Shame and Honor, not Hearts and Minds: an interview with William S. “MAC” McCallister, #2
[COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society, by William S. “MAC” McCallister, was first featured on Small Wars Journal in 2007. This paper remains an important read today, as do the many other papers and discussions posted to Small Wars Journal and the Small Wars Journal Blog. If you aren’t familiar with the site, please add it to your “must-read” list. Check out some of Mac’s other papers there, too.]
SP: This sentence from your paper COIN and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society is just one of many standouts:
“Shame and Honor NOT ‘hearts and minds’ govern individual /group relationships and competition.”
You go on to say that
“Honor is a finite resource and exchanged like currency.”
How can the United States better trade in the currency of Honor? What worked in Iraq?
WM: Western concepts of shame and honor are different from those found elsewhere in the world. The counter-insurgent should not assume that his concept of shame and honor is the same as the target audience in a given area of operation.
Shame and honor as currency may be a bit of a misnomer. The currency is the tangibles that imposing shame and extending honor confer on an individual or group. These tangibles are credibility, legitimacy and prestige, which can be bartered into greater power. Consider the following scenarios:
We ask a tribal leader to speak on behalf of the government and its counter-insurgency campaign. He refuses. We now distrust him and believe that he supports the insurrection. But we have missed the point completely. By asking for assistance, we bestowed credibility and legitimacy. Credibility because we asked this particular leader, and legitimacy because we believe he can assist us. If managed properly, our innocent request for assistance will be manipulated into greater prestige for this particular tribe and exploited to extend the existing patronage network. The objective is to amass greater power.
If it is our intent to empower specific tribal entities, so be it, but how many times did we accept at face value the first individual who said he was the paramount “sheik” or leader of a given area? We should always consider the possibility that the “powerful send messengers” or that we are dealing with a representative from a weaker tribe or solidarity group attempting to steal a march on its rivals. In this scenario, when we bestow credibility, legitimacy and prestige, it translates into a power advantage vis-à-vis ones rival.
Lieutenant General John R. Allen, USMC, who served as the Deputy Commander for II MEF in Anbar, and now serves as the Deputy Commander, United States Central Command, was very adept at exploiting the shame and honor operating code. An accomplished strategist, he did this by favoring one group or another to manipulate and shape the various centers of tribal power within the Dulaym Confederation in Anbar province.
On the other hand, we must not forget that the II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) was also manipulated and shaped in turn. Not that there is anything wrong with being manipulated, as long as you know that you are not being taken for a ride.
I venture to say that leaders of all shades, whether tribal, solidarity group, politicians, media pundits, or celebrity think tankers, love credibility, legitimacy and prestige, which are not necessarily sought for their own sake, but for the inherent advantages they imply in the quest for greater power.
SP: How was II MEF manipulated and shaped in return?
WM: The answer to this question requires a bit of background information. Under the guise of fighting against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Albu Risha, a third tier tribe, established a security-economic patronage relationship with the II MEF, to improve its relative power position within the Dulaymi Confederation in Anbar, Iraq.
The Albu Risha had a number of political and economic objectives. They sought to increase their influence in non-Albu Risha tribal areas and to gain control and competitive advantage over a number of major trade routes in Anbar. The “Awakening” movement, or Sahawa al Iraq (SAI), and its relationship with the II MEF, provided the Albu Risha a way to achieve this end.
The primary Albu Risha strategy to gain access to non-Albu Risha territories was to open SAI political offices in non-Risha areas. From a tribal perspective, SAI political offices are akin to embassies or consulates in a rival tribe’s territory.
Before a SAI office could be established, at least 1,000 local residents had to pledge their support. One thousand signatures on a petition translated into approximately 5,000 supporters if we assume that each SAI backer supported a family of four. If we further assume that at least a third of those individuals were males of fighting age, SAI could rely upon approximately 1,700 rifles to maintain its presence in the territory.
SAI offices performed three functions. These functions were consultative or political, economic, and security. The key money makers for the Albu Risha were the economic and security functions that each SAI office performed in a rival tribe’s territory.
The proliferation of SAI offices followed a predictable pattern:
SAI organizers would assist local backers in opening a political office, consolidate its presence, and act as a springboard for future expansion in the area. A permanent SAI presence protected its local supporters against push-back by rival power-brokers.
