On September 8, the Small Wars Journal published a piece on the Sons of Iraq (SOI) by former U.S. Army officer William McCallister. He attempted to place the SOI within the context of Iraq’s history of local security forces, but his analogy didn’t quite work in the end.
McCallister looked at Iraq’s history of local armed groups for a comparison to the SOI. He found several. One was between the 8th and 12th Centuries when Baghdad was divided into four districts. Each had its own security force run by powerful families. They policed their own areas, but could be called upon to defend the city. Another was in rural areas, the central government would look to coop local elites and their fighters, who would then act as agents of the government. McCallister believes that the creation of the SOI followed these traditions of communities protecting themselves, while cooperating with Baghdad.
The Anbar Awakening closely followed these examples. The Sunni tribes in Anbar first began turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2005 on their own initiative. The U.S. didn’t begin cooperating with them until early the following year. They quickly tried to integrate the tribal fighters into the local security force. For example, in Ramadi, the first city where U.S. and tribal sheikhs worked together, the number of police went from 35 in June 2006 to 1,300 in training by November of that year, thanks to the Anbar Salvation Council. Today there are around 25,000 Awakening fighters in the province’s police. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government never seemed to have a major problem with this process, even agreeing to appointing an Awakening leader to be the provincial police chief in Anbar. As in the historic examples, Baghdad was attempting to work through local elites in the periphery to exert the center’s control.
McCallister then made an important, and often overlooked observation, that the Awakening in Anbar, and the SOI are very different. While the Awakening was an organic organization that was created by local Iraqis, the SOI in the rest of the country were largely the result of U.S. policy. These groups represent a rival security force that the government has no connection to or control over. This is why Maliki has ordered crackdowns on SOI’s in areas such as Diyala and Salahaddin, because he is attempting to weaken them. Something similar might be behind the Prime Minister agreeing to take up the salary of the Baghdad SOI by October of this year.
The problem with McCallister’s historical analogy comes at the end. There he argues that the U.S. can’t impose any conditions upon Baghdad to integrate the SOI because that will be seen as a sign of weakness by the government’s opponents and exploited. He uses this against the “strategic conditionality” argument put forward by Iraq observers such as Georgetown professor and Obama advisor Colin Kahl, who say that the U.S.’s influence over Iraq is decreasing as the Iraqi government becomes more autonomous so the Americans have to predicate any future support based upon Maliki moving towards national reconciliation. McCallister on the other hand, says that the United States needs to create a new policy to integrate the SOI, but based upon Iraqi culture and history. This is where his thesis runs into issues because outside of the Anbar Awakening, the SOI were not local forces created by Iraqis to protect their communities, but were rather created because the United States actively sought to spread the Anbar model across central and northern Iraq. Anbar fits the historical examples McCallister found, but the SOI happened to be formed by a foreign occupying power. There is no reason, therefore, for Maliki to accept this separate security force because he doesn’t see it as Iraqi, but rather an American creation. While finding an Iraqi solution would definitely be preferable to anything imposed by the U.S., there is no historical precedent for this to happen, which is the major argument of McCallister’s paper. An Iraq centered policy could possibly mean the arrest and dissolution of much of the SOI, with only a truncated few ever being integrated. This is in fact what seems to be Maliki’s plan right now in Diyala province. Another problem with McCallister’s piece is that the U.S. could do nothing about Maliki’s moves because McCallister believes that could undermine the Prime Minister’s standing. That doesn’t sound like a good deal for the Americans or the SOI.
Allam, Hannah and al Dulaimy, Mohammed, “Marine-led Campaign Killed Friends and Foes, Iraqi Leaders Say,” Knight Ridder, 5/17/05
Fletcher, Martin, “Fighting back: the city determined not to become al-Qaeda’s capital,” Times of London, 11/20/06
Kahl, Colin, “Bridge On The River Euphrates,” National Interest, 9/2/08
Khalil, Lydia, “Anbar Revenge Brigade Makes Progress in the Fight Against al-Qaeda,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 3/28/06
McCallister, William, “Sons of Iraq: A Study in Irregular Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, 9/8/08
O’Hanlon, Michael, Campbell, Jason, “Iraqi Index,” Brookings Institution, 8/28/08