Thursday, September 18, 2008

A More Complicated Picture of Iraq’s Tribes

All the talk today is about how the Sunni tribes turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq and changed the military dynamic of the war. What is discussed less is the fact that most of the country’s tribes were weak and disorganized after the 2003 invasion, and that other attempts to work with them by the U.S. failed. Tribes began working with the Americans for a number of reasons including being intimidated by Al Qaeda in Iraq’s threats, murders and terrorist attacks, losing business to the insurgents, facing the growing power of Shiite militias, especially Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and a newer generation of sheikhs seizing the opportunity to gain power. This combination of factors is what changed the status quo, and would make a replication of the policy in other countries and circumstances difficult.


Despite their growing prominence today, during the Saddam era many of Iraq’s tribes were largely eviscerated. They received most of their power and authority from the regime. Without official recognition from Baghdad, sheikhs had little say. When they worked with the government, they became part of the system of control in rural areas, and received money, police power, and patronage in return.

After the invasion, the standing of many tribes declined even more. Because their authority was based upon the former regime, when a new order was created under the Americans, the tribes lacked any real means to maintain support or provide for their people. Some formed organizations that were in name only. Paul Bremer thought the tribes were part of the past and sought to ignore them entirely. Some sheikhs gained positions in the Iraqi interim government, but had no real political base and largely faded from the scene afterwards. At the same time, the rise of the insurgency, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Shiite militias also cut into the power of the tribes, drawing away their young men.

Early attempts by the U.S. military to work with tribes found how powerless many of them were. For example, during the battle for Fallujah in 2004 U.S. generals tried unsuccessfully to get local sheikhs to stop attacks in the area. The radical Islamists in the city had more power than any of them. Many tribes were also working with the insurgents, seeing them as a new patron. In Shiite areas, the same thing was happening. In Wasit province the Sadrists were able to intimidate sheikhs to stop cooperating with the Coalition Provisional Authority. In 2006 the U.S. and Iraqi governments paid tribes to protect oil and electricity lines to no avail. Many of them took the money while continuing to smuggle oil, or were too divided to carry out the task. The U.S. also tried to recruit tribes along the Syrian border in Anbar to interdict the flow of supplies and foreign fighters, but never got enough recruits until much later. All of these point out the limitations of working with tribes and the different circumstances that prevailed in Iraq at the time. Tribes had no reason to give into demands by the United States because they were either working with the militants, or had their power usurped by them. Paying tribes also didn’t work because they could take the money, while continuing on with their other activities. There was no reason to stop. They also might have been weakened or divided to the point where paying one sheikh had no bearing on any others. Overall, there weren’t enough incentives in any of these cases for the sheikhs to work with the Americans. That all began to change in Anbar province.

The Awakening Movement

Anbar and its Awakening movement are seen as one of the major turning points in the war. As early as May 2005 two tribes, the Albu Mahal and Albu Nimr, began fighting against their former allies Al Qaeda in Iraq because they killed some of their tribesman, tried to impose a strict form of Islamic law, cut into their lucrative smuggling business, and were supplementing the tribes’ overall power. In late 2005 the tribes around Ramadi formed the Al Anbar People’s Council that was opposed to both the Islamists and the U.S. That group was destroyed in February 2006 when its leading sheikhs were killed by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, also known as Sattar Abu Risha, then took up the banner of resistance, eventually uniting 25 of Anbar’s 31 tribes into the Anbar Salvaction Council in September 2006. The Americans rejected his original pleas for help, but then began coming around to the idea. The U.S. promised to protect the tribes and give their group official standing by hiring their fighters into the local police.

When the Surge troops finally arrived in 2007, they were able to spread this model of working with tribes throughout central and parts of northern Iraq. There too, sheikhs had become disgusted with the Islamists tactics, and were also being pressed by the Shiite Mahdi Army. The Americans also provided much needed employment for tribesmen, and reconstruction money that was given to companies owned by the sheikhs. It’s also often overlooked, but in certain areas such as Diyala the policy didn’t work as well because the tribes were weak and divided, and often fought amongst themselves.

The push and pull factors were what made the tribal situation different than the earlier failed attempts by the Americans. This time both sides found common ground to work together. The Islamists and Sadrists were usurping the tribes, and costing them both money and men. Al Qaeda in Iraq would regularly kill sheikhs who refused to follow them, causing blood feuds. Young leaders like Sattar Abu Risha saw this as an opportunity to assert themselves over the older sheikhs that were working with the insurgency. The U.S. was also looked upon as a needed ally this time. They offered protection from the more powerful and organized Islamists, opened up new opportunities for patronage by giving the sheikhs control of security jobs, and offered them reconstruction contracts. In a way, the U.S. was playing the same role with the tribes that Saddam did, bestowing authority and money upon them, that gave them standing they would not otherwise have.


