Police reform in Iraq: Challenges and Lessons Learned (Part I) By: Antoine Vandemoortele | Iraq | Aug 9, 2016

Antoine Vandemoortele, Senior Researcher and Publications & Communications Manager at the Centre for Security Governance, recently discussed with Paul Biddle, an experienced security sector governance practitioner, about his role as Strategic Police Advisor to the UK Embassy in Baghdad, the Coalition Joint Task Force Operation “Inherent Resolve” and the Governor of Anbar in Iraq between February and May 2016. In this fascinating interview, Paul discusses key issues of security sector reform such as local ownership, lessons learned and the political challenges of SSR in fragile and conflict-affected countries. 



Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Part I focuses on Paul Biddle’s role as Strategic Police Advisor as well as the context and key challenges of police reform in Anbar province in Iraq. Part II (to be published next week) addresses issues of lessons learned and future areas of work to create a sustainable policing model in Anbar province.

What is the context and background for police reform in Iraq and Anbar province?

A critical factor for reconstruction in any post-conflict context is the field of security sector reform (SSR). Within the context of Iraqi SSR, police reform in particular has become a prominent policy issue discussed within the International Coalition, as well as within the Government of Iraq and the Governor of al Anbar province.

Currently, the international community has focused on police reform as a means of attending to the population’s safety and security after the defeat of Daesh. The process of rebuilding a functioning police force in Iraq has had its difficulties; failures from this project prior to the US, the UK and their coalition partners leaving Iraq are now being openly discussed by both donors and Iraqi policy makers, alike. This conversation can be found at both national and sub-national levels, as a variety of actors search for recipes on overcoming the enormous challenges posed within police reform. Importantly, attention has been focused on recently liberated areas, as well as other areas that still remain under the control of Daesh.

In what capacity were you involved in this process?

Primarily, concerns about the UK involvement in Iraq were very much about our previous deployment there, as well as the criticisms that stemmed from the Chilcot Report. These criticisms were especially regarding to our work—alongside the US and partners—in developing a functioning Iraqi police service after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in addition to the reconstruction efforts from 2003 to, roughly, 2008.

The criticism centered on how we hadn’t developed a robust, stable and functioning Iraqi police force, and on the problems that have come up from the UK and the US’s departure. They also concern the rise and subsequent takeover by ISIS/Daesh, primarily in the Anbar province. And so with that, my role looked at those issues, which are being faced at the moment. I was looking at how Daesh managed to take control of the Anbar province, and how the police force ended up being so firmly defeated. I also explored the ways in which the coalition was going to go about supporting the reconstitution of the police force in Anbar, specifically on the population’s perception of the police.

There were some clear changes since 2004/2005, the largest being the development of a federal police system, as well as local provincial police forces under the control of local governors. One of the things that is quite pleasing to me was that the system of local provincial police forces is based on a community policing model, which is the overarching framework in the UK and the US.  Also, within that context, a key element was that the Governor of Anbar has made significant efforts to have international support in its vision of a locally-owned process of Anbar police.

With the community policing model and local ownership aims, the reform worked more towards building links with local communities. So, that was the basis of which I went there, to look at how the UK could support Anbar and how their model matched with the UK’s police services. This was in order to ultimately create a more relevant system with local control. My assessment of what was going on in Anbar was, therefore, based on how the police force and the community could move forward.

Can you describe the vision for police reform in Anbar province?

The foundation of that vision is the Governor of Anbar’s acknowledgement that the community needs to be involved in police reform. This is what had been lost in the federal side of the equation, where there were no means for the local people to have a say in how they wished to be policed. UK policing is very much about policing by consent; so, primarily, my role was to sit down with the Anbar police chief, the Governor and their special advisors on a daily basis, talking to them about how to shape their own model of policing.

During those discussions, I found that there was community access to provincial council and the Governor, both of which are democratically elected by the population. Before I arrived, they had put a system in place, in which social media gave people the ability to openly discuss how they wanted to be policed. This initiative was very much a part of the Governor of Anbar’s wider approach to police reform, to have the community shape the thought-process. My role was to help them move toward this community-based police system in the fight against Daesh, both in the liberated areas and within refugee camps.

Ultimately, the fight against terrorism is about involving the community. Intelligence information will only ever come from developing close links with civilian populations, such as through forums where they can discuss their concerns through their chosen politicians or links to tribal and local leaders on the provincial council.  This means that anyone beyond the police sector can have their views heard. So, in Anbar, we now see a bottom-up approach that engages with the community on how they want to be policed.

