Improving security may be the single most important objective for U.S. officials in Iraq, but current American efforts to promote security risk jeopardizing Iraq’s eventual chances of becoming a democracy.
Iraqis walk along dangerous streets, with murder and robbery common. An ongoing insurgency claims American lives almost daily, and kills Iraqis even more frequently. The lack of security is felt far beyond lives lost. Investors shun unstable areas, and efforts to build political institutions founder if would-be leaders are afraid to cooperate with U.S. authorities.
Not surprisingly, the Coalition Provisional Authority has hurried to place more Iraqi police on the streets, and numerous proposals are being aired to reintegrate disbanded Iraqi military units. In addition, the United States is trying to rebuild Iraq’s domestic intelligence capability. The authority has also approved the incorporation of several hundred members of paramilitary units associated with various Iraqi political factions into the security forces.
Rebuilding the Iraqi police, military and intelligence services serves several valuable purposes. These forces can help suppress street crime and counter the ongoing insurgency. In addition, they can police Iraq’s open borders, where foreign jihadists and smugglers now slip across unimpeded. Less tangibly but not less important, the Iraqi military is a source of national pride in a country that now experiences the humiliation of foreign occupation, however well-intended. Finally, the decision to disband the military led hundreds of thousands of young men to join the ranks of the unemployed and frustrated, making them prime recruits for former regime loyalists and foreign jihadists.
Because of these benefits, steps to improve Iraq’s military are necessary, but the United States should tread cautiously. A strong, competent Iraqi military and security service may eventually prove an enemy of democracy. Even if all goes well, the current drive to transfer political power to Iraqis as early as possible is likely to leave the new regime dangerously weak. The new civilian authority will inevitably be seen by some nationalistic Iraqis as Washington’s puppet. The need for all of Iraq’s major ethnic and tribal groups to be represented in government is likely to lead to the inclusion of bitter rivals in the same agencies. In addition, many proposals for Iraq’s future government call for a highly federalized system, which would deliberately leave the central government weak in order not to threaten the Kurds and other minorities who fear brutalization at the hands of an Arab-led regime.
This combination of an efficient military and a weak central government is a dangerous one for Iraq’s future. Military leaders may be tempted to topple the new government and assume power for themselves, either out of ambition or a sense that the civilian regime is hopelessly inept. Many Iraqis might welcome the toppling of what they see as an illegitimate government, particularly if it has failed to restore order and provide basic services and jobs.
A coup, of course, would be unlikely as long as large numbers of U.S. forces remained in Iraq to prop up the new regime, but part of the purpose of transitioning to a civilian government and rebuilding the Iraqi military is to enable a scaling down of the American military presence.
This dilemma has no easy answers. A large military is a risk, but keeping Iraq’s military weak and small both leaves the burden of security largely on American shoulders and grates against the nationalistic sensibilities of many Iraqis.
Several steps, however, will make the chances of a coup far more remote while still shifting more of the responsibility for ensuring security onto Iraqis. One of the most important steps is not to rush the training of Iraqi police and new military forces. As Americans die each day, there is an understandable pressure to replace Americans with Iraqis as soon as possible. However, cutting training short today will make the security forces less effective in fighting unrest and less likely to unlearn the bad habits of brutality and politicization that they were known for under Saddam. If the police are poorly trained, more police may mean less security for ordinary Iraqis.
Keeping the military apolitical is also vital. Training and education must constantly stress professionalism and respect for civilian authority. Efforts to incorporate fighters loyal to particular political factions are particularly risky, as this suggests that the security forces would have multiple political masters.
When possible, security forces should be drawn from and operate at the local level, not the national one. Local security forces will have a greater awareness of the problems and dangers in their area. In addition, they are less vulnerable to manipulation at the national level and would be less likely to support a coup carried out by a leader far from home. Indeed, they would operate as an important counterweight to a general in Baghdad who dreams of seizing power.
Finally, the United States must not abandon Iraq before the country’s fledgling institutions have gained strength. Although it is tempting to hold elections and go home, Iraq’s weak civilian authority will take years to gain the respect of Iraqis. Having some U.S. forces in the country will help ensure Iraq’s security and reduce the chances of a coup. A hasty American withdrawal, on the other hand, could leave Iraq with yet another brutal military leader and the region with yet another threat to its precarious stability.
Daniel Byman is an assistant professor at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.