Once established, SAI began to focus on gaining full control over the security and economic sectors in the area. SAI recruited local merchants and businessmen, and other prominent tribal leaders, as part of a deliberate and systematic attempt to disrupt the existing socio-economic, i.e. patronage relationships, in the area.
Supplying security was an important source of revenues for the Albu Risha and its allies.
Security services were offered to various neighborhoods and sold to merchants and businessmen seeking protection. In time, all trade along local routes had to be coordinated through the local SAI office. Those commercial companies that did not coordinate their economic and security activities with the local SAI branch were charged a heavy fine.
The Albu Risha would experience “push-back” by more-established families, houses and tribes.
II MEF on numerous occasions received warnings and veiled threats that a number of houses and tribes were prepared to challenge Albu Risha attempts at hegemony since it was generally accepted that II MEF was the primary patron of Albu Risha tribe and therefore responsible for the Albu Risha’s conduct.
SP: You wrote that it took
“Saddam Hussein 30 years to develop the Anbar patronage security system to fit his needs.”
The point being that it takes time to develop the two-way exchange of patronage:
“In exchange for someone’s patronage, the patron is responsible for providing something in return (protection, economic and or political assistance). A patronage relationship is not easily entered into. The decision to do so reflects a strategic decision and a commitment by two parties to maximize a kindred strategy or long-term relationship.”
The investment of time and resources aside, how does the U.S. counter corruption and ground fledgling patronages?
WM: Our investments of resources flow through existing conduits. The question is whether these conduits and associated patronage relationships can be reconfigured to create modern social structures or, after all is said and done, will we have only reconfigured existing patronage networks with new associates?
I just can’t bring myself to believe that we are going to succeed in changing how the locals manage power and distribute resources. I was recently accused by a participant in an on-line discussion group of blatant cynicism because I accept the notion that a bit of corruption serves a useful purpose. It most certainly does when the social model is an imperial-confederacy. I was further accused of seeking to withhold the blessings of modernity because I believe that we are not going to change the way the locals conduct business.
Our themes and messages just don’t resonate with the locals. The same person who accused me of attempting to withhold the blessings of modernity explained to me that all that was needed to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan was to establish properly functioning legislature, executive and judicial branches, so that the Afghan people didn’t have to resort to thuggery and thievery in the distribution of power and valued resources. I don’t know, maybe properly functioning legislature, executive and judicial branches will eliminate corruption, but I believe the verdict is still out.
We expect Iraqi and Afghan politicians to serve the people. The idea that an Iraqi or Afghan leader must represent all the people is ludicrous. The same holds true in the United States. Here, we are continuously bombarded by senators, representatives and bureaucrats who purport to speak for all the American people, although they were elected or selected by only a small percentage of the total population. The honorable senator or district representative from states other than my own don’t represent me, so why do they presume to speak for me? People in Iraq, Afghanistan and countries around the world ask the same question.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders are expected to provide tangible support to members of the kith and kin network, for which they’ll receive tangible support in return. It is a social contract. If the leader doesn’t deliver, he might be removed or the membership might migrate to a patron who will. Individual members who do not meet their social obligations may be chastised or banished.
Kith and kin will adore their own strongman, jang salar, or warlord more than the empty promises of the state. Bottom line, the state is unable to please all of its subjects all of the time. The kith and kin network will do its best to please its own tribe or qawm all of the time, and has a much better track record at doing so than the state.
Some corruption is required if seen within the cultural, social and political context of an imperial-confederation. It is important to understand that individual acts of corruption are not performed in isolation. Each official, whether a traffic cop or bureaucrat, is dependent upon a support structure and is a member of a patronage network. No one acts alone. All members of the network depend upon others. The larger the patronage network, the greater its’ coercive power.
The Iraqi and Afghan social systems are an expression of perpetual competition. Targeted acts of what we perceive as corruption may actually strengthen relationships with select allies and mobilize new ones to expand a pre-existing patronage network or defend against challengers.
Some networks deliberately stay inefficiently small and organize their activities in a complex manner to avoid the attention of larger more powerful networks. Other patronage networks may seek to achieve economy of scale so as to seize the reins of power.
