Small Wars Journal

Preventing OIF III: Using the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework to Achieve a Sustainable Iraqi Security Force

Sat, 09/16/2017 - 12:07pm

Preventing OIF III: Using the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework to Achieve a Sustainable Iraqi Security Force

Christina Bembenek, Darrel Choat, Randy Hughes and Thomas Petersen

It is 2030 and United States soldiers are headed back into Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom III to liberate the city of Fallujah from the violent extremist organization Al Judud – The Renewed. After the Kurdish provinces and the Sunnis in Al Anbar seceded from Iraq in 2021, the central government in Baghdad struggled to maintain security in the remaining provinces. Sunnis faced retribution from the predominantly Shi’a Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the education and employment systems remained broken following the harsh rule of the former Islamic State in Al-Sham (ISIS), and the newest incarnation of Al Qaeda in Iraq – Al Judud – began operating freely in ungoverned spaces. Iran began providing weapons and training to the ISF to protect the sacred Shi’a shrines in Iraq and secure their land route into Syria, where Hezbollah became the governing party following the end of the Syrian civil war. When Al Judud launched multiple deadly attacks against Israel from Fallujah, the United States committed to a military response.

This dystopian scenario could become reality if the U.S. does not reframe its strategy for rebuilding the ISF and address the underlying factors such as sectarianism, corruption, weak judicial institutions, unemployment, poor education, etc. which are preventing the development of a professional and trusted national force. The current strategy for rebuilding the ISF focuses almost exclusively on the military aspects of training, advising, and assisting Iraqi forces. The strategy does not address the political, judicial, demographic, economic, and social challenges within the security forces that must be resolved to build a truly capable force. When U.S. forces departed Iraq in 2011, commanders believed they had left the security of the state in the hands of a moderately well-trained and resourced ISF. In 2014, Iraqi units’ evaporation in the face of ISIS was not just military weakness but a barometer for the degree of corruption, sectarianism, and ineptitude across every Iraqi government institution. In the words of a prominent Iraqi General, “the Iraqi Army is a failed institution at the heart of a failing state.”[1] To create a more successful ISF, the Department of Defense (DOD) should use the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework (ICAF) - an effective tool that creates a shared understanding of complex problems and leads to collaborative and coordinated responses to conflict. Using the ICAF to develop a strategy for rebuilding the ISF would enable an effective whole-of-nation approach and create a more capable and sustainable ISF.   

Foundations of the ICAF

The ICAF is an instrument for joint analysis of conflicts and instability. It was first developed in 2008 by a U.S. government interagency working group organized by the Reconstruction and Stabilization Policy Coordination Committee and revised in 2014. The ICAF’s purpose is to provide a “rigorous shared analysis of a society’s key conflict dynamics that will inform U.S. policy, plans, and action.”[2] Developing a shared understanding of a conflict’s dynamics across government agencies will enable the U.S. to produce a more effective and coordinated response. The framework itself is based on conflict theory which claims conflict occurs when key actors, with the appropriate means and motivation, mobilize social groups around their core grievances during a specific window of opportunity.

The basic principles of the ICAF – priority-focused, locally-grounded, joint, agile, accessible, and structured -- ensure a practical, flexible, whole of nation approach to resolving conflict across multiple scenarios. The ICAF focuses on key policy questions and prioritizes the most challenging and promising dynamics. It ensures multiple perspectives are involved, including agencies across the U.S. government, academia, private enterprise, International Organizations (IO), Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), partner nations, and the local parties’ perspectives. The process is structured around conflict theory and should be completed in a short, discrete timeline to remain relevant. Most importantly, it produces concise analysis and recommendations useful to decision-makers in policy, planning, and action.[3]

The ICAF can also be adapted to deal with multiple types of conflicts. The Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created guidance to apply the ICAF to electoral violence and atrocities as well as dealing with violent extremism.[4] Over the last eight years, the ICAF has been applied in 18 different countries including Bangladesh, Central African Republic, and Uzbekistan. In FY10 alone, the ICAF served as the basis for seven Section 1207 (DoD funded, Department of State (DoS) executed) programs involving security, reconstruction and stabilization.[5]

Applying the ICAF

The ICAF consists of three discrete phases: design the analysis, conduct the analysis, and recommendations/use of the analysis. This section outlines the key components of each phase and provides recommendations for a DoD-led ICAF which focuses on developing a whole of nation approach to rebuilding the ISF.

