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Tilting at Windmills

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September 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TRIBES vs. THE CENTER....Lt. Col. David Kilcullen is an Australian anthropologist and counterinsurgency expert who has just finished a tour as a senior advisor to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. He's a very interesting guy (I've written about him before here), and a week ago he published a long post at the Small Wars Journal blog recounting his experience working with the Sunni tribal leaders who have spearheaded the much-acclaimed Anbar Awakening. It contains a wealth of interesting detail about how the Sunni revolt got its start (marriage customs were a key driver) and how the tribal structure of Iraq works. It's well worth taking some time to read.

That said, take a look at the following passage explaining the American decision to support and arm the Sunni tribes:

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.

....The presence of local Sunni security forces...reassures Sunni leaders that they will not be permanently victimized in a future Iraq. It may thus make such leaders more willing 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.

Kilcullen's language here is delicate ("sectarian bias of certain players," "permanent victims," etc.), but when you cut away the clutter he's providing a remarkably straightforward admission from a senior source about what's really going on: Sunnis are currently unwilling to trust their security to the Shiite-dominated army and police because they're convinced they'd be slaughtered the minute the Americans left. So we're arming the Sunni tribes in hopes of creating a "competing armed interest group."

Now, Kilcullen does his level best throughout his piece to persuade us that the upshot of arming both sides in the Iraqi conflict will be to (a) eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq, (b) reduce the appeal of extremists whose main selling point to the public has been protection from AQI (a dubious proposition), and (c) create a "revolt of the center against both extremes" (a very dubious proposition). In the end, he says, "tribes' rights may end up playing a similar role to states' rights in some other democracies."

Well, maybe so, and you can read his whole piece to see if you're convinced. I can't say that I am, especially given Kilcullen's candid admission at the end of his piece that this strategy is not only completely accidental, but that it's essentially designed to undermine the central government. He argues heroically that "the national government is jumping on board with the program," but I've seen precious little evidence of that. In fact, just the opposite: Maliki is already unhappy about American cooperation with the Sunni tribes and has been saying so ever more loudly in recent weeks. As the American strategy becomes clearer (in no small part thanks to pieces like Kilcullen's), at some point the national government and the Shiite militias are going to decide that they've had enough and begin a revolt of their own.

It's nicely contrarian to argue that arming both sides in a communal civil war will lead to a balance of power and relative peace, but it's never happened before and Iraq sure seems like a poor place to try to make it happen for the first time. More likely it's going to eventually lead to even more bloodshed than we'd have gotten otherwise. If Kilcullen's take is correct, we're pursuing a strategy that's not just desperate, but almost certainly foolhardy.

Kevin Drum 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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Comments

"tribes' rights may end up playing a similar role to states' rights in some other democracies."

Yes, sir. States rights certainly did wonders for the USA in the mid-19th century.

Posted by: arkie on September 5, 2007 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

But whatever the outcome, it certainly will be good news for America's weapons manufacturers, prominent among whom is the Carlyle Group of George I.

The whole thing is beyond corrupt. It just makes me sick.

Posted by: bleh on September 5, 2007 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

"We're kicking ass." -W

That's some brilliant leadership. No wonder the US is so loved around the world.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on September 5, 2007 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

You lost me after 'Anbar Awakening'. Pardon me if I am too dense to get your sarcasm, but looks like you have bought into the triumphalist bullshit of the ubermensches at the Corner.

Posted by: gregor on September 5, 2007 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

Excellent! It's a good thing that no one is bleeding or dying, or this sort of manipulation might be looked upon as criminal.

Posted by: Impressed on September 5, 2007 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

Well, it is consistant with the NRA theory that cities will be safer if everyone just carries a gun.

Me, I'm a little worried about the shootouts over parking around Fenway when the Yankees are in town...

Posted by: Not the senator on September 5, 2007 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

"Maliki is already unhappy about American cooperation with the Sunni tribes and has been saying so ever more loudly in recent weeks."
________________________

Raising the questions, saying it to whom and in what forums? And what does he say in secrecy? Poor Maliki, he's got a job only a tightrope walker could love.

