As violence has declined in Iraq, the question of how U.S. troops will disengage from the country is becoming increasingly acute. The best answer lies in the same communitarian thinking and strategies that led to many of the recent security advances on the ground in Iraq: The United States should work with the tribal communities rather than rely on the national government’s police and army.1 In much of Iraq, communal militia groups—Kurds, Sunni and Shia of one faction or another—are the main source of local security (as well as security risks when they are deployed in, or penetrate, other communities’ turf). Further increasing the cooperation with these local, tribal militias would allow a great reduction in the footprint of foreign troops, who could then be largely limited to enforcing the "borders" among the various communities and providing security in the relatively few (and ever decreasing) remaining heterogeneous areas.
The communitarian approach also points to the need for a different conception of representation than the democratic theory which the United States and its allies have attempted to apply in these traditional, tribal societies. Differences are often better worked out among tribal chiefs than elected representatives, especially when their elections are slanted by Western preferences. All this holds for Afghanistan as well, where the national government is even more ephemeral than in Iraq, and where the tribal chiefs (disparagingly called "warlords") and their troops have even greater control of the country.
Communitarian thinking has long pointed to the key observation that in dealing with societies like Iraq and Afghanistan, one must tailor the institutions of the state to fit the sociological reality on the ground, rather than trying to force that reality into an imported preexisting mold. That is, instead of promoting a strong centralized government, a national police force (which, it should be pointed out, even the United States does not have) and a unified national identity, we must work with ethnic and confessional communities to build security from the ground up. The main reason is simple, but was long ignored: The prime loyalty of the citizens of these two countries is to their tribe—not to their state.
Some of the evidence for this communitarian strategy is well-known. Iraqi Kurdistan, which is solidly under the rule of the 50,000 (or more) strong Peshmerga, has suffered very few casualties, civilian or American, since Saddam’s regime was overthrown. In the parts of Iraq controlled by the Shiite Mahdi army, for instance Sadr City (2.5 million inhabitants), relative security prevailed and some basic services were even restored, although fighting among Shiite factions is far from unknown. (As Martha Raddatz showed in her book, The Long Road Home, many casualties in these areas occurred when the U.S. army tried to disarm the Shiite militias on the mistaken assumption that the national Iraqi forces and no other should be the source of security).
It is also well-known that the Taliban were initially defeated by a coalition of tribal forces (the Northern Alliance), although the implications of this basic fact have been too often ignored. Hence, in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, extensive efforts have been made to build national forces and disband the sizable tribal armies, to little avail.
Recent progress in Iraq provides further evidence in favor of the communitarian approach. The relative success of the surge has been often attributed to the increase in the number of American troops and in some cases, to Iraqi troops providing some of the needed forces. Actually, much of what has been achieved is akin to what in the United States is called community policing. Instead of dashing by in humvees and rushing back to their centralized safety zones, many U.S. troops have been stationed in various neighborhoods, and left their cars behind as they engage in foot-patrols. This strategy enabled the troops, admittedly in select cases, to form bonds with the local communities and gain their trust and collaboration.
The strategy of working with local militias rather then relying on the national forces has been particularly successful in the Sunni areas north of Baghdad once known as "the triangle of death." Here, the United States ceased trying to kill off or disband the Sunni militias as well as trying to integrate them into the national Iraqi forces, and instead began working with them to fight against al-Qaeda. This change has been widely credited with the recent significant reduction of violence and casualties in Iraq.
Though initially the United States and its allies may well have to rely on these kinds of communal forces to provide basic security and reduce their military footprint, this certainly does not mean that Iraq must be left in tatters, let alone partitioned along sectarian lines. As the local militias provide and sustain local security, the time grows ripe to develop national agreements among the tribal representatives on a wide range of contested matters, from the distribution of oil revenues to the treatment of heterogeneous areas such as Kirkut. Such give-and-take and reconciliation should also initially take a largely communitarian form, rather than relying on the Western idea of political settlements by elected representatives.
The fact is that many of the elected officials, whose selection is often affected by Americans, are not considered legitimate representatives by the major ethnic and confessional communities they supposedly represent. Hence, initially give-and-take may well have to take place among leaders who acquired their power and legitimacy in other ways. These may be heads or scions of "important" families and clans; mullahs; or commanders who proved their mettle fighting the Russians, Iran or against other tribes. The potential success to be gained from dealing with these kinds of representatives has been very much in evidence in Anbar, where elected officials played no role in negotiating the collaboration of the Sunni tribes with the U.S. troops; the arrangements were worked out with tribal leaders, most notably Sheikh Zaidan al Awad. And, following yet another walkout of Sunni politicians from the national government, it is tribal leaders—in the form of a group called the "Anbar salvation council"—that have stepped in to fill the political power vacuum.
In Afghanistan, initial attempts were made to remove the tribal chiefs, or to "integrate" them into the national government, by giving them various appointments. These attempts, like the efforts to incorporate local militias into a cohesive national army, have by and large failed. For instance, Ismael Khan was moved from his position as a regional warlord in Herat to Kabul, to become a minister in the national government. Soon sectarian riots broke out between Shia and Sunnis in Herat, which Khan had previously been able to prevent. And in his new national position, Khan has been repeatedly charged with being more concerned with his tribe than with the national interest of Afghanistan.
In 2002, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a powerful warlord, offered to support the American forces but was rebuffed. He has since become one of the major rebel leaders roiling Afghanistan. Only very recently have the United States and its allies begun to adopt communitarian security policies in western Afghanistan, hoping to lure local tribal leaders away from al-Qaeda and enlist their support in building basic security.
The British forces in Afghanistan, largely restricted to the southern province of Helmand, are finally planning to apply the communitarian approach. In December 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced his government’s plans for "community defense initiatives," where local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families. These local forces will be modeled after the traditional Afghan arbakai system, which has deep roots in eastern Afghan villages and has provided security to some of the more remote sections of the country for centuries.
All this holds even for Pakistan, in which the national army is much more effective than in Iraq and Afghanistan. After years of hoping that the national army will be able to deal with the tribes that host al-Qaeda and provide bases for pro-Taliban forces, the United States recently decided to spend $350 million to train and equip an 85,000-strong paramilitary force, composed of fighters from local tribes, known as the Frontier Corps.
In general, the more the United States and its allies embrace the communitarian approach, the fewer foreign troops will be necessary to maintain basic security in Iraq and Afghanistan and other tribal societies. And the more tribal chiefs negotiate with one another—rather than waiting for the national legislature to work things out—the more likely society-wide peace can be achieved and the role of foreign troops minimized.