One of America's core interests in Iraq is “An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure.” Essential to the achievement of American goals in Iraq is the maintenance of an Iraqi national identity that includes both Sunni and Shia Arab communities. This goal is in direct opposition to the goals of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which seeks an Sunni Islamic Caliphate that rules Iraq (among other places). That goal requires the destruction of the Iraqi nationalist identity and its replacement with a (Sunni) Islamic identity. This post will explore some of the rationale behind AQI's strategy and tactics. We will take the goal of AQI, that of an Islamic Caliphate to replace states in the Middle East and therefore the creation of an Islamic identity, as a given.
Strategy and Tactics
To achieve its goal of eliminating the Iraqi nationalist identity, AQI needs to create a self-sustaining cycle of violence between Sunni and Shia communities, and needs to eliminate the state's monopoly on legitimate violence and provision of social services. AQI can accomplish the first objective in three ways. First, they can launch information campaigns portraying local personal violence in political terms. Second, they can also attack 'linking nodes' between Sunni and Shia communities, such as mixed marriages and mixed neighborhoods. Increasing the social distance between Sunni and Shia individuals increases their costs in overcoming AQI propaganda. Third, they can attack systempunkts – targets that have the ability to cause cascading social collapse (the Al-Askari bombing is an example).
To eliminate the state's monopoly on violence and social services, AQI merely has to perpetuate regular acts of violence and target the state's social services, making it too dangerous for state employees to go to work. These tactics will create the environment in which the population of Iraq is forced to search for outside providers of security and services. These providers are likely to be either tribal or neighborhood-based sectarian militias. As Iraqis receive security and social services from these non-state groups, their identities will devolve away from nationalism and towards either tribal or sectarian identities.
Identity – Sectarian or Tribal?
It is likely that Iraqis will fall back to tribal security forces where possible instead of sectarian militias due to lower entry costs. Many Iraqis already have a tribal identity, however they are not already part of sectarian militias. AIn areas where tribes are strong, such as Anbar province, tribal security forces will replace the state, because tribal social infrastructure is already in place. In areas where tribes have been crushed (either by Saddam, Al Qaeda, the US, or others) or are weak for other reasons, such as Basra province or some slums in Baghdad, Iraqis might fall back to sectarian militias for security instead. In areas where sectarian groups and tribes are in opposition, sectarian groups will have a key advantage – because sectarian membership is more voluntary than tribal membership, sectarian militias will not be forced to extend benefits based on kinship, thus mitigating a free rider problem of tribes. From AQI's point of view, it is preferable that the population fall back on sectarian militias. Tribes provide an alternative political organization to the Caliphate, and also cut across sectarian identities, with many tribes incorporating both Sunni and Shia branches. Also, the high entry costs of sectarian militias are likely to lead to two favorable outcomes from AQI's point of view – religious radicalization and deepening of sectarian identities.
The Price of Security
Sectarian militias will charge high entry costs in order to combat the “free rider” problem. As mentioned earlier, tribes have the problem of involuntary membership, meaning a greater free rider problem and a decreased ability to charge high membership fees (as members are entitled to benefits based on kinship).
Groups providing security and social services will be able to charge prices at a level inverse to the degree of state failure (assuming weak or non-existent tribes, Iraqis will be forced to choose between sectarian militias and the state). As the official state falls further into collapse and is less able to provide security and social services, those public goods become more valuable and private providers such as sectarian militias are thus able to charge higher prices for them. The higher prices come in the form of more extreme religious policies – bans on smoking and alcohol, modest dress for women, etc. Higher entry prices will also lead to a greater degree of identification with the sect at the expense of the national identity.
This religious radicalization works for AQI no matter what sect engages in it. As Sunnis radicalize, they become ideologically closer to AQI. When Shia groups radicalize, due to the cycle of violence between Sunni and Shia, they will form extremist identities in opposition to Sunni groups and will thus be easier to exclude from Al Qaeda's Islamic Caliphate identity. They will also polarize identity politics.
If Iraqis fall back to tribal structures for security and social services instead of creating sectarian militias (as they have in many areas, most notably Anbar), this will present an opportunity to US forces. Tribal forces are apparently amenable to tactical alliances with coalition forces and also cut across sectarian identity. They are therefore theoretically compatible with a broader Iraqi national identity, which would be concurrent with America's strategic goals in Iraq.
Thus, if AQIZ or some other organization is successful in attacking the national identity of Iraq, the US should attempt to deflect reliance for security and social services away from sectarian groups and onto tribes instead. In this effort, we have been aided because AQI and allied sectarian groups like the Islamic State in Iraq, apparently miscalculated and charged entry prices that were too high and that Iraqis were unwilling to pay. One of the "prices" was "do not smoke cigarettes or we will cut off your fingers", and another was "give me your daughters" (detailed by Dr. Kilcullen in Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt). Iraqis decided they'd rather go with tribes and the rest, as they say, is history (or so we hope).