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Inclusivity and Counterinsurgency

Many of us who follow events in Iraq closely have been particularly vocal in praising the victory of the Iraqi government in Mosul. Militarily, it was an impressive rebound for the Iraqi army after the disasters of 2014, and where possible, it was achieved with maximum consideration for the civilian population, infrastructure and homes.

Undoubtedly, the situation of liberated cities remains a tragic one. It is worth remembering the suffering of the people of Caen in 1944, who saw their historic city "martyred for peace," (as the French say) in the process of being freed from the Nazis. Anger in Caen at the massive destruction lingered on for years. But just as in Caen, the people of Mosul largely welcomed their liberators.

Caen was of course rebuilt, but its post war history was never certain; France briefly flirted with the Parti Communiste Français and later, attempted a return to colonialism in the years after WW2. Post war justice was dominated by acts of vengeance.

And while Iraq is faced with a tremendous reconstruction challenge, we must remember that Iraq's victory was also a milestone of historic cooperation between the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga and tribal fighters.

Therefore, this is not just a military victory; it is also a victory for inclusive politics, the cooperation across communities that forms the foundation of democracy. Acemoglu and Robinson have noted how inclusive political institutions,

“tend to support inclusive economic institutions. This leads to a more equal distribution of income, empowering a broad segment of society. This limits what one can achieve by usurping political power.”

The UN now place great emphasis on inclusive institutions, a pillar of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, but this emphasis is of course on political and economic institutions.

Notably, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services and Iraqi Army units (and many of the Popular Mobilisation Units) in the Mosul battle had strong Sunni representation, something relatively easy to track through tribal names, although some of the major Sunni tribes have small Shia minorities. Here there is a link between political science that advocates social inclusion and U.S. military doctrine, created partly in Iraq in the form of Field Manual 3-24.

FM 3-24 was written during a time of extreme crisis, as Al-Qaeda took over most Sunni communities in 2006 and launched a terrible onslaught of attacks on the Shia community, while assassinating any Sunnis who resisted.

FM-3-24 advocates a “whole of government” approach to counterinsurgency, but also places emphasis on the efforts of the “host nation,” where the manual suggests that rule of law provides,

“A government that derives its powers from the governed (emphasis added) and competently manages, coordinates and sustains collective security, as well as political, social and economic development. This includes local, regional and national government.” (p361.)

Therefore, the military effort in Mosul represents one pillar of inclusivity, and an important one given the size of the Iraqi armed forces as one of the "employers of choice" in Iraq. Without such a “host nation” effort, anything the West does will never solve the root of the problem, and this is why Iraq represents an important case, due to its current democratic leadership which supports the “collective security” described in FM 3-24.

Similarly, the U.S. State Department defines counterinsurgency as “comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes.” The war therefore, is 80% political, as French counterinsurgency theorist David Galula argued.

On the whole, Iraqi forces have displayed a striking capability by working with local communities and delivering aid during combat operations; in the run up to the Mosul Operation we saw Iraqi soldiers delivering winter fuel in Shirqat and Federal Police delivering aid to communities south of the city. These efforts continued in Mosul, often with combat nearby.

It would not be an understatement to say that the ISF have fought what Victor Krulak called, “three block counterinsurgency.” This envisaged a war where one unit could be fighting the enemy, while another could be assisting and evacuating civilians in the same neighbourhood--exactly what was seen by reporters time and time again in Mosul. Here, the military have become an inclusive institution--and if they can be strengthened, the ISF can become a pillar of Iraqi security. I believe this is why the Coalition "light footprint" effort has seen relative success, without the need for major Coalition formations on the ground.

These efforts have had a tremendous effect on the Sunni community; in Iraq, the sometimes derided concept of "hearts and minds" is alive and well. But we cannot see military inclusivity in the context of Acemoglu and Robinson's concept of "inclusive institutions" without the political and economic part of the equation. Here, some observers have doubted whether Iraq truly is an inclusive democracy.

Counterfeit democracies

Like Acemoglu and Robinson, Brian Klaas and William Easterly have written a compelling defense of democracy and the benefits of increased individual freedom, arguing how this helps stability. If weak institutions are not inclusive, then it follows that these weak institutions will be more prone to bad decisions, making conflict more likely. This is the essence of Paul Collier's "conflict trap."

