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COIN in a Tribal Society: an interview with William S. “Mac” McCallister

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 28, 2009

William S. “Mac” McCallister is a retired military officer, a U.S. Army major, who served in numerous special operations assignments specializing in civil-military, psychological and information operations, with focuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

I was introduced to Mac a few weeks ago, when he forwarded to Maj. Jim Gant his paper “COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society,” which he’d written in 2007, and which focuses on Iraq. Mac was in Iraq around the same time Maj. Gant was in Afghanistan. Both were working with tribes, attempting to figure out what works in the real world and what doesn’t. Since his return, Mac has continued publishing work focused upon military affairs and tribal warfare. He has guest-lectured at Johns Hopkins University and presented numerous papers at academic and government- sponsored conferences such as the Watson Institute, Brown University; Department of the Navy Science and Technology and DARPA; and the Central Intelligence Agency. He has appeared as a guest on National Public Radio (NPR) and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal. As a senior consultant for Applied Knowledge International (AKI), he continues to study current events in Iraq and Afghanistan in tribal terms, including the tribal art of war and peace, tribal mediation processes, development of tribal centers of power, and tribal influence in political developments. He has applied his study of tribal culture in assessing reconstruction efforts, as well as insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror.

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of interviews with Mac McCallister. We also plan to excerpt his paper in the coming weeks, then make it available here as a free .pdf.

 

SP: Your paper COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society is based on your experiences working with tribes in Iraq, during the Awakening period. When tribal engagement is brought up today in connection to Afghanistan, some readers assume that its principles are derived from the U.S. military’s experience in Iraq and therefore won’t work because Afghanistan is a different animal from Iraq. What do you say to that?

WM: I think it normal that our engagement strategies in Afghanistan are somewhat based on our experiences in Iraq. How could it be otherwise?

If journalism is, indeed, the first draft of history, it would make total sense for the media to simplify the tribal engagement narrative so that everyone can share in the experience. The simplified tribal engagement narrative lumps the Anbar Awakening and Sons of Iraq in Salah ad Din Governorate together as if they were the same. Although a closer scrutiny would identify major differences in motivation and execution on part of the patron and client, it is a logical analogy.

We shouldn’t be surprised that many of our politicians, celebrity media pundits and think tankers are now hyping the one size fits all “awakening” myth and its universal application-“I am not sure what this awakening thing is all about, but I want more. . . .”

We tend to dismiss the fact that our soldiers and Marines have been working in Afghanistan since 2001. The simple engagement narrative assumes that we have learned nothing in the last 8 years about the local cultural operating environment.

SP: What has been learned? What do we know about the tribes and the possibility of tribal engagement in Afghanistan ?

WM: In my opinion, the tribal engagement discussion entails four components. These are the definition, description, prescription, and prediction component. The definition component is the most important.

What exactly is a tribe? Do tribes even exist in Afghanistan-or are we dealing with some other form of social organization?

One definition of “tribe” declares “a social group of humans connected by a shared system of values and organized for mutual care, defense, and survival beyond which could be attained by a lone individual or family.” Another defines as “societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, descent groups, related by blood or marriage.” Still another classifies tribes as “units of socio-political organizations of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.” A fourth definition states that a tribe is “any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, and adherence to the same leadership.”

Tribal identities exist in Afghanistan, but local communities and interest groups may not necessarily organize themselves based on these identities. Individuals tend to define themselves in terms of a group identity. A qawm, or solidarity group, is a collection of people that act as a single unit, which is organized on the basis of some shared identity, system of values, beliefs and or interests. It can describe a family group or reflect a geographical area. It can specify a group of people united by a common political or military goal under one jang salar or martial leader. Members of a village; the inhabitants of a valley; a warlord and his retainers; a strongman and his followers; a bandit and his forty thieves, or the local chapter of the Taliban are all aqwam (plural).

Do tribes exist in Afghanistan? Yes. Tribes exist in Afghanistan, but I personally like the term “qawm” or solidarity group much better when discussing social organizations in Afghanistan.

SP: David Ronfeldt, the distinguished writer and former senior RAND analyst, has gotten into this debate a little. He thinks we can drive ourselves crazy with fine, academic distinctions. In his view, if “tribal dynamics” are in play, then we need to “think tribally” if we hope to understand them.

WM: Bottom line, it doesn’t matter to me what we call things, whether tribes, solidarity groups, or circus clowns, as long as our labels support our efforts, rather than force us into analytical and operational dead-ends just to prove an academic point. We need to explain clearly what we mean and proceed from there.

Fighting in Afghanistan requires that we question our implicit assumptions on everything from social organizations to individual motivating factors since we are not in Kansas anymore. We must accept that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in Afghanistan and instead try to recognize significant patterns of behavior. Afghan social relationships are very complex. In my opinion, the key tenet of COIN is to: 

“effectively communicate intent, whether kinetically or non-kinetically, within the target audience’s cultural frame of reference.”

SP: You said there were four components to any discussion of tribal engagement. Can you briefly explain the final three-description, prescription and prediction component?

WM: Simply put, the description component identifies and describes the existing social system’s institutions, organizations, and actors such as key village or valley leadership, religious personalities, or solidarity groups and the types of influence of each in an area of operation. I apply the imperial-confederacy model to describe the social system’s behavior as follows: the operational environment is a mosaic of territories, each of which lies under the immediate authority of a local qawm or tribe. The fluctuations in the fortunes of each qawm or tribe inevitably impacts upon other local territories, whose patronage relationships or allegiances at any given time are largely dictated by events in the area.

For example: in Anbar province in Iraq, the Albu Risha, a third tier tribe in the Dulaym Confederation, exploited its patronage relationship with the USMC. Under the guise of fighting al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and with our help, markedly improved its standing and power in the confederation vis-à-vis the more reputable tribes. In the words of Napoleon, the Abu Risha stole a march on their rivals in the Dulaym Confederation.

The prescription component spells out the specific strategy to shape and influence the actions of an ally, patronage or alliance network in a given area of operation i.e. the ends, ways and means employed to achieve our end-state in a given village, valley or region.

This is most challenging, requiring considerable skill as well as nerve, in assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the relevant tribes at any given time. A great deal of political sagacity is required in determining what course of action and what political alignments will serve best. For example: the U.S. pushed the Sons of Iraq, a U.S. Army-sponsored security force, into the arms of a less than welcoming Maliki government.

While realpolitik considerations may have forced our hand to create a patronage relationship between the Maliki government and Sons of Iraq, it actually weakened the Maliki government in the short term and may have actually exasperated the already tense relationship between the Sunnis in Salah ad Din province and Shia dominated government in the long-term.

The prediction component is the result of war-gaming the second and third level effects of a given initiative and the likely responses of ally, neutral, accomplice, fence-sitter or opponent, whether in local or national government, village or valley. Definition, description, prescription, and prediction serve to create an appreciation of the social system’s rules of play and behavior in an area of operation, and an ability to explain the actors and factors in play as groups compete for access to limited resources and power.

