Analysts describing challenges facing Iraq tend to ignore organized crime, which is unfortunate because organized crime, along with corruption more generally, dominates economic life in post-Saddam Iraq and hampers security. Fortunately, Williams, a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, has filled this gap and does so excellently.
If Iraq today ranks among the most corrupt states in the world, just three decades ago it was among the cleanest states in the Arab League. Williams, like Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya before him, traces the roots of corruption to Saddam Hussein's rule, to decades of wartime economy, and to sanctions. Following the U.S. invasion, Williams identifies two waves of organized crime: One took advantage of the collapse of the state and of the breakdown of social control; the other was defined by political ambition and the need to find resources for militias.
The oil industry became the epicenter of corruption, facilitated by an absence of both standardized measures of production and of metering. While oil is the lifeblood for Iraq's recovery, neither the Iraqi government nor the coalition authorities knew exactly how much oil the state produced. Corrupt officials and insurgents could funnel oil away with impunity.
What affected most Iraqis, however, was not oil smuggling but kidnapping. While the Western media focused on political kidnappings—the beheadings of foreigners, for example—what terrorized Iraqis and worried foreigners across the country were kidnappings for ransom. Williams tackles the subject with detail and precision. He turns the same cool professionalism to extortion, government corruption, and the terrorist groups and militias.
Refreshingly, Williams does not engage in polemic nor infuse his writing with petty political agendas. He does not solely blame U.S. authorities, the coalition, or Western countries although he also pulls no punches: Of the ballooning of organized crime after Iraq's liberation, he notes, "The U.S. decision to react passively in the face of widespread looting was a major mistake, creating a climate of citizen insecurity and criminal impunity." Western countries also, to some extent, fueled kidnapping: "Profits were significantly enhanced by the willingness of France, Italy, Germany, and several other countries to pay large ransoms."
The only disappointment in Criminals, Militias, and Insurgents lies in the conclusion, which is too general and provides little guidance beyond the obvious: Williams recommends constricting the space for organized crime to operate, reducing incentives for criminal behavior, and targeting the most dangerous networks. Alas, the lack of specificity to Williams' antidote illustrates just how crippling the problem of corruption in Iraq has become.