Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Cairo University conference - Restoring Balance to Egypt’s Economy: Inspired by Talcat Harb

Muhammad Talcat Harb, 1867-1941
The Cairo University conference, ”Restoring Balance to Egypt’s Economy: Inspired by Talcat Harb,” held on November 28, was innovative in many respects.  Why was it held and what did it tell us about the current state of Egypt’s economy?  What impact might the ideas expressed at the conference have on the future?   

After my first book, Bank Misr and Egyptian Industrialization, 1920-1941, was reissued by Princeton University Press as part of its Legacy Library (, I was asked to deliver the keynote address at the conference. 

Interview with Mesbah Kotb - Economics Editor, al-Masry al-Youm
This was an exciting opportunity to bring to the attention of academics, policy-makers, members of the private sector and students in Egypt the important legacy of Talcat Harb, the Bank Misr and the Misr Group of companies which the bank founded ( 

 First, the conference brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, all of whom are deeply concerned about the current state of the Egyptian economy.  These included the sponsors - the Association of Egyptians in North America, the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, and the Bank Misr, founded in 1920 by Muhammad Talcat Harb, and represented by its CEO, Mohamed Al EItreby.  Many panelists were former ministers in the Egyptian government and others officials currently tasked with administering the economy.  Many successful members of the private sector attended the conference as well.

Second, the conference reflected a diversity of perspectives on the Egyptian economy, from the left to the right.  The diversity of opinion at the conference enhanced its quality.  The differing views of the panelists led to several sharp exchanges which highlighted the problems facing Egypt’s economy but were also suggestive of possible reforms.

Third, the juxtaposition of Egypt’s success at economic development, particularly the development of a nascent industrial sector during the 1920s and 1930s, under the leadership of Talcat Harb, was meant to showcase the role that the private sector could play in the contemporary era,   A consistent theme throughout the day was the call for Egyptian President cAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi to clarify the institutional framework for economic development and remove much of the uncertainty surrounding current investment, both domestic and FDI.

Finally, there was general agreement, from all sectors and ideologies represented at the conference, that economic development must promote social justice (al-cadala al-ijtimaciya), and not just profits for wealthy investors, domestic or foreign.  This point was repeated many times as speakers emphasized the need to confront Egypt’s high rate of unemployment, especially among youth, and the suffering which has been caused by the November 3rd revaluation of the Egyptian pound.  Since November 3rd, the pound has lost almost 100% of its value, as it has floated from 9 to the US dollar to between 17 and 18 at the time of this writing.

Few Egyptians understand the significance of Muhammad Talcat Harb’s legacy.  This legacy not only includes his founding of the Bank Misr on April 13, 1920, but the 20 companies which the bank created and capitalized between 1921 and 1940.  Fortunately, the conference organizers were aware of this legacy and sought to use it as a foundation for the conference to inspire Egyptians to develop a new entrepreneurial spirit.

Engineer Mahmoud Elshazly, one of the conference organizers, formerly worked in the Bank Misr’s largest and most important firm, the Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving (Shirkat Misr li-l-Ghazl wa-l-Nasij), located at Mahalla al-Kubra in the center of the Egyptian Delta.  Engineer Elshazly has had a distinguished career in the private sector in Egypt, Germany and the United States.  Conference co-organizer, Dr. Tarek Saadawi, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the City University of New York, and director of the Center for Information Networking and Telecommunications (CINT), has participated in many private sector projects and worked extensively with the US government. 
Shaking hands with Dr. Hala Saed at the Banque Misr
Dr. Hala Saed, the Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, is a dynamic leader.  Central to her vision is opening the minds of her students to the most important developments in today’s global political economy.  Dr. Saed made it clear during a visit to the Bank Misr’s headquarters in downtown Cairo at the end of the conference - a building which is noted for its beautiful Islamic architecture - that she will be bringing students from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science to visit it and the impressive museum which the Bank established to honor the memory and contributions of Talcat Harb.

The Chairman of the Bank Misr, Mr. Mohamed Al Etreby, is a proponent of as strong private sector but one which follows Talcat Harb’s vision that the goal of capitalism is to benefit all of society, not just a small percentage of it.   That the Bank Misr is the second largest bank in Egypt today, after the National Bank of Egypt (al-Bank al-Ahli al-Misri), with branches throughout Egypt and abroad, is a testament to its ability to have weathered many storms since its founding in 1920 to become an internationally respected institution today.

Why was the conference subtitled, “Inspired by Talcat Harb”? To the older generation, the experience of the Bank Misr and its companies represents the “Golden Age” of modern Egyptian capitalism.  Unfortunately, few young Egyptians understand the significance of the contributions of Talcat Harb and the Bank Misr to Egypt’s economic development.  Few know about his vision for Egyptian society and his attitudes towards members of the other 2 Abrahamic faiths, namely Christians and Jews.

Muhammad Talcat Harb was born into modest circumstances in Cairo in 1867.  His family’s origins were in a small, village, Mit Abu Ali, in al-Sharqiya Province in the Egyptian Delta.  As a young man, Harb developed close ties to the finance sector of the Egyptian economy by working for the Daira al-Saniya and the land development company, Le Crédit Foncier Egyptien, during the late 1800s. 
Given his humble background, Talcat Harb was remarkable for having developed fluency in the French language and also a strong relationship to many powerful landholding families. In particular he served as a financial advisor to Amir al-Shacrawi, heir to the fortune of the Shacrawi family of al-Minya Province in Upper Egypt.  Working with these families as they expanded their ownership of agricultural land to benefit from the growing cotton economy, Talcat Harb learned the importance of the Egyptian family structure and the need to sustain it.

