Matthew Sherman: Curtailing Militias Key to Formation of Iraqi Security Forces

Matthew Sherman: Curtailing Militias Key to Formation of Iraqi Security Forces

Matthew Sherman, former deputy senior adviser and director of policy to Iraq ’s Ministry of Interior, discusses the influence of militias, U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, and Iraq ’s rise of organized crime with’s Lionel Beehner.

February 14, 2006 5:32 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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As the insurgency rages on, Iraqis’ chief need, besides water and electricity, is security. Much of the country’s future security situation hinges not only on Iraqis’ ability to build and train an effective army, but also on its ability to purge its 100,000-strong police force of militia members whose loyalties may be to religious or ethnic groups rather than the nation itself. As such, the Interior Ministry will be a hotly contested portfolio, as Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds look to form a national-unity government. Matthew Sherman, who just finished a two-year stint in Iraq as deputy senior adviser and director of policy to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, discusses the influence of militias, U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, and Iraq’s rise of organized crime.

The current Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr, is unpopular among Sunnis because of his ties to the Badr Brigades, the armed Shiite militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Is it possible to find a candidate suitable to all Iraqis?

One option is to have someone aligned with SCIRI be nominated for either defense or interior, like [former national security adviser] Kasim Daoud, who doesn’t have those entrenched ties with the militia wing because he was someone who was an ally of [former Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi’s but then shifted over to SCIRI’s side with these most recent elections.

Shiite militia members are increasingly wearing Iraqi uniforms. Does this explain recent police abuses of Sunni prisoners?

It’s always difficult to tell the difference between fact and fiction on the ground. There were lots of rumors flying around, and it’s really difficult to make heads or tails of a lot of things. When you have situations where you have a hundred people showing up at a bunker showing signs of abuse and torture, that’s much more clearly delineated, and you see the problems of that. What you have right now is a situation where you have a number—I’m not saying a majority—of militia elements that are in the security forces who answer to their militia leaders and not necessarily to the central authority in Baghdad, and that continually undermines the power of the central government. That has really been, in my mind, the reason the central government has had difficulty establishing itself and establishing a monopoly on power.

Did Jabr, to your knowledge, explicitly order any of these abuses? How much does the chain of command go up to him? Should he be held responsible for attacks within police forces either against Sunnis or others?

I don’t have any specific information on him ordering human rights abuses and such. Having said that, he is the interior minister and should be held accountable for what was going on in his ministry. On the other side, I know there are a lot of people there who take their orders from different people. So again, it’s difficult to say where those orders actually do come from. Since the central government is not really able to show itself, sometime these orders happen at a lower level, and there is nobody held accountable. These are the problems you have as you’re trying to establish these security forces.

How do you keep elements like the Mahdi Army—led by firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—or the Badr Brigades from joining the ranks of the security forces? And if they are going to join, how do you vet them or at least shift their allegiance?

From an historical point of view, we had a series of agreements that the Coalition Provisional Authority [CPA] had negotiated with about nine of the major militia factions throughout the country—Shiite, Sunni, Kurd—in order to bring them into the security forces, to recognize their kind of fighting against the former regime, to give them additional retraining programs and courses, to get them jobs with other government programs and services, and to have a whole integration process for them so they would be included within the new government.

That, then, didn’t happen. The transitional government in place didn’t necessarily put forth the political effort to make it happen. So now we’re at a stage where the militias have become stronger. Back when we were doing this, Sadr’s forces were smaller. Now they’ve become much more robust and politically influential. And that’s why there are people within the embassy, and also within the coalitiion, who recognize this point.

The first step is to be able to identify these individuals. This will be a significant step, not only in our own accountability of our own training, but also by letting us know how many people are out there in the security forces. Again, you hear rumors about how many forces have been completely infiltrated, and gaining some ground on truth in that area would really prove beneficial. Then, after you do that, you can have these incentive programs to get people legitimately involved in the government and to be acknowledged for whatever services they’ve done, and then make sure they’re accountable.

Give me a sense of how many militia members are in the Iraqi security forces.

With regards to commandos, which is an area I dealt with a lot, the commandos have grown significantly in number over the past ten months, from about 6,000 to about 9,000 or 10,000. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re all militia members, but I think there’s been a significant increase of some number. But what’s more important is that the leadership in some of these divisions and some of these brigades has changed. And that’s where there’s been some change. So it’s not just the raw numbers, it’s also the people who are then in leadership positions on the ground. And that’s an important distinction.

Explain to me some of the sanctioned commando and militia units we hear about like the Wolf and Scorpion brigades, which are sanctioned militias within the security forces. What exactly is their role, and are they a threat?

What’s happened over the past few months is the security forces and some of the commandos have become politicized, and that’s been very damaging for their reputation and effectiveness. There have been reports of them carrying out missions for the benefit of the Badr Brigades. I know the coalition has been boosting up its advisers in these groups, in order to have better oversight. But again, it’s the politicization of these forces, because you have a person as [interior] minister who is so strongly tied to one of the most important militias in the country.

How do you integrate more Sunnis into the security forces?