Corrupt acts should be defined within a given cultural, social, or political context. The trick is to acknowledge that context. I therefore don’t believe that our counter-corruption efforts will ground fledgling patronage networks. Our efforts will reshuffle the deck and change the relative power of existing patronage networks, strengthening some, weakening others.
Instead of declaring war on all forms of corruption, maybe we could focus our efforts on fostering predictability in the system and strengthening consumer confidence that a given bribe will purchase the promised service at a reasonable price.
SP: Are tribal militias/community “watches” a way to help Afghanistan soldiers stay near their families, while also ensuring a diverse ethnic and regional make-up-so that forces come from all regions? And in doing this, would this be a way to strengthen the patronage system between the U.S. military and the Afghanistan people?
WM: Local tribal militias and community “watches” are a way to get the local qawm to assume responsibility for securing its village against militants who might wish to use it as a safe haven. We assume that the village participating in a U.S. military sponsored program such as the Afghan Public Protection Force is loyal to the central government.
The promise of economic development and an enhanced quality of life are the means to entice local communities to reclaim their villages from militants who wish to turn local communities into safe havens for insurrection. In other words, we offer the locals an incentive to serve, and in the process exploit an age old instrument in establishing patronage relationships; the subsidy.
Major Jim Gant’s scheme in his area of operation, for example, is just one of many individual initiatives. The cumulative effect of all these individual initiatives is an integrated system of defended village strong points. The villages in the end are individual links in a strong point defense schematic. These strong points, arranged in depth, serve as pivot points in an elastic offensive capability centered on loyal villages prepared to defend and attack militant formations as these penetrate the defensive system.
SP: Within tribes, you wrote that
“the intent is to create the perception that there is more to be gained by cooperation than by trying to form a separate center of power.”
This helps to keep other tribes from challenging each other. How can this be accomplished with a central government? Through the patronage system? How can cooperation between the tribes and the officials in Kabul be reached?
WM: Any sitting government will attempt to co-opt (through patronage) those autonomous local authorities it considers vital for regime survival. It will also seek to marginalize those local authorities it deems a threat to its existence.
There are a number of strategies available to the central government. The central government is likely to apply a judicious mixture of carrot and stick to attract and coerce. In time, authorities may seek to expand an existing patronage-security network. The larger the patronage network, the greater its’ coercive power, and the greater the perception that there is more to be gained by cooperation than by forming a separate center of power. Managing coalitions is both an art and a science.
There is a structural limit to the size of a patronage network. The loyalty of a given membership must be constantly maintained or renewed. As resources are spent to recruit new retainers to expand the network, resources available to preserve previous loyalties must decline. If the leadership attempts to enlarge its sphere of influence, it must calculate the costs so as not to lose its base support, network reach and stability.
SP: In Iraq, the Awakening is considered a turning point, a success. If the work with the tribes doesn’t “stick”, will history change its view of success? How do you measure success when working with the tribes? By action, by staying power, by something else?
WM: The awakening movement in Anbar province is an interesting case study in tribal-state relations. From a tribal perspective, the Albu Risha, under the guise of fighting al Qaeda, entered into a patronage relationship with the U.S. military in Anbar in order to gain a powerful patron in its quest to renegotiate its social position within the Dulaym Confederation, as did many other smaller and less powerful tribal groups. The Albu Risha and their allies are now reaping the benefits of winning. The winners and losers in Anbar will continue to compete for limited resources. As we speak, somewhere in Anbar, there is a pretender to greatness preparing to fight against the established order, preparing to fight against an emerging order or preparing to fight to establish a new order. The Maliki government in the meantime is not too concerned with the internal governance of Anbar so long as its ally (patronage relationship) serves the purpose of maintaining order in Anbar and if called upon helps defend the Maliki government against challenge. This association will last as long as both parties benefit from the patronage relationship.
This ought to be required reading for McChrystal and his staff; it’s 180′ opposed to their current style of operations.
A major difference to A’stan, however, is that Ramadi had Sheik Sattar stand up (Sept 2006) and embrace the Marines. Their mutual success – earned at the cost of the lives of Marines in 1st Bn, 6th Marines, conferred a legitmacy on their efforts that gave the other tribes in Anbar the courage to join them. There’s not yet a local chief in A’stan with Sattar’s courage, which slows the process considerably.