Talcat Harb was much more than an entrepreneur who sought to industrialize Egypt to challenge European colonial domination of his country. The issue of protecting the family, the core of Egypt’s social structure, came to the fore in the last decade of the 19th century and early 1900s with attacks on Islam and Shaykh Muhammad cAbduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

The breadth of Talcat Harb’s intellect was apparent in the manner in which he fought Qasim Amin whose book, The Liberation of Women (Tahrir al-Ma’ra) had created a stir due to his call for Muslim women to be able to dispense with the veil (al-hijab).  In two books, The Socialization of Women and the Hijab (Tarbiyat al-Mar’a wa-l-Hijab), and, A Chapter in the Story of Women and the Hijab (Fasl al-Khitab fi-l-Mar’a wa-l-Hijab), Talcat Harb argued against Qasim Amin.  In another important work, M.G. Hanotaux et L’Islam, Talcat Harb wrote a study in  French defending Shaykh Muhammad cAbduh.  His book asserted that Islam was not opposed to modern science and that the status of women under Islam was one of respect.

Despite his critique of Qasim Amin, Talcat Harb was not opposed to women’s rights. “Studio Misr” (Shirkat Misr li-tamthil wa-l-Cinema) employed women actresses.  Rather he saw the issue of the status of women in Islam as central to maintaining the strength of Egypt’s family structure.  In his view, one of the ways in which Western Orientalists attacked Islam was by pointing to what bthey considered the unequal status of women in Muslim majority countries.  The veil became a symbol of that attack which Harb saw as part of the efforts of colonial powers such as Britain and France to undermine the family structure in countries they dominated, such as Egypt and those in the larger Middle East.

Talcat Harb was known as a very religious individual.  In contemporary terms, one would not expect that some of his closest friends would be Jews and Christians.  Yet Yusuf Aslan al-Qatawi Pasha, the head of the Egyptian Jewish community, was a member of the Bank Misr’s first board of directors.  Amin Iskander, a member of the Egyptian parliament during the 1930s and early 1940s, and his brother Raghib, an engineer, were Christian friends.

Every Friday evening, Talcat Harb hosted a salon at his home in the al-Abbasiya district of Cairo.  Among his guests were not only prominent members of Cairo’s Muslim community, but those of the Christian and Jewish communities as well.  That an extremely devout Muslim could have friends from all 3 Abrahamic faiths speaks not only to Talcat Harb’s character, but to the role model which he provides for the contemporary Muslim world in the struggle against sectarianism.
"Restring Balance to Egypt's Economy: Inspired by Talcat Harb"
What then are the problems facing Egypt’s economy and how could Talcat Harb’s legacy provide a guide to the future?  Let’s begin by saying that no one at the conference on “Restoring Balance to the Egyptian Economy: Inspired by Talcat Harb,” had much positive to say about the current state of affairs.  Indeed the very title of the conference was a plea for the Egyptian state to allow the private sector a more central role in confronting Egypt’s economic problems.  At present, the balance is titled towards the state, with the private sector finding itself facing limited options for investment and growth.

First, the discrepancy between Egypt’s imports and exports is wide and increasing.  As numerous conference participants and attendees bluntly stated, ”Egypt imports everything and produces nothing.”  While of course an exaggeration, this statement highlights the fact that the public sector still dominates economic development.  State policies have been responsible for sustaining an artificial rate for the pound which widened Egypt’s balance of payment deficits and discouraged investment in many sectors of the economy.

The revaluation of the pound will help the agricultural sector which had essentially stopped producing traditional staples such as lentils, fava beans, and sugar cane.  The state's artificially valuation of the pound created an economic calculus which discouraged farmers from growing important food crops.  As a result, state policy significantly increased the importation of foodstuffs.  While I was in Cairo, there was a sugar crisis and many other foodstuffs are in short supply.

Talcat Harb was innovative in yet another respect.  In the 1929, he established a branch of the Bank Misr – Banque Misr – Syrie –Liban – in Beirut, as he began to consider how economic cooperation among Arab economies could help not only the Egyptian economy, but the Arab economies become stronger in face of Western colonial domination.

After founding Egypt Air (Shirkat Misr li-l-Tayaran) in 1932, in cooperation with the British form, Heston Airworks, Talcat Harb established the first Arab airline route from Cairo, to Jaffa, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad.  Harb also founded Misr Transport and Shipping Company (Shirkat Misr li-l-Naql al-Bahriya) in 1930.  One of the roles of the company was to address the problems faced by Egyptian pilgrims (al-hujjaj) who often contracted diseases such as cholera during their overland trip from Egypt to Mecca.

The Misr Shipping Company took pilgrims from Suez Canal at the southern mouth of the Suez Canal to Jidda where they boarded a new Egypt Air route which flew them from, Jidda to Mecca.  Another problems faced by pilgrims traveling to Mecca was not only the difficulty of reaching the holy city, especially for the elderly, but the problem of finding potable drinking water between Jidda and Mecca for those traveling by land. 

