A deeper understanding of where state power lies in Iraq and the structure of the PMF as a series of networks will provide a stronger basis for future reform strategies.
For Western actors and the current government of Iraq, policy options on the PMF have focused on how best to remove perceived malign actors and to integrate those deemed acceptable into the government, with an eye to establishing a centralized command structure. To achieve this strategy, they have pursued a series of policy options that follow one of two approaches: eliminate or integrate. The former includes policies that seek to fragment, isolate and undermine, weaken or eliminate particular networks from the PMF – the surgical strategy described in the introduction. The second approach involves a series of policy options that seek to shape PMF behaviour or prospects by focusing on accountability to the central government. Policymakers have struggled to translate either approach into tangible results because they have not been guided by a clear, coherent and realistic strategy that recognizes and navigates the networks that currently make up the Iraqi state. This paper has argued that the neo-Weberian approach that sees formal government institutions as the source of state power and separates the state from the rest of society is not an accurate reflection of power dynamics and nodal connectivity. Instead, a more effective approach would be to base reform efforts on a strategy that understands the nature of state power, based on the connectivity of parochial and vanguard networks, and incorporates the PMF and other networks into a workable and accountable security structure that is more in line with the reality of the Iraqi state.
Achieving this strategy requires focusing on both the PMF networks and the structural problems that facilitated the establishment of the PMF and other political parties, each with its own armed wing, that operate without accountability. The following list of policy options have largely been ineffective in reform because they have not been based on this reading of the Iraqi state.
Co-opt and fragment
The struggle to build both horizontal and vertical ties has resulted in the PMF’s failure to become an integrated organization. At times, this poor interconnection has created the impression that the organization is vulnerable to disruption and fragmentation. Yet, the nature of the networks and their symbiotic relationship with the Iraqi state make them more robust than they appear.
Some policymakers have suggested a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy, advocating the isolation of some PMF groups, to fragment or disrupt the networks, and to pressure some elements to defect. US officials have wondered whether certain ‘reformist’ or ‘non-hardline’ PMF leaders could be ‘co-optable’. Considerations for this approach include figures such as Hadi al-Ameri or Faleh al-Fayadh, whose own personal ambitions could be exploited, which might result in a weakening of the more militaristic or pro-Iranian groups. The US has also sought to convince the Sistani Atabat networks to split from the PMF Commission.
However, attempts to co-opt such individuals or groups have thus far failed. Do disruption, co-opting and defection strategies work when dealing with an armed group that is comprised of multiple networks and highly integrated into other political and societal channels? Research carried out in another context sheds some light on this question. A study into the disruption of covert movements in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found that these networks were ‘intractable’ where they had become so deeply embedded in the state and in other societal and business networks to the extent that state/non-state and formal/informal dichotomies no longer applied. In such a context, the study concluded that ‘covert’ networks are impossible to disentangle from ‘non-covert’ ones. Furthermore, brokerage networks that are the essence of both state and societal functioning ‘do not discriminate between nodes that are civilians, state representatives, warlords or other armed groups’.
So many actors are ‘double-hatted’ in their positions, affiliations and loyalties, that even the distinctions between groups (within the PMF, as well as between the PMF and other state or non-state entities) are muddied.
This study offers a way to interpret the PMF as a series of networks that are deeply integrated across a range of government offices and private-sector businesses, which are interconnected through social ties that cannot easily be segregated and isolated. The current PMF networks have morphed far beyond their original political and societal bases. They cannot be defined as formal and informal, or state and non-state. Even if elements might be isolated or co-opted, it would likely have a minimal impact on PMF networks since they are so widely diffused. The PMF is not a series of disparate groups with a few individuals playing a bridging role to other PMF groups or other political, religious or business interests in Iraq. Instead, a very high percentage of actors, or brokers, within each network play an interconnecting and bridging role. In fact, so many actors are ‘double-hatted’ in their positions, affiliations and loyalties, that even the distinctions between groups (within the PMF, as well as between the PMF and other state or non-state entities) are muddied. The networks do not depend on a cohesive whole or on an uninterrupted, institutionalized chain of command to operate. The series of networks that make up the PMF are fluid and adaptable to isolation strategies. Consequently, so-called ‘co-optable’ individuals have at times turned their backs on agreements made with US or foreign policymakers.
Building competitors or rival institutions is another policy aimed at achieving a centralized governing command structure in Iraq. These institutions, the theory goes, if trained and equipped with foreign support, can both provide sufficient protection for the Iraqi government and at the same time weaken the influence of the PMF networks. Examples include US support for the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), the prime minister’s office, local security or governance actors, or even to select groups within the PMF (namely the Tribal Mobilization Forces programme). In all these cases, one of the ambitions has been to pick away at the PMF’s control in the Iraqi state network.
