How to attack a national identity

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.

Religious Radicalization

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).

13 comments:

Arjun said...

nice post adrian, a thorough analysis.
Are there ways to encourage the growth of tribal identities, to strengthen tribes, in an effort to minimize the likelihood of sectarian identity/ies becoming more attractive? It seems poor policy to hope that the entry costs of sectarian groups will remain high; unless you think that religious radicalization has gone far enough that lower entry costs are impossible/unlikely. What is the current US policy toward tribes and tribal identity in iraq? Has this particular difference in types of organization been noted

Adrian said...

Theoretically we can help tribes lower their entry costs even further (they are already low because potential members have an entitlement to benefits due to kinship) by subsidizing them. It's a question of how much power does the US have to alter these cost/benefit calculations by Iraqis, especially when we might leave at any time.

For a good paper on tribal engagement from the US perspective, read Michael Eisenstadt's "Tribal Engagement: Lessons Learned" paper in Military Review.

Arjun said...

This is a more general question. To what extent are these cost/benefit analysis explicit in people's minds? For myself, they are occasionaly explicit more usually I understand why I did something only after having done it. So to bring it back, is the choice to choose one form of security and life an explicit choice, or one dictated mainly by circumstance with some sub-concious imput from within oneself? Im not sure that makes sense, but its what i was thinking.

Adrian said...

I'm not sure how explicit the cost-benefit calculation is, but I'm also not sure how much it matters. If they make the calculation, does it matter if its implicit or explicit?

subadei said...

Brilliant.

Seems almost Darwinian. Is that by design?

The only hangup remains, how do we overcome the failed (yet romantic and clearly clung to) objective of a politically unified Iraq. Realistically speaking we've moved on, yet politically the Malaki goat fucking contest remains center stage.

Further, we must accept the reality that allowing (pursuing) a tribal contraction (if it can be called such) invites an aspect of inevitable violence and powerplay. Do we take sides in this microscopic struggle or do we simply laissez faire and allow reality to take it's course?

Adrian said...

Thanks Soob!

The tribal competition will probably be violent but I don't think it will be spectacularly so. After all, kinship links between tribes are more extensive than between sectarian militias and such, and it seems to me that tribal sheikhs recognize that they have to live with each other forever - even if the extreme case of independent Sunnistan and Kurdistan comes to be, the borders will not be tough and there will still have to be interaction. This agreement is an example of what can be achieved with luck. A bigger problem IMO will be these same microscopic types of competitions in areas where tribal structures have been crushed - Basra, for example.

Dan tdaxp said...

Agreed. A thoughtful analysis.

On your three points...

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).

1. True, but informational campaigns are everywhere (they're called propaganda), and as even the very low stakes American political scene demonstrates, people get cynical quickly.

2. Marriages are obviously a sensitive point, and AQI overreaching on marriages appear to be behind the Anbar Awakening.

Further, separation between communities decreases violence, as there are less points of daily contention.

So I agree on your subpoints for (2), but note the work both ways, too.

(3) I take it you disagree with Robb's economic-material view of systempunkt, as you are using a symbolic act as a systempunkt?

As I understand him, John believes that symbolic acts can cause real problems, but their lack of "substance" means that repeated such acts suffer from declining returns. This is compared to attacks on economic infrastructure, which can lead to city take-downs, etc.

Dan tdaxp said...

PS: America's core goal in Iraq may be "“An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure," in the same (rhetorical) sense that America's interest in the NPT is the complete denuclearization of all states.

(This is in accordance with the American way of war, which is to act as a spoiler for enemies.)

America's actual core goal in Iraq appears to be create a country that is not anti-American, not Qaedist, not Baathist, and not dominated by Iran. I would like to see your analysis on how AQI might combat that.

A.E. said...

Insightful analysis. Have you read any of the papers on SWJ about tribal advisors?

Adrian said...

Dan:

Given the readiness with which Arabs in general accept the 'word on the street' (for decades it was the only way most Arabs got any information due to authoritarian control of regular media outlets) it's my impression that cynicism would not be any higher for AQI propaganda than Western media. Remember, this is Iraq, where Sunni Arabs believed (maybe some still do?) that they are the majority of the country, that Israel was behind 9/11, etc. Propaganda spreads easily.

There are diminishing returns to symbolic terrorism in the medium term, but you really only need one such 'success' to start the cycle of violence you need. After intra-communal violence gets started, it fuels itself via revenge, shame/honor killings, etc.

The stated interests in that National Security Strategy is of course a pipe dream, but AQI's strategy works against our actual goals that you state (plus that of state capacity building) as well. I suppose AQI would agree that Iraq dominated by Iran or the Ba'ath is bad. But really the easiest thing AQI can do to foil American goals is to create a failed state. Such a country would remain anti-American, would be easily dominated by Iran (or at least wouldn't be a buffer against Iran for American allies in the region), and might necessitate substantial American blood and treasure for years to come (bleeding America dry like the mujahideen did the USSR).

Adrian said...

AE - I've heard McCallister talk and read some of his stuff but I haven't read any of SWJ's actual 'Journal'.

GMS said...

great blog, Adrian.

Adrian said...

A slightly reworked version has been posted over at Threatswatch.

link