Welcome to the Shadow War

The pullout of U.S. forces in Iraq threatens to unleash a dangerous and deadly struggle with Iran and within the Iraqi army.

"The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq -- with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops," President Barack Obama announced last week. "That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."

But the American departure marks the beginning, not the end, of the struggle facing the Iraqi Army. Iraq's military remains divided by conflicts between its traditional, nationalist officer corps and Iran-sponsored interlopers, and paralyzed by the dysfunctional politics in Baghdad and the withdrawal of U.S. military support. If Iraq is to develop into a strong and secure nation, capable of guiding its own affairs, much depends on its army's ability to overcome these hurdles.

I recently spent a period of three weeks embedded with Iraqi Army headquarters in the south of Iraq Though one has to be careful drawing conclusions about this large, varied country from observations gathered in any one of its regions, the view from southern Iraq is particularly relevant at this time. The south is Iran's backyard -- the part of Iraq where Tehran's ambitions are focused  due to its political, religious, and economic connections to the predominately Shiite population, and where its influence is most keenly felt. Iraqi Army headquarters in the south have also been operating largely autonomously of U.S. or British support since foreign troops drew down to low levels in 2009 -- making them a window into the future of the Iraqi military after the U.S. exit.

Obama's announcement may have marked a milestone for many Americans, but in the view of Iraqi security leaders, the United States has been gone for a long time in much of the country. The die was cast as soon as the 2008 U.S.-Iraq security agreement -- in effect, the U.S. withdrawal timetable -- was ratified by the Iraqi cabinet on Nov. 16, 2008. From that date onward, it became increasingly difficult for both U.S. and Iraqi forces to arrest, detain, or prosecute Iraqi suspects because only Iraqi warrants carried legal weight. Though U.S. forces have gradually drawn down, their physical presence on their bases has meant less and less to Iraqis because U.S. capability to influence security on the ground had been legally and politically neutered.

The slow fade-out of the U.S. presence has left Iraqi Army leaders exposed to political attacks.  Numerous interviews with Iraqi officers paint a picture of the shadow war being fought within the Iraqi security sector on the eve of U.S. departure. On one side is the class of Shiite Arab political appointees seeded throughout the security establishment since the ascendance of a predominantly Shiite government in Baghdad . Many of these individuals were members of Badr Corps, the agency formed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to pit exiled Iraqi Shiites against Saddam Hussein's military. Others are current supporters of Shiite hardline politician Moqtada al-Sadr, or breakaways from his movement. These groups oppose any U.S. influence over the Iraqi government and security sector, and support a clerical role in government similar to that practiced in Iran. Within their narrative, attacks against U.S. military targets are not considered criminal actions -- they are only interested in pursuing former Baathists and al Qaeda terrorists.

The other side -- currently beleaguered and perpetually looking over its shoulder -- is the class of traditional Iraqi nationalists that still makes up a considerable portion of the Iraqi army leadership in the south. Many of today's generals fought at the tip of the spear in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War, as young lieutenants and majors. Due to their service in Saddam's military, these men can easily be targeted for investigation of suspected Baathist ties. Indeed, before the March 2010 elections, the so-called de-Baathification committee produced a list of over 70 senior officers, smearing them as alleged Baathists. These career officers deeply resent the presence of demaj (meaning "amalgamation") officers -- political appointees from the Islamist parties who were given rank after 2003 without graduating from military academies. Due to the operational security problem posed by these newcomers, the veteran officers banded together, forming tight command groups comprised exclusively of their old war buddies -- sidelining the demaj officers to less important jobs, and encouraging them to take extended periods of leave.

These nationalist officers have a complex attitude toward the United States that cannot be described as either love or hate. "When I am on duty as an Iraqi soldier, it is my duty to work with Americans," one Iraqi officer told me. When I am on leave, as a civilian, I cannot even look at an American vehicle because I am so angry."

Nevertheless, nationalist officers recognize that the United States and Iraq share a common problem -- Iran's influence in the region. Iraqi military officers have to be subtle in their support for U.S. military efforts against Iranian-backed militants. Behind the scenes, however, their actions are often instrumental in enabling U.S.-led raids against the worst offenders.

Unfortunately, the Iraqi military -- with or without U.S. support -- is not structured to confront the ongoing presence of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. Though some training is underway to enable Iraqi armed forces to protect the country from external military threats, the day-to-day business of the military is still the restoration of basic security within the country. Many provinces still have dense networks of checkpoints manned by Iraqi Army soldiers (jundis in the local vernacular). The military doesn't like or want this job, but it is trapped in the role because the paramilitary police forces are neither sufficiently numerous, nor trusted by the military or the federal government.

