Reading reports about Iraq like this one, I can’t help but return to the old formulation I liked to use back in the Bush days. “The trouble with Afghanistan is it is full Afghans. The trouble with Iraq is there are not enough Iraqis.” Even at the height of the Iraq war, you never could find many people who identified as Iraqi first and all the other stuff second. They were always Sunni, Shia, Christian, Kurds, etc. An accident of history had them born on the lands we call Iraq.
Men will fight and die for their brothers. That’s why armies are built on small groups of men under the Dunbar number. Successful street gangs and terror groups also rely on small units. Small units mean the members have emotional bonds to one another. In our urban reservations, street gangs are made up of young men who grew up together in the neighborhood. More sophisticated gangs like motorcycle clubs have very elaborate bonding rituals to make sure the clubs are cohesive.
Of course, the natural formation of small units is through blood. Early man existed in groups of 150 or so people. Everyone was related by blood. Once a group grew so large that blood relations stretched beyond second cousins, they split up into two groups and went their separate ways. In the Arab world, this is still how people naturally organize themselves. Talk to any Arab and before long they will have mentioned many “cousins” that are members of their extended family.
That’s what comes to mind when seeing stories like this one. We have a small force of mercenaries knocking off a professionally trained (allegedly) military, equipped with modern weaponry. Even if the numbers are exaggerated in that Vox story, you’re still seeing a 10-to-1 advantage having no value on the battlefield. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is wining both the moral war as well as the tactical war, despite their lack of equipment and people. Fighting spirit matters.
The historian John Keegan argued that wars are determined by culture. Arab culture is not like Western culture so their way of making war is different from that of the western nations. “War without battle” is the preferred mode in the Arab world. That means insurgencies, terrorism and social disruption are where Arabs excel. This makes perfect sense for a culture where blood relations trump all else. Kin based societies are low-trust societies so large armies are hard to muster.
Arab societies are low trust societies, which is why they have never been good at the civilization stuff that requires large scale organization. If you can only truly count on blood relatives, scaling beyond 100 or so people is nearly impossible. Even when you expand the circle of trust beyond second cousins, you limit the number of people capable of working as a unit to a few hundred. Arab societies are collection of sub-societies dominated by a master society.
It is why Arab countries are authoritarian. The people will never willingly go along with the leader, if he is not at least from their tribe. That means coercion is the only way to rule a large number of people. You never hear Arab leaders talking about “their people” with any degree of pride, like you hear in the West. They don’t even have the concept a nation in the way we understand it in the West. Instead, “us” is almost always defined by blood, which means their tribe.
This what you see going on with the Iraqi army. None of them have loyalty to Iraq. Their first loyalty is to their family, followed by the extended family of the tribe. Sectarian loyalty is as far as it goes and even there it is frayed. Followers of one Imam may detest the followers of another, despite both being in the same sect. The Iraqi soldiers are not going to fight and die for something that does not exist, unless they have a bayonet in their back, as was the case under Saddam.
The other interesting thing is all of this was predictable. The American military spent billions designing and training a military for Iraq along western lines. The trouble is they left an Arab culture that is still an Arab culture. Eventually you end up with the same old Arab army with a bunch of American gear they can barely operate. A guy named Norvell B. De Atkine wrote about this 15 years ago in a paper called Why Arabs Lose Wars. He noticed that Arab countries are full of Arabs.
The one potential upside to the break up of Iraq is the Kurds may finally get their own place in the world, at least officially. The Syrians are too weak to do much about the Kurds and the Turks are too disorganized now. Iraq falling apart opens the door for the Kurds to press their claims. Interestingly, the Kurds may be the one group in the region the West could do something with besides sell arms. They are more like Jews than Arabs, according the genetics.
Over the last 15 years, they have weathered the unrest better than any of the other people in the region. They seem to possess the ability to self-organize beyond the small unit. They have a national identity in that the Kurd living in Turkey sees himself part of Kurdistan in the same way as the Kurd living in Iraq, Syria or driving a cab in New York. Why we have ignored these people is a mystery, but maybe they have been better off as a result. Our results elsewhere are not encouraging.