Small Wars Journal

Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt

Wed, 08/29/2007 - 3:52am
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.

Birth of the revolt

The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40% of the country. It has spread to Ninewa, Diyala, Babil, Salah-ad-Din, Baghdad and -- intriguingly -- is filtering into Shi'a communities in the South. The Iraqi government was in on it from the start; our Iraqi intelligence colleagues predicted, well before we realized it, that Anbar was going to "flip", with tribal leaders turning toward the government and away from extremists.

Some tribal leaders told me that the split started over women. This is not as odd as it sounds. One of AQ's standard techniques, which I have seen them apply in places as diverse as Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, is to marry leaders and key operatives to women from prominent tribal families. The strategy works by creating a bond with the community, exploiting kinship-based alliances, and so "embedding" the AQ network into the society. Over time, this makes AQ part of the social landscape, allows them to manipulate local people and makes it harder for outsiders to pry the network apart from the population. (Last year, while working in the tribal agencies along Pakistan's North-West Frontier, a Khyber Rifles officer told me "we Punjabis are the foreigners here: al Qa'ida have been here 25 years and have married into the Pashtun hill-tribes to the point where it's hard to tell the terrorists from everyone else.") Well, indeed.

But this time, the tactic seems to have backfired. We often short-hand the enemy as "al Qa'ida" but in Iraq we primarily face tanzim qaidat al-jihad fil bilad al-Rafidayn (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's organization, which swore allegiance to bin Laden in 2004, is now taking strategic direction and support from Al Qa'ida central, and whose archaic name literally means "the qai'da organization for jihad in the land of the two rivers", i.e. Al Qa'ida in Iraq, AQI). This group's foot-soldiers are 95% Iraqi, but its leadership is overwhelmingly foreign. The top leaders and several key players are Egyptians and there are Turks, Syrians, Saudis, Chechens, Afghans and others in the leadership cadre. Moreover, the group is heavily urbanized, and town-dwellers -- even urban Iraqis -- may as well be foreigners as far as some tribal leaders are concerned. So there is a cultural barrier, and a natural difference in outlook, between the tribes and the terrorists.

These differences need not have been fatal -- indeed, for years the tribes treated the terrorists as "useful idiots", while AQI in turn exploited them for cover and support. One person told me that AQI's pitch to the tribes was "we are Sunni, you are Sunni. The Americans and Iranians are helping the Shi'a -- let's fight them together". But this alliance of convenience and mutual exploitation broke down when AQI began to apply the standard AQ method of cementing alliances through marriage. In Iraqi tribal society, custom (aadat) is at least as important as religion (deen) and its dictates, often pre-Islamic in origin, frequently differ from those of Islam. Indeed, as one tribal Iraqi put it to me, "if you ask a Shammari what religion he is, he will say 'I am a Shammari' " -- the Shammari being a confederation which, like many Iraqi tribes, has both Sunni and Shi'a branches.

Islam, of course, is a key identity marker when dealing with non-Muslim outsiders, but when all involved are Muslim, kinship trumps religion. And in fact, most tribal Iraqis I have spoken with consider AQ's brand of "Islam" utterly foreign to their traditional and syncretic version of the faith. One key difference is marriage custom, the tribes only giving their women within the tribe or (on rare occasions to cement a bond or resolve a grievance, as part of a process known as sulha) to other tribes or clans in their confederation (qabila). Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done. AQ, with their hyper-reductionist version of "Islam" stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes' view as ignorant, stupid and sinful.

This led to violence, as these things do: AQI killed a sheikh over his refusal to give daughters of his tribe to them in marriage, which created a revenge obligation (tha'r) on his people, who attacked AQI. The terrorists retaliated with immense brutality, killing the children of a prominent sheikh in a particularly gruesome manner, witnesses told us. This was the last straw, they said, and the tribes rose up. Neighboring clans joined the fight, which escalated as AQI (who had generally worn out their welcome through high-handedness) tried to crush the revolt through more atrocities. Soon the uprising took off, spreading along kinship lines through Anbar and into neighboring provinces.

Other tribesmen told me women weren't the only issue. The tribes run smuggling, import/export and construction businesses which AQI shut down, took over, or disrupted through violent disturbances that were "bad for business". Another factor was the belief, widespread among the tribes (and with at least some basis in fact) that AQI has links to, and has received funding and support from, Iran. In their view, women were simply the spark -- AQI already "had it coming". (Out in the wild western desert, things often tend to play out like The Sopranos... except that AQI changed the rules of the game by adding roadside bombs, beheadings, murder of children and death by torture. Eventually, enough was enough for the locals.)

Current Situation

Several major tribes are now "up" against AQ, across all of Anbar, Diyala, Salah-ad-din, parts of Babil and Baghdad (both city and province). Some in Anbar and Diyala have formed "Salvation Councils", looking to well-known leadership figures like Sheikh Sittar ar Rishawi, or to community leaders. In other provinces things tend to be quite informal, based on local elders. In Anbar the movement has acquired the name "the awakening".

The uprising against AQI has dramatically improved security. In Ramadi, Hit, Tikrit, Fallujah and other centers the rate of civilian deaths has dropped precipitously, and overall attacks are down far below historic trends, to almost nothing in some places. For anyone familiar with these places from earlier in the war, it can be quite disorienting to watch Iraqis walking safely and openly in streets which, a year ago, would have required a major operation just to traverse. This change seems to have passed some observers by, but it is one of the truly significant developments in Iraq this year. For example, a recent Washington Post article begins with a Staff Sergeant who was not expecting combat, "after many uneventful months in Iraq's Anbar province, as he jostled over the rough terrain of brush, fields and irrigation ditches in the lead Humvee of a routine patrol on the night of June 30". Many uneventful months in Anbar? Not expecting combat? A routine patrol -- at night? This is not the Anbar we think we know, a media byword for constant pointless violence.

Other provinces are experiencing similar patterns: in one farming district south of Baghdad, a treaty between an enterprising company commander and community elders has dramatically reduced bombings: by late May, one road that was attacked twice a day last year had not seen a single IED attack since the agreement was established in March. The locals have formed a neighborhood watch, are policing their own community, and are enrolling in the Iraqi police under government control and cooperating with local Iraqi Army units. And recently Shi'a tribes in the south have approached us, looking to cooperate with the government against Shi'a extremists.

Of course, this is motivated primarily by self-interest. Tribal leaders realize the extremists were leading them on a path to destruction, and have seized the opportunity to dump the terrorists and come in from the cold. They are also, naturally, looking forward to the day when coalition forces are no longer in their districts, and want to ensure that they, nor AQI, are in charge once we leave. And many of the tribal leaders have realized for themselves what our Army, Marines and Special Forces commanders have been telling them for years: "If you don't like having us around, and you want us to get off your backs, the solution is staring you in the face: just get rid of the extremists, reduce the violence and cooperate with the government to stabilize your area, and we're out of here".

