Experts apply anthropology to Iraq


WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- U.S. analysts are starting to apply anthropological models to trying to understand and fight the Iraq insurgency.

Speaking at the Women in International Security Conference on Monday, Montgomery McFate, a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, argued for an increased understanding of the tribal nature of Iraqi society. She suggested this would benefit the U.S. forces by enabling them to adapt to the enemy.


Historically, tribal groups have performed crucial social functions, providing justice, security and employment in the area of modern Iraq. In 1702, the Ottoman Empire instituted a policy of indirect rule, which furnished tribes with greater responsibilities.

In 1968, Baath Party fears that tribal bonds would undermine the state led to a crackdown on tribal identity, and in 1991 President Saddam Hussein's're-tribalization' policy of arming certain Sunni groups generated an increase in tribal conflict.

The overthrow of Saddam has enabled tribal groups to resume many of their traditional roles, and regime-change has created a power vacuum that has been filled by tribes. For many Iraqis tribal networks are their only providers of employment.

McFate has suggested that knowledge of Iraqi tribal groups is useful because it can provide an insight into the reasons for insurgency. In tribal societies, honor is a measure of status. Traditionally, challenges to group honor have been met with violence, and thus the current bombings are a response to the coalition presence.


By working within the Iraqi cultural framework, coalition forces may be able to forward their strategic goal, the creation of a stable society. McFate said blood feuds regulate tribal balance in Iraq. Upon the death of a clan member, it is the duty of the kin to seek violent retribution. This rudimentary justice system provides all groups with an incentive to restrain members, and acts to constrain inter-tribe conflict.

McFate said this pre-existing system could be used to the U.S. advantage in Iraq. In 2005, tribal sheiks in Al Anbar province offered to ally with Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer to ensure security in tribal areas. McFate said Bremer's decision to dismiss this proposal was a missed opportunity to promote stability.

Greater cultural understanding could also build bridges with Iraqi civilians, anthropologists argue. In the absence of the state, tribal groups have traditionally provided security, and will thus unify against an outside enemy. In order to tackle this animosity, knowledge of how tribes are mobilized is essential. Col. Mike Hoadley of the U.S. Army War College said, "When trying to win hearts and minds, you must understand the hearts and minds you are trying to win."

The Coalition Provisional Authority's unwillingness to work within the existing cultural framework has attracted criticism. McFate described this reluctance as "ignoring the social and human terrain." She said inadequate funding for cultural training of military personnel is a "sustained problem, which absolutely must be solved."


However, other observers are less convinced of the long-term viability of this strategy. Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, said realistic policy options had to focus on dealing "with Iraq as it actually exists, not as you wish it to be."

He said that in order to create security in the initial stages of the Iraq operation, "the most practical course was to work within existing structures."

However, as part of efforts to create a viable Iraqi state, Preble said there was a need to "transcend tribal affiliation." A greater investment in U.S military cultural awareness is not necessarily the correct approach, he said.

Preble said that in both Iraq and the United States, the predominant opinion is that America should "leave, but not yet." Therefore, while cultural understanding was valuable to the U.S. military and U.S. policymakers in the short-term, he said the focus should be on producing a fixed timetable for withdrawal and the hand-over of security responsibilities to the Iraqi people.

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