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Thread: Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt

  1. #1
    Small Wars Journal SWJED's Avatar
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    Default Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt

    Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt - SWJ Blog by Dave Kilcullen

    Some aspects of the war in Iraq are hard to fit into “classical” models of insurgency. One of these is the growing tribal uprising against al Qa’ida, which could transform the war in ways not factored into neat “benchmarks” developed many months ago and thousands of miles away. I spent time out on the ground during May and June working with coalition units, tribal leaders and fighters engaged in the uprising, so I felt a few field observations might be of interest to the Small Wars community. I apologize in advance for the epic length of this post, but it's a complex issue, so I hope people will forgive my long-windedness. Like much else, it’s too early to know how this new development will play out. But surprisingly (surprising to me, anyway), indications so far are relatively positive.

    To understand what follows, you need to realize that Iraqi tribes are not somehow separate, out in the desert, or remote: rather, they are powerful interest groups that permeate Iraqi society. More than 85% of Iraqis claim some form of tribal affiliation; tribal identity is a parallel, informal but powerful sphere of influence in the community. Iraqi tribal leaders represent a competing power center, and the tribes themselves are a parallel hierarchy that overlaps with formal government structures and political allegiances. Most Iraqis wear their tribal selves beside other strands of identity (religious, ethnic, regional, socio-economic) that interact in complex ways, rendering meaningless the facile division into Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish groups that distant observers sometimes perceive. The reality of Iraqi national character is much more complex than that, and tribal identity plays an extremely important part in it, even for urbanized Iraqis. Thus the tribal revolt is not some remote riot on a reservation: it’s a major social movement that could significantly influence most Iraqis where they live...
    Much more at the link...

  2. #2
    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Default Back to the Future, Again

    First of all yet another excellent communication from Dave Kilcullen. The tribes are the tribes and I loved his play on TE Lawrence in the title.

    Taken in total, however, the piece is nearly a complete rejection of all previous goals set forth in this war. Nothing Kilcullen says is wrong, illogical, or spun. It is honest. And that makes it truly sad.

    The negative implications are easy to state, but far-reaching. For one thing, we have spent the last four years carefully building up and supporting an Iraqi political system based on non-tribal institutions. Indeed, the Coalition Provisional Authority deliberately side-lined the tribes in 2003 in order to focus on building a “modern” democratic state in Iraq, which we equated with a non-tribal state. There were good reasons for this at the time, but we are now seeing the most significant political and security progress in years, via a structure outside the one we have been working so hard to create. Does that invalidate the last four years’ efforts? Probably not, as long as we recognize that the vision of a Jeffersonian, “modern” (in the Western industrial sense) democracy in Iraq, based around entirely secular non-tribal institutions, was always somewhat unrealistic.

    The only point I question in his analysis is the following:

    In the Iraqi polity, tribes’ rights may end up playing a similar role to states’ rights in some other democracies. They will remain a competing power center to the religious political parties, and hence will probably never be popular with Baghdad politicians, but if correctly handled they have the potential to actually enhance pluralism in Iraq over the long-term, by restraining the excesses of any central government or sectarian faction.
    I believe he is being too rosy in his hopeful analysis of the tribes. Tribes work because no one tribe gathers enough power to dominate the others. On occasion a tribe wil do just that; the Tikritis under Saddam are exhibit A. States work for the same reason but there is a sense of common good and allied effort. Single states don't accrue power to dominate the others although the political process in Washington looks like it at times.

    Kilcullen implies there is a stability in all of this; I see the instability perpetuated and that is the very essence of a tribal society. It can never move forward because the conflicts are always pulling it backwards. I would also say he is assuming away the role of the religious schisms that are larger and much deeper than any alliance of the tribes against. Finally I do not agree that an anti-AQI revolt is pro-central government. The Shia in the south are certainly not exhibiting any such tendencies.

    Overall this is Back to the Future Iraqi-style.



