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05 September 2007


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Carl Osgood

So, even though I haven't yet finished reading Kilcullen's piece, it right away brings to mind two questions: Number one, is this tribal revolt really against us (even though it may be pragmatically aligned with us for the moment), since it was the U.S. invasion and occupation that created the conditions for the rise of Al Qaida in Iraq? Secondly, will this tribal revolt overcome the past year and a half of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing or does it play into that at all?


Col, are you sure the power-players in Washington are even savvy to this fine a distinction? I get the strong sense that developments in any circumstance are seen by these actors in a very crude "to/not to my benefit" and/or "how can I use this to my advantage" fashion.

The distinctions detailed by Kilcullen are of interest to thise of us who wish to understand the world as it actually exists, that is, to refine our own perceptions of the world. I find it very hard to imagine that Dick or George care at all about this. It would seem that they see only what they want to see and fit all facts to their rigid and very limited worldview.


Col, are we moving from Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities" to "kinetic" generals, "flatheads", plain Dick and the decider guy's Community of their Imagination?

FB Ali


You have mentioned a couple of factors that Kilcullen has ignored in his rosy assessment, which provide a sobering counterpoint : the manoeuvres of Iraq’s neighbours within the country, and the real agenda being pursued in Iraq by Cheney and Bush.

There are a couple of other errors which further weaken his optimistic slant :
• He keeps referring to the Government of Iraq as if it were a normal, fully functioning political and administrative entity, and to government elements as if they were operating under the policies and control of such an entity. This is either ignorance or self-deception. The Iraqi government and its machinery is a facade, a fractured contraption of fiefdoms and baronies, each pursuing its own interests and policies.
• He totally ignores the role being played and the policies being followed by the most powerful force in the Iraqi power structure – SIIC and its Badr militia. They are the most closely allied with Iran, and are unlikely to look favourably on the empowerment and arming of the Sunni tribes which were one of the pillars of the Saddam regime.

The turning of the tribes does help the US in reducing its enemies, and adding to its allies against AQinM. But it is questionable whether it will help in establishing a new compact among Iraqis, or lead to a more violent civil war when the US pulls out to its bases.

anna missed

By this analysis the U.S. should have never bothered with Fallujah, or most of the (4 years of) Anbar tactical operations for that matter. That is to say on principal that what ever is happening in Anbar now would have happened on its own accord anyway. Provided the U.S. had acted as it now seems to be. I distinctly remember much grumbling from the Fallujahians the first time around, over the the AQiI pedantics and is a fine howdy-do to think all could have been avoided had we allowed indigenous political power to consolidate in the first place. My worry of course, is that at this late date we are simply building up a new militia, and an anti-government militia at that. What looks good now.....


Thank you for this link, Colonel Lang. It was a fascinating read.

I've seen some of Kilcullen's thinking in print prior to this. Very impressive guy. He seemed to be the sort who examined a problem. "Measure twice, cut once".

This only confirms my prior opinion of the gentleman.

Too bad the Kilcullens of the world don't make policy. Instead, sociopathic children in men's bodies seem to have a lock on that particular function.


So let's say the sunni tribes "on their own" have "unexpectedly" decided to turn on the takfiri and "al qaeda" types in their midst. We approve, and arm them and help them go at it. You go, sheik.

Meanwhile, we now hear that the shi'ites have essentially cleared many of the formerly "mixed" areas in and around Bagdahd and now dominate them, supposedly resulting in less "morning bodies" because, well, all their sunni neighbors are "dead or fled".

So we've (intentionally?) presided over an ethnic cleansing and "terrorist" stamp-out campaign. Now what? Hasn't this just set the stage for the next step in the civil war--a more overt, "front lines" type of sunni-shi'a conflict, with the sunnis (now officially armed by us) resuming their insurgency against our occupation forces and the surrounding sunni countries very, very unhappy with how things are going in (once) sunni Iraq?

And this is going to result in Happy Days of Empire and Cheney's longed-for permanent oil protectorate? Okay...seems like some real "scrambling" by Petraeus to me, but whatever our new "favorite" says, I guess.