Internal tribal dynamics also play a part. Many older leaders, who consider themselves the true heads of clans or tribes, fled Iraq in 2003 because they were implicated in dealings with Saddam, and are now in exile in Syria or Jordan. The on-the-ground leaders are a younger generation, concerned to cement their positions vis-í -vis the old men in Damascus, who may one day want to return. By joining forces with the government, these leaders have acquired a source of patronage which they can re-direct to their people, cementing themselves in power and bolstering their personal positions.

Again, this is utterly standard behavior for tribal leaders pretty much anywhere in the Arab world: you can trust a tribal leader 100% -- to follow his tribe's and his own interests. And that's OK. Call me cynical, but I tend to trust self-interest, group identity and revenge as reliable motivations -- more so than protestations of aspirational democracy, anyway. In Iraq these motivations have proven very robust, especially when reinforced by bonds forged in fighting a common enemy alongside our forces and the government. Provided they are under Iraqi government control (a non-trivial proviso), "neighborhood watch" groups motivated by community loyalty and enlightened self-interest are not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, since the uprising has so far resulted in a significant drop in violence and a substantial increase (on the order of 30,000 people) in the number of Iraqis actively lining up with the government and the coalition to defend communities against extremists, it may turn out be a very good thing indeed.

The Baghdad Variant

An interesting variation on the general theme has arisen in Baghdad city. Baghdad, of course, is not tribal as such. But urbanization in Iraq is a relatively recent phenomenon, occurring mainly over the past 20 years or so -- for example, around half the people living in Baghdad today belong to families that came to the city since the 1980s. This means many urban Iraqis still have close kinship relationships with rural tribes, and still have relatives living in their ancestral villages with whom they keep in touch. In several districts, community leaders (often the Sunni imams of local mosques) have turned against AQI in their areas. In these districts, which include Ameriya, Ghazaliya, Abu Ghraib and others, communities have formed neighborhood watch organizations, established access controls to prevent people from outside the district coming in without proper authorization and driven out terrorist cells. They are now providing information to the Iraqi and Coalition security forces, protecting their own families and conducting joint patrols and operations alongside the Iraqi army and police, both by day and night. This has happened most often in Sunni-majority districts, and locals have partnered with Shi'a dominated security forces in most cases (somewhat giving the lie to assertions that Sunni populations won't ever work with Shia-dominated security forces: they often will, but the conditions -- primarily some kind of honest broker, a relationship of trust between key individuals, or formal safeguards -- have to be right). Coalition forces have provided support to the community and to Iraqi forces operating in the area, and hence tend to play the role of honest broker.

In Baghdad the revolt is based on informal district power structures that evolved through the intense period of sectarian cleansing that so damaged the city and its people in 2006. Having said that, we often find leaders who are acting in a community capacity but also have family ties or other links to the tribes who have rebelled against AQI. In one district Sunni imams were constantly being targeted for intimidation and violence by AQ -- there was a spate of mosque bombings in May and June, for example, targeting imams deemed too moderate by the takfiri terrorists. These imams, working with local elders, banded together to drive out AQ. But to do so, they brought in a military advisor from another district, known to one of them through his tribal connections, who was also connected to one of the main tribes currently fighting AQI outside Baghdad. So while the surface level of activity in Baghdad is not so obviously tribal, clan connections, kinship links and the alliances they foster still play a key underlying role.

For its part, the Government of Iraq has chosen to work closely with these groups as a means to secure key districts and build partnerships with communities. This took a great deal of political courage, since many of those now fighting AQI are former adversaries of the government, or even current political opponents of the Da'wa Party and the Maliki cabinet. Part of the government's motivation was almost certainly a desire to take credit for security progress, and there is still a degree of suspicion among some Iraqi political leaders (for good reasons discussed below). But in practical terms, on the ground, the Government's policies have resulted in fewer civilian casualties, a drop in numbers of attacks, a much less permissive operating environment for terrorists, and the freeing up of Iraqi army and police units who would otherwise have been tied down in static guard duties. So on balance, the results are positive so far in my view.


Having said all that, it is clear that the tribal revolt could still go either way.

The strategic logic, from our point of view, is relatively straightforward. Our dilemma in Iraq is, and always has been, finding a way to create a sustainable security architecture that does not require the "coalition-in-the-loop", thereby allowing Iraq to stabilize and the coalition to disengage in favorable strategic circumstances. But taking the coalition out of the loop and into "overwatch" requires balancing competing armed interest groups, at the national and local level. These are currently not in balance, due in part to the sectarian bias of certain players and institutions of the new Iraqi state, which promotes a belief by Sunnis that they will be permanent victims in the new Iraq. This belief creates space for terrorist groups including AQI, and these groups in turn drive a cycle of sectarian violence that keeps Iraq unstable and prevents us disengaging. (There are several other drivers of violence, of course, but this one of the most significant ones).

AQI's "pitch" to the Sunni community is based on the argument that only al Qa'ida stands between the Sunnis and a Shi'a-led genocide. The presence of local Sunni security forces -- which protect their own communities but do not attack the Shi'a -- gives the lie to this claim, undercuts AQI's appeal, and reassures Sunni leaders that they will not be permanently victimized in a future Iraq. It may thus make such leaders more —to engage in the political process, functioning as an informal confidence-building measure, and it may help marginalize al Qa'ida. This might represent a step toward an intra-communal "balance of power" that could potentially be quite stable over time. On the Shi'a side, AQI represents a bogey-man that extremist groups like Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM, Muqtada al-Sadr's group) exploit to gain public acquiescence: their pitch is "we are all that stands between you and AQI". By reducing the AQI threat, the tribal uprising also therefore undercuts JAM's appeal. And as mentioned, Shi'a tribes have recently begun to turn against JAM and other Shi'a extremists also, with the potential to further reduce the level of intra-communal violence and bring non-sectarian Shi'a into the political process, marginalizing extremists and Iranian agents.

All this means that correctly handled, with appropriate safeguards, and in partnership with the Iraqi government, the current social "wave" of Sunni communities turning against AQI could provide one element in the self-sustaining security architecture we have been seeking. And if the recent spread of the uprising into the Shi'a community continues, we might end up with a revolt of the center against both extremes, which would be a truly major development. On the positive side of the ledger, some benefits of the tribal uprising are that it:

• Relieves coalition and Iraqi forces of garrison and local security requirements, freeing up forces for maneuver against insurgents and terrorists, and thus redresses to a significant extent our lack of coalition force troop numbers in Iraq;

• May help create a self-regulating security architecture, making population groups "self-securing" and thus providing a stable platform for redeployment of coalition forces out of these districts with less risk that insurgents might re-infiltrate into them once we leave;

• Provides the Sunni population with a security guarantee that helps marginalize AQI, while deterring Shi'a extremist groups that may seek to attack Sunni districts; and

• Taps into traditional approaches based on social and political structures that many Iraqis are comfortable with -- it goes with, rather than against the grain of Iraqi society.

