A piece of Anthropology: local structures of power and COIN in Iraq

Note: this is a translation of a previous entry regarding this post.

This subject is capital, not only within the framework of the counterinsurgency, but also in my study on the procedures to rebuild safety in Iraq.

First : it is important because the counterinsurgency, except the “ Roman” methods , requests to know the social structures. Sociology is thus a major element in the “cartography” of the “human terrain”, to which is added the political anthropology since it is a question of understanding the “actions aiming at the maintenance or the modification of the established order « , through the political institutions (of power) which are places “of emergence of confronted and faced social dynamics  » (two quotations from Georges BALLANDIER). Indeed, the counterinsurgents must not only determine the conditions which will enable them to separate the insurgents from the populace, but also those which will allow the re-establishment of safety, in a “bottom-up” process . Of course, the insurgents work in the same way, through the population (in addition to the Western and, here, Arabic/Moslem public opinions), to annihilate every progress in this direction.

Second : in Iraq, the attempts of the American officers on the ground to contact local leaders and empower them in the reconstruction process started early. Since 2003, the Marines in TIKRIT then in the Shia South, the various units present at Fallujah , tied contacts and tried to reconstitute the networks to be able so as to identify the “leaders”. Another alternative aimed at constituting local councils (on the level of the cities or communities of inhabitants but also of the provinces) so as to rebuild the State starting from the base. The most famous example , but it is far from being alone, was that of general PETRAEUS in MOSUL (April-December 2003).

However, these attempts largely failed or did not last. It seems to to me that the post referred to above, like my studies of political anthropology, provide the reasons of this failure.

  1. the first holds in identification of the holders of local power. However, in numerous societies, they are not visible, that is to say for reasons of protection of the community, or because of the complexity of the competition for such power. A gold rule: all that wears a long white beard is not not inevitably the leader and especially, not inevitably the real one. That explains how candidates to power have sometimes fooled Americans in order to obtain their support in the internal competitions within groups (recall: solidarity between group members does not mean the absence of political conflicts for the domination of the aforesaid group). One example : the former baasists officers responsible for the “Brigade of Fallujah  » failed to affirm face Abu Musab Al Zarqawi during the summer 2004. The error made by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’ s staff was to empower such personalities who did not represent a real authority but who aimed to conquer it.
  2. The second holds in the ethnocentric vision which governed the cartography of the Iraqi tribal societies by the Americans. The concept of « social network » cannot account for the complexity, not only of alliances but also of the real relations (which wants what? Who dominates who? Who is in competition with which?) So if it were precociously possible to determine, inside insurgents networks, the responsibilities for principal chiefs (financier, bomb disposal expert, supplier of weapons, etc), it was not in the same way for the local societies. If insurgent organizations and terrorists can enter such a cybernetics scheme, it is not the same for the patchwork of tribes, families, etc
  3. Third is related to Time factor, and in particular to the adjustment of insurgents’ tactics vis a vis Coalition forces. In particular, campaigns of murder and intimidation clearly made clear to the sheiks (especially Sunnite) that it became necessary to form an alliance with insurgents and terrorists.
  4. the fourth corresponds to the need for tightening the cultural nuances by the counterinsurgent (and especially regarding customs and Tradition). This is crucial to avoid critical errors that can harm nascent relationships but also to correctly identify power relations within and between groups.

(Picture: Paul McLeary)

Which are thus the current issues of this “bottom-up Iraqisation ” one can observe since late 2006?

Indeed, the movement of the “Anbar Awakening  » as well as the programs aiming to the constitution of local militia share a common process: starting from local structures to create safety and then to restore the socioeconomic relations. (Their difference: the “Awakening” is a movement where demands of the local sheiks for security and American procedures in the field progressively combined each other , whereas the militia were produced by an incentive by the Americans to integrate the former in the fight for local security in such areas like DIYALA Province and the Southern « Belts »). It is thus a turning point compared to the initial focus on State Building by a « top-down » process which operated through the creation of national armed forces including all the components of Iraq’s society. Another factor is that the Americans acquired a more intuitive knowledge of the local societies (what seems much easier in Iraq than in Afghanistan), helped in that by some embedded anthropologists and ethnologists.

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(Picture from TF MARNE)

However, this process finds several limits which are related to anthropological considerations:

  • one can postulate that the Americans appears to locals’ eyes as mitigating the influence of the central government. However, the American strategy, which accepted the risk posed by this « bottom-up iraqisation » (an obstacle to the constitution of a legitimate and strong central government), consists to precisely promote this government. Hence the difficulty and the misperceptions which they meet sometimes in communities where years of insecurity produced insulation and self-reliance.
  • the rebuilding of security by this « bottom-up » process could be a necessity, but in a complex ethnic and sociopolitical situation , it can be particularly risky for the future. Indeed, and one can see it in MOSUL (as it was the case in TAL AFAR) by the difficulties of recruiting militia, the counterinsurgents- and much more if he is a foreigner- has to make difficult choices which can dismiss groups and individuals and promote other . This strategy can result in futures competitions. One can certainly reassure oneself in thinking that these competitions would exist nevertheless, but it is necessary to recognize that brutal changes that occurred in the Iraqi society for 50 years (and more still since 2003) have increased their probability and virulence.

This strategy of « bottom-up iraqisation » is thus a risky choice to make. It is not new: Army in Philippines, Marines during Banana Wars, the Special Forces in El Salvador already tried it. This last example informs us on the following process : after having formed paramilitary groups starting from the local populace, the Special Forces had then integrated gradually these « popular force » within the national army forces. In the case of the militias in Iraq, the procedures are becoming more and more complex:

  • some elements will integrate the Army and the Police force on physical ability
  • others will receive a vocational education aiming at diminishing unemployment level of the young men and to facilitate the reintegration of former insurgents.
  • the heart of the militia (I point out that their manpower goes to 88.000 members) seems to have to remain under American control more longer. Indeed, although not receiving weapons on behalf of the latter (in spite of the continual requests by CLC/SoI members), militias are paid by the US taxpayer…. There is no doubt that this ultimate refinement is a problematic one. Can one thus conducting a counterinsurgency (or prevent a civil war) by such “an economy of Force”? Which insurance can one have that these militia do not prepare a future civil war ? Anthropology can provide an answer: it will depend on the capacity of Americans to use these alliances at their own advantage, i.e. by determining the social configurations and the « center of gravity » of each group.

bonus: the complexity of tribes in Diyala (click to enlarge)

  • Major DIYALA Tribes

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