Iraq's failing state institutions

The Iraqi government appoints state officials on the basis of politics rather than competence, something that has led to many state projects failing without anyone being held accountable.

al-monitor Masked Sunni gunmen take up position with their weapons during clashes with Iraqi security forces outside Fallujah, Feb. 23, 2014. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

political blocs, political conflict, iraq, government reform, government corruption, anbar province

Feb 24, 2014

The arbitrary and poorly studied decisions by the Iraqi government in recent years have shown that there is a deficiency in assessing the state's situation empirically as well as a weakness in strategic planning. Dozens of Iraqi government projects — in the various fields of security, politics and service — have failed.

Regarding the security aspect, Iraq still faces a major challenge. There have been continuous bombings in Iraq, with the situation not showing any noteworthy improvement. This is despite various plans regarding setting up checkpoints and blast walls, using sonar devices and last but not least the recent Anbar operations, which have not resulted in controlling the security situation thus far.

Some of those plans have utterly failed. The most notorious examples were those of the sonar devices, the so-called ADE 651 bomb detection devices. The Iraqi government had spent $85 million on these devices, paying $40,000 each. However, it was later shown that those devices were a hoax, a child’s toy at best. The British government suspended the work of ATSC, the company that produces these devices, and started a criminal investigation of the company’s owner, Jim McCormick, in 2010. He was convicted of fraud in 2013.

Surprisingly, the Iraqi government still uses these devices without making any alternatives. The Iraqi government (likely) had not studied the devices before buying them, given that similar sonar devices had been shown to be ineffective by reputable institutions worldwide, such as the FBI in 1995 and in 1999, and by the Sandia National Laboratories’ publication in 2002.

One example of poor planning involves the Anbar conflict. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against terrorists in the Anbar province at the end of 2013 and set a one-week deadline to eradicate al-Qaeda from the Anbar desert. He justified the attack by claiming that the terrorist bombings taking place in the cities of central and southern Iraq were originating from cities in Anbar. However, more than six weeks later, the operations are still ongoing and explosions are still striking Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Maliki had rejected an initiative proposed by cleric Ammar al-Hakim to resolve the Anbar crisis. The initiative, put forth on Jan. 8 provided a coherent set of security, political and economic solutions. However, Maliki welcomed a similar initiative proposed by the local government in Anbar on Feb. 5.

Regarding government services, there are dozens of examples showing government decisions not based on scientific studies and without input from specialized expert advisers. The most notorious of these examples is electricity. The government has spent a lot of money in this field, but without achieving the expected results, and the electricity crisis is ongoing.

Every time a government project fails, the decision-makers react by repeating excuses about the “security situation” and the “residual effects of the previous regime” and other excuses that show the government’s weakness in scientifically and professionally analyzing matters.

The government is still making mistakes, and state institutions are still not using experts and specialists to study and evaluate unsuccessful plans and projects to see how to avoid mistakes in the future. There are no serious investigations to identify who was negligent to exclude or penalize them.

Successful states typically support governmental and nongovernmental advisory centers to get specialized and professional views and assessments. There are continuous attempts to link universities with decision-making institutions by supporting research in specific topics related to the work of those institutions or by authorizing the universities’ research centers to assess state projects or plans. However, this doesn’t happen in Iraq.

This is because, in Iraq, technocrats have been excluded from decision-making positions in light of the sectarian division of power. This is especially true given the negative perception of religious parties in power toward technocrats, who most often belong to secular currents and civil movements.

Establishing a state of institutions in Iraq — in lieu of the current sectarian divisions of spoils — will help the situation, because successful states are typically composed of various institutions run by competent persons, and those institutions are not much affected by changes in the ruling authority. Accordingly, political changes are confined to a specific layer in the power structure and do not include the state’s specialized institutions.

It is unlikely that Iraq will achieve such a situation, at least in the coming years, in light of current sectarian conflict, which requires the various parties to share state positions on a sectarian and political basis, not on the basis of competence and professionalism.

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