Harb helped the nascent Saudi government to purify the Kawthar and Zamzam wells so that pilgrims would not become ill from drinking from them.  Further, Harb named two of his ships which transported pilgrims to Mecca, “Zamzam” and “Kawthar.”

In retrospect, Muhammad Talcat Harb was advocating a form of Arab Common Market decades before the idea began to gain support in Europe for a European economic community, which only began to be discussed during the 1950s.  Harb's idea of Arab economic integration (al-takamil al-iqtisadi al- carabi) was an idea well before its time but as relevant in the 1920s and 1930s as it is today.

The recent visit by an Iraqi delegation to Cairo which offered Egypt Iraqi oil could be the first step towards creating such a market.  We should remember that cooperation on many levels between Egypt and Iraq goes back to the 1930s when Egypt Air created a route from Cairo to Baghdad and the famous Egyptian lawyer and legal expert, cAbd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri (1895-1971), helped Iraq establish a modern legal system.

Why did the Misr Group face a severe economic crisis in 1938 and 1939?  Why did its expansion come to an end in 1941? Were these crises engineered by the British as many Egyptians believed at the time, or were they the result of economic contradictions which the Bank and its companies faced at the time?

Clearly the latter, not the former, hypothesis explains these crises.  Talcat Harb clearly understood that the Bank Misr faced a serious contradiction.  On the one hand, it was a commercial bank which accepted deposits from Egyptian citizens.  Those deposits could be withdrawn at any time.  At the same time, it functioned as an industrial bank with long-term commitments in the form of the capitalization of its companies.

When Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland (populated by ethnic Germans), fear spread that WWII was about to break out.  The Bank Misr’s depositors created a run on the bank as they withdrew their deposits in large numbers.  As a result, Talcat Harb was forced to turn to Egypt’s semi-official national bank, the National Bank of Egypt, which was controlled by the British.

Realizing the danger that the collapse of the Misr Group posed to the Egyptian economy, the National Bank of Egypt reluctantly agreed to a loan to allow the Bank Misr to avoid insolvency.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and WWII was underway.  The war's outbreak engendered another run on the Bank Misr.  Once again, the Bank was forced to turn to turn to the National Bank of Egypt.  However, this time the National Bank put conditions on the loan.  In return for financial support, Talcat Harb and the entire board of directors of the Misr Group were forced to resign.

After Talcat Harb resigned as managing director of the Bank Misr, Dr. Hafiz al-Afifi Pasha, a medical doctor, was appointed to take his place.   Afifi’s close ties to the British only inflamed conspiracy theories that the removal of Harb and his colleagues was a plot on the part of the British to destroy Egypt’s efforts at industrial development.

In truth, the British had no desire to destroy the Misr Group, especially since it had partnered during the 1930s with several British firms such as Heston Airworks and the Bradford Dyers.  The appointment of Hafiz al-Afifi was based on the idea the National Bank needed to have confidence in someone who they trusted to repay the loan.

What are the lessons of Talcat Harb and the Bank Misr for contemporary Egypt?  Clearly leadership matters.  Talcat Harb was a visionary who realized that Egypt’s potential to become a regional economic power depended upon its developing a strong industrially-based economy.  He made a major step in that direction through creating 20 companies between 1922 and 1940 (

However, a vision must have a social base – it must have followers.  Harb and his colleagues in the Bank Misr project would not have been able to generate the support they needed if there had not been a powerful nationalist movement which organized the 1919 Revolution against British colonial domination.  Talcat Harb came to be known by the title zacim misr al-iqtisadi (Egypt’s Economic Leader).  Egyptians flocked to deposit their funds in the Bank Misr once it was formed to demonstrate their support for Egypt’s struggle against the British.

Talcat Harb believed that a developing country could not industrialize without support from the state.  Tariff protection was critical to the success of the Bank Misr's companies during the 1930s.  However, the state's failure to establish an industrial bank - despite Harb's lobbying efforts - was a central reason for the Misr Group's ultimate collapse.  While supportive of state backing for industrialization, Harb would never have accepted the inefficient public sector while dominates the Egyptian economy today.

Talcat Harb was convinced that Egypt alone could not fight colonialism.  Economic cooperation among Arab countries was crucial if they were to achieve independence from colonial rule.  Such cooperation was not based on concepts of Pan Arab nationalism drawn from an abstract “Golden Age,” but on Arab economic integration grounded in sound trade, financial and industrial policies.

Finally, Talcat Harb broked no tolerance for sectarianism.  Despite being a highly devout Muslim, he strongly believed that all religious and ethnic groups needed to live together in peace and harmony if the Arab world was to prosper and achieve its economic potential and maintain political stability.  Perhaps this was the most important legacy of "Egypt's Economic Leader," namely that only through mutual respect and tolerance of diversity can a society prosper and grow (

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Trump Presidency, US Foreign Policy and the War against Terrorism

What impact will the Trump presidency have on US foreign policy, particularly the war against terrorism? In many parts of the world, there is deep concern about what type of foreign policy Donald Trump will pursue, both among allies and states opposed to the United State.   

To get a sense of what US foreign policy will look like under Trump, and its possible long-term consequences, I analyze 5 variables: ideology, temperament, military preparedness, isolationism and economic policy/climate change.  Each of these variables provides insights into the type of foreign policy Trump will follow, the extent to which it will be successful, and its long-term consequences.

