Jesse S. G. Wozniak, Policing Iraq: Legitimacy, Democracy, and Empire in a Developing State (University of California Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jesse Wozniak (JW): I have long had an interest in how police forces come to be—who designs them, why they are created, how their priorities are established, and especially how they come to be seen as a normalized part of government. While there is already quite a bit of scholarship on post-conflict police reconstruction, most of it is written from a distance, utilizing official narratives and other top-down sources. My interest in this project was about viewing the police reconstruction process as it happens, speaking to the people on the ground going through it, experiencing their lived reality, and observing how they attempt to understand the job themselves, as well as how they attempt to explain their role to the public.

In much the same vein, too much of the existing work on police reconstruction centers the goals and perspectives of those leading the reconstruction process, typically Western governments and NGOs. In examining the process from the ground up, I wanted to center the voices and experiences of those actually experiencing the efforts to create a police force, basically from scratch. In both Western media and scholarship about the nation, the voices of Iraqis themselves, especially those within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) where I conduct my research, are notably absent. My work strives to amplify the thoughts, concerns, and understandings of the people central to the process whose perspectives are so often neglected.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JW: A central premise of the book is that police are integral to the development and maintenance of the modern nation-state. While things like the constitution and legal codes are obviously important and influential, the police are the most concrete expression of government power. How the police are trained, equipped, and ultimately designed to operate reveals a great deal about to whom laws, rights, and duties actually do and do not apply in day-to-day life.

So in a narrow sense, the book is about the Iraqi police—how they are trained, how they operate, how they understand their duties, how the public views them, and so on. However, in a larger sense, the book is ultimately about how the region and the wider Iraqi state attempt to create democracy and develop state legitimacy. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, it is about how the United States is attempting to use the police force as part of their effort to establish legitimacy for what is unmistakably a client state. Given the voluminous scientific literature on the needs of a democratic police force and the United States’ own lengthy experience with international police development, it is hard to understand nearly any decision made regarding the implementation of the Iraqi police force as anything other than an attempt to project legitimacy for the fledgling state. Nearly everything about the design and function of the Iraqi police is centered on giving the police the appearance of legitimacy, often at the direct expense of the much more difficult task of training and equipping a fully functional, democratic police force. While this is certainly a problem for the future of the Iraqi government and state, such political and humanitarian concerns are far less important to the US project in the region.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JW: A central through line of my work is a Gramscian understanding of the role of the state in organizing and maintaining power and class relations. The state is the mechanism through which material structures and political super-structures are joined for a leading class to justify and maintain its dominance through winning the active consent of those it seeks to rule. I push back against postmodern/poststructuralist theories that reject the central role of the state in contemporary power relations, and who instead favor explanations centering a multiplicity of actors and institutions as embedded in networks and relationships that traverse nations.

The invasion and reconstruction of Iraq serve as a prime test case for theories of the operation of power in the twenty-first century, as the architects of the invasion relied upon a neoliberal vision of near-stateless governance, deferring to the free market and other non-state power arrangements. Whether it is the significant amount of personnel and resources the United States has dedicated to this effort, the resistance of other major world powers to the invasion, the violent resistance experienced by the coalition, the failure of the nascent government to establish legitimacy and exercise leadership, or the attempts of other actors like ISIS to build their own rival state, it is difficult to make sense of any of these processes without understanding the role of the state. This book is in line with much of my work arguing the modern state remains an important component to the organization and operation of power arrangements within neoliberal globalization and neoimperialism as it serves as a central repository of legitimacy and leadership.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JW: I am an academic, so I do hope to reach other academics and research scientists interested in questions of policing, security forces, state legitimacy, and imperialism. I believe that my central thesis, that the police are central to understanding the modern nation state, speaks to a wide variety of important empirical and theoretical debates within social science. I also feel there is benefit to scholars of Kurdish and Iraqi politics and the wider region as well.

