Development and Reform of the Iraqi Police Forces
Authored by Colonel Tony Pfaff. | January 2008
This paper will seek to show how social, political, cultural, and environmental factors have combined to impede Iraqi police development in ways that are predictable, understandable, and, with external help resolvable. The corruption and abuse found in the Iraqi police services cannot simply be explained by poor leadership, the actions of a few corrupt individuals, or even the competing agendas of the various militias thatare fighting for influence in post-Saddam Iraq. Rather, one must explain why such practices occur despite the fact they are unacceptable according to Iraqi cultural norms.
Organizations are embedded in culture and society. Thus to understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of an organization, one must understand how a culture?s basic assumptions and espoused values shape organizational and individual behavior. Further, understanding how each of these factors relates to each other allows observers to understand as well as predict how environmental factors shape individual and collective behavior. This ability to understand and predict is essential to policymakers and advisors as it will allow them to better determine what kinds of programs they need to develop as well as where those programs need to be targeted.
Because they were not essential to the regime?s survival, the Iraqi police were typically under-resourced and poorly paid, with the average policeman making around $5 or less per month. Because of the poor pay and resources, police were not highly regarded and often supplemented their income through corruption. Further, police were typically hired because of their family, tribal, or political affiliations, which created expectations regarding hiring practices which persist to this day. Though the police had a reputation among citizens for being able to maintain order, this security depended a great deal on their reputation for human rights abuse.
While these practices became habituated to a degree within the service itself, it would be wrong to conclude that Iraqi culture saw them as acceptable. Thus, in the face of considerable pressure from their own culture?as well as incentives from Coalition advisors?to reform, it is necessary to look elsewhere for a satisfactory explanation.
For a more complete account, one must understand how group ties affect individual identity and consequently, behavior. One?s identity is often expressed by the ties one has to various groups, organizations, and institutions. Iraq is a country where these ties typically reinforce each other. Whether one is a Sunni, Shia, or Kurd, one tends to find others with those same identities in the other groups to which they belong, including family, political party, and region. Conflicts between communities of different sets of reinforcing ties tend to be very difficult to resolve, absent some external force which compels a resolution. As such, it is easy to mobilize these communities against each other, but harder to find ways to resolve conflicts between them.
By virtue of becoming an Iraqi policeman, an individual accepts a professional identity that crosscuts these other reinforcing identities. But since in Iraq reinforcing ties are stronger than cross-cutting ones, police forces often become a battleground for these sects rather than a means to unify them. Further, as the ties that bind Iraqis together as Iraqis disintegrate, individuals will turn to smaller and smaller groups for their basic social needs, especially security. This will further narrow the scope of loyalty of the Iraqi police.
The failure of the professional identity of ?police officer? to transcend sectarian identity is further exacerbated by complex cultural factors that have created a difficult environment in which even dedicated Iraqi police officers and government officials find it difficult to make progress. This analysis of identity is important because in dealing with cross-cultural police reform, one must be able to distinguish between genuine moral dilemmas indigenous forces face from the distortion of values otherwise compatible with just, effective policing, from corrupt and abusive behavior. Iraqis will confront corruption, if properly supported. They are less likely to be willing or even able to break apart the close relationships which drive many other decisions, such as hiring, firing, disciplining, and promotions, even though those decisions may not always be compatible with the creation of a just and effective police force.
But it would be wrong to say that for these reasons it is not possible to reform the Iraqi police. What is important to note is that these behaviors are a product of the environment acting on the culture, not simply of the culture itself. In fact, Iraqi cultural norms find many of these practices unacceptable. What may be an important indicator of the potential of Iraqi police development may be found in a survey conducted by the Ministry of Interior?s Center for Ethics and Human Rights. According to this survey, Iraqi police officers rated themselves high with respect to certain moral and professional standards but others lower. This outcome suggests that Iraqi police understand what appropriate professional and ethical standards are expected but, given the difficult operating environment, are either not able or not interested in upholding them.
While this analysis suggests reform can only come from within the culture, external parties can help motivate and facilitate reform. To this end, coalition advisors need to develop a strategy that includes building institutions, mentoring in the field, and establishing organizations capable of providing oversight of police and ministry activities and operations.
There are committed leaders within the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and police forces; however, the ?culture of crisis? that has arisen since the fall of Saddam complicates their ability to make any headway in reforming the Iraqi police. Despite this, it would be a mistake to conclude that Iraqi culture is incapable of sustaining a just and effective police force. Developing it, however, will require sustained support from coalition advisors who do not compromise regarding practices which are incompatible with democratic policing.
The underlying assumption of this paper has been that Iraqi culture can sustain a just, effective police force, capable of enforcing the rule of law in a democracy. It seems racist to think otherwise. However, it is naïve to think that such reforms will occur overnight or even at all, as long as the current breakdown of political and social institutions continues.
The ability to discern which practices are driven by culture and which are driven by environment is critical to developing any comprehensive strategy for reform. Further, any such strategy must recognize that reforming the Iraqi police is ultimately the job of Iraqi leadership. The best Coalition advisors can do is to encourage progress in the right direction and expose those moments when Iraqis choose wrongly.
A journalist noted that when he was in Vietnam, he was often told by U.S. officials?both military and civilian?that corruption is ?their way of life,? and as such, must be tolerated. But such misguided cultural relativism only serves to undermine one?s own cause. As he noted, the victims of corruption and abuse were not so forgiving. Wounded soldiers who did not get treatment because their leaders sold their medicine, or innocents arrested but not released until families paid ransom, contributed to rising resentment directed at the government. Ultimately, this corruption and abuse directly contributed to the perception of illegitimacy and the eventual collapse of the government. Many of these same practices occur in Iraq today. Weaning Iraq?s security forces away from such practices has proven to be one of the most complex tasks undertaken by the U.S. military. To resolve successfully the tensions that have emerged, military commanders working with Iraq?s nascent security ministries must directly confront corruption and human rights abuse. But to do this effectively, they will require latitude to account for political and cultural complexities in dealing with these forces. This latitude, however, should not be used as an excuse for turning a blind eye to abuses. Otherwise we lose sight of the larger moral aims we hope to achieve.
Perhaps the best indicator of hope is evidenced by a conversation the author had with a senior MoI official who had a reputation for corruption. During a discussion about resourcing the ethics center, the official enthusiastically agreed to support it. This is, of course, easy to dismiss as bluster for the benefit of the Coalition members present and would have been dismissed as such had he not added his reasons for his endorsement. He stated that he had lived in Europe for over a dozen years after fleeing Iraq in the 1980s. He stated that he noted a difference between the way the European police and Iraqi police treated their citizens, and he preferred the European way. The United States may not be able to rid the Iraqi police of all corruption and abuse, but this brief conversation indicates that Iraqi leaders do have a vision of what good, democratic policing looks like. It will just take U.S. and Coalition support to get it there.