Police reform in Iraq: Challenges and Lessons Learned (Part II) By: Antoine Vandemoortele | Iraq | Aug 26, 2016

Antoine Vandemoortele, Senior Researcher and 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 interview, they discuss 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: The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Part I (available here) discussed 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 addresses issues of lessons learned and future areas of work to create a sustainable policing model in Anbar province.

A core element of the police reform process in Iraq and Anbar province you are describing is about local ownership and a community-based approach to policing. Why is this important, and what are some of the lessons learned from this?

It’s an important question. Having been involved in post-conflict police training in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is something that I’ve always thought that we have to try to understand. I think, firstly, that we have to go back to the fact that Afghanistan has a centralized police system. Although you have local police stations, police officers are often not recruited locally. So, there is a disconnect straightaway with the people being recruited into police systems and the population who consent to be policed

This was also the case in Iraq, in 2004-2005, where there was a federal police system that had police officers that generally weren’t part of the community.

In this context, we have an opportunity in Anbar to learn from past experience. And in fact, the police officers are now being recruited from the local population.  These new recruits are the ones that are going to go home at night and live amongst the community; they understand the community and the culture therein. As a consequence, the community in Anbar have a say in how they want to be policed. It may not fit a national narrative, but it does fit into a more appropriate local narrative.

I think the other side of the point, certainly in Afghanistan, is that the people that were doing the training came from a different police system than the one that they were actually putting in place. In this regard, I am slightly critical of both the US and the UK’s initial efforts in Iraq (2004-2005), in that they were training a national police system, but neither the US nor the UK have national police systems. Therefore, by the time training was occurring at a strategic policing level, it wasn’t a system that was fully understood, because it wasn’t where we came from. We weren’t able to say, “This is how we would get over this issue,” because we hadn’t faced those problems in our own experience.

Currently, we have a system in Iraq that much more closely resembles the US and UK systems, in that Anbar could be compared to a US state or UK county, for example. Since initial efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve come to understand that police reform has to accept some of the existing developments on the ground, and cannot just bring in a completely different policing system. My report highlights that we have to have a better understanding, ultimately, on how local police systems work. Now, we have an opportunity in Anbar to look at the previous mistakes to better understand local police systems. I’ve certainly looked at the mistakes I’ve made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subsequently try to apply those lessons towards understanding the local system better.

Overall, I think that we currently have an understanding that the federal police system was wrong, especially for counter-insurgency. While there were some things we got right initially, we now keep in mind the police force needs to be in touch with what’s happening on the ground. A federal police system is just not going to defeat the localized support of Daesh.

That idea of a localized narrative, a local approach to defeat Daesh, in Anbar appears to be another key concept. How can this help both the community policing and the fight against Daesh in practice?

The police, by default, represents the government; how they go about their business will impact how the people view the government of that area. If they interact, and deal with very localized conditions, then the support for the government will grow. It also will take away the support for those who are anti-government, because local people will see the government as the ‘good guys’ – i.e. supporting them; and they will see others, then—in Iraq’s case Daesh, but it could quite easily be anything else—as the ‘bad guys’, because they’re not supporting the local narrative.

At the moment, Daesh—and certainly Hamas has done this in the past—will support the local narrative. They will make sure the schools are funded. They will make sure that the taxes are fair. They will deal with very localized issues. And of course, the police–who in the past were very federalized, who don’t come from the area, who are unwilling to deal with local issues, who don’t understand local customs–are not dealing with all of that. That is what gives an opportunity for those like Daesh to thus garner support.

So, the key to all of this is that we have to now concentrate on bringing the local population in by having the police, as representative of the government, deal with what the population sees as important and pressing issues. In Afghanistan, the federal police as well as the other government security sector components were not dealing with, for example, land issues; so the Taliban were thus able to go in and deal with the issues that most impacted the local population. If there was a local police force that was robust enough to deal with the war elements, while also sensitive to local needs, then the Taliban would not have had any foothold.

Moving forward, what are the next steps for this police reform process in Anbar province?

First of all, there is a huge disconnect between current military thinking and an understanding of what community policing means. This is related to the disconnect between overarching Security Sector Stabilization (SSS) or Security Sector Reform (SSR), and those that have seen the primacy of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who do understand community policing.

I spent a great deal of time talking to coalition officers, senior military within the coalition, intelligence people, and various actors within the UN. They all understand SSR, but they don’t get stabilization. First and foremost, there is a disconnect between all of the elements that are currently being developed, that is, between what is “stabilization” and what is “reform”. So, part of my role, almost on a daily basis, was to talk to people about what is generally meant by each term.

If I had a magic wand, I would be looking to put a team in, probably within the military, that started to work on what stabilization and community-policing actually mean. For me, that was the problem, and every successive actor that had a say in how the process was going, showed the same disconnect: between US SSR, UN SSR, UK SSR, military SSR, etc. So, there was a very simple lack of thought-process.

The other problem is that, regarding the people fighting Daesh, their remit was SSR rather than stabilization. They had no thought-processes about the day-after. Even if you can defeat Daesh militarily, in the long run, they will simply come back, and we will go back to counter insurgency again. In order to change that cycle in Anbar, the police and the Governor had to make sure they were on the same page. Then, we needed to go back to the military and the embassy, and talk with them about how their wording needed to perhaps change or how they needed to have a better understanding about the day-after the liberation of Fallujah, rather than just stabilization. Since I’ve been there and back, that short-term view has changed; they’re now talking about the day-after.

Final question. What can we learn from this police reform process more broadly? How can we use the lessons learned in Anbar to make SSR programming more impactful and successful?

I think the answer is local and national ownership. One of the primary issue with SSR, is that it’s only realized by those who are running the projects, and not by those who are delivering it. What has happened, in my experiences, is that I’ve gone out to do a piece of SSR, and when I’ve left, I’ve taken that away with me. There’s never been any ownership. If I have to go somewhere, bring SSR with me and give it to someone else, then I can’t be sure that it’s going to be looked after and developed. Generally, what happens is that when the project goes, then the SSR goes with it.

This project in Anbar has been different. The Governor of Anbar was the person who asked for support at the Munich conference in 2015. He had his own SSR; I came in to develop his SSR. That was the bit that made this so right. Now, obviously, at some point, somebody gave him certain SSR concepts, but the point is, when we came in it was to help with his SSR as a concept. That gave us the ability to know that whatever we did to support Anbar’s security sector reform process would be continued even after we left.

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), with more than 7 years of experience as a researcher, analyst, teacher/trainer, editor and project manager. His current 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 over a dozen 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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