Small Wars Journal

Iraq’s Path to State Failure

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 6:52am

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

Iraq’s Path to State Failure

Buddhika B. Jayamaha, Kevin Petit and Will Reno

The immediate aim of our Iraq First strategy is about to be achieved, as a coalition of forces in the Nineveh plain isolate and attack the Islamic State in Mosul. This accomplishment, however, will not resolve the deeper problem of Iraq’s dangerous fragmentation, which is the focus of tactical and operational lessons to be gleaned from this context. The defeat of Islamic State on Iraq’s territory will only bring into clearer focus the stark reality that Iraq is sliding toward state failure. As in other failed states such as Libya, Yemen and Somalia, this proliferations and increasing fragmentation of armed political networks and dissolution of central state authority threatens to lead to open-ended conflict.

The idea that Iraq as a whole can capitalize on this success against the Islamic State is based on the assumption that there exists an Iraqi government with the capacity and (most importantly) the political will to provide security to its citizens. This assumption is fundamentally at odds with the intense fragmentation of the Iraqi state, its society, and the demonstrated interests of its key political actors. This fragmentation owes a great deal to the logic of domestic politics in Iraq today, and to the interventions of foreign states and other external actors that are involved in Iraqi affairs.

Fragmentation From Within

Years of conflict have ensured that Iraq is divided along ethnic lines (Kurds and Arabs) and along sectarian lines (Sunni and Shia) in ways that are growing more intense. Ethnic separation is more common than any time in the past, notwithstanding the 1.3 million internally displaced Arabs taking refuge inside Kurdish regions and the mixed sectarian populations in some urban areas. But at the local level, the violence associated with twenty years of political turmoil has created sharp sectarian divisions. Neighborhoods, families and individuals have come under attack on the basis of what ethnic or sectarian group their attackers ascribe to them. These targets of attack, bereft of state-provided protection, are forced to seek protection from armed groups that are organized on the basis of identities, regardless of whether or no those who seek protection think that these identities are legitimate.

Iraq’s economy reflects this intense fragmentation. Many people are reliant on handouts from the cash-strapped state. Though these resources are distributed through state institutions, access to them depends on the favor of local political and military leaders who seek supporters on the basis of ethnic and sectarian identities and political loyalties. This dependence on these ethnic and sectarian networks for protection and economic survival solidifies the personal authority of these men.

In sum, Iraqis live in a country where development in conventional terms of building a state and integrating a population is moving in reverse. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, most Iraqis imagined themselves as belonging to a country with a sense of national identity, a growing economy and a state that provided order, albeit a repressive one.[i] Instead, they now live in a country of neo-traditional personalist networks based on clan, tribal, sectarian, and ethnic loyalties that play central roles in providing protection and economic survival.  

These ethnic and sectarian blocs are further fragmented through these patronage networks. For example, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq has a parliament and presidency that are representative in principle. The reality based lesson is that these state institutions are firmly under the control of its two main parties that are beholden to political families. In short, what appears to be a state from an external perspective appears more as a collection of personal and political networks from an internal perspective.  Beneath the veneer of unified government in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a deep-rooted economic, political, military, and geographic division between the Green Zone, run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Yellow Zone, run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This division is reflected in the Pesh Merga (Kurdish armed forces), which is divided into KDP and PUK elements, with the latter further divided into elements that are beholden to particular commanders, some of whom are able to pursue their own agendas in defiance of overall PUK goals.[ii]

These parties each dominate the distribution of government jobs (which count for about 60 percent of formal employment in Kurdistan) to their supporters.[iii] Smaller political parties have to make deals with the larger parties its a condition to have access to this patronage resource. Personal connections become all the more important since 2014, as depressed oil prices and mismanagement have forced the government to cut civil service salaries by as much as 60 percent, partly through forced ‘loans’ to government and late payments of salaries. Who one knows and where one stands in the informal hierarchy of this system is important for mitigating the effects of this crisis on one’s family.

This politics of patronage fuels corruption. Transparency International ranked Iraq as the seventh most corrupt (of 168 countries) in 2015.[iv] By that time, more than $330 billion had gone missing from public funds over the past twelve years.[v] The lesson here is corruption is an integral part of Iraq’s political system: “The system cannot be reformed by the government because it would strike at the very mechanism by which it rules,” wrote Patrick Cockburn of The Independent.[vi]

Politics in Baghdad is often portrayed under a hegemonic Shia control, at least in terms of the dominance of Shia parties and sectarian politicians in important positions of power. The situation on the ground in fact presents a scene of political fragmentation. Iraq’s parliament contains forty parties and organized factions, most of which have used their access to state resources to build personal followings. Iraq has one of the world’s larges public payrolls, about 7 million people out of a population of just over 21 million.[vii] This system of patronage, based on party connections, siphons state resources into sectarian and personal networks. This has been easier to accomplish for party leaders whose rise in politics has been based on organizing neighborhood militias, some with Iranian help, that they use on behalf of other politicians to use as political muscle and to keep themselves relevant in the larger political game.

