In Part One I discussed how comparing the Iraqi situation with that in Afghanistan wasn’t a good idea. The main advantage that Afganistan has over Iraq is that, while both countries are oriented towards a tribal culture, there’s a greater variety of ethnic groups that allow the people there to overcome this mindset.
But what the heck do I mean by “tribal,” anyway? And why is it so significant?
First off, the term refers to a group of people who are only loosely related. This isn’t really accurate, and it would be better if we used the term “clan” instead.
Basically, the majority of Arab cultural ties are based on the family. Who you’re related to. These are the people you can count on, the guys who protect you and help you prosper. Generally we’re not talking about a large group of people. The “tribal leaders” you hear about in the news are simply the head of a numerous clan that managed to convince other clans to follow their lead for awhile. These alliances constantly shift, as one or another clan will change allegiance or simply leave if they don’t think they’ll get a good deal for their people. Politics in Iraq is usually personal and face-to-face.
You’re not going to be able to protect anything unless you have some firepower. Arab culture is a gun culture, with personal martial skill (rifle ownership) being highly prized. This means that just about every male has a gun and has a general idea of which end the bullet comes out of.
This explains the news reports that puzzle those of us from the West. These unnamed tribal leaders pop up out of nowhere, halt strife or start it up, and try to cut deals seemingly behind the back of the national government. The reason why this is tolerated is simple enough: it’s often easier to negotiate with these armed bands than to take the chance of having them find some excuse to unite against your side. Even Saddam, the red-handed dictator that filled so many mass graves, had to bow to necessity and pay off the largest clans. (Before our invasion it was considered vital that we undermine the support Saddam would recieve from clans that were leery about the loss of income if he was deposed.)
Saddam managed to maintain power by basically paying off his friends and brutally murdering any perceived as a threat. To try and ensure loyalty he reserved the choicest payouts for members of his own clan. (The so called Tikrit Mafia.) The idea of Iraq being a country as we understand it simply hasn’t existed.
But the clans are not just there for protection, but also for profit. Many of them have been engaged in various businesses for centuries, controlling trade routes and smuggling in illegal cargo to maximize the bottom line. This has resulted in another big headache for the emerging Iraqi government: very porous borders.
Like Michael pointed out in his original post, this is a major concern. Unless supplies and reinforcements are denied entry into Iraq, the terrorist campaign there can continue for decades. The clans controlling the prime smuggling routes aren’t going to make any real effort to close the borders, it would be cutting their own financial throat. And, since we are dealing with a clan culture, as long as their own relatives aren’t bothered or killed by terrorists they really don’t care.
The problem with putting too much pressure on the smuggling clans is that they’ve managed to protect their economic turf for some time, in some cases centuries. They’ve only managed to fend off rivals by killing off the competition and being pretty hard-core guys. (Think the Mafia on steroids.) To avoid pissing off the well-armed and numerous clansmen on the border, the US has been trying to choke off the supply of new terrorists by putting pressure on Syria. This is doomed to failure, but it was worth a try.
So that’s Iraq. The majority of the people who live there want peace and a chance to get a job and make a better life for themselves, but the main stumbling blocks are a minority of the population that make up hillbilly clans and Mafia families. The hillbillies are pissed off that they’re no longer riding the gravy train since Saddam was deposed, and they think they can forcefully bring the glory days back if they could just get rid of these pesky Americans. The Mafia familes are willing to help as long as the price is right, which means that the hillbillies can be a real problem until their supplies are cut off.
Insurmountable as this might seem, there has been real progress in finding solutions. I’ll discuss that in my next post.