Of Tribes and Men
UPDATE (September 24, 2007): Here's a link to the column that I'm refering to below; it ran today.
Note: I had sent in a column on this topic to the New York Sun, but they keep bumping me off the page, so I’ll summarize the points of the column and add all the stuff that hadn’t fit into my space allocation.
Main point: tribes don’t matter all that much. Generals and experts like to be praised.
Here’s how I started my column:
Last week’s murder of Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha was tragic, but not catastrophic. His death does not change the vastly improved situation in Anbar Province, since his role in its pacification was exaggerated from the beginning. Anbar stabilized for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with Abu Risha or America’s counterinsurgency efforts there—something that the U.S. military command has yet to figure out. Abu Risha found himself in the limelight at the right time and place, and the Americans fighting the terrorists in Anbar seized upon him as the poster-boy of a new strategy—empowering Iraq’s defunct tribal structure—that they had hoped would make belated sense of the positive transition and would allow them to claim credit, and medals, for it.
But why begrudge General David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency advisers the accolades for this turnaround at this time? Does it really matter, whether tribes were the primary factor in defeating Al-Qaeda or not, given that the story coming out of Iraq is more and more hopeful? Yes it does: the implication is that if you don’t know why and how you’ve won, then you won’t be able to replicate victory. The tribes, like the U.S. troop surge, were catalysts that speeded up the demise of the insurgency, but they did not trigger the process; the insurgency’s failure predated the surge and any tribal strategies.
I believe the insurgency failed because it had bad ideas and unrealistic expectations. When the price paid by the local population for these ideas and expectations—fighting the Shiites and re-establishing Sunni hegemony—became too steep, Sunnis turned against the insurgents and tried to find shelter, yet again, under the central government. This latter trend is the one that should be reinforced: 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.
“Tribes are now part of Iraqi folklore; they don’t matter anymore. We found out the hard way,” said Abu Seif, a man who once sold me on his own importance as a tribal leader from Anbar. This was said to me recently at an office in Amman, where Abu Seif now manages his business affairs.
A long time ago and in a career far, far away, I had turned myself into a tribal expert, focusing specifically on the tribes of Anbar, and the ones that surround Baghdad. Consequently, I had to often deal with tribal leaders, or sheikhs.
The Dulaim Camel Corps
Over four years ago, my first day in liberated Iraq was spent in the countryside of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital city, which had just fallen under American control a little less than 24 hours earlier. Abu Seif and his brothers and cousins waited for me on the main desert highway, and my traveling companions and I followed them over dirt tracks somewhere east of Ramadi to where their tribal diwaniyyah, or hall, was located.
Abu Seif was preparing for a role in politics since he was one of the few significant tribal leaders inside Iraq who had been in contact with anti-Saddam forces. Later that day, Abu Seif escorted me into Baghdad in his fancy Mercedes, but en route we witnessed a spectacle of mass yet systematic looting of the state-owned warehouse at Abu Ghraib. People were piling up anything from steel frames to porcelain toilets onto their cars and trucks, and many of them were from Anbar. “Why don’t you stop them?” I asked. “They won’t listen to us,” Abu Seif answered, thus giving me my first hint at how far a tribal leader’s writ really extends.
David Ignatius made a good point about tribes in his column yesterday (Washington Post, ‘Shaky Allies in Anbar,’ September 20, 2007): the U.S. should work with tribal leaders but shouldn’t exaggerate their importance. However, I think that he left out some large chunks of the narrative of how the Americans had dealt with tribes:
Like other journalists who follow Iraq, I began talking with Sunni tribal leaders in 2003. Most of the meetings were in Amman, Jordan, arranged with help from former Jordanian government officials who had perfected the art of paying the sheiks. One contact was a member of the Kharbit clan, which had long maintained friendly (albeit secret) relations with the Jordanians and the Americans. The Kharbits were eager for an alliance, even after a U.S. bombing raid killed one of their leaders, Malik Kharbit, in April 2003. But U.S. officials were disdainful.But while U.S. officials were disdainful of some sheikhs (the ones Ignatius was talking to), they were actively counting on others: Ignatius should remember that America’s first approach to handling Anbar was through working with the tribes, and the key characters in that effort were the CIA, Ayad Allawi, and Sheikh Majid al-Abdel-Razzak al-Ali al-Suleiman, who’s sister was married to Malik al-Kharbit, the sheikh Ignatius mentioned—she was also killed in that raid. I remember going over to Sheikh Majid’s apartment in Amman to give my condolences, and thinking, “The CIA and Allawi have got to be kidding…” after I got my first look at him.