Phase 1: Design the Analysis

The first phase of the ICAF focuses on clarifying the purpose for the analysis, identifying facts, designing the research process, and specifying the type of final products.

Purpose for the analysis. In this step, the ICAF team identifies existing policy context, initial objectives, audience, and scope. The objective for this ICAF analysis would be to understand the underlying dynamics degrading the capability of the ISF and to develop a whole of nation strategy for an effective and sustainable military force. The audience includes the DoD, key U.S. and Iraqi government agencies, coalition partners, and relevant IOs and NGOs -- all of whom will play key roles in the strategy. The scope must include the multiple internal and external actors influencing Iraqi military forces as well as address the current splintered nature of Iraqi security forces which consist of Federal Police, Iraqi Army, Popular Mobilization Front, Counter- Terrorism Force, etc. 

Identifying facts. The analysis must start with collecting data and gathering knowledge relevant to the purpose and scope. This includes identifying the nature of the conflict and key sources of expertise, evaluating the quality of information, and determining priority research questions. Any ISF reform will take place in an extremely complex environment involving neighboring state power struggles, internal ideological and institutional conflicts, deep psychological fears, and distrust. Key sources of expertise include CENTCOM, DoS, USAID, Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), the Iraqi Ministry of Defense,  Ministry of Interior, NGOs operating in Iraq, and academic experts. The team then develops research questions that expand the scope of our current measures of performance by focusing less on numbers of soldiers trained and more on underlying challenges to a stable ISF. For example, a priority question may be “what government policies and local motivations are encouraging sectarianism within the ISF?”

Designing the research process. The research plan will involve as many experts and data sources as possible but must also be manageable so the process can be completed in a discrete amount of time. This may include conducting expert roundtables, media analyses, social network analysis, surveys, etc. It is critical that our coalition partners and a diverse group of Iraqi officials assist in developing and executing the research plan to ensure it is not subject to U.S. cultural biases.

Specifying final products. The final products must be tailored to the key audiences identified above and available in multiple languages. Overall, the product must be a clear, comprehensive, and executable strategy. 

Phase 2: Conduct the Analysis

The second phase of the ICAF is the crux of the process – identifying key conflict dynamics. In this phase the team identifies key actors, core grievances and social resiliencies, potential windows of opportunity and triggers, and prioritizes the conflict dynamics. The figure below highlights this analytical process.

Identify key actors.  This step focuses on the individuals, organizations, or groups with the means and motivations to mobilize people and resources toward or away from conflict.[6] There are several external and internal actors in Iraq that have the potential to influence the ISF. Iraq’s external security is intertwined with Iranian, Turkish and Syrian interests. Iran desires to use Iraq as a critical land bridge to its proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon as well as to manipulate Iraq politically and ideologically. In his April 2017 hearing to the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Lieutenant General Barbero, Ret., the former Commander of Multi-National Security and Transition Command-Iraq, provided insight into the ever-expanding territorial and ideological ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He quoted a member of Iran’s parliament, and close confidante of the Supreme Leader, who stated Iran is at a phase of “Grand Jihad” and the “Three Arab Capitals (Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad) had fallen into Iran’s hands and belonged to the Iranian Revolution.”[7]

On Iraq’s northern border, Turkey conducts attacks against Kurdish elements they view as terrorists while supporting other Kurdish factions that oppose the central government in Baghdad. To the west, the Syrian civil war has generated multiple hostile actors, and ungoverned spaces near the Syria/Iraq border serve as safehavens for Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Internally, Kurdish desires for independence and sustainment of a separate security force, the Peshmerga, complicate the struggle for power and influence in Iraq. Any strategy for a unified ISF will have to contend with how, or if, the highly capable Peshmerga should be a part of the force. Another key internal actor is the Shi’a Popular Mobilization Front (PMF). Following the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and ISIS’ expansion in Iraq, several Shi’a militia groups called for a “popular mobilization” and immediately saw their ranks fill with tens of thousands of volunteers.[8] Unfortunately, much of the PMF is funded, organized, and controlled by Iran. Iranian advisors in Iraq, which officially number less than 100, likely outnumber U.S. forces in country, and Iran’s shadowy Quds Force Commander General Qassim Suleimani often meets with PMF commanders and personnel. [9]

In addition to the hostile actors, there are many actors who could have a positive effect on Iraq, and the ICAF will reveal more of these individuals and groups. Some examples are the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) which could assist with the counter-terrorism training for the ISF, countries like Jordan and Oman who could mediate with Iran, and Sunni and Shi’a religious leaders who could act as peacebuilders and recruiters for the ISF.

