Early Recovery Programming as a Means of Combating Civilian Recruitment and Militarization in Iraq

As ISIS is pushed out of more and more territory and the Iraqi army trains its sights on the militant group’s last strongholds in the country, other resourceful actors have emerged to assert control in the areas retaken from the militant group. These actors operate separately from the Iraqi state and army and consist of a diverse array of formal and informal security forces across ethno-sectarian and even tribal and political lines, from the largely Shia popular mobilization units (PMUs), who also account for some Sunni tribal forces within their brigades as well as other minorities, to the party-divided Kurdish Peshmerga, the de facto army of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that has expanded beyond the region’s pre-ISIS borders. The emergence and spread of these forces has been sustained by a surge in enlistment of local population, especially among youth, in the areas they now control.

A widely-held view among the international humanitarian and development community operating in Iraq is that this coterie of armed groups and the consequent militarization of the “liberated” population respond to a bottom-up need as “communities mobilize militia” for physical protection, as a way to remedy the security failures that exposed these communities to ISIS violence and directly protect their rights, particularly in the absence of effective conflict resolution mechanisms and security guarantees. This reading is not incorrect per se, but based on field research that we conducted earlier this year in the retaken areas of Northern Nineveh, it is an incomplete explanation for a phenomenon that is more complex and nuanced. Therefore, early recovery programs aimed at addressing such a fragile environment and de-escalating community militarization designed on the basis of this logic risk not being fully effective in their endeavor.

Militarization of the population to serve whom?

These non-state armed actors can be seen nowadays holding the ground from Sinjar, in the western-most part of Iraq (Syrian YPG-backed units, local Yazidi units and Kurdish Peshmerga, with the recent arrival of Shia Arab PMU units), to the eastern-most side of Diyala (Shia factions within the PMU and new Sunni militant groups), crossing north and east Mosul (Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, local tribal units, Turkey-backed units, Christian and Shabak PMU units), Salahaddin (local tribal units and Shia units, with both Arabs and Turkmen mobilized), and Kirkuk (Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia factions within the PMU). ISIS set foot in and took over, if not all territory, then large swathes of these provinces during its lightning advance in 2014 and, in each of them now retaken, the different forces currently there compete against each other for hegemony. This is why, instead of self-defense units emerging to protect the local population’s rights, as the bottom-up logic would indicate, post-conflict political dynamics offer more explanation of this militarization as well as of the relative irrelevance of the national army and local police in providing security. As this article in Foreign Affairs put it, “ISIS’ takeover has essentially reset the political and military landscape in these areas, allowing these political and military forces to put down new roots.”

Indeed, such forces (and their members) operate as competing actors in the national and local political arena, in which different factions are trying to take or strengthen positions quickly in face of a political transition. The best way to do so is, as has always been the case in Iraq, through creating patronage networks with the local population –and there is currently fresh money allocated by the federal government and/or foreign actors such as Iran to create PMUs. The case of how a Sunni politician from the al-Jubouri tribe formed his own force in Salahaddin province to gain political impetus is one such example. But this top-down logic can be found all over the conflict-affected areas of the country. For instance, in the formation of Hashd al-Watani by Atheel Nujaifi, former governor of Nineveh, with funds and training from Turkey in order to preserve his political weight in Mosul after ISIS. The creation of tribal mobilization units (Hashd al-Ashari) within the PMU in newly retaken areas has mainly served to empower some of the Sunni tribes at the expense of others and reinvigorate internal fault lines within and between tribes. Similar moves have been undertaken by the Kurdish Peshmerga in the mixed Kurd-Arab districts in the north of Nineveh province now under their direct control, through absorbing local Arabs in the predominantly Kurdish force to “win their hearts and minds,” as a Peshmerga official put it to us. Finally, and most critically, these forces are pertinent tools, not only to protect local populations, but more so to control the returns process for still displaced families, barring some and allowing others back based on vague claims of ISIS affiliation. The determination of who can and cannot return tips already carefully calibrated demography and will heavily influence results in upcoming presidential and provincial elections, slated for late 2017 in the Kurdistan Region and early 2018 in Iraq.

Diverting young citizens from further join into armed groups

This spread of non-state armed forces and their calls to join their ranks have actually been heeded by the population in these recently retaken areas. Our research and analysis in Nineveh and Salahaddin provinces show how pervasive enlistment has been. Security forces have always been the main livelihood option in these provinces, especially in rural areas, with a significant number of households having at least one member in the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga or the local/federal police. These areas, pre-2014, used to have a significant percentage of families under the national poverty line, in some cases more than 50% of them, and a large pool of youth unemployed or underemployed. Now, with livelihood options even more scarce in the current post-conflict context, joining armed forces has been more intense; above all, among residents in their twenties, as came up in the interviews conducted.

Why do they join? Field interviews with residents in these provinces, including members of these security forces, elucidated that, in some cases, there is indeed a desire for restoring dignity and safety to the community, but invariably and above all economic need drove most to join. The chance for a steadier salary and a governmental job is at this point most easily found within these armed groups. But, while the trigger to join a group is economic or related to defending one’s territory, the main driver behind choosing one force over the other (Iraqi army, Peshmerga, one of the several PMUs or tribal mobilization units) usually depends less on ideology and more on expected benefits that one can get from being a member. These benefits include good remuneration (up to $500 a month in the PMUs, in addition to war spoils), as well as the positive effects of actively and openly aligning with the winning side of the conflict. Showing their allegiance to the now de facto controlling armed group (or an ally to it, like the tribal mobilization units allied with PMUs in Salahaddin or with the Peshmerga in Nineveh), families seek to avoid retaliation from others in the community, gain better access to power, and receive better treatment in general –which also includes the possibility to be allowed to return home from displacement, as in parts of Salahaddin where only the families of PMU fighters are allowed to resettle.

Given these recruitment dynamics, early recovery interventions in their current form from the humanitarian and development community face the risk of falling short. First, as the programs are designed on the assumption that it is communities who mobilize militias as a bottom-up approach for protection needs, top-down political dynamics like the ones described above tend to be left out of the intervention scope. A more effective approach that recognizes these macro-level dynamics would require a lot more of advocacy for protection needs as well as coordination with organizations and institutions deeply involved in the interplay of transitional justice, mediation, reconciliation, politics, and security in these provinces. Second, the livelihoods opportunities that early recovery programs can provide, like business grants or cash-for-work, are not likely to be able to prevent people from joining formal or informal armed forces because they cannot compete with the empowerment and the relatively high and steady salaries at stake –especially now that some of the PMUs have been incorporated under the financial umbrella of the Iraqi central government for the foreseeable future. Trying to reduce incentives for mass recruitment in these communities may require early recovery actors, along with donors and international actors in Iraq, to start institutionally scaling programs upwards for the possibility of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes (DDR).

In sum, success in early recovery programs is extremely important in Iraq even before reaching a ‘post-conflict’ status, especially given the panoply of actors across the retaken provinces and their competing interests. The possibility of further radicalization toward political aims of one armed faction or another gradually increases the more the civilian population is militarized. It is within these dynamics where economic need is still driving recruitment, therefore, that such programs, if rolled out effectively and in a larger scale, can definitely turn the tide.