Ideology may be too sophisticated a term to apply to Donald Trump in light of his superficial grasp of foreign affairs, as he made clear during the recent US presidential campaign.  I use this term to characterize Trump’s world-view which is largely based on binary thinking and the resort to strong measures to address problems which he finds threatening, whether domestically or in the global arena.

By ideology, I include several dimensions.  Let’s begin by examining Trump’s attitudes towards minorities in the United States, whether they are Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims, or disabled people.  If we think of his comments – which are all available on video – Trump has clearly provided a trove of material for terrorist groups to use for propaganda purposes.  Put differently, Trump has already provided anti-American terrorist organizations with a powerful ideological weapon to use for recruitment purposes and to legitimize their message of the threat against Islam posed by the “Crusader West.”

Despite its all too frequent support for dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere, the United States has never elected a president as bellicose and pugnacious as Donald Trump.  The US will certainly lose what moral high ground it had under President Barack Obama and make it much easier for groups like the al-Qacida, the so-called Islamic State, and the repressive regime in Tehran to portray US foreign policy as disingenuous and hypocritical.

Second, it is clear that Trump possesses few ideological positions once he moves away from the business world.  Trump has strong views on trade and the impact of countries like China and Mexico on US trade, but little else.  Trump’s ideology can be characterized as ill-formed and one which views foreign affairs as isomorphic to business contracts.  Everyone and every country has their “bottom line.”  If you can find the ”sweet spot” where you and your competitor can meet after making mutual concessions,  then a “deal” can be made.  For Trump, this is how all problems in the international arena can likewise be solved, by cutting a deal.

The lack of a developed political ideology, particularly one concerned with foreign affairs, suggests that foreign policy will be delegated to as cadre of advisors who, like Dick Cheney et al. under George W. Bush, will decide its final contours.  The argument that Trump does not have the ability to understand the complexities of foreign affairs and will most likely be a “hands off” commander-in-chief is underscored by the 20 words he uses most in his speeches (

If we add Trump’s personal disposition to this equation – an ill-formed ideology, negative characterizations of minority groups, including Muslims, and a lack of interest in foreign affairs - we encounter a toxic mix.  Taking Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as “murders and rapists,” and stereotyping all Muslims as potential terrorists is bad enough.  However, adding these characterizations to his tendency to become agitated and resort to his Twitter account whenever he feels attacked, we can be sure that diplomacy will not be one of his strong suits.  While he later backed off, the President-Elect has already responded negatively to the numerous demonstrations which have occurred since he won the presidency earlier this week. 

Military policy is closely related to the issues of ideology and temperament. Trump’s “tough guy” approach to foreign affairs - a way of avoiding dealing with nuance and complexity - will have a negative impact on US military policy and readiness. 

Trump’s emphasis on rebuilding US armed forces is based on outdated understandings of both the threats which the US faces in the world today and the best means to confront them.  Building more ships, which is one of the few specific policies he outlined during the presidential campaign, will add little strategic value in the struggle against terrorist groups.  Nor will building more sophisticated fighter aircraft, such as stealth bombers, play a central role in that battle either.

What is needed above all is the development of new strategies and military forces to meet the changes on the battlefield, particularly those required to successfully engage in asymmetric warfare.  Will the joints chiefs and respected military planners convince Donald Trump to backtrack from his outdated vision of the US military?  A more likely scenario will be Trump's desire to appear “strong,” before his political base and Republicans in Congress who also share his outdated notions of military preparedness. 

The nature of asymmetric rather than conventional war means the US needs to place greater emphasis on highly mobile military units whose members have not only military but cultural and language proficiency.  The problem with the Trump administration is that it is not likely to emphasize these qualities.  It was the lack of Arabic language speakers, and officers, troops and CPA officials with knowledge of Iraqi society and culture, which led to such a disaster after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Nor does Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, a former talk show host, Congressman and Indiana governor, have much interest in or aptitude for foreign policy.  While the names of Steven Hadley and former Intelligence House Chair Mike Rodgers for Secretary of Defense suggest highly competent nominees, the new secretary will represent the tip of the iceberg.  He will not bring the type of innovative and forward-looking foreign policy analysts to the Pentagon which one would have expected in a Clinton administration.  One of the causalities of the 2016 presidential elections will almost certainly be US foreign policy.

Isolationism will certainly weigh heavily on a Trump administration.  He will find little support among his political base for active US involvement in foreign affairs.  There will be no trade war with China because it would be a costly blunder for the US.  Despite the bluster, there will not be mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.  The US Embassy in Israel may be shifted from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and support for moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Asad regime in Syria will most likely be eliminated.   

NATO will no doubt be left untouched and perhaps even largely neglected. Trump might elicit some modest concessions from Putin for his administration’s lack of engagement with NATO and European affairs.  This will certainly outrage some Neo-Cons such as The Weekly Standard's William Kristol.  However, the US role in the world will almost certainly contract during the Trump years, which is not a good sign for developing effective policies to use in the struggle against terrorism in the MENA region, and in Eastern and sub-Saharan Africa.

The only area where I see Trump deviating from a neo-isolationist strategy will be his ideological support for right wing anti-immigrant governments and movements in Europe, e.g., Le Front National in France and the Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany.  Already United Kingdom Independent Party leader Nigel Farage had paid Trump a post-election visit at Trump Tower in New York.