Identify core grievances and social/institutional resiliencies. Core grievances are a social group’s perception that its physical security, livelihood, identity or other key interests are threatened by other groups or social institutions.[10] Any analysis of core grievances must consider the sectarian issues within Iraq. The current disposition of ISF provides insight into some of the larger sectarian and demographic issues facing the formation of a cohesive security force. These challenges are symptomatic of the broader divides within the country impeding the establishment of an Iraqi national identity. The underlying sectarian makeup of the ISF, exacerbated by sectarian divides within the Iraqi government, was one of the primary reasons for the fall of Mosul in 2014. In his recent testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute, highlighted several sectarian factors that were exacerbated by a “chronically deficient unity of effort and unity of command among Iraqi government, Kurdish and Ninawa factions” following the departure of U.S. forces from the country between 2011-2014.[11]

Atrocities and indignities committed against different sects will complicate any future reconciliation process. As one example, in a security force in Mosul, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki replaced several well-respected Sunni Arab commanders with a group of politically appointed Shi’a commanders and disbanded forces of locally recruited Moslawis.[12] Summarily, Iraqi security forces conducted operations intended to “humiliate and punish the predominantly Sunni Arab Moslawis.”[13] This grievance allowed Sunni-backed ISIS elements the opportunity to infiltrate Mosul where they found a predominantly Sunni population looking for, at least initially, relief from abuses they experienced at the hands of Iraqi security forces backed by a Shi’a-led government in Baghdad.

Another conflict dynamic that must be explored is the conditions that have led previous members of the Iraqi armed forces to support violent extremist organizations (VEO). The ICAF supplement on violent extremism may be a useful tool for this analysis. The draft guidance explores the challenges VEOs face in maintaining territory, forming local and global alliances, and disseminating unified visions.

The other aspect of this step is to analyze social/institutional resiliency which is a socio-economic pattern or institutional practice that serves or may serve to diminish conflict among groups or to lessen the likelihood that conflicts will become violent.[14] There are current legal efforts to mitigate sectarian issues in the ISF such as Article 9 of the Iraqi Constitution which states, “the Iraqi armed forces will be composed of the components of the Iraqi people with due consideration given to the balance and representation without discrimination or exclusion.”[15] However, Article 9 is unclear and open to interpretation. Moreover, quota systems which ensure representation at the highest levels of the government have not been effectively implemented at lower levels of leadership or within the military.

With the recent history of human rights abuses by ISF forces against Moslawis from 2011-2014, and sensitivities to perceived heavy handed tactics by current Shi’a Prime Minister Abadi, a renewed focus has been put on selecting the right Iraqi commanders on the ground.  As a senior UN official in Iraq recently stated, “everyone recognizes that if there is a slaughter in Mosul, there will never be reconciliation.”[16] The Iraqi forces that initially entered Mosul were carefully selected based on their ability to show discipline and reach out to the local Sunni populations.  There has also been a focus on preserving lives and property, seen by the Iraqi government as “the first step in keeping the nation from fragmenting along sectarian lines.” [17]

Identify potential windows of opportunity and triggers. The ICAF defines windows of opportunity as a change in the strategic situation providing incentives or capacities for key actors to mobilize people or resources for or against a conflict.[18] The current battle against ISIS is a key window of opportunity because it has united the Iraqi people against a common enemy and forced many different military units to work together. Conventional ISF units include a mix of both regular military forces and Iraqi Federal Police (FEDPOL).  The FEDPOL have comprised an essential piece of the overall ISF campaign strategy, fighting alongside regular Iraqi Army units against ISIS strongholds in Mosul.[19]  The U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Force (CTF) was responsible for much of the campaign’s early success against ISIS east of the Tigris river.[20] The counter-ISIS fight has also served as a unifying factor among the various Peshmerga forces, which consist of various minority groups such as the Yazidi and Assyrian Christians as well as Kurds from Syria and Iran.[21]

The end of the conflict, possibly within the next year, could open a window for the splintering of the ISF and the country of Iraq itself. In August 2016, despite strong recommendations from the U.S. that they cooperate with Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) stated that those areas they “had liberated would remain in Kurdish hands after ISIS was defeated.”[22]  For the time being, the continued presence of ISIS in Mosul has sidelined some of the larger issues between Erbil and Baghdad, to include the KRG’s referendum on independence and disputes over oil exports.[23] The concern remains how these issues will play out following ISIS’ defeat.