This political logic of militarized patronage networks is reflected in law. In February 2016, Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi announced Order 91, which officially designated these militias (officially termed Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs) and their officially estimated 110,000 members as part of Iraq’s armed forces. Formally under the command of Iraq’s military, these militias received arms from an array of sources, including from at least 16 countries, Ian prominent among them, and operated under their own commands.[viii]  Iraq’s parliament passed the Law on Popular Mobilization Units on 26 November 2016 to provide a formal legal status to 40 Shia militias, realistically estimated to have about 150,000 members, as armed forces within the overall structure of the country’s armed forces.[ix]

These militias are drawn primarily from Shia communities, while also including some Sunni and minority recruits that have formed their own groups.[x] Even though the PMUs officially are part of Iraq’s armed forces, but in fact operate as alternative political power bases that reflect the search for an alternative to the ineffective national army that crumbled in the face of the 2014 Islamic State advances. The prominence of these militias undermines the effectiveness of the national army as battlefield decisions reflect the agendas of the leaders of militias rather than a cohesive national government.

An example of PMU autonomy appeared with the pressure that the Badr Organization applied to Iraq’s government to allow it to capture Tal Afar, a town between Mosul and the Syrian border. The original plan had been to allow Islamic State fighters an avenue to retreat to Syria as a way to lessen the destruction of the city of Mosul and reduce civilian casualties, including among the city’s Sunni population. The capture of Tal Afar left Mosul encircled instead, which led many Iraqis to see this as a sectarian battle for revenge. This strategy also provided Iran with a Shiite-controlled corridor through Iraq that connected Iran with their proxy forces involved in fighting in Syria.[xi]

Patterns of violence at a local level point to a more profound loss of state control over the actions of militias. In Diyala province and in other areas where struggles for sectarian control have been ongoing, some militias have become involved in parochial disputes between families and local business enterprises in the process of carrying out retaliatory attacks. In such instances, the agendas of these local actors, the political supporters and sources of recruitment for these militias, begins to drive the behavior of militias and these political patronage networks.[xii] This local-level freelancing in Diyala in early 2016 was extensive enough to warrant the public denunciations of the political leaders of militias.[xiii]  This loss of control even by the loosely organized political center in Iraq begins to establish a pattern of warlordism that makes coordination on other issues more difficult. This process also undermines the control that authorities in Baghdad exercise over the relations that militias build with foreign actors.

Iraq’s formal political system encourages fragmentation too. It gives primacy to representation over stability. Iraq’s proportional and consociational system is designed to be representative but is dysfunctional. Iraq’s electoral system creates a place for smaller parties. From 2005, this structure of political competition has blocked the formation of a strong central government and encouraged political parties to appropriate state institutions. Parties then appoint only their supporters to jobs in these institutions.[xiv]  As these political networks have acquired their own militias, these state resources in the hands of political strongmen have been used in ways that undermine the authority of the state and increase the fragmentation of this militarized patronage system.

It is understandable that Iraqis would be wary of a strong central government, given their country’s tragic history of repression, and its demonstrated lack of capacity and political will to protect all citizens, particularly after the 2011 US withdrawal. But the patronage-based alternative creates more political space for the militarized patronage networks that are the agents of the dissolution of state authority, even as they provide selective protection to their supporters.  The result is the replacement a state with what are essentially contending warlords who command the military and economic assets that supporters need to survive.  The lesson that follows from this is that Iraq’s government, like other governments in similar contexts, lacks the political will and capability to undertake significant reforms to reverse this process of dissolution.

The Sunni political center resembles a tattered tapestry, scattered around the Sunni regions of Iraq, with most leaders in exile. Inhabiting a state with no real political center, the Sunnis are not reverting to ancient tribal affiliations. In reality, they represent “neo-tribes” — recent creations of economic, political, and military patronage networks, using labels developed under the Saddam Hussein regime during the “sanctions decade” of the 1990s. During this period, Saddam used his personal discretion to allow some local political figures to engage in illicit commercial activities such as smuggling and access to insider deals in exchange for ensuring the political loyalty of their networks. this strategy was intended to fragment social power, as Saddam also took care to cultivate local political and often personal tensions between these recipients of his favor.[xv] This pattern of divisive localism was reinforced to some extent when the US used Sunni militias to fight al-Qaeda through the Awakening Councils.

