OXFORD – The United States and its allies are facing another major policy challenge in Iraq. Airstrikes against the Islamic State might unseat the group’s fighters in critical areas; but, as things stand, troops will be needed to hold and govern liberated territory.
Securing Iraq therefore requires a formidable force to be in place, which is why US President Barack Obama’s strategy includes rebuilding the Iraqi army. But doing so will require overcoming three related obstacles: Iraqi leaders’ military inexperience; corruption and cronyism; and ambiguity regarding the extent of external support.
When states collapse, their constituent parts sometimes inherit armed forces that are competent enough to maintain minimal levels of governance. This is more often the case when a state breaks up as a result of armed conflict, in which case stability depends on whether the best military leaders are allowed to remain in place.
But states often collapse as an unintended consequence of the presence of a supporting external force. For example, following Vietnam’s partition in the wake of France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem, Vietnam’s last non-Communist president, was able to turn to the US military for support. However, staggering levels of corruption under Diem and his US-backed successors, and the replacement of the military’s most competent commanders with Diem’s cronies, ultimately led to the rout of the South Vietnamese Army.
A similar situation is evident in Iraq today. Divided by sectarianism, Iraq’s armed forces have become unable and unwilling to fight. In the two years following the withdrawal of US troops, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, like Diem four decades earlier, set about consolidating political power through patronage. Al-Maliki sought to protect the interests of Iraq’s Shia at the expense of its Sunni citizens, appointing military leaders based on their tribal and sectarian affiliations rather than their merit.
One might expect a leader who faces internal armed opposition to avoid doing anything that might weaken the military. But al-Maliki seems to have assumed that external forces would simply come to his aid should he run into trouble. With his lack of a military background, he seems not to have understood that external forces need to work closely with the local army, and that a sophisticated support network must be in place to avoid logistical disruptions resulting from enemy action or corruption.
Viewing the situation from the ground – which is essential if security is to be restored and economic recovery is to be achieved – local militias must be able to defend themselves against rivals or criminal gangs. This means that the central government’s role should be to provide more advanced security assets such as fixed or rotary air support, intelligence, and logistical and communications support.
Yet the top priority for the leader of a fragmented state is to gain and consolidate a monopoly on the legitimate use of lethal force. And donor countries tend to support the leader, because doing so allows them to standardize and simplify assistance. Unfortunately, this approach seldom works.
Instead, security experts should consider how best to manage the potential for violence among and within the various factions vying for local control. Strikingly, the reconfiguration of the security forces is usually ignored in post-war political settlements (though this has been changing since Iraq’s implosion).
Indeed, though ethnic divisions can undermine military cohesion, a full appreciation of them can lead to a more robust and stable security environment. Kurds in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, for example, certainly feel more secure having their own soldiers, the Peshmerga, and have proven to be a better fighting force as a result. By contrast, the weak national Iraqi defense forces are believed to be doing the bidding of the Shia majority.
Contested state breakups create tough policy problems, and there are no ideal outcomes. But if foreign powers wish to engage constructively, they must understand a country’s internal politics and demographics, and address all affected groups’ security concerns equally and fairly. Failure to do so leaves everyone weak and vulnerable.