2 MEF (Fwd) is getting cooperation in Helmand, Nimroz, and Farah, but on a village-by-village basis – which is a huge agricultural area, slows the process considerably. The small ANA-Marines bases of 5-7 Marines and 15-20 ANA (similar to OP Va, OP Hawk, OP Khatanna in Ramadi) remain the most effective tactics to date as it lets the local chiefs govern in relative safety.
There’s far less success in the east where the Army is reluctant to get out of their MRAPS and actually talk to the locals, plus they keep pushing the benefits of the Karzai government, which the locals know is clearly a joke. Tip O’Neal would have understood Afghan politics; “all politics is local”, the problem being that ‘local’ in Afghanistan is river valley – by river valley, and village – by- village. ‘One size’ does not fit all here !
Dear Mr. Lubin,
Thanks for the plug.
You are absolutely correct; each village, valley, and / or region requires its own campaign plan. The idea that we might actually need separate campaign plans for every village, valley, or region has been difficult to accept especially since we tend to favor centralization and governing from the center.
The best that we might achieve in an area of operation is a coalition of villages prepared to defend against or to attack militant formations as they penetrate the defensive network. Creating and managing coalitions is critical. Successful strategy is successful politics.
Instead of trying to fit a centralized square peg in a round decentralized whole, why not just adopt different strategies to fit each area? It’s really not that difficult; if Village A wants governance, and Village B wants economics…we provide what’s necessary.
The biggest difference between ops in Iraq and Afghanistan is the distance. In Ramadi, or the other cities, you had different tribes on different blocks, so what worked in with ‘A’ likely worked with ‘B’. In A’stan A and B might be seperated by 5 miles and a thousand years; the current ISAF idea of centralization and standardization is a guarantee of failure and more unnecessary American deaths.
I’ve watched the Marines do it in Helmand. It’s time intensive, energy intensive, and tiring. But it works.
Dear Mr. Lubin,
Our soldiers and Marines are indeed dealing with folks that are “separated by 5 miles and a thousand years”. There are places in the world where the past, present, change and continuity coexist in the same social space. Our political and military strategy must incorporate this condition.
Another reason our initiatives in Anbar province worked as well as they did was because we were dealing with tribes that were all members of the Dulaym Confederation. This is not the case in Helmand province or eastern Afghanistan where confederations comparably to the one we dealt with in Anbar do not exist.
Trying to make sense of the myriad alliance relationships and dealing with numerous competing aqwam (solidarity groups) is indeed “time intensive, energy intensive, and tiring”. It takes much patience, persistence and time with time a critical resource in short supply.
Thanks for your post.
Just finished digesting your last response in our previous exchange (interview pt. 1) and this one. I can’t tell you how much humor and comfort I took in your stories about governmental agency representatives and the people who made accusations of you. It’s good to know you’re not the lone ranger some days.
I think it’s worth noting, in the context of your anecdotes, history’s many instances of soldiers proving themselves to be adept statesmen than the elected officials. The wisdom in the treaty developed by Johnston and Sherman, the policies and politics of Marshall and Eisenhower, and the sage advice of Colin Powell all indicate the potential for accomplishment if the right commanders are found and educated.
There are many proponents of divorcing the military from the responsibilities of managing the multiple functions of “nation-building” on the grounds that it is an instrument built to do two things– break things and kill people. I happen to agree with this faction, but only because others in our political and military leadership have set up a system which defies the principles you outline.
I believe a major reason we pulled defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq in 2003 was that, regardless of the numerical strength of our forces, we deprived them of diplomatic “tribal” power. Leaders didn’t have fundamental knowledge of tribal organization or lines of operation and our post-invasion strategy for the first six months after units achieved steady state operations was focused on terrain and fixed sites. Worst of all, the military’s roles and responsibilities were partnered/subordinated/adjacent to the Coalition Provisional Authority. The confusion within the CPA itself resulting from Bremer’s replacement of Garner further muddled the situation. Within 12 months we had constructed a system as confusing to the Iraqis as the one they’d taken centuries to build was to us.
