By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 4, 2010
[COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society, by William S. “MAC” McCallister, was first featured on Small Wars Journal in 2007. This paper remains an important read today, as do the many other papers and discussions posted to Small Wars Journal and the Small Wars Journal Blog. If you aren’t familiar with the site, please add it to your “must-read” list. Check out some of Mac’s other papers there, too.]
SP: This sentence from your paper COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society is just one of many standouts:
“Shame and Honor NOT ‘hearts and minds’ govern individual /group relationships and competition.”
You go on to say that
“Honor is a finite resource and exchanged like currency.”
How can the United States better trade in the currency of Honor? What worked in Iraq?
WM: Western concepts of shame and honor are different from those found elsewhere in the world. The counter-insurgent should not assume that his concept of shame and honor is the same as the target audience in a given area of operation.
Shame and honor as currency may be a bit of a misnomer. The currency is the tangibles that imposing shame and extending honor confer on an individual or group. These tangibles are credibility, legitimacy and prestige, which can be bartered into greater power. Consider the following scenarios:
We ask a tribal leader to speak on behalf of the government and its counter-insurgency campaign. He refuses. We now distrust him and believe that he supports the insurrection. But we have missed the point completely. By asking for assistance, we bestowed credibility and legitimacy. Credibility because we asked this particular leader, and legitimacy because we believe he can assist us. If managed properly, our innocent request for assistance will be manipulated into greater prestige for this particular tribe and exploited to extend the existing patronage network. The objective is to amass greater power.
If it is our intent to empower specific tribal entities, so be it, but how many times did we accept at face value the first individual who said he was the paramount “sheik” or leader of a given area? We should always consider the possibility that the “powerful send messengers” or that we are dealing with a representative from a weaker tribe or solidarity group attempting to steal a march on its rivals. In this scenario, when we bestow credibility, legitimacy and prestige, it translates into a power advantage vis-à-vis ones rival.
Lieutenant General John R. Allen, USMC, who served as the Deputy Commander for II MEF in Anbar, and now serves as the Deputy Commander, United States Central Command, was very adept at exploiting the shame and honor operating code. An accomplished strategist, he did this by favoring one group or another to manipulate and shape the various centers of tribal power within the Dulaym Confederation in Anbar province.
On the other hand, we must not forget that the II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) was also manipulated and shaped in turn. Not that there is anything wrong with being manipulated, as long as you know that you are not being taken for a ride.
I venture to say that leaders of all shades, whether tribal, solidarity group, politicians, media pundits, or celebrity think tankers, love credibility, legitimacy and prestige, which are not necessarily sought for their own sake, but for the inherent advantages they imply in the quest for greater power.
SP: How was II MEF manipulated and shaped in return?
WM: The answer to this question requires a bit of background information. Under the guise of fighting against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Albu Risha, a third tier tribe, established a security-economic patronage relationship with the II MEF, to improve its relative power position within the Dulaymi Confederation in Anbar, Iraq.
The Albu Risha had a number of political and economic objectives. They sought to increase their influence in non-Albu Risha tribal areas and to gain control and competitive advantage over a number of major trade routes in Anbar. The “Awakening” movement, or Sahawa al Iraq (SAI), and its relationship with the II MEF, provided the Albu Risha a way to achieve this end.
The primary Albu Risha strategy to gain access to non-Albu Risha territories was to open SAI political offices in non-Risha areas. From a tribal perspective, SAI political offices are akin to embassies or consulates in a rival tribe’s territory.
Before a SAI office could be established, at least 1,000 local residents had to pledge their support. One thousand signatures on a petition translated into approximately 5,000 supporters if we assume that each SAI backer supported a family of four. If we further assume that at least a third of those individuals were males of fighting age, SAI could rely upon approximately 1,700 rifles to maintain its presence in the territory.
SAI offices performed three functions. These functions were consultative or political, economic, and security. The key money makers for the Albu Risha were the economic and security functions that each SAI office performed in a rival tribe’s territory.