To make matters worse, the declining U.S. involvement in Iraqi security has frozen the development of new security initiatives. This situation has been exacerbated by the near-paralysis of Iraqi national politics, and the government's inability to appoint fully-empowered security ministers for the last 14 months With Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also serving as the overstretched caretaker minister of defence and minister of interior, neither agency can take a step. For instance, as the U.S. and British military involvement in southern Iraq thinned out in 2009, the Iraqi military simply stopped taking new initiatives to secure the country's borders. Plans for troop redeployments, the creation of new barriers, and the establishment of new electronic surveillance systems have gathered dust for lack of funds and the Baghdad's sign-off.

Even at the tactical level, signs of progress are hard to come by. Once upon a time, U.S. military engineers could pick up and move entire fortified checkpoints from one part of a road network to another, in order to adapt to militant activities. Now, the checkpoints sit where they were last placed by the Americans -- whether or not those locations make sense any more.

Without U.S. advisors on hand, the Iraqi military has fallen back on old habits. It has become a more reactive force, waiting for attackers to show themselves and then arresting all witnesses and potential culprits. The problem is not that the army lacks bite: Each Iraqi Army division has a number of on-call commando units, which are capable of mounting professional ambushes and strike operations -- and they frequently do so. The real problem is that the southern militants backed by Iran or associated with Sadr's movement are politically protected by the same people who run Iraq's civilian and police intelligence agencies. This is why all security incidents in the south are blamed on al Qaeda -- even Iraqi intelligence analysts cannot risk committing to paper the real names of Iranian-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

As a result, the army's ability to suppress the militants is hamstrung. Hard intelligence on militants is scant, raids are foiled because the suspects are forewarned, and those that are captured are often released before they have even been interrogated due to weaknesses in the judicial system or the susceptibility of political and judicial figures to intimidation. These factors forced the U.S. military in Iraq return to unilateral patrols and arrest operations after 14 U.S. soldiers were killed by Shiite militant groups in Iraq during June 2011.

On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal, the nationalist core of the Iraqi Army still hopes for a strong and independent Iraq -- but it believes that only a political earthquake can shake Baghdad from its stupor. As one young officer told me: "Iraq will balance Iran again: this is the natural order of things." But military men are frustrated by Iraq's apparent subordination to Iranian interests. The same young officer noted that the military was deeply discouraged when planned purchases of F-16 fighters were delayed and downsized by the Iraqi parliament in spring 2011. "A member of the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guard spoke on television against it one day; then the Iraqi parliament voted it down the next day," he recalled.

For many officers, the solution is another autocrat -- not Saddam, a Sunni from a parochial tribal background, but a Shiite or a non-sectarian nationalist who can stand up to Iraq's foreign and domestic enemies. Some would say Maliki is such a man -- but the current political impasse has created doubts. "Weapons and training are needed but first politics must be fixed by a strongman, only then can an army emerge," one major told me.

The plight of the Iraqi Army poses a conundrum. It has historically posed a threat to democratic rule and to Iraq's minorities, and could do so again. Yet, it is also a sacred vessel in which Iraqi nationalism burns brightly, and where technocrats are still in charge. The military has proven to be one of the government institutions least susceptible to Iranian influence, and will probably continue in this vein. Though the road ahead will be tough, the ties forged in battle by the U.S. and Iraqi militaries are worth fighting for.


Spencer Platt/Getty Images


How to Keep Those Coconuts Falling

Some lessons on keeping Libya’s revolutionary momentum going throughout the Arab world.

With Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi dead after 42-years of brutal rule, the eyes of the Arab world have turned to the region's other dictators who still remain in power: Bashar al-Assad, who rules the roost in Syria even after slaughtering over 3,000 peaceful protesters, and Yemen's similarly embattled and cruel Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Oct. 21, jubilant Libyans poured into Tripoli's Martyrs' Square, chanting, "Syria! Syria!" But could Syria really be next? A sobering word of caution may be in order in these heady times.  

The course of unfolding events in North Africa and the Arab world eerily matches almost exactly the trajectory followed by sub-Saharan Africa's village revolutions in the early 1990s. Whereas the Arab Spring was triggered by the self-immolation of Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi in December of last year, Sub-Saharan Africa's moment in the sun was sparked by the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989. Winds of change swept across the continent, toppling long-standing despots in Benin (1991), Cape Verde Islands (1992), Congo Brazzaville (1992), Ethiopia (1991), Liberia (1990), Malawi (1991), Mali (1991), Sao Tome & Principe (1990), Somalia (1991), South Africa (1994), and Zambia (1991).

