COIN in a Tribal Society: an interview with William S. “Mac” McCallister
William S. “Mac” McCallister is a retired military officer, a U.S. Army major, who served in numerous special operations assignments specializing in civil-military, psychological and information operations, with focuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
I was introduced to Mac a few weeks ago, when he forwarded to Maj. Jim Gant his paper “COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society,” which he’d written in 2007, and which focuses on Iraq. Mac was in Iraq around the same time Maj. Gant was in Afghanistan. Both were working with tribes, attempting to figure out what works in the real world and what doesn’t. Since his return, Mac has continued publishing work focused upon military affairs and tribal warfare. He has guest-lectured at Johns Hopkins University and presented numerous papers at academic and government- sponsored conferences such as the Watson Institute, Brown University; Department of the Navy Science and Technology and DARPA; and the Central Intelligence Agency. He has appeared as a guest on National Public Radio (NPR) and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal. As a senior consultant for Applied Knowledge International (AKI), he continues to study current events in Iraq and Afghanistan in tribal terms, including the tribal art of war and peace, tribal mediation processes, development of tribal centers of power, and tribal influence in political developments. He has applied his study of tribal culture in assessing reconstruction efforts, as well as insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror.
This is the first of what I hope will be a series of interviews with Mac McCallister. We also plan to excerpt his paper in the coming weeks, then make it available here as a free .pdf.
SP: Your paper COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society is based on your experiences working with tribes in Iraq, during the Awakening period. When tribal engagement is brought up today in connection to Afghanistan, some readers assume that its principles are derived from the U.S. military’s experience in Iraq and therefore won’t work because Afghanistan is a different animal from Iraq. What do you say to that?
WM: I think it normal that our engagement strategies in Afghanistan are somewhat based on our experiences in Iraq. How could it be otherwise?
If journalism is, indeed, the first draft of history, it would make total sense for the media to simplify the tribal engagement narrative so that everyone can share in the experience. The simplified tribal engagement narrative lumps the Anbar Awakening and Sons of Iraq in Salah ad Din Governorate together as if they were the same. Although a closer scrutiny would identify major differences in motivation and execution on part of the patron and client, it is a logical analogy.
We shouldn’t be surprised that many of our politicians, celebrity media pundits and think tankers are now hyping the one size fits all “awakening” myth and its universal application-“I am not sure what this awakening thing is all about, but I want more. . . .”
We tend to dismiss the fact that our soldiers and Marines have been working in Afghanistan since 2001. The simple engagement narrative assumes that we have learned nothing in the last 8 years about the local cultural operating environment.
WM: In my opinion, the tribal engagement discussion entails four components. These are the definition, description, prescription, and prediction component. The definition component is the most important.
What exactly is a tribe? Do tribes even exist in Afghanistan-or are we dealing with some other form of social organization?
One definition of “tribe” declares “a social group of humans connected by a shared system of values and organized for mutual care, defense, and survival beyond which could be attained by a lone individual or family.” Another defines as “societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, descent groups, related by blood or marriage.” Still another classifies tribes as “units of socio-political organizations of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.” A fourth definition states that a tribe is “any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, and adherence to the same leadership.”
Tribal identities exist in Afghanistan, but local communities and interest groups may not necessarily organize themselves based on these identities. Individuals tend to define themselves in terms of a group identity. A qawm, or solidarity group, is a collection of people that act as a single unit, which is organized on the basis of some shared identity, system of values, beliefs and or interests. It can describe a family group or reflect a geographical area. It can specify a group of people united by a common political or military goal under one jang salar or martial leader. Members of a village; the inhabitants of a valley; a warlord and his retainers; a strongman and his followers; a bandit and his forty thieves, or the local chapter of the Taliban are all aqwam (plural).
Do tribes exist in Afghanistan? Yes. Tribes exist in Afghanistan, but I personally like the term “qawm” or solidarity group much better when discussing social organizations in Afghanistan.
SP: David Ronfeldt, the distinguished writer and former senior RAND analyst, has gotten into this debate a little. He thinks we can drive ourselves crazy with fine, academic distinctions. In his view, if “tribal dynamics” are in play, then we need to “think tribally” if we hope to understand them.
WM: Bottom line, it doesn’t matter to me what we call things, whether tribes, solidarity groups, or circus clowns, as long as our labels support our efforts, rather than force us into analytical and operational dead-ends just to prove an academic point. We need to explain clearly what we mean and proceed from there.
Fighting in Afghanistan requires that we question our implicit assumptions on everything from social organizations to individual motivating factors since we are not in Kansas anymore. We must accept that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in Afghanistan and instead try to recognize significant patterns of behavior. Afghan social relationships are very complex. In my opinion, the key tenet of COIN is to:
“effectively communicate intent, whether kinetically or non-kinetically, within the target audience’s cultural frame of reference.”
SP: You said there were four components to any discussion of tribal engagement. Can you briefly explain the final three-description, prescription and prediction component?
