In the last summer of the U.S. war in Iraq, the head of Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) went on record to say that the United States should not leave. “The Americans need to stay because we don’t have control over our borders. There are many things we do not know about,” he lamented.
His words fueled a narrative that suggests that Iraq’s counterterrorism force was dependent on U.S. support. But those who worried about Iraq’s ability to track terrorists in the high tech war against al-Qaeda were missing an important point: elements of ISOF were already being used as a private army by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Today, al-Qaeda is being given fresh hope by the increasingly radicalized rebellion in Syria, while in western Iraq popular outrage is rising following Maliki’s targeting of Sunni politician Rafa al-Issawi.
ISOF’s American mentors were always powerless to change this bleak national picture . The Green Berets who went on nightly raids with the Iraqis would soon leave, and with the political situation deteriorating, the stage seemed set for an al-Qaeda revival. When America left, the slick interagency concepts of the “unblinking eye” and “industrial counterterrorism” would be gone, and so would a host of high-tech gadgets and expertise.
Nearly one year later, al-Qaeda has reportedly doubled in strength, but this is not to do with ISOF lacking American gadgets. In fact, the Green Berets have created one of the best Special Forces units in the region. Ben Williams, who worked with ISOF in northern Iraq, explained:
The fact that we now have a partner force capable of unilateral helicopter-borne operations speaks the general level of success of the training mission. Frankly, it's the fact that they don't rely on mobile-phone tracking and similar techniques that makes them well positioned, in my opinion, to operate without our assistance.
On the politicization of ISOF, Williams described the developments as “very unfortunate, though unsurprising.”
If the challenge facing ISOF is not to do with training or technology, then what ails it? The failure of the Iraqi government to implement effective counterinsurgency—essentially the art of increasing political legitimacy, isolating terrorists from their support base and then eliminating them—is the biggest stumbling block to ending violence. The ongoing rift between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan will not help matters.
Blame here can only go to Maliki, who has created what Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has called “a culture of direct control” over state institutions. Maliki controls ISOF through the Counterterrorism Bureau, which has proved a useful tool for crushing dissent, detailed by Toby Dodge in his report Iraq’s Road Back to Dictatorship.
Such “coup proofing” strategies often result in military disaster. As the rebellion in Syria becomes increasingly radicalized and attracts Iraqi recruits, Maliki should take note. His rivals have dubbed ISOF the Fedayeen al-Maliki, and as the Pentagon scrambles to find more funding for the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, this should give them pause. Michael Cummings, author of the On Violence blog, saw first-hand the effects of a politicized force:
The biggest challenge is political legitimacy. In the end, “industrial counterterrorism” really only created conditions which approximated those needed to create long term political reconciliation. Since Maliki has only used that time to horde political control, ISOF is tainted as not being an honest broker. I saw a lot of this in intelligence reports at the time. So when you draw down tactical ability (which is what helicopters/drones provide) and add in strategic weaknesses (Shia vs. Sunni), I think you have a very severe long term problem.
Williams has a similar view. His unit was based in the long-term insurgent stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq, a patchwork of ethno-sectarian dysfunction:
While there, we witnessed what appeared to be punitive reassignments of officers and what seemed to be ethnically oriented organizational changes. Of similar concern was the evisceration of the targeting function within the RCB S2 section (Regional Commando Battalion intelligence.) This led to a highly centralized control of targeting, which we found disconcerting. More than anything else, this leads to the perception, if not the reality, that the targets given to the RCB by their higher command are comprised of political or personal enemies to the PM. I had several conversations with Sunni members of the Ninewa Provincial Council about the RCB's activities.
The mainly Shia makeup of the Iraqi Security Forces , as well as the fact that some brigades are entirely Kurdish, remains a problem to this day. Williams described efforts to resist creating ethnically based forces for neighbourhood security in Mosul, where a local minority, the mainly Shia Shabaks soon demanded their own regiment:
I had a discussion in 2009 with a local Christian politician north of Mosul. Apparently the idea of a Shabak regiment had been proposed early in the war to protect his population group. However, it had been discarded as divisive and not conducive to establishing rule of law and Government of Iraq legitimacy. I think arming every ethnic group in the disputed areas would most likely lead to something more like the Beirut of the early 1980's rather than local stability.