Cultural Cluelessness

Published September 7, 2007

National Review Online

The trouble with conservatives is that they don’t understand other cultures. Conservatives naively see the world through American eyes. On top of that, conservatives focus more on what other countries mean for America’s internal political battles than on what’s actually going on overseas. No doubt, this stereotypical complaint about American conservatives contains more than a grain of truth. Unfortunately — and counter to stereotype — American liberals have got exactly the same problem.

Take Andrew Tilghman’s “The Myth of AQI,” the latest big-buzz article in our national debate over the war in Iraq. Tilghman argues that self-interested politicians in America and Iraq — everyone from President Bush, to the Maliki government, to the Sunni resistance, to Moqtada al-Sadr — have all systematically exaggerated the actual size of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The truth, says Tilghman, is that Iraq’s internal battles are largely its own. Carefully scrutinize the statistical data on insurgent loyalty, Tilghman claims, and the international al Qaeda connection (and thus the link to the larger war on terror) barely exists.


At least that’s what Tilghman claims. The problem is that Tilghman is operating on the naive assumption that it’s got to be one or the other. Either you’re a card-carrying member of AQI, or you’re a “local” Sunni tribal insurgent. Sorry, but that’s not the way things work — especially not in Muslim tribal societies.

That’s what our army has finally discovered — for example, through the work of David Kilcullen.

Particularly in a Muslim setting, insurgents generally carry simultaneous local (e.g. tribal or sectarian) identities, on the one hand, and pan-Muslim jihadist identities, on the other. Recognizing this, America’s armed forces have begun making systematic efforts to play on local identities, as a way of breaking insurgents away from their connection with AQI. Yet the strategy itself is based on the fundamental insight that, at any given moment, an insurgent is — or has the potential to be — a “global jihadist” and a “local tribesman” at the very same time. These dual identities can either blend or conflict, and often do both in rapid succession.

But for Tilghman, it’s got to be a consistent either/or. When a suicide bomb goes off, either it’s AQI’s fault, or it’s “raw hatred between local Sunnis and Shiites.” In fact, an intertwining of broad-based jihadist rebellion with local tribal interests is one of the oldest and most characteristic patterns in Muslim social life. Classically, Muslim rulers in cities would do what they could to keep outlying tribes divided and at each others’ throats. And just as typically, the feuding tribesmen would occasionally find themselves unified by a charismatic mullah’s denunciations of the state’s corrupt rulers. A mullah who succeeded in unifying the tribes could spark a religious rebellion that might end in the overthrow of corrupt rulers. And this would conveniently leave the clans at the center of the rebellion ensconced in the seat of power and wealth. Over time, the new ruling clans would turn corrupt themselves, and the cycle would begin again.

This pattern was famously described by Ibn Khaldun — the greatest sociologist of Islam — way back in the 14th century. And the complex alliance between AQI and indigenous Sunni tribesmen is clearly a variant of this classic pattern. Pan-Muslim jihad, on the one hand, blends with local tribal self-interest, on the other.

Variations take many forms. Some jihadist rebellions unify opposed tribes. Yet it’s also possible for a single tribe, led by a charismatic mullah, to declare a jihad against a rival tribe. That might seem unlikely, since jihad is by definition a unified Muslim battle against non-Muslims. Yet if one tribe offers grounds to declare a rival tribe infidels, it is possible to have a jihad that not only defends the faith against apostates, but also serves as a pragmatic tool of narrow tribal rivalry.

Tribal Splits
Again, the complex alliance between the global jihad (embodied in AQI) and local Sunni sects and tribes is a variant of this classic social pattern. Iraqi Shiites have now been declared infidels by AQI (see Frederick Kagan’s important “Al Qaeda in Iraq,”) and this enables Iraqi Sunnis to simultaneously advance global jihad — and prosecute their local rivalry with Iraqi Shiites. When it comes to Muslim social life, this linking of broad-based jihadi piety to local tribal interest is the oldest story in the book. So Tilghman’s entire piece turns on a famously false dichotomy.