But there are also clear risks. The process may create armed groups outside Government control, which might engage in human rights violations that could be blamed on the government or coalition forces (though, in fact, we have yet to see any significant human rights violation by tribal forces) -- indeed, they typically apply a very measured approach, probably because the people they are securing are their own families, and their local knowledge allows them to get things done without having to apply force, as an outside force might need to. Nevertheless risks remain, including the fact that:

• Some government ministries oppose arming the Sunni population, sometimes on sectarian grounds but also through legitimate concerns about future government control over Sunni-majority areas, and some Iraqi Army commanders have expressed concern about the potential for regional warlordism;

• There is an outside chance that tribes which have "flipped" from supporting AQI could simply flip back -- especially if they believe the government is not effectively supporting them or taking their interests into account; and

• Unless re-integration measures are formally established, some tribes may come to see their security forces as a permanent entitlement, which would make control over their areas more difficult for any future central government.

Having watched this thing develop at close hand over several months, I believe the risk mitigation measures that we and the Iraqi government are currently putting into place stand a better-than-even chance of preventing major negative side-effects from the uprising. The risks are still significant, but with appropriate mitigation they are probably manageable. Such mitigation measures include:

• Developing programs, up front, to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate tribal forces in Iraqi society (a so-called "DDR" plan);

• Ensuring the government does not provide weapons to any group until its loyalty is demonstrated and members have sworn allegiance to the new Iraq;

• Conducting biometric registration of tribal fighters, and registering their weapon serial numbers (to discourage side-switching, detect infiltrators and reassure the Iraqi government of its control);

• Linking tribal loyalty to local governance structures, and then directly to the central government, through traditional tribal control mechanisms such as deera (tribal boundaries; tribal forces could not work outside these without an agreement with the neighboring sheikh) and Sulh (traditional tribal reconciliation processes, leading to compacts within and between communities);

• Vetting and training tribal security forces as a pre-condition for their enrolment into paid, government-sponsored organizations like the Police and Army; and

• Providing advisers, liaison officers and support infrastructure (ideally from the Iraqi government with our help) to prevent human rights abuses and enforce appropriate operational standards.


The implications of the tribal revolt have been somewhat overlooked by the news media and in the public debate in Coalition capitals. In fact, the uprising represents very significant political progress toward reconciliation at the grass-roots level, and major security progress in marginalizing extremists and reducing civilian deaths. It also does much to redress the lack of coalition forces that has hampered previous counterinsurgency approaches, by throwing tens of thousands of local allies into the balance, on our side. For these reasons, the tribal revolt is arguably the most significant change in the Iraqi operating environment for several years. But because it occurred in ways that were neither expected nor accounted for in our "benchmarks" (which were formulated before the uprising began to really develop, and which tend to focus on national legislative developments at the central government and political party level rather than grass-roots changes in the quality of life of ordinary Iraqis) the significance of this development has been overlooked to some extent.

One obvious outcome of the uprising is the political band-wagoning effect we are currently seeing: tribal leaders see the benefits other tribes have gained from turning against terrorists, and want the same benefits themselves, so they too turn against extremists in their own areas. At the same time, the Government of Iraq sees benefits in terms of grass-roots political reconciliation and reduced violence, and is keen to take control of, and credit for, the process. Provincial governments also see the benefits of self-securing districts, freeing up police and military forces for other tasks. This has the potential to help coalesce Iraqi society around competent, non-sectarian institutions (albeit informal ones).

From my point of view, the strongest positive implications are the possibility that the revolt might help create a self-sustaining local security architecture, and what we might call the "re-blueing" effect on the police. One of our problems all along has been that some police officers have behaved in a sectarian manner, a few have engaged in outright sectarian atrocities, while sectarian extremists have intimidated or coopted others. Police bias and partiality is a standard problem in counter-insurgency: it occurred in campaigns as different as Palestine, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Malaya and Vietnam. But it typically takes a long time to remedy (almost ten years in the case of the Royal Ulster Constabulary). The tribal forces being created as a result of the uprising could accelerate police reform, by changing the police recruiting base from a heavily Shi'a orientation to a more balanced structure, as Sunni tribal recruits join the Iraqi police. "Weeding out" bad sectarian actors in police services is a slow and difficult process; changing the recruiting base, as the uprising has done, can help move the process along more quickly.

There are also economic benefits. Enlisting tribal fighters into police units creates employment beyond the 90-day CERP model of the past. It also reduces the manpower pool for the insurgency, and is thus a form of "soft DDR". Increased security in rural areas boosts agricultural and market activity (by making fields safe enough to cultivate crops, and making roads and markets safe enough to transport goods). Salaries earned by newly-enrolled auxiliary policemen inject capital into the goods and services economy, while vocational and educational training under DDR programs diversifies the labor pool and builds the absorptive capacity of local economies. Assistance to families channeled through tribal Sheikhs helps re-start the traditional patronage system, and although this involves risks of smuggling or black marketeering these can be mitigated through proper oversight. And such programs provide a "safe" outlet for CERP funds without corroding Iraqi government budget execution processes, as has sometimes happened in the past.

Another key implication is for force ratios and coalition troop numbers. It has become a truism to argue that we have too few troops in Iraq for "proper" counterinsurgency. This claim is somewhat questionable, in fact -- there is a base level of troops needed for effective counterinsurgency, but this is a threshold: once you reach the minimum level, what the troops do becomes the critical factor, more so than how many there are. And as Robert Thompson pointed out more than 40 years ago, force ratio in counterinsurgency is an indicator of progress, not a prerequisite for it. You know things are starting to go your way when local people start joining your side against the enemy, thus indicating a growth of popular support, and changing the force ratio as a result. Merely adding additional foreign troops doesn't make up for lack of local popular support -- the British lost the Cyprus campaign with a force ratio of 110 to 1 in their favor, while in the same decade the Indonesians defeated Dar'ul Islam with a force ratio that never exceeded 3 to 1, by building partnerships with communities and employing them as village neighborhood watch groups, in cordon tasks and support functions. So we could deploy many more U.S. troops to Iraq and it wouldn't necessarily fix the problem. On the other hand, the fact that 30,000 former insurgents and tribal fighters are now on our side and fighting the enemy is worth a great deal, because it indicates that more Iraqis are lining up with the government and against extremism. It simultaneously increases our forces, improves our reach into the population, reduces the enemy's recruiting pool and active forces, lessens the number of civilians who need to rely on protection from coalition troops (and hence cuts the demand for our security services), and erodes the enemy's ability to intimidate and control the population. All these things have a positive effect on the overall correlation of forces in theater.

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. 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.

