The Moral Hazard of the Fight Against the Islamic State in Iraq


In a recent War on the Rocks podcast, Ryan Evans interviews Basam Ridha al-Hussaini, a special representative of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, about the state of affairs in Iraq and, in particular, the Popular Mobilization Units — a collection of government-sanctioned militias that currently augment state security in Iraq. It is a short segment (after minute 20), but the back and forth offers an extraordinary glimpse into the issues that are most central to the American dilemma in Iraq.

Al-Hussaini argues very reasonably in the interview that the United States should be doing everything it can to help Iraq defeat the Islamic State before it spreads its violence around the world, as exemplified by the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. This means focusing on the goal of marshaling all efforts toward defeating the group at the expense of other concerns, such as the dangers of unregulated armed forces or Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. If this indeed was al-Hussaini’s mission in his recent visit to Washington, then he did an excellent job in clearly expressing this viewpoint. Listen for yourself.

Nonetheless, he revealed much more than he perhaps intended, and a deeper analysis of his comments clearly frames the moral hazard that faces policymakers in Iraq today. How do the United States and others achieve victory against Islamic State without empowering sectarian actors who will seek to poison the reconciliation that Iraq needs to hang together? A political scientist once defined moral hazard in third party interventions as the “phenomenon in which the provision of protection against risk unintentionally promotes irresponsible or fraudulent risk-taking, and thereby perversely increases the likelihood of the undesired outcome.” In this case, could the United States and its allies destroy the Islamic State yet end up with an even worse human security situation in the aftermath?

The Missing Sunnis in the Current Sunni-Centric Strategy

Balancing sectarian or ethnic tensions while simultaneously building government capabilities is not a new environment for coalition military officers with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the 2007 success of the Sunni Sahwa (Awakening) movement in defeating the jihadist insurgency, the centrality of Sunni inclusion in counterinsurgency efforts has anchored U.S. strategy in Iraq. A recent and influential strategy document published by Michele Flournoy and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security cites the imperative of building a more “inclusive central government that represents and serves all Iraqis.” After his predecessor unconsciously or consciously allowed the Sahwa to wither on the vine in the face of a resurgent Islamic State after 2010, the Iraqi government under Prime Minister al-Abadi seems to understand the need to recruit Sunnis into its formerly Shia-dominated Hashd al Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs). This force consists of dozens of groups consisting of veteran militia members, as well as recent volunteers that responded to Sistani’s Fatwa in June 2014 to defend their country against the Islamic State threat after the disastrous collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces in northern and western Iraq.

What struck me about al-Hussaini’s answers was not his deft deflection of questions about Iranian influence over certain elements in the PMU, but his thorough description of the vetting of new members. Al-Hussaini contrasted current efforts with the recruitment of the Sunni Awakening by the United States and Iraq in 2006–7. Then, the United States was fine with recruiting “outlaws” who had fought and killed Americans and Iraqis; now, the process includes a judicial review to prevent “outlaws” and “terrorists” from joining while allowing those innocent of past crimes to become members of the PMU. Since “outlaws” and “terrorists” uniformly describe Sunni groups in common Iraqi parlance, it could be safe to assume that the bar will be higher for former Sunni Awakening members and resistance fighters than it would be for former members of the unofficially government-sanctioned Shia militias, many of whom were never vetted when the PMU was originally formed around them in 2014.

Accordingly, when asked about the presence of controversial former Shia militia leaders in the PMU senior leadership, al-Hussaini was quick to rely on the Awakening analogy of 2006 to justify allowing members of three specific groups: Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and the League of the Righteous, who might be highly objectionable to Sunnis due to the impunity with which their leaders have escaped accountability for their crimes against Iraqis. Al-Hussaini reminds us that this is a crisis, and now is the time to focus on winning; the rest can be sorted out later. After all, in 2007 the Americans hired people with blood on their hands, and it worked!

The irony of limiting participation in the PMU to Sunnis who have limited political or military connections while justifying the inclusion of a U.S.-designated terrorist (Abu Mahdi Muhandis of Kataib Hezbollah), an Iraqi who fought with the Iranians against his own country in the Iran–Iraq war (Hadi al Amiri of the Badr Organization), and a former detainee responsible for the murder of four captured American paratroopers (Qais Khazali of the League of the Righteous) as the leaders of the fight to liberate Sunni-dominated areas seems lost on al-Hussaini. I found this fact to be slightly unsettling at this point in the conflict. Having spent a great deal of time reading Islamic State propaganda and captured documents, I can promise you that the infiltration of Shia militias into the Iraqi government agencies and forces is a staple of its victimization narrative that appeals to so many Sunni Iraqis. If the PMU is to have a significant role in the liberation of Mosul and other areas, then the Abadi administration has to resolve this fundamental hypocrisy in a convincing manner in order to encourage a substantial amount of Sunnis to reconcile with their government.

