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.
But in October, it was announced that a “Shabak regiment of Doom” would be created, and all members would be Shia. To make matters worse, Maliki had already flown into Mosul in June for a ministerial conference, described by locals as a show of force. His agenda was simple: show who’s boss. And in Diyala, forces operating under local command (including ISOF) have been heavily implicated in the intimidation, arrest and even murder of Sunni politicians and opposition figures. As Williams said of his time in Mosul, “Sunni members of the Ninawa Provincial Council and the local media viewed the RCB as an instrument of Maliki's personal agenda. The fact that the battalion was largely Kurdish didn't make matters easier.”
Since 2011, tensions with the Kurds have only risen. In November, Iraqi forces were involved in a major firefight that killed one and left 10 wounded in a disputed area of northern Iraq. Since then, several areas of Iraq have seen a build-up of Kurdish militia, Iraqi troops and tanks. Williams described the challenge of operating in an area of extreme inter-ethnic tension:
My counterpart was extremely sensitive to this. In my presence, the commandos followed laws and regulations meticulously, from presenting the warrant on the objective to detainee handling. That said, the 7th RCB was at that time made up of a largely Kurds, with a relatively small number of Sunni and Shia Arabs comprising the remainder of the population. I am certain that this, in part, drove their behavior. My counterpart was always very concerned about how the population perceived the kinetic operations of a group of Kurdish commandoes, controlled by a partisan PM's office in Baghdad.
Removing neutrality and adding political interference could be a significant factor in the return of al-Qaeda. Cumming testifies to the danger of a force who are politically estranged from the people they are supposed to protect:
From my experience in Afghanistan, I am a hard core population-centric counterinsurgency guy, though I tend to take that term holistically. You can’t just win the fight by killing enough people. This is why the politicization of ISOF is so serious. It tells one group of people that the government won’t work for them. That gives them all the ideology in the world to foment an insurgency. Plus, when I was in country, we saw a lot of raids towards Sunni targets when arguably much greater Shia threats were ignored.
Sometimes Maliki loyalists went further than ignoring specific Shia targets, arresting a general in July last year who appears to have been politically inconvenient, something Cummings describes as “very damaging.” He explained the reversal of this dynamic when training Iraqi forces: “At its core, U.S. officers are very meritocratic. They ask, ‘Who can I work with, and can they get the job done?’ However, with ISOF, especially the senior leadership, you had to ask, ‘Who can they work with?’
Today there are almost 30 U.S. Special Forces troops advising the Iraqis on counterterrorism, and if recent rumours are correct, more have visited Iraq in a similar capacity since the withdrawal.
As Maliki continues to attack Iraq’s state institutions and trample human rights, Washington should ask what helping the ISOF is going to achieve. Tactical success for Iraqi soldiers can stop terrorists, but what if those same soldiers also arrest the innocent? As Iraq investigates apparent corruption in the recent $4.2 billion arms deal with Russia, Maliki will want to keep his options open regarding arms suppliers. Should the United States let him know that further arms deals could be tied to his human rights record?
Assistance is already in question since Congress failed to renew funding for the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq. For now, the Pentagon is keeping it going, and Maliki is still interested in U.S. arms. While not hostile, he has shown a deep reluctance to support U.S. interests, raised regional tension with Turkey while insisting the US speed up arms deliveries, and released a Hezbollah terrorist who killed five U.S. personnel. If this behaviour continues, sending advisors to the Iraqi Special Operations Forces risks making a mockery of the Special Forces creed Di Oppresso Liber—liberate the oppressed.