This approach grew out of the Governor’s statement he made in 2015 in Germany, in which he laid out his vision of an internationally-approved policing system in Anbar and in which he outlined a desire for a police force that would be working for the people. So, I viewed my position as one to help support a security sector reform, where I wasn’t to impose changes in the police force from the outside. Rather, I was to listen to the changes the people wanted. I considered how their voices could help to develop a locally-owned community policing model, and we went about doing just that.

What are some of the main challenges in implementing this police reform process?

In post-conflict contexts, police planners—or the lack of planners—face seemingly insurmountable challenges. First of all, the police are not perceived as a moral authority for the community, but rather as an instrument of state suppression and exploitation. The fact that many former policemen have been fighting as soldiers means that most will need re-training to work in community-oriented capacities. The second most important problem reported was undue influence by tribal leaders and political parties outside of the elected bodies, as well as militias who were undertaking some policing functions, which created a lack of acceptance of the new police force by the population. Thirdly, there was a major issue regarding the platform for which the police could operate. Many police stations—especially in Ramadi City and now Falluja—had been destroyed. It is important to tackle these challenges early on in the reform process. Often, however, the process involves limited man-power, lack of infrastructure and meagre financial resources, making it difficult for reformers to handle these issues.

During its attempt to build a new police service capable of democratic policing, the international community is facing a “double institutionalization challenge”. Firstly, the institutionalization of policing itself has to be performed. But, secondly, the institutionalization of the context—which shapes, supports and constrains policing—has to be managed in the right direction. This context includes public legitimization, social development and education about rights and duties.

Obviously, a key challenge in this context is the fight against Daesh. How is it possible to balance this with police reform efforts?

Again, this is really something important. That there was a narrative between myself and the military, while I was out there, where, they needed boots on the ground to build the fight against Daesh, and I was saying, you know, “Let’s stop this. I understand that you need boots on the ground, but what we really need is a much more professional police force”. A conversation I had with the head of police illustrates this dilemma between building a professional police force verses focusing on the fight against Daesh. These efforts didn’t give him police officers. It also never gave him the opportunity to develop the range of skills—especially in mediation and conflict management skills, as well as various forms of communicating and problem-solving—which most police officers have to deal with on a daily basis. There was also a question of security, including the safety of police families, as well as educational and leadership skills that he had to address. That’s something that is obviously still an ongoing problem and although the initial training may be weeks, the ongoing training within the force, can take up to two years or longer with specialisms and should continue alongside formal and informal assessments.

There’s also another interesting aspect, which was accepted by the Governor and is part and parcel of any future changes in the Anbar police force, and that is the recruitment of female police officers. The Governor and I had long discussions on the possible recruitment and training of female police officers. He did agree with me that this is his vision, but I’m not sure where that’s going to go. I hope that it continues. But there is an acknowledgement by the Governor that 50% of the community are female. And again, if you’re looking to (1.) defeat a narrative of which Daesh has against gender (2.) and also if you’re going to have international policing standards in order to police a large portion of your population, then female officers have to be a part of that process.

Part II of this interview, which addresses issues of lessons learned and moving forward to have a sustainable policing model in Anbar, will be published next week.

The Centre for Security Governance (CSG) would like to thank Ciara McHugh, CSG Junior Research Fellow, for her assistance in editing and publishing this article.

Paul Biddle is currently a senior consultant specializing in security sector reform with an emphasis on policing and justice reform, following a 37-year career with the British Army and UK Prison service. Since 2007 he has advised governments and international organizations on security and justice in a wide variety of countries and contexts, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Moldova, Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea, Ukraine and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Recently, he was a Strategic Police Advisor to the UK Embassy in Baghdad, the Coalition Joint Task Force Operation “Inherent Resolve” and the Governor of Anbar in Iraq.

Antoine Vandemoortele is a Senior Researcher and Communications & Publications Manager at the Centre for Security Governance (CSG), where he manages the SSR Resource Centre project to disseminate key information and analysis on security sector reform to a community of SSR researchers, academics, analysts and practitioners. His research focuses on European approaches to peacebuilding and post-conflict security sector reform, with a focus on local and community security, and most recently on innovating approaches to security and justice programming in the context of the post-2015 development agenda. He has published and edited journal articles, books, book chapters and reports on EU foreign and security policy, peacebuilding, security sector reform in Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), non-state security providers and community security, strategic culture and Canadian foreign policy.

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