The proliferation of SAI offices followed a predictable pattern:
SAI organizers would assist local backers in opening a political office, consolidate its presence, and act as a springboard for future expansion in the area. A permanent SAI presence protected its local supporters against push-back by rival power-brokers.
Once established, SAI began to focus on gaining full control over the security and economic sectors in the area. SAI recruited local merchants and businessmen, and other prominent tribal leaders, as part of a deliberate and systematic attempt to disrupt the existing socio-economic, i.e. patronage relationships, in the area.
Supplying security was an important source of revenues for the Albu Risha and its allies.
Security services were offered to various neighborhoods and sold to merchants and businessmen seeking protection. In time, all trade along local routes had to be coordinated through the local SAI office. Those commercial companies that did not coordinate their economic and security activities with the local SAI branch were charged a heavy fine.
The Albu Risha would experience “push-back” by more-established families, houses and tribes.
II MEF on numerous occasions received warnings and veiled threats that a number of houses and tribes were prepared to challenge Albu Risha attempts at hegemony since it was generally accepted that II MEF was the primary patron of Albu Risha tribe and therefore responsible for the Albu Risha’s conduct.
SP: You wrote that it took
“Saddam Hussein 30 years to develop the Anbar patronage security system to fit his needs.”
The point being that it takes time to develop the two-way exchange of patronage:
“In exchange for someone’s patronage, the patron is responsible for providing something in return (protection, economic and or political assistance). A patronage relationship is not easily entered into. The decision to do so reflects a strategic decision and a commitment by two parties to maximize a kindred strategy or long-term relationship.”
The investment of time and resources aside, how does the U.S. counter corruption and ground fledgling patronages?
WM: Our investments of resources flow through existing conduits. The question is whether these conduits and associated patronage relationships can be reconfigured to create modern social structures or, after all is said and done, will we have only reconfigured existing patronage networks with new associates?
I just can’t bring myself to believe that we are going to succeed in changing how the locals manage power and distribute resources. I was recently accused by a participant in an on-line discussion group of blatant cynicism because I accept the notion that a bit of corruption serves a useful purpose. It most certainly does when the social model is an imperial-confederacy. I was further accused of seeking to withhold the blessings of modernity because I believe that we are not going to change the way the locals conduct business.
Our themes and messages just don’t resonate with the locals. The same person who accused me of attempting to withhold the blessings of modernity explained to me that all that was needed to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan was to establish properly functioning legislature, executive and judicial branches, so that the Afghan people didn’t have to resort to thuggery and thievery in the distribution of power and valued resources. I don’t know, maybe properly functioning legislature, executive and judicial branches will eliminate corruption, but I believe the verdict is still out.
We expect Iraqi and Afghan politicians to serve the people. The idea that an Iraqi or Afghan leader must represent all the people is ludicrous. The same holds true in the United States. Here, we are continuously bombarded by senators, representatives and bureaucrats who purport to speak for all the American people, although they were elected or selected by only a small percentage of the total population. The honorable senator or district representative from states other than my own don’t represent me, so why do they presume to speak for me? People in Iraq, Afghanistan and countries around the world ask the same question.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders are expected to provide tangible support to members of the kith and kin network, for which they’ll receive tangible support in return. It is a social contract. If the leader doesn’t deliver, he might be removed or the membership might migrate to a patron who will. Individual members who do not meet their social obligations may be chastised or banished.
Kith and kin will adore their own strongman, jang salar, or warlord more than the empty promises of the state. Bottom line, the state is unable to please all of its subjects all of the time. The kith and kin network will do its best to please its own tribe or qawm all of the time, and has a much better track record at doing so than the state.
Some corruption is required if seen within the cultural, social and political context of an imperial-confederation. It is important to understand that individual acts of corruption are not performed in isolation. Each official, whether a traffic cop or bureaucrat, is dependent upon a support structure and is a member of a patronage network. No one acts alone. All members of the network depend upon others. The larger the patronage network, the greater its’ coercive power.