Tribal structure itself — based on the continual fission and fusion of clans into smaller or larger segments — essentially forces you to play double games. As the Arab saying goes: “Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.” Tribals are always be poised to shift loyalties and alliances. The same holds true in dealings with outsiders. Tribes typically hedge their bets by laying down a basis for joining up with (and retroactively claiming loyalty to) whichever outside power (say the Americans or the Soviets) seems on top at the moment.

So Tilghman is correct to point out that “real uncertainties exist in assigning responsibility for [terrorist] attacks,” but he’s wrong to think this somehow proves American officials have misled us about the influence of AQI. Islamist insurgents frequently have strongly felt local and global identities, simultaneously. True, Americans and Iraqi officials have been emphasizing the “global jihad” side of the equation. Yet it’s absurd to pretend that emphasizing the “local rivalry” side is somehow more true.

For example, Tilghman notes that when former Saddamists carry out terror acts against Americans or Shiites, they can later escape responsibility by shifting the blame to al Qaeda. It’s perfectly legitimate to recognize that sort of game-playing, but Tilghman only sees it when he wants to. For example, Tilghman’s suspicion disappears when he reports that only seven percent of prisoners in U.S. detention facilities “claim allegiance to al Qaeda in Iraq.” Well, why would a tribesman who actually is allied with AQI (but who can also easily find a more local identity to emphasize) be stupid enough to tell his American captors that he is loyal to al Qaeda? Naturally, these prisoners conveniently turn into “locals” when caught. Yet in many of these cases, double identities are surely at work.

Who’s Using Who?

Here’s another false dichotomy. Although surge-supporting analysts say that AQI drafts Baathist insurgents to carry out terror attacks, Tilghman favors analysts who say it’s the other way around. The truth, says Tilghman, is that native insurgent forces are “coopting a steady stream of delusional (AQI) extremists seeking martyrdom” into their local feuds. What Tilghman doesn’t get is that this is how the tribal game is always played. Every player thinks he’s the one cleverly making use of his duller allies for his own ends. And of course, every player is in part correct. To a degree, AQI is using the locals to support global jihad, while the locals are also using AQI to support narrow tribal or sectarian ends. But when a player “really” become international jihadist and when he “really” turns local is itself a shifting reality.

A given players own primary identity or ends don’t necessarily stay fixed. A truly successful charismatic religious leader — and a militarily successful jihad — heightens a tribesman’s identification with pan-Muslim jihad. Yet let jihad collapse (culturally or militarily) and the old local tribal identities emerge. That’s why the newest American tactic is to puncture the military success of global jihad (AQI), then play on local interests and loyalties, thereby breaking tribesmen away from their erstwhile global jihadist AQI allies.

Tilghman brushes this accomplishment aside far too easily. Yes, Tilghman admits, Sunni insurgents in Anbar have largely stopped attacking Americans. But this, he says, is not so much a matter of “vanquishing AQI,” as it is a function of the bags of cash Americans now deliver to tribal sheiks as “lead contractors” on “reconstruction projects.”

Actually, the fact that tribal sheiks are now taking American graft, rather than killing American soldiers, is a major accomplishment. Back in the days when tribal Waziristan wasn’t in revolt, Pakistani officials kept this always restive area under control precisely by doling out construction projects to tribal elders. This did not necessarily make for high-quality infrastructure, but it did keep the peace. In effect, the U.S. is reinventing the wheel — slowly rediscovering how order is kept in tribal society. So Tilghman is wrong to think that “vanquishing AQI” is somehow distinct from getting tribal sheiks to take our quasi-graft. On the contrary, those sheik-driven construction projects are a sign that (for now), in Anbar, we’re winning.

All Lies?