I believe, in that regard, we dilluted the power and prestige earned by the military during the invasion. Whatever respect we’d garnered through “shock and awe” was suddenly eroded. Though the arrival of the suits was primarily confined to Baghdad, there was a trickle-down effect. The huge stores of cash found in Saddam’s palaces became the guinea pig for the CERP fund program, but the method by which money was distributed, even at the battalion level, was stricly regimented and supervised. It was evident to every Iraqi sheikh and contractor who observed the procedure that the local company and battalion commanders was taking his cues from someone else. Our legitimacy was dilluted.
When I first arrived in Northern Iraq, we had yet to commit any faux pas or atrocity on the order of Abu Ghraib or Mahmudiyah. Everyone regarded us with utmost respect– so much so that at times we had to explain to the locals we weren’t as omnipotent as they thought. General Petraeus described this as the “moon man perception”. We put a man on the moon, so fixing their country would be a snap for us. Technological superiority and accomplishing in 100 days what the Iranian horde couldn’t do in eight years aside, the Iraqis had a certain perception of us– we were warlords.
I don’t bat the term around lightly or cynically. The Iraqis were incredibly comfortable with the idea of being governed by warlords. Many of them derived a sense of security from it. We had kicked out Saddam and his army, occupied the old bases and conducted patrols throughout the cities and towns. To them, it logically followed that one power broker was gone and a new one had replaced him. If you needed to get something done in the new Iraq, you went to the warlords.
Then their frustrations began. Why was progress on a Tal Afar construction project limited by a $500-a-week budget? Because the company commander only gets $500 from the battalion commander. Well then why don’t you go tell the battalion commander to increase the funds so we can get these powerlines fixed? Because the battalion commander is mandated to only give $500 a week to this project. Who mandated this? The General in Mosul. Why did the General do that? Because that’s what the man in the suit in Baghdad said to. So it was that, as we became frustrated that every village and tribe required a different approach, the Iraqis became frustrated that we demanded a single, uniform approach. Doubly aggravating was that, for the first year, not even the Americans knew how their own system worked.
That’s why I believe Major Gant’s approach is a more philosophically sound approach to COIN. It allows commanders on the ground to become warlords. Their immediate source of firepower is the local partnered tribe, and they have the add-on of whatever happens to be listening to their radio frequency. But the biggest punch is in what you describe above. The power, prestige, and respect accorded to a warlord commander remains intact. Placed further out on his own, there is no higher headquarters constantly looking over a warlord’s shoulder.
However, as I’ve expressed concern about before and you detail here, managing all that power and prestige is complicated. I’m not sure the average infantry company commander is armed with the proper education to do it successfully.
We’ve discussed helping the men on the ground here. I’d like to know what your opinion is on just how much training, in general principles and cultural specifics, would one of Major Gant’s Tribal Engagement Team leaders need to be effective in the context of the “shame and honor spectrum”?
Sorry to double-post, but found this incredibly interesting. An excerpt from the Army’s forthcoming publication on the history of Enduring Freedom, “A Different Kind of War”:
“An important distinction here is the difference between state formation and state failure. It is not that a nation-state never evolved in Afghanistan; rather, most scholars view the country as a failed state whose infrastructure has been destroyed or rendered ineffective by war and other disasters. As M. Nazif Shahrani explained, “The primary reason for the failure has been the unwillingness or inability of the leadership to shift from a tribal political culture anchored in person-centered politics to a broader, more inclusive, participatory national politics based on the development of modern national institutions and ideologies.” Despite their universalist message, the Taliban refused to stop behaving like Pashtuns historically acted– they embodied a tribal hegemony that has scorned other tribes and traditions, and failed to reach out to broaden their base of support. ”
Per our previous discussion, it seems the authors are indicating that the reason Afghanistan is in its current, deplorable, status is that it never found a way to embrace a “modern” (read, western modern) political system. Are we teaching our people the wrong message?
Dear Mr. Gourley,
You are absolutely correct. There are many instances of soldiers in recent times being more adept at frontier statecraft than professional diplomats or elected officials. How could it be otherwise when some of the state department folks I met in Anbar argued passionately that the tribal ethos much less tribes or tribalism as a social organizing principle was an anachronism? This is nothing new. I venture to say that a Roman commander along the Rhine was more adept at tribal statecraft and diplomacy than a diplomat dispatched from Rome to the frontier to negotiate a truce.
