Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt

Amid all the talk swirling about the "bottom-up" reconciliation phenomemon comes this post from the Small Wars Journal Blog, Dave 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.

Kilcullen's post is a long one, but a worthwhile read nonetheless. It is noteworthy because it addresses some of the issues many observers have identified in questioning the conduct of counterinsurgency in a Muslim country.

The tribal culture among Arabs is older than Islam and while it doesn't necessarily transcend religion, it certainly runs parallel with it. Insulting an Iraqi's faith is likely to get you killed. Insulting an Iraqi's tribe or family carries an identical risk. There are deep sectarian and political divisions in Iraq, but tribal ties may--emphasis on may--be used to overcome the political division enough to mitigate the sectarian differences. Indeed, there are many tribal entities in Iraq that have both Sunni and Shi'a branches. It is a delicate and paradoxical matter that underscores the nature of counterinsurgency, which itself is governed more by paradox than absolute.

David Kilcullen, Ph.D., is a retired Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel. He now holds a Senior Executive Service (SES) position at the U.S. State Department and serves as Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser, MNF-Iraq. It is a civil service position and part of General David Petraeus' staff.

His occasional posts on SWJ Blog are worth waiting for.