De-Baathification: An ISIS misstep the US already made?

ISIS appears to have made the same major error in Sunni Iraq as the United States did nearly 12 years ago, pursuing a de-Baathification policy and thereby alienating a key constituency that might otherwise have backed their occupation — Baathist military officers and pro-Baathist Sunni tribes.

These Baathists generally have the most military and administrative experience in the the Sunni regions of Iraq, due to their military and governmental service under Saddam Hussein. Additionally, most membership/follower estimates of both the new paramilitary wing (which aided the ISIS capture of Mosul) and the political party put them at significantly larger numerical strength than the ISIS brigades operating in Iraq, if not all across the so-called Islamic State.

All in all, this policy seems to be backfiring on ISIS much the same way it backfired on the United States, as demonstrated below in a comparison between recent articles and articles from various points in the U.S. war effort after March 2003.

Late Baathist-era flag of the Republic of Iraq, 1991-2004.

Late Baathist-era flag of the Republic of Iraq, 1991-2004.

The Atlantic, this week:

But once its initial gains were secured, ISIS quickly betrayed the very groups that had aided its advance. Most prominently, ISIS declared the reestablishment of the caliphate, with the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani claiming that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilafah’s authority.” The statement clearly signaled that ISIS believed it had usurped the authority of its allies; indeed, in early July it rounded up ex-Baathist leaders in Mosul (doing so proved particularly problematic for ISIS because the ex-Baathists were also managing the actual governance and administration of the northern Iraqi city, and their arrest hastened the rapid disintegration of basic services).
And ISIS’s bureaucratic mismanagement has alienated local populations, leaving them with a lack of job opportunities and essential services.


From Al Arabiya in July:

An Iraqi national intelligence officer, confirming the arrest by militants of Saddam-era officers, said the motive was: “to panic people, or as revenge, or in the event that they would cooperate with the Iraqi government.”

Nujaifi, the governor, estimated that around 2,000 Mosul residents had signed up to join the Islamic State as fighters since they took the city. But he said career army officers and diehard Baathists were unlikely to be won over to ISIS.

Among those Nujaifi said had been rounded up by the Islamists were General Waad Hannoush, a Special Forces commander under Saddam, and Saifeddin al-Mashhadani, a Baath Party leader featured as the three of clubs in the U.S. Army’s “Iraqi Most Wanted” playing card deck during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Mosul has long harboured members of the Baathist militant group the Naqshbandi Army, believed to be headed by Saddam’s lifelong confidant Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri – king of spades in the U.S. deck and the highest-ranking Baathist to evade capture.

Sunni tribesmen with far looser ties to the old regime could also pose a threat to the militants, but the Islamic state seems to be focusing for now on Baathists and former army officers.

In sum, beginning this past summer, ISIS abruptly turned on its Baathist Sunni allies in Iraq and beginning “disappearing” key veteran military officers and bureaucrats with Baathist affiliation. Flash back to this retrospective report, on the 2003 demobilization of the Sunni dominated Iraqi Army, from the New York Times five years into the U.S. war in Iraq:

When President Bush convened a meeting of his National Security Council on May 22, 2003, his special envoy in Iraq made a statement that caught many of the participants by surprise. In a video presentation from Baghdad, [U.S. occupation leader] L. Paul Bremer III informed the president and his aides that he was about to issue an order formally dissolving Iraq’s Army. The decree was issued the next day.

The broad outlines of the decision are now widely known, defended by proponents as necessary to ensure that Saddam Hussein’s influence did not outlive his ouster from power.

But with the fifth anniversary of the start of the war approaching, some participants have provided in interviews their first detailed, on-the-record accounts of a decision that is widely seen as one of the most momentous and contentious of the war, assailed by critics as all but ensuring that American forces would face a growing insurgency led by embittered Sunnis who led much of the army.
American commanders had hoped that Iraqi units would stay in their deployment areas and surrender en masse instead of running away. While Mr. Bremer argued that desertions meant that the Iraqi Army had disbanded, General McKiernan believed it could be re-established by recalling the soldiers as well as some generals and senior officers who commanded them.

