Bribing the “Tribes”


In recent years U.S. Army officers have taken an obsessive interest in the “tribes” of Iraq. It stems from events in the western Iraqi province of al-Anbar, where the U.S. military has enlisted Sunni sheiks (presumably “tribal” leaders) as political allies against al-Qaeda operatives. The impetus for tribal engagement comes primarily from officers and private contractors with social science backgrounds, particularly political science, international relations, and anthropology.

This is not the first time that the idea of the tribe has taken center stage among army personnel. A century ago, the U.S. military completed the task of brutally subduing Native Americans in the “Indian Wars” that followed the passage of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Jackson’s stated aim—to forcibly relocate “a few savage hunters…[including] Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes” and replace them with “an interesting, civilized, and Christian community” of white settlers—was eventually realized by military means.

This history gives some insight into why military planners are obsessed with the concept of tribe today: it provides a justification for manipulating culture to accomplish dubious political objectives. As in the case of 19th century U.S. government tribal policies, the idea of tribe has surfaced at a particular historical moment—a moment in which an expansionist state with occupation forces implements “pacification” programs to quell “savage” insurgents. This now appears to be the case in Iraq, as counterinsurgency specialists portray “tribal”-based strategies as necessary and effective tools for military application. It is telling that today many soldiers and military planners refer to al-Anbar as “the Wild West” and Iraq as “Indian Country,” a troubling phenomenon analyzed recently by archaeologist Stephen Silliman.

Others, such as Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen (former counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus), draw occasional comparisons between al-Anbar province and the mafia underworld: “Out in the wild western desert, things often tend to play out like The Sopranos,” he wrote in 2007. The implication is clear—the only way to impress tribes is through money or by force.

How to Rent a Tribe

Among the Pentagon’s most ambitious analyses of western Iraq’s’asha’ir and qaba’il—which might be loosely translated as kinship groups and confederations—is a 390-page report entitled Iraq Tribal Study (al-Anbar Governorate). Its list of researchers includes: Lin Todd and W. Patrick Lang, former military intelligence officers (Lang holds a masters’ degree in Middle East studies and anthropology); R. Alan King, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs and psychological operations officer; Andrea Jackson, a former research director for the Lincoln Group (a Washington-based public relations firm that was caught paying off Iraqi reporters to write pro-U.S. propaganda in 2005); Montgomery McFate, a doctor of cultural anthropology with years of experience in secret intelligence gathering (conducted under the pseudonym Montgomery Sapone); and Ahmed Hashim, a U.S. Army officer with a PhD in international relations.

The document focuses on three relatively small groups: Albu Fahd, Albu Mahal, and Albu Issa. The authors apparently selected them because of the prominent role their leaders played in challenging al-Qaeda operatives in Ramadi, Qaim, and Fallujah, respectively. The objectives of Iraq Tribal Study are clearly stated in several chapter titles: “Emerging Insights on Influencing the Tribes of al-Anbar” and “Influencing the Three Target Tribes.” Subheadings read like a how-to manual: there are instructions for how to “Leverage Traditional Authority,” “Use a Compelling Ideology,” “Use Appropriate Coercive Force,” and “Use Economic Incentives and Disincentives,” among others. In addition, the authors provide views on “How to Persuade the Tribes to Stop Supporting Insurgency,” “How to Persuade the Tribes to Support the Coalition,” and “How to Work and Live with Tribesmen.”

Such sections spell out techniques for pressing local power brokers into the service of U.S. occupation forces. When the authors of Iraq Tribal Study suggest leveraging “traditional authority,” they mean co-opting local leaders; when they recommend creating a “compelling ideology,” they mean conducting psychological warfare; when they call for “appropriate coercive force,” they mean controlling and focusing attacks on suspected insurgents; and when they mention “economic incentives and disincentives,” they mean rewarding Iraqis who cooperate with U.S. demands and punishing those who don’t. These are the basic techniques of imperial policing—a blend of persuasive and coercive strategies as old as empire.

