The seven feelers of wisdom
Optional reading: Counterinsurgency and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society, by William McAllister from the Small Wars Journal. The title itself brings up a subtle but important possibility. The US alliance with the tribes has been not only about counterinsurgency but also about irregular warfare -- against al-Qaeda. It was not only a shield but a sword.
In fact it might be argued that an authentic understanding of tribal culture implied how al-Qaeda might be routed under its unstated rules. The great strategic weakness of radical Islam is that it must rule. By definition theocracy means the subordination of the tribes to its overarching authority and the repeal of its ancient usages under the comprehensive new ideology. As a 7th century Islamic governor once emphasized to the tribes: Islam is a jealous master.
You allow kinship to prevail and put religion second ... tear down the order which Islam has sanctified for your protection ... I rule you with the omnipotence of God.
And this is particularly true of those who style themselves as latter-day messengers. Everywhere it operates al-Qaeda has no other Allah but its own peculiar one with Osama as his prophet. In contrast, the great strategic strength of the United States, which may astound its critics but which nonetheless remains true is its flexibility; its freedom from the Imperial model. America doesn't care a fig who your relatives are so long as you do well and don't trouble your neighbors. It gets rich by trading with successful societies and obtains far more wealth from Japan and Europe than it ever could get from Africa. Al-Qaeda's relationship with the tribes would tend to dominance. America's structural advantage is that it could deal with others as partners.
McAllister notes that much of the world remains tribal and while "large parts of the globe are inhabited by detribalized or non-tribal populations ... it is a mistake to underestimate the role and influence of the tribe in a multi-group political system." And therefore many of the ideas developed in Anbar may have broad validity all over the world. Because al-Qaeda by nature tends to conquest it allows Americans to wage "irregular warfare" against it in situations where radical Islamic outsiders have superimposed themselves over the traditional tribal structure. But the key to turning this simple idea into operational reality lay in a deep grasp of the details; in knowing the Why, Who and How of a situation. And also the How Much. Therefore operating in a tribal environment required knowledge above all -- the "information requirements" -- whose fulfillment in turn required time.
Much of McAllister's article is a practical guide to working within these contexts. It is a checklist of how to turn power-relationships into a weapon. The reader is told, convincingly, that war in the tribal context is negotiation conducted by other means. And because extremisms like al-Qaeda cannot bend but break; and cannot speak but to command they are at a disadvantage in situations where freedom remains a possibility.