The other implication is that, to be perfectly honest, the pattern we are seeing runs somewhat counter to what we expected in the "surge", and therefore lies well outside the "benchmarks". The original concept was that we (the Coalition and the Iraqi government) would create security, which would in turn create space for a "grand bargain" at the national level. Instead, we are seeing the exact opposite: a series of local political deals has displaced extremists, resulting in a major improvement in security at the local level, and the national government is jumping on board with the program. Instead of coalition-led top-down reconciliation, this is Iraqi-led, bottom-up, based on civil society rather than national politics. And oddly enough, it seems to be working so far. This does not necessarily invalidate the "surge" strategy: we are indeed seeing improved security and political progress, but at the local not national level. This was not what we expected, and probably will cut little ice with domestic opponents of the strategy, but the improvement in daily lives of Iraqis and willingness to talk rather than fight is a substantial real-world improvement nonetheless.

Tentative Conclusions

As we all know, there is no such thing as a "standard" counterinsurgency. Indeed, the basic definition of counterinsurgency is "the full range of measures that a government and its partners take to defeat an insurgency". In other words, the set of counterinsurgency measures adopted depends on the character of the insurgency: the nature of counterinsurgency is not fixed, but shifting; it evolves in response to changes in the form of insurgency. This means that there is no standard set of metrics, benchmarks or operational techniques that apply to all insurgencies, or remain valid for any single insurgency throughout its life-cycle. And there are no fixed "laws" of counterinsurgency, except for the sole simple but difficult requirement to first understand the environment, then diagnose the problem, in detail and in its own terms, then build a tailored set of situation-specific techniques to deal with it.

With that in mind, it is clear that although the requirements for counterinsurgency in a tribal environment may not be written down in the classical-era field manuals, building local allies and forging partnerships and trusted networks with at-risk communities seems to be one of the keys to success -- perhaps this is what T.E. Lawrence had in mind when he wrote that the art of guerrilla warfare with Arab tribes rests on "building a ladder of tribes to the objective". Many excellent recent posts and discussions here at the Small Wars Journal have explored these issues. Marine and Army units that have sought to understand tribal behavior in its own terms, to follow norms of proper behavior as expected by tribal communities, and to build their own confederations of local partners, have done extremely well in this fight. But we should remember that this uprising against extremism belongs to the Iraqi people, not to us -- it was their idea, they started it, they are leading it, it is happening on their terms and on their timeline, and our job is to support where needed, ensure proper political safeguards and human rights standards are in place, but ultimately to realize that this will play out in ways that may be good or bad, but are fundamentally unpredictable. So far so good, though....

David Kilcullen has just completed a tour in Iraq as senior counterinsurgency adviser to the Multi-National Force. These are his personal opinions.


Blog / News Links to This Post:

The Gettysburg of This War - Frederick Kagan, National Review

Tribal Revolt - Max Boot, Commentary

Kilcullen at SWJ - Michael Goldfarb, Weekly Standard

Sunni Sheikhs Turn their Sights from US Forces to Al-Qaeda - Marie Colvin, London Times

Planning for Defeat - George Packer, The New Yorker

Iraq: An Opinion - Ross Douthat, The Atlantic

Sunnis at Center of Strategy for Iraq - David Wood, Baltimore Sun

Petraeus Tells Bush to Sustain Troop Levels - David Sanger, The Age

Dark Side to the Iraq Plan as the Sunnis Turn - David Wood, Sydney Morning Herald

Straight Shooting on an Uprising - Miranda Devine, Sydney Morning Herald

Like Chicken and Ham, Peachy - Jules Crittenden, Forward Movement

Michael Yon E-mails to Recommend this Piece at Small Wars Journal - Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit

Sunnis turn on al Qaeda over Marriages -- David Sands, Washington Times

Back From Iraq - St. Petersburg Times editorial

Real Clear Politics Thursday - Real Clear Politics

Report on Iraq from David Kilcullen - Greg Richards, American Thinker

AQ Runs Afoul of Iraqi Marriage Customs: When Soft Power Turns Hard - Dave Schuler, Outside the Beltway

AQ Runs Afoul of Iraqi Marriage Customs: When Soft Power Turns Hard - Dave Schuler, The Glittering Eye

COIN: Dr. Kilcullen on SWJ - Grim, Blackfive

Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt - Abu Muqawama, Abu Muqawama

The Tribal Rebellion - Mike, Net Wars

The Tribal Revolt Against al Qaeda in Iraq - Merv Benson, Prairie Pundit

"Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt" (or, Big Storying, cont) - Jeff G., Protein Wisdom


Discuss at Small Wars Council


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Michael (not verified)

Thu, 09/13/2007 - 7:59pm

If AQI is tripping over local customs and losing the Sunni's, what kind of success are the Iranians having on the Shiite side? Are their relationships better, worse, or just different? I saw where he said that some of the Shiites are starting to turn against the extremists, but he didn't say much beyond that.

As for the discussions in the Comments section, I'm a civilian who's never been to Iraq. It does seem to me, though, that a civil war that's largely domestic and between individual tribes and warlords (the possibility this article seems to point to) would be less devastating than one where the locals are being used as proxies against one another by foreign powers. Thank you.

Gian P Gentile

Sun, 09/09/2007 - 10:38am

In response to Ironhorse I did provide a "point assessment" with substance in my last posting on this issue. To restate my substantive criticism of Kilkullen I argued that a few weeks ago the NY Times ran a piece on an Iraqi woman who talked about the permeating effects of sectarian hatred on the people of Iraq and how it has pushed the country into Civil War. Dr Kilkullen states in his piece on tribalism the importance of a "balance of power" as a basis for establishing a thing he calls "security architecture" at the local level. Well if this womans experience in Iraq is correct for Iraq writ large and if Iraq is in Civil War then how will this balance of power resolve itself? Through reconciliation? In the American Civil War there was a balance of power between the north and south that only resolved itself after one side defeated the other. If Iraq is in Civil War then this focus on tribalism as a base for reconciliation really does lack potential because we are in effect arming one side of the war at the expense of the government we support. Moreover todays NY Times has a lengthy piece by Damien Cave where he points out that despite the Surge, sectarian hatred as part of the Iraq Civil War has only hardened positions between the warring sides in Baghdad and not softened them.

To further my use of the American Civil War as analogy: how likely were the possibilities of "hard wiring" relations between north and south in 1863? Lincoln certainly tried such "hard wiring" prior to the start of the War but once it had begun one side had to be defeated before reconciliation and post war "hard-wiring" could begin.

More follows on substantive critique of Kilkullen. I do not accept the notion we can "hardwire the social environment." As a pop-anthropological metaphor what does "hard-wiring" really mean on the ground in Civil War Iraq? Now I know the answer will be something like creating relationships between sunni groups and the government through projects and contracts; but again if the country is in Civil War and the government is out to crush the sunnis, and vice versa, then in reality how can such "hard-wiring" take place? Damien Caves piece very directly gets at this problem.