Competing Victimization Narratives and the Fight for Iraq

When it comes to sectarian victimization narratives in Iraq, the truth is a bit elusive. Doug Ollivant argues in a new journal article out this week that Sunni victimization is a bit exaggerated. True, Sunnis are overrepresented in the parliament, in major portfolios in the government like the Ministry of Defense, and in the senior leadership ranks in the Army. Accusations that the Maliki government wiped out the Sahwa are also wrong, as my research has shown — since the Islamic State movement itself accomplished that quietly and efficiently from 2008 to 2013. Nonetheless, it is often perceptions that matter most.

An expansionist Islamic State absolutely needs to be defeated once more, but how it is done matters much more than when it is done. Despite some bipartisan criticism directed at the execution of Operation Inherent Resolve, I believe that the current coalition commanders (and many in the Iraqi Security Forces) have a great understanding of the following military imperatives required to achieve political goals:

  • Avoid all cooperation with sectarian militias. Any state’s claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of force is still a requirement in the modern international system, and the PMU was created as an emergency measure designed to defend Shia cities, not for use in offensive operations. Their lack of training and discipline, as well as sectarian attitude, has already emerged as an “undesired outcome,” as you can see here in 2014 and again more recently in Diyala Province — where Human Rights Watch documented the revenge killings of at least a dozen innocent Sunnis and the burnings of six Sunni mosques by Khazali’s and Amiri’s forces this January in retaliation for an Islamic State bombing. Areas where PMUs were used exclusively have unfortunately reinforced the Islamic State narrative that the Iraqi government is not a champion of its Sunni citizens. The clearing of Jurf ah Sakhr in Babil province exemplifies this today. Cleared in late 2014, it is still barren of its Sunni citizens — because it sits astride a major Shia pilgrimage route. The men who ran Jurf’s Sahwa, after fighting the Islamic State movement since 2008, are in exile in fear of their own government’s unaccountable militias.
  • Continuing to target Islamic State with minimal collateral damage. The distinct American advantage in this conflict is precision strike. Targeting key infrastructure and leadership of Islamic State puts immense pressure on the organization and prevents it from continuing its expansion in Syria and Iraq, and it also buys time for the increased training of Iraqi Security Forces — the antidote to both Islamic State and some of the more sectarian forces in the PMU. Limiting collateral damage ensures that the narrative is focused on the Islamic State, not on Sunni Iraqis.
  • Patiently train and equip the security forces. This is a primary function of the currently deployed coalition forces, although policymakers should demand a much better product than the military has been producing in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Done by Iraqis with subtle, behind the scenes help. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin E. Dempsey has advocated this since the beginning of the crisis. Although the coalition will naturally have input into how the campaign is fought, the Iraqis have to maintain ownership of this fight.

Tell Me, How Does This End?

With all due respect to a very intelligent general, this famous question (in the Iraqi context) is a somewhat fatuous one that exemplifies the erroneous American belief that wars end neatly and tidily. Certainly, the fight against the Islamic State is an important struggle to defeat an odious organization that conducts genocide against Shia and Yazidi Iraqis while killing Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria who oppose their “method.” They are undermining important states in the regional order and inspire and direct attacks around the world to prove that they can fight the greatest nations in the world and still “remain.” But how and when it will end can’t be known at this point. The fight against the Islamic State will be long and will require patience and moral courage, and this last attribute is the only way to avoid the moral hazard that lies before the United States.

In 2005, a different general named Karl Horst went looking for a missing 15-year-old Sunni boy from Adhamiya after his parents asked the Americans for help. Horst tracked him to a place called Jadriyah bunker and upon arrival, realizing that something was amiss, demanded a full inspection of the facilities where he found 166 Sunni and three Shia prisoners without detention paperwork. Some had been recently tortured by the Badr Corps unit that ran Jadriyah. Despite the obvious negative consequences of a scandal right before the pivotal elections of 2005, Horst exposed the illegal center and the shadow unit that ran it, and forcibly transferred the prisoners to Abu Ghraib for official disposition determination in accordance with the rule of law. This example is extremely instructive to us today, as we navigate a careful path between defeating the Islamic State and supporting an Iraqi government that cares for all of its citizens.

Horst never found the boy, and the Islamic State has subsequently referenced Jadriyah bunker more than a dozen times in various strategic communications by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his successors as an example of the mistreatment of Sunnis by their own government. Nevertheless, I think this is truly an example of the paradoxical and enigmatic American way of war, and what it looks like when we are doing it right.


Craig Whiteside is a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College Monterey. These are his views and not the views of his employer. You can reach him at @CraigAWhiteside on Twitter.


Photo credit: Senior Airman James Richardson, U.S. Air Force