The Iraqi and Afghan social systems are an expression of perpetual competition. Targeted acts of what we perceive as corruption may actually strengthen relationships with select allies and mobilize new ones to expand a pre-existing patronage network or defend against challengers.
Some 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.
Corrupt acts should be defined within a given cultural, social, or political context. The trick is to acknowledge that context. I therefore don’t believe that our counter-corruption efforts will ground fledgling patronage networks. Our efforts will reshuffle the deck and change the relative power of existing patronage networks, strengthening some, weakening others.
Instead of declaring war on all forms of corruption, maybe we could focus our efforts on fostering predictability in the system and strengthening consumer confidence that a given bribe will purchase the promised service at a reasonable price.
SP: Are tribal militias/community “watches” a way to help Afghanistan soldiers stay near their families, while also ensuring a diverse ethnic and regional make-up-so that forces come from all regions? And in doing this, would this be a way to strengthen the patronage system between the U.S. military and the Afghanistan people?
WM: Local tribal militias and community “watches” are a way to get the local qawm to assume responsibility for securing its village against militants who might wish to use it as a safe haven. We assume that the village participating in a U.S. military sponsored program such as the Afghan Public Protection Force is loyal to the central government.
The promise of economic development and an enhanced quality of life are the means to entice local communities to reclaim their villages from militants who wish to turn local communities into safe havens for insurrection. In other words, we offer the locals an incentive to serve, and in the process exploit an age old instrument in establishing patronage relationships; the subsidy.
Major Jim Gant’s scheme in his area of operation, for example, is just one of many individual initiatives. The cumulative effect of all these individual initiatives is an integrated system of defended village strong points. The villages in the end are individual links in a strong point defense schematic. These strong points, arranged in depth, serve as pivot points in an elastic offensive capability centered on loyal villages prepared to defend and attack militant formations as these penetrate the defensive system.
SP: Within tribes, you wrote that
“the intent is to create the perception that there is more to be gained by cooperation than by trying to form a separate center of power.”
This helps to keep other tribes from challenging each other. How can this be accomplished with a central government? Through the patronage system? How can cooperation between the tribes and the officials in Kabul be reached?
WM: Any sitting government will attempt to co-opt (through patronage) those autonomous local authorities it considers vital for regime survival. It will also seek to marginalize those local authorities it deems a threat to its existence.
There are a number of strategies available to the central government. The central government is likely to apply a judicious mixture of carrot and stick to attract and coerce. In time, authorities may seek to expand an existing patronage-security network. The larger the patronage network, the greater its’ coercive power, and the greater the perception that there is more to be gained by cooperation than by forming a separate center of power. Managing coalitions is both an art and a science.
There is a structural limit to the size of a patronage network. The loyalty of a given membership must be constantly maintained or renewed. As resources are spent to recruit new retainers to expand the network, resources available to preserve previous loyalties must decline. If the leadership attempts to enlarge its sphere of influence, it must calculate the costs so as not to lose its base support, network reach and stability.
SP: In Iraq, the Awakening is considered a turning point, a success. If the work with the tribes doesn’t “stick”, will history change its view of success? How do you measure success when working with the tribes? By action, by staying power, by something else?
WM: The awakening movement in Anbar province is an interesting case study in tribal-state relations. From a tribal perspective, the Albu Risha, under the guise of fighting al Qaeda, entered into a patronage relationship with the U.S. military in Anbar in order to gain a powerful patron in its quest to renegotiate its social position within the Dulaym Confederation, as did many other smaller and less powerful tribal groups. The Albu Risha and their allies are now reaping the benefits of winning. The winners and losers in Anbar will continue to compete for limited resources. As we speak, somewhere in Anbar, there is a pretender to greatness preparing to fight against the established order, preparing to fight against an emerging order or preparing to fight to establish a new order. The Maliki government in the meantime is not too concerned with the internal governance of Anbar so long as its ally (patronage relationship) serves the purpose of maintaining order in Anbar and if called upon helps defend the Maliki government against challenge. This association will last as long as both parties benefit from the patronage relationship.