Colonel's Corner: Marginalizing the Militias

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan
September 1, 2006

As current press accounts aptly reveal, the various militias in Iraq continue to grow in strength and capability — to the point that in some areas they wield more influence and power than the fledgling Iraqi government itself. And as long as they are at odds with the government, none of this bodes well. In fact, true stability and democracy in Iraq will only come about after the insurgents are defeated and the militias are marginalized. It's not an “either/or” situation. Both must be accomplished. Unfortunately, much of that marginalization of the militias will only come about through force, and it seems probable that at least some of that force will have to come from the U.S. military.

To the degree that it's good news, none of the militias have overtly taken sides with the insurgents. To do so would legitimize targeting them. But the fact is that they pose as much of a problem as the insurgents themselves. In fact, perhaps they pose more. Their numbers far outweigh that of the operational elements of the insurgency; they are able to congregate in large numbers; they are mobile, well-trained, well-armed, and well-equipped; and, like the insurgents, most of them want the U.S. and coalition forces out of Iraq — now! Some of them are tacitly supported by senior members of the government and, worse yet, there are undeniable links to some of them from Iran. In sum, the militias are a threat not only to the viability of Iraq, but also to the very goals and objectives of our presence there. And at some point, this kettle will boil.

Unfortunately, the growth and prosperity of the militias are a product of failing to address them in the early stages of our presence. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S. governing body in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, was warned specifically and directly by our own military, that the formation of militias was a possibility and that all steps possible should be taken to preclude that from happening. Instead, the CPA ignored the warnings, content instead to let an aura of solitude settle in over Iraq. Unfortunately, the CPA had disbanded the Iraqi army only weeks earlier, and many of those disaffected former Iraqi soldiers became the core of emerging militias. Trained, equipped, armed, and on the loose, they became early and easy recruits for those looking to establish their own power bases and spheres of influence. And as the formation and training of the Iraqi army and security forces sputtered along in the early stages, the militias coalesced into effective opponents of the government and the Coalition forces.

Now, as the new Iraqi government continues to build out and attempt to take control of the nation it has been elected to serve, confrontations with the militias are on the rise. In some areas, the Iraqi forces have prevailed on their own. In others, they've prevailed only through the direct intervention of U.S. forces. And in still others yet, the government has yet to confront the militias because of fear and uncertainty. To date, in all cases when militias have lost during armed confrontation, they've simply melded back into the population to wait for the next battle. No militia has been totally defeated or disbanded. For Iraq's future, they all need to be.

What then to do? Options for the government seem few. In the final analysis, direct armed confrontation may be the only choice. It's one that would require careful planning and even more careful implementation. The militias are not all unified as one. Some have fought against others in attempts to gain regional control, but all could conceivably band together if they saw the government moving collectively against all of them at once. Accordingly, a military move would be better served by taking them down in a piecemeal fashion.

One other possibility for some of the smaller militias, however, is to try to draw them into the government, not away from it. To be sure, having an organized militia working for the government in some fashion is far better than having it work against the government. The incentives that could be offered to pull them in remains to be seen.

In considering the militias and the impact they are having on Iraq's future, it's extremely important to recognize the strong support some of them receive from Iran. It's not likely that Iran will want its influence in Iraq to deteriorate, and much of that influence is rooted in some of the militias. This separate dimension is unsettling to the fledgling Iraqi government, and demonstrates the difficulties it faces as the country moves forward. It also highlights the complex environment in which U.S. forces are maneuvering and operating.

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally-acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. He spent 11 years doing undercover operations in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. Read his full bio here.