Tribal boots on the ground in Iraq


As the Obama administration begins to implement its strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Iraq’s tribes are getting a fresh look as a possible partner to confront the terrorist group. Tribal groups were used against al-Qaida in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province in 2006-2008 during the Awakening movement, providing the U.S. with advantages where placing U.S. troops directly in harm’s way is off the table. Arab tribes are based upon extended family and kinship. The tribal structure is hierarchical, usually led by a paramount sheik, with sub-sheiks leading smaller tribal groupings or family clans.

These tribal structures can be used to trump Islamist identity and to better organize communities to resist oppression.

The “Anbar model” consisted of enlisting local tribes in their own defense by working through local sheiks to form community police forces to protect local villages and to partner with the Iraqi army and Iraqi Police against al-Qaida. The key benefit of working with the tribes is that they rob the insurgency of manpower by employing their potential recruits into the government’s security services, increasing the eyes and ears of the government against the insurgency, and organizing the community to resist insurgent intimidation. This program turned Anbar Province around but was eventually undercut by the Maliki government as it reduced and then eliminated funding, persecuted tribal leaders and marginalized the Sunni community.

To defeat ISIS, the tribes in Sunni Arab provinces must be enlisted in their own defense to resist and then roll back those forces. A campaign using only the Iraqi army will not be sufficient since they are predominantly Shiite, do not come from the areas they seek to liberate and legitimate concerns exist about their fighting ability. A synchronized effort of army, police, and tribal forces must be used to push ISIS out of the areas it controls and a new tribal outreach effort must be attempted applying the “Anbar model” to other parts of the country.

However that effort must be tailored to the current political situation in Iraq, the lack of large numbers of U.S. troops and a deficit of trust that exists between many Sunni Arabs and the central,

Shiite-led government. One model for such an approach is Yemen where the Yemeni army launched a clearing operation against al-Qaida in April utilizing tribal popular committees that had spontaneously organized to fight the terrorist group.

The first step to enlist Iraq’s tribes against ISIS is to integrate their leaders into security planning in Baghdad and use U.S. forces to serve as a bridge between the tribes and the government. The next step is for the U.S. to pledge money for salaries and other support to these tribal forces for at least five years.  A round of tribal engagement must then be undertaken with sheiks who have fled western and northern Iraq in order to introduce the security initiative, and a training program should be created in Jordan and Turkey to train tribal members. A new tribal awakening is possible in Iraq just as long as the U.S. applies the lessons it has learned from its years of war and remembers that, in the words of the former commander of the Arab Legion of Jordan, General John Bagot Glubb, “[t]he only way to defeat guerillas is with better guerillas, not by the methods of regular warfare.”

Green is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  He is the co-author with William F. Mullen III of Fallujah Redux: The Anbar Awakening and the Struggle with al-Qaeda published by the Naval Institute Press in September.  This op/ed first appeared as a blog on

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