In The Despot’s Accomplice, Klaas argues that Western policy often ignores authoritarian rule in strategically vital allies, but the West also lends support to “counterfeit democracies” which hold sham elections and have powerless parliaments.

Klaas has written a convincing book, but he mistakenly labels Iraq a “counterfeit democracy.” In fact, the last two years have seen Iraq make great progress towards representative rule. While many analysts argue that a lack of inclusivity led to the rise of Daesh, the outreach of the Iraqi government to various Iraqi communities after the summer of 2014 has contributed to the downfall of the group. Stronger democracy in Iraq has deprived terrorists of the environment they need: one with little trust of government.

It is arguable that if Iraq’s Sunni minority had decided that there was no future supporting the government, the ISF would have had to fight a bloody battle through entrenched local resistance all the way to Mosul. In other words, if the Sunni community in Iraq had fully sided with Daesh, the available recruits to the group could have run into the hundreds of thousands of fighting age males.

In that situation, the only solution available to the Iraqi government would have been one that undermined international support: if the ISF were seen as unrepresentative and a threat to the Sunni community, they would have had to blast their way through populated areas en route to Mosul. Iraq’s counterinsurgency campaign would have resembled Chechnya, Vietnam or Syria. More likely, it would have been worse than this as international support ebbed, due to massive civilian casualties.

In this scenario of sectarian meltdown, an Iraq without Coalition air support would have been forced to rely primarily on unguided heavy weapons, driving an even deeper wedge between communities.

Instead, much security in liberated areas is now under local control, freeing up mixed sect Iraqi units for front-line fighting. Meanwhile Iraqi government ministries, with the UNDP, engage in reconstruction, rebuilding Tikrit and Ramadi Universities and helping resettle over 1 million IDPs. This is the “whole of government” approach advocated in COIN doctrine.

Daesh, who are fearful of democracy, will seek to attack this process: when they seized Mosul, as many as 300 election workers were executed by the group there in 2014. Iraqi lawmakers are now gearing up for elections in 2018, once again giving Moslawis a direct stake in their future, in addition to forthcoming powers in local security. Michael Knights has noted that when Sunni Arabs made significant gains in the 2009 Ninewa elections, violence declined significantly. We may expect fewer attacks if local leaders are seen as representative, but this is a huge challenge, in part due to intra-communal rivalries.

Measuring democracy

Contrary to The Economist 2016 Global Democracy Index which rates Iraq as a "hybrid regime," or Klaas’ “counterfeit” label, the evidence points to Iraq being a transitional democracy, perhaps a “flawed democracy,” according to The Economist’s ranking.

Iraq’s elections have been judged as free and fair by both the UN and the National Democratic Institute, while the country has a constitutionally protected freedom of assembly (respected in frequent peaceful and largely peaceful demonstrations) a highly representative political system and a developing civil society; Iraq has over 2500 registered NGOs and will soon pass legislation to combat domestic violence.

Furthermore, Iraq has one of the highest proportions of female MPs in government in the world in a political system increasingly characterised by cross-sect alliances and intra-group competition. The majority of Iraqi people also support democracy, with an NDI poll of 2000 Iraqis in April 2014 finding that 75% of respondents favoured the democratic system of government. The NDI polling data also shows high Sunni support for the government, and while the sample is small, another recent poll by Almustakilla for Research shows growing Sunni confidence in politics.

In another illustration of this inclusivity, when a Coalition airstrike in west Mosul caused over 200 casualties, MPs and military officials from both Sunni and Shia communities debated the use of airpower in Mosul for two hours in parliament. According to Kirk Sowell, MPs from both of Iraq’s largest communities were not divided on the issue by sect --forces in Mosul are both Shia and Sunni. It is hard to imagine this occurring under an authoritarian regime, where the interests of one community are promoted over the interests of another through "extractive" institutions. Internal conflicts in authoritarian regimes are also not known for prolonged debates on preserving civilian life.

