Rethinking “Advising and Training” in Iraq

The United States should address human rights abuses and corruption in Iraq’s security forces, write Brian Katulis and Emily Hogin.

Iraqi Army patrol in central Baghdad, Iraq, on June 30, 2009. One of the key missions of U.S troops remaining in Iraq is to advise and train Iraqi security forces. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraqi Army patrol in central Baghdad, Iraq, on June 30, 2009. One of the key missions of U.S troops remaining in Iraq is to advise and train Iraqi security forces. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

One of the key missions of U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, including those “noncombat” forces that remain in urban areas, is to “advise and train” Iraqi security forces. This mission largely centers on teaching Iraqi police officers and soldiers to operate their weapons, collect intelligence, obtain search warrants, and preserve evidence at a crime scene so it will hold up in court. But such skills, while necessary, are at best incomplete and at worst counterproductive without a serious joint U.S.-Iraqi effort to stamp out human rights abuses and corruption among Iraq’s security forces.

As Iraqi forces take over greater responsibility for providing security in their country, there have been a number of alarming accusations leveled against them. Some victims have come forward with accusations of torture and ransom. Unfortunately, these reports are increasingly widespread.

One specific case in point: A Sunni Arab paramilitary leader and U.S. ally in Iraq, Sheik Maher Sirhan, alleges that when he was arrested on charges of terrorism, his interrogators tortured him with electric rods and demanded $50,000 in cash for his release. More generally, in the northern city of Mosul families of detainees and other victims of abuse have held demonstrations against Iraq’s security forces. Moreover, some evidence exists that members of the Iraqi security forces have made politically motivated arrests with the cooperation of judges who issue warrants.

The Iraqi government has undertaken some efforts to fight corruption among the security forces, but it is not clear that the civilian oversight is anywhere near what it needs to be. This lack of oversight was a long-standing concern among critics who raised questions about a U.S. strategy that focused so much effort on training and equipping security forces without enough attention to building the broader rule-of-law infrastructure necessary to prevent abuses. General Jim Jones, now President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, led an independent commission on the security forces of Iraq that released a report in September 2007 highlighting the problems of corruption and dysfunction in the Iraqi police and Ministry of Interior.

Since then, the Iraqi government has made some attempts to provide oversight. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki recently ordered an inquiry into prison abuse. Maliki’s announcement came in the aftermath of the assassination of Harith al-Obaidi, the leader of the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament and an outspoken critic of human rights abuses in Iraqi prisons. Furthermore, a delegation from the Defense Ministry found more than 100 detainees held secretly in Mosul earlier this spring. And last month, Iraq’s Interior Minister Jawad Bolani announced investigations of dozens of police officers suspected of torturing detainees.

But the prospects that these inquiries on their own will achieve significant results are slim, in large part because of a lack of a coherent and well-functioning legal framework in Iraq. The Iraqi Parliament, for one, has yet to pass a national anticorruption law. By pouring billions of dollars into advising and training Iraqi security forces without making similar investments in the judiciary, courts, and civilian executive oversight bodies, U.S. policy is creating an unstable foundation for the rule of law in Iraq.

Corruption and human rights abuses threaten to render U.S. advising and training missions counterproductive and undermine security gains in Iraq. Rather than provide security, members of the Iraqi security forces who are well trained in how to shoot a gun but not held accountable for corruption and human rights abuses may fuel retaliatory violence. To avoid leaving Iraq’s security in the hands of those unwilling or unable to provide security lawfully, the United States should make minimizing corruption and human rights abuses a central principle of its advising and training mission.

In doing so, the mission should pursue five concrete actions. First of all, because addressing corruption and abuse at the national level is difficult in Iraq, the U.S. advisory mission should focus on helping fight corruption through the local avenues that exist. U.S. trainers and advisors should work closely with the internal disciplinary systems within the Iraqi security forces to ensure their efficiency and efficacy in combating corruption. The United States should also invest more resources in the development of the local judiciary and rule-of-law infrastructure as well as the civilian oversight capabilities of the ministries in charge of the security forces.

Second, when U.S. trainers and advisers witness infractions of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army’s own codes of conduct, they should report those infractions to the proper Iraqi authority, such as the Interior Ministry or the supervising army officer. U.S. advisors and trainers should send the clear message that they will take corruption and abuse seriously because abuse of power undermines the U.S. mission to leave a stable and secure Iraq.

Third, U.S. advisors should offer to help Iraqis with investigations into corruption as they already offer to help with investigations into violent attacks. The United States should allocate its resources to send the message that corruption, like violence, is a serious threat to Iraq’s stability. U.S. advisors can also offer their help with performing background checks on new recruits.

Fourth, the United States should lead the international community in holding Iraqi war criminals accountable. In September 2007 then-Senator Barack Obama made a campaign promise to Iraqis: “Iraqis must know that those who engage in mass violence will be brought to justice. We should lead in forming a commission at the U.N. to monitor and hold accountable perpetrators of war crimes within Iraq.” This remains an important action for President Obama to pursue in order to establish a culture of justice in Iraq.

Finally, the United States must lead by example. While the vast majority of U.S. troops serve honorably and exemplarily in Iraq, a few “bad apples” can undermine U.S. anticorruption policy. The rare U.S. troops who violate their codes of conduct should be held accountable, and civilian complaints against U.S. forces as well as U.S. contractors should be seriously investigated. All U.S. personnel operating in Iraq should be reminded of the importance of demonstrating by example how to provide security effectively without resorting to corruption or abuse.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Emily Hogin is an intern with the National Security team at the Center.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow