Last month, when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) easily captured much of northern Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took most of the blame for his army’s utter ineffectiveness against the much smaller enemy.
And it is true that, in an effort to insulate his regime from coups, Maliki staffed his security forces with loyalists, separated key army units from the military chain of command, and built up forces under the Interior Ministry to counterbalance the army. These efforts undermined soldiers’ morale and made it nearly impossible for the multiple forces that were responsible for security in the north to coordinate effectively.
Yet the condemnation of Maliki misses something: the dilemma he faces is not unique. A military that is strong enough to defeat insurgents and deter invaders is also strong enough to seize power. And for individual leaders, the consequences of a coup are far more serious than those of defeat in battle: leaders deposed by coups face the prospect of exile or death. A military setback rarely brings the same fate. The coup-prevention, or coup-proofing, strategies that Maliki used work, and it is no surprise that leaders from Fidel Castro to Saddam Hussein have also employed them.
In short, the problem of how to improve Iraqi military capacity without undermining civilian control won’t go away when Maliki leaves office. It will persist until norms of democratic and civilian rule become entrenched in Iraq -- a process that could take decades, if not longer. In the meantime, U.S. policy in Iraq must reflect an understanding of the competing threats that leaders such as Maliki face, and the tools at their disposal to address those threats.
When Maliki took power in 2008, he inherited a state with deep sectarian divisions and a long history of military intervention in politics. Concerned that political opponents might use the military as a quick route to power, Maliki separated key brigades, including the army’s 56th Brigade, which