Harnessing militia power: Lessons of the Iraqi National Guard

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Lawfare.

Faced with the breakdown of national armies in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Arab states have increasingly turned toward alliances with armed militias to ensure security. Popular, anti-government protests and insurgencies for the most part precipitated the breakdown of regime military institutions, yet pre-existing internal ethnic, clan, and ideological cleavages helped to hasten the breakdown. The beleaguered state security forces have now entered into a variety of alliances—tacit or active—with militias they deem sympathetic to their interests, often organized on the basis of entrenched ethno-sectarian or tribal identities. Such militia forces supplement and at times even stand in for the weak or absent army and police as providers of local security.

On the one hand, militia forces have in certain circumstances proven effective at counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. On the other hand, they have also committed atrocities against civilians that hamper long-term efforts to build trust and stability. Their greatest risk is that, by eroding the central government’s monopolization on force, they jeopardize the territorial cohesion of the state.

In Iraq, the rise of powerful communal militias has paralleled the growth of the threat from the Islamic State. This has presented the United States with a quandary: how to combat the Islamic State by mobilizing local Sunnis while at the same time safeguarding the broader integrity of the Iraqi state and its security institutions. The national guard concept, which successive Iraqi governments have tried in the past, was seen as one way to do this. A national guard force would retain the militias’ local knowledge and roots, both unique tools necessary for a successful counterinsurgency against the Islamic State. At the same time, the guard would (at least in theory) be subject to increased oversight and control by the central government.

Other fractured Arab states, most notably Libya, have tried to implement a national guard model as a way to harness militia power, but this too has failed. Variations of hybrid, provincially-organized military forces exist in Yemen and Syria. While each case is different, the failure of national guards bears certain similarities. Examining the Iraqi case in particular can highlight the potential utility of national guards but also the parallel political and institutional reforms that are necessary to make the concept work.

False Analogies and False Starts in Iraq

The idea of creating a national guard in Iraq has been a centerpiece of U.S. engagement since the dramatic advance of the Islamic State on Tikrit and Mosul in 2014. President Obama specifically mentioned U.S. support for a national guard as a means to help Iraqi Sunnis “secure their own freedom” from the Islamic State. Much of U.S. thinking about the Iraqi National Guard (ING) was guided by the example of the Sunni Awakening of 2006 and 2007, when the United States actively recruited and “flipped” Sunni tribes that had supported the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency. In return for guarantees of autonomy and military, financial, and political backing, the Sunni tribes were able to turn the tables on the insurgent fighters and impose a measure of peace and stability. The 2014 initiative essentially sought to reproduce this arrangement. The idea was that given proper incentives, the Sunni tribes would again fight the radical Islamists who threatened their supremacy. Over the long term, such national guard forces could be integrated formally as auxiliary troops in a federal structure, comparable in many ways to the U.S. National Guard.

Yet the Awakening analogy failed on a number of levels. The Shi’i-dominated Iraqi central government had never been enthusiastic about empowering Sunni tribes in the first place. With the dismantling of the Iraqi army in 2003, security had effectively devolved to party, tribal, and sectarian militias. Many Iraqis wondered why the United States would seek to create new militias, especially ones recently tied to al-Qaeda and other terrorists. As Iraq scholar Adeed Dawisha described, the gains in security came“not because of the state, but in spite of it.”

As the U.S. began withdrawing from Iraq in 2009 and 2010, then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki quickly moved to dismantle the Awakening-associated militias. Only a handful of former militia fighters received their promised positions in the police, army, or civil services. Some former militia leaders were arrested on seemingly politically-motivated charges of terrorism or subversion. Efforts to enact a Sunni-dominated super-region comparable to the federal status of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north were rebuffed, despite the provisions of Iraq’s constitution that allowed for the creation of such an entity. Politically marginalized, some Sunnis returned to their alliance with the radical mujahideen.

The election of the new prime minister Haydar al-Abadi in 2014 raised the promise of renewed Sunni-Shi’i reconciliation. Abadi expressed support for the national guard initiative and forwarded a bill to parliament in 2014. Thousands of volunteers came forward from the Sunni tribes in the west and U.S. and Iraqi officials met with tribal leaders to help solidify support. The United States began to enlist support from Iraq’s Sunni neighbors to provide training and support for the ING.

Yet resistance within Abadi’s own political coalition stymied these efforts. The National Guard bill foundered in parliamentary committee, with open questions about the extent of control vested in provincial governors and the chain of command subordinating the ING to the ministries of interior, defense, or the prime minister himself. Officers of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) regarded the militias as unfit for duty and as rivals for budget and resources. Iraq’s constitution specifically prohibited the formation of militias outside the framework of the armed forces (with an exception of the peshmergaforces of the Kurdish Regional Government). Moreover, there was concern that once the Sunnis were authorized to organize a militia, other ethno-sectarian communities, such as Christians or Turkomen,might try to follow suit out of fear of falling under the mercy of their more powerful neighbors. The ING, then, could undercut any pretense of the Iraqi state possessing a monopoly over the use of force.

At base, though, many of Iraq’s Shi’i leaders simply believed that they didn’t need Sunni support. With the ING initiative stalled in parliament, the Shi’i factions have actively cultivated Shi’i militias as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi). The origins of the PMF can be traced to a statement by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s senior Shi’i cleric, which explicitly called on the faithful to take up arms to defend Iraq in the face of the Islamic State onslaught in 2014. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Badr Organization, and other political factions quickly took the opportunity to reconstitute or expand their private armies.

