By Lt. Col. John Valledor
Commander, 2-14 Inf. Regt.
Our nation’s focus remains centered on Iraq – what is happening, whether the U.S. military presence should continue or end, whether the coalition is helping or harming the country. But for the most part, they have not spent enough time in Iraq to fully understand the Arab culture and the changes our military is making here.
The 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) out of Fort Drum, N.Y., an infantry battalion organized for counterinsurgency combat, has exploited the opportunities presented by recent provincial reconciliation efforts.
Principal among them is the opportunity to fully win over the trust and support of the traditional leadership – an intricate and interconnected hierarchy amongst the tribes, each with its own distinct leader or sheikh. The 2-14 task force and company leadership find themselves exercising cultural dexterity in an attempt to deepen their close and evolving relationships with the tribal leaders. Persistent engagement on a very personal level has usurped lethal combat as the most effective means of defeating insurgents by persuading sheikhs to reassert their centuries old traditional influence over southwest Baghdad’s tribal lands. The primary venue for engagement is the now daily sheikh meeting.
The Nuances of the Sheik Meeting
Sheikh meetings are as diverse as the number of tribes in Iraq but they all share a common core of traditional norms. My introduction to this experience emerged while mediating talks between Brig. Gen. Faisal, our partnered Shia Iraqi Army commander - himself a sheikh of a tribe near Basra - and Sheikh Alwan, representing a local Sunni tribe, the Ghartani.
The meetings trace their roots to Bedouin traditions, occurring in or near the sheikh’s home. Each home establishes a diwan or large open room, where tribal leaders and their invited guests can gather around in a circle. Similarly, our meeting was set inside the commander’s spacious office within his Iraqi Army compound.
Participating tribesmen mostly arrange themselves in rank order; the elder members of the tribe position themselves closest to their sheikh, with junior members further down the line along the circle. Following tradition, I, as the guest of honor, was seated nearest Alwan and Faisal.
The sheikh is easy to spot in the circle. He is usually adorned with distinctive tribal attire; his head is covered with a white ghutra, held in place by a black, knotted and overlapping headband known as the igal. Sheikhs normally wear a light-colored, long sleeved shirt or dishdasha and drape themselves with a traditional cloak called the bisht that is made of a black open-weave mesh fabric, trimmed with gold embroidery.
These meetings tend to follow a long-established script. Greetings begin with guests shaking the sheikh’s hand, followed by placing the hand over the heart while simultaneously uttering “Salam aleikum” – peace be with you, in Arabic. This, depending on your longstanding relationship with the sheikh, is followed by a series of three or more glancing kisses on the cheeks.
In this culture it is considered impolite to immediately leap into business discussions. Instead, the initial conversations revolve around catching up on insignificant social talk. Within minutes someone always enters the circle with platter in hand offering tea, or chai. Chai is served in tiny shot-like glasses called istikan. Each cup is filled to the brim with extremely hot chai. At the bottom is a thick layer of sugar that must be stirred with an equally tiny spoon. I made the mistake of grabbing the istikan while simultaneously trying to sip from it - only to recoil in pain, spilling the piping-hot chai all over my hand and suffering first-degree burns from what felt like a glass of hot lava.
To be successful in these meetings, you must carefully plan out a discussion strategy beforehand, whereby you patiently introduce your agenda to the tribal elders in a series of small sequential discussions. Open-ended questions following pre-arranged talking points seem to work best.
The midpoint of the sheikh meeting is marked with a traditional Iraqi meal. We stepped out into an adjoining room. Platters of food are brought in, each containing separate courses. Typically the main course is quosi – lamb – with adjoining platters of rice and assorted curries and vegetables. Again, in keeping with Bedouin traditions, western eating utensils are seldom provided; guests, using only their right hand, grab small portions of the meal and consume it. It is considered an honor when the sheikh grabs portions of food for you to consume. Sheikh Alwan, in a scene eerily reminiscent of Fear Factor, reached into the platter of quosi, grabbed a handful of unidentifiable meat and placed it before me. Trying not to appear culturally insensitive, I reluctantly ate it. I quickly learned to keep stuffing my face with food I preferred to avoid a repeat gesture of goodwill.
One must be observant during the course of the meal. Once the elder finishes eating, he steps away to consume the dessert, usually fruit and baklava. This a silent signal to all that the meal is done. In Bedouin culture, the males do not empty their plates; once they leave the leftovers are given to feed women and children separately. In our case, the remaining food was for the enlisted soldiers, junud, who where patiently waiting outside. They quickly ran into the room to eat the leftovers after we finished.