BTW, didn't the set-up used to be we "heard" from the Central Command head Abizaid, not Iraq-bound Sanchez and Casey so much? Now the "silent man" seems to be Front Commander Adm. Fallon, eh? Does he just say "Yes, sir!" to supposedly-subordinate Petraeus, the Emperor's new court "favorite"?

And I really would be interested in any "answers" anyone here wants to throw out, as my view is there are quite a few real strategists posting here---thanks!


Well, its good to know they're all busy uniting against foreign imports - whether its al Qaeda, the US, Iran, Turkey...

That soccer victory sure is having its repercussions.

frank durkee

If the aim is to produce an organized sunni response so as
to create a balance of power among the three groups in Iraq, which can then move toward a functioning central and unified government, why the hell should the Kurds and/or the Shites agree to this. won't they simply seed to undermine it and or override it? It seems to carry as it's unwritten underside the desire to develope a sufficienly strong military to support a 'strongman' to exercise control over Iraq. Unless that is in face Shite dominance with Kurdish acceptance how will the majority shites and the Iranians buy into this? Unless we're planning to 'install' a strong man of our choosing, this seems to lead to a balance of instabiliity and conflict as to the stated outcome. Perhaps it is 'the only game in town', but the odds of a peaceful and balanced out come wouuld appear long indeed and would seem to presuppose a long term US military involvement to have any chance of working. Part of this would then seem to require that we bloody Iran's nose sufficiently to move them out of the play as much as possible. why the Shite leadership would play along with this is an open question.


I wish I had the skill to counter the Surge’s Propaganda with the Irony of the Truth.

An Attempt:

In the first year after the invasion, a reporter wandered into Fallujah, walking down the street towards the FOB [Forward Operating Base], a GI hidden behind the sandbags yelled at him “Get out of here, its dangerous”.

After destroying Fallujah, it is still perilous. No Westerner can wander around Al Anbar Province without a supporting Marine platoon or a Blackwell squad. To say otherwise, is spinning misinformation.

The Sunnis have seen the future. With American assistance Baghdad and Southern Iraq are ethnically cleansed. The Sunni lost their war to regain control of Iraq. The Tribal Leaders need the Marines to keep from being cleansed into Jordon. But, too much blood has been spilled, they will for generations kill Americans in revenge, if they can get away with it.

The White House is still whirling in their delusions of a strong central puppet government and American companies pumping Iraqi oil. Sometime before January 2009 American leaders are going to give the order to take out the Mahdi Army or bomb Iran. Then, All Hell brakes lose.

Clifford Kiracofe

1. He says, "Marine and Army units that have sought to understand tribal behavior in its own terms, to follow norms of proper behavior as expected by tribal communities.."

This is what American troops in North Africa and the Middle East were instructed to do in World War II. Troops were briefed and issued pocket guides with language phrases, comment on local customs including Islam, do's and don'ts, produced by the War and Navy Department in WWII.

2. He says "building local allies and forging partnerships and trusted networks with at-risk communities seems to be one of the keys to success."

My late uncle's WWII pocket guide for Syria says page 7 "One of the ways to beat the Axis in Syria, and in other parts of the Moslem world, is to convince the people that the United Nations are their friends....By showing your understanding of Moslem character and customs, by your own conduct in your relations with the Syrian people, you can maintain the good reputation that Americans already enjoy."...

3. Moving from dates and tea with Lawrence and the locals to high policy (which is the issue given our current "situation" and "War Councils") these provide interesting background reading from an imperial management standpoint -- strategic considerations, "indirect rule" methods and all that:

Tomothy J. Paris, "British Middle East Policy-Making after the First World War: The Lawrentian and Wilsonian Schools," The Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No.3. (Sep., 1998), pp. 773-793. Wilson was an India Office type and they did have some well informed ME experts on staff, Shuckburgh for example.

V.H.Rothwell, "Mesopotamia in British War Aims, 1914-1918," The Historical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2. (Jun., 1970), pp. 273-294.

