Talisman Gate

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Of Tribes and Men

September 24, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Of Tribes and Men


September 24, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/63271

The Sept. 13 murder of Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha was tragic, but not catstrophic. His death does not change the vastly improved situation in Anbar Province, since his role in its pacification was exaggerated from the beginning. Anbar stabilized for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with Abu Risha or America's counterinsurgency efforts there — something that the American military command has yet to figure out. Abu Risha found himself in the limelight at the right time and place, and the Americans fighting the terrorists in Anbar seized upon him as the poster-boy of a new strategy — empowering Iraq's defunct tribal structure — that they had hoped would make belated sense of the positive transition and would allow them to claim credit, and medals, for it.

But why begrudge General David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency advisers the accolades for this turnaround at this time? Does it really matter, whether tribes were the primary factor in defeating Al Qaeda or not, given that the story coming out of Iraq is more and more hopeful? Yes it does: the implication is that if you don't know why and how you've won, then you won't be able to replicate victory. The tribes, like the American troop surge, were catalysts that sped up the demise of the insurgency, but they did not trigger the process the insurgency's failure predated the surge and any tribal strategies.

I believe the insurgency failed because it had bad ideas and unrealistic expectations. When the price paid by the local population for these ideas and expectations — fighting the Shiites and re-establishing Sunni hegemony — became too steep, Sunnis turned against the insurgents and tried to find shelter, yet again, under the central government This latter trend is the one that should be reinforced: Sunnis should be encouraged to throw in their lot with the New Iraq, rather than falling back into the tribal identities of Iraq's past.

Once tribal leaders realized that Al Qaeda was losing, they turned towards Baghdad for guidance. As one Iraq observer put it to me, "Tribes are a barometer of power; they swarm around whoever has the upper hand." The danger now is that Americans are trying to resuscitate a clannish social system that had withered away in Iraq, and turning it into a power in of itself.

Those who champion the success of the tribal policy have forgotten that America's first approach to handling Anbar Province was through tribal politics. During and right after the invasion Anbar was the playground of the Central Intelligence Agency, and no one else was allowed to tinker with their operations there. The CIA was working with Ayad Allawi, who had sold them on the notion that the nominal head of the Dulaim tribal confederation — Anbar's largest — Sheikh Majid Al-Abdel-Razzak can run the show and bring the Anbaris to heed.

We all know how that CIA job went: it failed miserably.

Sheikh Majid's grandfather had been Sheikh Ali Al-Suleiman, who had competed for the supremacy of the Dulaim with other sheikhs, and only got a leg's up when British occupiers arrived after World War One and awarded him the

gold and the authority to overcome his rivals. The monarchy that the British left in their wake also depended heavily on men such as Sheikh Ali, and continued a policy of patronage by which tribal sheikhs grew rich, and their children grew educated. But even seventy years ago, the tribal system was breaking down as peasants flocked to urban centers, and the laws of the government superseded the rule of the tribe.

When military officers overthrew the monarchy, the tribes could do little to help, and they couldn't even safeguard the lives of the statesmen who were their benefactors and sponsors. Then land reform set in depriving the grand sheikhs of their sizable estates, and they again could do little by way of protest. The totalitarian nightmare of the Saddam years further eroded the institution of the tribe or clan, which was turned on its head in the 1990s when Saddam re-invented the tribal structure by propping up tribal upstarts — again using the British method of gold and authority — who were loyal to him alone, thus making him the effective chief of all the tribes.

By the time the Americans had arrived, the tribes had been reduced to a pitiful state: tribal leaders could only speak for the branches of the tribe that had a vested interest in keeping the tribal structure together; that is the branch of the sheikhs' family which in some larger tribes could number over a thousand men. The Iraqi opposition had given much credence to the claims of tribal leaders in exile that they could lead their clansmen into action against the Saddam Hussein regime. But once the Iraqi opposition had become the new nexus of power in Baghdad, the cousins of these exiled tribal leaders gathered around to denounce their exiled kinsmen as imposters whereas they themselves were the real pivots of their tribes. It all quickly became a headache, and whoever relied on the tribes for votes was sorely disappointed, including the tribal leaders themselves who ran for parliament.

Throughout Iraq's modern history, tribal leaders held on to some lingering prestige accorded to them by their ancestry; their dress and mannerism harked back to romanticized notions of Arabian chivalry. They were a sort of savage aristocracy from Iraq's folkloric heritage that the men in power — now wearing Western suits — would tolerate, and do small favors for. The tribes turned into job placement agencies; the sheikhs would petition the powerful for government jobs for the desperate young men who still came to them for help.

