David Kilcullen describes the “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt” at Small Wars Journal. The Tribes’ rebellion against al-Qaeda is one of the most unexpected turns of events in this entire war.

Some aspects of the war in Iraq are hard to fit into “classical” models of insurgency. One of these is the growing tribal uprising against al Qa’ida, which could transform the war in ways not factored into neat “benchmarks” developed many months ago and thousands of miles away.

Read the whole thing.

New information is difficult to decipher through a fog of war. This confusion is compounded by an emotionally laden newsmedia. To give everyone an idea how much good information lags reality:

Throughout 2006, culminating in August 2006, the Sunni Tribes of Anbar Province turned against Al-Qaeda rule. In September 2006, the tribes formed the Anbar Salvation Front and began to work with the Coalition and Iraqi Government. Within months, they turned around the Province.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. Marine Intelligence report declaring Anbar Province lost to the insurgency was leaked to the Washington Post in September 2006.
It said this:

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country’s western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.

The officials described Col. Pete Devlin’s classified assessment of the dire state of Anbar as the first time that a senior U.S. military officer has filed so negative a report from Iraq.

Admittingly, this intelligence report was really written months before it was leaked. It still misunderstood the politics of the tribes and was unable to foresee the massive shift in loyalties. The report was wrong before the ink dried. Journalists cited the leaked negative report as if it was the Bible while the real events on the ground were ignored.

Now, a year later, no one can argue that Anbar Province was won.

Kilcullen describes how this happened:

To understand what follows, you need to realize that Iraqi tribes are not somehow separate, out in the desert, or remote: rather, they are powerful interest groups that permeate Iraqi society. More than 85% of Iraqis claim some form of tribal affiliation; tribal identity is a parallel, informal but powerful sphere of influence in the community. Iraqi tribal leaders represent a competing power center, and the tribes themselves are a parallel hierarchy that overlaps with formal government structures and political allegiances. Most Iraqis wear their tribal selves beside other strands of identity (religious, ethnic, regional, socio-economic) that interact in complex ways, rendering meaningless the facile division into Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish groups that distant observers sometimes perceive.

The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40% of the country. It has spread to Ninewa, Diyala, Babil, Salah-ad-Din, Baghdad and – intriguingly – is filtering into Shi’a communities in the South. The Iraqi government was in on it from the start; our Iraqi intelligence colleagues predicted, well before we realized it, that Anbar was going to “flip”, with tribal leaders turning toward the government and away from extremists.

Indeed. The insurgency was never a unified force. Al-Qaeda, the ex-Ba’athists and others had no end goal in mind. At best, they agreed on some of the means (attacking the Americans). By 2006, they no longer agreed on the means, as al-Qaeda was deliberately trying to start a Sunni-Shia civil war which the nationalists opposed. They could not continue forever by ignoring their differences.

Al-Qaeda made the move to create a government – the Islamic Emirate of Iraq – to push the insurgency to the next level. The AQI 2006 offensive reached its culminating point of attack between September and December, and it has been falling apart since.

This is a result of three major trends:
First, the Sunni Tribes and nationalists rebelled against AQI rule
Second, the Iraqi Security Forces grew much larger by 2007 and could take a prominent role across much of the country.
Third, Gen. Petraeus counterinsurgency plan capitalized on the tribal movement.

The Americans and Iraqi government used political wedge issues to disaggregate the insurgency, while creating an alliance with the tribes. The Americans evicted AQI from Anbar and Diyala, then the tribes filled the power vacuum and took over by filling police departments and restoring political control.

AQI made a series of fatal mistakes in 2006 which pushed the tribes to rebel against the Islamic Emirate of Iraq.
First, AQI is about 95% Iraqi, but the leaders and the suicide bombers are foreign.
Second, AQI imposed strict sharia law that was alien to the tribes.
Third, they forcibly “married” the daughters of tribal leaders.

The laws passed by the Islamic Emirate were surreal and very similar to the infamous Taliban decrees. They banned smoking, for starters. They forbid merchants from displaying tomatoes and cucumbers together (if you are wondering – they are feminine and masculine vegetables and may not touch each other). They forbid women from sitting in chairs.

This was bad enough, but coerced ‘marriage alliances’ pushed the tribes over the brink.


Islam, of course, is a key identity marker when dealing with non-Muslim outsiders, but when all involved are Muslim, kinship trumps religion. And in fact, most tribal Iraqis I have spoken with consider AQ’s brand of “Islam” utterly foreign to their traditional and syncretic version of the faith. One key difference is marriage custom, the tribes only giving their women within the tribe or (on rare occasions to cement a bond or resolve a grievance, as part of a process known as sulha) to other tribes or clans in their confederation (qabila). Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done. AQ, with their hyper-reductionist version of “Islam” stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes’ view as ignorant, stupid and sinful.