Ironhorse cautions me to be wary of making broad generalizations and sweeping criticism of Kilkullen based on my limited "grid-square" experience as a combat, battalion commander in west-Baghdad in 2006. Fair enough. But I do want to point out that my relatively limited experience as an armored reconnaissance squadron commander in west-baghdad in 2006 was at least spatially broad: I had as my areas of responsibility at different times in 2006 in west Baghdad: Sadiyah, Jihad, Furat, Risala, Amel, Bayaa, Ameriyah, Yarmouk, Gazaliyah, Kadra, Huriyah, Shula, and Kadamiyah. So even though I did not have the sweeping view of all of Iraq like Kilkullen had, I did have a pretty large view of Baghdad--seen my many still as the "center of gravity" in Iraq. And with that view, and back to a critique of Kilkullen, I did not see tribalism as that important in my areas of West-Baghad. I am not saying that tribes in this type of urban area were not important because they certainly were. But they did not influence and determine action as they do in such places as Anbar. When I concentrated almost my entire Squadron in Ameriyah in the latter part of 2006 and as I started to learn the area, what struck me most was not that the sunnis of Ameriyah organized themselves around tribes. Instead they organized themselves around their identity as sunnis and former members of the ruling baathist elite who had their power taken away and who fervently believed that the shia government was out to crush them. They saw themselves in a war with the shia government. This was the central, organizing idea to these people, not the seven or eight different links to western tribes in Anbar.

Finally I do not accept the characterization of counterinsurgency war that Kilkullen made to New Yorker columnist George Packer in a December 2006 interview: that counterinsurgency war is "armed social science." I prefer a better characterization of counterinsurgency war by the historian and strategist Dr. Eliot Cohen: that countinsurgency war is still war and war in its most basic essence is still fighting. By thinking of war as "armed social science" we have turned it into a non creative process rather and an effect producing event. The "bathwater" my friend Ironhorse is now the koolaide that runs through so many veins.

Rob Thornton

Mon, 09/03/2007 - 10:51pm

Liontooth wrote:

"Likewise, should we take the relatively stable and secure atmosphere in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and describe the entire country with it?"

Its a good question. I'd say that we probably should not characterize any one part of Iraq by general association with another. However two points worth considering:

1) Security and Stability are not ubiquitous. You just about have to have security as a condition for stability. As you leave Mosul and drive North into Kurdistan, you start to notice how different things are between the two, even though its relatively a short drive - Dahok was kind of our thought on what stability would look like in Mosul after a few years of good security. Outside (South) of the string of Peshmurga forts, you don't have sufficient security yet to see that type of stability - but I'd argue you have more there ( Ninewa ) then in say the Diyala Province.

2) "relatively" secure and stable means comparing it to something specific vs. the "rest of Iraq" I think its important to qualify it because it helps to have some kind of weather gauge that is at least in the same geographic ball park, and has common short and long term memories. Mosul benefits from its proximity to Kurdistan I think - goods and services come South, go East and West. Mosul is really the first big Iraq city South of Kurdistan. Its cosmopolitan in its demographic makeup and has a long history of commerce and independence - its a historical contact point - and currently benefits from sitting West of Irbil, Sulimaniyah and Iran, and East of Tal Afar and Syria.

The big tribes have influence (and interests) across Iraq. The sheiks are not just people of influence, they are also people of means. They can go along way in helping not only security, but also facilitating stability by virtue of their investment. We had a sheik who was a real problem, his sons were AIF emirs - in this case the word means they were important cell leaders. This guy had his hands into just about everything and was well connected. He also was sophisticated and new how to distance himself just enough to avoid being implicated. For him it was all about the money - he was kind of like a Mafia Don. It amazed me that he had not figured out that if he worked with the Iraqi government and the CF authority, he could make lots more money in the reconstruction, be on the ground floor as stability returned and not risk the life of his sons in the process (not to mention earn the gratitude of the local community for espousing hospitality writ large by helping the community - but it just did not make sense to him yet.

I think (and hope) he might have come around since then. If he has its likely because the number 1 and number 2 sheiks in Ninewa have pressured him and perhaps convinced him of the above. Those sheiks may well have come around by discussions with the Iraqi government and/or other sheiks - many of whom have diverse ties - much like western men of means and importance.

While what reaches the news is the security provided by an alliance with the sheiks, the opportunities are more broad. Since the sheiks influence the economy and many other related topics, they are also important to future stability. I don't think there is any real equivalent to sheiks in our western society; consequently it is hard for us to place them in the context of the solution, but to try and do it without them is like trying to do without social ligaments and tendons.

Best regards, Rob

SWJ Groundskeeper

Wed, 09/05/2007 - 9:56am

Concur w/ Gian that there are many flavors of Kool Aid. One must never qwaff too much of any one. One of my (strengths? weaknesses?) is that I find myself legitimately agreeing with somewhere between 80 and 99% of what most savvy people write here - even those on both sides of an argument. But my disagreement of 1 - 20% remains, and I try to manage that without throwing the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps those who write these strident critiques are, like me, only disagreeing on the fringe with that same 1 - 20%. But too often they seem to me that they are saying "X is all #$%'d up." In the interest of brevity, we often gloss over the points of agreement that form the foundation for dialog on the fringe of disagreement. Dale Carnegie would issue a gentle reprimand -- that's not how we win friends and <strong>influence people</strong>.

With regard to the content, rather than the form -- liontooth has touched nicely in his prior comment on two issues that don't validate or invalidate anyone's trend and assessment of issues and drivers, but do demonstrate the difficulties in painting with a broad brush given the massive variabilities. And I did not <em>demand...a "Barney-style" critique...on Dr. Kilcullen</em>, I meant to ask that criticism based on point assessments be more narrowly focused to address the scope of the point assessment, and its limitations as they apply to the broader issues. Liontooth started to do that. We can not bash a summative piece because it does not account for one outlier. Nor can we just assume that our experience is representative. I thought Galileo locked us on with that, the world does not revolve around us.

It is clear that Gian P Gentile does take this war personally and remembers his fallen soldiers. It is unfortunate that he must, but superb that he does -- that passion is essential in our military leaders. It is also absolutely critical that he, and those similarly situated, extract the essence of their experience but transcend the their personal view of what happened to them in their grid square. It has been said that history does not repeat itself, it only looks that way to those that don't know the details. By the same token on a micro level, every situation is different. We can take some of our experience, but not all of it, with us to our next <em> different</em> situation. Critical thinking is more than over-extrapolated pattern recognition. Concur that the <em>duty of the intellectual is to "think otherwise."</em> Not to be contrary and criticize.

I do not see too many professionals like Dr. Kilcullen stating that their analysis is absolute truth that must be applied to every tactical situation. The contrapositive holds -- failure to account for a tactical peculiarity does not necessarily invalidate the trends and issues in a more macro sense, it just validates the limitations of its application. This war is certainly full of peculiarities.