Posted by: Trashhauler on September 5, 2007 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK
...saying it to whom and in what forums?...Trashhauler at 4:38 PM
Here is one instance

...He blamed the United States and its early policies in Iraq for the sectarianism that plagues the country, and said he opposed the current U.S. policy of working with former Sunni Muslim insurgent groups who've turned against al Qaida in Iraq because that, too, promotes sectarianism....
Here is another

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has asked for construction to end on a concrete wall around a Sunni enclave in the capital, Baghdad....

In secrecy? Hie thee to Iraq and let him whisper in your ear.

Posted by: Mike on September 5, 2007 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

It is quite interesting that the British, who have the ultimate expertise in arming every which side to control the 'tribes', do not want any part of this.

I guess we have to learn the complexities of colonialism all on our own.

Posted by: gregor on September 5, 2007 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

Would you object to arming the Kurds? There are important distinctions of course - the Kurds are much stronger to begin with and have been de facto independent for twenty years.

Posted by: James Wimberley on September 5, 2007 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

Weren't the Saudi's gonna protect the Sunni's if we didn't?

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on September 5, 2007 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

Well, it is pretty clear that none of the commenters so far have bothered to read the article.

Posted by: SJRSM on September 5, 2007 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Desperate and foolhardy? Pretty much sums up Bush's life in a couple words.........

Posted by: steve duncan on September 5, 2007 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

There was an article in Atlantic Monthly a few years back about Sunni tribes, specifically the Takrit(?) tribe of Saddam Hussein. I'd imagine the Shia have little interest in re-arming and reorganizing those particular societal units.

I can think of numerous clashes like the one in Iraq through the years and can't remember any of them where arming both sides brought peace, especially if one side is badly outnumbered (think Rwanda). I haven't read Kilcullen's article yet. I assume he gives lots of real examples to buttress his point. If not, he is spinning fantasies.

Posted by: Mudge on September 5, 2007 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin (channeling Col.Kilcullen): "... but that it's essentially designed to undermine the central government."

And here's where the train always jumps the tracks.

Why can't people like Col. Kilcullen -- that's a great Dr. Strangelove-type name, by the way -- just state for the record what's been painfully obvious to most every sane person for quite some time now?

There IS no central government in Iraq, save for that surreal figment of the Bush administration's pharmaceutically warped imagination that nominally holds sway in little more than Baghdad's Green Zone. Even then ...

This nonsensical (albeit official) insistence in pretending it's otherwise will only bring us further grief in this self inflicted debacle, which is now on the fast-track escalator to catastrophe if Republicans in Congress (and Joe Lieberman) don't pull their fucking heads out of their own asses, work with congressional Democrats, and stop Bush and Cheney before they order an attack on Iran.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on September 5, 2007 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

From the article: "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."

Almost 4000 American dead and tens of thousands Iraqi dead all in pursuit of the wrong policy according to Kilcullen.

Even if Kilcullen's analysis is correct, he offers no guidance on how we transition Iraq from a collection of tribal states to a functioning nation.

Posted by: arkie on September 5, 2007 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

Americans arming the Sunni tribes...what could possibly go wrong?

Posted by: Saddam, Iran, Taliban, Bin Laden... on September 5, 2007 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

Well, it is pretty clear that none of the commenters so far have bothered to read the article.

This is enough. Tells you what exactly they are up to.


But taking the coalition out of the loop and into "overwatch" requires balancing competing armed interest groups, at the national and local level.

Posted by: gregor on September 5, 2007 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

Well, it is pretty clear that none of the commenters so far have bothered to read the article.

Posted by: SJRSM

I read the article. It is complete nonsense. Kilkullen's insistence that what he claims to be true on the ground (a) doesn't invalidate the surge and (b) makes the benchmarks irrelevant is doublespeak meant to move the goalposts once again.

As one of his commenters states below the piece:

"Kilkullen’s 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."

Amen.

The notion that we're primarily fighting AQ in Iraq is up-is-down, Bush nonsense which will kill more Americans and Iraqis.

