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April 11, 2008

Tribal Trauma
Posted by Patrick Barry

Steve Simon's new piece in Foreign Affairs is a must-read for anyone concerned with the long-term consequences of the United States arming tribal factions in Iraq. His argument is similar to the ones made by Marc Lynch and Brian Katulis over the past few months - that the administration, by prizing security gains over political consolidation and compromise, has actually worsened Iraq's long term prospects for achieving an open, functional society. 

Simon does a pretty good job cataloging the history of the surge - though it was originally intended to be matched by a top-down political strategy of consolidation and cooperation, US leadership grew so frustrated with the apparent lack of political movement that it quickly substituted in a new policy, which embraced a series of local developments and cobbled them together under the dubious label of "bottom-up reconciliation."  I agree with Simon's argument, namely that this pursuit is dangerously short-sighted because it has stoked "the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, wardlordism, and sectarianism." 

Of course, chief among the local developments latched onto by the administration, has been the phenomenon of Sunni tribes turning on Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a move largely precipitated by the AQI's use of poisonous methods to subjugate Sunni communities.  But when it comes to tribalism, we're tinkering with an especially complex and dangerous dynamic, one that has been a force for instability in the Middle East broadly, and Iraq specifically since at least the 19th century. Here are some key passages from Simon's article, highlighting the tribes' tumultuous past:

Under the Ottomans:

"The Ottomans attempted forced sedentarization of the tribes, weakening tribal authorities by disrupting settlement patterns and replacing tribal sheiks with smaller cadres of favored leaders who became conduits for patronage."

Under the British:

"Thus, the tribal system that Ottoman rule sought to dismantle was revitalized by British imperial policy, and the power of the nominal Iraqi government was systematically vitiated."

Under the Baathists:

"When the Baathists took power in 1968, they explicitly rejected "religious sectarianism, racism, and tribalism ... the remnants of colonialism." The tribes, in their minds, were inevitable rivals of a centralizing state."

Under Saddam:

"Selected tribal leaders were allowed to enrich themselves by any means, fair or foul, and in return they were expected to defend the regime. Saddam, in effect, fostered a process of retribalization in Iraq."

Now one would think that given the obstacles posed by these tribes, that we would look for lessons from neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have successfully withstood similar challenges by subordinating "the tribes to the state." But once again, we're guilty of shirking history's lessons:

"Now, U.S. strategy is violating this principle by fostering the retribalization of Iraq all over again. In other countries in the region, such as Yemen, the result of allowing tribes to contest state authority is clear: a dysfunctional country prone to bouts of serious internecine violence."


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The course Simon recommends is not entirely incompatible with the one I would follow. It is impractical at certain points (encourage Iran to urge inclusion of Sunni Arab militia in the Iraqi army and police? Good luck with that!), but its most serious defect is the way it is presented.

The object of Simon's strategy is the political evolution of Iraq, something that is bound to appear ambiguous and shrouded in confusion. At multiple points along the way American withdrawals will be objected to, as undermining security; major departures from what Simon describes as the path to "top-down" reconciliation -- such as renewed eruptions of sectarian violence -- will prompt calls for American forces to uphold their obligation to protect the people, and resentment against those forces if the calls for help are ignored. If it looks like the course Simon outlines here is going wrong, some kind of American response will be called for. The course Simon calls for is very likely to go wrong, probably in different ways at the same time.

From the standpoint of American interests, the vital thing is American withdrawal from Iraq. The political future of that country is of secondary importance. For what it is worth, even Simon seems to acknowledge that the most likely alternative to the "tribalism" he believes the Americans are fostering in Iraq is not an "open, functional society," but instead a dictatorship maintaining power through its perceived ability to obliterate any challengers. Eventually, I suppose, other alternatives may evolve in Iraq. Or maybe not. DA contributors in this election season are often prone to ascribe to Bush administration policy intractable problems arising from the deficiencies of Arab political culture.

The point is that if the exclusive reference point for American policy remains what is happening in Iraq, we'll be there for many years. The correct course to follow is similar to the one Simon recommends, but simpler: a declaration of American intent to liquidate the commitment in Iraq, followed by withdrawals (on a schedule not made public) and accompanied by frank descriptions from the American side of the political issues facing Iraq: the unaddressed sense of Shiite (also Kurdish) grievance, the rivalries among Shiite clerics, the mutual manipulation of Shiite factions in Iraq and Iranian security agencies, the corruption pervasive in the Iraqi government, the relation between militias and criminal activity, and above all the certain consequences if Iraqi factions return to attacking their rivals and members of other sects. As withdrawal proceeds, additional damage control measures may be possible; some of them may resemble some of the things Simon suggests in his Foreign Affairs piece.

But the object of American withdrawal from Iraq must be cutting American losses incurred in a foreign policy adventure that long ago passed the point at which any conceivable result would be worth the price being paid to attain it. If, as withdrawal proceeds (or after it is completed) Iraq starts to turn into what most people think of as a normal country, terrific -- but we are compelled to cut our losses regardless of whether that happens.

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From the standpoint of American interests, the vital thing is American withdrawal from Iraq. The political future of that country is of secondary importance.

The point is that if the exclusive reference point for American policy remains what is happening in Iraq, we'll be there for many years.

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