Could defectors be a silver bullet against the enemies of Iraqi democracy?
The decision of L. Paul Bremer, the senior American official in Iraq, to allow some former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party back into Iraqi government and military positions is creating controversy. To be sure, this policy reversal, nearly a year after the United States drove the Ba’athists from power, is risky. It could make matters much worse by alienating key U.S. allies among the long-oppressed Kurds and Shia Arabs. The Shia community, in particular, concerned about a resumption of Sunni minority rule, could feel betrayed and become willing to throw its lot in with Iran.
The best-case scenario, however, is that the recruitment of Ba’athist fighters becomes the key to quelling the rebellion by Saddam loyalists in the Ba’athist stronghold of the Sunni Triangle. A look at British military history shows that turncoats can be an effective tool in counterinsurgency.
It was by transforming hardened enemies into allies that Britain defeated insurgents in Oman in the 1970s. The historical parallels are instructive: Oman, like Iraq, was strategically located, was threatened by a domestic insurgency that had some foreign support and was a battle that the free world could not afford to lose.
Oman, through whose territorial waters much of the world’s oil supply travels, was struggling to defeat an uprising in its southern border province of Dhofar. The Dhofar insurgents were supported by South Yemen, a Marxist state that was an ally of the Soviet Union. The leftist, pro-Soviet regimes running Egypt, Iraq and Syria were ascendant. The outlook for the pro-Western Gulf monarchies was bleak. Britain had been forced out of South Yemen in 1967, one of only two occasions when insurgents have gotten the better of British forces (the other was in 1783).
The British took two drastic steps, one political and the other military. First, Britain allowed a palace coup that ousted Sultan Said of Oman in July 1970 and replaced him with his son, Sultan Qaboos. The new ruler of Oman pumped money into Dhofar. The province, which contained one-eighth of Oman’s population, received one-quarter of the development budget.
The second British measure was to break up the enemy by encouraging defections. Surrendered enemy fighters were put into special units called the firqat (translation: the group). The firqat then used their connections to their former comrades among the rebels to encourage further defections. The tactic was daring. Rebels were allowed to enter firqat camps fully armed before they decided to change sides. Some 2,000 rebels joined the firqat, a remarkable number given that the total population of Dhofar was just 50,000.
Similar tactics that confuse the enemy but also offer them a way out could be considered in Iraq. By recruiting from the Ba’athists, who are as closely knit to each other as the Dhofar rebels, the United States might be able to drain enemy manpower while strengthening its own. Defections in Dhofar sowed distrust and demoralization within the ranks of the rebels — precisely what Washington wants in Iraq. Defectors also generated important intelligence gains, because nobody knows the enemy better than the enemy himself.
Like the British, the United States would have to give the Ba’athists good reasons to betray their comrades. At present, many Ba’athists believe that they must fight to the end because their crimes are unpardonable.
And the victims of the Ba’athists, such as the Shia Arabs, might feel betrayed by anyamnestyforany Ba’athists. The sensitivities in Iraq are clearly greater than they were in Oman. Hopefully, Mr. Bremer is building in safeguards so that only lower-level Ba’athists, not high-ranking Saddam cronies, are eligible to join defector units.
And, as happened in Oman, the United States would have to limit the operations of the defectors to a specified area. In Iraq that would mean the Ba’athist heartland of the Sunni Triangle. Above all, and again following the example of Oman, defector units would probably have to be a separate part of the security forces to minimize the risk if they proved unreliable.
Possible incentives might include amnesties and the possibility of family relocation. The message to the Ba’athists would be similar to that to the Dhofar rebels: There is a future for them after they help destroy the cause for which they once fought. The firqats, after playing a major role in defeating the Dhofar rebels, are today an integral part of the Omani security forces. By granting the firqats an enduring role, the Omani government gave its former enemies an honorable way out of rebellion.
Using defectors does not mean letting criminals off the hook. Rather, as the British experience shows, it gives criminals an opportunity to atone for their crimes by defeating the criminal enterprise they once served.
Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He recently visited Iraq.