Iraq's Militias: The True Threat to Coalition Success in Iraq (1)

By Schwarz, Anthony J. | Parameters, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Iraq's Militias: The True Threat to Coalition Success in Iraq (1)


Schwarz, Anthony J., Parameters


In the last five years, the United States invaded two countries and overthrew two ruling parties. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the so-called "end of major combat operations" came swiftly and decisively. In their wakes emerged resistances far more resolute than predicted, forcing coalition military commanders to shift from a conventional warfare doctrine to one better suited for fighting long wars against asymmetric enemies with extremist ideologies. But while religious extremism may typify the average insurgent, the biggest threat to American policy is not posed by the jihadist, who in most cases, lacks the ability to organize, effectively train and recruit forces (other than suicide bombers), and has no long-term strategy for generating resources, garnering public support, or achieving realistic strategic goals. The real hazard to American objectives in Southwest Asia comes from armed and active militias who, unlike most insurgents, have served as career soldiers, seized the support of their populace, and, in many cases, infiltrated national government institutions.

Though a form of resistance, militiamen are far different in nature than insurgents or terrorists. In the long-term, militias are most damaging because they weaken government influence by providing unofficial (and effective) security in localized areas using illegal methods. (2) Due to the support they receive from their constituents and the resultant political power they wield, militias can only be neutralized through state-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) initiatives. By understanding the similarities and differences between militias and insurgents, noting the potential positives and negatives associated with militias, and applying lessons-learned from DDR-type programs recently employed in Afghanistan and Iraq, coalition forces can develop an effective counterstrategy for Iraq's militias. Such a strategy should be based on political will and international financing as part of a comprehensive approach inculcating political, economic, and military components.

Militias and Politics in Afghanistan and Iraq

The most prominent militia commander in Afghanistan, and a real threat to national stability and growth, is Abd-I-Rab Rasul Sayyaf, former mujahedin party leader and head of a militia founded in Wahhabism, an extremely conservative brand of Sunni Islam. Now the leader of the Upper House of Afghan Parliament, Sayyaf has openly refused to dismantle his militia. His Islamic orthodoxy coupled with his political participation has slowed the modernization of the Afghan judiciary and hindered the expansion of Western style freedoms in Afghanistan. (3) Iraq's primary militias consist of the Badr Corps (a paramilitary wing of the politically powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), the Kurdish Peshmerga (essentially an authorized armed force supported by a legitimate Kurdish Regional Government), and Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi (commonly referred to as the Mahdi Army or Militia). Of these, the Mahdi Militia is widely viewed as most dangerous. As of May 2006, it is the only militia known to have attacked both coalition and Iraqi Security Forces, and it was responsible for two major uprisings against coalition and Iraqi forces in 2004. (4) Like Sayyaf's group, Sadr's Mahdi Militia claims to be religious based, possesses an extremely conservative and anti-Western ideology, openly enforces an extreme brand of Sharia law, and is now very politically active--not so much as government leaders, but more as political spoilers, undermining democratic initiatives whenever possible. Like Sayyaf, Sadr has openly refused to dismantle his militia. In recent months Sadr claimed to lose control over rogue elements of his organization, making it even more dangerous than it was two years ago.

Militias and politics are often inextricably linked. During the last five years, in both Afghanistan and lraq, violence heightened during the run-up to every election. …

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