On paper, Sheikh Majid was the paramount chief of the Dulaim Confederacy. The Dulaim are the principal tribal group of Anbar Province, so much so that it used to be called the Dulaim Canton when Iraq was first created. Theoretically, the Dulaim can all trace their roots to three ancestors: Khamis, Juma’a and Sebit (…literally, Thursday, Friday and Saturday). When one judges genealogical tables against population numbers, this claim of ancestry is shown to be patently bogus: these three ancestors could not have produced today’s +1.5 million Dulaimis in so few generations. What probably happened is a situation common to the rest of Iraq and much of the Middle East: smaller tribes got gobbled up by larger tribes, while sedentary peasants and town folk were absorbed by dominant tribal powers during times of insecurity. Consequently, genealogists would dispute Sheikh Majid’s Dulaimi descent, and would peg him a scion of the Abu Risha princely family of the Tayy tribe—just like Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha.
Why does all this detail matter? Because Sheikh Majid derives his stature from his grandfather, Sheikh Ali al-Suleiman. But there’s a catch there: Sheikh Ali was always challenged by other branches of the Dulaim who denounced him as a non-Dulaimi, but he only secured his position with British gold and guns. Sheikh Ali was established as the paramount chief of the Dulaim by Iraq’s British occupiers after World War One.
So even 80 years ago or so, when tribes mattered much more since there was no central state or authority, the system had been corrupted and restructured by foreign meddling and money.
CIA analysts cannot be faulted for taking Sheikh Majid seriously for he is what he claims to be: the grandson of the paramount sheikh of the Dulaim. But anyone meeting him in person should have done a double take: this guy is a clown.
Well anyway, the CIA’s stabilization efforts in Anbar failed very quickly, and Anbar witnessed the birth of the insurgency.
Now onto Dave Kilcullen's piece, Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt, in the Small Wars Journal published last August. Kilcullen who until recently served as General David Petraeus’ senior counterinsurgency adviser says:
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.I disagree. Although Kilcullen tempers his argument with many considered nuances and caveats, he 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.
Tribal leaders held on to some lingering prestige accorded to them by their ancestry; their dress and mannerism harked back to romanticized notions of Arabian chivalry. The tribes turned into job placement agencies; the sheikhs would petition the powerful over low-grade government jobs for the desperate young men who still came to them for help.
That’s how the sheikhs held on to their social relevance, by becoming a 'civil society' lever between a small segment of the population and the all powerful, all benevolent welfare state, much like the neighborhood mukhtar does. They are useless for mass mobilization, and could never rival a civil society institution such as the religious hawza in Najaf; something that was clarified by the failure of tribal chiefs, and the politicians who relied on them, at the polls.
Only two tribes in Iraq can be considered “freshly” Bedouin and hence can claim more tribal cohesion among its members and its sheikhs: the ‘Anazah and the Shammar Jarba. They are the last to migrate to Iraq in large numbers and the last to settle down. The latter tribe could boast that one of their own, the urbane Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer, was selected as Iraq’s first post-Saddam president. But I’d reckon than most Shammaris in Nineveh Province voted for lists other than that which al-Yawer was running on.
I say a lot more about this stuff in my column, so I’ll leave the rest until it gets published, but I want to make some points about Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha. I write:
Abu Risha’s story was the stuff of powerful narrative: a pro-American tribal sheikh who had courageously confronted Al-Qaeda’s menace and eventually evicted them from his province, but was then killed by a treacherous bomb planted by the terrorists—Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq took credit for it. In war, icons are invented and Abu Risha was such an icon: he looked ‘authentic’ and trim in his flowing Arabian robes, said the right things, and was always available for media comment. But he was creature for an American audience rather than an Iraqi one, and his American minders fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda.Sheikh Sattar fit the Western image of the valiant Bedouin scoundrel as depicted by Antony Quinn, who played Sheikh Odeh Abu Tayeh of the Huwaitat tribe in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.