Backed by Iran’s expeditionary al-Qods Force, PMF militias played a prominent role in the spring 2015 offensive against the Islamic State in Tikrit. By spring 2015, PMF counted around 60,000 men under arms. Still, the performance of these militias has been less than stellar. In the spring 2015 offensive on Tikrit, PMF forces failed repeatedly to dislodge Islamic State resistance, despite enjoying superiority in numbers. U.S. air support proved critical to allowing the offensive to proceed. Some PMF units quit the fight instead of working under American air cover. Others were involved in a campaign of terror against Sunnis, looting, kidnapping, and killing those suspected of collaborating with the Islamic State.

Awakening Again?

The prospects for the mobilization of Iraq’s Sunnis are not dead—yet. A handful of Sunni tribes joined the PMF during the Tikrit offensive. In Anbar, likely the next front in the campaign against the Islamic State, U.S. and Iraqi officials have cultivated ties with local Sunni tribes and organized some 8,000 men into Sunni PMF units. Some tribes have made their service conditional on guarantees of greater autonomy and the removal of Shi’i militia forces. Yet the intake for training programs remains slow and drop-out rates high. On the one hand, tribes continue to resent the central government. On the other hand, they fear retribution should the Islamic State return.

Abadi’s visit to Washington in April 2015 focused on expanding and enhancing security cooperation with the United States. The United States has insisted that the PMF be brought more fully under the control of the Iraqi Security Forces and that PMF units reflect the demographics of the provinces and districts in which they operate. This would mean that in ethnically-mixed areas, such as in Nineveh or Babil, each ethnic group would have its own militia proportional to its size in the locality. The Iraq Train and Equip Program (ITEP) is slowly coming online, funneling American money and weapons to various local militia forces as well as ISF.

Cooperating with the United States has been a delicate balancing act for Abadi. While Kurdish and Sunni leaders see U.S. military support as a means to their own ends, Abadi’s own Shi’i political camp—as well as his allies in Tehran—are far more wary. When the U.S. Congress passed a bill in May 2015 effectively mandating the Defense Department to bypass Baghdad and provide support for Sunni and Kurdish fighters directly, Abadi protested that this constituted a grave violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Still, reliance on the ragtag PMF alone is not sustainable in the long term. Operating far from home and with limited training, these overwhelmingly Shi’i forces cannot be expected to become an army of occupation in Sunni areas like Tikrit or Fallujah. Ultimately, local partners will be necessary to build and maintain peace and stability. The national guard, then, may well re-emerge as a more sustainable structure for administrative and security devolution.

Lessons Learned From Failure

While analysts and policymakers naturally focus on cases of success, there are important lessons to be learned from Iraq’s failures. For countries like Iraq where central armies have more or less broken down and a bevy of militias has emerged in its stead, as in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, the national guard could represent a path to reconstituting fragile state authority.

But for this to happen, several broad principles need to be heeded:

  • National guards cannot simply be conceived as short-term, improvised solutions to immediate security crises. Rather, the creation of national guards is part of the impetus of security-sector reform (SSR) and post-conflict demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) of armed groups.
  • National guards must overcome the legacies of past authoritarian experiences where pro-government militias were often seen as mere thugs for the regime, not a disciplined professional fighting force. In particular, the older officer class of regular forces may see them as competitors. To build trust among the population and other military institutions, national guards should be accompanied by revisions to chain of command establishing clear relationships of authority between the guards, the police, the army, and other security agencies, and subordinating all security services to civilian authorities.
  • National guard initiatives must also be accompanied by moves toward political power-sharing arrangements. The success of national guards ultimately depends not just on their short-term tactical effectiveness but on the degree of local buy-in. Constitutions can provide a structure for bolstering confidence between a central government and subnational militia forces. Since militia membership and cohesion is often based on geographic linkages—to town, municipality or province—national guards may well be a part of federalist power devolution, especially in countries with overlapping ethno-sectarian and regional cleavages.
  • Western governments can assist in setting up and training national guards, but they must ensure that proper political and institutional reforms are also undertaken. In many cases, Western states provide models for how decentralized, federally-organized military forces can complement national armies and local police. The United States, for instance, has a great deal of experience with its own federalized national guard structure and can draw on this example in its train-and-equip programs. There are other potentially useful models as well, including the British Territorial Army, a part-time, volunteer force that was integrated into the British Army in the early twentieth century; the Danish Home Guard, which incorporated anti-Nazi resistance militias into a national command structure after World War II; or the Italian Carabineri, which is often discussed as a potential model for dealing with Libya’s unique security challenges.

Outside assistance to national guards must avoid exacerbating existing communal and political fault lines. Helping peripheral and minority groups set up their own armed forces can, on one hand, embolden these groups to resist the central government and, on the other hand, spur resentment from the central government and fear of future disloyalty or rebellion. These concerns become even more acute when national guards are seen as proxies for outside powers. With this in mind, the U.S. and outside powers should calibrate their assistance to both regionally-based national guards and central government forces to ensure rough parity between the two. This could entail making funding, equipment and training for the central security services contingent on a proportional commitment to strengthen the guards.

National guards are political institutions, not just military instruments. They can have far-ranging consequences for political stability and cohesion. While no panacea for the challenge of building effective states, they can play an important role in addressing security concerns and moving toward more meaningful power sharing.