Iraq & A Potentially Unhelpful Experiment

One of the reassuring things [General Joe] Dunford mentioned (23 Feb 17 Brookings Institute presentation) was the “whole of government” approach to drafting the new strategy required by President Donald Trump’s executive order.  The Jan. 28 order told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to come up with a strategy within 30 days to defeat Daesh [Islamic State (IS)]…”

~ Government Executive online 24 Feb 17

There was another time America had a big plan for Iraq.  Remember the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)?  Almost 14 years later, America is more experienced in Iraq but is American leadership wiser?  Let’s briefly review how America and Iraq got here regarding two issues that will likely be key components of any administration vision for Iraq in 2017 and beyond:  police and military forces.  This article will not examine the ineptitude, dereliction, or corruption that birthed police and military institutions insufficient to withstand the test of the Islamic State (IS).  Nevertheless, this is a brief discussion of a potential Trump administration design, an Iraqi Gendarmerie.

The CPA and Multi-National Forces-Iraq (MNFI) opted to not develop an Iraqi gendarmerie.  At the occupation’s outset, senior leaders reached for concepts familiar to the American experience.  Authorities invited police officials in the US and Iraqi Police Officerexperts elsewhere to assist in the creation of Iraqi federal, provincial, and local police forces.  US officials viewed reaching back to America for civic assistance in launching renewed Iraqi police forces as the preferred course of action.  There was a perception that involving US civil police advisors would produce beneficial results sooner rather than designating another partner nation with much less domestic policing capacity at home.

In the immediate post-Saddam Hussein era, US leaders intuited that a militarized national police force–a gendarmerie–would stoke Sunni violence because of the power asymmetries a gendarmerie could produce as a tool of harm in the hands of hostile (read that to mean Sh’ia) Iraqi leaders.  That early Sunni view was prescient given the policies later implemented under Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki (a Sh’ia) that drove most Sunnis out of the nation’s military and much of its federal police force.

Are there problems within Iraq’s police and military institutions that need to be fixed?  Yes.  Exhibit A: four Iraqi Army divisions and a division equivalent of Federal Police walked off the battlefield after the June 2014 IS conquest of Mosul; Baghdad was left perilously vulnerable.  Those events led the US and a new coalition of partners to undertake a comprehensive military retraining campaign.  In rolling back the IS in concert with America’s airpower since 2016, Iraq’s military has put its recent retraining to use.  However, one should take care to avoid the hazard of over-eagerness by planting a victory flag atop a year of bloody tactical wins.  There is much about the Iraqi military still untouched by improvement and reform.

In stark contrast, Iraq’s police forces demonstrate only minor ability to effectively police, particularly in those areas with a recent IS presence; areas where successful policing is crucial to preclude a return of IS violence.  Presumably, these facts are the catalysts for a gendarmerie approach in Iraq.  To arrive at a functioning gendarmerie, Iraq must undertake a host of measures; for example, up-equip its Federal Police, institute more stringent selection criteria, and increase police pay.  However, it is the politics related to a gendarmerie program that would require the greatest change.  Iraq’s Sunnis would have to be separated from IP Graduatestheir long-held post-2003 beliefs of what a more muscular police model–a gendarmerie, controlled by the Sh’ia majority in Baghdad would mean for Iraq’s Sunni minority.

Interestingly, given the rise and expansion of the Popular Mobilization Units (Sh’ia militias) that are now allowed to remain organized after the battlefield fight versus the IS ends, Iraq’s Sh’ia would form an even greater overweight percent composition within every state security entity.  Iraq’s Sh’ia would not support a Sunni-dominated gendarmerie, so it begs the question:  what would fill the ranks of an Iraqi gendarmerie without upsetting Iraq’s shaky internal order?

Unlike Iraq’s military that receives abundant retraining assistance from external militaries, Iraq’s police forces have been mostly neglected.  Furthermore, as the regime’s front line in urban IS aggression, Iraq’s police would benefit from improved all-of-government coordination, better law enforcement tools, sustained competitive recruitment, and career paths of merit-based progress.  Those are thoughts about policemen.  However, the overarching institutions must be built that allow all of Iraq’s police tiers to leverage and not compete against each other.  Iraq’s police at every level must be used less as constabulary forces and more as an extension of Iraq’s laws and courts.  Alternatively, when Iraq’s courts are seen by Iraqis as both relevant and legitimate, Iraqi police will gain legitimacy.  When, or if that occurs, the challenges of recruitment will ease while strengthening the hand of police to better argue for more material aid in their role as agents of a respected Iraqi judicial system.  Realistically, those and other reforms will require additional decades to fully germinate.  Thus we come to a truth:  one cannot undertake police growth and institution reform disembodied from other core issues of state.

Rather than deploying something new, why not improve what exists?  Creating a gendarmerie is throwing out both the baby and its bath water.  Resources allocated to strengthening existing policing would be smarter investments rather than putting money and people against the unknown quantities of a national Iraqi gendarmerie policing program.  Those who know Iraq well recognize that introducing large changes into that society–however well intended, produces abundant second and third order effects.  Given the importance of a nascent post-IS period in Iraq, it is more efficient to work with what is at hand and do so in new, original ways rather than complicating the existing policing construct to start over with a new concept filled with unknowns that risk increased peril and added uncertainty.