September 27, 2004

The tribes, the tribes...

Yeah, things seem bad in Iraq, but how could we really know if we're not real live Iraqis? That seems to be what Rich Lowry is driving at here:
One thing I was struck by listening to Allawi last week was how often he referred to "tribes," the tribes of Fallujah, the tribes of Najaf, etc, etc. It made me realize how little any of us "generalists" sitting here in the US really understand of what's going on in Iraq. What do we know about how a tribal society operates?
Well, not much. But say… doesn't this strike you as an excellent argument against going to war in the first place? If I recall, way back in the days of the CPA, the U.S. military earned a fair bit of notoriety for failing to strike up good relations with tribal sheiks. Now and again the sheiks would help to coordinate reconstruction projects, or defuse hostage situations, but more often than not they would happily encourage violence against the occupiers. Oh, and it took us a little while to figure out, if we ever figured it out, that when you kill one Iraqi in a clan, the rest sort of vow to take up arms against you. Hey, there's some useful tribal knowledge for the "generalists"! The fact that occupation authorities knew none of this, and didn't bother to find any of it out, led to a good deal of bloodshed. But now, apparently, this lingering ignorance is reason for war critics to keep their mouths shut. Whee!

On a more serious note, it's also my understanding that, as bad as the friction with Iraqi tribes was, they tended to be some of the best-behaved Sunnis in Iraq. (Note: there are Sunni tribes and Shiite tribes. In fact, there are even some Sunni-Shiite tribes.) Plus, I'm not sure how important tribal leaders are these days. They've never been as prominent among the Shiites as religious leaders like Sistani. Among Sunnis, I'm not so sure. I would imagine that the real problem is with all those ex-Baathists, mercenaries, foreign fighters, and a generally disgruntled population. The idea that you can negotiate this problem out of existence seems far-fetched.

Still, Lowry could be right, he really could. Allawi might have a "sophisticated", "very Iraqi" approach to negotiating with the Sunni tribes and ending the violence. Perhaps, like Saddam Hussein—or better yet, Hamid Karzai—he'll let the tribes maintain their autonomy in exchange for a bit of cooperation. It's not a great strategy if you want democracy, but if you just want a little peace and quiet in Anbar, it might work.
-- Brad Plumer 11:22 PM || ||