Tilghman is living in a world where you either formally and consistently “belong” to an organization or you don’t — a world where construction contracts are awarded by career bureaucrats on civil service appointments, based on competitive bidding. That is not the world the U.S. is currently attempting to master.

Tilghman makes a point of showing that every Iraqi faction has an interest in highlighting — or exaggerating — AQI’s influence. For example: “Talking about ‘al-Qaeda’ offers the [Maliki] government a politically correct way of talking about Sunni violence without seeming to blame the Sunnis themselves.” Exactly! And we should be glad of it. Nor does this mean that the Maliki government is wrong when it talks about violence from al Qaeda. There is no reason to believe that Sunnis who commit violence in Iraq cannot be allied with AQI, while also using (or disguising) their AQI association in the service of some local identity or rivalry. On the contrary, this is how things in the Middle East have always worked. It’s good news — not bad — that by emphasizing the AQI connection and downplaying the local Sunni angle, Maliki can protect the possibility that his erstwhile Sunni enemies might someday shed their ties with AQI and make a deal with the government.

How do you draw clear border lines around al Qaeda? After all, al Qaeda often functions as a loosely-knit organization based on quasi-independent cells. Yes, there is a central structure, and there is some formal training. And when al Qaeda is truly in control of sections of Iraq, its rule can be ruthless. Yet al Qaeda often works to coordinate relatively independent local actors. So it’s best to think of “membership” in al Qaeda as a complex continuum or influence — much more a matter of degree than a simple either/or. That means Tilghman’s claim that mere possession of al Qaeda pamphlets or a laptop computer with cached jihadist websites on it should somehow not qualify a detainee as AQI is itself highly questionable. An insurgent could easily be close kin, and a political ally, of a local sheik, while also and simultaneously having had some significant contact with — or instruction from — AQI (through visits, pamphlets, and laptops). Given Muslim social structure, it would be surprising if al Qaeda could recruit large numbers of people without such complex, layered, and potentially conflicting and shifting levels of loyalty. That is simply how things often work in the Middle East.

Think Globally
Tilghman concludes his piece by dismissing the notion that “local” Sunni fighters would have any impetus at all to launch strikes on American soil in the wake of an American retreat from Iraq.
This is not a credible claim. We cannot predict with certainty what would happen after an American withdrawal, but it’s a certainty that Sunni insurgents cannot be relied on to stay in Iraq, merely because they have salient “local” identities.

The point is that a successful jihad, driven by charismatic leaders (like Osama bin Laden) classically has the power to shift the balance of individual identity from local-tribal to global-Muslim. In the wake of American retreat, global al Qaeda would be flush with victory, while Iraq itself would be in crisis and chaos. These are classic jihadist breeding conditions, and there is surely a chance that “local boys” all over the Middle East could join the pan-Muslim struggle at that point. This could certainly drive them to America.

So Tilghman is viewing Iraq through American eyes. He’s seen just enough of the double-sidedness of the Middle-Eastern tribal game to invent another “Bush lied” fantasy. But Tilghman really hasn’t seen the tribal game in its own terms. Fortunately, the American military has finally begun to learn that game well enough to play it for a possible long-term win.

Are there problems here? Absolutely. Over the long term, playing into tribal loyalties is not the way to build a modern state — much less a democracy. And tribal loyalties are by nature shifting and uncertain. Playing the game well may allow us to significantly reduce our troop strength in Iraq, but without some substantial ongoing American presence, any political coalition we build could easily fall apart.

My own view is that, whether we stay in Iraq or leave, the United States and Europe are destined to return to the Middle East in force, and remain there indefinitely. Our shrinking world, and the pressure of events, will force our hand. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have accepted this unfortunate likelihood, but I do think this is what we are headed for, whatever we do about Iraq. Tilghman’s naive claim that the salience of local tribal and sectarian identities in Iraq somehow means that al Qaeda isn’t present as well shows how much we’ve got to learn. Unfortunately, over time — and whether we want to or not — Americans are destined to become experts how to play the tribal game.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today