In his 1966 classic, The Long, Long War: Counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam, British soldier and academic Richard Clutterbuck described the battle between the insurgent and the counterinsurgent as essentially ‘a competition in government’, echoing the analysis of Lt General Sir Harold Briggs, the predecessor of the more celebrated British commander in Malaya, Sir Gerald Templer.
It is in this light that the findings of a report entitled Uprooted and Unstable: Meeting Urgent Humanitarian Needs in Iraq [PDF], produced by Refugees International, should be interpreted.
Five years after the US-led invasion, Iraq remains a deeply violent and divided society. Faced with one of the largest displacement and humanitarian crises in the world, Iraqi civilians are in urgent need of assistance. Particularly vulnerable are the 2.7 million internally displaced Iraqis who have fled their homes for safer locations inside Iraq. Unable to access their food rations and often unemployed, they live in squalid conditions, have run out of resources and find it extremely difficult to access essential services. The US , the government of Iraq and the international community must begin to address the consequences of leaving Iraqis’ humanitarian needs unmet.
As a result of the vacuum created by the failure of both the Iraqi Government and the international community to act in a timely and adequate manner, non-state actors play a major role in providing assistance to vulnerable Iraqis. Militias of all denominations are improving their local base of support by providing social services in the neighborhoods and towns they control. Through a “Hezbollah-like” scheme, the Shiite Sadrist movement has established itself as the main service provider in the country. Similarly, other Shiite and Sunni groups are gaining ground and support through the delivery of food, oil, electricity, clothes and money to the civilians living in their fiefdoms. Not only do these militias now have a quasi-monopoly in the large-scale provision of assistance in Iraq, they are also recruiting an increasing number of civilians to their militias – including displaced Iraqis.
The way in which Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, gained local legitimacy and a comparatively broad constituency through the provision of welfare services that a dysfunctional state apparatus was unable to provide is well-known. In the face of both military pressure and political manoeuvring from the Maliki government, Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to pursue a similar strategy is therefore a smart move, and plays to the Sadrists’ strengths – namely, their identification and affiliation with the urban Shia working classes.
If the emerging cleavage between the central government and the various local factions that exist within the country is not to worsen, it is therefore vital that the Iraqi state retakes the initiative and begins visibly addressing welfare issues such as those posed by internally displaced people (IDPs). While the Refugees International report is right in arguing that the international community should be addressing this, it is critical that welfare measures are widely seen as resulting from Iraqi government initiatives, rather than international aid, if the central state is to win the competition in government with the militias.
Helping the Iraqi state address the IDP issue is important for another reason too. As described in the NPR report linked to below, a consequence of their usually violent displacement is the fact that the Shia and Sunni IDPs gravitating towards the various militias – whether al-Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi [Mahdi Army] or the Awakening movements – are commonly more radical in their outlook, less sensitive to the concerns of the local communities in which they find themselves, and less open to compromise and reconciliation than their non-IDP peers.
While there are all kinds of reasons not to force through a hurried return of IDPs to their original communities, some of which are elaborated upon in the Refugees International report, if we wish to prevent these IDPs becoming spoilers of any future political settlement, or footsoldiers for any aspiring rabble-rouser, they must not be left in limbo with their grievances unaddressed. The danger of failing to resolve the plight of such IDPs is well-illustrated throughout the Caucasus, where IDP populations, such as the Georgians displaced from the separatist Abkhazia region, are a radicalising force and a critical obstacle to the resolution of several ‘frozen conflicts’ left over from the early 90s.
Displaced Iraqis Turn to Militias for Help [Audio] – Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
Iraqi Militias Offering Aid To Displaced – Walter Pincus, Washington Post