However, this policy of building rival institutions has not worked. Instead, it has led to islands of institutions – groups that are far removed from centres of power or key brokers in either the PMF networks or the Iraqi state network.
However, this policy of building rival institutions has not worked. Instead, it has led to islands of institutions – groups that are far removed from centres of power or key brokers in either the PMF networks or the Iraqi state network. These islands have proven unable to defend themselves against larger challenges in the Iraqi state. Any attempt to empower competitors from within the network would need to be coupled with a broader, or longer-term, strategy based on establishing a more coherent organization that includes connecting such alternatives with the wider Iraqi state network. Although the CTS and PMF fought on the same side during the war against ISIS, they rarely sat in the same room. The CTS was isolated and powerless in regard to the Iraqi state network.
The financial impropriety, corruption and embezzlement that exist in PMF networks suggest that economic penalties may be effective in eroding PMF power. Yet, much of the literature on sanctions casts doubt on how well they work. A number of PMF groups and leaders have been designated as terrorist organizations or individuals by the US State Department or been sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Some leaders, such as Qais al-Khazali and Laith al-Khazali, are sanctioned under both. Such sanctions are intended to be a punitive stick, but to function as such they need to exact real costs for the individuals or groups concerned. Some of those who support sanctions argue that the target is not necessarily the individual but rather it is others who make up the individual’s network. Personal ambition in formal politics – which requires access to international travel and financial systems – may force these members to disconnect from the network of a targeted leader. Yet, in many cases the connectivity of nodes to a targeted leader has not changed.
These effects are weakened where those issuing the sanction have insufficient information about the nature of the networks, their strategies and capabilities, and, critically, their connectivity to the Iraqi state network. Both vanguard and parochial networks have evaded sanctions by cooperating with other leaders or groups in the Iraqi state. It has become more difficult to target specific sanctions and create disincentives or punishments. A sanctioned leader laughed when the topic came up in conversation with the author, bragging that he was still flying his private plane inside and outside Iraq. Where individuals or groups easily evade the impact of sanctions, this undermines the credibility of the measure and the overall ability to achieve policy objectives.
Sanctions also produce consequences for domestic actors, such as government leaders or civil society activists who are perceived as too pro-American. They face threats of intimidation and even assassination, and vanishing job opportunities, while their families may be pressured and harassed. Given that one of the primary opportunities to counter the PMF would be by supporting and strengthening other state and societal actors who pursue a different vision for the Iraqi state, poorly targeted sanctions will likely fail to deter or punish PMF behaviour and could also create a backlash that would limit other avenues for reform.
The most hard-line approach to eliminating certain PMF groups or leaders is through military action. In response to increasing tensions and threats, the US has conducted a number of strikes against PMF leaders, forces or facilities, including strikes on weapons depots and facilities in 2019 and 2020. Some security analysts in Washington champion this use of force, including the assassination of Muhandis, arguing that such military strikes can break the central node of the PMF. Policy advisers have even argued that the US should send 100,000 troops back to Iraq to defeat the PMF – a policy akin to the US fight with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in 2008. Despite the costs of that battle in 2008, the Mahdi Army networks remained intact. However, while the US has eliminated leaders in the past, they have been unable to eliminate the networks or reform the structures that produce PMF leaders.
However, while the US has eliminated leaders in the past, they have been unable to eliminate the networks or reform the structures that produce PMF leaders.
Targeting is more effective when it is against armed groups that are poorly linked to the state. Although some US policymakers have referred to the PMF as the Shia version of ISIS, the comparison does not work. The PMF may not have a fully institutionalized military structure, but it is not an insurgent network that might easily be decimated and disrupted by strikes. The PMF networks are diversified and span political and societal nodes. Thus, even if high-level and significant nodes are targeted, the networks can regenerate and at times be even more hostile to reform. Throughout the years, and although some analysts constantly beat the drums of war in Iraq, US military strikes on leaders from the PMF networks have failed to reform Iraq or achieve Washington’s interests. Those who championed the strike on Muhandis argued it would be a blow to the counter-protest movement. However, a year later, the state continues to assassinate, arrest and intimidate protesters and activists.
