Small Wars Journal

Westhawk Review: The Strongest Tribe

Thu, 09/18/2008 - 1:44pm

Book Review: 'The Strongest Tribe'

By Westhawk - Cross Posted at Westhawk

The Strongest Tribe is Bing West's third book on the Iraq War. It is a capstone volume, covering the conflict from 2003 until the summer of 2008. The book also covers the war from bottom to top, from foot patrols in Iraq's slums to meetings with President Bush and his top advisors at the White House. Although rushed into print (there is no index yet plenty of grammatical errors), I predict that a decade from now, The Strongest Tribe will hold up very well as a history of America's intervention in Iraq.

The Strongest Tribe will hold up well because Bing West may be the single most qualified person on the planet to tell this story. As a young Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, Mr. West personally implemented counterinsurgency doctrine. He later wrote about his experiences at RAND and in his book about Vietnam, The Village. As for the dilemmas faced by the generals and those in the top echelons of the government, Mr. West brings his experience as an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.

Although the U.S. looks set to achieve its goals in Iraq, it goes without saying that the campaign was a mismanaged, costly, and ultimately Pyrrhic victory. Mr. West spares almost no one from blame: President Bush for abruptly adopting grandiose goals for Iraq in May 2003, but failing to choose the proper leaders and military strategy to achieve those lofty ambitions; Secretary Rumsfeld for tacitly undermining his President by seeking to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible; General George Casey for failing to admit that the Iraqis were unable to assume significant responsibilities as quickly as he had asserted to his superiors; and Prime Minister al-Maliki and virtually all other senior Iraqi officials for either being sectarian zealots, or for being outright thieves.

On fifteen extended trips to Iraq, it is clear that Mr. West spent most of his time where the war was actually won, on patrols with basic American infantrymen. Although General David Petraeus is now hailed as the greatest American officer in six decades, the truth is that no general or senior American official, to include General Petraeus, can justly claim credit for winning the war. One might say this about any war, but it is especially true in the case of Iraq.

As Mr. West makes clear, in 2005, perhaps even in 2004, America's junior officers and sergeants actually out on patrol in Iraq's cities and villages knew exactly how to stabilize the country and reduce the violence. The simple and ancient answer was to empower local leaders, sheikhs, and tribes to hunt down the al Qaeda killers and Shi'ite enforcers that had moved into the neighborhoods. Yet until late 2006, top U.S. commanders forbade their subordinates from working with "unauthorized militia-type groups." Mr. West repeatedly documents how local Iraqi leaders pleaded with the Americans to allow them to go after the criminals who had moved in. But until nearly 2007, American junior officers were compelled to work only through corrupt and ill-led Iraqi police and army units which were rarely locally recruited.

The change finally came around November 2006 when some junior U.S. Marine Corps officers staged a minor rebellion against official policy. On pages 212-215, Mr. West describes how some fed-up Sunni tribesmen, supported by some frustrated American advisors, took it on themselves to clean out the town of Khalidiyah, deep in Anbar province. Nothing succeeds like success. The famed Sunni "Awakening" was now in action and later would be granted retroactive approval by the generals in Baghdad. One has to wonder how many lives could have been saved if the generals and Bush administration officials had permitted a locally-organized, bottom-up approach to security two years earlier.

Bing West covers a lot of history in less than 400 pages. Naturally, there are many more issues for future historians to explore. Mr. West introduces some of these topics, but leaves their development to others.

1. The "Great Man" theory and its road to rebellion. The most grievous conceptual error the U.S. made was to attempt to impose a centralized, top-down solution to the governance of Iraq. No where was this more apparent than with the approach of Ambassador Paul Bremer and his term with the CPA. Bremer, President Bush, and those advising them subscribed to the "Great Man" theory, believing that if they issued a command, it surely must be followed. Instead, this thinking merely incited rebellion. Why did this fundamental error occur?

2. The murky month of May 2003. As best as we can tell, the Pentagon's pre-war intention was to appoint a provisional government of Iraqis (as had happened with Afghanistan), sweep up Iraq's WMD, and then largely exit the country. In May 2003, President Bush sent that plan to the shredder when he appointed Proconsul Bremer and fired General Garner. But exactly how and why that abrupt change occurred remains murky to this day. We will have to await the memoirs of President Bush, Secretary Rice, and Secretary Rumsfeld to find out more. Needless to say, President Bush's snap decisions in May 2003 sent history onto a consequential trajectory.

3. How Pyrrhic is the victory in Iraq? The U.S. will succeed in Iraq. But has the price been so painful that America's military will be politically unusable for the foreseeable future? Has the conflict in Iraq essentially disarmed the next President, at least as it pertains to the use of general-purpose ground forces? If so, what will be the consequences for future military operations? And what should be the consequences for defense planning and procurement?

4. Who will fight for America? In The Strongest Tribe, Bing West discusses numerous problems the U.S. is experiencing with civil-military relations. He deplores the defeatism expressed by many members of Congress and in the mainstream media. He examines the cultural divide in America between the vast majority who have no knowledge or contact with the military and the tiny fraction, much based on family tradition, who actually volunteer and fight for the country. He questions how the country can prevail in future conflicts under these conditions.

Americans who read the newspapers or watched the nightly news didn't learn very much about what America's soldiers actually did in Iraq. They saw a tabulation of roadside bombings but almost nothing concerning the thinking and tactics employed by U.S. captains, lieutenants, and sergeants. In The Strongest Tribe, Bing West explains in detail how U.S. infantrymen won the war in Iraq. In doing so, he raises new questions for future historians to answer.


David McDonald (not verified)

Thu, 06/17/2010 - 11:40am

Sounds like a nearly exellent book. I'll read some of it in the bookstore, but I don't buy books with no index.


Sat, 05/23/2009 - 6:01pm

Are we the largest tribe in Iraq? I think that is a question that we should consider from the Iraqi perspective.

Gentlemen, as the security agreement requires that US forces withdraw from all cities to the rural areas, this brings a very serious shortcoming to light. First, we don't have a mastery of how the Iraqi tribal system works. Secondly, we are moving from the cities, where tribalism is weaker, to the rural areas, where it is stronger. As insurgent sanctuaries are generally in rural areas, they are engaging the tribes to coexist with and recruit from them.

It is imperative that we as Americans fighting the war in Iraq gain some mastery on how to interact with the Iraqi tribal system. When we are in harmony with the culture with which we coexist on a tactical level, it saves soldiers' lives, and it also is a powerful counter to insurgent information operations.

To that, please have a look at It's not the answer to all questions...but it is the first more comprehensive treatment of the subject, with applied methodologies for leveraging the tribal data contained in the book for the purpose of establishing strong relationships with tribal leadership that are based on respect, humility, and trust.

If are able to fill the gap between what we think is intelligence and what causes cultural phenomena such as the insurgent groups in Iraq, we are will be well on our way to helping the Iraqis themselves towards state formation.

That's victory!


Sam Stolzoff

Um, I'm reading the book right now, and that's not exactly the impression I'm taking away from it. (Save for the bit about the venal Iraqi officials, oh, and of course the doughty American--and Iraqi!--grunts.) Pyrric victory? Dang, I wish Random House had bothered to employ an indexer! Blue skies! -- Dan Ford