The Problem with Militias

Everywhere you go in Iraq, there's victory. The commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, told reporters last Wednesday that he had wiped al-Qaeda in Iraq out of the city. Stability in Iraq is "within sight, but not yet within touch," he said. And while categorical statements about progress have come back to haunt U.S. officials, commanders are evincing more certainty about the possibilities of success than they would ever have dared prior to Gen. David Petraeus' September testimony. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has gone even further, proclaiming "victory against terrorist groups and militias." It's pretty bewildering, even for those who've seen some recent reasons for cautious optimism.

Perhaps the only voice of caution over the last two weeks has been Ambassador Ryan Crocker. When last Crocker drew attention, it was during his shared testimony with Petraeus, in which he showed a surprising eagerness to lie about the pace with which sectarian reconciliation had advanced. These days, he's warning of a looming danger -- militias taking over the mechanics of running Iraq. Using the military's acronym for Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, Crocker recently mused, "We have seen JAM Militant transform into JAM Incorporated. They may not be shooting at us or Iraqi soldiers, but [they are] controlling gas stations, real estate, trade and services. … That is a major challenge to the state."

Right Crocker is. But if he recognized how his observation undermined his colleagues' declarations of victory, he didn't show it. Consider the case of the newest militias on the block -- the so-called Concerned Local Citizens, a mostly Sunni collection of ex-insurgents and rejections that's responsible for much of the spring in the steps of U.S. officials. The CLCs represent the U.S.' first attempt at actually creating Iraqi militias, and U.S. officials are enthusiastic about the effort. Few seem to have noticed that everything Crocker says about the "major challenge" posed by the militias applies to U.S.-friendly militias as much as it does to U.S.-opposed militias. And yet, these new militias are, in large part, the basis for the success that U.S. and Iraqi officials are claiming.

The single largest contribution to the perception among U.S. commanders that stability is "within sight" is the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda in Iraq that began in Ramadi last October. David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency expert and Petraeus confidante, wrote in a widely discussed essay about how "the uprising against AQI has dramatically improved security." Kilcullen sees the shift as being in the Sunnis' interest, which is plausible, considering the brutality AQI inflicted even on its nominal allies.

But what's truly in the Sunni interest -- at least as many Sunnis understand it -- is to again rule the country. Perceiving the United States’ receptivity to Sunnis who declare themselves against AQI, whose number has always been miniscule compared to the indigenous Sunni insurgency, the Sunnis have built a massive constellation of militias in the past few months with U.S. support. Known as "Concerned Local Citizens" -- "militia" being a taboo term -- the U.S. military totals the number of militiamen at a staggering 67,000. About 37,300 of them are under a contract with the U.S. and receive a stipend of $300 per month.

In theory, the CLCs are a series of neighborhood watch organizations that "augment local force protection, law enforcement and/or infrastructure security," says Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus' spokesman. They help fight AQI and assorted miscreants, supplement U.S. and Iraqi forces, and are meant to be incorporated (eventually) into the regular Iraqi security apparatus. Their creation follows counterinsurgency best-practices, as Kilcullen wrote: "Provided they are under Iraqi government control (a non-trivial proviso), 'neighborhood watch' groups motivated by community loyalty and enlightened self-interest are not necessarily a bad thing."

The trouble is that Kilcullen's proviso is kicking in with a vengeance. U.S. commanders I've interviewed in the past few weeks suggest they have little actual oversight over what the CLCs in their areas of operations do. Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a spokesman in Baghdad, says commanders "believe there is good accountability." But Col. David Sutherland, a brigade commander in Baquba, says he recently detained a CLC leader for using his organization as a gang: They stockpiled illegal weapons, charged extortion money, and "raped a young girl." Typically, commanders must take on faith that those the CLCs harass are truly AQI. Very often what the CLCs are interested in is consolidating control over a particular area in a warlord-like way. The recently-assassinated Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a key figure in the establishment of what would become the CLCs , was something of a highway bandit, known for telling the U.S. that rival tribes were AQI sympathizers.

Nor are the CLCs getting absorbed within a distrustful, Shiite-run Iraqi security infrastructure. Col. Martin Stanton, who holds the reconciliation portfolio for Multinational Force-Iraq, warned recently that the CLCs are growing so frustrated with the lack of support from Baghdad that they might easily turn their guns on the government. Anbar province officials visiting Washington earlier this month sounded the same alarm, complaining of a sectarian double standard in police recruitment.

Welcome to Crocker's "major challenge" to the viability of the Iraqi state. Only the rise of the CLCs shows that the challenge doesn't just apply to the U.S.' enemies in Iraq -- Sadr's crew -- but also to its allies of convenience. The CLCs represent the armed wing of aggrieved Sunni identity. They help guarantee the consolidation of power in particular cities, provinces and regions outside the writ of the state. And they won't be easily dislodged. The U.S. surely desires to see the CLCs incorporated into the regular Iraqi security forces, but the record to date indicates that whatever CLCs actually do enlist will join up as agents of infiltration, loyal to their own agendas and not the state. More likely, they'll simply remain where they are, running their neighborhoods as mini-warlords.

That's where Maliki's own victory lap comes in. Last week Maliki abandoned efforts to bring the Sunnis back into his government. As Marc Lynch observed of Maliki's recent George Aiken moment: "Do not expect Maliki to pursue seriously any moves towards national reconciliation, defined in terms of legislation at the national level or agreements with Sunni political parties." Little wonder then that Maliki is showing no desire to open his security forces to the CLCs, which he views as a threat to his Shiite constituency's power. That only hardens the suspicion of the CLCs, creating further antagonism between Sunni and Shiite, and giving the vicious circle another violent rotation.

Perhaps it's not too late for Maliki to embrace the CLCs. But consider the implications if he doesn't. Following best counterinsurgency practices, the decision to support the rise -- the armed rise -- of the Sunnis against AQI made sense for the U.S. But the U.S. hasn't ever just had the destruction of AQI, a marginal if vicious group that didn't exist before the invasion, as its primary objective in Iraq: If it is, the troops should begin withdrawing immediately, mission (basically) accomplished. U.S. objectives for Iraq, broadly, concern the country's transformation into a stable staging ground for American power in the Middle East -- or at least, at this late hour, to keep Iraq from imploding. Absent actual reconciliation, which Stanton believes will be "generational" in coming, this year's strategy had the short-term effect of reducing violence to 2006 levels, and the probable long-term effect of hastening Iraq's disintegration. Even by the standards of Iraq's numerous predictable disasters, this one is glaring and obvious. We might as well call it victory.