Socrates’ admonition that “the unexamined life is not worth living” is well worth considering here as we execute military operations along the frontier. His admonition is not a clarion call to question authority but to inquire and understand the reasons why we think and act the way we do.
Why would the U.S. military embrace our current counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine without questioning the validity of social engineering? The U.S. military’s approach to COIN is rooted in the nineteenth century idea of creating a more organized and rationalistic society. The American progressive movement consisted of political and social reformers who sought to harness the new forces of social organization for the betterment of society. Central to late nineteenth century progressivism was the notion that informed and enlightened professionals could improve society from the top down by applying their specialized knowledge to create more rational and efficient institutions. Progressivism’s philosophy of government by enlightened experts’ fit nicely with the U.S. military’s brand of benevolent paternalism. This philosophy has evolved into today’s versions of modernization, political and economic development theories. Our highly touted population-centric COIN approach is an attempt at a technical blueprint to impose a philosophy of governance deeply rooted in the ideals of the progressive movement of the late nineteenth century.
There is a general consensus among coalition partners that the state has three core functions: providing security, representation and welfare (through providing and/or redistributing wealth). Reconstituting or establishing a state’s capacity in these areas is seen to provide a state with legitimacy. If a state is unable to execute these functions and has limited legitimacy then it is either ‘fragile’, or has ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’. This definition merges both Locke’s social contract component and Weber’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force component.
I am not sure whether the locals in Afghanistan share in the consensus. It appears that the new social contract in Afghanistan does not stipulate that the Taliban must stop behaving like Pashtuns have behaved historically or to accept Weber’s insistence that the central government is obligated to dispute by force the sovereignty of autonomous communities.
We have been sold a bill of goods by the proponents of a kindler-gentler, social work approach to warfare. These magic beans ain’t sprouting. No matter how you slice the onion, population centric COIN is a means to impose our will upon an opponent. It is a strong arm tactic to renegotiate the social contract. The COINISTAS are peddling a technical blueprint for social engineering in which well meaning soldiers and Marines bestow upon a grateful society a number of social, political and economic reforms designed to produce a more efficient and honest government and a more modern, rational, and organized society. Not that there is anything wrong with that as long as we are honest with ourselves about what we are doing. I, on the other hand, question whether the social-work approach to warfare actually works. It hasn’t before, why now?
Major Gant’s approach is indeed a more philosophically sound approach to Foreign Internal Defense (FID) along the frontier. It is FID when we assist a foreign government in containing or defeating an insurgency, insurrection or rebellion. It is COIN if we have to fight against an insurrectionist movement inside the U.S. I’ll stick with COIN so as not to confuse the issue.
COIN on the frontier is a very personal affair. You describe U.S. military leaders as warlords or strongmen. It is a valid description. Success along the frontier depends on the local commander’s ability to effectively engage and communicate intent to the local community. If he speaks with authority and governs like a benevolent patron and acts in ways the people understand and respect then the community might transfer its allegiance to him. Not because of grandiose notions of a modern, social organization or more rational governance but because he is someone that will protect friends and punish enemies.
“…the key tenet of COIN/FID is to effectively communicate intent within the target audiences’ cultural frame of reference.”
You ask if we are sending the wrong message to our soldiers and Marines. Yes and No. I believe we need to strip away some of the myth surrounding our approach to COIN/FID. If we are going to force a change in the social contract in Afghanistan, so be it, but let’s be honest with ourselves and the locals. All true revolutions are bullying affairs, and forcing a society to renegotiate its social contract is revolutionary. We are uncomfortable with expressing raw power, and therefore seek to soften the image by manipulating the narrative for popular consumption, but our soldiers and Marines need to know the difference between myth and reality. This is a function of education vice indoctrination.
Training tribal engagement teams shouldn’t be very difficult. First, we would have to strip away a number of myths concerning COIN/FID. The training would entail introducing members to differing mental models for describing the motivations of local decision-makers. Based on how decisions are formed, we can recognize behavioral patterns. Team members would be introduced to “cultural operating codes and coordinating messages” as a framework for structuring analysis. This would allow team members to recognize socio-cultural patterns, provide an appreciation for how these patterns form and evolve over time and in-roads to shape the behavior.
We need to understand the rules that govern behavior or you can’t play the game.