Iraq Tribal Study frankly discusses the benefits of renting tribes. The authors are not bashful about their admiration for imperial tactics of social control and repression. For example, they review the periods of Ottoman rule (1534-1918) and the British Mandate (1920-1932) for clues on adapting imperial techniques to the 21st century. A section entitled “Engaging the Shaikhs: British Successes, Failures, and Lessons” clearly states how occupying forces might use economic leverage to buy off local leaders: “Convincing the shaikhs that the British were the dominant force…had a powerful effect…. Subsidies and land grants bought loyalty…. Controlling water (irrigation canals), the economic lifelines of the shaikhs’ constituencies was a powerful lever as well. It may be useful to examine the tribal landscape for modern parallels…. Development funds immediately come to mind…. The key lies in putting into the shaikh’s hands the ability to improve their people’s livelihoods, and thereby the shaikh’s own status.”

In the next paragraph, the authors describe how the British handled recalcitrant sheiks—with sticks rather than carrots: “Punitive assaults, both by infantry columns and with air strikes on the villages of shaikhs judged uncooperative brought about short-term cooperation and long-term enmity. Enabled largely by airpower, the British were able to stay in Iraq—with minimal resources—through its independence in 1932 and beyond.”

At another point, the authors note how U.S. occupation forces might learn a lesson in social control from Saddam Hussein’s divisive techniques: “The Baath regime fostered competition between tribes in a ‘divide and rule’ campaign. This method was, and remains, effective because it exploits tribal honor and competition over limited resources. Competition between tribes can be a compelling way to secure the cooperation of one tribe at the expense of another. A tribe is likely to cooperate to keep another tribe from getting the benefits.”

Petraeus’s close advisors euphemistically refer to a strategy of “balancing competing armed interest groups,” implying that they seek to combine a divide-and-conquer strategy with a form of indirect rule over different regions across the country. (Indirect rule—a method of colonial control employed by British and French officials—involved co-opting local leaders to govern colonized peoples on behalf of the empire.)

By the end of the study, the authors are more direct about manipulating Iraqis and outline strategies for influencing “target tribes” through bribes: “Iraq’s tribal values are ripe for exploitation. According to an old Iraqi saying, ‘You cannot buy a tribe, but you can certainly rent one….’ Shaikhs have responded well to financial incentives.” The authors offer specific suggestions for using development funds to win support, and recommend “allowing the shaikhs to advise on and be involved in the distribution of resources” including health care services, dietary supplements, water and sewage treatment plants, telephone and electrical service, farm equipment, and high-quality seeds.

Iraq Tribal Study is at times schizophrenic. Occasionally the authors include passages espousing cultural understanding. For example, they note that “respect (ihtiram in Arabic) is the key to working with tribesmen anywhere in the world,” and suggest that readers “Do not assume that they want to be like you” and “Do not reject their ways as primitive or backward.” On the other hand, the authors often portray Arabs and Islam in unflattering (and sometimes stereotypical) terms. They solemnly comment on “the fatalistic outlook that pervades Iraqi and Arab society,” state that “Iraqi Arabs are generally submissive and obedient to their superiors,” and suggest that Islam is characterized by a “medieval mind set…in which change is neither beneficial nor virtuous.”

Such notions follow a long line of scholarship by European and later American observers who portrayed the “East” in disparaging terms. As the late Edward Said argued in his groundbreaking book Orientalism, such styles of thought were closely connected to imperialism: negative stereotypes reflected the racist attitudes of the day, while at the same time they served to justify the project of Euro-American empire.

Using and Abusing the Social Sciences

Iraq Tribal Study suffers from conceptual problems that have long accompanied the notion of tribe. The authors take an extremely positivist view of tribes in the Middle East, portraying them as mappable and bounded groups with minimal change in membership. In fact, the document’s cover page features a color-coded Iraqi map arrayed with names of dozens of groups. Even more bizarre is the inclusion of an outdated map entitled “Distribution of Tribes in Iraq,” which originally illustrated a 1938 book entitled The Anthropology of Iraq. Another example of the hyper-positivist nature of the report is the use of U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence “tribal structure charts” to illustrate family relationships.