Military attacks have generated immediate repercussions, including violent retaliatory attacks, significant limitations on engagement, wider targeting of those perceived to be aligned with US interests, and the general weakening of the position of key Iraqi stakeholders who might seek to limit or contain the PMF. The assassination of Muhandis further radicalized vanguard PMF networks and limited the ability to restrain aggressive behaviour in ways that threatened Iraqi and foreign interests. In the fallout, resistance groups emerged that were strengthened from within the PMF network. Prior to the strike, reformist elements of the PMF had been seeking engagement. Several key PMF leaders who were part of the political electioneering in 2018 had openly voiced support for US troops remaining engaged in Iraq. While many Iraqi state officials, and members of society did not agree with the direction taken by Muhandis, there were options to debate issues of ultra vires behaviour of PMF groups. Several protest leaders confided in the author that even at the peak of counter-protest violence in late 2019, they had a line of communication with Muhandis. His removal reduced the possibility of engagement between either Iraqi government leaders or protesters and PMF leaders. Instead, senior PMF leaders who also had acted as intermediaries, such as Qais al-Khazali, went into hiding, fearful that they would be targeted next.
In late 2019, the author was at a meeting that included members from PMF networks, other Iraqi state officials and researchers, including Hisham al-Hashimi. Following the meeting, the PMF networks leaked a story in private WhatsApp groups that Hashimi had criticized the PMF for its role in attacking protesters who had been demonstrating since October. After this leak, Hashimi began to receive death threats. He immediately went to Qais al-Khazali – a key broker in the PMF networks. With a phone call, Khazali removed the threat against Hashimi. After the US strike on Muhandis, one month after this incident, groups linked to the KH vanguard network renewed their threats against Hashimi. This time, Khazali was in hiding and Muhandis was gone. Hashimi found it more difficult to get to the network brokers. He was assassinated by individuals linked to vanguard networks who then fled into Iran.
Targeting insurgent or armed group networks will be dramatically less effective in leading to their dissolution where those groups have a foreign sponsor and safe harbour on the border. Many benefit from their linkages to Iran. In 2008, Muqtada al-Sadr was able to escape to Iran where he remained in refuge while his networks re-formed.
Since 2003, the US and its allies have on several occasions used military strikes against their perceived enemies in Iraq. They have declared victories against a host of armed groups from salafi-jihadist networks such as ISIS to Shia armed groups such as the Mahdi Army. Yet, despite all their military efforts, these networks have remained, largely because the strikes have not been part of a clear, realistic and coherent strategy to achieve a centralized command structure in Iraq. The PMF is so well integrated into all aspects of the state and its influence so widespread and diffuse, that a military solution would likely trigger a society-wide, multiplayer conflict.
Encouraging accountability and coherence in networks
Scholarly and policy approaches have framed the PMF variously as a non-state, hybrid or state actor, but they have all nonetheless tried to understand it in terms of being an organization. However, this paper argues that the PMF is not an integrated organization but rather a series of fluid and adaptive networks, each of which operates under divergent strategies and capabilities. Critically, these networks are not isolated from other Iraqi state networks, which cooperate and compete in the security, political and economic spaces. The PMF networks are just one part of the array of forces that make up the incoherent Iraqi state.
The policy options described above – divide and conquer, building alternatives, sanctions and military strikes – have failed to remove PMF networks or fundamentally reform their behaviour because they have not been guided by a clear and coherent strategy that understands the PMF as a series of networks and the nature of the Iraqi state.
Any ‘end state’ should not be guided by unrealistic ambitions that the Iraqi government can eliminate antagonistic parts of the PMF and, at some point, completely monopolize legitimate violence under a central node. Such ambitions have proven unsuccessful in Iraq as well as in the wider Middle East, where most states do not resemble the neo-Weberian ideal. Instead, a realistic approach to the PMF should be informed by two key principles: (a) the nature of the PMF network (parochial vs vanguard) will determine its strategies, capabilities and role in any reform programme; and (b) the connectivity of the network to other networks in the Iraqi state means that any approach needs to focus on key structural challenges.
Policymakers can work backwards to formulate tactics – short- and long-term – that operate simultaneously and remain focused on the structural goal of accountability of all networks and groups inside the Iraqi state.
The nature of the network will determine its strategies and capabilities
Policymakers looking at reducing the influence of the PMF and establishing a unified governing structure should first map and navigate the current PMF networks. An understanding of the nature of PMF networks – parochial or vanguard – would offer insights into their strategies and capabilities and allow policymakers to better anticipate reactions to any action taken.