Triggers are discrete, highly salient events that focus a window’s potential to rapidly convert a non-violent conflict into a violent one or vice versa.[24] One potentially dangerous trigger would be any attempt to dissolve the PMF following the end of the conflict with ISIS. In November 2016, Iraq’s Parliament formally recognized the PMF, placing them under the direct command of Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and bolstering the group’s legitimacy. Although unclear, it is estimated the PMF has well over 100,000 fighters that are loosely organized into militia groups associated with particular Shi’a political factions and, as mentioned previously, supported by Iran. 

A positive trigger could be the combined forces’ successful clearance of Mosul. Iraqi ground forces participating in Operation Eagle Strike (OES) consist of a combination of Iraqi Special Operations Forces, Shi’a backed PMF, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi FEDPOL, regular Iraqi Army units, and other Shi’a backed militia groups such as Hashd al-Shaabi, the Badr Corps, Kataib Hizbullah and the former Mehdi Army.[25] The ability of these diverse forces to work together to recapture ISIS’ “capital” in Iraq could be hailed as an example of how a unified ISF could work.

Identify and prioritize conflict dynamics. The ICAF will clearly outline the different conflict dynamics and determine which will have the highest anticipated impact. One of the primary conflict dynamics which must be resolved to achieve a sustainable ISF is creation of a sense of nationalism within the force. Historically, the Iraqi Army has served as a unifying and nationalistic force within the nation.[26] However, the ISF will need to regain the trust of a population wary of government entities after decades of Kurdish and Shi’a repression under Saddam Hussein, abandonment by the United States and the international community in 2011, and the recent atrocities committed by all sides. According to Gaub, “an armed force that has no identity will have difficulty providing its staff with a sense of duty to nation and country, and creating cohesion and commitment.”[27] Creating this nationalistic identity will require resolving or mitigating the many complicated underlying conflicts outlined above.

Phase 3: Recommendations and Use of Analysis

The final phase of the ICAF is to convert the in-depth analysis and understanding into executable policies. This involves analyzing the fit of current policies, strategies, and activities; recommending measures that better address the key conflict dynamics; and applying the recommendations to policy changes, planning processes, and programs.[28]

Analyze fit of policies, strategies, and activities. This step involves understanding existing policies and strategies and identifying gaps and challenges. Currently, Iraqi institutional reform trails behind ISF reform rather than providing the necessary foundation for a successful force. Effective legal and judicial systems which can implement Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs must be in place to provide oversight and support to the ISF. The Iraqi government will have to develop a process for demobilizing militias involved in the current fight against ISIS and providing alternate employment. Reintegration, and in many cases re-education, of Iraqi citizens forced or coerced into cooperating with ISIS fighters will be challenging. Although Prime Minister Abadi’s National Reconciliation Project partially addresses these concerns, several key aspects are currently stalled such as the amendments to the De-Baathification law and the National Guard Law.[29] Reconciliation efforts will involve both legal prosecution and tribal mediation to solve the myriad local conflicts from the most recent war against ISIS.

Recommend measures. The ICAF will result in specific recommendations for not only the U.S. government, but also for many of the key actors identified in Phase 1. Our coalition partners, particularly those neighboring Iraq and working with the ISF, will play key roles in implementing many of these recommendations.

Apply recommendations. The final step of Phase 3 is to apply the recommendations to policy change, strategic planning processes, and/or the design of programs or activities. Key to applying any recommendation will be how to successfully achieve unity of effort. One model which could be considered is the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program which was implemented at the end of the Vietnam conflict. This program consolidated command and funding under a single, empowered agency. CORDS, executed under the Commander, Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV), placed military assets and personnel under the control of civilians to implement a whole of government approach across South Vietnam. This coordinated implementation of a coherent, resourced strategy resulted in 93% of South Vietnamese living in “relatively secure” villages by 1970.[30]


The ICAF is a powerful and comprehensive tool for developing a whole of nation strategy for building a sustainable ISF. By analyzing and truly understanding the multiple conflict dynamics affecting the ISF and involving key stakeholders in their resolution, we will build a much more resilient, respected, and professional force. The current military-focused strategy is insufficient -- the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen currently advising the ISF have done a magnificent job, but their efforts alone cannot overcome the powerful dynamics ready to tear the proud Iraqi force apart. Through the rigorous application of the ICAF, we can leverage the United States’ and our coalition partners’ vast capabilities and experience to create lasting stability in Iraq through a respected and professional Iraqi Security Force.