“We knew they had either gone home or come out of uniform,” said General McKiernan, who was in charge of the land forces during the invasion and was recently chosen to lead the NATO force in Afghanistan. “The idea was to bring in the Iraqi soldiers and their officers, put them on a roster and sort out the bad guys as we went.”

At the Central Command, Lt. Gen. John P. Abizaid, who served as the deputy commander, had a similar view. He told associates that Arab armies were traditionally large to keep angry young men off the street and under the supervision of the government.

This demobilization order, which followed the Baathist-dominated Iraqi Army’s surrender-in-place actions during the 2003 invasion, promptly dis-employed hundreds of thousands of experienced troops and officers who — instead of receiving their expected postings in the country’s new and US-supervised security force — subsequently became the insurgency out of desperation, fear, and resentment. Another motivating factor to join the resistance was the US decree making many of them unemployable in other fields as well …

Flash further back to this 2005 New York Times review of George Packer’s award-winning book, “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq”, which discusses the unintended effect of de-Baathification even beyond the military:

Bremer was an intelligent man but his previous administrative experience was confined to running the American Embassy in The Netherlands. In any event, his two catastrophic decisions were probably made in Washington – disbanding the Iraqi Army and de-Baathification, which banned from government service the entire top four levels of the Baath Party, regardless of whether any of the individuals affected had been implicated in any crime. (In Iraq, to be banned from the public sector was effectively to be forced into unemployment.) Packer writes that “at least 35,000 mostly Sunni employees of the bureaucracy, including thousands of schoolteachers and midlevel functionaries, lost their jobs overnight.” Thousands more were purged subsequently.

[…] As a balancing act that kept Iraq’s three communities at peace, it was a disaster. Bremer’s decisions signaled to Iraq’s Sunnis that they would be stripped of their jobs and status in the new Iraq. […] In one day, Bremer had upended the social structure of the country. And he did this without having in place a new ruling cadre that could take over from the old Sunni bureaucrats.

How many Sunnis were affected by this decision and thus disenfranchised? Flash even further back, to April 2004, 13 months after the U.S. invasion:

The American administration in Iraq said today that it was loosening a policy aimed at purging the Iraqi government of members of the former ruling Baath Party. […] It has drawn sharp criticism from politicians and others in Washington and Iraq who have attacked it for shutting out skilled technocrats and intellectuals from the process of rebuilding the country.
Mr. Bremer estimated at the time that of the 2 million former members of the Baath Party, about 15,000 to 20,000 were affected by the order he signed last May. But more have been kicked out of their jobs in “spontaneous” purges throughout the provinces, he said.

In January, Mr. Chalabi said that at least 28,000 former Baathists had already been purged and at least that many more would be dismissed.

As part of the policy change, the occupation authority will allow the return of senior army officers, including generals and full colonels, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for the occupation forces. “It just is a natural consequence that sooner or later there was going to come a time when we would need senior officers,” he said.

So as early as spring 2004, more than a decade ago, the United States realized it had made a tremendous error in refusing to integrate Baathists into its occupation plan. Let’s bring it back around to ISIS today, from a Washington Post report late last month:

Whether the Islamic State’s administration was ever as capable as it has been portrayed appears to be in doubt, Syrians say. Those who could afford to flee areas controlled by the group have done so, disproportionately including the professionals and technocrats whose skills are needed to run government services.

But hey: nobody could have seen that coming, I guess.

As I’ve been saying for months now, this conflict is going to come down to whether or not ISIS can rebuild administration capabilities (which, despite big claims, it’s increasingly looking like it can’t, per that full Washington Post report) and that ISIS is the biggest threat to its own survival. I’ve also noted from history that:

You can alienate the people some of the time, if you provide food and services, but you can’t […] stop providing those things and continue alienating the people, without falling from power.


Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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