SP: You wrote in COIN and Irregular Warfare that

“throughout history, rulers and administrators located in the capital had to resort to various methods to retain power and prevent attacks from the countryside or to check the process by which a new dynasty might arise to seize power. The countryside and its inhabitants embody a continuous danger that threatens urban administration.”

This scenario is definitely in action in Afghanistan today. What can we learn from U.S. experience in Iraq? How did you approach the differences between the tribes there? Was there one method or philosophy that worked with all of them?

WM: The approach that worked for me was to structure my analysis applying a number of cultural operating codes and coordinating messages in assessing the actions of the various actors competing against one another in Iraq. The four cultural operating codes are shame and honor, segmentation or the tendency of all groups to engage in alliance and coalition building, patronage, and territory. The two coordinating messages and something you hear in every conversation are “what have you done for me lately and what will you do for me tomorrow” and “no stability without us.”

I also noticed that although the bureaucratic trappings of the Iraqi state looked like those found in any Western nation-state, it didn’t act like it in the way power is accumulated and distributed among its component parts. The Iraqi state behaves more like an imperial-confederacy, where control is exercised by an organized political entity that attracts and incorporates local political entities without absorbing them. Control is not exercised directly, but indirectly. While an imperial confederacy might appear to control monopolies of coercive authority, it does not because the hegemon, whether monarch, military clique, or other elites, has been unsuccessful in developing the forms of popular legitimacy as recognized in the West necessary to support its rule. All political relationships are quid pro quo based with local political entities retaining considerable autonomy vis a vis the central government.

When the imperial structure collapses, local entities are ready to reemerge as autonomous political actors. In terms of power, local political entities remain a latent threat to the central authority, which is forced to continually guard against challenges from the periphery. We find a similar type of political system in Afghanistan. The accomplished strategist in both Iraq and Afghanistan seeks harmony, not sameness.

SP: When you say “local entities,” do you mean tribes?

WM: “Local entities” can be tribes, solidarity groups, military commanders, rural and urban elites, politicians and political parties, technocrats, kith and kin networks etc. The Western nation-state model doesn’t answer my questions as to why local actors behave the way they do in Iraq or Afghanistan. The imperial-confederacy model does. So, I adapted the model to the 21st Century and changed my analytical paradigm. In my opinion, the imperial-confederacy is more inclusive of various actors in the social system and sheds greater light on the competitive relationship between autonomous centers of social power.

I have gained a deeper appreciation and understanding of the social forces in play in both in Iraq or Afghanistan. An appreciation for how an imperial-confederacy behaves over time better explains how things work in a given territory and helps describe the relationship between power and insurrection. I believe it can assist us in articulating appropriate political-military strategies and initiatives that if executed well will effectively communicate intent within the target audience’s cultural frame of reference.

I’ve stopped beating my head against the wall trying to understand Iraq or Afghanistan applying the Western nation-state template. The imperial-confederacy model works for me.

SP: How do tribes fit into this?

WM: I have often asked myself what is the role of the tribe (or qawm) in the building of major political systems and institutions and how do we integrate these folks? The answer to that question will require more strategists and fewer technical planners. On a side note: I personally am very supportive of Major Jim Gant’s “one tribe (qawm) at a time” approach. It expresses a natural pattern of behavior within the imperial-confederacy paradigm and resonates with the locals. Somewhere out there some tribe, qawm or pretender to greatness is fighting against an established order, fighting against an emerging order or fighting to establish a new order.

Posted in Afghanistan, Agora, Guest Blogger

14 Responses to “COIN in a Tribal Society: an interview with William S. “Mac” McCallister”

  1. Jim Gourley
    December 28, 2009 at 4:50 am

    I loved hearing Mr. McCallister’s comments. He characterizes the complexity of the political situation in Iraq in much the same way I saw it then but was unable to articulate it. I wish I could have read this back in 2005… every briefing I put together would have become a cut-and-paste job.

    What I would love to hear are more details about how Mr. McCallister achieved success in influencing different areas according to his model. A big issue we dealt with at the time was moving fuel trucks from a refinery further south to keep the lights on in Baghdad. Here was the problem:

    Fuel truck driver has to pay refinery owner a bribe to be able to fill up his truck there or else he’s out of a job. Then to get the truck into the refinery the driver had to pay off the security guards. Then the driver has to pay off the guy who owns the trucks. By the time he’s gassed up, the driver is up to his ears in debt. He has no choice but to stop on the side of the road and sell half his tank on the black market before getting to his destination. Fuel shortages abound, thus supporting the corruption system.

    Is this a political, tribal, or economic leadership problem? Do I talk to the refinery owner or his tribal “button man”? If the model is imperial confederacy, I don’t know if the lines of power are ever very clear or strong. However, Mr. McCallister has hit the nail on the head, so whatever method he would have proposed, I would have recommended. Looking forward to hearing his thoughts.

  2. "MAC" McCallister
    December 28, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    Please allow me to address the corruption, political, and economic dynamic and the role of tribe or qawm from an imperial-confederacy perspective. I’ll caveat by explaining that the model itself isn’t intended to provide specific answers but a way to structure the analysis. The answer to whether corruption is a political, tribal, or economic leadership problem is found in a better appreciation of the social system where it occurs.

    I assume that tribal or qawm leaders are expected to provide tangible support to members of their respective kith and kin network and receive tangible support in return. It is a social contract. If the leadership doesn’t deliver it will be removed (assassination is a no-confidence vote) or the membership might migrate to a patron who will. If individual members do not meet their obligations, they may be chastised, banished or worse.

    The state is unable to please all of its subjects all of the time whereas a kith and kin network will do its best to please its own tribe or qawm all of the time. It also has a much better track record at doing so.

    Some corruption is required if viewed from within the cultural, social and political context of an imperial- confederacy. It is important to acknowledge that individual acts of corruption are not performed in isolation. Each official whether a security guard, traffic cop or local bureaucrat is dependent upon a support structure and is a member of a patronage network. No one acts alone. All members of the network are depended upon others. The larger the patronage network the greater its coercive power.

    The Iraqi and Afghan social systems are an expression of perpetual group competition. Targeted acts of what we perceive as corruption may actually seek to strengthen relationships with select allies or to mobilize new ones so as to expand an existing patronage network or defend against challengers. Some patronage networks deliberately stay inefficiently small and organize their activities in a complex manner to avoid the attention of larger more powerful networks. Other patronage networks may seek to achieve economy of scale so as to seize the reins of power.

    I actually studied the fuel distribution system in Anbar and found it very efficient. I found that the fuel distribution system in Iraq had not markedly changed from the way it was managed under the Qasim, Aref brothers or Saddam regimes. It likely still works the same way today. The people in the Ministry of Oil determined who would get to manage the oil refineries and the distribution system creating new or expanding existing patronage networks. No one in the system acted or operated independently. Everyone needed protection from everyone else or stated less cynically, everyone was depended upon everyone else within the system.
    While I served in Anbar province, fuel prices were heavily subsidized by the Iraqi government. Truck drivers paid a surcharge to the refinery manager but actually made up for the additional costs when they sold the fuel on the open market. The additional costs whether as a surcharge or security tax paid by truck drivers actually brought fuel prices more into line with the actual black market price on the open market. The fuel moved through existing patronage networks and eventually reached the customer. Market forces determined prices.