The situation in Iraq before and after 2006 shows how complicated and difficult replicating the tribal policy would be. After the invasion many tribes were rudderless without the official support of Saddam’s state. Later the Islamists and militias had all the guns and money and sapped the sheikhs of their men. When the U.S. tried to work with them early on, the tribes were either powerless or had no desire to work with the Americans. It was only when the tribes began to be squeezed by Al Qaeda in Iraq on a number of fronts, that some younger sheikhs took it upon themselves to try to stand up to them. Again, they lacked the power to pull this off, without finding some outside support, and that came in the form of the U.S. military. Their promise of protection, turned the tribes’ loyalty, and many of the same factors ended up playing themselves out across other parts of the country. Even then, there were parts of Iraq where the policy struggled because the tribes were weak and too divided. Going to other countries with U.S. troops and offering to work with the local tribes may not work. Each country has a different set of dynamics, and many efforts might turn out like the pre-2006 Iraqi ones, where the locals are supporting the status quo and have no reason to switch sides, or are simply too weak to do anything. It’s important to remember that the tribal turnaround in Iraq began before the Surge, and involved more than just more troops and a new set of tactics. It was also successful because of a good amount of pure luck that tribal figures were growing tired of the militants, and needed help.

Fore more on the tribes turning on Al Qaeda in Iraq see:

The Demise, But Not Death of Al Qaeda In Iraq


Agence France Presse, “Sunni tribes of Iraq’s rebel bastion declare war on Zarqawi,” 3/5/06

Allam, Hannah and al Dulaimy, Mohammed, “Marine-led Campaign Killed Friends and Foes, Iraqi Leaders Say,” Knight Ridder, 5/17/05

Al-Ansary, Khalid and Adeeb, Ali, “Most Tribes in Anbar Agree to Unite Against Insurgents,” New York Times, 9/18/06

Beehner, Lionel, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Resurging or Splintering?” Council on Foreign Relations, 7/16/07

Dagher, Sam, “Risky US alliances in Iraq,” Christian Science Monitor, 7/17/07

Eisenstadt, Lieutenant Colonel Michael, “Iraq Tribal engagement Lessons Learned,” Military Review, September-October 2007

Fadel, Leila, “Security in Iraq still elusive,” McClatchy Newspapers, 9/7/07

Fletcher, Martin, “Fighting back: the city determined not to become al-Qaeda’s capital,” Times of London, 11/20/06

International Crisis Group, “Iraq After The Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape,” 4/30/08

Katulis, Brian, Juul, Peter, and Moss, Ian, “Awakening to New Dangers in Iraq,” Center for American Progress, February 2008

Klein, Joe, “Is al-Qaeda on the Run in Iraq?” Time, 5/23/07

Michaels, Jim, “An Army colonel’s gamble pays off in Iraq,” USA Today, 4/30/07
- “U.S. gamble on sheiks is paying off – so far,” USA Today, 12/26/07

Pitman, Todd, “Sunni Sheiks Join Fight Vs. Insurgency,” Associated Press, 3/25/07

Roggio, Bill, “al Qaeda vs. the Iraqi Insurgency,” Long War, 1/12/06

Shachtman, Noah, “In Iraq, Psyops Team Plays on Iran Fears, Soccer Love,” Danger Room Blog, Wired, 11/30/07

Smith, Major Neil and MacFarland, Colonel Sean, “Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point,” Military Review, March-April 2008

Tarabay, Jamie, “Anbar Alliance May Not Translate to Other Provinces,” All Things Considered – National Public Radio, 9/25/07

Tavernise, Sabrina and Filkins, Dexter, “Local Insurgents Tell of Clashes With Al Qaeda’s Forces in Iraq,” New York Times, 1/12/06


AndrewSshi said...

All of this seems to indicate that we might not have the same level of success if we were to try and establish a "Khyber Awakening" in that other region where we're at war with Al Qaeda.

Joel Wing said...

I think the abu muqawama blog has discussed how the tribal structure in Afghanistan has been largely destroyed and disrupted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and that they have put in their own people now to run them. That doesn't mean a tribal strategy shouldn't be tried there, but it'll definitely be a very different dynamic than what happened in Iraq. Not to mention that the tribes in Afghanistan I think are much stronger than the ones in Iraq that were basically dependent upon Saddam, than the insurgents, and now the U.S.

AndrewSshi said...

Of course, to contradict my earlier post, I wonder if tribes that are, in general stronger might be helpful to us if we could actually get them to "flip." The question is how we do that, though. The ISI *should* be our best bet on that (and would be, in a better world), but they're too interested in playing both sides of the fence.

Joel Wing said...


Here's a post from Abu Muqawama Blog about a NY Times article that covered the extent to which Al Qaeda and the Taliban has embedded themselves in the tribal structure by basically destroying the old order.

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