WM: Simply put, the description component identifies and describes the existing social system’s institutions, organizations, and actors such as key village or valley leadership, religious personalities, or solidarity groups and the types of influence of each in an area of operation. I apply the imperial-confederacy model to describe the social system’s behavior as follows: the operational environment is a mosaic of territories, each of which lies under the immediate authority of a local qawm or tribe. The fluctuations in the fortunes of each qawm or tribe inevitably impacts upon other local territories, whose patronage relationships or allegiances at any given time are largely dictated by events in the area.
For example: in Anbar province in Iraq, the Albu Risha, a third tier tribe in the Dulaym Confederation, exploited its patronage relationship with the USMC. Under the guise of fighting al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and with our help, markedly improved its standing and power in the confederation vis-à-vis the more reputable tribes. In the words of Napoleon, the Abu Risha stole a march on their rivals in the Dulaym Confederation.
The prescription component spells out the specific strategy to shape and influence the actions of an ally, patronage or alliance network in a given area of operation i.e. the ends, ways and means employed to achieve our end-state in a given village, valley or region.
This is most challenging, requiring considerable skill as well as nerve, in assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the relevant tribes at any given time. A great deal of political sagacity is required in determining what course of action and what political alignments will serve best. For example: the U.S. pushed the Sons of Iraq, a U.S. Army-sponsored security force, into the arms of a less than welcoming Maliki government.
While realpolitik considerations may have forced our hand to create a patronage relationship between the Maliki government and Sons of Iraq, it actually weakened the Maliki government in the short term and may have actually exasperated the already tense relationship between the Sunnis in Salah ad Din province and Shia dominated government in the long-term.
The prediction component is the result of war-gaming the second and third level effects of a given initiative and the likely responses of ally, neutral, accomplice, fence-sitter or opponent, whether in local or national government, village or valley. Definition, description, prescription, and prediction serve to create an appreciation of the social system’s rules of play and behavior in an area of operation, and an ability to explain the actors and factors in play as groups compete for access to limited resources and power.
SP: You wrote in COIN and Irregular Warfare that
“throughout history, rulers and administrators located in the capital had to resort to various methods to retain power and prevent attacks from the countryside or to check the process by which a new dynasty might arise to seize power. The countryside and its inhabitants embody a continuous danger that threatens urban administration.”
This scenario is definitely in action in Afghanistan today. What can we learn from U.S. experience in Iraq? How did you approach the differences between the tribes there? Was there one method or philosophy that worked with all of them?
WM: The approach that worked for me was to structure my analysis applying a number of cultural operating codes and coordinating messages in assessing the actions of the various actors competing against one another in Iraq. The four cultural operating codes are shame and honor, segmentation or the tendency of all groups to engage in alliance and coalition building, patronage, and territory. The two coordinating messages and something you hear in every conversation are “what have you done for me lately and what will you do for me tomorrow” and “no stability without us.”
I also noticed that although the bureaucratic trappings of the Iraqi state looked like those found in any Western nation-state, it didn’t act like it in the way power is accumulated and distributed among its component parts. The Iraqi state behaves more like an imperial-confederacy, where control is exercised by an organized political entity that attracts and incorporates local political entities without absorbing them. Control is not exercised directly, but indirectly. While an imperial confederacy might appear to control monopolies of coercive authority, it does not because the hegemon, whether monarch, military clique, or other elites, has been unsuccessful in developing the forms of popular legitimacy as recognized in the West necessary to support its rule. All political relationships are quid pro quo based with local political entities retaining considerable autonomy vis a vis the central government.
When the imperial structure collapses, local entities are ready to reemerge as autonomous political actors. In terms of power, local political entities remain a latent threat to the central authority, which is forced to continually guard against challenges from the periphery. We find a similar type of political system in Afghanistan. The accomplished strategist in both Iraq and Afghanistan seeks harmony, not sameness.
SP: When you say “local entities,” do you mean tribes?
WM: “Local entities” can be tribes, solidarity groups, military commanders, rural and urban elites, politicians and political parties, technocrats, kith and kin networks etc. The Western nation-state model doesn’t answer my questions as to why local actors behave the way they do in Iraq or Afghanistan. The imperial-confederacy model does. So, I adapted the model to the 21st Century and changed my analytical paradigm. In my opinion, the imperial-confederacy is more inclusive of various actors in the social system and sheds greater light on the competitive relationship between autonomous centers of social power.
I have gained a deeper appreciation and understanding of the social forces in play in both in Iraq or Afghanistan. An appreciation for how an imperial-confederacy behaves over time better explains how things work in a given territory and helps describe the relationship between power and insurrection. I believe it can assist us in articulating appropriate political-military strategies and initiatives that if executed well will effectively communicate intent within the target audience’s cultural frame of reference.
I’ve stopped beating my head against the wall trying to understand Iraq or Afghanistan applying the Western nation-state template. The imperial-confederacy model works for me.
SP: How do tribes fit into this?
WM: I have often asked myself what is the role of the tribe (or qawm) in the building of major political systems and institutions and how do we integrate these folks? The answer to that question will require more strategists and fewer technical planners. On a side note: I personally am very supportive of Major Jim Gant’s “one tribe (qawm) at a time” approach. It expresses a natural pattern of behavior within the imperial-confederacy paradigm and resonates with the locals. Somewhere out there some tribe, qawm or pretender to greatness is fighting against an established order, fighting against an emerging order or fighting to establish a new order.