    I personally did not witness drastic fuel shortages in Anbar province. This does not mean that fuel shortages in certain areas did not exist. Fuel shortages did exist, but they were not widespread or common. Insurgent organizations did attempt to control the distribution system but even insurgent organizations had to work within the patronage system and when they sought to achieve economy of scale, were challenged by other groups seeking to block their growth or to gain access to the market. Finally, as insurgent organizations reached economy of scale, we noticed and whacked them.

    The imperial-confederacy model assumes that territories are controlled by autonomous groups. In the case of safeguarding the fuel distribution system in Anbar, tribes would assume a vital role in safeguarding routes. What follows are a number of general and specific assumptions that guided our decision-making process. I venture that a number of these general and specific assumptions apply to dealing with specific solidarity groups in Afghanistan. The secret is to recognize patterns of behavior and their similarities.

    The general assumptions concerning the Anbar social system accepted that an individual tribe was a member of a broader, multi-tribal social structure. Membership in the social structure accommodated the political, security and economic needs of its members. Do a multi-qawm social structures exist in Afghanistan?

    Tribal politics is primarily concerned with authority over people. The most important factor was the offering of allegiances based on personal and or tribal loyalties. Allegiances would therefore be extremely fluid, especially in the formation phase.

    Tribal/confederation leadership recognized that sub- groups would emerge within an alliance or confederation of tribes based on individual tribal agendas. The leadership would attempt to shape the ability of sub-groups to form their own power bases, which if left unchecked would threaten its leadership of the alliance or confederation. The Iraqi government was not exempt from this problem. The requirement of the Iraqi government to shape power relationships early was why the Iraqi government may have been reluctant to employ “local” tribal security forces along portion of either economic corridor and/or rolling pipeline route. Empower a local tribe too soon and you will have to deal with the consequences.

    Our more specific assumptions accepted the fact that tribes were protective of territory and potential income and that tribal security force operating in different tribal area would be subject to tribal law.

    Our primary consideration for employment of tribal security force had to acknowledge the fact that introducing tribal fighters into different tribal areas entailed risks. The primary risk consisted of instigating rivalries between the indigenous population that could interpret a “foreign” tribal element as infringing on territory and potential income. The transplanted tribal security force would also be less likely to view its security mission as vital to the overall defense of the security corridor and therefore less likely to provide the best possible protection. We could therefore expect to see an increase in the leveling of unauthorized “toll” or “security” taxes since the transplanted tribal security force had no loyalty to the local population that would likely make up the majority of commuter traffic in the area. Perceived mistreatment of the local population by the transplanted tribal security force would require retribution on the part of the local tribe and could result in tribal feud if an incident ended in bloodshed. A transplanted tribal security force would also likely to be more susceptible to subversion since they are not as concerned for the safety or economic well-being of the local population.

    I personally experienced the result of a transplanted tribal security force composed of out-of-area personnel. In 2004, a U.S. Army Engineer Brigade hired a number of tribal fighters to secure a stretch of power lines near Baji. Within weeks, the unit reported tribal fighting in the area. The Army Brigade had inadvertently employed members of a rival tribe. The indigenous tribe was upset that another tribe was active in its area and sought to have them removed. The Army Brigade was forced to hire local tribesmen to secure the stretch of power lines.

    Hiring a local tribal security force also entailed risk. Local tribal security personnel would also collect a “toll” or “security tax”. We assumed that the primary differences in this case would be that the community of tribes would hold the offending tribe responsible for the conduct of its fighters. Steady-state security operations will be maintained within a “band-of-tolerance” and subject to pressures exerted by the tribal council as a whole. Tribal checks and balances exist and would assist in managing the conduct of security operations.

    This stuff will make your head hurt. A great deal of political sagacity is required in determining what course of action and what political alignments will serve best.

    Thanks for your post.

    v/r
    MAC

    • Jim Gourley
      December 29, 2009 at 7:16 am

      Mr. McCallister,

      Thanks for your response. I found it quite enlightening, and have no qualms admitting that we really didn’t see things in that context at the time.

      I want to make sure I understand your point on the fuel supply system. Could you clarify the following:

      I take it you mean to say that all the “fees” the drivers had to pay was accepted as business as usual and that, because the black and legitimate markets had become so intertwined, were necessary in order to keep the open market and black market fees equivalent. I wasn’t able to follow you through the whole paragraph, and I thought you might have inadvertantly swapped “black” for “open” somewhere in there.

      Ah, the Baji powerlines. I remember them well… and wish I could forget. Many a UAV pilot spent hours at his monitor looking at those things wondering why. And here again you bring up a great anecdote.

      My unit took over that area of Iraq shortly after the tribal dispute episode you brought up. What is fascinating to me is that, despite the exchange of local tribesman for the “foreigners” on guard duty, there was little change in the amount of damage done to the power lines. I think saboteurs knocked over four or five in the course of my year there. Again, here’s the setup.

      Powerline contractor wants to fix powerlines. All the lines are up and running, so he’s out of business. Someone (we assumed AQ, could have simply been criminals) offered to chop down the powerlines with explosives or a large truck and a chain. Contractor pays off saboteur, line comes down. The problem comes when the contractor goes to the electric company to offer to fix the line. Electric man tells powerline man that he requires a kickback on the contract for selecting him over the other competing bidders. The contract is awarded, but because of the payoff to bomber man and electric man, powerline man’s profit margin is significantly reduced. Meanwhile, the suspicion was that electric man was actually running the bomber men and orchestrating the whole operation so he could manage the contracting process without knocking down too many powerlines and thus maximize his profit.

      So again, the question becomes “how does the tribe fit into this equation”? If the tribe had assumed (marginal) responsibility for guarding the lines, and their contacts in the extended network relied on the line for power down the road, why were they allowing this tragi-comedy to continue? I caveat that by saying there was no way the tribesman could ever have guarded every single tower on the line (though we did make them all go sleep in tents beside certain ones for a while), but couldn’t they have influenced the contractors, bombers, or even just the manager of the power company?

      My first guess is that, somehow, this benefitted the majority of the tribesmen in the area. However, how can widespread power outtages be considered a good thing and just how thin was any money the mukhtars received spread? I’m not questioning the model, but I haven’t learned how to add up the numbers according to it yet.

  3. "MAC" McCallister
    December 29, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    I am not a trained economist; although I boast enough of an appreciation for the dismal science to embarrass myself when called upon to identify the market forces in play or to describe the economic behavior or motivations of individual actors within the social system. The Iraqi economy was and remains a mixture of command and market economies. In my opinion, what we labeled the black market evolved into the open or free market. Hence, I applied the terms black market and open market interchangeably. In my opinion, what we witnessed in Nineveh (oil refining) and Anbar Governorate (fuel distribution) was the dismantling of Saddam’s patronage network and formation of a post-Saddam patronage network. We actually participated, knowingly or unknowingly, in the process. The winning patronage network would control the oil refining and distribution sectors.

    The Iraqi government subsidized fuel prices. I don’t remember the actual cost but let’s say the customer paid only about 10 cents per liter. It made total sense to charge a higher price for fuel. Everyone along the production and distribution chain added a fee in-line with what the market would tolerate. In time supply and demand reached the equilibrium point.

