The United States Is Trying to Keep Military Aid Away from Iran’s Proxies in Iraq
So how do you reform Baghdad’s army and police?
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
To hear officials in Washington tell it, after two years of often sluggish offensives, Iraqi forces are finally starting turn the tide in the fight against Islamic State. In particular, the Pentagon has focused on the exploits of the elite Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service during efforts to retake important cites such as Ramadi and Fallujah.
“We are seeing the Iraqi army step up,” U.S. Army colonel Steve Warren, then the top spokesperson for the American-led coalition battling Islamic State, told reporters on April 13, referring to recent operations in Iraq’s Anbar province. “We have actually been very satisfied with the conduct of both the [Counter Terrorism Service] and the Iraqi army through the course of this operation.”
As it seeks to keep the momentum against Islamic State going, the United States is trying to keep military aid away from Iranian proxies with sectarian ambitions. On top of that, American commanders are looking for ways to reform the Iraqi army and police to prevent the kind of human rights abuses that could incite an all-out civil war.
However, in early 2016 the top American headquarters for operations in the Middle East sent a 90-day status report to Congress that pointed to serious concerns about the state of Baghdad’s troops and possible pitfalls for lasting peace in the troubled nation. War Is Boring obtained a heavily redacted copy of this secret review through the Freedom of Information Act.
As Islamic State fighters blitzed across the northern part of the country and into Anbar in 2014, Baghdad’s American-trained army virtually collapsed. As Iraqi troops fled, leaving their weapons and gear to the Sunni extremists, entire divisions simply ceased to exist.
After the majority of American troops left the country in 2011, political infighting in Baghdad had crippled certain units and given others a sense of impunity. The now lauded Counter Terrorism Service was among the most visible offenders.
“CTS sometimes conducted mass and arbitrary arrests, and was accused of using collective punishment to intimidate neighborhoods to apprehend a single suspect, as well as stealing private property, abusing women and conducting operators into the sectors of other … units without prior coordination, creating confusion and resentment,” retired U.S. Army officer David Witty wrote in a detailed history of the organization for Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy.
As the commandos came under the direct control of the country’s prime minister, opposition politicians and many average citizens saw the elite soldiers as a palace guard. Reports of human rights abuses were rampant.
“Sometimes CTS units were blamed for operations conducted by other … units,” Witty explained. “It was often impossible to determine which [Iraqi security forces] unit had conducted a specific operation, since most operations occurred at night when it was often difficult for bystanders and outsiders to distinguish specific units.”
But the accusations critics and human rights organizations leveled at the crack troops were only a symptom of larger problems. Still prime minister as Islamic State surged into Iraq, Nouri Al Maliki seemed to favor the country’s Shia Muslim majority and had courted economic, political and military ties with the major Shi’ite powers Iran and Syria.
“Iraq required national reconciliation, the end of Sunni disenfranchisement, and the mitigation of Shia fears that they might once again be persecuted by the Sunnis as occurred under Saddam,” Witty posited. “After the U.S. withdrawal, CTS generally targeted Sunnis and anti-government forces.”
When American legislators set aside money for Iraqi troops in the defense budget for the 2015 fiscal year, they wanted to make sure human rights abusers wouldn’t get any support. But even more importantly, they wanted to keep military aid away from Iran’s Shia allies in the country.
Dubbed the “Iraqi Train and Equip Fund,” or simply “Section 1236” after its location within the law, this portion of the December 2014 bill specifically required the Pentagon not work with anyone connected to “terrorist groups or groups associated with the government of Iran.” A year later, it was clear things were far from perfect.
Between September and December 2015, American commanders in Iraq identified six separate entities that could not receive any aid, according to the official report. Censors redacted any names and ranks, making it difficult to determine whether some entries were individuals or entire units. These elements included portions of both Iraq’s army and air force.
Despite a requirement to provide “a detailed description of the reason for the restriction,” each entry simply referred to “derogatory 1236 findings.” However, five of the six entries indicate that the U.S. State Department had cleared the entities of human rights abuses under the Leahy Amendment.
Named after the legislation’s principle sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, this law prohibits both the Pentagon and State Department from giving any military support to foreign troops found responsible for human rights abuses. This means that connections to Iran or terrorist groups would have accounted for most of “derogatory findings.”
At the time of writing, U.S. Central Command had been unable to determine whether these entities were still unable to receive American aid. In addition, the public affairs office could not confirm that this list was current.
In spite of these stumbling blocks, the Pentagon’s review seemed to imply that catching these Iranian allies was evidence that the vetting process had been successful. “To date, there have been no reported incidents of lost or misused [Iraq Train and Equip Fund] equipment,” the report claimed.