There had been many sheikhs in Anbar who wanted to be part of the new Iraq from the very beginning. Later on, others confronted Al Qaeda: credible leaders like Sheikh Nasr Abdel-Karim and opportunists such as Sheikh Usama al-Jeryan, only to be killed. None achieved Abu Risha's fame, simply for the fact that he had better timing, and an audience willing to be charmed.

Abu Risha's story was the stuff of powerful narrative: a pro-American tribal sheikh who had courageously confronted Al Qaeda's menace and eventually evicted them from his province, but was then killed by a treacherous bomb planted by the terrorists — Al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq took credit for it. In war, icons are invented and Abu Risha was such an icon: he looked ‘authentic' and trim in his flowing Arabian robes, said the right things, and was always available for media comment. But he was creature for an American audience rather than an Iraqi one, and his American minders fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda.

Interestingly, Abu Risha's tribe is numerically insignificant by Dulaim standards, and only number in the hundreds. Their claim to fame was a descent from an ancestor who once ruled the deserts between Iraq and Syria. When one of their own, Saadoun Dulaimi, became Iraq's minister of defense during the Ja'afari cabinet, they were little swayed to throw in their lot with the Iraqi state against Al Qaeda because the latter seemed to be winning; in fact, some Rishawis volunteered for suicide missions in neighboring Jordan.

But when Al Qaeda began to falter, Sheikh Sattar found his moment, and gathered at first a motley crew of fighters, many of whom were Shiites from a branch of his tribe that lived in the southern Samawa Province (his wife is from there). Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki furnished him with SUVs and weapons permits, and began to put some of his men on the government's payroll. At the time, the Americans were witnessing a turnaround in Anbar, and just like medieval peasants trying to make sense of lightening, they attributed these positive trends to all sorts of ‘magic'. One such thing was to believe that the tribes had turned the situation around.

President Bush's meeting with Abu Risha in Anbar was a mistake, since it gave the impression that the latter was a counterpart to the Iraqi government. This paper reported that some in the State Department stood against inflating Abu Risha's stature; that would be one of the rare occasions where the diplomats got it right on Iraq. President Bush's photo-op disrupted the pecking order: the tribes follow the state, and the state arranges matters with the Americans. The Americans will now have to deal with the headache that is familiar to anyone who's dealt with tribes, only to find out that there's little return on success down that path.

Mr. Kazimi, a contributing editor to The New York Sun, can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

September 24, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Middle Eastern Trends

September 5, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

America's Future Ally


September 5, 2007

URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/61960?page_no=1

For the past two months, I've been traveling around the Middle East for this paper, looking for trends, and it's no wonder why I haven't written anything throughout that time — nothing looks certain.

My itinerary has taken me to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey — each of them has ongoing major stories — but it's been one long murky summer where much seems to be in flux. The one trend that seems crystal clear to me is that Iraq will make it; Iraq will turn out fine.

Jordan is dealing with its usual headaches: How much political freedom should be allowable in an atmosphere where Islamists confidently vie for more political clout, especially when one of the offshoots of the Jordanian Islamic movement, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, had taken the decision to roughshod over legality to impose its rule in Gaza? How should Jordan handle the upcoming prospects of a Palestinian state; should it be a confederation or a full disengagement? Jordan is edging closer to answering some of these questions during the upcoming parliamentary elections in November: What will the government do? What will the Islamists do? What will the Palestinians do?

The Syrian capital Damascus was abuzz this summer with rumors of a war with Israel in the form of an expansion of the Israel's war against Lebanese Hezbollah last summer — a matter only dispelled a few days ago when Israel decided to reduce its heightened troop presence along the Syrian border. Syria also is in the throes of a very dangerous sectarian poison slowly wriggling its way throughout the country, setting up the stage for a confrontation between majority Sunnis and the ruling Alawite sect that controls the security and military agencies of that country.

Lebanon is a mess: Beirut is in political paralysis as the issue of how a president is to be elected for the country in September further polarizes the political actors there. Sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are at a boil, and the Lebanese army is in its fourth month of trying to stamp out a Sunni Islamist insurrection in the tiny Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared to the country's north — something that does not bode well for the army's ability to confront wider challenges.

Lebanon's Sunnis are siding with the government against the extremists, but even this small glimmer of good news may fade if a sectarian clash is ignited and the Sunni fundamentalists lead their community's war against the Shiites.

Turkey has been in political turmoil ever since a ruling Islamist-leaning party tried to nominate one of their own to the country's presidency, only to be blocked by parliamentary machinations, constitutional courts, pro-secular demonstrations, and the objections of the powerful military-security establishment, which all forced the issue of early parliamentary elections — overwhelmingly won by the Islamists on July 22.

