The United States Tried to Make Iraq in its Own Image but Was Changed Itself in the Process
Americans have been horrified by images of nameless, faceless paramilitary operatives stalking their streets. These men have employed illegitimate force against peaceful protestors — pepper-spraying a Vietnam veteran, shooting a man in the face with “non-lethal” munitions, and snatching citizens off the streets, tossing them into the back of unmarked vans. And while a judge will decide if these actions were lawful, we don’t need a court to tell us that they’re reprehensible.
Watching these events unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the year and a half I spent in Baghdad during the war. At the height of the Bush administration’s fabled “surge” of combat forces, I deployed with my unit, ostensibly to protect the Iraqi people from terrorists, but also in part to try to reform’s Iraqi institutions — such as its notoriously sectarian national police force.
We worked closely with Iraqi Army and Federal Police units through embedded training teams that lived and worked with our counterparts. Our mission was to advise them in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations, something we ourselves admittedly knew next to nothing about. But it was also in no small part to keep an eye on them — particularly those with a reputation for corruption or the use of excessive force.
I wondered how many of the masked federal law enforcement officers roughing up the citizens of Portland were veterans of the Iraq War, like me. The sad irony, I realized, was that while we tried to make their institutions more like ours; it was ours that had become more like theirs.
One of Iraq’s many intractable problems was the endemic factionalism characteristic of low-trust societies. There, the Sunni minority had ruled over the Shia majority for decades, through the brutal apparatus of the Baath Party. In the new order inaugurated by Coalition Provisional Authority Order №1, many freshly-empowered Shia leaders felt it was payback time.
They quickly gained control of what became Iraq’s powerful Ministry of the Interior, its impressive intelligence apparatus augmented by the force of the Iraqi Federal Police. These were often used as a personal shock force by Iraqi Prime Ministers — most notoriously by Nouri al-Maliki, perhaps the individual most singly responsible for driving the rise of ISIS. An authoritarian at heart, Maliki appointed himself Minister of the Interior during his second term as Prime Minister, during which he frequently used the Federal Police as a weapon to bludgeon his political foes — including during the nationwide protests in 2013 that fueled the rise of the Islamic State.
The Surge was a failure. Even with tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Baghdad, Iraqis kept getting murdered — not only by terrorists, but by Iraqi police forces, too, and often in the most brutal ways imaginable. American operations centers received near-daily reports of federal police officers beating, maiming, or killing suspects, running secret torture houses where they would break fingers and saw through the limbs of those they saw as enemies of the state. For just one gruesome example, a Sunni interpreter who worked for my unit was found one morning hanging from a light pole, his naked body riddled with the holes made by an electric drill.
That said, there was a marked decline in overall violence during the Surge. But the truth is that was due in large part to there either being no one left to kill — entire neighborhoods having been ethnically cleansed — or it simply being more difficult to access those few who remained — miles of concrete blast barriers walled off newly-homogenous enclaves from one another.
None of this, however, stopped the President from appropriating its language. Just last week, President Trump threatened his own “surge” of federal forces to cities like Chicago, regardless of the wishes of their people and without the consent of their elected representatives. This week he doubled-down, stating, “we’re not leaving [Portland] until they’ve secured their city. If they don’t secure their city soon, we have no choice, we’re going to have to go in and clean it out.”
After facing widespread condemnation for attempting to use the military as his personal police force in June, the President realized he had something better: The Department of Homeland Security, an immature magpies’ nest of federal law enforcement entities glommed together in the confused and hasty response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In addition to having more law enforcement officers than the FBI, ATF, and DEA combined, Congress has granted it broad authorities. It today possesses many of DoD’s capabilities — particularly the ones the President wants to use against his political foes — with hardly any of the institutional maturity or Congressional oversight.
Today, it is led by a rabidly partisan appointee that lacks both Senate confirmation and a legal background — making it ripe for use as what Governor Tom Ridge — a lifelong Republican and the very first Secretary of Homeland Security — called “the president’s personal militia.” As for the threat to surge forces into other cities, Ridge said it would be “akin to an invasion.” And he’s right.
Comparing a few noteworthy incidents of violence against protestors to the widespread actions of what was in effect Maliki’s personal death squad might seem a wild exaggeration. Thankfully, it is, for now at least.
Unlike Iraq during the surge, the United States has a legislative body with the legitimacy and the authority to condemn and remedy these abuses, if only it would find the will to do so. I hope Congress will act swiftly to condemn the misuse of the Department of Homeland Security and revisit some of the expansive authorities they’ve granted it over the years. My fellow veterans and I did not go to Iraq only to come back and find Baghdad at our doorsteps.
Zachery Tyson Brown is a strategic futurist working at the intersection of disruptive technology, organizational design, and national security. A United States Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Zach is now a Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, proclaimed U.S. Army Futures Command “Mad Scientist,” and a Military Writers Guild Board Member.