THE BLOG
10/07/2014 07:11 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

How We Enabled ISIS By Disarming Iraqi Militias

As ISIS raced through Western Iraq, cutting through Kurdish villages and Sunni enclaves with rapid speed, the United States reacted with shock. How could the Iraqi Army "go ARVN," the term used in South Vietnam for an army that gave up resistance rapidly? Why weren't locals fighting back? Why did the United States have to drop in military supplies?

The problem wasn't a recent one. It was an older one, which went back to Iraqi politicians who wanted their rivals to be disarmed, and a U.S. government who went along with this disarmament policy. As a result, the locals were unable to defend themselves against ISIS fighters.

As far back as 2006, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered all rivals to be disarmed, including those belonging to the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites who didn't support his regime, according to CNN.

"Al-Maliki said Iraqi society must be cleansed of terrorism, the government must be rid of "administrative corruption" and factional militias must be disarmed.
"We must also address the issue of government centrality and the centrality of the armed forces and that weapons must only be in the hands of the government and the people must be disarmed," he said.
He said that "no militia in Iraq can share authority with the government's armed forces" and cited the constitution, "which states the dissolving of these militias into the security forces and to end their affiliation with the political parties they belong to."

Al-Maliki pointed to job creation strategies that would help steer manpower away from those groups.
"We would like to argue against all the arguments that will be put forth that militias are necessary to protect themselves and so on," said al-Maliki, who emphasized that "the presence of these militias will add to the tension and the danger of a civil war."

The policy continued through 2008, as CBS News reported. Additionally, Middle East scholar Juan Cole reported on news from Al-Hayat.

"Aljazeera showed al-Maliki and president Jalal Talabani urging all the major parties to pledge to disarm their militias. This plea will fall on deaf ears, in part because it is so hypocritical. Al-Maliki increasingly depends on the Badr Corps militia of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and Talabani's power comes in large part from the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, which he got recognized in the constitution as Kurdistan's national guard. So some militias are more equal than other militias.
The official spokesman of the Sadr bloc, Salih al-`Ukaili, told al-Hayat that al-Maliki's statement was an attempt to throw dust in people's eyes, since he had pledged to stop arresting militia commanders, but he had not in fact stopped. He complained that "American troops are still spreading fear among the people of Sadr City, where they have positioned large forces at the entrances to the district's quarters, engaging in nighttime incursions and arresting hundreds of youth without warrants."

After al-Maliki was forced to finally resign a month or so ago, Cole provided more details about how the Iraqi Prime Minister disarmed everyone who wasn't a supporter and the United States politicians went along with the idea despite protests from U.S. military officials from 2006 through 2008.

"Al-Maliki was so partisan in 2006 when he first came to power that he denied that Shiite militias were a security problem. When Gen. David Petraeus came to him in late 2006 with a plan to disarm the Sunni and Shiite militias in Baghdad, al-Maliki insisted that he begin with the Sunni armed groups. The US acquiesced, but as a result, the Shiite militias came into disarmed Sunni neighborhoods at night when the Americans weren't looking, and ethnically cleansed them. Baghdad went from some 45% Sunni in 2003 to only 25% Sunni by the end of 2007. Al-Maliki's sectarianism led to the transformation of Baghdad into a largely Shiite city.

Gen. Petraeus and others cultivated Sunnis who were alarmed at the rise of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the predecessor of today's so-called "Islamic State"), and created "Awakening Councils" of armed Sunnis willing to fight the extremists. Al-Maliki opposed this program and had shouting matches with Petraeus over it, fearing that the armed Sunnis would become a problem for his Shiite government after the defeat of al-Qaeda. (In fact, if only al-Maliki could get the Awakening Councils back now, he'd be very lucky). As the American forces withdrew from a combat role in 2009, US generals asked al-Maliki to hire the some 100,000 Sunni Awakening Council fighters. They could have been integrated into the police in cities like Mosul or Fallujah. Al-Maliki took about 17,000 of them, but left the other 83,000 twisting in the wind, without any stipends or pensions. Because they had fought al-Qaeda, they were targeted by the terrorists for reprisals and some were killed. In some instances al-Maliki actually prosecuted some Awakening Council fighters for anti-government activities they had engaged in before they joined the Council. Figure each of the 83,000 had a circle of 20 close relatives and friends. That was 1.6 million Sunni Arabs (out of some 5 million at the time) that al-Maliki alienated."

Of course, al-Maliki was the biggest problem. And President Obama deserves some blame as well for not protesting the Iraqi Prime Minister's actions when he came into office. But it is shocking that this policy began under the Bush Administration, and the pro-gun conservatives in America accepted this, even though they tout the need for Americans to be able to defend themselves. Why didn't they allow Kurds and Sunni Awakening Councils, who were allies in Iraqi, to protect themselves against threats? Of course, Bush was looking to strengthen the Iraqi government as a success story, and if they didn't want groups able to protect themselves, that was too bad. But now as we drop military supplies to enable our former allies to defend themselves, we may have to rethink the wisdom of empowering the state at the expense of the individual. It's what Republicans preach back home, right?

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.