This political “neo-traditionalism” altered Sunni society, and the Islamic State has exacerbated this trend of fragmentation. Many of the ablest Sunnis that were part of the Maliki government from 2011-2014 were forced into exile as their own government interpreted their competence and popular appeal as a challenge to its power. Those in the Islamic State territory were given the “option” to stay and ally with the Islamic State, and in fact some preferred to rely on the Islamic State to protect them from their own government.

The exiled Sunni elites have tried to reactivate their old networks as Islamic State is pushed back. These Sunni militias are regional and even neighborhood vigilantes, most of them fighting to protect their claims to property and take retribution for harm that has come to their families. Some of them may believe, just as others did before, that the Americans will use its influence to make sure that Baghdad will not turn against them. There are also new actors, as the U.S. and Turkey have armed and empowered additional Kurdish and Iraqi groups to fight the Islamic State. Not without irony, Sunnis in Iraq rely on their former enemies, the Americans and the Kurds, as the best hope of having any leverage vis-a-vis Shia-dominated militia and their backers in Tehran.

The reality is that Iraq’s domestic political and military travails, and its deep divisions, are also linked to the geopolitical struggles of regional powers — Saudi Arabia, Iran, and now Turkey. In lieu of a shared Iraqi interest powerful enough to escape the centrifugal pull of the geopolitical contestations, anchored in Riyadh, Tehran and Ankara, these foreign actors intensify Iraq’s armed fragmentation.

The External Dimension of Fragmentation

All the combatants — Iraq’s government, the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. — responded to the Islamic State’s unexpected success by allying with various armed groups. This recruitment of militias as proxies gives these groups an additional incentive to block the formation of a capable central government of Iraq. These groups work at cross purposes, harboring parochial agendas and mutual suspicions dictated by these neo-traditional networks from which they are recruited.

This tension between the goals of defeating Islamic State and regional and parochial agendas appears in coalition support for Pesh Merga units.  At the outset, foreign backers have to determine whether the units that they support represent the interests of specific politicians or the Kurdistan Regional Government. This backing is extensive: US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced in April 2016 that the US would provide $415 million in financial assistance to Pesh Merge Forces.[xvi] These forces also receive German training in Erbil, and training and front line assistance from about a thousand US Special Forces. Meanwhile, Pesh Merga units have been implicated in reprisal attacks that have exacerbated local sectarian and ethnic tensions in the process of extending the territories under Kurdish control.[xvii]

Various armed groups show evidence of cooperation, such as between Kurdish Pesh Merga and Shia militias to drive out Sunnis accused of complicity with Islamic State. But this cooperation should be seen more as a way of hedging bets, as groups maintain their own links to foreign patrons. Their core interests remain focused on maintaining control over their own supporters and resources needed to attract them. They remain armed and wary of one another because none believe that a central authority will emerge that will be a reliable protector of their interests and safety. This lack of trust of central authority means that these groups can turn on one another whenever political conditions change, and their survival will depend on a new alignment with other domestic groups or external backers.

One sees examples of this flexibility of alignments with foreign patrons. Iraq’s government and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, long-standing antagonists, both fought the Islamic State with US support. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) coordinates with the Turkish Kurdish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), both with US support to fight the Islamic State while the latter is at odds with Turkey, which is a US ally and NATO member. The governments of Iraq and Iran sponsor Shia popular mobilization forces that, though they are now formally part of the Iraqi government, divide their loyalties between their political patrons and their spiritual leaders (members of clerical patronage networks in Baghdad and Tehran). Some militias receive direct support from Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Turkey supports multiple Sunni militias. Other mini-militias are similarly divided along territorial, sectarian and ethnic lines: Sunni, Yazidi, Turkoman, and Shabak, for example. Focused on the security of their home communities, they have managed to mask their mutual distrust with a shared hatred of the Islamic State.