More parochial networks, such as Saraya al-Salam, Badr or AAH, command a social base, which vote for them in elections and as such provide them with institutional power in the Iraqi state. As a result, the leaders of these networks enjoy authority based on ideational and economic capital linked to the Iraqi state. Their rhetoric at times has included the need for reform, to satisfy their own increasingly disgruntled social base. As such, inducements, including funding and institutional reform, might elicit more of a response from these network leaders than punishments and sanctions.
However, the fractured leadership in parochial networks means that one leader cannot represent the whole network. Past attempts to negotiate with Sadr have not been fruitful because he does not speak on behalf of the entire network. Similarly, attempts to negotiate with Ameri, who formally leads Badr and Binaa, have not been successful because of the challenges he faces from other leaders in Badr and the wider network. Policymakers therefore need to navigate these networks carefully, understanding the limitations of each parochial leader.
Networks that resemble a more vanguard structure, such as KH, are less accountable to a large social base. These networks are ill-equipped to manage a transition into normal politics, to shift into non-violent protest, or to create innovative governance. They have less social power and rely on conflict and ideological disputes. The language of reform or nationalism does not appeal to them, nor does moving from war to peace. They may not be able to deliver on a political settlement like the parochial networks because of weak ties to a social base and communities, but they cannot be rooted out. Without a social base, they are more a product of top-down interference. This may make them seem more flexible, as the leadership can quickly agree on a course of action. However, the inability to command a base will impede the prospect of longer-term settlements. As a result, they are more likely to rely on a foreign patron like Iran.
Yet, vanguard leaders enjoy strong ties with each other. Their groups easily morph or move under their guidance. Coherence across the leadership allows these networks to easily distance themselves from certain actors, if needed – popping up in different places under different names. As such, vanguard groups cannot be completely discounted as policymakers look to deal with the influence of the PMF. Vanguard groups in Iraq should be considered much more of a by-product of conflict, Iranian meddling and failed governance. Their relevance therefore will diminish not through direct engagement but rather by reforming the structures that created them.
The civilian component of the PMF provides an opportunity for international actors to engage. Part of this strategy should include engagement with network brokers who can effectively speak on behalf of the PMF. Network brokers exist across this space in both parochial and vanguard networks. For the policymaker, these brokers serve as nodes to help reach a desired strategy. The key is to create sufficient incentives to push these brokers towards reform while minimizing their ability to reject the idea. Critically, these network brokers need not be directly in the PMF. They can also be in other parts of the Iraqi state network but may enjoy strong relations with PMF networks. For example, Nouri al-Maliki is a key network broker because he has strong relations to several parochial and vanguard PMF groups. In the past, his own network has proven crucial in brokering agreements between vanguard groups and the Iraqi government, such as his role in settling a dispute between KH and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in June 2020.
Dealing with networks requires a structural approach in security and politics
The PMF is not an anomaly. Its strategies and activities are part and parcel of Iraqi politics, practised by the wide array of mainstream parties that at times directly connect to PMF networks. A reform initiative aimed at improving Iraq’s governing command structure should not only focus on the PMF, but all other actors that make up the Iraqi state. The long-term ambition towards establishing a transparent, accountable and coherent Iraqi state requires an approach that embodies both security and political considerations.
In the security sector, policymakers should focus on a series of trade-offs that recognize the PMF as a state security institution – a form of national guard – but under a series of standardized operating procedures that hold its military leadership accountable to the NSC. The NSC should have the power to appoint the PMF Commission president, who legally should not have any political standing. It should have oversight over the commission and appoint an independent inspector general to be based in the commission. The NSC should prioritize transparency in PMF operations and activities including unit structure, number of fighters and their pay, and in economic transactions with public and private sector institutions. The PMF should serve as a guard – with some active forces and some reservists – that can be deployed.
Yet, over the years, policy recommendations have repeated similar suggestions that include variations of professionalizing the armed groups; strengthening judicial oversight and watchdog entities; centralizing the judicial jurisdiction of all security institutions including the PMF; making financial transactions more transparent; strengthening anti-corruption infrastructure; and enforcing political party law and other legal mechanisms. Western policymakers have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to these recommendations, to no avail. In a Chatham House roundtable, senior US and European policymakers who had years of experience in Iraq had quite divergent ideas on how to achieve the desired end state of a coherent governing structure. However, the policymakers all agreed that these typical recommendations and current security sector reform (SSR) strategies have never worked in Iraq. They went so far as to suggest these policies end. Blanket and vague recommendations and policies have failed because they have not grasped that these networks are structures that operate within the Iraqi state. Policymakers need to reassess and set aside their current security sector strategies and focus more on applying coherence and accountability to the Iraqi state – however different it may look to their idealized version.