    Competition for control over trade routes, the Baji refinery and the network of gas stations was severe. Many different actors vied for control; local strongmen, tribal leaders with Shia government connections, tribal leaders with Bath party connections, technocrats, local bandits, Shia and Sunni politicians, al Qaeda connected or nationalist insurgents to name just a few. I venture to say six years after the dismantling of Saddam’s patronage network in Nineveh and Anbar Governorates a new patronage network is now operational. Fuel is being distributed along specific routes, via specific pipelines and networks of patronage controlled gas stations and vendors.

    You ask why tribal leaders did not seek to influence contractors, bombers, or the manager of the power company. Please let me remind you that the imperial-confederacy model and the four cultural operating codes and two coordinating messages are to assist in structuring the analysis. They are not in and of themselves assumptions about particular motivations. Behavior is driven by a much richer set of values and preferences.

    I participated in a security meeting with two Iraqi police commanders, aviation regiment representative and representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to discuss power line security. The aviation regiment representative explained that he could not keep Apaches on station for the duration of his power line security mission. He also explained that the local thieves would sit and wave at the Apaches. When the Apaches returned to base to refuel, the thieves would commence cutting power lines and stripping the copper from the wire. The Iraqi police commanders explained that we needed to be quite clear with the locals that the CPA would not tolerate the cutting of power lines and the best way to stop this behavior would be to have the Apaches take out the thieves where they sat. This would send a message to the rest.

    I believe that one of our implicit assumptions is that human kind is an altruistic lot. We assume that the local band of thieves should care about the people downstream from the power line just cut and from which was removed all the copper to sell on the open market. The reality differs. Fix and guard the power grid only to cut the power line. Guard the trade route only to seed the route with IEDs yourself. There was much money to be earned hoodwinking the infidels who showed no inclination to appreciate traditional forms of behavior or learning the rules of the game. What makes us think that some of the folks we were dealing with actually saw us as anything else than a means to an end. Bottom line: people are people, and they respond to incentives. People are capable of being generous and selfless. They are also capable of being heartless and cruel. Instead of assuming that all people are good or all people are bad, I assume that people can nearly always be manipulated-for good or ill-if only you find the right levers. I therefore ask you, who benefited from the tragic-comedy and how?

    Thanks for the post.

    v/r
    MAC

    • Jim Gourley
      December 30, 2009 at 10:17 am

      Mr. McCallister,

      If ever our paths cross, I owe you a beer for that incisive look at human behavior in these kinds of situations. Many have tried to characterize it but, without your level of academic detachment, come off as too cynical. Yours is the most rational description I’ve seen of it yet.

      I’m no stranger to more painful methods of influencing human behavior. Constructing the earthern berms around Samarra and Baji had tremendous positive impact in terms of reducing attack levels and providing for domestic security, if not tranquility. Still, I do have certain expectations that individuals will (or ought to) have the good sense to realize that occassionally the common good also serves their own best interests.

      That’s not to assert any belief in altruism– the Iraqis beat that naivete out of me on my first trip as a young Lieutenant. What I mean is that I always looked at it from the perspective of if I was an Iraqi. Even if I make a thousand dollars off of stolen copper, what am I going to spend it on? The quality of life in Iraq in general is poor. I can maybe buy a dump truck that breaks down often, several rusty AK-47s, or a house which doesn’t get power because I stripped the lines. Iraqis may believe “that’s just the way it is” when it comes to the fuel distribution system, but their behavior at the mile-long lines at the gas stations indicates that they don’t necessarily like it.

      I’m no expert on the culture involved, but I will make this observation. Just to the north of Mosul, where the lines and blackouts seem to go on forever, Kurdistan (I understand it’s not an independent country, but one can hope) has clean water, gas stations, a reliable electric grid, and Toyota dealerships. I once had a profound experience there on a short trip. I watched the changing of the guard at a Kurdish guard post. It was a very diligent affair, with a report given between the guards and the officer supervising the positions watching. It put some American practices to shame. This is in stark contrast to the “professional recruits” plaguing the Afghan Army and the indolent and inept personnel within the Iraqi forces.

      Yes, these are but anecdotes, but I believe they are highly indicative ones, just as the fact that Kurdistan still maintains a high degree of independence in spite of the dual adversities posed by Iraq to the south and Turkey to the north. I give a large portion of the credit to a certain element of Kurdish culture. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it altruism, but it is absolutely a recognition of the profit to be gained from submission to a kind of social contract. There may not be a real dollar value to it on a personal level, but the overall benefit in terms of security and quality of life are evident.

      I believe this is the wellspring of American frustration with the people of the Middle East, especially with those Americans who have involved themselves directly with Iraq and Afghanistan. I advocate the tribal systems and approaches proposed on this forum, but I have only marginal expectations for their success in interacting with the world at large in diplomatic or economic terms. What we generally discuss here is the best way to keep the Taliban and Al Qaeda at bay in Iraq and Afghanistan. What you and I have begun to discuss is a means to “fix” the cultural barriers to progress in the middle east vis a vis the microcosms of Iraq and Afghanistan. So long as that culture continues to follow the principle of “Inshallah”, then the lines at the gas stations will remain, people will take longer to get to work, be less productive because of power outtages, and the whole region will remain hopelessly backward. Of course, this is the very religious tendency toward dystopia that created the conditions necessary for the rise of militant Islamofacism. I believe that as long as this dogmatic resistance to change maintains its grip on the culture, the people will continue to rage against their own inability to make progress, develop a self-recriminating view, and certain elements will be inspired to project that anger on outside scapegoats, namely western civilization.

      At the end of the day, maybe the police were right. It probably would have been best for the helicopters to shoot the powerline cutters. They’re as much to blame for terrorism as Bin Laden, maybe more.

  4. "MAC" McCallister
    December 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    I will drink that beer and pay for our second and third.

    The earthen berms worked, didn’t they? Circumvallation worked for Julius Caesar during the Siege of Alesia. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

    You write that individuals ought to have the good sense to occasionally realize that the common good also serves their own selfish interest. It is an important premise and one worth discussing, especially when engaged in an insurrection, rebellion, insurgency or counter-insurgency.

    I also asked myself why the locals didn’t respond to our good faith efforts at hearts and minds. This led me to actually ponder the mysteries of civil obedience, research theories of power, sovereignty and legitimacy, and notions of divine will, popular will, and general will. I needed to learn more about these concepts and their historical baggage, especially since all our mission statements included the all encompassing “create legitimacy for the Iraqi government”.

    I won’t bore you with the details suffice it to say that the idea of civil obedience is closely ties to theories of sovereignty and legitimacy. Obedience is said to become a duty because of the undeniable existence of an ultimate right of command. It is the idea that there exists somewhere a right to which all other rights must yield. A supreme will, naturally good, that governs human societies and that would be wrong to resist. This supreme will is also called the divine will, general will, popular will, or general good. From the theory of divine sovereignty we get the monarchy or caliphate. The theory of popular or general sovereignty led to parliamentary supremacy.

