Interview with Michael Knights: Back to Iraq’s Future

Security challenges facing Baghdad after ISIS may not be so different from those that existed before 2014. Iraqi policymakers can learn from this historical precedent to manage complex relationships between security and political actors in liberated areas. We spoke with Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who outlined the steps Baghdad might take to ensure future stability. 

A girl looks out from her home in the Nabi Younis neighborhood of eastern Mosul.

M. Schweitzer: The military campaign to liberate Mosul has cost the most capable units within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) dearly. Recent unofficial reports indicate that the Iraqi Army’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), which led much of the operations in eastern Mosul, has suffered up to 40 percent casualties since October 2016. How should the Iraqi government rebuild its elite military capacity after the Mosul battle concludes?

M. Knights: Any single unit, including CTS, cannot be the panacea for all Iraq’s security problems; it cannot be everywhere in the country at the same time. Over the next few years, Iraq’s security landscape will evolve significantly: the threats facing security forces will become much more diffuse than they are now, rather than being focused in one region like Ninewa, Baiji, or Fallujah. There will be significant stretches of border areas to secure, as well as large ungoverned spaces with challenging terrain, such as the river deltas in Diyala and eastern Anbar Province, the Jazeera deserts west of the Tigris, or the mountain ranges in Hamrin. Securing these areas will require large numbers of forces, and small units like the CTS cannot perform the necessary functions there. Instead, the entire ISF must grow and adapt. Looking ahead, the number of security challenges facing Baghdad will greatly increase – both in geographic scope and variety of mission requirements – likely overstretching existing security forces.

Encouragingly, though, many units within the ISF today are capable of undertaking the more low-intensity policing roles needed to secure the regions mentioned above – more so than they are able to clear ISIS-held cities, in fact. Once Mosul is liberated, the Iraqi government will get back a portion of their security forces that have until now been of no real use during intense urban clearance operations. These units will be quite useful during the constabulary phase of the war against ISIS that is just beginning now.

Of course, it is also critical to rebuild units like the CTS. There is no quick way to achieve this goal. The CTS is special because its men were trained and advised over a long period of time, with significant western training, weapons and influence. The selection, recruitment and rejection rates for CTS soldiers were very unique by Iraqi standards: only a very small proportion of people who applied for entry into the CTS ever managed to graduate from training. This selectivity, while important to maintain a high standard of combat effectiveness, also slows down any effort to rebuild the unit today. Faced with this challenge in the future, Iraqi military planners will need to ensure that their Special Forces do not cease to be “special,” due to rapid expansion or reconstruction.

Since their June 2014 collapse in Mosul, Iraqi military commanders have, with international support, rebuilt the country’s security forces. During this period, the ISF have won key battles in places like Ramadi, Fallujah, and soon in Mosul. What lessons have Iraqi military planners learned over the past three years?

The first major change within the Iraqi Army from 2014 until now has been the transformation of its leadership – the single most important factor in determining that an Iraqi institution can function properly and carry out its missions successfully. Under bad, politicized leadership between 2009 and 2014, the Iraqi military lost its ability to perform effectively in the field. Between 2014 and 2017, with much-improved leadership, these forces regained a significant amount of their capabilities. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaced political appointees within the military command structure, particularly those who had been assigned by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to head key combat units. The transformation of Iraq’s military leadership is one factor that proved more important than any change of units, or recruitment of new forces, or acquisition of additional equipment. Today, there are many extremely talented generals at the head of key commands in Iraq; it is critical for the country’s future that this situation continues.

The Iraqi government also managed to replace units that had been lost during ISIS’s 2014 advances. Many units that had been declared destroyed then have been slowly re-emerging: most importantly the brigades stationed along the Syria-Anbar and Ninewa-Anbar borders, as well as those in the Tigris river valley. These divisions are currently manned at a skeletal level, but they are operating in the field. Likewise, Baghdad has built new brigades within the Iraqi military. Some of these units are actually quite effective, such as the 73rd Brigade, which is currently clearing ISIS’s last pockets of resistance in Mosul. There are also three newly-built brigades – the 71st, 75th, and 92nd – pushing line-abreast along the eastern side of Tal Afar, 63 kilometers west of Mosul. These brigades were all built with significant support from US, Australian, New Zealand, Portuguese, and Spanish militaries after 2014.