Writing in 1954, renowned British anthropologist E.R. Leach cautioned against using the concept of tribe in such a simplistic way, noting that “it is largely an academic fiction to suppose that in a ‘normal’ ethnographic situation one ordinarily finds distinct ‘tribes’ distributed about the map in orderly fashion with clear-cut boundaries between them…. Many such tribes are, in a sense, ethnographic fictions.” Leach, who traveled extensively through northern Burma while serving in the military during World War II, discovered that “tribal” membership was dynamic, fluid, and often arbitrary.

More recently, anthropologist Richard Tapper has provided another critique of the tribal concept: “The nature of indigenous concepts of tribe…has too often been obscured by the apparent desire of investigators (anthropologists, historians, and administrators) to establish a consistent and stable terminology for political groups…. Unfortunately, Middle Eastern indigenous categories…are no more specific than are English terms such as ‘family’ or ‘group’.”

The authors of Iraq Tribal Study are almost certainly aware of these criticisms. After all, they cite the work of many social scientists, and most of the contributing researchers hold graduate degrees in either anthropology or political science. Why then, would they and other military planners use an outdated, ambiguous concept rejected by most contemporary anthropologists?

U.S. Army commanders—like military commanders anywhere—seek tools or instruments to help accomplish immediate objectives. Given this mission, military strategists were commissioned to create Iraq Tribal Study as a handbook for managing Iraq by bribing tribes—and then dividing them against one another. The report was intended to serve as a “set of analytic and operational tools” for commanders at a time when Petraeus and others were reintroducing counterinsurgency methods into the U.S. military’s repertoire. Iraq Tribal Study was not designed for the purpose of improving the well-being of Iraqi, it was designed to accomplish the dubious objective of helping U.S. forces more effectively manipulate and control a select group of Iraqi power brokers. The fact that this was done in support of an illegal and politically disastrous invasion and military occupation makes social scientists’ participation in such an enterprise even more troubling.

The PowerPoint General and “The Sopranos”

The study reportedly played a role in the decision of U.S. military commanders to pay off Sunnis who stood up against al-Qaeda operatives—a phenomenon that has since come to be known as the al-Anbar “awakening.” On September 10, 2007, Petraeus—who holds a PhD in political science from Princeton University—appeared before the U.S. Congress to provide testimony regarding the situation in Iraq. During the climax of his discussion, he presented PowerPoint slides depicting graphs of declining numbers of insurgent attacks and U.S. and Iraqi casualties in al-Anbar and pointed to the “awakening” as a prime example of progress: “The most significant development in the past six months likely has been the increasing emergence of tribes and local citizens rejecting Al Qaeda and other extremists. This has, of course, been most visible in Anbar Province. A year ago the province was assessed as ‘lost’ politically. Today, it is a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose Al Qaeda.”


Occupation officer & “sheiks”photo by Sgt. Cashour

y the spring of 2008, Petraeus’s “tribal engagement” strategy—which has paid out $767 million to mostly Sunni groups, with another $450 million on the way—was in full swing. Although U.S. commercial media generally portray this as a success, it is increasingly apparent that it is a reckless and potentially disastrous policy over the long run. Documentary filmmaker Rick Rowley was embedded with U.S. troops in 2007 and described how the process works: “Through a combination of threats and enticements, like releasing their kids from prison, the U.S. military has gotten [Sunni] groups to join a coalition. They’re paid money for small construction projects and they’re eventually incorporated into the Iraqi police force, where they’re armed and paid, given a gun, a badge, and the power to arrest…. I didn’t see anyone give an M16 to anyone. But I did see a U.S. captain hand wads of cash to militiamen who were guarding checkpoints.”