    Here is my conclusion. As soon as the state conceives itself as the exclusive agent of the common good, it seeks to impose the common good on society at large. In the process, an autonomous community might chose to defend itself against what it perceives to be tyranny resulting in insurrection, rebellion, or insurgency. It behooves the counter-insurgent to appreciate the dynamics in play. For every political and military action there always exists the potential for an equal and opposite reaction.

    We assume that a “common good” exists and I believe that it does, but our Western understanding of the common good is not necessarily universal and may not be shared by the locals, especially in a social system, that as I propose, is composed of numerous distinct and autonomous communities. Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote that

    “…in a divided country, when any man thinks himself injured, he applies to the head of his faction, who is obliged to assist him in seeking vengeance if he is to keep up his own reputation and interests, instead of discouraging violence.”

    You write that you advocate the tribal systems and approaches proposed on this forum, but that you only have marginal expectations for their success in interacting diplomatically and economically with the world. I don’t know, it appears to me that the House of Saud is doing quite well interacting with the world diplomatically and economically, as do many of the smaller tribal states in the region such as the United Arab Emirates for example. I am not advocating one social organizing strategy over another but if the survival strategy works, use it. The members of Iraq’s tribes exploit the state structure as much as they do their tribal affiliations. Aqwam (solidarity groups) in Afghanistan are likely to do the same.

    I’ll take that beer now.

    v/r
    MAC

    • Jim Gourley
      January 1, 2010 at 9:05 am

      Mr. McCallister,

      Before I typed those words, I paused to consider Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and then did so anyway. Here’s why:

      Let me start by saying oil revenue has nothing to do with it. I find the argument that “Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be in the position it is or be able to survive without its oil fields” obtuse. For starters, the oil fields are in fact there. It would be like saying “America wouldn’t be where it is today if the Atlantic didn’t separate it from Europe”. However, Iran was rich in oil in 1952, yet its nationalist government couldn’t generate enough independence from, let alone diplomacy with, Britain and the U.S. to keep them from orchestrating its own overthrow. Today the Ahmadinejad government is scared of sanctions due to its inability to refine its oil reserves such that it imports 80% of its gasoline. So while Iran is able to make a nuissance of itself, it has little other diplomatic methods and it continues to demonstrate vast ineptitude at promoting domestic tranquility or justice.

      So it’s not the oil. Rather, I believe it’s the astute nature with which certain powerful elements in Saudi and the UAE decided to ‘play ball’ with the west. Once they converted what oil holdings they had into western goodwill, it took relatively little time for them to increase their holdings and consolidate their power base. Granted, the House of Saud already had control of the country by 1932 before the discovery of the oil deposits, but that control was tenuous at best, faced with the challenges of rival tribes. The money from oil contracts is what solidified their hold on the land. Saudi, Kuwait, the UAE, and Jordan all placed their bets on the United States. They’ve flourished. Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Libya decided to resist the great satan and put their eggs in Russia’s basket. They’ve been left behind. The interesting case is Iraq, which has played both sides of the table with distinct results. No one can deny that Saddam Hussein’s best days occurred when he was cozy with the U.S.

      All of these countries follow tribal dynamics, fall under more or less absolute rulers, and have vast oil reserves. Thus, I contend that the major determinant of success of the various regimes is a model by which a leader with plurality garners support from the west (typically America) and uses it to stamp out the power-players in the tribal system. It’s not pretty, but ultimately the local ruler(s) reject the traditions of tribalism and institute a parliamentary-monarchy system of government.

      The house of Saud’s insistence on maintaining several of the redundant and archaic aspects of the tribal system in an effort to maintain the ‘proper’ appearance of being a legitimate muslim leadership is by no means an indicative element of their “success” as a country on any level. NPR recently covered the Saudi government’s conviction of a man on the charge of sorcery. The man, a Lebanese talk radio host, was arrested immediately upon arrival in the country. Meanwhile, financial and logistical support for terrorism, to say nothing of terrorists themselves, move through the country like water through a sieve. By the same token, for all its vast wealth, the country did not have a military sufficient of protecting itself from Saddam’s forces in1991. The Saudis are well-advised not to raise an army of such proportions. Spreading that much firepower throughout the country risks the cultivation of a military junta or, worse, the re-arming of rival tribes such that they could fracture the country.

      The prosperity enjoyed by the country under King Fahd has faltered in the wake of the resurgence of royal power squabbles and the dissipation of central authority. While Saudis still export a great deal of oil and have one of the highest standards of health care in the middle east, they lack the ability to manage their own refineries or build new wells, and rely heavily on foreign medical professionals. Their economy also relies on imports nearly five times greater than their exports. So it is that the house of Saud maintains tight control over the rival tribes and their component populations, but at the expenses of excesses in luxury by the royal family and progress by society at large.

      Thus, in my view, Saudi Arabia is one of the most successful middle eastern countries, which makes it the most successful country in the second worst region of the world (Africa being far worse off). It’s like being the fastest man on crutches. The crutch is western patrons, the the palsy is the internecine traditions of tribalism.

  5. "MAC" McCallister
    January 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Mr. Gourley,

    Before we start I’d like to wish you and yours a Happy New Year.

    I believe that irregular warfare requires that we continuously reexamine many of our implicit assumption on everything from social organizations to individual motivating factors.

    Your comment concerning the “internecine traditions of tribalism” implies that the region is marred by ruinous and destructive struggles between and within nations, organizations or groups. I am not so sure that the traditions of tribalism are as ruinous or fatal as we would like to believe. If this were indeed the case, would tribalism not have disappeared long ago as a survival strategy for autonomous communities?

    There are social mechanisms in place to manage the violence. It might behoove us to first examine how sovereignty and legitimacy is expressed and civil obedience achieved in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan before we seek to impose a “modern” social order.

    Our counterinsurgency doctrine assumes a universal application of modernization theory. Modernization theory assumes that the process of modernization is more or less global and applicable in diverse places such as Iraq or Afghanistan. In short, there is a single, unilinear path of development which culminates in a system that looks like a Western democracy. Furthermore, we can actually initiate a number of social and behavioral patterns, regardless of cultural context, which will lead inexorably to a modern democratic society. All that is needed is a technical blueprint to make it work.

    While I agree with you that most of the countries in the region are subject to tribal dynamics, I do not agree that leaders within this social system seek to stamp out rival power-players. They seek to marginalize rivals and while some rivals may be targeted more so than others, the possibility for a future alliance to counter a future rival is always maintained as an option.

    I also disagree with the idea that local rulers will ultimately reject the traditions of tribalism. This idea, in my opinion, assumes that the premise of modernization theory is a fact and the process of modernization inevitable. I can provide three examples to the contrary.

    Iraq’s Ba’ath party was removed from power in November 1963 in a bloodless coup de etat led by Colonel Arif commanding the 20th Army Brigade. The majority members of the 20th Army Brigade were Jumayli tribesmen, as was Colonel Arif and was united by a strong tribal bond. By 1965 many fellow tribesmen were appointed to positions of power in the central government.