Posted by: Econobuzz on September 5, 2007 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

His observations are from May and June. Based on current critiques of the GAO study, I'm going to have to call them irrelevant, because they don't account for what happened five minutes ago.

Posted by: zenger on September 5, 2007 at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe you are being unfair to Kilkullen, but his argument, as you summarise it is insane. If "Sunnis are currently unwilling to trust their security to the Shiite-dominated army and police because they're convinced they'd be slaughtered the minute the Americans left", then they would be desperate to convince us to stay. In fact, before we started arming them, they were attacking our troops and demanding we remove them. By Kilkullen's logic (summarized by Drum) now that they aren't so weak they will be more eager for us to leave and thus not attack us...

Posted by: robert Waldmann on September 5, 2007 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

"Things fall apart, the center cannot hold...."
And so on, and so on, and so on.

It's kind of like trying to use weapons and mutual hatred as tethers in a centripetal system. Either these people want to form a unified state or they don't; giving them guns isn't going to make them want it any more than they already do. It's becoming pretty obvious that partitioning the country is the only long term solution that doesn't guarantee massive amounts of bloodshed. Or, we can stay there. That would make us the tether, and tethers in such a system have to withstand a lot of stress....

Why, incidentally, isn't some kind of official partitioning being openly discussed in "serious" circles? If we're creating three armed camps, it seems the country is already de facto being partitioned.

Posted by: Martin Gale on September 5, 2007 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

That's a really, really interesting article, Kevin. Thanks for posting on in. And as for most of the rest of you commenters this afternoon: fuck you; you're being about as sensible as Al. Shut up; read the article, and learn something outside of your bubbles for fuck's sake.

Posted by: DCBob on September 5, 2007 at 7:22 PM | PERMALINK

"It is quite interesting that the British, who have the ultimate expertise in arming every which side to control the 'tribes', do not want any part of this.

I guess we have to learn the complexities of colonialism all on our own."
Posted by: gregor on September 5, 2007 at 4:46 PM
--------

Yes, that article DOES read like some British officer in India in the 19th century. Couldn't Kilcullen throw away the chaff and get it down to about 1/4 of the length? It does reek a bit of an often used tactic of making a point excessively long to lend authority to the conclusions of the writer (or debater). I really would like to read or hear what a handful of random Iraqis thinks about all of this. What would be interesting is to translate that article into Arabic and show it to a random sample of Sunni and Shia and get their take on what it means to them.


"...There IS no central government in Iraq, save for that surreal figment of the Bush administration's pharmaceutically warped imagination that nominally holds sway in little more than Baghdad's Green Zone..."
Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on September 5, 2007 at 5:14 PM
---

Exactly. I remember seeing a news story on TV a while back where they followed a tribal sheik around during a typical day and he spent most of his time on a cell phone arbitrating disputes amongst tribal members all day. He complained about the lack of police, no courts, no judges, etc.



Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on September 5, 2007 at 8:13 PM | PERMALINK

DCBob, it was an interesting take, although as he describes the risk mitigation of arming the tribes, this part struck me as odd:

1)Developing programs, up front, to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate tribal forces in Iraqi society (a so-called “DDR” plan);
Since the policy on the ground is to arm the tribes, how does a policy to disarm them at the same time make sense?

2)Conducting biometric registration of tribal fighters, and registering their weapon serial numbers
This policy could have been applied at the outset of the post-war arming of the nascent IA, but how does a barely functional central gov't, not to mention Shi'i controlled, get these tribes to agree to such a policy?

3)Linking tribal loyalty to local governance structures, and then directly to the central government,
The only governance structure is what the tribes have in place. I didn't get the impression that Shia ministers were in Anbar running things so as to have tribes pledge agreement.

The whole risk mitigation program sounds like an off-the-top-of-his-head plan for a normative approach but there's no way of knowing if it can work piecemeal or at all until some (long/short?) time in the future.

Interesting, sure. Will it (not could it) work? Sounds less than promising.

