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Development and Reform of the Iraqi Police Forces

Development and Reform of the Iraqi Police Forces - Cover

Authored by Colonel Tony Pfaff.

January 2008

59 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Despite 4 years of millions of dollars in aid, equipment, education, and advisors, Iraqi police force development lags far behind the military. Numerous reasons are offered to account for this gap: corrupt practices left over from the previous regime, infiltration by militias, weak leadership, competition by better armed and organized criminal and militant groups, and so on. However, the military is also subject to these same influences, thus none of these explanations by themselves or in combination are satisfactory. The author argues that the poor political and security environment impacts social, political, and cultural factors in ways that are predictable, understandable, and, with external help, resolvable. The author offers valuable insights into the creation of such programs as well as a number of policies and practices advisors may adopt to best facilitate the creation of a just and effective Iraqi police force.


This paper will seek to show how social, political, cultural, and environmental factors have combined to impede Iraqi police development in ways that are predictable, understandable, and, with external help, resolvable. The corruption and abuse found in the Iraqi police services cannot simply be explained by poor leadership, the actions of a few corrupt individuals, or even the competing agendas of the various militias that are fighting for influence in post-Saddam Iraq. Rather, one must explain why such practices occur despite the fact they are unacceptable according to Iraqi cultural norms.

Organizations are embedded in culture and society. Thus to understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of an organization, one must understand how a culture’s basic assumptions and espoused values shape organizational and individual behavior. Further, understanding how each of these factors relates to each other allows observers to understand as well as predict how environmental factors shape individual and collective behavior. This ability to understand and predict is essential to policymakers and advisors as it will allow them to better determine what kinds of programs they need to develop as well as where those programs need to be targeted.

Because they were not essential to the regime’s survival, the Iraqi police were typically under-resourced and poorly paid, with the average policeman making around $5 or less per month. Because of the poor pay and resources, police were not highly regarded and often supplemented their income through corruption. Further, police were typically hired because of their family, tribal, or political affiliations, which created expectations regarding hiring practices which persist to this day. Though the police had a reputation among citizens for being able to maintain order, this security depended a great deal on their reputation for human rights abuse.

While these practices became habituated to a degree within the service itself, it would be wrong to conclude that Iraqi culture saw them as acceptable. Thus, in the face of considerable pressure from their own culture—as well as incentives from Coalition advisors—to reform, it is necessary to look elsewhere for a satisfactory explanation.

For a more complete account, one must understand how group ties affect individual identity and consequently, behavior. One’s identity is often expressed by the ties one has to various groups, organizations, and institutions. Iraq is a country where these ties typically reinforce each other. Whether one is a Sunni, Shia, or Kurd, one tends to find others with those same identities in the other groups to which they belong, including family, political party, and region. Conflicts between communities of different sets of reinforcing ties tend to be very difficult to resolve, absent some external force which compels a resolution. As such, it is easy to mobilize these communities against each other, but harder to find ways to resolve conflicts between them.

By virtue of becoming an Iraqi policeman, an individual accepts a professional identity that crosscuts these other reinforcing identities. But since in Iraq reinforcing ties are stronger than cross-cutting ones, police forces often become a battleground for these sects rather than a means to unify them. Further, as the ties that bind Iraqis together as Iraqis disintegrate, individuals will turn to smaller and smaller groups for their basic social needs, especially security. This will further narrow the scope of loyalty of the Iraqi police.

The failure of the professional identity of “police officer” to transcend sectarian identity is further exacerbated by complex cultural factors that have created a difficult environment in which even dedicated Iraqi police officers and government officials find it difficult to make progress. This analysis of identity is important because in dealing with cross-cultural police reform, one must be able to distinguish between genuine moral dilemmas indigenous forces face from the distortion of values otherwise compatible with just, effective policing, from corrupt and abusive behavior. Iraqis will confront corruption, if properly supported. They are less likely to be willing or even able to break apart the close relationships which drive many other decisions, such as hiring, firing, disciplining, and promotions, even though those decisions may not always be compatible with the creation of a just and effective police force.

But it would be wrong to say that for these reasons it is not possible to reform the Iraqi police. What is important to note is that these behaviors are a product of the environment acting on the culture, not simply of the culture itself. In fact, Iraqi cultural norms find many of these practices unacceptable. What may be an important indicator of the potential of Iraqi police development may be found in a survey conducted by the Ministry of Interior’s Center for Ethics and Human Rights. According to this survey, Iraqi police officers rated themselves high with respect to certain moral and professional standards but others lower. This outcome suggests that Iraqi police understand what appropriate professional and ethical standards are expected but, given the difficult operating environment, are either not able or not interested in upholding them.

While this analysis suggests reform can only come from within the culture, external parties can help motivate and facilitate reform. To this end, coalition advisors need to develop a strategy that includes building institutions, mentoring in the field, and establishing organizations capable of providing oversight of police and ministry activities and operations.

There are committed leaders within the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and police forces; however, the “culture of crisis” that has arisen since the fall of Saddam complicates their ability to make any headway in reforming the Iraqi police. Despite this, it would be a mistake to conclude that Iraqi culture is incapable of sustaining a just and effective police force. Developing it, however, will require sustained support from coalition advisors who do not compromise regarding practices which are incompatible with democratic policing.

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