I go <a href="; rel="nofollow nofollow">here</a> for a little perspective when I need it, from time to time.

liontooth (not verified)

Mon, 09/03/2007 - 9:52pm

Gian P Gentile wrote:
<i>My point that I made above and it does apply to Bateman too is that it is at the infantrymens level of local, neighborhood security where the big-picture thinkers like Dr Kilkullen are placing so much emphasis for success. And contrary to Dr Kilkullens assessment these infantrymen do not see success at the local, neighborhood level.</i>

According to <a href="…; rel="nofollow nofollow">seven ex-Army/ex-Marines</a>, the focus of the current COIN strategy has not yet been implemented in the area where the 82nd has been operating. So they wouldn't see the results.

Likewise, should we take the relatively stable and secure atmosphere in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and describe the entire country with it?

Gian P Gentile

Mon, 09/03/2007 - 12:33pm

Dear Ironhorse:
Thanks for your quick and forceful remarks.

Actually, from my perspective the koolaide consumption comes from those who have accepted without question or doubt the assessment provided by Dr Kilkullen. There are a few who have challenged it (namely 0L09 in this blog) but for most his explanation is taken as fact and the proper course for America in Iraq.

As for my comments on Yinglings article if you read what I said it was always a specific and admittedly strident critique of his criticism that American generals lack moral courage. Was there personal invective on my part? Yes indeed there was when Yingling attacked the moral courage of men whom I know and respect greatly. My point to Yingling was that if he was going to attack American generals for lack of moral courage then he himself needed to display it in his article by naming names.

More on my use of personal invective: I do use it to try to wrench people into thinking otherwise about what we are doing in Iraq and our current dogmatism with coin doctrine (if you want to see more on my thoughts on this and if you have the time see my current article "Eating Soup with a Spoon" in the current issue of AFJ). What was striking to me about the OPED piece by the infantrymen from the 82nd was that it received such little attention on blogs like this one; except for a posting by LTC Bob Bateman who rebuked the infantrymen for commenting on things that were outside of their lane. My point that I made above and it does apply to Bateman too is that it is at the infantrymens level of local, neighborhood security where the big-picture thinkers like Dr Kilkullen are placing so much emphasis for success. And contrary to Dr Kilkullens assessment these infantrymen do not see success at the local, neighborhood level. So I thought it ironic that so little attention would be paid to them and their assessment, except one rebuke that states they were out of their lane. But the "lane" that these infantrymen assessed is exactly the "lane" where Dr Kilkullen places so much promise. So the infantrymen's view is absolutely important and should be weighted very heavily when considerring the way ahead in Iraq.

As for your demand for a "Barney-style" critique by me on Dr Kilkullen (I confess that I honestly dont know what you mean by Barney but I assume you are asking for more substance) well here is a limited crack at it. Last week the NY Times ran a piece on an Iraqi woman who talks about the permeating effects of sectarian hatred on the people of Iraq and how it has pushed the country into Civil War. Dr Kilkullen talks in his piece on tribalism and the importance of a "balance of power" as a basis for establishing a thing he calls "security architecture" at the local level. Well if this womans experience in Iraq is correct for Iraq writ large and if Iraq is in Civil War then how will this balance of power resolve itself? Through reconciliation? In the American Civil War there was a balance of power between the north and south that only resolved itself after one side defeated the other. If Iraq is in Civil War then this focus on tribalism as a base for reconciliation really does lack substance and potential because we are in effect arming one side of the war at the expense of the government we support.

This war is personal to me since the souls of my fallen soldiers still haunt the streets of Baghdad. If my invective is strident it is only to provoke what a famous American historian once said: that it is the duty of the intellectual to "think otherwise."

Instead of koolaide perhaps you and I can sit down some time for an ice-cold pale ale.

SWJ Groundskeeper

Mon, 09/03/2007 - 11:07am

Gian P Gentile,

You said <em>"I submit that these infantrymen have a much clearer picture of the reality of Iraq."</em> Whose reality? There are many. The Baghdad you left in Dec; yours back then vs. the one your squad leaders lived in; the Baghdad of today; Bacghdad vs. Anbar, Basra, Diyala etc. -- all very real, all very different.

If you want to bash assessments of trends and theater level observations such as the one Dr. Kilcullen provided vs. actual point assessments, you're going to have to break it down more Barney style. Any trend or summary is contradicted by myriad local exceptions. It does not invalidate the observation. That's true in most social disciplines, not just military. White noise vs. trend line vs. local anomaly is always a confounding issue. The view through one soda straw is one data point. You can't tell where on the scatter plot it lands.

Thank God we've got smart guys with BOG experience travelling around like Dr. Kilcullen to complete the plot.

You're a smart guy, and you know that. You have some good works out there. But what is happening of late? Your entries on this board (e.g. <a href="…; rel="nofollow nofollow">here</a> and especially <a href="…; rel="nofollow nofollow">here</a>) seem to be laced with personal invective as if they're coming from a party hack set up as a foil to Yingling, et al. It seems uncharacteristic from your writings elsewhere that were more balanced. I hope you get that out of your system. If you have that drink with SWJED, make sure you don't mix up his beer with the Kool Aid that you've been guzzling up of late.


Sun, 09/02/2007 - 10:34pm


Lots of Dave's here and about. I am SWJED (Dave Dilegge of Small Wars Journal). Thanks for the comment on the SWJ and maybe we can get together some time.

Dave Dilegge

Gian P Gentile

Sun, 09/02/2007 - 8:16pm


Right; Kilkullens is the big picture but it is fundamentally based on success at the local, neighborhood level where these infantrymen fought and operated for 15 months. So I do not accept the argument that because Kilkullen is at the top and therefore has the big picture that we should therefore weight it over the important view of these infantrymen.

We all love to talk about the importance of the "strategic corporal" when discussing coin operations and how politically important the actions of individual soldiers at the lowest levels can be. So if we can place so much rhetorical weight on the strategic corporals in this sense then why should we not take seriously at a broad level the actual assessment that these infantrymen made?

Finally, I submit that these infantrymen have a much clearer picture of the reality of Iraq, especially more so than Kilkullen because they have lived coin ops in Baghdad for 15 months where the good Colonel was a mere traveler.

I think the infantrymen are right. I think that there assessment is a much truer picture of Iraq than the one that Kilkullen, O'Hanlon, and the armchair generals at AEI have painted over the past few months. And for the sake of transparency in opinion the infantrymens is also an assessment that fits mine when I left Baghdad in December of 2006.

Problem is that the infantrymens reality does not fit one side of current American politics because it places huge limits as to what American coin operations can accomplish in the middle of the Iraq Civil War.