We’ve done a lot already to begin with. The question now is to make sure they’re able to advance to leadership positions and things of that nature. You have to take into account that the country is made up mainly of Shiites. So from a raw numbers perspective, you’re going to have more Shiites than Sunnis. That’s not a bad thing. It’s making sure, then, that people who are in the security forces are fighting for the good of the nation, not for their own personal advancement, or for the advancement of the militia leaders who might be on the ground.

Some experts, including Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, writing in the new issue of the Atlantic, have called for transferring control of the police forces from the Interior Ministry in Baghdad to local authorities. Do you agree with that idea?

No, I don’t. I think it’s important that there is some centralized control on these issues. Having said that, it’s also important the police and the governors work together on the ground to make sure the police are adequately used. So the governors will be playing an important role. But I don’t think that means you can just hand over the operational control of these forces to the local leaders.

Pollack also calls for a more unified command structure on the American side and one campaign chief in charge of both the military and embassy sides of the effort. Why has this not been done?

Well, it’s important that both the military and the embassy sides work more closely together. I know that [Commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq] General [George] Casey and [U.S.] Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad have worked to do that. There was an executive committee that I was on that worked on bringing those entities to work in a more unified way. And what came of that was the formation of a joint planning cell made up of both military and embassy personnel, who then work on these joint policies together to make sure there is a more unified effort. That’s one step in a more multi-step effort that will need to take place over the course of the next year or two years.

What about this new counterinsurgency strategy of "clear, hold, and build" [where hot spots are cleared of insurgents, the area is secured, and then rebuilt]. Is this strategy working?

Yes, in some regards. But there’s also many other, violent components that are involved. We do focus very well on the foreign fighters. We are starting to reduce the effect with regard to the Baathist sympathizers, and such. But there is also a growing tendency with respect to the organized criminal element, which really falls outside of what traditional military counterinsurgency operations cover. And that’s a much more complex issue, and something where you need a significant civilian input as well, and where the police force becomes much more influential. Now, this police force hasn’t really had to combat organized crime in the past. It wasn’t something that was really vibrant during the regime. But it’s something now that has sprung up and is growing, and now it counts for possibly a majority of the violence that’s happening in the country.

Pollack calls for something like 400,000 troops, adding that only 40,000 to 60,000 Iraqi forces are battle-ready. Is it really just a question of the numbers, or are there other gaps in the system [of training Iraqis]?

It’s not just a question of numbers. General Casey came out a few days ago and talked about how the forces are stretched thin. But it’s much more than that. It’s also important to make sure the forces are placed in the right areas.

Where are the "right areas"?

In the Anbar province, some parts of Mosul, some parts of Baghdad. Going about just doing door-to-door operations, though, is something that isn’t necessarily proving as beneficial as it could be. So what’s important, what needs to be done, is not only a different look at where the troops need to be placed—I think placing more along the borders would be very beneficial too—but also making sure there’s a strong civilian component there that works side by side with the police out in the provinces, particularly the provincial capitals.

If you compare this with the kinds of strong civilian leadership we had in Kosovo, and you take the adviser-to-civilian ratio and compare that to what’s going on in Iraq, you’re going to need to have a much greater input in the civilian sector to deal with civilian problems like organized crime.

If we pull out, will Iraq collapse into a civil war?

There are people who argue that a civil war is happening today. You have to think about how members of the public, at least within the United States, view civil war. Americans think about their own civil war. But historically, that was highly unique. The type of situation where you have a revolution from on high, like you had in Iraq, and then the outcomes that result from that, are actually quite common—when you have this vacuum and all these entities vying for power, when you have organized crime coming in and causing lots of instability. The type of situation you have right now is the kind where you can say civil war is already going on, and you can compare it to what’s happened in Kosovo, in Bosnia, and in other areas.

You’ve mentioned now, a couple times, organized crime. Is that on the rise?

You’re seeing drug-related crime rising significantly. You’re seeing common robberies and assault happening much more regularly. You’re seeing rape increasing. You’re seeing a lot of those issues, a lot of those problems, that happen in the large city spreading throughout the rest of the country. It’s something that goes beyond the traditional scope of counterinsurgency operations.

How is this affecting reconstruction efforts on the ground?

It’s the chicken-and-the-egg scenario. Do you need economic growth before you have security, or security before you have economic growth? The constant security situation kind of casts a cloud of doubt over the country. Having said that, most of the violence that’s going on in the country is happening within only four of the eighteen provinces.

But those four are the main provinces and include Baghdad, right?

Right, but you have some areas up north that are much more tranquil and some areas down south that are stable as well. So it’s somewhat important to put that in perspective. There still is an insurgency that needs to be defeated, but it’s not something that’s raging in all eighteen provinces.

Going back to reconstruction, quickly: There’s a recent report by [U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction] Stuart Bowen that says there’s $8 billion missing [from reconstruction funds]. How is that possible?

I don’t know. What’s important to recognize, though—I’m not an accountant, and I’ve never dealt on the financial side of the contracting—but with the constant turnover in staff, with the lack of technical expertise on the ground, with the changing requirements, it’s not surprising that you have shortfalls or missing sums, because money just kind of falls through the gaps.

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