Not that these were entirely peaceful transitions either. In Liberia, General Samuel Doe bled to death in 1990 after rebels cornered him and cut off one of his ears. His body was burned and the ashes thrown into a river. Mohamed Siad Barre fled Somalia in 1991 in a tank that ran out of gas near the Kenyan border. In March of that year, angry Malians took to the streets to demand democratic freedom from the despotic rule of Gen. Moussa Traore. He unleashed his security forces on them, killing scores, including women and children. But pro-democracy forces were not deterred and kept up the pressure. Asked to resign on March 25, he retorted: "I will not resign, my government will not resign, because I was elected not by the opposition but by all the people of Mali." Two days later, when he tried to flee the country, he was grabbed by his own security agents and sent to jail. From there, he lamented: "My fate is now in God's hands."

In some African countries, such as Togo and Zimbabwe, autocrats put up fierce resistance, learned new tricks and beat back the democratic challenge. In others, such as Benin and Congo Brazzaville, ousted autocrats clawed their way back to power. In yet other countries, like Ethiopia and Zambia, the so-called new democrats turned out to be worse than the despots they ousted, affirming the African aphorism: "We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power and the next rat comes to do the same thing."

So what do the African village revolutions have to teach us as we look forward to the next stage of the Arab Spring?

First, rah-rah street protests alone are not sufficient to defeat a dictator. Neither is a single individual, group or party; it takes a coalition of opposition forces. The freedom movements in Iran, Syria, Yemen, and other countries have been stymied by disunity and divisions within opposition forces. Even when an opposition can unify into a solid protest movement, as in Egypt, it still needs the aid of an auxiliary institution -- such as the military, the judiciary, the media, or some combination -- to succeed in toppling a dictator.

Second, a distinction must be made between a dictator and the dictatorship. A dictator is but the driver of an old, dilapidated car. Getting rid of the driver is a first step, but that alone is not enough. Next, you must also dissemble and fix the vehicle. Another driver behind the wheel of the same kaput car doesn't change a thing. In far too many countries, the second step was either neglected or left incomplete -- from Benin and Zambia to Indonesia and the Philippines, even Ukraine. The revolution gets reversed. In Tunisia and Egypt, the dictatorship is yet to be dismantled. Egyptians have quickly become disillusioned with the Supreme Military Council, which violently cracked down on Coptic Christian protesters, killing 25 of them on Oct. 9.

Third, you can't just go about fixing the car willy-nilly. A dictatorship must be dismantled and fixed in a particular sequence. In fixing a broken-down car, one does not install a new fan belt to cool the engine when the radiator leaks. The ideal sequence to fixing a dictatorship begins with intellectual freedom, then political reform, constitutional reform, institutional reform, and finally economic reform. Skipping or short-circuiting a step could lead to a reversal of the revolutions.

For example, economic liberalization or the "Washington consensus" is often pushed ahead of all other reforms by Western donors and multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. To be sure, economic liberalization engenders prosperity, but it eventually hits a political ceiling. If the leadership can first open up the political space -- as in Chile (under Augusto Pinochet in 1988) and Ghana (under Jerry Rawlings in 2000) -- prosperity is given space to continue. But when the leadership adamantly keeps the political lid on, the result is an implosion that unravels all the economic gains made: see Indonesia (1998), Ivory Coast (2000), Madagascar (2001), Yugoslavia (1991), or Zimbabwe (1995).

Fourth, there's the role of porous borders and international cooperation in enabling the spread of revolution. During the village revolutions, cross-border fertilization of news and ideas had a powerful demonstration effect in other countries. Leaders of newly liberated countries sent messages and support -- not just rhetoric, but logistical support as well -- to fellow freedom fighters in other African countries: from Benin to Togo and Zambia to Malawi. Similarly, Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians have sent their support -- and should continue doing so -- to pro-democracy activists in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Libyans, for example, may want to ship the weapons they no longer need to the Free Syrian Army to defend and protect the residents of Qoms. And Egyptians may offer to mummify Qaddafi's body for permanent display so that other hardened coconuts may view it. Perhaps it will drill some sense into them. In the face of such a tidal wave, more coconuts are destined to tumble.