security force? There are three lessons from the Tel Afar experience. First, remove the high-level officers in the Defense and Interior Ministries who are more loyal to their political parties than to Iraq. It does not matter if their replacements are Kurdish, Shiite, Sunni or Turkmen — the important thing is that they are professional and not puppets of religious or ethnic militias and parties.

Second, the government should diversify the police forces in mixed areas and move the Iraqi Army’s battalions from areas that are dominated by local political parties. This might require United States military support as intermediaries in politically sensitive areas like Kirkuk.

Last, the Iraqi government can do more to employ members of the Sons of Iraq, either in the security forces or with jobs in the provincial and national governments. Baghdad and Washington should also do more to jumpstart the economy in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, which is a likely tinderbox for the next widespread insurgency.

In a little more than two years, the United States drawdown of forces will be complete. In that time, the Iraqi security forces can go further in the direction of ethno-sectarianism, or they can find a new nationalism. True, the status quo offers a temporary balance of power between the incumbent parties, likely providing relative peace for the American exit. But deep down, ethno-sectarianism creates fault lines that terrorist groups and other states in the Mideast will exploit to keep Iraq weak and vulnerable.

The better alternative is to reform and gain the confidence of Iraqis. The people will trust the security forces if they are seen as impartial on divisive political issues, loyal to the state rather than to parties, and if they embody the diversity and tolerance that we Iraqis have long claimed to be a defining characteristic.

Najim Abed al-Jabouri, a fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, was the mayor of Tel Afar, Iraq, from 2005 to 2008. This article was translated by Sterling Jensen from the Arabic.

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