According to Rowley, support for the tribes has evidently entailed support for some of Iraq’s most incorrigible criminal figures: “In the town of Fallahat, where there used to be a lot of Shia, there are now no Shia…. [We] found them living on the outskirts of Baghdad in a refugee camp…. There are no services, no doctors, no hospitals, no schools, no running water, no work, no sanitation…. The refugees we talked to knew the names of the people who have kicked them out and bombed their houses. And they are exactly the same tribes the Americans are working with…. Maliki’s head of negotiations with Sunni groups told us the groups the Americans are working with include some of the country’s worst war criminals.”

Why would U.S. forces pursue this strategy? According to Rowley: “The U.S. is funding sectarian militias fighting in a civil war in order to momentarily decrease attacks on Americans…. It’s an easy way to produce immediate statistical successes on the ground, a decrease in attacks on American soldiers.” In other words, the short-term goal of reducing U.S. casualties in order to secure continued Congressional funding for the war takes precedence over the long-term prospects for peace among Iraqis.

Recently, observers have reported that Iraq’s government (dominated by Shiites) has arrested hundreds of members of the “awakening,” including five senior members and others deemed to be dangerous. In a front-page New York Times article on growing tensions between the U.S.-supported “awakening” troops and the Iraqi government, Iraq Army Brigadier General Nasser al-Hiti had this to say about the movement’s leaders: “These people are like cancer, and we must remove them.” According to the article, the Iraqi policy “is causing a rift with the American military, which contends that any significant diminution of the Awakening could result in renewed violence. ‘If this is not handled properly, we could have a security issue,’ said Brigadier General David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq. ‘You don’t want to give anybody a reason to turn back to al-Qaeda’.”

In the meantime, Newsweek magazine recently reported without a trace of irony that “Petraeus says he instructs his young officers, ‘Go watch The Sopranos in order to understand the power dynamics at work in Iraq’.”

Humanizing the Human Sciences

When social scientists employed as military consultants advocate bribing “tribes,” applying “appropriate coercive force,” and using tactics including “divide and conquer” and indirect rule, we must ask if history is repeating itself. All of the recommendations in Iraq Tribal Study have become part of the U.S. military’s new counterinsurgency strategy. Pentagon planners want simple analytical tools to help accomplish short-term objectives and social scientists have been quick to oblige by penning reports suggesting that culture, kinship, tribes, etc. be used as instruments of manipulation and social engineering.            

What comes across from the work of social scientists supporting counterinsurgency initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan (including the authors of Iraq Tribal Study) is a fundamental acceptance of modern warfare in general and the ongoing U.S.-led occupations in particular. They accept the false notion that counterinsurgency—the “graduate level of war” in the words on one military enthusiast—is more antiseptic, more humane, less damaging than conventional warfare. They adhere strictly to Machiavellian principles: do not question the prince or his war, but instead use the most efficient means to help him achieve his aims. War’s inevitability is taken for granted. Within this framework, militarized social scientists calmly discuss the relative merits of divide and conquer versus indirect rule, of bribing stubborn “tribals” versus threatening them with force, of “ethnic cleansing” versus building apartheid-style “separation barriers.” One is not certain whether to be more horrified by the reckless proposals offered by military planners in the name of “stability operations” or by the cool equanimity with which they discuss these proposals.


A “displaced” Iraqi famil north of Baghdad, March 2008photo by Sgt William Greer

Missing from the work of these human scientists are the perspectives of Albert Einstein, who convened a press conference in 1932 to declare: “War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished.” Missing too are the insights of Margaret Mead, who noted in 1949 that “Warfare is only an invention—not a biological necessity.” Humanizing the human sciences will require a commitment to the kinds of values articulated eloquently by the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, who in 1917 argued that scholars are obligated “to humanity as a whole and that, in a conflict of duties, our obligations to humanity are of higher value than those toward the nation…patriotism must be subordinated to humanism.”


Roberto J. González is associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State and founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, a group promoting ethical anthropology. He is author of Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (2001) and American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain (forthcoming, Prickly Paradigm Press).