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 is tasked with protecting government institutions and officials within Baghdad, and the first and second Presidential Guard Brigades, from military command. He then replaced experienced commanders with men personally loyal to him. Further, since 2010, when Maliki took over the post of interim Interior Minister, he has also exercised direct control over all Ministry of Interior forces, including the Border Guard and Federal Police, which serve as counterweights to military power. 

These strategies are now demonized as sectarian power-grabbing, but they are in fact rational -- and common -- coup-proofing measures with a long history in Iraq. Following the 1968 Baathist coup, for example, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr created the Republican Guard and Popular Militia forces, both composed of party loyalists. And Saddam established several additional forces, including the Special Republican Guard, Fedayeen Saddam, and al-Quds militia, all of which reported directly to him. 

Coup-proofing is typical outside of Iraq as well. For example, Indian leaders beginning with Nehru rapidly expanded paramilitary and police forces under the Ministry of Home Affairs to prevent the military from becoming the political player it has become in neighboring Pakistan. Shortly after coming to power in Cuba, Castro created a series of militia forces for the same reason. And in the early 1960s, Indonesian President Sukarno responded to increasing tensions with the military by beefing up a pre-existing mobile police brigade and moving it under his direct command. Today, nearly 80 percent of leaders in the developing world use some kind of paramilitary counterweight to the military.

In each case, the rationale is simple. Separating existing units from the military chain of command makes it more difficult for any one force to seize power. A successful coup requires coup plotters to coordinate their actions before the coup starts. When multiple security forces take orders from different bosses, that task becomes much more difficult. Another benefit of counterweight forces staffed with regime loyalists is that they could also be a source of armed resistance in the aftermath of a coup. The 2002 attempted coup in Venezuela, for instance, failed when Hugo Chávez’s Presidential Guard force unseated coup leaders from the presidential palace.

But there are tradeoffs. Although counterbalancing might protect a leader from getting the boot, it also hinders the military’s battlefield effectiveness. Communication and coordination problems plagued Iraqi efforts in both the 1980­–88 Iran-Iraq War and the 2003 Iraq War -- and, of course, in this year’s battle against ISIS. Prior to the recent violence, the Iraqi army shared responsibility for operations in the Nineveh Province, where ISIS has made its gains, with two Ministry of Interior Forces, namely the Border Guards and Federal Police.Soldiers there sometimes could not even identify each other, much less work together. “There are now so many people wearing different uniforms,” a 2010 International Crisis Group report, for example, quotes a police a commander in the Interior Ministry as saying, “that our soldiers at checkpoints often don’t even know who they are letting through.”

Organizing multiple security forces outside of military command also reduces morale. Soldiers in the regular military can grow resentful of the diversion of resources and recruits to other troops. Meanwhile, those outside the military may not receive adequate support on the battlefield. This appears to have been the case for Iraqi Border Guard soldiers, who have complained bitterly in the wake of ISIS’ advance about the inability of the Ministry of Interior to supply them with food and water. 

Still, for all its downsides, counterbalancing works. On average, coups succeed around 40 percent of the time, but the presence of paramilitary counterweights cuts the risk of a successful coup by half. In countries with three or more overlapping security forces, only 21 percent of coups succeed in removing leaders from power. Where those counterweights are tied to the incumbent regime through ethnic or party loyalties, the likelihood of success drops to 14 percent. This record is a powerful incentive for Maliki and leaders like him to use coup-proofing strategies at the cost of military effectiveness.


So what can be done? Iraqis live in a dangerous neighborhood, so they cannot afford to hobble their military. Yet the threat of a coup will not go away anytime soon; unfortunately, coup-proofing weakens the rule of law and norm of civilian control of the military, which in the long run only increases the threat of coup.

For the past decade, the United States has focused on making the Iraqi government more inclusive. And, indeed, sectarian power sharing will give Iraq the best chance for stability in the decades to come. But in the meantime, it increases the risk of a coup, by providing competing factions with access to state’s coercive power. Maliki is thus likely to continue to resist U.S. appeals to depoliticize the security forces.

Yet replacing Maliki is not the answer. It is only when the threat of military defeat outweighs that of a coup that any Iraqi leader would be willing to scale back the coup-prevention strategies that have hobbled the country’s security forces. Paradoxically, this means that the more successful ISIS is, the easier reforms will be.

For now, however, there might be little that the United States can do. In the short term, U.S. military advisers can focus on mitigating some of the negative consequences of coup-proofing. The easiest place to start may be with Iraq’s Border Guard. Stationed outside of Baghdad, it is the least crucial force for coup prevention. Shifting operational command of the Border Guard from the Interior Ministry to the military is thus less likely to face strong opposition from the government, and doing so may ease some of the supply problems that have plagued the force, improving its ability to aid the military in combating ISIS.

Committing to a longer-term partnership for U.S. military training and education might also help alleviate some of the pressures on Iraqi leaders. And the continued presence of U.S. military advisers in Iraq would provide Iraqi soldiers with prolonged exposure to the workings of a professional and nonpoliticized military. 

The United States cannot remove the threat of a coup in Iraq, which has undermined military capacity for decades. But in recognizing the competing pressures that Iraqi leaders face, it may at least be able to help mitigate some of the costs of the strategies those leaders use to protect themselves.

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