Another foreign policy area where Trump may intervene is to either amend or cancel the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran.  Certainly, there are many Trump advisers who feel that such a decision was fool hardy.  While the abrogation of the agreement may make Sunni Arab regimes, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, more supportive of the United States, it would most likely lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with possible devastating consequences.

Trump’s economic policy is closely linked to his views of regulation and climate change.  He rejects government regulations and states that he doesn’t believe in climate change.  The Syrian uprising made clear the extent to which climate change is affecting Middle East politics.  Drought and Turkish dams, which severely cut the flow of water in the Euphrates River, destroyed 175 Syrian villages and set in motion peaceful demonstrations which were brutally suppressed by the Asad regime, leading to the current civil war, with all its massive destruction, deaths and displacement of civilians.

Denying climate change, and thus refusing to see its relationship to political instability, would be an especially damaging policy in the MENA region where water is already a scarce commodity.  With military planners not developing contingencies for conflict caused by global warming, the Trump administration will cause the US to fall behind in coping with the new global challenges of the 21st century.

Donald Trump’s presidency will be one in which foreign policy is not a high priority.  Many important issue areas will either be ignored or given short shrift.  The types of specialists who could bring new and innovative policy perspectives to the State Department and the intelligence community will not be attracted to the Trump administration. 

New perspectives designed to quell conflict and encourage long-term stability by deeper engagement with foes as well as allies will no doubt be replaced by a foreign policy of “benign neglect.” The war against terrorism, which requires a comprehensive and multi-faceted effort to eradicate the causes which attract youth to extremist organizations, will suffer as a result.  Increased global instability will be the result of Trump’s presidency, not because of what he does as president, but what he doesn’t do.

Monday, October 24, 2016

After Mosul and the Caliphate's Collapse: The Coming Storm in Northern Iraq and Syria

Iraqi Army convoy prepares to move into battle against the Dacish in Mosul
 The long awaited offensive to liberate Mosul from the so-called lslamic State – Dacish – has now completed its first week.  As Dr. Faris Kamal Nadhmi noted in a perceptive post (, victory in Mosul cannot be understood in military terms alone.  What then constitutes a successful outcome to the current campaign against the Dacish in Mosul?  Unfortunately, unless there is comprehensive and integrated political and humanitarian assistance campaign designed to consolidate the military gains in Mosul, northern Iraq, military success will represent a Pyrrhic victory.

There are three critical issues which need to be considered in conjunction with the current military offensive. The first is trust and loyalty, the second is humanitarian assistance, and the third is the regional balance of forces.  If each of these issues is not dealt with systematically and in a well-thought out manner, the Dacish’s defeat in Mosul could lead to even greater, enduring problems in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
Pesh Merga convoy on way to Mosul

Trust and loyalty
When the Dacish defeated Iraqi army units numbering 60,000 in June 2014 with only a small force, it was clear that much preparation for the attack had already occurred.  Dacish agents had already infiltrated the city and bribed city officials in Mosul to pave the way for the attack.

With 800-1000 lightly armed terrorists defeating two divisions of Iraqi troops with state-of-the-art US military weaponry, the Dacish victory in June 2014 was political, not military.  It was the direct outcome of the highly sectarian policies of then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.  Officer posts in Mosul and northern Iraq were sold to Maliki loyalists, often to those who had little or no military experience.  Many of the newly appointed officers refused to pay members of the Iraqi army their salaries, keeping part or all for themselves.  

This theft of salaries had the effect of leading Iraqi soldiers to erect checkpoints on Mosul streets where residents were required to pay brides to pass by.  Understandably, such actions created enormous resentment, especially since the troops were not native Moslawis but drawn from other areas of Iraq.

Member Iraq's elite counter-terrorism unit
Many Moslawis fear the return of the Iraqi army, which is made all the more combustible by the inclusion of Popular Mobilization Units comprised of predominantly Shici troops.  After the Dacish is expelled from Mosul, the Iraqi government’s first task must be to secure its residents’ loyalties.  First and foremost, Iraqi militias - known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs or al-hashid al-shacbi) - which are officially not part of the Iraqi army - need to be excluded from post-Dacish Mosul.  There is no military reason why they should be allowed in the city.

Made up almost exclusively of Shica, Moslawis fear these militias, some of which have already been accused of serious human rights violations in al-Anbar Province and other areas of north central Iraq  (  With the Dacish playing the sectarian card, Mosul residents are terrified of being killed by the terrorists for perceived disloyalty, or attacked and possibly killed by PMU forces after the Dacish defeat because they will be considered, ipso facto, Dacish supporters. 

To promote feelings of trust among a populace, which has been traumatized by over 2 years of Dacish rule, requires a crystal clear statement by the Iraqi government that only Iraqi Army personnel and federal police will be allowed in the city.  Only such a statement can help alleviate Moslawi concerns about the PMUs.  Further, the Iraqi government should request an observer team from the United Nations to take up residence in Mosul for the foreseeable future. 

United Nations personnel should include members of the UN High Commission for Refugees who can see to the needs of displaced persons, from Mosul and surrounding villages and towns.  Knowing that UN personnel will serve in an around Mosul represents another way to reassure Sunni Arabs and other ethnic groups that their rights will be respected.