But there are good reasons to be skeptical. “I think the biggest thing would be the indication that professionalization is not their focus,” Seth Binder, the program manager at Security Assistance Monitor, told War Is Boring in an email after reviewing the document.
Only after Iraqi forces “are capable of securing … territory in the short and medium term fight against ISIL, the training effort will transition to the long-term professionalization needs of the Iraqi security sector,” the report noted, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “Resource levels and authorities for this phase are not identified,” the review noted.
Details about how American officials conduct the vetting, monitor military aid after it reaches Iraqi forces and enforce policies that prevent militants from turning those weapons on American troops are all redacted entirely.
There is a real possibility that the Pentagon’s vetting system has been unable to sufficiently look into individuals’ backgrounds or otherwise keep up with the rest of the program. According to the review, U.S. investigators found that one officer was actually no longer in need of vetting by the time the finished their review.
“We know from a recently released GAO report on Egypt that end-use monitoring … has its flaws,” Binder pointed out. In April, the Government Accountability Office published a review of “security-related” aid to the government in Cairo between 2011 and 2015.
Despite agreed upon monitoring requirements, the U.S. government watchdog found that Egyptian officials repeatedly held up or outright prevented their American counterparts from checking stockpiles of weapons and gear. In many cases, Pentagon and State did not send anyone to do physical, in-person inspections and instead relied on authorities in Cairo to submit their own reports.
The Iraqi arrangement presents similar concerns. The unredacted portions of the status report do not explain whether American investigators perform any actual checks or if officials in Baghdad have to account for any discrepancies. In June, the American-led task force posted photos online showing Australian soldiers training Iraqi troops to fire Iranian sniper rifles.
Transparency International ranked both Iraq and Egypt in its “Band F” in 2015, “the highest risk category for corruption in the defense and security sector.” In Iraq, “many sources indicate criminal activity engaged in by defense-sector personnel, criminal activity cooperated in by security sector personnel or past infiltration of militias who have engaged in criminal activities into the security forces,” the organization’s annual review for that year explained.
“In addition, Iraq during the last iteration of military aid was losing weapons during the war, not to mention the large losses to [Islamic State] in 2014 to 2015,” Binder added. “It would be nice to know what … they are doing differently now to prevent this from occurring.”
If anything, the redacted status report points to similar problems. By December 2015, the American-led coalition had supplied weapons or gear to or trained nearly 15,900 Iraqi troops. This included more than 2,600 members of the elite CTS and more than 3,700 Sunni tribal militiamen.
But the overall quality of Iraqi troops who go through the training programs is “difficult to assess since U.S. and coalition forces do not accompany … units on operations,” the status report acknowledged. “Without the ability to observe field operations, an accurate assessment of their capabilities is not possible at this time.”
All of this calls into question Pentagon statements regarding the quality of any Iraqi units, including Counter Terrorism Service commandos. Absent actual inspections by American advisors, the idea of relying on Iraqi forces to report diversion of weapons to Iranian-linked forces seems ripe for abuse.
“I can say that many have commented about the lack of assessments on security assistance programs in general,” Binder said. “When they do assessments, success is often based on outputs (X number of people completed the course) rather than outcomes (X number understand concepts, techniques, laws).”
And even if the Pentagon can keep military aid away from Tehran-backed militias and units that disregard human rights, there’s no guarantee that those units would disappear. As with CTS before, Baghdad already appears to be going down a dangerous road with sectarian fighters.
Despite declaring politics would be banned in the militia units, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has taken direct control of the so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces,” according to official statements in July 2016. Though the entire organization includes groups of Sunni tribesmen and other minorities, many of the strongest militia formations are Shia-dominated with deep connections to Tehran.
And with militias being so vital to the campaign against Islamic State, Washington has come across as downplaying abuses and conflicts of interest in public. Without American or other coalition troops on the front lines to regularly check on Iraqi forces, there’s not necessarily a lot that can be done to improve the situation.
“There have been reports of some isolated atrocities … and we’ve discussed this with Prime Minister Abadi,” Brett McGurk, Washington’s top envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, assured reporters on June 10, 2016. “So far, everybody is saying and doing the right thing to make sure that anyone who commits a human rights violation is held to account.”
But at that point, not counting secretive commando missions, American advisors had only visited relatively high level command centers. On July 20, 2016, a team of U.S. Army engineers made the first trip to a battalion headquarters near the front lines with Islamic State in order to help its Iraqi counterparts build a bridge across the Tigris River.
Unfortunately, unless these visits become more common, Washington will have to trust that Baghdad is disciplining rights-abusers and making sure military aid doesn’t get siphoned off to Iranian-backed units.