    The Ba’ath party regains power in 1968. Close family and tribal ties bind the Ba’ath’s ruling circle. Most notable in this regard are the Tikritis from the northwest town of Tikrit and related to Ahmad Hasan al Bakr. Three of the five members of the Ba’ath’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) were Tikritis; two, Ahmad Hasan al Bakr and Hammad Shihad were related to each other. Real power remains in the hands of a narrowly based group united by close family and tribal ties.

    Saddam Hussein early-on during his reign marginalizes and went so far as to demonize the tribal institution as feudalism, remnant of colonialism and anti-pan Arabism. He did this not because he actually believed that tribal groups were anachronistic but as a deliberate and calculated move to neutralize a major obstacle to his one-party rule. He emasculated some tribes all the while exploiting tribal organizing principles to consolidate his clan’s hold on power. During the Iran-Iraq war Saddam Hussein required tribal assistance, both Sunni and Shia, to retain power and even more so during the 1991 Shia intifada.

    You are absolutely correct. Spreading too much firepower around the country entails risk. That is why it takes a strategist, not a technical planner, to execute a proper tribal engagement strategy. The danger is ever present that the leadership will elevate select tribes or solidarity groups to bona fide power contenders.
    Maintaining control over rival tribes or solidarity groups is key.

    Riddle me this: if we agree that rivalries are a fact of life in tribalized societies, what control mechanisms are in place in Afghanistan to logistically sustain an enlarged Afghan National Army and maintain positive control? How long can we expect these control mechanisms to survive?

    Thanks for the post.

    v/r
    MAC

    • Jim Gourley
      January 1, 2010 at 5:11 pm

      Mr. McCallister,

      Now I’m thoroughly enjoying this. Once again, you’ve gone into details I considered before typing. Let me see if I can keep up with you, as you’re pushing the envelope of my knowledge of history’s details.

      Iraq is, as you outline, a great example of the multiple layers of intrigue in middle eastern state politics; nationalistic, tribal, political, military, and religious lines all intertwine in a dangerous game where the rules aren’t just changing, but evolving. I can only give one view of it, but here it is and why I didn’t hesitate writing what I did after considering (my limited knowledge) of its details.

      The Ba’athists failed in 1963 because, as you observed, their handling of tribal and military networks was completely inept. They were only able to regain and consolidate power in 1968 after they had stumbled upon the premise of unifying the people of Iraq, a tribal and ethnic diaspora corralled inside a singular political boundary by ignorant British colonial managers, under the ideals of pan-Arab identity. Appealing to that aspect of the “national” consciousness, Saddam and cronies were able to get the party back into Baghdad. The only problem for them then was that the effort’s momentum had to be maintained. Thus the series of military efforts into other middle eastern regions (the commitment of forces to Syria in opposition of Israel in 1970 and the war to consolidate Kurdistan in 1975) leading up to the Iran-Iraq war. Even before that though, Saddam effectively developed the special forces, police institutions, border guards and intelligence agencies to maintain strict control over possible insurrectionists among the military elite. So it was that Saddam brought the police to bear on the state.

      In the case of Saddam and the Ayatollahs, absolute power and incontrovertible dogma (either political or religious) were made the foundation of stability. If anyone were to find flaws with either Saddam or Khomeini, then it signified the leader (and, by proxy, his subordinates) had weaknesses. This couldn’t be tolerated. While it’s true Saddam put a great deal of Takritis in power, it was only out of pragmatism. He could only bring people into the inner that he could trust implicitly. Anything less would risk his own position and even his life. Let’s not forget that this is a man who killed his closest family members out of paranoia.

      I thus conclude that Saddam’s structuring of leadership under his reign had less to do with tribalism and more with his own personal will to power. I also question just how much reliance he placed on tribal dynamics to maintain the “fighting spirit” of the population during the Iran-Iraq war or domestic tranquility during the intifada. It seems he placed much more stock in the systematic terrorization of the populace. People feared any member of the secret police by virtue of their near carte-blanche to kill those they considered political dissidents. As bad as Saddam might have been, worse were the Iranians or, when they seemed less of a threat, the Americans.

      By that process, I don’t believe that Saddam made it outright mission in life to destroy tribal traditions or that he even believe it to be necessary for modernization, but the rejection of tribalism was a necessary consequence of the process by which he conslidated his power. He, better than we did even after several years in Iraq and Afghanistan, understood that eliminating the leaders or breaking the bonds of tribal networks would be an impossible game of “whack-a-mole”. However, while he used those existing networks to facilitate management of municipal functions in the provinces, ensured that tribal leaders were put down just as low as the rest of the population. The indigence in such contrary areas as Sadr City and Samarra testify to his capacity for identifying problematic elements of society and depriving them of any means to muster resistance against him. He also had the benefits of conscripting large numbers of men into the army, which took them out of the cities where they could form unified resistance and pushed them to the eastern frontier where they had to unify under his cause or face death at the hands of the Iranians.

      Insofar as the ruinous nature of tribal tendencies, I believe our previous discussions about power lines and oil trucks prove that they will continue to exist no matter how self-defeating they are. In fact, as these small-scale groups continued to jockey for position over one another at the expense of greater progress, the situation worsened in the country and thus made people even more dependent on the tribal model for survival. The worse things get, the more people care only about what they can get for themselves out of a situation. In bad enough circumstances, even tribal order will break down and anarchy would ensue. To that argument I commend the examples seen in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. Here we had a city in a civilized, industrialized, western, American civilization, that typically conducted itself in an orderly fashion according to the social contract. Yet it completely broke down and reverted to codes of behavior and structure that resembled the most primal forms of tribalism. Thus I’m always able to entertain myself when, in the course of a discussion with friends about “how different we are from Afghans”, I tell them ‘the only difference between us and Afghanistan is six inches of rainfall’. Tribalism, in my view, did die out long ago as a survival strategy in many parts of the world, and it will always die out where the consolidation of power is required to bring about advances in civilization across large geographic areas. But in any area where disaster or war undo the advancements of civilization, then civilization will adapt according the environment it finds itself in. People who are bombed back into the stone age will form tribes until such time as they’re able to build themselves back into the modern age. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other, but there’s certainly a correlation.

      In both post-Katrina New Orleans and “Awakening Era” Iraq, order was restored only after the tribal/survival mindsets involved were overcome by the imposition of force. As you stated before, hope and altruism aren’t strategies. The people won’t just sit still and wait patiently for the lights and water to come back on, and who can blame them? People are dying all around them, and no one is so selfless as to starve to death when there are loaves of bread to be stolen from the honest baker down the way. They must be compelled to cooperate. Once the populace is quieted, then basic services follow in comparatively short order. I suppose that’s a fairly Saddam-like take on governmental management, but I’m more of the belief that mechanical mechanisms superced the social variety when it comes to managing violence. I don’t think General Petraeus held any illusions about what he was doing when he surged troops and put them out on the fire bases instead of letting them stay in the FOBs.