Last week, the Islamist candidate became president, and Turkey is poised for major changes, most notably a new civilian constitution that would scrap the one dictated by the military in the early 1980s.

A quick tour of the rest of the Middle East would highlight problems that have gone unresolved for years: the presidential succession in Egypt, Iranian belligerence, and Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to dismantle the ideological underpinnings of modern-day jihad that its system nurtures. More than ever, the supra-national jihadist forces threatening global and regional stability such as Al Qaeda and its various incarnations find themselves faced with an inherently unstable Middle East; an instability that they've figured out how to use to their advantage.

The Middle East is a place where Islamists — who are likely to turn out unfriendly to America no matter how moderate they seem — are on the rise, where regimes remain entrenched in their fear of change, and where internal and cross-border conflicts are more likely in the upcoming future than not. Iraq is the only country in which all these dangerous trends are in reverse — the fever had peaked and recovery is underway.

The Sunni insurgency in Iraq has been broken, and Al Qaeda is getting crushed; its remaining strength is being marshaled to visit retribution on those unsavory Sunni "renegades" who once worked with Al Qaeda and now have turned on it. Everyone likes a winner, and Al Qaeda is losing big.

Interestingly, Al Qaeda's front organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, had admitted in its last biweekly report — the 31st such report spanning the period between August 1 and August 15 — that it has had an 80% decrease in its violent output over the course of the last two months.

Ten months ago, a Marines Intelligence report concluded that Anbar Province was irrevocably lost to Al Qaeda. Today, Anbar's capital city, Ramadi, is one of Iraq's safest. Diyala Province switched from being a bastion of Al Qaeda's to relative stability within a couple of weeks of a troop surge there. Al Qaeda can't claim to control a single neighborhood or village in Iraq — just two years ago, they were masters of major towns like Fallouja.

Al Qaeda tried to trigger a Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq for the last four years, but anyone using the term "civil war" to describe the situation in Iraq is grossly misinformed in my book — I'm looking at you, Senator Obama.

During 2006, Iraq witnessed the appetizer course of what a civil war would look like, and Al Qaeda's Sunni shock troops lost their appetite; the Shiites would win easy in case of an escalation. In lieu of death squads and beheadings, Sunni-Shiite tensions now run through the legal channels of parliament and how ministerial posts are allocated. Politics have been reintroduced into Iraqi life, and it's only natural that an issue as thorny and still unresolved as sectarianism would be expressed through political machinations.

The main Sunni bloc withdrew from the government — so what? The worst threat they can administer is a noisy parliamentary opposition since the recourse to armed conflict is no longer an option. No Sunni politician can ask his constituency to carry arms against the new Iraq since this was all they've been trying over the last four years and it ended with defeat.

The radical Shiites also have been broken: Muqtada al-Sadr can't control his own Mahdi army, the members of whom are now being rejected as hooligans when just last year even moderate Shiites looked upon them as the necessary counterforce to Al Qaeda's menace.

But as the fear of civil war faded, so has the usefulness of Mr. Sadr's thugs. Iran has taken over parts of the Mahdi army and uses them as spoilers of America's plan for Iraq, but this approach has had little traction in instigating far-reaching chaos and these Iranian networks are being easily rolled-back by America and the Iraqi government, with the subtle encouragement of Mr. Sadr himself.

The Islamists, both Sunni and Shiite, have disgraced themselves in running the country and providing basic services. The Sunni Islamist Speaker of the parliament, Mahmoud Mashhadani, put it best when he said, during a recent TV interview, that their governing performance has "failed miserably" and that the Iraqi voter will punish Islamist parties in the next elections.

Iraqi national unity actually has never looked better, and scenes of spontaneous jubilation and anti-sectarian slogans that were unleashed by Iraq's win in the Asia Cup soccer tournament were not a flash in the pan but rather a timely reaffirmation of the necessity of living together. Iraqis have been forced to consider all the other options, such as portioning off the country, and seem to have concluded that keeping the country together is the way to go.

Indeed, Iraq has gone very far in resolving the crisis that are pandemic to the Middle East, or at least it can be argued that Iraqis have turned a corner away from the worst case scenarios: they have rejected the multi-headed evils of dictatorship, jihadism, and civil war. Not only that, but armed with a legitimate parliament and a spanking new constitution, they are on the right path towards democracy, modernism, and national unity — something that can't be said for other powder kegs in the region such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.

I predict that as early as a couple of years from now, Iraq will be America's only Muslim ally in the Middle East standing firmly and unabashedly against the expanding global threat of jihadism.

Mr. Kazimi, a contributing editor of The New York Sun, is traveling around the Middle East and can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com