The Iraqi government will need to quickly put in place a new Mosul municipal council comprised of trusted community leaders who are not tarnished by having cooperated with the Dacish.  These community leaders, along with members of the Ninawa Provincial Council, should be invited by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani to make a presentation to meetings of the Iraqi Council of Deputies (national parliament) and the KRG Regional Parliament to exchange views on the rebuilding of Mosul and Ninawa Province following the elimination of the Dacish.

Such high level meetings, and smaller informal meetings of influential decision-makers from all Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, would go a long way to reestablishing trust among Mosul's residents.  As such, it could become a “teachable moment” which would prevent sectarian forces from exploiting the current situation to promote narrow and divisive political ends which could lead to a new and potentially larger crisis threatening Iraq’s national unity.

The humanitarian dimension of the crisis
Displaced family from  village of Qayyara south of Mpsul
Along with the current civil war in Syria, the Mosul offensive threatens to produce one of the MENA region’s largest displaced persons crisis.  There are still 1.2 million residents in Mosul and countless Iraqis have already been forced from the city and surrounding villages and towns.  Large tent cities have been erected for them.  If the fight for Mosul persists for a long time, and the city experiences significant destruction of buildings and infrastructure, the residents may be forced to leave an uninhabitable space. 

The Obama administration - which has pushed for the Mosul campaign to defeat the Dacish before Barack Obama leaves office – should make a much more concerted effort to organize an international coalition including the UN, the EU, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, India and Japan, to develop a Displaced Persons Fund for those civilians forced to leave their home as result of the current offensive against the Dacish.

Tent city under construction
Here is a unique opportunity to engage Iraqi youth groups – Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak – to deploy to refugee camps to provide services to their inhabitants, including providing children with toys and education, conveying problems and complaints about life in the camps to the appropriate officials, organizing sports activities, and demonstrating to refugees that someone cares about them.

Likewise, a coalition of clerics from Iraq’s many religious communities could serve in the displaced persons/refugee camps to meet the residents’ spiritual and psychological needs.  The Federal Government and the KRG could work together with local Ninawa Province leaders to organize both youth groups and groups of clerics to confront the many problems which will be faced over an extended period of time by those Mosul and surrounding area residents forced from their homes.

Proper treatment of residents in displaced person’s camps is also critical to long term views of those who are displaced.  If the time during which they are displaced shows no concern and caring by either the Federal Government or the KRG, it will recreate the same feelings and resentment which led many Moslawis to welcome the Dacish as liberators when they seized Mosul and large parts of northern Iraq in June and July 2014. 

Balance of forces
Many analysts see the diverse military coalition mobilized against the Dacish as a potential “time bomb” in the making once terrorist forces are expelled from Mosul.  In other words, once the Dacish is defeated, the forces in the coalition will turn on each other. 

Soldiers suffer from the toxic air from oil well fires set by the Dacish
However, this coalition can be viewed through another lens, namely as unique in terms of the diversity of ethnicities and religious identities which comprise the forces fighting against terrorism.  If the US is smart, it will work with local forces sympathetic to a stable post-Dacish northern Iraq by working to bring them together.

While there are forces within the KRG’s Pesh Merga which want to use the battle to increase Kurdish controlled territory, the US should make clear to the Kurds that moving into areas not considered Kurdish will only lead to a renewed conflict.

The KRG faces severe economic constraints with the collapse of international oil prices.  There have been demonstrations in the KRG because its employees have not been paid for over 14 months.  Under the new Federal oil minister, cAbd al-Karim al-Luaibi, significant progress has been made to finally establish an oil policy which the Federal Government and the KRG find acceptable.

Because the US has considerable influence in the KRG, a bundle of economic incentives should be offered to prevent the KRG from seizing land to which it is not entitled. Such incentives can also be used to consolidate the military cooperation between the Pesh Merga and the Iraqi Army in fighting terrorism to date in an effort to develop a truly federal fighting force.

Pesh Merga forces themselves still reflect residual divisions between those loyal to Kurdish Democratic Party leader (KDP) and KRG President Barzani, and those loyal to Jalal Talabani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdish (PUK).  US Special Forces should work to train a new inter-ethnic Iraqi force designed to address the problem of terrorism in northern Iraq which will continue beyond the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul.

In addition to the mixed ethnosectarian composition of the Iraqi Army, there are also Assyrian, Yazidi,Turkmen and Shabak forces.  Because these minority groups have experienced some of the most horrible torture, killings and sex slavery at the hands of Dacish terrorists, they should also be organized into mixed military units to assure residents of their respective communities that they will have formal military protection in the future.

Beyond the defeat of Dacish looms another serious problem – the threat Turkey poses not just to Iraq but to the Rojava Kurds whose YPG (Peoples' Protection Forces) units have been in the vanguard of fighting the Dacish – think of Kobane – and liberating territory from it (

Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has used the crisis in northern Iraq to promote his interests in northern Iraq where the Turkish Army has a base north of Mosul and is training a militia of Sunni and Turkmen fighters under the aegis of the prominent al-Nujayfi family from Ninawa Province.

Erdoğan’s two objectives in interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs are, first, to prevent the Rojava Kurds from consolidating a viable autonomous political entity in northeastern Syria, and, second, gaining control over the oil resources in northern Iraq around the city of Mosul.  The latter represents an irredentist objective which extends back to the end of Ottoman rule in Iraq at the end of WWI.  