Foreign support for Iraqi militias can occur in direct defiance of Iraq government authority. For example, Turkish forces in December 2015 moved 110km inside Iraq. Several hundred Turkish soldiers and armor established an encampment near Mosul in late 2015 to assist militias fighting Islamic State.[xviii]  The Iran Revolutionary Guards and their embedded Quds Force that have provided direct assistance to Iraq’s Shia militias. can be said to do so with Iraqi government consent, but it is difficult in these situations to distinguish official consent from the personal agendas of specific politicians. These Iranian operatives started with recruitment of militia commanders who had been active during the US occupation and who were now integrated into Iraq’s party and militia-based patronage system. This support takes place with Iraqi government consent, but is directed toward reinforcing militias rather than the national army.[xix]

There is no doubt that Islamic State will be driven from Iraq. But without a common enemy, it is unlikely that there will be a new confluence of interests to bring together those that fought Islamic State into a cohesive political settlement. Even with a common enemy, the assistance that the US and others provide to armed groups to  armed groups to fight Islamic State forces, this assistance is drawn into the agendas of these armed groups and contributes to the larger processes of political fragmentation. This underlying logic of politics drives Iraq toward state failure, a situation that threatens to reverse what gains have been made against extremist groups that present themselves as the only force that can protect Iraq’s Sunni population from the vengeance and predations of others.

The Path to State Failure

The fragmentation of Iraq’s political system, the proliferation of armed groups, and the lack of central state coordination of relations with foreign actors is important in terms of intensifying sectarian divisions inside Iraq. These developments also mirror the politics in places like Somalia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere that have lead to state collapse and open-ended conflict among sectarian and ethnic militias. These conflicts also become arenas for foreign powers to pursue their agendas through support for militias. etc. This multi-sided proxy warfare makes average people less secure and the state even weaker. This forces more people to opt for the protection of these incumbent networks, even if their personal preference is that their state protect them instead. Those who do not have their own militias, Christians and other smaller minorities in Iraq’s case, tend to leave the country if they can. Professionals and others whose skills are needed to run the state leave too, since most of them have skills that they can use to get jobs abroad and avoid the perils of political uncertainty and violence in their home country.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s political actors exhibit classic symptoms of progressive state failure, such as a tendency to cooperate with other groups out of what appear to be extremely instrumental calculations. For example, Kurdish Pesh Merga associated with the Kurdish Democratic Party cooperate with Shia militias in their battle against Islamic State forces in Mosul, while opposing Shia militia elsewhere in the expansion of territory under Kurdish control. Yazidi armed groups cooperate with Pesh Mega who are beholden to politicians who have an agreement with Turkey for military assistance, at the same time that that Yazidi groups accept protection from Kurdish YPG forces that Turkey declares as its enemy.

Rather than representing a distinctive regional brand of politics, these fragile and contingent tactical arrangements reflect the very short time horizons in which political actors have to operate. The lack of any force that can guarantee agreements with stronger actors over the long-run leaves politicians and their core supporters responsible for their own survival. This constant shifting and hedging reinforces the faultiness of fragmentation, as political calculations of all domestic actors increasingly reflect their anxieties that others will take advantage of any vulnerability. The political authority of the state and even the country’s primary ethnic and sectarian blocs dissolves in this milieu, replaced with the warlord politics in which local patrons are in charge of the protection and economic survival of their core communities.

This process of state failure and the rise of warlord politics is familiar elsewhere in the world, but it is new to the Middle East. It comes as a shock to many people in Iraq, who live in a country that in 1975 was practically First World in terms of economic prosperity, government capabilities, and popular aspirations. The Syria of 1975 also presented this image. Unfortunately, this process of state collapse in Iraq shows that even seemingly stable governments can be fragmented from within, particularly when their leaders lack the political will or capacity to manage the fragmentation of power in their own societies.

This analysis of the situation in Iraq allows us to generate several basic tactical and operational lessons.

  • State failure produces a distinctive political environment that generates further fragmentation.
  • Governments in this context usually lack the capacity and more importantly the political will to undertake basic reforms.
  • Partners in these contexts are beholden to their short term calculations necessary for their political survival.
  • This subordinates their partnerships with outsiders to their immediate tactical concerns.
  • Armed groups in this context need to be flexible in their cooperation with other actors. Thus these groups may fight while cooperating with other groups simultaneously.
  • It’s the first duty of the commander to understand the nature of war upon which he is embarking.

End Notes

[i] Eric Davis, Memories of the State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[ii] Interview, local security experts, Sulemani, Kurdish region of Iraq, 14 January, 2016.

[iii] Interview, Kurdistan Regional Government economic analyst, 10 Jan 2017.