This led to violence, as these things do: AQI killed a sheikh over his refusal to give daughters of his tribe to them in marriage, which created a revenge obligation (tha’r) on his people, who attacked AQI. The terrorists retaliated with immense brutality, killing the children of a prominent sheikh in a particularly gruesome manner, witnesses told us. This was the last straw, they said, and the tribes rose up. Neighboring clans joined the fight, which escalated as AQI (who had generally worn out their welcome through high-handedness) tried to crush the revolt through more atrocities. Soon the uprising took off, spreading along kinship lines through Anbar and into neighboring provinces.

Other tribesmen told me women weren’t the only issue. The tribes run smuggling, import/export and construction businesses which AQI shut down, took over, or disrupted through violent disturbances that were “bad for business”.

Fortunately, the drug smugglers see America as better for business.

The women were the last straw as Kilcullen writes. The tribes say AQI “had it coming” for some time. For the past 4 years, the Sunni Tribes treated Islamists like “useful idiots” in their insurgency. It was an alliance of convenience. Simply put, idiots asserted their idiocy and the alliance broke apart.

The Tribal Awakenings are formal organizations in some areas, like Anbar, and informal ones elsewhere. In some areas, company commanders take the initiative and serve as make-shift diplomats with the local tribal elders to improve security in their region.

Violence is down dramatically in some parts. The idea that Marines are going months without combat anywhere in Anbar is remarkable and unexpected.


Of course, this is motivated primarily by self-interest. Tribal leaders realize the extremists were leading them on a path to destruction, and have seized the opportunity to dump the terrorists and come in from the cold. They are also, naturally, looking forward to the day when coalition forces are no longer in their districts, and want to ensure that they, nor AQI, are in charge once we leave…

Internal tribal dynamics also play a part. Many older leaders, who consider themselves the true heads of clans or tribes, fled Iraq in 2003 because they were implicated in dealings with Saddam, and are now in exile in Syria or Jordan. The on-the-ground leaders are a younger generation, concerned to cement their positions vis-à-vis the old men in Damascus, who may one day want to return. By joining forces with the government, these leaders have acquired a source of patronage which they can re-direct to their people, cementing themselves in power and bolstering their personal positions.

Again, this is utterly standard behavior for tribal leaders pretty much anywhere in the Arab world: you can trust a tribal leader 100% – to follow his tribe’s and his own interests. And that’s OK. Call me cynical, but I tend to trust self-interest, group identity and revenge as reliable motivations – more so than protestations of aspirational democracy, anyway.

I agree with that last sentence. The same is true in Afghanistan. The Tribe is more important than any rhetoric about democracy.

Kilcullen discusses variants of the Tribal Awakening Model used to secure parts of Baghdad.

The Tribes encourage their men to join neighborhood watches and the local police force – 25,000 in Anbar alone (half police). This surge of forces is significant because many are former insurgents and understand the remaining insurgent networks far better than us. The Tribes also encourage their people to give the Coalition intelligence about the AQI and JAM.

The extra forces allow local Iraqis to secure their own neighborhoods and free up ISF and Coalition Forces to operate in other areas. Intelligence tips have more than tripled the discovery of weapons caches and the removal of insurgent leaders.

Perhaps even more importantly, the tribes take the lead in reconstruction. The tribes are informal political players – they’re really extended families more than political parties. In practice, they have considerable power over businesses. Many tribal leaders run construction operations and the like. This means they are economic heavyweights in their area rather than military warlords (and whether that’s better or worse, I do not know).

The Iraqi Government and the US Military are taking precautions by vetting the tribes and their supporters and overseeing their activity.

The most striking thing about the Tribal Awakening is that it is contagious. Shia tribes saw the benefits the Sunni tribes are getting, so they are joining the Awakening movement as well by turning against the Iranian-backed Mahdi Militia.

The Sunni and Shia Tribes have already reconciled at the local level in places like Babil and Diyala. This is part of a grass-roots movement which is more potent and powerful than gestures by a weak central government.

Kilcullen concludes:

The other implication is that, to be perfectly honest, the pattern we are seeing runs somewhat counter to what we expected in the “surge”, and therefore lies well outside the “benchmarks”. The original concept was that we (the Coalition and the Iraqi government) would create security, which would in turn create space for a “grand bargain” at the national level. Instead, we are seeing the exact opposite: a series of local political deals has displaced extremists, resulting in a major improvement in security at the local level, and the national government is jumping on board with the program. Instead of coalition-led top-down reconciliation, this is Iraqi-led, bottom-up, based on civil society rather than national politics. And oddly enough, it seems to be working so far.

Truly, the worst mistake the US made in 2003 was to sideline the tribes and create a symbolic central government in Baghdad. Iraq, like Afghanistan, is too tribal to pretend that power is in the hands of central authorities.

The American debate in Washington is completely out of touch with reality. It usually is, so why am I surprised.