Preventing the coming storm
The main threat to post-Dacish stability in northern Iraq and, after the de facto terrorist capital, al-Raqqa, is liberated, is preventing Turkey from exploiting the situation for its geo-strategic and economic ends.

Turkish forces train Iraqi Turkmen units in Bashiqa near Mosul
First and foremost, Turkish troops must be forced to withdraw completely from northern Iraq.  The US, the EU and NATO need to impose serious economic sanctions on Turkey if it fails to do so.  The positioning of Turkish forces in the north without the Federal Government's permission constitutes a serious violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Second, the US must make it clear that it will not allow Turkey to destroy the autonomous region which has been established by the Rojava Kurds in northeastern Syria. 

As I noted elsewhere, the social and political experiment which the Rojava Kurds have created is a model for all countries and regions of the MENA region to emulate (  Economic cooperatives, gender equality, outlawing destructive traditions such as so-called “honor killings” and forced marriages of underage girls, equal treatment of minorities and emphasis on human rights for all citizens, allowing Erdoğan to end this experiment through military force would be shameful on the part of the US which is the only power which can prevent it from happening.
Putin and Erdoğan meeting in Baku June, 2015
To those who argue that Erdoğan should be supported for Turkey’s strategic value, let’s remember the failed US’ track record over the last 50 years with dictators in the Middle East.  While US policy favorable to the Rojava Kurds, especially its arming them to fight the Dacish, might push Erdoğan closer to the Russians, such an alliance is inherently unstable, since Turkey is the odd state out in a Russia-Syria-Iran alliance.  As two headstrong dictators, Putin and Erdoğan do not make for a good long-term couple.

Let’s also remember that Erdoğans current popularity is, in large measure, due to his suppression of last July’s military coup, and that the path of the Turkish economy will be the longer term determinant of whether such support persists.  Erdoğans core social base is in the small business sector of the Turkish economy.  If sanctions are imposed and the economy begins to deteriorate, then  his political position will  be adversely affected.

Now is not the time for the US to follow a “hands off” strategy in northern Iraq.  It needs to bring all the stakeholders to the table and indicate that “enough is enough.”  The US has given sizeable resources in blood and materiel in Iraq and it is now time for sectarianism and individual political agendas to be put aside for the common good of Iraq, Syria and the region.  

The US playing “footsie” with dictators like Erdoğan must also stop.  Short term fixes, such as the US maneuvering which allowed Nuri al-Maliki to remain in office as prime minister after losing the 2010 Iraqi national parliamentary elections, can now be seen for the out-sized mistake that it was.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!      

Friday, September 30, 2016

State Sovereignty and Military Force in the Middle East: the Case of Iraq’s PMUs

Iraq militia leaders Qa'is al-Khazali, Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis
What threat do militias and armed forces which are not under the control of the  state pose for its sovereignty?  In Iraq,  a large number of militias were created after the Dacish (the so-called Islamic State) seized Mosul in June 2014.  What are the ramifications of the formation of military units beyond the control of the central state? 

Max Weber’s well-known definition of the state as the institution which enjoys a monopoly on the use of force within a given territory is increasingly meaningless in the MENA region.  A survey of the states of the region indicates that the majority of states are challenged by oppositional military forces or are unable to  reign in militias which compete with the national army.

Moving from west to east, the Algerian military is challenged by an al-Qacida affiliate – al-Qacida  in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM).  In neighboring Libya, there is only a nominal  national army, with real power residing in a myriad of militias which are largely tribally and/or regionally based. 

Tunisia also faces a threat from a militia which has sworn allegiance to Dacish in the northwest of the country while Egypt faces a challenge to its national authority in the Sinai Peninsula from the so-called Wilayat Sina' (the Sinai Province) which has pledged loyalty to the Dacish.

In Lebanon, the national army has always been weak in relation to the militias controlled by the political power brokers (al-zu’ama) of the country's various ethno-sectarian groups, whether it be Hizb Allah, the Lebanese Forces, the Druz Militia and many others.  In Syria, of course, there is a beleaguered national army which most likely would have collapsed in the face of multiple militias throughout the country, were it not for Russian intervention on the side of the Bashar al-Asad regime.

Although Turkey boasts the most powerful  military in the MENA region after Israel, it faces a serious threat from a guerrilla movement, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which it has fought from 30 years.  Just when it appeared that the conflict might be nearing resolution, the regime of President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan decided to forsake negotiations for a reintroduction of military force to bring the PKK and its supporters to heel. ow is this problem mpalying itsdelf in Iraq/HH

Yemen is largely a failed state, and all the more so, after the indiscriminate bombing by Saudi Arabia over the past year in its effort to defeat Houthi forces.  In other words, very few states in the MENA region have control over their territories from a political-military point of view.

Thus we find (at least) 3 patterns in terms of state-military force relations.  First there are a few states which fit Weber’s definition, such as Morocco, Jordan, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman.   

A second pattern is  countries which fall into the failed state category such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, where there is no state control over the national territory.  A third pattern is where the state is fighting insurgencies, such as Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria.  