Posted by: TJM on September 5, 2007 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

"It's nicely contrarian to argue that arming both sides in a communal civil war will lead to a balance of power and relative peace, but it's never happened before and Iraq sure seems like a poor place to try to make it happen for the first time."

mutually armed destruction as nation building? if that's their first principal we were all better off when aWol didn't do nation building.

Posted by: Pudentilla on September 5, 2007 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

"Yes, that article DOES read like some British officer in India in the 19th century. Couldn't Kilcullen throw away the chaff and get it down to about 1/4 of the length? It does reek a bit of an often used tactic of making a point excessively long to lend authority to the conclusions of the writer (or debater)."
__________________________

Don't tell Col. Kilcullen he reads like a Brit. Aussies sorta resent that. As to the length of the article, note that it was posted in the Small Wars Journal, where the readers no doubt appreciate the additional detail and depth. And Col Kilcullen hardly has to strive to gain any authority:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Kilcullen

As far as the central government being weak goes, that's exactly what Kilcullen is saying. If anyone were actually paying attention, they might notice that he (probably inadvertently) gives some support to an idea often stated here - that the Iraqis would probably rid themselves of al Qaeda without our presence. In other words, the success the surge is having is due to a situation we've lucked into, rather than brought about. Given his unique insight, it will be interesting to see if any of this is included in Petreaus' report.

Posted by: trashhauler on September 5, 2007 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

Well, viewed from the Sunni perspective, why wouldn't you want to be as well-armed as possible? There is no other rational alternative. They face ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. Who but a fool would disarm under such conditions?

Posted by: McCord on September 5, 2007 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

"coalition-in-the-loop"

He lost my potential readership right there.

Tendentious language from the get-go.

Posted by: Thomas Paine on September 5, 2007 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

Tom, the Arabic translation would be really weird.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on September 5, 2007 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin overreaches in making his point here.

The tactics being pursued in Anbar presume that the political situation in Iraq has many players, not just the Sunni Arabs and Shiites with the latter dominating the central government. There must be a lot of Sunni Arabs who presume that an American departure would be swiftly followed by a descent by the Shiite state on them, but in reality the Shiites would be heavily occupied fighting amongst themselves.

So I follow Kilcullen's tactical reasoning. Our problem in Iraq, though, is not tactical; it's the commitment of the bulk of America's ground combat strength, vast quantities of resources, and the entire attention of senior levels of the United States government to the affairs of one, mid-sized Arab country. Kilcullen has been preoccupied with working out what is best for Iraqis, on the assumption that finding a way to meet their needs will meet ours also. This is not that kind of war.

Posted by: Zathras on September 5, 2007 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

A house of cards in a hurricane.

Posted by: Luther on September 6, 2007 at 1:05 AM | PERMALINK

A really interesting article.

My read hears a writer adding in some diplomacy to his views. On the upside possibilities there are an awful lot of "mights" piled on one another. He's clear about risks and down-side. And he exposes the tension between the US imposed route to democracy and its unlikelyhood, compared to the tribal Arab culture that dominates everyday behavior.

Given that the gains made rely on local cooperation, including US forces, and one of the main complaints out of Afghanistan is that turnover of US units have a disjointing effect on gains made with the populace, I found it surprising there was nothing in the article saying how the US was adjusting themselves to consolidate the gains.

Bottom line I'm not feeling any more optimistic for the Iranis having a better life any time soon.

Posted by: notthere on September 6, 2007 at 1:06 AM | PERMALINK

Kilcullen must have the most bruised forehead in Washington- from bashing it against walls whenever the White House opens its mouth. How can you get an armed force to engage in his complexity theory-based 'disaggregation' approach, when the White House and its supporters spare no effort in reducing the issue to a white vs black 'war on terror'.

Can anyone explain how Kilcullen's new 'conflict ethnography' approach is any more than a modern version of Sun Tzu's dictum to 'know the enemy as you know yourself, and you will be victorious in a hundred battles'?

Posted by: number6 on September 6, 2007 at 1:59 AM | PERMALINK

Why do I get the feeling that America will be accused of pitting Iraqi groups against one another so the American Military has to remain in Iraq for the good of oil?

