Can Iraqi security forces stand up as the US stands down?

One of the advantages of working with a Private Security Company is that you can get out and about in Iraq, visiting the provinces and districts where the really important local dynamics are unfolding. Every village and every checkpoint in Iraq offers a partial microcosm of national-level trends. Getting into local communities can be a much more accurate way of understanding the future trajectory of Iraq than any amount of time spent in the corridors of power in Baghdad. With this in mind, I recently toured six Iraqi provinces – from Basrah in the deep southeast to Al-Qaim on the Syrian border in the northwestern elbow of Iraq. The objective of the visit was to gauge how well the Iraqi security forces are functioning as the US draws down.

Basrah provided a mixed bag of indicators. On the one hand, the 14th Iraqi Army division has not relaxed its grip on the province since the defeat of Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces in Basrah in March 2008. Whereas other parts of Iraq are witnessing a degradation of security force capabilities as the US draws down, the Basrawi security forces have been operating largely independently of the United States since 2008 yet have maintained a high degree of effectiveness. In part this is due to effective leadership by Basrah’s senior generals, in part because of the future political significance of Basrah. The present government in Baghdad is aware that control of Basrah is vital to the economic stability of the country and the political control of the Shia. Basrah was where Maliki began his triumphant “Iraqi surge” and the area could be a future powerbase for him if he is removed from the premiership. This should be a concern for any future prime minister because undue influence over Basrah would be a powerful card for Maliki to hold.

The Iraqi Army and its partners – the blue-camouflaged Emergency Police and the other police and border forces – can take care of overall security and prevent the militias from returning. More worrying are the trickle of disquieting lower-level incidents against foreigners. Rocket attacks on the airbase are more regular, slightly more frequent than once a fortnight now. Insurgents are becoming a little more active in northern Basrah city, on the main road outside the Basrah Air Station, and on the roads linking the Rumailah and Zubayr oilfields. It is apparently still hard to dig out these tiny cells, even when they are operating in fairly open desert settings, often no more than a few hundred metres from a government checkpoint.  Solving these kinds of problems is an imperative for the companies seeking to work in Basrah but may be relatively far down the list of priorities for the Iraqi security forces and the near-invisible US military presence.

In Baghdad, there is an even stronger sense that the United States military has already gone. Except for the nighttime beat of helicopter blades, one very rarely hears or sees an American in Baghdad’s streets, and then only on the outer perimeter of the city as convoys ceaselessly shuttle US equipment out of the country. As in Basrah, the Baghdad security forces have been marching to their own beat for a while. Unlike in Basrah, however, the tempo of the Baghdad security forces has undoubtedly dropped. Compared to the relatively crisp standard of security forces in Basrah, the Iraqi soldiery and armed police in Baghdad appear to be worn out. It is easy to forget the intensity of the long drawn out battle for Baghdad that has raged since 2006. Understandably, the ISF have dropped their activity levels during the summer months, manning Baghdad’s key checkpoints but deactivating many smaller outposts and reducing the level of proactive patrolling and arrest operations. Maliki’s efforts at behind-the-scenes coalition-building have also brought a cessation of arrest operations against Shia militants in the capital. The Sunni Arab police auxiliaries – the Sons of Iraq – have suffered for their support of Iyad Allawi, experiencing rapidly declining levels of support from the government security forces and enduring a veritable storm of intimidation and retribution attacks from their Sunni co-religionists in remaining insurgent and terrorist cells.

Baghdad security forces are also re-discovering some decidedly bad habits. They are making life very hard for Western Private Security Companies. Every license document for vehicles, weapons, equipment and personnel may be minutely queried at any checkpoint. Multiple firms have vehicles or equipment – even personnel and clients – impounded on a daily basis. Most worryingly, even so-called “elite’ units have begun to take the opportunity of shaking down the security teams, initially for water and soft drinks, but increasingly for cash, watches and equipment. Pretty soon, this cancerous problem will begin to impact the market entry of major foreign companies by adding a new level of uncertainty to business dealings in Iraq.  Western investors – particularly oil companies – should not be silent when such incidents occur.

The Iraqis security forces are tired after years of war and they are standing almost entirely on their own feet now. In almost all cases, they are not standing up in many of the ways that the United States would have expected. They are not a like-for-like replacement for US forces. In some ways, they may be better than the Americans. Though they do not restlessly patrol, they understand how to dominate Iraqi streets and towns without breaking a sweat and they gain a great deal more information from the public than the US ever did. They do not preempt attacks the way US forces are trained to do but they can be effective at catching and punishing culprits. For foreign companies in Iraq, adjusting to this approach may be hard but Iraq’s security forces expect investors and visitors to be realistic about their inability to prevent every outrage.

As the above observations note, many parts of Iraq are already operating in a post-US mode, and some have done so for years already. In Basrah, the style of security is well-organized, visible and heavy-handed, reflecting the importance of the area to key federal decision-makers. In Baghdad, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect Surge-era levels of security operations to be maintained year after year, particularly in light of a reduced US role. In many rural areas like Anbar, the federal government has largely ceded day-to-day control of security to the locals. The old rules have gone out the window: in Anbar – where Al-Qaeda ruled until 2007 – the slightly shabby Sunni security forces are now far friendlier to foreign faces than their slicker Shia counterparts in Basrah and Baghdad. The difference between a good unit and a bad one is usually the quality of their commander; the distance separating good and bad units can be tiny and the dividing lines are invisible to the uninitiated. As in all other matters, having the right intelligence allows you to be attuned to such fault lines and gives you a better chance of achieving your business aims in Iraq.

Profile

Dr Michael Knights is Vice President and lead Iraq analyst at Olive Group, the  first security company to operate in Iraq.  He has  worked on Iraqi political and security risks since the mid-1990s, first as an oil and gas journalist and later as an academic, receiving his PhD on Iraq at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.  Since 2003,Dr Knights has run the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Iraq programme, advising US government agencies on Iraq policy and publishing a series of books on local politics and security in Basrah, Maysan, Dhi Qar and the northern provinces including Kirkuk.  Since joining Olive Group in 2006, he has produced in-depth social and political analysis of 26 of Iraq’s major oil and gas fields and keeps a close eye on national security and politics.

He can be contacted at [email protected]

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