Tribes vs. the Center

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.