[iv] Transparency International,

[v] Wassim Bassem, “Iraq’s Corruption Continues Unchecked,” Al-Monitor, 25 Feb 2015;

[vi] Patrick Cockburn,”Iraq 10 Years on: How Baghdad Became a City of Corruption, Independent, 4 March 2013;

[vii] “Postwar Iraq: Everyone is Corrupt from Top to Bottom, Including Me,” The Guardian, 9 Feb 2016,

[viii] Amnesty International, Iraq, Turning a Blind Eye: The Arming of the Popular Mobilization Units, (London: Amnesty International, Jan 2017);

[ix]  Omar Sattar, “Why Itaq’s Sunnis Fear New PMU Law,” Al-Monitor, 1 Dec 2016,

“Turkman are involved in the battle to liberate Tikrit in brigade of four thousand,” Almada, 2. Turkmens are involved in the battle to liberate Tikrit brigade of four thousand soldiers

[xi] Interviews with local analysts, Suleimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, 11-14 Jan 2017.

[xii] Observations of an Iraq-based analyst; discussions, Sulemani, Iraqi Kurdistan, 12=13 Jan 2017.

[xiii] Erin Cunningham, “Sectarian Violence Besets Key Province in Iraq after Islamic State Attacks,” Washington Post, 18 Jan 2016;

[xiv] International Crisis Group, Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser? (Brussels: ICG, 11 July 2006).

[xv] Pierra Darle, Saddam Hussein, maître des mots : Du langage de la tyrannie à la tyrannie du langage, (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2003).

[xvi] Richard Sisk, “Beyond More US Commandos, Mosul Push Include $415 million for Kurds,” 19 April 2016;

[xvii] Human Rights Watch, Marked with an “X”: Iraqi Kurdish Forces’ Destruction of Villages, Homes in Conflict with ISIS, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 13 Nov 2016);

[xviii] United Nations Security Council, Letter from Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General,” 19 Oct 2016.

[xix] International Crisis Group, Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s ‘Generation 2000’, (Brussels: ICG, 8 Aug 2016).


About the Author(s)

Buddhika B. Jayamaha, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division with deployments to Iraq, is a PhD student in Political Science at Northwestern University. He is studying how the relationship between armed actors and the political structures shape institutional evolution over time. He is continuing his field research in Iraq, Somalia, Nepal and Turkey.

Kevin Petit, U.S. Army LTC (ret), spent 24 years in the Infantry with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served in the 82d Airborne, 173d Airborne, 75th Ranger Regiment and 101st Airborne. He is on the faculty of National Intelligence University and is a PhD student in George Washington University researching civil wars and insurgencies.

Will Reno is a Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and is the Director of the Program of African Studies. He has over twenty years experience studying rebel groups and weak states.


A great article with unpleasant strategic implications. What the authors wrote about in this article we could actually see unfolding as early as 2003. The various Iraqi identity groups anticipating a U.S. invasion began forming political identity groups to take advantage of the coming the vacuum that the removal of Saddam would create. The coalition's failure to put a strong man back in charge of Iraq, and its failure to gain control of and leverage the Iraqi Army to impose control after Baghdad fell opened Pandora's Box, and Iraq as a state became synonymous with Humpty Dumpy.

Despite the blood and treasure the coalition spent, the civil affairs efforts, the capacity building, the robust network targeting, the key leader engagements, and the new (reinvented) COIN doctrine, the disintegration of Iraq only gained momentum. Imposing Democracy on chaos was a strategic error we will not recover from. The only feasible solution at this time is to step back and let the Sykes-Picot Agreement experience its bloody death throes, and allow a new order in the Middle East to emerge. The trend throughout modern history (post WWI at least) is the creation of more states to create some degree of stability, and any attempt to stop this trend will require significant energy (money and troops), and will likely fail in the long term.

For the few diehards who still that think strategy is strictly a military endeavor, it is certainly getting harder to defend that argument in the Middle East. More war, at least war waged by the U.S. will accomplish little of enduring value. Furthermore, our recent efforts to wage unconventional warfare in Syria have arguably only exasperated the problem by feeding the forces of disintegration in that country, and they will spill over across borders. If our policy changes, and we support the dissolution of Iraq and Syria into a multiple state solution, then UW can prove highly valuable, but currently it is a way not aligned with current policy aims.

So that leaves us with more questions than answers. What do we hope to really accomplish beyond pushing ISIS out of Mosul and taking Raqqa? Based on the low probability of strategic success, despite the probably of tactical success is it worth assuming strategic risk in other areas of the world to throw good money after bad? The Middle East, in many locations, has already disintegrated, we simply refuse to accept that. If the overall goals are that Iraq remains a coherent state, relatively stable, and the terrorist threat is reduced to a manageable level (then add in Syria), and assuming the authors are correct in their assessment, aren't our goals at odds with one another?