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Choice in Iraq: bad guys or bad government

In the fight against jihadist insurgents across the planet, the United States can offer its partners a lot of help: arms and intelligence, training for local security forces, economic aid, and in extreme cases, airstrikes to take out the bad guys.

It is the allies, of course, that get to do the actual fighting and dying.

After more than a decade of conflicts in which American ground forces served in harm’s way, the United States is moving to a more hands-off approach in its fight against insurgents with ideological or operational ties to al-Qaida. In Afghanistan, President Barack Obama has announced a major drawdown of troops, and in Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, the United States intervenes mainly via drones or small numbers of troops training local forces.

Now, with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sweeping through major Iraqi cities, the Obama administration is weighing increased military assistance — though not, the president emphasized Friday, combat forces — for a country that Americans thought we’d already left behind.

This approach seems to strike a balance between risk and action, one the president highlighted in his recent West Point speech when he spoke of “empowering partners.” It is the national governments, after all, that would seem to have even stronger interest than the United States in defeating the insurgencies raging in their countries. American assistance should help make their militaries more efficient, strengthen their economies and advance political reform — all of which, in theory, would weaken the insurgencies.

Unfortunately, there is a deep flaw in this strategy. Quite often, the allies we’re seeking to help are themselves deeply flawed: corrupt, sectarian and repressive. And even worse, they are so by design — their problems are fundamental to the functioning of their politics. In such cases, U.S. assistance can help only on the margins. And that is precisely the case with Iraq today.

The presence of an insurgency is not random. Such movements emerge not only because of their grievances and ideologies but because of the weakness of their countries’ governments. The political leadership, even if democratically elected, is usually considered illegitimate by at least one large segment of the population. Yemen’s government, for instance, excludes southerners and systematically discriminates against the country’s Zaydi religious community — and both groups have taken up arms against the regime.

Similarly, some groups, whether defined by ethnicity, tribe, geography or religion, get to feast at the government trough, enjoying educational opportunities and lucrative contracts, while others are shut out. Politicians rely on corruption to reward their supporters and at the same time ensure their loyalty by compromising them.

Some governments may even prefer a low-level insurgency because it keeps supporters unified and allows the regime to continue drawing foreign aid. Former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, for example, once declared the U.S. military presence in his country to be a “gold mine.”

U.S. officials may regard insurgents as the biggest threat to security in a given country, but many political leaders feel more threatened by possible coups launched by their own military forces. (In Egypt, Indonesia, Mali, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries dealing with jihadists, military officers have seized power from civilian governments at various times.) To protect themselves, civilian leaders fill top military positions with loyalists. In Saudi Arabia, for example, many senior officers are members of the royal family, while others have close ties by marriage. Competent, popular and independent military figures are a threat to the civilian leadership. In a country such as Iraq, an Eisenhower from the opposition would be jailed, not revered. Rivalry among military leaders is encouraged, making it unlikely that units can coordinate their operations. This may be a smart way to prevent a coup, but it’s not the best way to defeat an insurgency.

In these scenarios, politicians rely on a few chosen military units to ensure their hold on power; the rest are more likely to sell their weapons to insurgents and desert or even defect rather than defend the regime when the shooting starts. The chosen units, drawn from loyal communities, are often regarded as hostile by the broader population. When suppressing the Punjab insurgency in the early 1980s, for example, Indian forces focused on protecting only local Hindus, wrongly regarding ordinary Sikhs as part of the enemy and thus alienating them. No surprise, the units loyal to the regime are often brutal and consider the hostile population an existential threat. The repression leads to increased support for the insurgency.

By encouraging democratic reforms in these circumstances, the United States threatens the national government’s power. By encouraging minority rights, we undermine the privileges and biases of the dominant community. By calling for an end to corruption and for transparency in government, we threaten the leader’s ability to control and reward his base. And by pushing military reform, we risk making the military the only functioning institution in a weak country and making a coup more likely.

However, if the allied government does not reform, the insurgency is likely to continue, and the United States is accused — correctly, if unfairly — of supporting a dictator.

All of these problems are evident in Iraq today. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has systematically excluded moderate Sunni politicians from power, making that community far more sympathetic to extremists who paint him as an Iranian-controlled anti-Sunni fanatic. Out of 177 countries assessed by Transparency International last year, only six were ranked more corrupt than Iraq. The al-Maliki government has politicized the army — after years of U.S. efforts to improve the quality of the officer corps — fearing that it would become a base for rival groups. The military was brutal when suppressing unrest in Sunni areas last year. As one Iraqi in Mosul told The New York Times last week: “They are not the Iraqi Army; they are the militia of Maliki.” The mass desertions we’ve seen in recent days in the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant onslaught are what happen when officers are corrupt and lose the faith of the men they command.

Yes, the United States can and should offer more help to Iraq in exchange for social and electoral reforms. In the end, though, such efforts are likely to fail. What government will wholeheartedly carry out reforms that threaten its own power? Training and education for national forces can at times prove beneficial and help allies fight insurgencies, but the impact is usually limited. And no matter what rhetoric accompanies our aid, we will be painted as helping one side in a civil war. In Iraq’s case, U.S. aid to the Shiite-dominated government will be portrayed as helping Iran and its Shiite allies consolidate power in the Middle East.

Historically, Americans are skeptical of taking steps to protect limited interests overseas. To gain domestic support for any action, the president must stress that vital U.S. interests are at stake and otherwise play up the threat. This gives foreign leaders leverage, because they know it makes it harder for the United States to walk away from any deal.

Obama has made scaling back U.S. military involvement in the Middle East a key achievement of his presidency. If he chooses to involve the United States in Iraq once more, he should recognize that he is choosing between bad guys and a bad government.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.

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