Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt in Iraq

With a h/t to National Review Online, here is a perspective on the revolt by Iraqi tribes against al Qaeda, with the author – Australian Col. David Kilcullen, who just completed a tour as senior counterinsurgency aide to U.S. commander General David Petraeus – offering this “tentative conclusion:”

As we all know, there is no such thing as a “standard” counterinsurgency. Indeed, the basic definition of counterinsurgency is “the full range of measures that a government and its partners take to defeat an insurgency.” In other words, the set of counterinsurgency measures adopted depends on the character of the insurgency: the nature of counterinsurgency is not fixed, but shifting; it evolves in response to changes in the form of insurgency. This means that there is no standard set of metrics, benchmarks or operational techniques that apply to all insurgencies, or remain valid for any single insurgency throughout its life-cycle. And there are no fixed “laws” of counterinsurgency, except for the sole simple but difficult requirement to first understand the environment, then diagnose the problem, in detail and in its own terms, then build a tailored set of situation-specific techniques to deal with it.
With that in mind, it is clear that although the requirements for counterinsurgency in a tribal environment may not be written down in the classical-era field manuals, building local allies and forging partnerships and trusted networks with at-risk communities seems to be one of the keys to success – perhaps this is what T.E. Lawrence had in mind when he wrote that the art of guerrilla warfare with Arab tribes rests on “building a ladder of tribes to the objective.” Many excellent recent posts and discussions here at the Small Wars Journal have explored these issues. Marine and Army units that have sought to understand tribal behavior in its own terms, to follow norms of proper behavior as expected by tribal communities, and to build their own confederations of local partners, have done extremely well in this fight. But we should remember that this uprising against extremism belongs to the Iraqi people, not to us – it was their idea, they started it, they are leading it, it is happening on their terms and on their timeline, and our job is to support where needed, ensure proper political safeguards and human rights standards are in place, but ultimately to realize that this will play out in ways that may be good or bad, but are fundamentally unpredictable. So far so good, though…

Kilcullen’s post is lengthy but worthy of reading in full. Jeff, over at Protein Wisdom, offers further thoughts:

…move the conversation back to the topic we’ve been dealing with the past few days, namely, what role does the media play in how democratic republics, in which electorates rely on a free press for the raw material used to inform their beliefs, come to pressure foreign policy and the political positions adopted by (largely opportunistic or pragmatic) politicians?
Here, the ethnic “civil war” theme we’ve seen digested and then re-contextualized for rhetorical use by both opponents and proponents of the Iraq campaign, is — if Col Kilcullen’s analysis is correct — a deliberately deployed strategic construct, a means by which al Qaeda has attempted to pit ethnic groups against one another, and so keep the country divided politically while the resulting violence increases the appearance of chaos.
And our press, having bought into the construct and having pushed it for domestic consumption, has aided in the misunderstanding of the far more important (and real) tribal dynamic, which, according to Col Kilcullen is actually helping bring about political change, and in a manner far more precipitous than is “normal” under conditions of insurgency and counterinsurgency.
All of which raises the question: if the press doesn’t understand the dynamic on the ground, why are they so committed to pushing a particular version, one that happens to favor the propaganda efforts of al Qaeda? Is it mere credulity? An inveterate distrust of our own military and the administration’s foreign policy? Or do they find such an intergral narrative of a burgeoning civil war in Iraq useful to their larger narrative, the most prominent theme of which appears to be a kind of pervasive fatalism, often manifested in a return to the Vietnam paradigm and the specter of a quagmire?
I can’t know, for certain — but what I can say is that there is a substantial danger in pushing a narrative that hasn’t been thoroughly considered, particularly if you recognize that it is the precise narrative being served up by your enemy.
In a war where commitment and will are the deciding factors, a campaign to undermine that will — whether it is intentional or merely the product of shoddy journalism or a poor understanding of conditions on the ground — is one that the press should take great care to avoid, if, as in the present case, they lack the proper means (as Karl so clearly showed yesterday) by which to vet the narrative they are promoting.
After all, it’s not like milbloggers haven’t been offering similar observations to Kilcullen’s since 2003.

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