Today, not only are Sunnis widely represented in the security and political sphere (with five government ministries) but two major national reconciliation efforts are led by leading Shia politicians. In a sign of how much things are changing, one of these efforts has been directly linked to influential Sunni figure Khamis al-Khanjar. Khanjar, previously a controversial figure in Iraqi politics, has himself been linked to Moqtada al-Sadr and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq leader Ammar al-Hakim. Hakim now has a new party, as does stalwart of the political scene Barham Saleh. Politicians are keen to re-brand and focus on the future; times are changing.

Cross sect-cooperation goes across the spectrum of Iraqi politics. As Sajjad Jiyad has remarked, “We now have splits within the Shiites, within the Sunnis, and within the Kurds. For an average citizen, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It would help change the sectarian discourse and alignment that has been prevalent until last year.” Similarly, Maliki ally Saleh-Abdul Razaq has called for cross-sectarian unity going into the 2018 election, echoing rival Shia plans for exactly the same thing, albeit with a different arrangement.

Democracy and stability

Unlike Iraq pre-2003 where regime loyalists won the majority share of state funds, (see works by Fanar Haddad, Joseph Sassoon), the state now allocates resources to provinces on a population basis, as outlined in Article 109, First, of the 2005 Constitution. For the Kurdish region, this has been a vexing issue since January 2014, something which must urgently be resolved in relation to the final status of the region.

Transfers to provinces, although severely strained by low oil revenues, have not gone unnoticed by governors in Sunni majority provinces, which have their own local political dynamics unrelated to the common sectarian narrative in the media. Provincial politicians frequently praise Iraqi government efforts, with former Anbar governor Suhaib al-Rawi recently expressing his strong support for PM Abadi. Al-Rawi was recently removed in an effort by the Sunni Al Hal party, echoing a similar intra-Sunni political fight in Salahaddin. This is of course not the best time for local provincial political battles to be breaking out, but it is certainly better that they are political, something that does not seem to be the case in Libya.

While revenue distribution was disrupted following the 2014 the Baghdad-Erbil oil revenue and exports dispute, a resolution mechanism related to Kirkuk oil was later attempted. Kurdish politics also suffers from its own internal political intrigue, but shuttle diplomacy between different parties in Baghdad and Erbil ensures that dialogue is paramount. Only strong support for a system that prioritises dialogue can ensure that these talks continue as the international community attempt to deal with the fallout from the Kurdish referendum.

Iraq’s inclusivity, though imperfect, is important because since 1970 virtually every authoritarian regime in the Middle East has suffered violent revolution, plunging Western security cooperation and aid arrangements into crisis. Arguments for authoritarian development in the region carry little weight.

Meanwhile, regimes that have not suffered revolution have faced accusations of exporting terrorism. Of course, the Iraqi government does not simply view itself as better than these countries by virtue of democracy; Foreign Minister Jafaari is taking a well defined policy of regional cooperation for Arab capitals, while recently inviting Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to Baghdad in February.

Where next?

Iraq's military and political inclusivity will put sectarian relations on the right track in the coming months and years, but the situation is of course reversible. It remains vital that the international community remain engaged and committed to supporting the democratic process in Iraq, but the good news is the Iraqis are in the lead as never before.

The two challenges now are increasing governance capacity in every province--including the Kurdish provinces, and at the ministry level. Iraq needs to witness a sea change in attitudes towards privatisation, to meet the coming challenges in the oil market. Only then will institutions become truly "inclusive," giving economic freedoms to more Iraqis. Extractive institutions are still present in Iraq, but in a democratic setting.

Secondly, Federal Iraq and the Kurdish Region must realise the lasting benefits and necessity of cooperation. Even a limited overview of the region's history shows the tendency for Iraq's neighbours to seek out proxy groups in the country and only through working together can Iraq's communities prevent this.

In fact, it is particularly vital that Iraq maintains strong relations with its neighbours: history is full of examples of internal conflicts which went on for decades because foreign powers kept pouring in more support for rival groups, at little cost to themselves, but great cost to the country in conflict.

Therefore, although recent political science literature suggests Iraq may be on the right track in the security sector, far more needs to be done in terms of improving Iraqi economic and political institutions. A military victory that belongs to all of Iraq's communities provides a good head start for the next challenge.

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