Interestingly, Abu Risha’s tribe is numerically insignificant by Dulaim standards, and only number in the hundreds. Their claim to fame was a descent from an ancestor who once ruled the deserts between Iraq and Syria. When one of their own, Saadoun Dulaimi, became Iraq’s minister of defense during the Ja’afari cabinet, they were little swayed to throw in their lot with the Iraqi state against Al-Qaeda because the latter seemed to be winning; in fact, some Rishawis volunteered for suicide missions in neighboring Jordan.
Here’s some detail that confuses the narrative: Sheikh Sattar began his confrontation with Al-Qaeda by recruiting Shiites; many of his earlier crew and his current bodyguard detail are Abu Risha clansmen from the southern province of Samawa who had separated from the Anbar branch of the tribe over a century ago and turned Shiite. According to one source, Sattar’s second wife is from these Shiite Rishawis of Samawa. [His first wife is his cousin, daughter of Sheikh Muhammad al-‘Ifteikhan; and contrary to what’s been reported by the Associated Press, his eldest son is not called “Saddam” but rather the accurate pronunciation is “Sattam”—a tribal name. Sattar was at least 41 when he died.]
There had been many sheikhs in Anbar who wanted to be part of the new Iraq from the very beginning, men like Abu Seif or the CIA’s guy, Sheikh Majid. Later, others confronted Al-Qaeda head-on: credible leaders like Sheikh Nasr Abdel-Karim al-Mikhlif (of the Albu-Fahed tribe in Anbar, held a PhD in Agriculture, one of the few tribal sheikhs in Iraq who could claim a level of authority over his tribe) and opportunists such as Sheikh Usama al-Jeryan (of the Karabilah tribe in Qaim), only to be killed off by Al-Qaeda. Ignatius sings the praises of Talal al-Gaoud, a polished and gentlemanly businessman and fluent English speaker who made much of his money with Qusay, Saddam’s second son, but Ignatius doesn’t mention another Gaoud, Sheikh Fassal, who was more senior than Talal in the Albu-Nimr tribal hierarchy and who was appointed Governor of Anbar (Sheikh Fassal was killed by an Al-Qaeda bomb last June). None of these men achieved Abu Risha’s fame, simply for the fact that he had better timing, and an American audience willing to be charmed.
Here’s something to ponder: Almost all of the tribal leadership of Anbar, and of several other predominately Sunni provinces, showed up to the 3-day wake held in honor of Sheikh Fassal in Amman, Jordan, where most of these tribal leaders now live. As Ignatius pointed out, the Jordanians are especially friendly to the sheikhs, who they hope would give them an “in” into Iraqi politics—I know from my Jordanian sources that they’ve been thoroughly disappointed in this regard. [Tribes are also far more important in the Jordanian political context than in Iraq]. But something happened at the wake that was quite spectacular: Iraq’s Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, arrived to give his condolences, and was given the seat of honor, and all were enthralled by his presence. How much had the situation changed: just five years ago Zebari, as an adversary of Saddam’s, would have been shunned, and probably insulted in such a setting. But now, he represents authority, and the tribes want a little of his attention and benevolence.
As one Iraq observer put it to me, “tribes are a barometer of power; they swarm around whoever has the upper hand.” The danger now is that the Americans are trying to resuscitate a clannish social system that had withered away in Iraq, and turning it into a power in of itself.
Going back to Kilcullen’s paper: Maybe what’s important here are tribal tactics in warfare, rather than the institution of a the tribe itself: the insurgency had imposed its terror (and control) on Iraqi society by being very up-close and personal: they knew the name, address and genealogies of those who stood against them among their own kind, and would strike out at them from the shadows, in a way similar to how Saddam's totalitarian regime worked, which isn't surprising since many insurgents worked in Saddam's security organs. The U.S. military had been trained to target regimental colors rather than individuals—it’s a depersonalized method of war, seemingly in place to make the act of murder more palatable to Western sensibilities. But an insurgent’s willingness to kill was made easier by knowing who he was going to kill; punishing the alleged individual “guilt” of the victim. What succeeded against Al-Qaeda’s methods was the tactic of turning cousins on cousins: all of a sudden America had allies on the ground who fought in the same way Al-Qaeda was fighting—they made it personal.
Something to ponder.
There’s a lot more to say about tribes, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Updated correction: my mistake, I meant Sheikh Majid, not his brother Sheikh Hatem! Changes have been made throughout the text. Sheikh Hatem has been dead for a while.