      As to your riddle, I don’t think there are in fact any mechanisms for the long-term sustainment of the ANA, or the Afghan Government for that matter. They are diametrically opposed models. I’ve hearkened back to Attila the Hun on other threads, and I’ll do it again here. Ghengis Khan is another good example. For his part though, Attila was raised in a culture that espoused somewhat republican principles (being traded to the Romans as a child). In an interesting mix, he took the lessons he learned from Rome along with his hatred of their culture and fashioned the Hunnish tribes into a unified confederation capable of taking on the legions. Attila brought his people out of nomadism and established the first Hun cities. He trained his army in new tactics and modernized their weaponry. In many ways, he made the Huns adopt elements of the culture he hated in order to wage war against it. So there was a unique confluence of the rejection of “modern” culture with the adoption of “modern” technology and social organization. But he hardly scrapped tribalism. Instead, Attila was such a capable leader that he could negotiate the nuances of tribal conflicts and meld the bands under rival warlords into a single fighting force, government, and society. There is, of course, the caveat that he didn’t always get along well with everyone and he killed lots and lots of people (brutally, of course) as part of his efforts to maintain order.

      I don’t know if Chief Zazai or the other tribal chiefs of Afghanistan would ever fully welcome a national army so long as it serves a unified government under the current model, regardless of whether it was corrupt or not. Karzai is certainly no Attila. The “unified” Afghan army is, in my opinion, better described as the “ambiguous” Afghan army. When they come into one area or the other, people simply perceive them as strangers in uniform, representative of a cabal that does not perform the three necessary functions of government or even expresses great interest in doing so. What the Afghan people need is a group of armies that will march under one chief– a chief chosen by a council of tribal representatives. That’s not my assessment, it’s that of at least one tribal leader who is building his own army and is providing for his people in a very dangerous area of the country.

  6. "MAC" McCallister
    January 3, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Mr. Gourley,

    I am also enjoying this exchange.

    I believe that cultures evolve. Nothing remains static. What I am proposing is that past and present-change and continuity can actually coexist in a given social space. I submit to you that patterns of behavior in the region have not drastically changed in the last three thousand years. Present day Middle Eastern state politics; nationalistic, tribal, political, military and religious are indeed intertwined in a very complex game. The military and diplomatic maneuverings to gain and maintain power in present day Iraq or Afghanistan are eerily similar to the pattern of behavior and diplomatic and military maneuverings exhibited by Abdi-Ashirta, a local tribal leader in what is now present day Syria, during the reign of Amenhotep III. Abdi-Ashirta’s rise to power; his ability to carve out a franchise in Egypt’s network of subject territories in Syria; his tactics to isolate leaders from followers and subject territories from key patrons is very similar to the tactics exhibited by every post-WWI ruler in Iraq and present day Taliban in Afghanistan. Joshua, the destroyer of Jericho would not feel out of place on Saddam’s military staff or the Quetta Taliban leadership council.

    I submit that the success of the Ba’athists’ in 1968 was not because they stumbled upon the premise of unifying the people of Iraq under the ideals of pan-Arabism. In my opinion, pan-Arabism was an ideological vehicle to unite the Arabs against non-Arabs, primarily Israel. Pan-Arabism is not the great unifier we believe it to be especially since Iraq as well as other “Arab” states in the region is composed of a number of non-Arab communities. In Iraq, pan-Arabism united the Arabs against the Kurds, Assyrians, and other smaller ethnic communities and served as the ideological engine for an (Iraqi) Arab conquest movement. Ba’athist ideology on the other hand, served as a means to integrate non-Arab communities into an Arab controlled imperial-confederacy. In my opinion, Iraq, like other Ottoman Empire descendents, with the exception of Egypt, was and remains an imperial-confederacy where quid-pro-quo and patronage relationships assist in imposing order and stability. E pluribus unum –“out of many one”, is an American political myth.

    Personal will to power is all well and good but no man is an island. Every conqueror needs local allies.

    I submit that there were a number of different social dynamics exploited by the Saddam regime and not just the tribal card to maintain “the fighting spirit” of the population during the Iran-Iraq war or during the Shia intifada. We should not forget the very important Arab-Persian dynamic.

    I respect the fact that you believe that tribalism has died out as a survival strategy in many parts of the world and will always die out where the consolidation of power is required to bring about advances in civilization across large geographic areas. But we are talking about Iraq and Afghanistan. Are you telling me that you believe tribalism or what I prefer to label the “tribal ethos” has died out in the two countries we are talking about?

    The anthropologist Pierre Clastres in his book “Society against the State” argues that some societies not only are not on a putative, normative pathway to statehood, but also resist such a social trajectory. I submit, based on local patterns of behavior, that the local population has been resisting our Westphalian or Weberian concept of state for a very long time.

    Secondly, if a consolidation of power is required to bring about advances in civilization across large geographic areas are we advocating tyranny as the cost-efficient way to achieve this end? If so, let’s be clear about that for it will certainly affect how we should conduct counterinsurgency operations.

    Please do not misunderstand me. I very much enjoy the intellectual bantering; the quest to disprove one proposed fact with another but I have to ask, how does all this intellectual bantering assist the effort? How can we translate what we think we know about the cultural operating environment into practical and applicable tactics, techniques and procedures for our soldiers and Marines on the ground?

    v/r
    MAC

    • Jim Gourley
      January 4, 2010 at 5:11 pm

      Mr. McCallister,

      I believe we’ve agreed to disagree, but I’m not completely unaffected. I’ve learned a lot from this and I appreciate the time you’ve taken. I have high regard for your opinions. I’ll clarify one point and then give my personal answer to the final question you asked.

      The point that I feel needs clarifying is the relationship between the advancement of civilization and the fading of tribal/survival tendencies. I believe those tendencies weaken as people realize that they’re not necessary. In order to emplace the utilities necessary to alleviate the need for tribal/survivalist dynamics, though, we have to get people to acquiesce some of those very tendencies. It thus becomes a vicious circle. That circle is broken by a leader (or leaders) who unify the people and compel them. History tells us that it can be done in peaceful ways, but it’s typically most expedient and efficient when accomplished by force. That’s why Attila, Temujin, Saddam and even Petraeus made sure to clear and hold instead of mingle and negotiate. Therefore the “tribal ethos” never dies because it is an innate human instinct. It was, however, suppressed. Post-Saddam Iraq and post-Katrina New Orleans show that when the means of suppression are removed, instinct quickly reverts. The vicious circle is complete until it can be broken again.

      I agree with both Pierre Clastres’s statement and your observation of it being in play in Afghanistan. I believe there’s a corollary between that fact and the local property values. I don’t think there’s anything in the water people there are drinking that makes them naturally resistant, but I do think it’s indisputable that their resistance is what’s keeping them from improving the quality of their drinking water.

      In terms of consolidation of power and tyrrany, I don’t believe one requires the other at all. Consolidation of power under a monarch in England didn’t prevent the barons (or, if you will, chiefs) from imposing the Magna Carta on him. The United States chose to unify under the Constitution in lieu of the Articles of Confederation rather peacefully. And, while he was brutal, Attila was incredibly lenient with the amount of power and wealth he shared with his tribal warlords. Attila is the most significant aspect of this argument, because he demonstrates that there are more options than what we think. The possibilities extend beyond “Western/Westphalian” and “Tribal/Anarchy”. The adherance to such a narrow paradigm is the foundation of our epic mistake with the Afghan National Government– an entity that many Afghans themselves believe to be an instrument of tyrrany. England, The US, and the Huns all forged their own model of unity. Afghanistan’s has been imposed upon it. The aforementioned states didn’t operate in a vacuum, and neither can Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean we have a right to rob them of the very basic right to choose. I don’t think we have robbed them, though. Karzai chooses to be weak, if not consciously. Someone else will choose to be strong. They will then, according to their methods, clear him from the political arena so that they may hold it. A new model based upon their methods will emerge.

