Are We Bribing the Sheikhs?

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago

In Payment to Concerned Citizens: Strategy of Genius or Shame?, we evaluated the notion of payments to armed neighborhood watch participants and so-called “concerned citizens” for their services.  This approach is effective, anthropologically sound (helping heads of household to support their families) and simply the right thing to do (assist families in earning sustenance since their civilization has effectively collapsed).  Later we followed up this article with another account of successful transplant of this model to areas in and around Baghdad.  But this program focuses on concerned citizens, neighborhood watches, and family units as well as the community at the local level.  The chorus of voices continues to grow questioning this tactic, and more so since it is now being applied to higher levels of Iraqi society.

Since June, Mr. Hassani, who claims to be one of the princes of the legendary Shammar tribe, which numbers nearly 7 million across the Arab world, says he has received at least $100,000 in cash and numerous perks from the US military and the Iraqi government.

With his help, at least $1 million has also been distributed to other tribal sheikhs who have joined his Salahaddin Province “support council,” according to US officers. Together, they have assembled an armed force of about 3,000 tribesmen dubbed the “sahwa [awakening] folks.”

All of these enticements serve one goal: To rally Sunni tribes and their multitude of followers to support coalition forces.

The payments are a drop in the bucket given the billions spent annually in Iraq by the United States. And paying tribes to keep the peace is nothing new. It was one of Mr. Hussein’s tools in his selective patronage system designed to weaken and control all institutions outside his Baath party. The British also tried it when they ruled Iraq last century.

But the strategy is fraught with risks, including the serious potential for wars among the tribes themselves and the creation of militias in die-hard Sunni Arab lands where many continue to question the legitimacy and authority of the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad.

“[The US military] threw money at [the sheiks],” says Col. David Hsu, who heads a team advising Iraq’s armed forces in Salahaddin, Saddam’s home province. He shows recent digital photographs he captured of smiling sheikhs holding bundles of cash as they posed with US military officers. “You are basically paying civilians to turn in terrorists. Money was an expedient way to try to get results.”

US military officers on the ground say there is tremendous pressure from high above to replicate the successes of the so-called “awakening” against Al Qaeda in the western Anbar Province. The drive reached its apex in the run-up to the September testimonies to Congress by the top US military commander and diplomat in Iraq, US officers say.

“In order to turn the intent of [Lt.] Gen. [Raymond] Odierno for reconciliation into action, the coalition forces on the ground basically started recruiting leaders to try to turn other civilians against the insurgents,” says Colonel Hsu, a native of Hawaii. General Odierno is the No. 2 commander of US forces in Iraq.

To begin with, this assessment ignores the fact that most of the security in Iraq has been brought about by kinetic operations to kill the foreign terrorists and indigenous insurgents.  Next, the last two paragraphs of this Christian Science Monitor article are a cheap shot at General Odierno, and make it seem as if he is merely looking for an expedient way of creating the appearance of results.  General Odierno’s son, Captain Anthony Odierno, lost an arm due to combat in Iraq (see also General Odierno in August of 2007 on his son’s loss).  To imply that General Odierno desires or would support anything except legitimate stabilization of Iraq is implausible.  But this leads next to the root question: are payments legitimate and will they lead to stabilization of Iraq?  We have departed from payments to citizens and entered into bribery when we pay Sheikhs to side with the U.S. forces, some would claim.  But have we, and what if this definition holds true?

Nibras Kazimi, no insignificant thinker on matters of Iraq, believes that with the focus on tribes, there is a fear that Americans are trying to resuscitate a clannish social system that had withered away in Iraq … turning it into a power in and of itself.  Perhaps.  But with a dysfunctional central government in Iraq led by Maliki, beholden to and a puppet at the same time of Iran, al Sadr and Sistani, Anbaris and others cannot trust the central government.

Continuing with the CSM article, it is impossible to ignore the improvement in Iraq.

And the push seems to have paid off. Both the number of explosions and US military fatalities in October dropped to almost half their September levels in the Multinational Division-North area, which comprises of Diyala, Salahaddin, Tamim (Kirkuk), and Ninevah Provinces, according to military figures.

A senior official in the Shiite coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defends the wisdom of partnering with Sunni Arab tribes. Humam Hamoudi, a member of parliament from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council party, says the tribes may ultimately make better political allies than the Sunni political bloc that quit the government in June and has boycotted it since July.

But, he warns, Baghdad has to have more oversight over the tribal outreach project, otherwise the Sunni Arab tribes could turn against the government once the American presence diminishes.

“They need to have dialogue with the government,” says Mr. Hamoudi of the tribes. “If their connection remains only to the Americans, then they are a time bomb. In the future they may become enemies of the democratic project.”

These last two paragraphs are crafted for the main stream media and the State Department.  Maliki’s government is being bypassed in the bottom-up reconciliation going on in Iraq, a necessary exigency due to their incompetence.  U.S. presence will indeed be necessary for some time into the future (and besides, the Anbaris want the U.S. to stay).  “For his part, Hassani praises the US support and says he’s gotten only “empty promises” from Baghdad. He says if US forces were ever to leave the province he would be in the lead of their departing convoy. As tribes got down to settling scores, he says, there would be a ‘bloodbath.’ ”

Indeed, as we discussed in A Call for Global Strategic Thinking, it is difficult to make the case that either the American public or the military establishment is committed to the campaign in Iraq given the heavy deployment of troops in South Korea and Europe, while European command argues for an increased troop presence in Germany.  Counterinsurgency takes a more committed effort than what we have given it thus far.

As to the payments to concerned citizens and Sheikhs?  It isn’t our domain to question the method by which society operates in Iraq.  Tribe functions not only as paternal bond, but also as a guarantor of work and sustenance, as well as the adjudicator of right and wrong, and community and family disputes.  For the tribe to be wealthy and influential, the Sheikh must be the same.

In theory, there is little difference between payment to concerned citizens or even Sheikhs and payment to police, fire fighters or the armed forces.  Moses (Deuteronomy 25:4) and Paul (1 Timothy 5:18) tell us not to “muzzle the ox while he is threshing.”  Beyond national commitment to the mission, the only question is “how fast and efficiently can we make the payments and bring them over to our side?”

**** UPDATE ****

Grim of Blackfive sends me his link from 2003 where he points out that he took the position to “Pay the black mail.  It’s all to the good, in the end.”  Grim has an excellent analysis, well worth the time to study it.

  • http://www.op-for.com Slab

    Herschel, I wouldn’t be so fast to denounce CSM on their reporting. Their assessment on the pressure to recruit leaders to counter the insurgency looks pretty accurate from where I am sitting. And they are right to voice concern over the partnership with the Sunni tribes – if we forget to keep a wary eye on our erst-while allies, we run the risk of committing similar mistakes as certain Latin American governments, whose support of “pro-government” paramilitary groups backfired when those groups grew beyond the ability of the government to control them. I believe our partnership with the Sunni groups is the right strategy for now, but we must always keep an eye towards transitioning control from the unofficial militias to GoI security forces. That might even mean one day having to use force to facilitate that transition. The goal is not just short term peace and stability, it is long term stability backed by a legitimate Government of Iraq. That, as you have alluded to, requires quite a bit of reform on the part of the GoI so that their promises are no longer “empty”, but it still must remain our eventual goal.


You are currently reading "Are We Bribing the Sheikhs?", entry #761 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Anthropology,Counterinsurgency,Iraq,Small Wars and was published November 12th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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