4. Local knowledge? We have been out there for two centuries. Last time I checked, the WWII head of the Near East Section of the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS was Professor E. Speiser of the University of Pennsylvania. Before the war he ran the American School of Oriental Research in......Baghdad. The American School was founded in 1900.

The Middle East Studies Association is the primary US academic organization:


For those who may not be aware of the situation, academic experts on the Middle East are under pressure across the country. Read about that here and ask what are the implications with respect to the conduct of American foreign policy:



I dunno, seems to me that Petraeus and his boy are carrying out some effective IO operations.

Once the ethnic cleansing has been done at the local level the fight for the oil and water will begin in earnest. Now is the time to get our boys (and girls) out. Claim victory and leave.

Cold War Zoomie

This article actually lifted my spirits. It came across as truthful and realistic. I think Kilcullen is honest. My only quibble has to do with his view of our past actions. He went too easy on us. We've screwed up, big time.

There is a little seed of an idea in my head that we may be seeing the beginnings of a massive pivot by Bush where he can "declare victory and leave." I know it isn't in vogue to think such things, but some issues are starting to converge: Anbar success stories, the Pentagon playing up the successes versus the GAO report, Bush saying we're not going to leave Iraq like we left Vietnam and adding that we can reduce troops with more "successes."

Maybe it's just more crap to keep us there. But I'm watching for any signs that Bush is trying to declare victory and skedaddle.

Jon Stopa

Re Bush's stated desire to have Iraq end up with US troops in an arrangement like that in South Korea: I spent a year in Korea on the DMZ in the late '50s, and Mr. President, Iraq is no Korea.


one word on Mesa: Pipes.



It seems to me that the true 'winners' in Iraq are those whose agenda was to create a failed state. This allows the local groups (call them whatever you want...tribal forces, gangs) to run the show with regard to smuggling of oil, drug, guns, money laundering etc. That's who won. That is who has won in the Afghan nation. In Pakistan, in Lebanon, in Central Asia, in Chechnya, and for that matter, in Russia, and finally, to some extent, in the Balkans. Look around...that's who winning. No more bothersome ideologues, of any ilk...left or right (i.e. Chavez in Venezuela...look how troublesome he is...and Castro, in Cuba. Took the casinos over. Still have not forgotten that..well, his day is coming soon enough). Just people who know how to cut a deal. And break a deal...as well.

FB Ali

There is an excellent analysis and assessment of this issue by Ambassador Gerald B. Helman on Juan Cole's blog today. I would strongly recommend it :



Two problems I have with this excerpt. One, he seems to be pinning this at least partly on the surge (making the Iraqis more willing to talk rather than fight). I've heard such things before, but have seen no evidence to support it. We should recall that the insurgency in Iraq did not suddenly spring up over night. It was a gradual build up as those who felt weakened by the situation were compelled to use violence to effect their aims (amongst other factors I won't deal with at them moment). I recall foreign Jihadis that went to Baghdad to stop the US invasion being somewhat left out in the cold early on.

We should also recall that early on, the administrations response to the growing guerilla movements was "we don't negotiate with terrorists".

So I don't buy that the surge has finally driven some of the tribes into working with us. rather than patting the administration on the back for the success of the surge, we should be outraged that the administration refused to talk to these groups for so long, taking the view that those at odds with you are enemies that must be defeated and can never be negotiated with.

I'm glad we're finally talking to and working with these people (though uncertain if it'd being done in the right way - a post for another time), however, I see this as success of pragmatism rather than any surge. Besides, these efforts (at least the precursors) pre-date the surge, no?

My other point of contention is that this is a revolt by the Iraqi people against extremism. Rather, I see it as aiding one segment of the population against another they never had great relations with (read insider accounts about Fallujah and the like about the friction between the different groups). The idea of a unified Iraq allied against the extremist terrorists strikes me as being a myth (and oddly mirrored by those on the left who see a unified Iraq fighting against the evil outsiders - Iran, the US, etc.).


