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On Point

Al-Qaida Fails Sexual Politics


by Austin Bay
June 13, 2007

The U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., now has a cultural anthropologist on its faculty. Welcome to 21st century warfare, where knowing your enemy includes knowing his myths and marriage mores, as well as his political goals and military capabilities.

Given al-Qaida's recent defeats in western Iraq's Al Anbar province, and the underlying reasons for armed conflict with its former allies in the region, the terror cartel ought to hire a cultural anthropologist and perhaps a sex therapist.

Let's hope they don't recruit either.

The "Anbar Awakening," as the split between the Anbar's Sunni tribes and al-Qaida is called, may prove to be a case study in aligning political and cultural considerations with combat security operations. It is certainly an object lesson in al-Qaida's cultural and religious imperialism, as well as outright social clumsiness -- in other words, an example of how al-Qaida does make critical mistakes and how we capitalize on its errors.

The Chicago Tribune reported in May that a blood feud led to the split. The Tribune identified the key leader as a young sheik "bent on avenging the murder of his father" by al-Qaida. The sheik said, "We started remembering what had happened (with al-Qaida) and how things went, and we decided to fight (al-Qaida)."

The tribes are now participating in "salvation councils," which serve a local security function. They are also becoming platforms for political development and integration.

But back to sex -- that tantalus plopped in the second paragraph.

Dr. David Kilcullen serves as Gen. David Petraeus' chief adviser on counter-insurgency warfare. A former Australian infantry officer thoroughly versed in the cultural and historical contexts that shape people's perceptions and influence their opinions, Kilcullen assesses the cultural implications of Coalition military operations.

Kilcullen appeared this week on PajamasMedia.com's "Blog Week in Review" Internet program. (Full disclosure: I host the show.)

In Anbar, al-Qaida botched it big-time.

"It boiled down to a conflict over women, as so many of these things do," Kilcullen told me. "Al-Qaida basically went to their tribal allies and said, 'Give us your daughter, or give us your sister in marriage.' ... In tribal custom, you don't allow outsiders ... to marry your daughter, I mean not on a regular basis ... they just don't willy-nilly give their women away to outsiders."

Al-Qaida, Kilcullen said, told the tribes: "The Koran says that sort of behavior is ignorant and ungodly. You will give us your daughters to marry them."

The tribes refused, and al-Qaida killed a tribal leader, which led to the blood feud. "The whole thing snowballed from there," Kilcullen said.

In Kilcullen's analysis, al-Qaida failed to distinguish between tribal custom and religious doctrinal interpretations.

Kilcullen said al-Qaida had "pitched" the tribes a "narrative" (a political appeal) that said: "We are Sunni, you're Sunni, the Americans are helping the Shia. Let's fight them together." The tribes initially cooperated, but al-Qaida's brand of religious absolutism (not to mention overweening arrogance) shredded the "we're in it together" propaganda.

Al-Qaida has now trotted out a new "pitch" to the tribes. "It's more of a threat narrative," Kilcullen said. "The Americans are coming, and we're going to have to leave this district, but if you support the Americans we'll know about it. When we come back, we're going to kill you. ... This American thing is temporary. We're coming back. The future belongs to us, and we are going to take you back."

Kilcullen pointed out that this is where the "gap" between what is said by al-Qaida and what it does creates a vulnerability for the terrorists. The coalition counters it "by proving to the people that we actually can protect them. And we're also proving to them that although the United States is not going to stay in Iraq forever, we are handing over to an Iraqi government that has their best interests at heart and can protect them from the terrorists."

The coalition and Iraq political strategy, Kilcullen said, is "about proving the lie against al-Qaida."

That's a strategic goal America set out to accomplish on Sept. 12, 2001.

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