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Civil-military relations: the unfolding crisis in Iraq

Once the war against Iraq is over, a major humanitarian crisis is expected to unfold. How the international community responds will be governed by a doctrine called CIMIC – Civil Military Cooperation.

The advent of 'humanitarian intervention' in the course of the 1990s in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor has prompted a growing debate on the nature and conduct of 'Civil Military Cooperation' or CIMIC.

A number of Western countries such as Sweden, Canada and Switzerland have produced fairly elaborate CIMIC doctrines. These help define the conduct of their militaries in humanitarian operations and their relationship with humanitarian bodies and nongovernmental organisations working in the field as part of aid and post-conflict and peace building programmes.

'Civil Military Cooperation' is thus an increasingly influential body of discourse that has emerged in the post-Cold War era. It is a largely optimistic set of ideas that is anchored in older traditions of thought that have been concerned, since the late 19th century, in constraining militarist forces and forcing them to accommodate to the demands of civil society.

Perhaps for this reason in some quarters of Western armed forces CIMIC has never been particularly well received. For die-hard realists power and the ability to project force is ultimately what really matters in international relations. CIMIC raises the spectacle of soldiers becoming little more than second-class social workers, ill-suited to play a front-line role in serious armed conflict.

This conventional view might suffice if we continue to take a conventional view of war as the continuation of politics by other means. A number of analysts though have pointed out in the last ten years that we may be entering into what has been termed an era of "new war". According to this view, war is changing in an era of growing globalisation. Nation states are declining as the major actors in international politics and, in cases such as Somalia and Liberia, have fragmented into lawless regions run by a variety of militarised groupings including teenage gangs, drug barons and regional warlords. These are in turn slotted into a series of international markets where they can trade drugs and diamonds for weapons.

Given the changing realities, the advocates of CIMIC see it as the key to restoring order into such regions as well as helping facilitate good working relationships between intervening peacekeeping forces and NGOs in "complex emergencies". Some critics remain sceptical of the good intentions behind the role of many of the militaries involved in such operations, pointing out that in many cases the NGOs were working there long before the military actually intervened. The NGO world has become split over how far to accept working alongside the military.

For some purists any collaboration is the start of a slippery slope that leads to aid workers becoming the extensions of military intelligence and a front for winning over "hearts and minds".

For other NGOs the increasingly insecure position that civilian organisations and aid workers find themselves in during some complex emergencies such as Bosnia and the Great Lakes conflict mean that collaboration with the military is the only sensible thing to do.

The debate within the NGO world is likely to continue – indeed, it is sharpening over the Iraq conflict.

The prospect of US intervention in Iraq raises the question of what sort of civil military relations are likely to result from the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is far from being a 'failed state' like Afghanistan and has both a secularised society and well- educated middle class. It runs some risk of fragmentation if revolts ensue from the Shiite Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north. But the US seems likely to maintain political stability by imposing a military administration modelled on the post-war administration in Japan under General Douglas MacArthur.

The US administration may well find itself operating more or less on its own without any significant international or UN backing. The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has not so far produced any sort of detailed planning for post-conflict reconstruction. While therefore the US is formally keen to see the UN run an international civilian administration in Iraq, it may well end up having to do the job itself.

It will in all likelihood press ahead with a model of civil military relations orientated towards destroying the grip of the ruling Baathist party on Iraqi society and remodel the political system on broadly Western pluralistic lines once it has found an acceptable class of civilian politicians. Such a model, some of the more zealous members of the current Bush administration in Washington hope, will in time provide a new bench mark for the reconstruction of states in the Middle East as part of a longer term strategy to contain and beat back radical Islamist forces.

To this extent, it is possible to see post-conflict civil military relations in Iraq as linked to a wider crusading impulse to reconstruct the ruling regimes of the Middle East. In this project, the US and its closest Western allies may find themselves embroiled in a long-term grand strategy to foster both a civil society and democratic culture in Middle Eastern regimes as well as reduce the role and power of the military.

They have taken the entire arena of civil military relations into a new and far-reaching dimension in which CIMIC, along with the strategy against international terrorism, has entered into the centre of Western grand strategy as opposed to being confined to the periphery of strategic thought.

Can though such a radical remodelling of civil military relations be successful in the context of widespread opposition from international public opinion? The previous strategies of all post-war US administrations have always been – in greater or lesser degree – to work multilaterally through the major international institutions. The current Iraqi crisis raises the question of whether this policy will continue in the future.

Common sense suggests sooner or later the US will recognise that it cannot continue with such a policy if faced with much widespread international opposition. The massive military superiority the US has over all of its rivals cannot alone secure international acquiescence and the US will ultimately wish to relinquish the burden of re-ordering Iraqi domestic politics to a wider set of international bodies.

However, the pattern set by the likely US presence in Baghdad will have widespread repercussions on the nature of global civil military relations in the years ahead.

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Panos London

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