Mobilizing the Sunni Tribes of Iraq
The new US strategy in Iraq to co-opt former rebels mobilized by traditional tribal chiefs to combat the insurgents grants the tribes a central role but their influence over the long term may jeopardize the stability of the country.
It is a risky wager, explains Father Nabil Mohammad Younes, who teaches Political Science at the University of Baghdad. Since the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the US military has been attempting to cooperate with the tribes, inspired by the example of the Ottoman and British empires.
In the October 2007 issue of Military Review, a US Army forum for intellectual inquiry, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Eisenstadt deplored, deplores the unrealistic expectations due to a lack of knowledge of local and tribal history and politics.
Omnipresent throughout the Ottoman Empire, and progressively marginalized by the British occupation, Iraqi tribes inevitably lost their power with the independence and modernization of the country.
Relegated to the background under the monarchy, then by the Baa'th Party, the began to recover some influence at the end of the 1980's when Saddam Hussein, who considered them untrustworthy, attempted to buy the allegiance of some of them.
Beginning with their arrival in Iraq, American military officers, knowing nothing of the complex world of tribes, made missteps and errors. They also overestimated the power of sheikhs in the rebel city of Fallujah, when, in the midst of fighting Sunni insurgents, they insisted that the sheikhs end the violence. Moreover, US command collaborated in certain regions with sheikhs who had been appointed by the former regime and who had no credibility with their tribes. But at the same time, "they have generally proven useful as sources of information and advice and as vectors of influence among their tribesmen."
At the beginning of 2007, the mobilization of thousands of tribesmen, for the most part former insurgents, in Sunni Anbar Province (Western Iraq) to fight al-Qaeda gave a breath of fresh air to this strategy, according to a recent report by a Congressional think tank....The same approach is being tried in southern Iraq among the Shi'a to combat the Mahdi Army.
But the recourse to the tribes, distrustful of the central government, jealous of their independence and whose loyalty goes to the highest bidder is risky, experts warn. For Father Younes, the tribal policies of the US are grounded in the principal of divide and conquer and promote the fragmentation of the country by multiplying local powers to the detriment of a strong central government. "If the occupation continues, sooner or later the tribal militias will turn on the occupiers", warns Father Younes.
Strengthening the militias also risks undermining institutions and civil society, says Col. David Kilcullen, an Australian and one of the developers of his country's tribal policies under the Coalition, in his blog, Small Wars Journal. Indeed, the prestigious American publication, Foreign Policy Journal, warned in September, "the rescuers of today can very easily become the enemies of tomorrow."