The tribal revolt against al Qaeda in Iraq

David Kilcullen:


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.


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.


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.)


There is much more in this interesting piece. David Kilcullen is one of the more knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of counterinsurgency warfare and the importance of understanding the tribal relationships of people to the insurgent movements. He is a key adviser to General Petraeus and he is an Aussie employed by the US State Department. He goes on to explain how the tribal leaders came to see their self interest in resisting al Qaeda. We are on the edge of a historic strategic victory against al Qaeda. Only the Democrats can save the enemy at this point. Read the whole article to get to the nuts and bolts of how the situation changed.


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