The Challenge of Power

Stephen DeAngelis

January 23, 2009

The Washington Post recently published a fascinating profile about a young Iraqi power broker who has become the dominant authority in small Iraqi town called Thuluyah [“New Paths to Power Emerge in Iraq,” by Anthony Shadid, 13 January 2008]. The report is a cautionary tale about short-term success and probable long-term failure. Shadid begins:

“Nadhim Khalil wears the clothes of the cleric he is. He bears the scars of the insurgent he was. And in a country where business these days is power, he talks the speech of the merchant he has become, plying his trade in a contest for authority.”

As a businessman, I would normally cheer the fact that “business these days is power” in Iraq. It’s a sign that the country is turning from conflict to commerce and that is a good thing. But commerce is generally about profits not power and that is what makes Shadid’s article a cautionary tale about the future of Iraq. Shadid’s description of Khalil is not one of an honest businessman but one of a mob boss who controls all aspects of the town’s life. That is not a good thing.

“Imbued with the swagger of youth, lording over this oasis-like town on a bend of the Tigris River, Khalil has power, the fruits of a singularly Iraqi odyssey that has taken this scion of a religious family from the leadership of the local branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, responsible for a reign that saw residents executed in the streets, into the generous arms of the American military and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his erstwhile foes. Khalil’s analysis is blunt: He used to be on the losing side. His formula is simple: With God, guns and money, he is now the authority in town.”

Khalil’s story is typical of what happens when the rule of law fails because the central government doesn’t have enough capacity to provide internal security within a country. It is a storyline that can be found in other places as well — like Afghanistan and Somalia. One of the guiding principles of the development community (and of Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach) is strengthening domestic capacities to govern. Without such capacities, corruption grows, crime increases, and the business environment suffers. Development efforts are completely undercut when efficient governance is lacking. Shadid discusses how quickly nefarious forces fill in gaps in governance.

“Khalil’s ascent here is a legacy of the war that has all but ended and the struggle that has begun in Iraq, shaped by the expediency of American tactics to quell the insurgency and the combustible, shifting landscape those choices have left behind. War and occupation shattered old notions of power here, embedded in patronage and tradition. In places like Thuluyah, new leaders and forces are emerging, redrawing the maps of towns and regions that, in quick succession, have passed from the hands of Saddam Hussein, through the throes of the insurgency and into today’s far murkier contest. Fierce in its customs, Thuluyah is a microcosm of Sunni Muslim regions of the country, residents like to say. If so, the town is a sober harbinger. Khalil, often forthright, sometimes persuasive and occasionally thuggish, has become the strongman. Just 30 years old, Khalil has inherited from his family the town’s biggest mosque, where brimming crowds gather on Fridays for his stentorian sermons. He heads the council that oversees the hundreds of armed men who deserted the insurgency for U.S.-funded units known as the Sons of Iraq, outnumbering the police and army unit stationed here. The mention of Khalil’s name — Mullah Nadhim, as he is known here — ensures passage through their checkpoints. He heads a council of tribal leaders that provides a channel to Maliki, who offered his hand in friendship in a meeting in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The elected city council can only watch and complain — in whispers — about a man they fear. The town’s elders scoff at his age and pedigree, with a wayward glance. ‘My opinion?’ asked Abdullah Jabbouri, a council member and former general. He paused, smiling a little sheepishly. ‘Anyone who has absolute power becomes dangerous, even to himself,’ he said.”

There is an “official government” in Thuluyah, but it has no capacity to govern. As a result, none of the locals look to it for any of the normal services that a government should supply. This is what Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart call the “sovereignty gap” [for more about their ideas read my post More on Dealing with Failed States]. As Shadid puts it:

“The city council is universally despised, castigated as corrupt and dismissed as impotent. Tribal leaders hold sway. On a recent day, the sheiks of the region’s tribes met in Balad to negotiate blood money for 14 construction workers from that town whom al-Qaeda members from Thuluyah had executed with a bullet to the back of the head in 2006. But even the sheiks complain they no longer enjoy the same writ in a terrain shaped by force of arms and patronage that comes through ties to the American military and the government. Khalil calls the perspective of the tribal leaders ‘limited.’ That leaves Khalil himself, who is called commander by the 700 members of the Sons of Iraq in the region. In mismatched uniforms or civilian clothes, they man checkpoints on the town’s main road, draped in bandoleers and waving walkie-talkies. He heads a council of 10 tribal leaders established last year by Maliki, the prime minister’s tentative but far-reaching attempt to cultivate rural support. He said he meets with the U.S. military every two weeks. Each Tuesday, he gathers a council in Thuluyah with the mayor and heads of the police, city council and army to review security here. … [City leaders are concerned about Khalil’s power. They say] Khalil’s conversion was akin to a cleric banning alcohol, then mixing the first drink. Money and power have made him a pharaoh. His guns, in the hands of his men, have left the city council with no qudra, or capability. Though elected to office, the [city councilmen] find themselves on the outside looking in.”

Right now the U.S. military is happy to have Khalil’s guns pointed at common adversaries and away from American forces. Once U.S. forces depart, however (a day for which Khalil longs), things are likely to turn ugly if the central government cannot disarm Khalil’s forces and provide the necessary peace and stability in the region. Like a true mobster, Khalil is unlikely to give up his authority peacefully.

“‘The fight now is the fight over the finger,’ Khalil said over a lunch of roast lamb and rice, grilled fish, okra and more lamb, after delivering his sermon. He meant the coming election and the indigo stain Iraqis receive after voting. He meant, too, that he himself planned to run for parliament, hoping to represent Thuluyah. These days, Khalil is a man about town. He got married and got respectable. He mixes easily with worshipers, his fighters and the workers renovating his mosque. … Through his intervention, he said, the Americans have funded 20 projects for the town, from paving 10 miles of roads to bringing clean water for thousands of families. He still oversees salaries for the Sons of Iraq. He has found 400 people jobs in the army and police. He has secured compensation for 1,500 people who suffered injuries in fighting.”

That sounds like a scene right out of The Godfather. And like the main character in The Godfather Khalil mixes good deeds with intimidation in order to maintain his authority. As Shadid writes: “There is something familiar about the reluctance of many others to talk.”

“‘He who is scared stays peaceful,’ goes a proverb sometimes uttered in the town. It was often pronounced after Hussein’s fall, in the ensuing anarchy. But it holds truth today, too. There is fear here, the sense in places where law is arbitrary that fewer words are better. ‘He still needs time to build trust,’ said Suleiman Kanoush, a 43-year-old government employee. ‘We still need time to give him our trust again.’ Trust, though, is not Khalil’s power.”

I often describe the benefits of Development-in-a-Box™ in terms of building trust — I never describe it in terms of creating power. Trust is developed when organizations operate transparently and according to accepted standards and rules. Men like Khalil find their power mainly operating outside those parameters. Khalil is clearly a bright man. He is also an ambitious man. If he doesn’t permit his ambition to blind him to the needs of those he claims to serve, he may yet make a true “conversion” from rebel to businessman. To do so, he needs to: work with the government to disarm his militia; help build up the local city council; support government efforts to provide social services and eliminate corruption; and use his resources to establish legitimate businesses that create jobs. Too many ambitious people embrace corruption and crime to secure short-term benefits and fail to recognize that such tactics inevitably undermine their long-term interests. As Iraq attempts to transition from conflict to development, its leaders will face dozens of men like Khalil who have rushed to fill the sovereignty gap created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The government must wrest power from them and foster the trust of the people if it is going to lead the country into a peaceful and prosperous future. For more about how power can be a corrupting influence, see my blog Political Power and Progress.