The men reassemble in the diwan where once again, according to an unseen script, another round of chai is served and more opportunities to present your agenda open up. You know you’ve reached the end of the meeting when a round of ghahwa Arabia, a potently strong and bitter tasting Arabic coffee, is served. A tiny cup is passed around by a server, starting with the sheikh and working its way down the circle. The rule here is to sip a tiny amount and pass it along; if you don’t want the cup to be refilled for you, it must be raised and shaken as a signal to pass it to the next member of the meeting. Again, I was clueless about this cultural gesture and puzzled as to why the server kept filling my cup with coffee I really disliked sipping.
In Iraqi culture, smoking is an accepted vice. All sheikh meetings include constant smoking. As a lifelong non-smoker, I found this particular cultural norm the most distressing. I was repeatedly offered cigarettes; these offers continued throughout the discussions. In all cases I politely refused the offer, but that does not stop the rest from smoking and engulfing the room in a dense fog of cigarette smoke. Given that these meetings normally last about three hours, I found myself constantly looking at my watch, gasping for a fresh-air reprieve. Regardless of your personal smoking preference, one must accept smelling like an ashtray at the end of these daily tobacco-rich meetings.
One quickly learns that the real gains occur in the last five minutes of the sheikh meeting. We simply wrap up the previous three hours’ worth of talking points, shake hands on agreements made, and if necessary, meet separately in a less crowded, face-to-face session with the sheikh to close the deal. In fact, successful meetings are almost guaranteed by simply showing up and enduring hours of Bedouin-esque cultural theater. The sheikhs seem to appreciate our genuine attempt to interact with them on their terms and in their unique cultural setting. Sheikh Alwan’s patience in teaching me Iraq’s rich culture has led to a better understanding of the influence tribal leaders enjoy.
After nearly a year of building rapport and now fully indoctrinated on to the cultural nuances of sheikh meetings, we adopted a leader led engagement strategy focused on leveraging tribal power to finish off local al-Qaeda insurgent networks and introduce much needed projects for the betterment of the Iraqi populace.
Local tribal sheikhs mostly sat silent for four years as al-Qaeda ravaged their tribal lands. Those with the courage to resist were either killed outright or coerced into passively supporting them through unrelenting fear tactics and intimidation. It wasn’t until former Iraqi nationalist groups like the 1920s Revolutionary Brigades came on the scene that a course reversal occurred.
Sheikhs began openly turning against al-Qaeda. Local tribesmen, actively hunting down and killing al-Qaeda members, used the tribes as a resource to mass a much-needed grassroots army. Formations of concerned local citizens began to emerge, led by former Baathist Iraqi Army officers that melted into the population soon after the U.S.-led invasion.
These former Iraqi Army leaders did not need permission from the sheikhs to enter and kill al-Qaeda members amongst their tribes; they simply co-opted the sheikhs’ influence over the tribes to sustain momentum. Once the tribal lands became free of al-Qaeda networks, the sheikhs re-emerged to regain their traditional position of power - especially when it came to dealing with coalition forces.
What has emerged is a symbiotic relationship between tribal sheikhs and their appointed concerned local citizens’ operational leaders. Sheikhs don’t really have the muscle to defeat al-Qaeda outright; they rely on their local operational leaders to inspire, organize and if necessary, lead local tribesmen into assaults against the insurgents. The benefit of this relationship is that the increased security arising from the expulsion of al-Qaeda heralds the entry of much-needed and potentially lucrative essential services contracts from coalition forces.
Given the current landscape, our company commanders find themselves persuading their local sheikhs to maintain the peace. To provide incentive, we simply hire sheikhs, along with their tribesmen, through temporary, 90-day security contracts to safeguard critical infrastructure and keep al-Qaeda out of their tribal lands.
This strategy is a temporary solution while the Government of Iraq drafts policy and accepts the prospect of many of these tribesmen formally joining the ranks of the Iraqi police or army. If a local sheikh refuses to cooperate, we leverage the power of sending lucrative contracts to neighboring sheikhs. We might pit him against his local operational commanders - the muscle in this campaign – or even explore the option of replacing him with rivals. So far our campaign of engagement has not resulted in this last option.
Reconciliation presents an opportunity that can’t be ignored. To date, our task force, along with our Iraqi Army partners have benefited from virtually no attacks in the past three months. Lethal coalition and Iraqi security forces-led attacks against al-Qaeda targets of opportunity continue but have truly become less effective. The Iraqi populace in our area of responsibility has outwardly rejected al-Qaeda’s global narrative. Culturally sensitive engagement with the tribal leaders that define the fabric of Iraqi culture has proven to be our most effective strategy for sustaining our current peace dividend. Our young company commanders have adapted to the opportunities presented, and have truly become ambassadors of peace and skillful project managers in southwest Baghdad’s ungoverned tribal lands.
Friday, August 31, 2007
By Lt. Col. John Valledor