This article is a submission to the Faculty of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School in partial satisfaction of the requirements for Joint Professional Military Education Phase II. The contents of this submission reflect our writing team’s original views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Joint Forces Staff College or the Department of Defense.

End Notes

[1] Parker, Ned, et al., “Special Report: How Mosul Fell – An Iraqi General Disputes Baghdad’s Story.” Reuters, 14 October 2014, Accessed 17 April 2017.

[2] Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, “Interagency Conflict Analysis (ICAF 2.0) Guidance Note,” April 2014, p.1.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4] Introduction to Conflict Analysis, Power Point presentation to Marine Corps University, January 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, p. 7.

[7] Testimony by Michael Barbero to House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security Hearing, “Assessing the Iran Deal,” 5 April 2017,  Accessed 18 April 2017.

[8] “Iran/Iraq/US Politics: Who Runs Iraq?”  The Economist Intelligence Unit, 15 April 2017,  Accessed 18 April 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, p. 8.

[11] Testimony by Michael Knights to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Iraq After Mosul,” 28 February 2017,  Accessed 18 April 2017.

[12] Knights, Michael, “How to Secure Mosul; Lessons from 2008-2014.”  The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 2016, p. 12. 

[13] Ibid, p. 12.

[14] Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, p. 9.

15 Gaub, Florence, “Rebuilding Armed Forces: Learning from Iraq and Lebanon.”Strategic Studies Institute, May 2011, p. 9.

[16] El-Ghobashy, Tamer and Ali Nabhan, “Iraqi Forces Show New Face in Mosul Push- Units Advancing into Islamic Territory Aim to  Ease Fears of Sectarian Vengeance,” Wall Street Journal, 3 November 2016,  Accessed 18 April 2017. 

[17] Ibid. 

[18] Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, p.11.

[19] “Iraqi Army,” Janes World Armies, 13 Mar 2017, p. 7.

[20] El-Ghobashy, Tamer and Ali Nabhan, “Iraqi Forces Shift Tactics in Mosul as Forces Advance on New Fronts; Federal Police are Joining Fight After Counterattacks by Islamic State Inflict Heavy Casualties,” Wall Street Journal, 29 December 2016,  Accessed 20 April 2017.

[21] Frantzman, Seth, “Mosul: The Origins and Future of Competing Agendas Over Retaking the City from ISIS,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 2 Summer 2016, p. 14.

[22] Ibid, p. 1.

[23] Ibid, p. 13.

[24] Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, p. 11.

[25] “Iraqi Army,” Janes World Armies, 13 Mar 2017, p. 5.

[26] Al-Marashi, Ibrahim, Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History. Routledge, New York, NY. 2008, p. 150.

[27] Gaub, p. 26.

[28] Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, p.14.

[29] IHS Global, “Iraq Country Monitor,“ Dec 2016.

[30] Scoville, Thomas W. Reorganizing for Pacification Support, Center of Military History, United States Army, 1982, pp 60-70, accessed 27 April 2017.


About the Author(s)

Commander Thomas Petersen, United States Navy, serves as the Executive Officer, Hopper Information Center, Office of Naval Intelligence. This paper is a submission to the Faculty of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School in partial satisfaction of the requirements for Joint Professional Military Education Phase II.

Major Randy Hughes, United States Air Force, serves with Logistics / Plans at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.  This paper is a submission to the Faculty of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School in partial satisfaction of the requirements for Joint Professional Military Education Phase II.

Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Choat, United States Marine Corps, serves as the G1, Marine Corps Base-Quantico, Virginia. This paper is a submission to the Faculty of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School in partial satisfaction of the requirements for Joint Professional Military Education Phase II.

Lieutenant Colonel Christina Bembenek, United States Army, serves with the Commander’s Action Group (CAG) at U.S. Central Command. This paper is a submission to the Faculty of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School in partial satisfaction of the requirements for Joint Professional Military Education Phase II.