It would be reassuring if they did have an agenda. Politically, Bush and Cheney are like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s the ‘Holly Grail’: arms and legs severed and threatening to bite your kneecaps off. Empty bravado and nothing else. The white house having a workable, realistic agenda would mean there was an achievable goal out there somewhere. But they don’t, and there isn’t. They are pretending they are going somewhere when, in fact, they are treading water.

At least, if as some believe, there was some nefarious conspiracy regarding outright control of Iraq’s oil stocks, we could be assured they had some end game in mind. But they don’t. The situation is worse than that. There is nothing there except personal, political survival. They have lost control.

Exhibit A: Iran. They are putting pressure on Iran mainly because that’s all they know how to do. To admit past, similarly belligerent policies have failed would strip them of what little authority they retain. So, like the Black Knight, they continue to act as if they were in a position of strength.


jonst, All politics is local. Everywhere. In the words of Sami Zubaida, the state is just a field of political competition. Some fields (Westphalian liberal democracies) operate by similar rules which produce relatively fair outcomes for each individual. Other fields have different rules in which the outcomes favor specific groups. Arabia is different field, as are the Caucuses, Balkans, etc.

And with regard to "smuggling" in those areas, another word for it is "commerce." People trade what they have. The laws are laid over that in accordance with the politics.

Iraq will have politics and trade today and tomorrow. It is not failing, but it is violently transforming the field on which this is played out. The forms of this will eventually take probably won't favor the West, our merchants, or our moral and political ideals, but that doesn't mean it's a "failure."


AQ in Iraq

How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," according to Nance, "is a microscopic terrorist organization."

Clifford Kiracofe

Confused Ponderer,
Thanks for the note. I agree per Campus Watch. I would suggest an enterprising soul do a run down/tabulation of individual members of their "Board of Governors" and cross check each one to other organizational affiliations in the US and abroad:

Clifford Kiracofe

"Shabak Valley, Afghanistan - Evidence of how far the US Army's counterinsurgency strategy has evolved can be found in the work of a uniformed anthropologist toting a gun in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Part of a Human Terrain Team (HHT) – the first ever deployed – she speaks to hundreds of Afghan men and women to learn how they think and what they need."




"All politics is local" always struck me as simplistic. Although many people (most?) swear by it. I admit.

There is a difference between "commerce" and "smuggling". There is a difference between apples and heroin. I don't come at this from a moral perspective...i.e. 'those bad people dealing drugs'...as opposed to us good people in the West selling fruit. I suspect more often than not we, in the west, are getting our cut re narcotics. But if your govt, or my govt for instance, and economy is dominated by large scale drug smuggling rings you are going to have some problems. That is all I mean.

I give less than a damn whether Iraq adopts, does not adapt, Western values. When I say failed state I mean its inability to have a monopoly on organized violence on a large scale. By that standard Iraq is a failed state in my humble opinion. And there are certain, unavoidable, consequences that flow from that failure. See Minster of Interior in Iraq. See who gets banking charters. See who gets passports. See who signs oil leases. See who purchase weapons. See how export/import is handled.


Colonel Lang,

"Kilcullen points to the fact that this movement is building a new, possibly more stable balance of forces among the communities."

Kilcullen and all the other good men but wishful thinkers, like Colonel McMasters, have no frigging idea how these local tribal deals can ever lead to building some more stable national society, polity, or reconciliation.

What sort of stable governance, even if only on a local level, can such adhoc tribal groupings as the Anbar Salvation Council lead to? An Afgani Loya Jurga or Northern Alliance of warlords? How can any tribal governance mesh with the non-tribal, quasi democratic governing edifice that we/shia/kurds have created in Iraq?

Remember, T.E. Lawrence's "ladder of tribes" may have helped defeat the turks, but led nowhere once they were defeated.

Abu Aardvark has a brief profile of the Sheik "leading" the Anbar Salvation council. He sounds too weak to impose order on his own, and too corrupt to work with others. Right now he is our "boy" and we have the power to reign him in. But when we leave?


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