It is clear, then, that there has been a significant recovery of Iraqi military strength since 2014. The Ministry of Interior’s Federal Police has also grown during this period, gaining invaluable battle experience and talented officers. Overall, the Iraqi military today is a much healthier institution today than it was before ISIS – but one that is also under-resourced, under-strength, and faced with an open-ended campaign to suppress ISIS resurgence in areas where Baghdad has taken its eye off security provision. Looking at the FY2018 US Department of Defense budget request for train and equip funds in Iraq, the focus has broadened beyond ISIS. Instead, this budget discusses many tasks that security forces have failed to complete while they devote nearly all their resources to the anti-ISIS fight. These responsibilities include facing down militia, criminal, and tribal threats in southern Iraq, as well as preventing foreign actors from attaining undue levels of influence in the country.

Since 2014, local security forces have proliferated among minority communities in northern Iraq – often with competing regional backers. For example, both the PMU and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have recruited fighters from Yazidi, Turkmen, Christian, and Shabak minorities in northern Iraq’s disputed territories to serve in overlapping organizations. What mechanisms exist to manage disputes among these local defense units?

It is correct to note that, alongside Iraqi army brigades, CTS, and Federal Police, many local security forces have developed. Some of these entities have grown under the PMU aegis. Others have emerged within what US policymakers call Tribal Resistance Forces; these units have been administratively rolled into the PMU, but have a separate operational chain of command that does not lead to Iran-backed militia commanders within the PMU leadership. Finally, there are small militias recruited, for example, by the KRG. There has always been a muddled operational control of these local forces. Many of the challenges faced today, however, are not new. In many ways, the threats today mirror those that existed pre-2014: a strong insurgency that must be confronted through “mowing the grass” operations. It is thus unsurprising that many actors have reverted to many of the same security arrangements that existed before 2014, albeit slightly more complicated.

The current situation on the Ninewa Plains offers a good example of this process. In 2013, when one would visit the Ninewa Plains, there would be KRG-backed Christian militias called Guardians of the Church, Maliki-backed Shabak militias, some Iraqi Army forces answering to Baghdad, and other government forces linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Erbil; Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) operated in the same area.

Similarly, in Sinjar today, there are Yazidi militias – some backed by Baghdad’s PMU, some by the KRG, and others by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) elements. Thus, the Sinjari community is split three ways. However, looking back to 2013, Yazidi areas in Sinjar had an equally patchwork quilt of security forces across the region. Iraqi Army units controlled rural areas, and answered to Baghdad but were mainly Yazidi-manned; KRG security forces were deployed inside Sinjar’s towns; there were also small Arab “Sons of Iraq” units, which worked closely with the Americans and Baghdad government. Just like in 2013, Iraq’s security situation today is characterized by a series of complex, overlapping arrangements.

It is important to note that the evolution of the PMU since 2014 has given Baghdad a stronger hand in many of the areas liberated from ISIS than it had pre-2014. The PMU are focused on rolling back Kurdish influence in many areas across northern Iraq, with an intensity that even Nouri al-Maliki did not exhibit in 2013. They seem to be developing into a long-term internal border guard against Iraqi Kurdistan, and have been much more successful than Baghdad ever was before 2014 in integrating non-Arabs into their midst.

How can the Iraqi government control this complex mesh of security actors? Perhaps it is possible to resurrect policies similar to those that existed between 2009 and 2011, when the US-led coalition operated the Combined Security Mechanisms (CSMs) following an Iraqi request. These arrangements identified disputed territories with ethnically mixed populations, called Combined Security Areas (CSAs). In each of the provinces identified as a CSA, the CSM authorities established Combined Coordination Centers (CCCs). In these administrative offices sat Kurdish, Iraqi government, and US officers who would jointly inform the other about military movements in the area. At the local level, there were networks of approximately 60 combined checkpoints per province (CCPs) that were positioned at key flashpoints between factional control or strategic importance. This system was not perfect, and there is no way to exactly replicate it today without significant numbers of US or US-led coalition troops on the ground. However, it might be possible to replicate the idea of CCCs: these are spaces where everyone can agree about military movements before any hasty plans are enacted, as well as calm down misunderstandings that could otherwise escalate.