      I think there is little we can do in the current operating conditions at this point to help the men on the ground. The course is set and the finish line established. We will do “what we can” with the situation, and then it will be left to the Afghans to sort out whatever is left unfinished. What we can do here is discuss our observations and develop the academics that others will apply to the next conflict. From the last eight years of warfare, we’ve learned that we can’t abdicate our responsibilities to the people of a land in the naive effort to disavow that we are “conquerors” or “occupiers”. In fact, there is value in being seen as those things in relation to the suppression of those survivalist tendencies which give rise to anarchy. The people don’t need to love us, they need to love the leadership they instate to reassert control of their country. If love is neither the panacea of our success or even necessary for it, a spoonful of fear will go a long way. I don’t mean that we should terrorize people, but it would exponentially increase our capability to influence the population if we can command immediate respect through the establishment of ownership of the land. If we’re not the conqueror or the occupier, then people infer us to mean that we refuse to be in charge. Therefore, no one’s in charge. If no guards exist to run the asylum, the inmates can’t be blamed for taking initiative.

      And that’s the reason why there’s little to be changed at this point. We’ve declared that we’re on a path to relinquish what control we have. Our authority must necessarily diminish as things progress. Any attempt at “fixing” something would require us to reassert control, which would be both confusing and anathema to the strategy laid out. We’ve told the Afghans “you do it”. The problem is that for the last eight years we’ve been telling them “do it this way”. They have a square hole and we gave them nothing put round pegs.

      I thus don’t believe it’s unreasonable for the Afghans, or any culture placed in similar circumstances, to be resistant. The new model of counterinsurgency warfare will have to be one that understands and promotes an organic process of power consolidation in cultures, not one that projects our model onto them.

  7. "MAC" McCallister
    January 5, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    We agree more than we disagree. I agree that “certain tendencies weaken as people realize that they’re not necessary”. The question we must ask ourselves as counter-insurgents and charged with shaping the target audience is how much time do we have to actively weaken certain undesirable tendencies? In regard to dealing with tribal elders, I was told by a very enthusiastic Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) political appointee in 2003 that we were in Iraq and I quote, “to emancipate the individual from the oppressive tribal system”. You said it yourself, “we have to get people to acquiesce some of those very tendencies”. I have no problem with the mission statement but let us be honest about what getting people to acquiesce or emancipating individuals from an existing social system implies. The Committee of Public Safety in France during 1793-4 attempted to quickly impose a different social order and change behavior. The committee sought to unify and compel the population and change it for the better. It did this by suppressing previous behavior. You are absolutely correct, hold and build has a completely different connotation and time window than mingle and negotiate.

    I see a connection between the consolidation of power and tyranny. It is a matter of perception. When the winner consolidates, he does so in order to protect himself against challenge from another. There would be no need for consolidation if the threat of counter attack did not exist. Winners and loser and bad feelings abound. If I just lost and am upset that I just lost and you are the winner, and you change the rules of play and tamper with the existing social contract then you are a tyrant, usurper, or oppressor.

    Consolidation of power may also transform into tyranny as soon as the regime conceives itself as the exclusive agent of the common good and then seeks to impose this concept of the common good on society at large. An autonomous community might chose to defend itself against what it perceives to be tyranny resulting in insurrection, rebellion, or an insurgency. It behooves the counter-insurgent to appreciate the dynamics in play. For all good-faith efforts at political hearts and minds or civic-military initiatives there always exists the potential for an equal and opposite reaction on the part of the target audience. We also shouldn’t dismiss the fact that resistance to change is sometimes nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction.

    I am not so sure that there was ever a time in history when imposing social change was bloodless or non-violent. The Gandhi myth notwithstanding, I venture to say that we will always experience some type of push-back from those that have something to lose during regime change. I personally think it is unhealthy to believe that imposing regime change along the frontier can be bloodless. Not because I seek confrontation but because a faulty assumption of this magnitude can cause the bloodshed to be so much worse and prolonged. The worst thing that can happen to leaders of social change is that they should be surprised that there might be push-back against abrogating an existing social contract. This is something I recommend the counter-insurgent keep in mind. It may not be a good thing that our COIN doctrine assumes a universal application of modernization theory or that the modernization process is a single, unilinear path of development and more or less global. The French Reign of Terror was the result of a technical blueprint executed badly.

    You are absolutely correct: we must see the world in terms of either, or, this AND that. I like your English monarchy example. Sovereignty and power was shared between the monarchy, church and the Curia Regis, the feudal assembly of the tenets- in-chiefs. The Curia Regis would evolve into the higher court, Privy Council and cabinet. The members of the Curia Regis were autonomous and sovereign in their own right. Power was also managed not only in theory but in practice by the Lex Terrae i.e. the customs of the country. If the English barons did not agree with specific royal decree they would utter “Nolumus leges Angliae mutari” i.e. “We object to the changes in the laws of England”. The monarchical power was further checked by the church. St. Paul’s formula “all power is of God” had less to do with inducing leaders to obey the church than to to stress that they managed God’s power and authority as a trust. The monarch of the middle Ages was constrained by the customs of the country and Divine Law. The court of peers was there to compel the monarch’s respect for custom and the church took care that he acted as the vice-regent of the heavenly king, whose power he managed in trust.

    Why study power relationships during the middle Ages? We might recognize similar patterns of behavior in present day Iraq and Afghanistan. A conquering Taliban or AQ caliphate might express a similar imperial-confederacy pattern of behavior.

    I very much disagree with you that there is “little we can do in the current operating conditions at this point to help the men on the ground”. We are helping not by arguing or persuading that one side is right or wrong, but by highlighting different ways of thinking about the challenge. The nation-state narrative doesn’t adequately describe and explain the reasons for the existing patterns of behavior in Iraq and Afghanistan for me. Furthermore, in my opinion, the current COIN narrative seeks to describe what ought to be not what is and does not adequately address how to best operate in Iraq or Afghanistan’s cultural operating environments. The imperial-confederacy narrative, on the other hand, works for me and might assist others who feel the same way. We are helping our comrades to adjust their mental models for the task at hand and I thank you for participating in the effort.

    v/r
    MAC

  8. January 6, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    An excellent briefing and a very good reading list. My compliments to you! I would suggest, however, that while this is excellent for Iraq and some other parts of the Muslim world, he may want to broaden the reading list out somewhat to include other potential areas of conflict which are not primarily Islamic, but are tribal.

  9. G Daly
    January 20, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Glad to see Mac calister is still at it. You have many insites but you miss one thing , tribalism is the the exact same thing as US local politics we ain t that much different. All great eras and dreadful tyranies start with the same raw material people just like us. With all our foibles the only difference is that we have the constitution if we can keep it.