Dave, I do appreciate the effort that you put into running this most excellent and important blog. Some time if we ever get the chance I would like to sit down and drink a beer with you.


COL Kilcullen's point of view is "big picture." The NCO's who wrote the Op/Ed piece in the NY Times have a "small picture" point of view.

Both pieces express their author's honest opinion of the situation, as they see it.

The NCO's would have little first hand experience of what was going on outside their AOR, which likely consists of one district or neighborhood in Baghdad. COL Kilcullen's AOR is the whole country.

gmee (not verified)

Sun, 09/02/2007 - 4:28pm

I just found this blog through a post on American Thinker. Very refreshing to find a discussion without all the partisan BS.

Hypothetical Question: If the US exits Iraq, now, as quickly as is feasible, what happens to Iraq?


Rob Thornton

Sat, 09/01/2007 - 11:00am

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 executives 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, Id say tribal bonds might just as 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.

liontooth (not verified)

Sat, 09/01/2007 - 3:03am

<i> We cannot win in the conventional meaning TO US of winning, which means subjugation of the loser.</i>

Then what would you call Germany and Japan post WW2? The US didn't subjugate the populations and nobody considers that war lost by the US.

Outlaw 7

Thu, 08/30/2007 - 10:00pm

After reading the article on the tribal revolt a number of issues were not mentioned.

Yes QJBR is under pressure from the various tribes, but if one reads the statements of the Association of Islamic Scholars who are tied to both the insurgent group Islamic Army of Iraq and the Iraqi Islamic Party their recent statements in late August seem to reflect that yes QJBR has money and fighting abilities but they are simply dissatistified with their killing of fellow Muslims. They have condemned the killing of Muslims by QJBR, but the increasing condemnations are voicing the fact that they view QJBR as diverting the National Resistance groups more than helping them. The Association also has deep ties to the Sunni tribes so I am assuming that the tribal Shiekhs are also aware of their statements.

A captured Emir and several cell leaders of the Baqubah Ansar al Sunnah in mid 2005 also reflected dislike of the killing of innocent Muslims by QJBR---and the IAI and AAS have over the last several months also complained of killings of their cell leaders and fighters by QJBR.

Now comes the intertesting question- if in fact the standard tribal Sunni is not a practicing Salafi or Takfiri then the Sunni tribal revolt must be now a total success and the entire resistance to US Forces for the last four years has in fact collapsed with no attacks on US or ISF forces occurring.

This we know is not the case based on both the steady drumbeat of attacks on the ISF and US Forces. While the attack numbers we hear are statistically lower on US Forces I would argue they are statistically higher on the ISF and Iraqi civilians. If one takes the recent OSINT battle statistics from both QJBR and IAI at face value and then takes out say 25% as being inflated then the attack numbers are in fact climbing.

What appears to be potentially be happening is that the surge has driven the large number of smaller Sunni Salafi and secular Sunni insurgent groups tighter together to survive the additional 30,000 US troops and the increased US pressure on QJBR. One tends to see a distinct increase in battle videos being released by a larger number of previously not mentioned insurgent groups.

If one accepts the fact that both IAI and AAS were in contact with each other prior to 2003 and if one accepts the fact that a number of Iraqi Intelligence Service officers were targeting them prior to 2003 then we can understand just why the standard insurgency model went to a Phase Three insurgency by some would say late 2005 early 2006.

While QJBR has been taking the heat from surge forces IAI and AAS have been strengthing and carrying on the national resistance. If one looks at the open source estimates of the strength of QJBR in say 2005 in relationship to the rest of the Sunni insurgency it was about 5%. Some open sources are suggesting that in the face of the constant degrading they have actually climbed to 7.3%.

I would in fact argue that the Phase Three insurgency has eased back to Phase Two in the face of the additional surge troops simply due to the restriction of the Sunni triangle ease of movement that existed prior to the surge. This is the reason for the reduced attack numbers not the success of the tribal revolt---they are simply throttling back and riding out the surge as they know when is it over, consolidating their structures, recruiting, taking a respite and still keeping us engaged through ambushes, IEDs and sniping.

Back to the tribal issue if the tribal Shiekhs have sided with the US then potentially more out of having a protector gain them some peace and quiet from the Medhi Army and Badr Corp not out of love of the Iraqi Central Government.

I would argue that the al Anbar Sunni tribe that has traditionally been responsible for smuggling across the Syrian border even under Saddam Hussein is still involved in smuggling and definitely not informing US Forces about their day to day business enterprise activities.

There is an old al Anbar tribal saying "violence is politics-politics is violence". Then there is the old concept of Arabic doublespeak.

If anyone has read the recent John Robb blog comments on the al Anbar Council developments I fully agree with his comments that while it gains the US Forces a very short term respite the long term effects may in fact be far more damaging to the Iraqi government.

I posted about the importance of the tribes three weeks into this war because I felt nobody anywhere had a clue. These tribal rivalries, feuds, revenge for slights that are sometimes a thousand years old, and relationships built over centuries must be taken into account. This is a country of tribes. Everybody in this type of society has a place to protect and enhance, usually by lying, cheating, or challenging to a duel or war. I hope we can manage them now that we have finally realized that they are there and it sounds like we have. I'd only add to this remarkable post the philosophical question, What does winning look like? And then the follow up: Would you ever play a game in which the purpose was something other than winning? We cannot win in the conventional meaning TO US of winning, which means subjugation of the loser. We are playing a game which cannot be won by our definition of winning. A victory here must eventually "turned over" to the structure that evolves and I believe that some sort of tribalism will be a large part of the outcome.

Muslim tribes throw in with each other under the banner of their religion to accomplish multi-tribal goals that are usually restricted to kicking somebody's ass. Robert Kaplan's must read book called "Eastward to Tartary" relates incident after incident where they were suddenly stopped by little local tribes armed to the teeth who wanted money. He pointed out that Muslim young men who had no money couldn't marry because of dowry requirements, and their religion forbad sex. They have no other way to express their manhood other than fighting and profiting from confrontation with outsiders. These "tribes" will only join with each other under the banner of religion, and then only for the purpose of violence. I'm afraid we are going to continue being "surprised" by Muslim tribes who join together for a time. That is their tradition.

"a series of local political deals has displaced extremists, resulting in a major improvement in security at the local level, and the national government is jumping on board with the program. Instead of coalition-led top-down reconciliation, this is Iraqi-led, bottom-up, based on civil society rather than national politics."

I have two questions regarding this passage.

First - how has the national government jumped on board with these local political deals? From what I have read, the national government does not like these tactical alliances between mostly Sunni tribes and the Coalition because (as you acknowledge elsewhere in this piece) the Shia government thinks the Sunni tribes will use this brief peace as "breathing space" not for political reconciliation, but to prepare to fight the national government which many Sunnis see as a tool of Iran.