In late May, Iran-backed elements of the PMU pushed into Sinjar, further complicating the security landscape in an already tense region. These operations form part of the PMU’s so-called “battle of the borders” to secure the Iraq-Syrian frontier from Sinjar to Qa’im. What are the PMU’s strategic objectives in Sinjar – how has their entrance exacerbated tensions with other regional powerbrokers, including the KRG (which purports regional control), as well as local Yazidi communities (which populate the city)? 

The PMU’s objectives are layered through the strategic, operation, and tactical levels. Commanders within the PMU wanted to clear the Iraq-Syria border areas because such a mission gave them a role in the Mosul battle, after they were excluded from the urban theater of operations. Their movements also offer propaganda material, and show that the PMU is still an integral part of the war against ISIS, rather than a superfluous entity. This messaging is especially important during the upcoming election year in Iraq. Finally, the PMU simply like to fight.

There are also longer-term implications of what the PMU has done, of which its leadership is well-aware. The PMU has established a sustainable logistical hub at their Tal Afar Airbase from which to undertake operations in Sinjar and other areas west of Mosul; neither the US-led counter-ISIS coalition nor the Iraqi government now controls this area, unless Baghdad works very hard to make the airbase into a joint base for PMU and Iraqi military units. The Tal Afar location is ideal for PMU goals. It faces the Kurdish frontlines in Sinjar, and prevents any Kurdish re-expansion into southern Sinjar. Additionally, it blocks the road between Syria and Mosul, through which ISIS reinforced its fighters in Mosul in June 2014. Finally, it is an extremely useful staging area for operations in eastern Syria’s Euphrates river valley if Iran, its allies, and even Iraq want to build influence in that area.

It seems doubtful, however, that the PMU will try to maintain significant force along the Iraq-Syria border, as such an effort would require complex logistical capability and the construction of a robust border force to undertake an open-ended, boring job. Ultimately, there does not seem to be much reason to invest such resources in that region. Many analysts have described the importance to Iranian leaders of maintaining a supply corridor from Tehran through northern Iraq to Damascus. However, that northern route really only provides limited backup if the southern network through Anbar is severed. Moreover, it culminates in the wrong part of Syria, where the Syrian Kurdish YPG maintains influence.

Instead, it is likely that people from the Ninewa area will perform any frontier guard role, albeit possibly under the PMU banner, or as formal Department of Border Enforcement units paid by Ministry of Defense. Before ISIS’s advances, Tal Afar had a significant Shia Turkmen population. The PMU will likely want to re-settle those communities in the region.

Further south across Anbar Province, powerful elements within the PMU have established and supported local Sunni mobilization forces to hold urban territory, while core PMU forces maintain security on major highways and transportation corridors between towns. How sustainable is such a security framework in areas like Anbar?

These complex webs of PMU relationships being built at the local level are, in some cases, quite positive for Iraqi security. Many of them, however, have extremely complicated political implications. Yet, some patterns have emerged. First, core PMU elements – often Shia-manned, sometimes involving Iranian-backed factions and leaders – control key communication conduits between significant Sunni population centers. For example, the PMU presence along the Baghdad-Kirkuk road has provided them with significant tolling capabilities to levy informal taxes on traffic. It also gives these groups great power of local communities.

Second, the development of Sunni PMU forces are operationally or tactically under the control of local Shia PMU commanders. In many cases, this situation is linked to displacement. During combat operations and ISIS occupation, Sunni communities moved away from militant-held areas. Today, as they return, these people must prove their worth to local Shia PMU commanders. To be given a license to resettle their homes, for example, they must first clear their own communities – this dynamic has been particularly true in the Diyala river valley – or they may be forced to pay compensation to local Shia or Sunni families, which is in many cases justifiable. Many of these relationships are broadly legitimate, although they are not monitored by the Iraqi government, which is somewhat disconcerting. Yet, they have also given tremendous district and sub-district control to Shia-led PMU commanders, who are establishing colonization zones in cross-sectarian areas.

In the Sunni areas of western Iraq, there is a much less visceral opposition to PMU today than might have existed in 2014-2015. Many civilians understand that the PMU has a legitimate military role to play in the anti-ISIS fight, and has previously undertaken impressive operations. At the same time, these populations have seen that atrocities committed by PMU actors are not universal. In areas with a very strong Sunni majority population, PMU commanders act with more tact than they do in places with a history of sectarian violence or competition, like Diyala or southern Salah ad-Din Provinces. The level of PMU influence in post-ISIS Iraq is all down to how smartly they interact with communities at a local level.