  3. #3
    Council Member Beelzebubalicious's Avatar
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    I read this article with great interest. Excellent points and analysis. In responding, I am not trying to criticize, but further the anlaysis and discussion. God knows I can't hold a candle to Kilcullen.

    Interesting that the actions of Iraqi tribes are characterized as an “uprising” or “revolt” against Al Qa’ida. This would seem to indicate that Al Qa’ida is the power or authority in the society. Seems like a better characterization would be a reaction against Al Qa’ida, or as Kilcullen puts it later, “flipping” or turning away from insurgents (and toward the government).

    One of the mitigation measures described is “Linking tribal loyalty to local governance structures and then directly to the central government, through tradition control mechanisms...” By “local governance structures” Kilcullen implies formal local government (that is elected and appointed officials) but is suggesting that they follow tribal control mechanisms. This seems contradictory to me. If it’s tribal loyalty and tribal control, then we’re talking about tribal governance. Is there a role for the Western concept of local government? If so, what is it and what authority does it have?

    One of the functions of government, and especially local government, is protecting and providing services for its citizens. Tribes, by their nature, serve only themselves (as Kilcullen points out). How can a tribal governance structure effectively serve all citizens? Is he advocating a form of decentralization whereby each tribe is provided resources and authority to protect and provide for its people? Can tribes really function effectively as a “…parallel hierarchy that overlaps with formal government structures and political allegiances.”

    When Kilcullen talks about police bias, he writes that bias can only be removed over time by weeding out the sectarian actors and balancing the tribal forces. It’s not so much professionalism, but the balancing of competitive forces. Kilcullen further argues that the CPA approach of creating a “modern” democratic state that was non-tribal was unrealistic and did not work. He seems to be arguing for a balance of power approach whereby various power centers (tribes, religious political parties) compete and restrain excesses of power by any one group. He states that this will work if “correctly handled”. He doesn’t state this directly, but implies that it will be the central government that handles these competing forces.

    Tom points out that the objective of balance in this analysis is optimistic if left up to tribes. I would tend to agree. I don’t see how the central government can handle the tribes or various factions either. Saddam was able to create an ordered society based on strong authoritarian rule. As I understand it, he essentially dominated and eliminated all power but that of the state. Outside of this type of control, how can these centers of power be held in check?

    Going back to the concept of a modern democratic state, I think the issue with this approach is a modern and in this case, Western style democracy. I think we (everyone) shouldn’t throw out the baby with the Bath(ist) water. Democracy as we know it may not be right for Iraq, but I think they need a professional system of government. Kilcullen points out that there is no place for sectarianism in the police force. So it should go for the government.

  4. #4
    Registered User mrkburke's Avatar
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    Default Now that we know....what are we doing?

    Having recieved this nugget of how AQ is messing things up with the population what are we doing with this fact?

    a. What are the local Iraqi media, military PSYOPs plan to get this storyline out to as many and as far as possible in order to feed the rift created?
    b. Analizing where the Coalition can step in once AQ gets walking papers in order to influence things in favor of the Iraqi government?
    c. What is the host nation doing to support this momentum and exploit AQ efforts to "subjigate Iraq's citizens" or "strip Iraqis of honor" in order to project a political agenda...there is miles of effects we could get if the community acts thoughtfully and with careful analysis to capitialize on this rift.
    d. Where is the media injection on getting this story out there in Iraq and at home. AQ using Islam and forced marriage as a method of dominating and infiltrating a population.....use our media for us and get this aspect of the fight out.
    e. Highlight the murders by AQ on Iraqis who refused.
    f. Provide good news stories in the Iraq media about the locals taking back the country and running the foriegn fighters off. Don't even mention the US. Use pictures, eyewitess account, radio and TV get this out fast using nothing but the truth and push the envolope!

    We need to be as reactive and nibble to the events surrounding this fight as the insurgents our. Time is of the essence, if we don't get this story out first and in the right channels we will loose what little momentum it has and the enemy will strip us of whatever value it offers VERY SOON!

