When the geographical impact of Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) wears off, the Kurd’s regional reconstitution will be on the horizon. That is, if Iraq’s Shia warlords allow them to evolve and improve the Kurdish Regional Zone. Officials from Baghdad and Washington are playing a fast-and-loose game of roulette by arming and empowering Shia militias throughout Iraq in a bid to hasten the eradication of Daesh.
In the June 2014 fall of Mosul, an estimated 50,000 Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and abandoned the city to Daesh. The ineffectiveness of the Iraqi Armed Forces became widely known, and the defense of the nation then fell to Kurdish forces such as the Peshmerga, and to the reemerging Shia militias. Many of these militias were disarmed and forced to disperse during the U.S.-led coalition effort, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), which sought to empower the Iraqi government and encourage the use of conventional forces post-OIF.
The existence and operation of militia forces in Iraq have historically encouraged tribalism and an inherent break from the central government, where fighters and those under their jurisdiction often fall under the rules and regulations of a warlord, not the government. The persistent militia problem was accordingly set to be made illegal under the Iraqi constitution to combat the horrific sectarian violence that continues to spread in Iraq. The Iraqi government has permitted the existence of militias, armed them, and inserted them into their shaky command structure.
Washington has agreed with Baghdad’s move to empower the militias and has also provided armament to the militias. Both governments have cited the regional gains achieved by the militia in the fight against Daesh, using the shortcomings of Iraq’s armed forces as justification, and have targeted militia demobilization once regional stability has reached acceptable levels. Yet realistically, the same armed forces these militias have been filling in for are needed to disarm the militias and maintain the checks and balances of combat operations with them. Just a few years ago, these civilian militias operating under religious doctrinal views were directly responsible for hundreds of U.S. and coalition dead and wounded.
In Iraq, U.S. policy remains steady, as yesterday’s enemies are today’s friends and vice versa. This is a historically faulted policy, as we shook hands with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and ousted him in 2003. Supporting these militias is one of our lesser mistakes, yet we continue to play fast and loose with radical chieftains who often only have an eye on their own backyard, that is unless the opportunity to steal their neighbor’s backyard arises.
U.S./Iraqi policy seems to reflect lulling ourselves into a false sense of security to obtain fast results versus long-term security. The regularity of military and administrative officials making public statements heaping praise upon these militias’ successes in Iraq are frequent enough to make one speculate if they are bracing us for the eventual, inevitable fall. Granted, their success in removing Daesh from some areas without a large U.S. troop commitment is good news, but the end-state security may reflect Iraq as it was 10 years ago, with many of the same players from that time imposing their will on the local population without regard for Baghdad. This will likely be a recipe for a future regional calamity. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Regular Department of Defense (DoD) press releases from the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) admit that the Popular Mobilization Committee (also called Popular Mobilization Units or Popular Mobilization Forces), aka Shia militias, have been conducting operations in concert with Iraqi, U.S., and coalition forces. These statements make a board situation appear neat and orderly.
In reality, there are approximately 50 different Shia militias of varying allegiances and composition operating throughout the Iraqi theater. These Shia militias have been known to historically clash with one another, as well as government policy, the state’s military, and the police forces. The largest collections of these militias are supported by Iran. Some militias opt to remain regionally autonomous, keeping their localized goals a priority. Neither of these philosophies is conducive to a homogenous and stable Iraqi government.
These loose-knit bands and quick fixes complicate the more functionally competent northern region of Iraq, controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government. Skirmishes continue to regularly erupt between Shia militias and Peshmerga forces despite their alliance against Daesh and increasing fears of continued violence. Baghdad has been dismissive of the issue and essentially ill-equipped to handle the issue at all, as the militias are performing as the functioning branch of Iraq’s regular armed forces and are well-equipped.
(Featured image: Armed members of the Abbas combat squad, a Shia militia group. Image courtesy of news.yahoo.com)