But I also hope the book reaches audiences outside of the academy, as I believe there is a lot in it for the lay reader. One argument I make in the book is that many of the problems experienced in the reconstruction of Iraq are quite similar to those experienced throughout the history of US policing, as they both stem from the fundamentally impossible nature of modern policing. Chapter 2 would make a great introduction to the problems of Western policing schemes for those looking for a basic understanding. Beyond policing, the book will also appeal to those interested in larger issues surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq and who are looking for an understanding of why the reconstruction has gone so poorly and why it has failed to produce a stable, functioning state in Iraq.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

JW: I am continuing my work in the KRG, having recently collected 110 factorial surveys (5,500 cases) completed by police officers and judges throughout the region. This study assesses which legal and extra-legal factors drive decision making, including the threats posed by ISIS, the tensions between the KRG and the central government, and the indeterminacy of both Kurdish and Iraqi law surrounding the treatment of enemy combatants. My co-authors and I are examining how law is constructed and the power equilibriums it embodies. Early analysis of the data reveals that criminal punishments are shaped not only by the severity of crime, but also by perceptions of group identity and affiliation, as KRG officials are consistently harsher toward Iraqi and ISIS personnel.

In a different but related line of work, I am in the early stages of a project examining community responses to state retreat during the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. This project is examining how communities forged new methods of cooperation and communication to fill the social control vacuum left by a lack of meaningful police services.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, ‘“If You Have No Degree, You Can Work Here”: Qualifications, Consent, and Coercion,’ pp. 101-104)

Perfectly illustrating the concerns that too many recruits sign up for the “wrong” reasons, by far the most commonly stated reason for joining the police is a simple need for a job. Given the high rates of unemployment, it is unsurprising that a strong majority of those I interviewed had experienced extended unemployment themselves, pushing them into policing. Bhedar, a trainer at the academy, explained this is due to “the ratio of unemployment in the civilian ministries. In the Ministry of the Interior, there is more opportunity to be employed. Many graduated students are coming here, and I’ve asked them why, and they say it’s because of the joblessness and unemployment.” Another trainer, Ali, echoed Bhedar’s comments, arguing the primary reason Kurds join the force is “because of poverty, or because they do not have any other certificate to be employed in any other institution, therefore they are obliged to become police. It is the best chance to be employed, to be police or Peshmerga or something like that.”

Here we see one of the major challenges of attempting to reconstruct a police force after decades of dictatorial rule, in combination with the neoliberal restrictions on government spending, as being a police officer here is neither prestigious nor prosperous, making it a frankly unappealing job. This stands in stark contrast to the experience of police in America and other established democracies, where the job is typically well compensated and largely respected, and many officers grew up dreaming of becoming a member of the police. This could not be further from the truth in Kurdistan or wider Iraq, as the police enjoy little support from the public and many members of the force have no desire to be police or remain on the job in the face of most any other employment opportunity.

That policing is a last resort or stop-gap measure for most students and trainers is plainly evident in how openly many speak of wanting a different career or turning to policing only when all other options were exhausted. As government work is by far the most stable and easiest to access form of employment, most people’s stories centered around their inability to get into a different, better paying ministry. Kemman noted, “Most people nowadays are going to graduate from the university, but maybe they do not have any opportunity in the other ministries to be employed. So because of the lack of opportunity, they decide to become police.” Koren agreed, “I have many friends who have graduated from university and then came to be established here because it will be easier to be established here rather than the civilian ministries.”

This view of policing as simply a means for making money was especially evident in response to many questions that weren’t directly about motivations for joining. This is exemplified by what Majid had to say about who should and shouldn’t join the force. According to him, the only people with no need to join the police are “rich people, because they don’t need this salary. Now that I am police, I have a salary that helps me rent my house and provide for my living expenses. There’s no reason for rich people to get up and work at six in the morning like me.” Or as one survey respondent put it in response to whether he would recommend policing to others as a career, “No, because those who enjoy good living quality do not ever need to be a policeman,” while another respondent noted, “If the person has a certificate [degree], I will not accept him; but I will help the person who does not have certificate to get the job, because the police job is the only thing left for us.”

