forget it, jake. it’s the middle east.

the western world doesn’t understand middle easterners (or any of the peoples who live in the greater arabized region) — we really don’t. the headlines about iraq from this past week illustrate this — in technicolor:

iraq - sectarianism

sectarianism. yeah, right. as if the issues between the peoples in iraq are theological ones. (just like they were/are in northern ireland…amirite?! or in burma these days.) and then there’re these sorts of headlines:

iraq - isis

yeah. ’cause isis is badder than the baddest guys in the middle east, al qaeda. and that’s the only way we westerners can understand the world — it’s the good guys vs. the bad guys. white hats vs. black hats. the freedom fighters vs. the hussein/gaddafi/assad regimes.

here’s the war nerd on what’s really going on in iraq right now:

“The War Nerd: Here’s everything you need to know about ‘too extreme for Al Qaeda’ I.S.I.S.”

“Syria should have been ISIS’s greatest moment, but things didn’t work out for it there. Not because it was ‘extreme,’ but because it tried too hard to dominate the market against savvy local competition….

The local/universal tension is deep in Islam, which borrowed Christianity’s universalizing mandate. In theory, a Chechen who knows the Quran is as entitled to tell a Syrian what to do as anyone else. In practice, he’s a jerk, and if he tells you to do things a different way than your family has done them for generations, you don’t care how many verses he can quote at you. You’re pissed off.

“ISIS’s Syrian forces were full of loudmouthed young Islamic pedants, all heavily armed, and all eager to tell the locals how to live. It didn’t go over very well. It wasn’t about ‘extremism’ as much as ‘localism.’ ISIS was eventually forced out of Aleppo in favor of Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front — both every bit as extreme as ISIS, but with more local recruits who didn’t rub everybody the wrong way quite as much. Zawahiri chimed in from his hiding place in Pakistan to scold ISIS, saying in typically florid jihadi lingo something that amounted to ‘You’re gonna screw us up in Syria just like you and Zarqawi did in Iraq!’ His verdict was that ISIS should move east to Iraq, and Jabhat al Nusra should be Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

“Abu Bakr did not take kindly to this sort of provincialism. When you’ve been fighting for ten years, and seen pretty much everybody you care about killed, often in fairly gruesome ways, you don’t really want to hear a lot of noise about how local sensibilities must be respected, and corporate HQ back in the mountains of Pakistan must be obeyed.

“ISIS replied with a program of assassinations directed at dissenting jihadis, starting in January 2014. When they killed al-Suri (‘The Syrian’), Zawahiri’s envoy sent to settle the dispute, in February 2014, it was flat-out war between ISIS and every other faction in Syria. More than 2,000 casualties later, that feud is still simmering.”

what comes first and foremost to the peoples of the middle east is what is local. sure some people rally for their particular sects or movements, but first comes the extended family, clan, and tribe. half the time, local militias just say they’re al qaeda or isis or some other faction when what they’re actually doing is using alliances with those larger groups to further local goals. remember this about how it works in afghanistan?:

Mike Martin’s oral history of Helmand underscores the absolute imperative of understanding the highly local, personal, and non-ideological nature of internal conflict in much of the ‘third’ world.

“‘An Intimate War’ tells the story of the last thirty-four years of conflict in Helmand Province, Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of the Helmandis. In the West, this period is often defined through different lenses — the Soviet intervention, the civil war, the Taliban, and the post-2001 nation-building era. Yet, as experienced by local inhabitants, the Helmand conflict is a perennial one, involving the same individuals, families and groups, and driven by the same arguments over land, water and power….

Today, much of the violence is mischaracterised as ‘Taliban’ insurgent violence, when in fact it is not linked to the Taliban or the GIRoA, but is driven by local dynamics between groups and individuals on the ground. The Helmandis describe the conflict as *pshe-pshe*. This literally translates as ‘leg-leg’, but refers to the different legs of a tribe or clan (the English term would be ‘branch’). So, metaphorically, the phrase *pshe-pshe* means group-on-group warfare. It is a (micro) civil war….

“Currently, our ideas are largely based upon Maoist descriptions of insurgency; they highlight the importance of ideologies and organisation to motivate insurgents. The Army definition of an insurgency is ‘an organised, violent subversion used to effect or prevent political control, as a challenge to established authority’; it was from this that the ‘insurgency narrative’ was drawn.

“But this is not what took place in Helmand. The US and Britain were imposing a view of the war that bore little resemblance to the local understanding. The clearest example was the British ignoring Helmandis’ historical hatred (and related feelings of revenge) for them because it did not fit their understanding of the official narratives of the war….

He [martin] catalogues in microscopic detail how first US Special Forces and then British troops were constantly manipulated by their Afghan allies into fighting on their side as part of local feuds and criminal enterprises that were only very dimly related to the ideology of being pro-government or pro-Taliban.

“Indeed, according to Dr Martin’s research, the two were often labels adopted by factions and warlords in need of material support from either the Nato forces or the Taliban….

“Nor that there was no inconsistency between being pro-government and pro-Taliban on any given day for a militia commander.

“highly local, personal, and non-ideological.” it’s not any different in iraq, i assure you. we don’t know what’s going on there. we really don’t. it’s all waaaay more complicated than anything you’ll see reported in the news outlets. and it’s not black and white in the way that we westerners like to see things.

one would’ve thought that at least our military forces would’ve had some clue about the importance of clans in the middle east — that’s why they’ve got anthropologists on the force, right? nope, as martin in his book (quoted above) revealed about our involvement in afghanistan — and as mark weiner explained in The Rule of the Clan about the u.s. military in iraq [kindle locations 542-550]:

“When we fail to understand the clan heritage of a great many of our enemies, their motivation for taking up arms against us in the first place will remain obscure.

“We also find ourselves in a far weaker position when we engage them in battle. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, winning the support of Iraq’s scores of individual tribes was vital to the success of the war effort — each tribe that supported al-Qaeda in Iraq or the larger insurgency substantially diminished the likelihood of a coalition victory. The Albu Fahd, Albu Mahal, and Albu Issa were particularly significant to coalition efforts in al-Anbar province, which includes the city of Fallujah, site of one of the bloodiest battles in the war. Given the complexity of Iraqi tribal alliances, one might have expected that American knowledge of the tribes and their individual social and political characteristics would have been encyclopedic. Instead, one of the earliest Department of Defense efforts to come to grips with the strategic value of Iraqi tribes was completed a full three years after the war began.

as the internet would say: *facepalm!* =/

what they should’ve all read, of course, was steve sailer’s “Cousin Marriage Conundrum”!

previously: “pshe-pshe” and misunderstanding afghanistan

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db080113 - doonesbury - what is the matter with you people