Posted by: parrot on September 6, 2007 at 5:01 AM | PERMALINK

We unleashed the dogs of war over there...the least we can do is assure the playing field is relatively even. If, with that even playing field, they decide to slaughter each other instead of work out power sharing arrangements, that's there choice and not our problem beyond whatever deeper strategic consequences follow (though we have no real control of these consequences for better or worse).

This is at least one way to see the mess in Iraq today. I've mentioned it in these threads several times over the last couple years. There's no easy solution, but the worst resolution would be to simply skip town and have a one-sided slaughter take place.

ALL sides should be armed, and local and tribal leaders should be fortified and embraced as key players, at least before we leave. We should not accept another retreat leading to a massacre as that fell upon the Shiites after the first Persian Gulf War.

Never.

I've opposed the war from Day One, and the occupation from Day One, but we need to be responsible now that we've let the genie out of the bottle in Iraq.

That doesn't mean staying there forever, or much longer than the next several months, it means doing as much as we can to assure factional balance of power favoring local and tribal control before getting the hell out.

The earlier the better, and this will be the month we should make the decision to implement a new regional strategy and put into real motion the end of the American occupation of Iraq.

Posted by: Jimm on September 6, 2007 at 5:33 AM | PERMALINK

Kilcullen's article is fascinating. The main problem with it--as with so many other aspects of Iraq--is that it would have been really useful to be aware of the role of Iraq's tribes played in Iraqi society BEFORE WE INVADED so that we could have attempted to coopt them from the beginning. Yet another case of the Bush administration preemptively shooting themselves in the foot through willful ignorance.

The description of Al Qaeda seeking influence/acceptance through marriage ties was also fascinating.

That said, it seems that by going along with, and now actively supporting Kilcullen's "revolt" without using it as part of a larger strategy to integrate the Sunni areas back into Iraq (or conversely a soft division into ethnic enclaves or cantons), we are seeking short-term gain for US political purposes at the cost of arming groups who could easily turn against us should the situation change, and who have no stake in supporting what passes for the current Irqi political structure.

Posted by: Tom S on September 6, 2007 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

If Kilcullen's take is correct, we're pursuing a strategy that's not just desperate, but almost certainly foolhardy.

But it may provide some short-term political benefit to the Republicans, which makes it no different than the rest of Bush's Iraq policy (which is also to say, of course, it's a fiasco in the making).

Jesus wept.

Posted by: Gregory on September 6, 2007 at 9:32 AM | PERMALINK

it is pretty clear that none of the commenters so far have bothered to read the article.

It's pretty clear Red State Mike can't summon up a defense of the disastrous policies of the Presidetn and Party he supports, but apparentyl cognitive dissonance forced him to say something...

Don't ever change, Mike.

Posted by: Gregory on September 6, 2007 at 9:37 AM | PERMALINK

Trashy wrote: he (probably inadvertently) gives some support to an idea often stated here - that the Iraqis would probably rid themselves of al Qaeda without our presence. In other words, the success the surge is having is due to a situation we've lucked into, rather than brought about.

No, Trashy, it means what's being touted as a success of the surge has little or nothing to do with the surge at all; it's just that without pointing to Anbar to distract from the overall failure of the surge, this Administration has nothing.

Except syncophants like you, of course.

it will be interesting to see if any of this is included in Petreaus' report.

The one the White house is writing, you mean? Fat chance.

Posted by: Gregory on September 6, 2007 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

notthere,

Inserting a N for a Q in your last sentence, is very prescient of you.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on September 6, 2007 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin blows this post.
As Rummy once said, referring to the difficulty of political negotiations with a furtive (Sunni) insurgency, "It's not like you can just pick up the phone and call these guys."
We're talking and they're killing significantly less GIs.
If this was a video game, bells, whistles and lights would brilliantly signal the player's entrance into a new advanced stage of the game.

This new stage and the surge are not related except in time, except in time, in time.


Posted by: cognitorex on September 6, 2007 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

I liked the post but I can think of one clear example where arming both sides quelled active combat: The Cold War.

Posted by: carsick on September 6, 2007 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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