It’s not just the difficulty of finding a different job that persuaded many to join but the perception that finding any other line of work would be practically impossible due to widespread corruption and lack of available work. Kumar complained, “The only way for many to be employed is to become police because there are no guarantees in the companies for those who are not related to someone.” Or as one representative survey response put it, “If you have a certificate but no wasta support then you are nothing.” Another survey respondent agreed, “I have low income. I have a certificate but no wasta, and therefore I joined the police.” Similarly, more than one interview respondent clearly felt their only other option for employment would be in the illicit economy, which typically means becoming a part of the smuggling trade, a practice flourishing in the region due to the difficult-to-monitor terrain and to the near absence of government outside of major urban areas. Nwenar discussed his decision to become a police officer to escape unemployment, “There was a high ratio of unemployment. So…I have chosen this field. It is unlike smuggling or something else, because they are always doing things against the law and against the rules of our country.”

Furthermore, many students and trainers were perfectly clear that they not only did not want to be police but were actively searching for other opportunities. One student, Sirwan, complained of all they were asked to do, “I would like to be more free in this age and doing more things by myself, not being regulated by the police field. The style of hair and other things…I can’t do those here.” A trainer, Peywan, spoke of joining the police because he found his construction job too difficult. But again, police work is seen as a way station rather than a profession. “I couldn’t continue on in that difficult job, so I gave it up, but not forever. I am now here to be police, but sometimes I will do that other job.” Others simply made no effort to hide their contempt for the work, such as Berham who said, “It’s not my interest to be police. It’s just for the sake of making a living . . . I do not consider myself police.”

Although the number is too small to draw any generalized conclusions, interviews with academy students were especially revealing of how they regarded the job simply as the best option at the moment. Specifically, I asked if they would recommend joining the police to others. Of those who said they would, most responded rather tepidly, such as Rubaad, who paused to think about it and replied, “Yeah, it’s ok. It’s not too bad.” But others wished they could impart what they have learned about policing to prevent others from making the same mistake. On whether he would encourage people he knows to become police, Sirwan emphatically answered, “No. Never. Never, never. I would never like anyone else to be police. I would like them to prolong their study, and through getting a good certificate, maybe he or she can provide for their life in a good way.”

With the greater cover of anonymity provided by the written survey, students were much more loquacious in explaining how simple economics pushed them into policing. Several noted they could not find work, even with a college degree, and turned to policing as a last resort, such as the student who joined because “when I completed my studies, I could not find employment. I was compelled by life to accept the police job.” Many noted that not only did they feel forced into joining the police but they resented the job. One student wrote, “I am the son of a martyr and never wanted to be a policeman, but I was obliged to become a policeman and am looking forward to the date when I resign.” Another student agreed, “I hate the police job, but for life support I joined its forces.” Yet another went even further, “I finished institute studies; because I did not know wasta, I could not get employed. I would have chosen death if I had had any options. I am obliged to choose policing because it is better than nothing.” Even those who saw policing as a fundamental social good often expressed feeling forced into it, such as the student who wrote, “Though the police job is sacred, I am never happy with it. I dislike it. Poverty and lack of job opportunities in other directorates motivated me to join the police.”

Beyond choosing it simply because it is one of the few jobs available, people choose policing because of its relative safety and because of the low educational requirements (the lowest of all government ministries). Berham provided a common response, “I had no time to complete my studies, so I had given up on school and went to be a worker for some time. Later on I saw a major who asked me if I’d like to be employed here, and I said ‘OK, it’s better than being a worker.’” Others were quick to point to the low education requirement when explaining why one would be compelled to join the police, such as Chamal, who related a story of how policing was a common bit of advice to the unemployed, “Those who were jobless, people said to them ‘go be police,’ and they would be received.”