    Come on creative, thinking staff guys and PSYOP folks, all the talk about the indirect approach needs to get put into action. Use whatever we can do to get these guys out of the population and seen as the dirt bags they are should be the main effort.
    MAJ Kevin Burke
    US Army, Civil Affairs (active duty)
    Naval Postgraduate School

  5. #5
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default Posted from the blog

    I think working with and through the tribal structure is viable and at this point necessary. In 06/07 we were advocating this to our IA counterparts in Mosul – simply that as the most visible and functioning Iraqi government representation, they should be more active in building local social cohesion and assisting fostering emerging national domestic goals as they come forward. Expecting a new central government to suddenly exert control over a fractured state of diverse ethnic demographics and religious beliefs is a bridge too far – the political infrastructure for doing so is only now beginning to build the type of internal relationships required to accomplish this.

    Part of our problem is mirror imaging our political processes onto Iraq. As was stated, many of our media and politicians do not understand the importance of tribal loyalty in the social and political process of the societies where this is a feature. When an Iraqi is mentioned with the last of the four names being – Zebari, or Hamdami, or Al Jabori, I automatically associate that person with those tribes. As many know the tribes are like nations without states – this is one of the challenges throughout this region of the world as state boundaries were drawn through the lines of peoples. It took me awhile to understand why a sheik who lived in Syria could exert so much influence on events in Iraq, but there it was. Its almost more akin in some ways to a multi-national corporate executive’s influence on offices across the globe. The sheiks figure very prominently into Iraqi (and many other states) social fabric, Saddam Hussein also understood this, and arranged to work around it. Some of you may have heard about the 1990 sheiks – or the sheiks around Ninewa who Saddam used to replace sheiks that were just too much trouble.

    CPT Travis Patriquin understood this well and broke it down in his stick figure .ppt. The tribal bonds are an enduring feature to this society. It is possible to move beyond their importance, you could grow old as Methusla waiting for it too happen, and with technology thwarting isolation, I’d say tribal bonds might just as well increase vs. decrease – the cell phone only gets better. That we have finally started to acknowledge the role tribalism plays in this and future fights, and that perhaps we might even remember the role it plays as we develop our foreign policy and craft strategy to meet it indicates we are learning.

    As stated there are some dangers. That we have acknowledged the possibility of undermining the efforts of a central government to me provides the basis for indicators to help the Iraqis adjust course as needed. Whatever the Iraqi government looks like eventually, the mechanics will probably not conform to our western notion. What matters is that security and stability are present at the local and national level. Sheiks & Muktars will probably continue to play at least an equally important role as elected mayors, provincial governors, and possibly even presidents and prime ministers – unless they find a way to merge the two – which also has pros and cons. When you consider it, the situation in Iraq has some similarities with our own political processes where even today special interest groups, lobbyists and persons of influence and wealth have undue and often counterproductive bearing on the outcome of important political issues. Go back a hundred years or two and look at the local political scene in the U.S. Consider the aftermath of the American Civil War, how long did it take to complete political reintegration? It was 1965 before we officially got rid of the Jim Crow laws. Working the grass roots politics that typify Iraq makes sense – to do so means working with sheiks & muktars – because that is a large part what the local culture is built on – in time they will build a national culture, but the sheiks and muktars will be a part of that I think.
    Regards, Rob

  6. #6
    Council Member tequila's Avatar
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    New York, NY


    A quieter Anbar province rebuilds - CSMONITOR, 5 Sep.

    When Marine Lt. Col. Bill Mullen showed up at the city council meeting here Tuesday, everyone wanted a piece of him. There was the sheikh who wants to open a school, the judge who wants the colonel to be at the jail when several inmates are freed, and the Iraqi who just wants a burned-out trash bin removed from his neighborhood.

    As insurgent violence continues to decrease in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar Province – an improvement that President Bush heralded in his visit to Al Asad Air Base Monday as one sign of progress in the war – the conversation is shifting in Anbar. Where sheikhs and tribal leaders once only asked the US to protect them from Sunni extremists, now they want to know how to get their streets cleaned and where to buy generators.
    "Security dominated everything, and we weren't able to get anything done," says Colonel Mullen, battalion commander here.