My second question is, where's the evidence of reconciliation? From what I have read, the Sunni tribes have a tactical alliance with the Coalition to kill AQI. There is no reconciliation or forgiveness involved - simply short-term self-interest that some (Tony Cordesman) think could disappear in a few months.

Steve Blair

Thu, 08/30/2007 - 1:13pm

The same thing happened in Vietnam in a sense. There you saw family loyalties and divisions between the Montagnard minority (among others) and the ethnic Vietnamese create a variety of situations in different regions of the country. One region of the country (say in the Delta region where there was a high concentration of displaced Catholics from the North) could be quite secure, while just one province (or one village) over the situation would be very different. Kilcullen and Nagal are, I believe, looking at a larger picture. Does that mean that their picture is accurate for every region in Iraq or Afghanistan? No. But that's also why the new COIN manual stresses local adaptability.

As for targeting extremists...this is something you need to do because they are much less likely (or impossible) to sway through persuasion.

The tribal influence will dissipate over time if no small number or cabal of them is allowed to take over the national power centers, as has happened in Syria. They will function like the aristocracy in Britain did as the democratic legislature gradually shaped itself into more than a royal advisory council. The point isn't so much that there's a fixed "life cycle" of such changes; it's that the <i>kinds</i> of priorities and processes and competencies needed are different. Party allegiances take the place of hereditary links in handling the levers of power, and the "selectorate" and "ruling coalition" get very large (see <i>de Mesquita</i>).

So tribalism is both a power base and an anachronism which needs to be kept in its place so natural processes can bring it "into the system" as a social kinship network with limited influence on wider affairs and concerns.

Right now, sheikhs are the leverage points, or the fulcrums, for bringing the population onside. Men like Sittar may turn out to be much more.

liontooth (not verified)

Thu, 08/30/2007 - 1:03am

<i>I use the word clever because the rationale for the Surge as Kilkullen presents it fits so cleverly in line with current American Army Coin doctrine. So Kilkullen and others have constructed a reality in Iraq that fits the Coin doctrine that he helped to write.</i>

What? He said exactly the opposite:

<b>Instead of coalition-led top-down reconciliation, this is Iraqi-led, bottom-up, based on civil society rather than national politics. And oddly enough, it seems to be working so far. This does not necessarily invalidate the "surge" strategy: we are indeed seeing improved security and political progress, but at the local not national level. This was not what we expected,...</b>


Wed, 08/29/2007 - 9:41pm

The NY Times Op-Ed piece was featured in the SWJ Op-Ed Roundup the day it was published and replied to in a SWJ Blog post by LTC Bob Bateman.

Do we give attention to everything and every opinion that deserves it? No, but we try as the SWJ and SWC are not "our day jobs" and yes, a lot of hard work and hard cash go into this effort.

Gian, you have an open invitation to blog here - we really do pride ourselves in presenting all sides - fair and balanced. You have the experience, smarts and can write - we'd love to have you aboard.

Our ROE are quite simple and liberal - our bloggers blog on what they want, when they want. The only thing we ask is that the focus is on messages and not messengers - not personal.

Dave Dilegge

Gian P Gentile

Wed, 08/29/2007 - 9:20pm

Kilkullen presents an extremely seductive and clever rationale for current operations in Iraq known as the Surge.

I use the word clever because the rationale for the Surge as Kilkullen presents it fits so cleverly in line with current American Army Coin doctrine. So Kilkullen and others have constructed a reality in Iraq that fits the Coin doctrine that he helped to write.

Readers of this blog should know that the American Army has become Galulla.

The seductiveness of Kilkullens new reality of tribalism in Iraq clearly influenced the punditry and the things they wrote after their recent whirlwind tours in Iraq.

Kilkullen writes with a voice that suggests he has intimate knowledge of the ground in Iraq as he often throws out comments like spending months in the field and other such endeavors. I have knowledge of the ground in Baghdad since I commanded an Armored Reconnaissance Squadron in west-Baghdad in 2006 and had such areas as Ameriyah and Gazaliyah under my responsibility.

Kilkullens characterization of reality in Iraq is wrong. Iraq is not a civil war inside an AQI sponsored insurgency. Iraq is an insurgency within a complex and multi-faceted civil war. The seductiveness of Kilkullens Iraq is that the extremes can be targeted and destroyed and the people in the center secured; just as Galulla would have wanted it and just as the pundits upon return from their recent tours wrote about winning.

Kikullens point that the division between shia and sunni over sect is meaningless and facile does not ring true to me; in fact my experience on the ground tells me that it is downright absurd. I guess back in October of 2006 I should have told a shia woman in Ameriyah who was holding her dead one year old baby and staring down at her dead sunni husband on the street that no, no it is not as you say that your husband and child were killed because you were shia. Instead I should have told her that they were killed over tribalism since as Kilkullen implies tribalism is the basic element that determines thought and action in Iraq.

I stop by this blog usually once a day (and I do appreciate the hard work that goes into keeping it up and running). I am struck by how much attention has been given to the writings of Kilkullen and John Nagls recent appearance on the Daily show but not one post was made to the NY Times OPED by the soldiers of the 82nd AB a few weeks ago.

I wonder what Kilkullen has to say about these infantrymens assessment of security and prospects for success in Iraq at the grass roots level where they lived and breathed for 15 months especially since it is at the grass roots level where Kilkullen sees so much promise.

ryanwc (not verified)

Wed, 08/29/2007 - 1:43pm

Well, if I could edit my post, I would. I did get past the brief media criticism and I think this piece is very interesting. I don't think Anbar is a media byword for violence anymore, but that was hardly an important part of this article.

ryanwc (not verified)

Wed, 08/29/2007 - 1:26pm

I have trouble getting past the part of your post pretending that the media still treats Anbar as a nest of violence. This sort of reflexive, and inaccurate, anti-media view doesn't serve you well.

If you run a search for "Anbar" in the New York Times site today and look at the first 10 articles to come back, you find 7 that mention progress in Anbar and 3 that are simply neutral (i.e., they mention where it is that particular soldiers were killed, but make no characterization or generalization about the province.

I've been well aware of the tribal influences in Iraq (and Afghanistan) and the ways in which that underestimating that factor has impacted our efforts. But this article is simply brilliantly insightful. And it certainly adds to my understanding of the tribal intricacies of what's happening in Iraqi society as a backdrop to all of the other stuff that is going on.

liontooth (not verified)

Sun, 09/16/2007 - 5:06am

<a href="…; rel="nofollow">U.S. expands Anbar model to Iraq Shiites</a>


Sheik Majid Tahir al-Magsousi, the leader of the Migasees tribe here in Wasit province, acknowledged tribal leaders have discussed creating a brigade of young men trained by the Americans to bolster local security as well as help patrol the border with Iran.

He also said last week's assassination of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who spearheaded the Sunni uprising against al-Qaida in Anbar province, only made the Shiite tribal leaders more resolute.