In Diyala Province, primarily non-state armed groups have fought what you call “the other war against ISIS,” groups with little support from international coalition forces. How can these groups ensure long-term stability and security in these areas – what role will the Baghdad government or its international partners have to play in securing Diyala and similarly restive areas?

The Baghdad government is unlikely to have much of a role in Diyala; the international community is unable to play any role there in terms of oversight or monitoring human rights abuses. In Diyala, PMU factions have been able to execute the counterinsurgency war against ISIS as they see fit, with no western airpower and very little involvement from Baghdad-controlled security forces. The result has been an insurgency against PMU forces that is slowly getting worse, not better. The PMU – mostly elements of the Iran-backed Badr Organization – are taking political control of the provincial district and sub-district administrations, as well as the police and local 5th Iraqi Army Division. At the same time, PMU commanders are building Sunni PMF forces, often to use as expendable foot soldiers in some of the tougher, rural areas.

These commanders are not using any technology or intelligence; instead, they undertake aimless sweeping operations, much like those conducted by the Maliki government in 2013. Once divisive or sectarian-minded PMU commanders have taken over an environment, as they did in Diyala, there is no mechanism by which to deliver international assistance: signals intelligence, wide area surveillance, effective drone operations. It is often the case that revolutionary movements inflict the same methods of control, once in power, to which they had originally been subjected by their former tormentors. Today, Iran-backed groups like Badr have employed a great deal of Baathist-type thinking and behavior in their counter-insurgency operations across Diyala. Unfortunately, parts of Diyala and southern Salah ad-Din are thus trapped in a time warp.

Iraq today seems poised between catastrophic failure and spectacular success, in terms of the country’s ability to govern liberated territory, restore essential services, address political handicaps, and maintain popular confidence in Baghdad’s ability to rule. How can the Iraqi government confront post-liberation challenges?

The Iraqi government must adopt a strategic approach to the numerous security, governance, and economic problems facing it. If Prime Minister Abadi, or someone with a similar leadership style, heads this government after 2018, there is a greater chance that such a plan will emerge. In terms of Iraq’s economy, the oil sector feeds a very strong revenue-generation machine that gives Baghdad the gravity to hold the state apparatus together. Iraq needs successive technocratic governments that can lead a slow but methodical process of economic reform, strengthening this institution at the core of the Iraqi state.

In terms of political reform, it will be important to watch for the emergence of cross-sectarian, multi-ethnic governing coalitions. Though these have existed in the past, they were of a variety in which non-Shia groups bandwagoned after the Shia had arranged how they would form the government.  In a new dynamic, it is possible that Sunni or Kurdish factions will now form integral elements of a future Shia Prime Minister’s governing structure. Essentially, such a situation would represent a shift in Iraq’s political dynamics whereby politicians would, instead of expressing unity within the Shia bloc, express unity to a coalition of political parties, some of which are Shia.

Finally, in terms of security, the Iraqi government must develop a strategic approach. Securing the borders with Syria is an important, but mid-term, goal. There are many developments occurring within Syria that will make it difficult for ISIS to operate across the frontier. The Iraqi government should instead focus on managing internal ungoverned spaces inside Iraq, particularly the large one stretching from Sharqat and Hawija to the base of the Hamrin mountains. It is also important to build out the CTS, including its targeted counter-terrorism capabilities; maintain a very strong western Combined Joint Task Force presence in Iraq; deploy an Iraqi Army division in Basra to prevent criminal or militia control at the country’s economic center; and prevent an ISIS anti-personnel bombing campaign against targets in Baghdad. Achieving these goals will put Iraq on the right track to keeping ISIS at a pre-2012 level of capability.

Analysts often claim that Iraq manages to pull back from the brink of failure. Usually, the country’s politicians need to have one foot over the brink to pull themselves back from catastrophe. Yet, they frequently also pull the country back from the brink of success. For example, it would be extremely damaging if Iraq lost Abadi’s style of leadership during the upcoming prime ministerial transition. It would be equally harmful if the Ministry of Interior – the largest ministry in the country – becomes an institution given to one faction by custom. The Ministry of Interior must change hands if the Iraqi government wishes to prevent a very consequential transfer of security resources to Badr, an Iran-backed movement that probably seeks to take over the premiership in 2018. Ultimately, it is critical to watch for these indicators in Iraq’s future political development.

This interview was also posted at the Post-War Watch

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