Concerning the Tribes

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 8 months ago

Marc Lynch and Nibras Kazimi are in a bit of a tiff – I suppose – over some extremely detailed and nuanced views concerning the replacement for the now deceased sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha, his brother Ahmed Abu Reesha, now leader of the so-called “awakening” in Anbar.  I won’t dive into Marc’s discussion, and I recommend that both articles be studied by the reader.  I am fond of Kazimi’s analyses and believe him to be a smart and savvy Iraq analyst.  But there is one issue I want briefly to tackle that keeps coming up in articles, discussion threads here and elsewhere, comments here and elsewhere, and verbal debates.  It is the issue of the tribes.

Kazimi clearly is jealous for the idea that the tribes must be considered ad hoc societal building blocks, and are a throwback to medieval times.  In this most recent article he says concerning Ahmed Reesha that his:

… primary point was that the tribes were not a substitute for the state, rather their goal in the Awakening Council was to fortify the institutions of the state. The tribal role aims to nominate young men for the Iraqi Army and the security services, much like a pillar of civil society augmenting the performance of the state. But rather than dwell on military bluster and how they managed to fight Al-Qaeda in Anbar Province, Sheikh Abu Risha was more interested in talking about economics: he wanted the state’s help in creating jobs, in re-invigorating the province’s industries and in re-building what had been destroyed.

This echoes his earlier observation that “Sunnis should be encouraged to throw in their lot with the New Iraq, rather than falling back into the tribal identities of Iraq’s past.”  Kazimi has taken issue with the Multinational Force handling of the tribes, saying that the planning:

 … gives tribes too much authority over the individual, and apparently uses outlandish claims from tribal leaders themselves keen on promoting their own importance. It is one thing to be proud of one’s tribe—I take pride in being a Nakha’i—but it’s a whole different matter to take orders from one’s nominal tribal sheikh. These social structures have been fraying under the myriad forces of sedentarization, urbanization, nation states, sectarianism, land reform and dictatorship to the point where tribal sheikhs are now rendered a quaint, “savage” aristocracy that the men in power—now wearing Western suits—would tolerate and do small favors for.

This is not too dissimilar from the rebuttal of my position of strong advocacy of payment to the “concerned citizens,” including tribal leaders, for community security.  The charge is made that this approach will ultimately lead to the arming of the Sunnis to engage in civil war once U.S. forces begin to stand down in earnest.  I have responded in brief to this, saying:

The argument makes no sense to me that goes thusly: “Since our strategy cannot assure national success and is therefore imperfect, we should not pursue it.” Under this argument, no strategy could ever be pursued under any circumstances. We live in an imperfect world, so our COIN strategy will be imperfect.

Or another way of saying it would be this. Before we had indigenous Sunnis allied with foreigners, all fighting ISF and the U.S. Now we have the foreigners having been essentially defeated, with the Sunnis providing their own security and allied with the U.S. I cannot see any circumstances where we would want to return to the former conditions in lieu of the latter.

The U.S. hasn’t ‘armed’ the Sunnis so that they can now be a destabilizing force for the nation-state any more than they were previously. They were armed before, they are now. They were a destabilizing force to the nation-state before, they are less so now.

I have been entirely pragmatic in my advocacy of tactics, inasmuch as I supported the notion of dealing with the muktars in Fallujah, a throwback to the Saddam era.  Whether tribal leaders, muktars, families or whatever, the issue is one of the best and in fact only remaining viable strategy to be pursued.  If we fail to deal with the societal building block that best suits the ends of the counterinsurgency, then the only remaining option is to lay waste to the country and a people.  This, of course, we will not do.  We must work with the Sunnis, and this option presents itself as the best available at the time.

The notion that the government can be trusted by Sunnis at this juncture seems preposterous.  Kazimi’s advocacy of the administration as the identity for the Sunnis would ring true if Maliki didn’t have a pathetic, boyish devotion to Ali al Sistani, a fear of Moqtada al Sadr and his voting bloc, and trepidation of, combined with brotherhood with, the barbaric Shi’a in Iran.  In short, if the Maliki administration had displayed anything but ineptitude as a governing body, the argument has bite.  But in light of the current situation, it seems to me that no one can blame the Sunnis for reversion to the most basic building block of society.

What disturbs me more than anything else is that the family unit is not the most basic building block rather than the tribe.  Any society which has as its most basic building block anything but the family – whether tribe, city-state, nation – cannot long survive (although I suppose that families – even large ones – need a larger constituency within which to operate, as well as the fact that they might consider their tribe “family”).  Concerning the Sunnis, Kazimi knows that the ball is not in their court.  They have made their wishes known.  They want their tribesmen incorporated into the ISF and police.  They can do no more than they have already done.

The United States managed to find ways to protect the minority: the electoral college, two Senators from every state regardless of population, and the rule of law, among other things.  The governing Shi’a will find ways to do the same for the Sunnis and Kurds, or there will not be peace in Iraq.  The burden is with the administration, not the Sunnis.

  • Brian H

    I still take K’s point that the sheikhs should not be unnecessarily empowered to interfere in the lives of Sunni not inclined to submit to tribal control. Which, AFAIK, includes most urban Sunni.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Tribes and was published December 4th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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