    It's been six months since the so-called Anbar Awakening, when Sunni sheikhs joined US Marines in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni extremists may still have a presence here, but US military officials say that with the help of the expanding Iraqi security forces, they've driven most of what remains of Al Qaeda from the urban areas.

    Violence has stayed down, dropping from 2,000 attacks in March to about 450 last month – as the number of Iraqi security forces has increased, from around 24,000 this spring to nearly 40,000 today.

    The changes here have allowed provincial and local governments to get established over the past few months, US officials here say. And now, true to the tribal culture that permeates Iraqi society, Sunni sheikhs here want to create a relationship of true patronage with what they consider to be the biggest and most powerful tribe here: the Marines of Anbar Province ...

  7. #7
    Council Member tequila's Avatar
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    New York, NY


    Signing up Sunnis with 'Insurgent' on Their Resumes - Washington Post, 4 Sep.

    Naiem al-Qaisi was imprisoned for four months, beaten, shocked with electric probes and, he said, forced to witness fellow Sunni male prisoners being raped by Shiite soldiers of the Iraqi army.

    Now he wants to be a policeman. The American military recruited Qaisi and thousands like him to fight the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, but Qaisi's most feared enemies are soldiers in the Iraqi army's Muthanna Brigade, and his allegiance does not lie with the government he is now being trained to serve.

    "We don't trust this government. This government belongs to Iran," said the 29-year-old former security guard for a soft-drink company. "The Iraqi government knows we are innocent guys, but they want to kill us."
    In the villages around the Abu Ghraib district on the western outskirts of Baghdad, American commanders have achieved their goal of enlisting more than 1,000 of these local Sunni recruits into the Iraqi security forces. For the past few months, the recruits have operated checkpoints, pointed out al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters and located caches of weapons.

    On Aug. 20, several hundred of the Sunnis -- given the name "Volunteers" by the Americans -- lingered in a parking lot guarded by U.S. tanks, waiting for Chinook helicopters to fly them to eastern Baghdad for their month-long training course to become policemen. One of their leaders, a bearded, beige-robed fighter who goes by the nickname Abu Zaqaria, looked out over the crowd of young men, some with machine guns, and estimated that 50 percent of them used to be insurgents who battled the Americans.

    "We started feeling there was another occupation of Iraq, and it was coming from Iran, not from the U.S.," he said. "That led us to the situation we're in now, where we decided to negotiate with a strong force like the Americans ..."

  8. #8
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    JFQ, 3rd Qtr 08: Tribal Engagement in Anbar Province: The Critical Role of Special Operations Forces
    ....While tribal engagement has helped U.S. and Iraqi forces dramatically improve security in Anbar Province, significant challenges remain. In late 2007, for instance, the province still lacked a functioning Iraqi criminal justice system. Though the new police forces can detain or arrest suspects, there was often no functioning court system or prison to hold convicted criminals. Here again the tribal system has been helpful because a sheikh can pay a “fine” to have the arrested man released. To avoid having to pay a fine repeatedly, the sheikh will typically either force the released detainee to cease his insurgent activities or leave the area. In extreme cases, the tribe may even kill a member who repeatedly brings dishonor on it. Tribal justice is not a complete substitute for a modern legal system, but it has helped to fill the gap until a fully functional Iraqi justice system is in place in Anbar Province.

    Tribal engagement has been crucial in driving international terrorists out of Anbar Province. The same methods are being employed in other provinces to squeeze out Shiite death squads and al Qaeda terrorists. On the whole, tribal engagement has proven to be a highly effective counterinsurgent and counterterrorist technique, and it might not be an exaggeration to say that if the U.S. effort in Iraq is ultimately successful, tribal engagement will almost certainly be a main reason. This makes it particularly important to understand what tribal forces can and cannot achieve militarily, politically, and economically. It is also important to find the right balance between engaging at the tribal and national levels....


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