Finally, there are states in which militias challenge the authority of the central government. Lebanon is the quintessential example of a nation-state where the national army has always been subordinated to more powerful ethno-sectarian based militias.
Hizb Allah Brigades firing captured US M198 howitzers
Two other states in which militias challenge the power of the central state are Iran and Iraq, which brings us to the topic of this post.  In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards are the supreme military force and compete with traditional military forces.  In Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs (al-hashad al-shacbi) likewise threaten to become more powerful than the national army.

Why have the PMUs become so powerful in Iraq?  At the more general level, their emergence reflects a number of developments.  First, the MENA region, like other regions of the world, has seen the undermining of secular nationalism. 

Second, the emergence of what we may call “third party” armed forces represents the concomitant rise of sectarianism in the Middle East.  Ethno-sectarian groups – as in Lebanon – don’t trust the central state to protect their communal interests.  Third, sectarian entrepreneurs exploit the dual structure of armed forces to provide themselves with an informal source of power and influence which can be used to intimidate political rivals.

In Iraq, the PMUs were established following the seizure of Mosul and much of northeastern Iraq in June and July of 2014.  The story of how Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pursued highly sectarian policies in Mosul and Iraq’s Sunni majority provinces, following his reappointment to a second term in 2010, has been told many times before. Maliki sold positions in the military to Iraqis who had little or no military experience, dismissed competent military officers who were replaced with those loyal to him, and attacked Sunni politicians who he thought would challenge his political position.  

Maliki’s sending of security forces to fire on peaceful protestors in al-Hawija on April 23, 2013 constituted the "straw that broke the camel's back.".  Following similar events in Mosul and Falluja in March 2013, which failed to provide any accountability despite a purported investigation, Maliki completely alienated Iraqi’s Sunni populace. Such behavior angered the residents of al-Anbar, Salahidin and Ninawa provinces and created fertile soil for the so-called Islamic State (Dacish) to recruit fighters to their organization.

Following the seizure of Mosul by the Da’ish and their progress in moving their forces south towards Baghdad, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a religious decree (al-fatwa) calling on Iraqi to take up arms to defend Baghdad and the nation from the Dacish.
Qa'is al-Khazali
Some militias already existed at the time such as Hadi al-Amiri’s Badr Organization ( which was once the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (subsequently more benignly renamed the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council), and Qa’is al-Khazali’s League of the Righteous People (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq -

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’s Hizb Allah Brigades (Kata’ib Hizb Allah -, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Companies (Saraya’ al-Salam), the successor to the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi - were also militias beyond the control of the state.
A copy PM al-Abadi's Order 91, Feb 22, 2016
While these militias were pivotal in preventing Dacish forces from reaching Baghdad, and have been assisting the Iraqi Army to defeat and push Dacish forces out of al-Anbar and Salahidin provinces, a number of them – particularly the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous People and the Hizb Allah Brigades – are appendages of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The official legitimation of the “Popular Mobilization Front” (PMF) by Order 91, signed on February 22nd of this year by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi, referred to the militia front as an “independent military formation.”
Qassem Solamani in Anbar Province
In addition to having military units which demonstrate greater loyalty to Qassem Solimani, the head of the IRGC, and Ali Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, than to Iraq’s Prime Minister, the constitutionally constituted commander in chief of Iraq's armed forces and all military forces within Iraqi territory, Iraq now has a “fifth column” operating in its sovereign territory (
There are other alarm bells which have been rung by the creation of separate military forces under the control of militia leaders who profess loyalty to a foreign leader (paralleling the lack of control by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the IRGC). 
One such issue is that of corruption.  Iraq enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the most corrupt nation-states in the world – 161 of 166 countries on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (
Militias do not receive funding from the state.  While Iran has provided training for Iraqi Shici youth fighting in Syria and monthly wages in the neighborhood of $600, an Iraqi colleague recently informed me that hose wages have been reduced for youth fighting inn Syria.  To keep amassing recruits, militias constantly need to find new recruits and funds with which to pay them.
The incentive for Iraqi youth to join militias is less ideology than steady employment.  If militias cannot provide steady income for its young fighters, they will leave the front.  There is a strong incentive, therefore, to find new sources of income which makes the state budget a primary target for acquiring additional funds.  
The existence of a parallel set of armed forces in Iraq works against the effort of Prime Minister al-Abadi to bring corruption under control.  Because they have military force at their beck and call, militia leaders can entice cabinet ministers, parliament member and other state bureaucrats to bend to their will.  Intimidation is another option at their disposal. 
Because Iran provides wages for Iraqi PMUs, the Islamic Republic now has a permanent client base in Iraq.  Knowing that Iran has such power makes al-Abadi and other Iraqi politicians think twice about adopting policies viewed and unfavorable to Iran.
As an example of the power of the Popular Militia Front, there is an effort in the Iraqi Council opf Deputies (parliament) to give militias legal immunity.  Currently, only parliamentary deputies enjoy legal immunity.  Under the pretense that such immunity is necessary for all PMU members before they enter the battle for Mosul, it would impossible to prosecute any militia members who engaged in human rights abuses ( ).
Because PMU have committed human rights abuses and have engaged in looting, this law threatens to undermine any victory by the Iraqi Army over the Dacish.  As all analysts have noted, the real struggle for Mosul and other areas liberated from the Dacish will begin after its military defeat.
If local populaces feel that they have rid themselves of one oppressor only to find them controlled by new forces which they consider equally oppressive, any military victory will ring hollow.