Lesson from Iraq: Engage the tribes

March 18, 2010|By John A. McCary

The Lesson Holds: What Tribal Engagement in Iraq Can Teach Us about Winning Allies in Afghanistan

The Iraqi parliamentary elections last week highlight one very important lesson about tribal engagement in counterinsurgencies: It works. Voter turnout in Sunni tribal provinces such as Anbar and Diyala - formerly hotbeds of the insurgency - topped out at 70 percent. Among the long list of newly formed political parties vying for seats in parliament, more than a few boasted openly tribal affiliations.

Tribal outreach was also a major component of coalition forming for major Shiite candidates, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, proving that tribal engagement can work across sectarian lines. Tribal organizations are a viable form of political representation for Iraqis who felt there was no place for them in Iraq's new government. The inclusion of these groups in the political process deserves real credit for the drastic reductions in violence in Iraq during the past several years.

These lessons have great potential to benefit our efforts in Afghanistan. Tribal engagement reduces violence and co-opts extremist recruiting. The U.S. military's open alliance with tribal leaders in Anbar province, formerly the headquarters of al-Qaeda in Iraq, did what no amount of military force alone could do. Starting in earnest in 2006, tribal engagement changed Anbar from the most violent region in Iraq to one of the most peaceful and prosperous - in less than two years.

Tribal engagement is effective because it is religiously and culturally legitimate. When the U.S. tried to recruit Iraqis into the local police force, they were considered traitors. When Iraqi sheikhs and imams began to call upon their tribesmen to do the same, they provided an honorable source of employment and self-respect, not to mention an organic security network to protect their own population.

These young men who joined the security services are the same ones who felt disenfranchised and ostracized - the same young men terrorists look to recruit. When it becomes honorable to be a cop, it is exponentially harder for a terrorist to sway a recruit toward extremism.

Yet this process cannot take place without high-level support from political and military leaders. During the early years in Iraq, military commanders who advocated for large-scale tribal engagement were ordered to stop. U.S. policy mistakenly considered tribes a vestige of the past and inappropriate for the "new Iraq."

When Gen. David H. Petraeus saw the potential of tribal engagement, he publicly backed his commanders' efforts without overly restricting their approach. This allowed commanders to adapt their strategies based on local conditions. It also set the stage for a trend of tribal-backed security force recruitment that spread across geographic, sectarian and economic lines.

Furthermore, the rise of tribalism as a part of Iraqi identity has not presented a major threat to the solvency of the Iraqi nation and federal government, as some have feared. In Iraq, tribal leaders represent local interests as a counterbalance to the central government, which strengthens the country overall. Washington has a tendency to over-focus on the capital of a country and the political elite there, while ignoring the outer reaches where most citizens live. These areas are where extremist recruitment is highest and where tribal leaders hold the most sway.

Afghanistan is not identical to Iraq, but the lesson holds. There are varying tribal, ethnic, cross-border and political loyalties at play in different regions in Afghanistan, just as there were in Iraq. The loosely guided but highly effective technique of tribal engagement leapt across ethnic and political lines in Iraq precisely because it was adaptable, religiously legitimate and culturally appropriate.

In Afghanistan, U.S. commanders are already advocating tribal engagement as part of a strategy for recruiting Afghans into local security forces. But once again, tribal engagement lacks the high-level policy backing of leaders in Kabul and Washington. The U.S. needs to take the lesson of tribal engagement, dearly paid for in Iraq, and apply it immediately to Afghanistan. We cannot afford to wait another five years to realize the potential that tribal leaders have to change the situation on the ground.

John A. McCary, a Bethesda resident and security fellow at the Truman National Security Project, was a U.S. Army human intelligence collector from 2000 to 2005, including in Anbar province. His e-mail is john.mccary@gmail.com.

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