US Commanders continue to struggle with aspects of Unconventional Warfare in the field, especially in areas were tribal dynamics rule the social system. US conventional forces, as well as the SOF community, grapple with understanding how tribal dynamics influence the battlefield, as well as the regional and strategic political structures that control large swaths of land that straddle international borders. This lack of understanding, and the constraints of dealing with cross border politics, has served to benefit groups like al Qaeda (AQ), the Islamic State (ISIS), and al-Shabaab.
The al-Baggara tribe in Syria, the al-Houthi in Yemen, the Afridi tribe in Afghanistan and the Darood tribe in Somalia are just a few examples of tribes that are rich in history, with centuries of tradition, including their own unique tribal and religious laws, complicated political and personal relationships, and their own strategic objectives nested within the context of the nations in which they reside. US forces have not been able to establish and maintain long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with key tribes in hot spots around the world. Too often US forces engage in opportunistic, short-term relationships that do not provide the depth of understanding or rapport necessary to effectively leverage tribal dynamics.
The Houthi are an excellent example of the US forces’ traditional approach to “managing” tribes, especially in “at-risk” countries. The traditional territory of the al-Houthi tribe in Yemen extends into both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The struggle by the Houthi to maintain their unique identity, and the push by the both the Yemen and Saudi governments to limit the Houthi influence, led to decades long tensions, escalating into outright hostilities, between the tribes and the Saudi and Yemeni governments. Unsurprisingly, the Houthi turned to Iran for support and funding, enabling what had previously been a small nuisance in the far north of Yemen into a formidable enemy that stormed Yemeni government buildings and attacked the US embassy in Sana’a a mere three years after they were determined to pose no viable military threat to the Yemeni government or US forces in Yemen.
In contrast, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) successfully used the riff between the US-backed Yemeni Government and the al-Houthis, to obtain permission from the Houthi to move freely in the region and to use al-Houthi controlled border areas to elude both Yemen and Saudi forces. This freedom of movement allowed AQAP to become one of the strongest branches of Al Qaida, despite ideological clashes between the AQAP and other AQ branches. The ability to effectively understand and leverage tribal dynamics also permitted AQAP to grow from as few as 200 members to over 2000-strong, complete with supporting infrastructure, training camps, and a robust media arm, in just a few years (2009-2012), even as the US intelligence and SOF maintained a training and support presence in Yemen.
Another example of the crucial part that tribes play in politics and security is the Afridi tribe of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Afridi tribe spans the Afghan and Pakistan border, representing a behind-the-scenes political power house since the 1800’s, controlling the Kabul road and the Khyber Pass for generations. Yet the US has made little headway in securing a strategic alliance with this group, with the lack of tribal and clan support resulting in unsustainable bouts of peace.
One unconventional way the US could enhance its knowledge of tribal dynamics would be to look at analogous groups within the US. Within the US the groups most similar to tribes and clans are arguably large criminal organizations and gangs. Those who study the operations of criminal organizations and gangs, including the gang units of Los Angeles (LA), Chicago and New York City (NYC), would be an effective tool in decoding tribal dynamics and helping develop effective engagement and mitigation tools. For law enforcement units dealing with criminal organizations and gangs, understanding gang dynamics, gang hierarchy, off-shoots and subsets, is a way of life. While often limited by lack of funding, political corruption, and bureaucratic power struggles, the foundational knowledge regarding how unique groups operate, interact and motivating factors could be invaluable for US forces engaged in unconventional warfare abroad. Another resource that could provide valuable insight for US forces is Native American tribal leaders that are familiar with US bureaucratic missteps in managing relationships with tribal entities.
The failure of the US to understand and manage tribal dynamics and relationships in order to support US strategic objectives, and the resulting fall-out in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, highlights the necessity of investing time and funding into this area if the US wants to win on the Unconventional Warfare Battlefield. To address this shortcoming, the US should construct a pragmatic solution designed to educate its Non-Commissioned officers (NCOs), Officers and strategic planners, coordinate their efforts, and integrate information across.
The UW approach must incorporate sustained training and operations that address the complex interplay of tribal dynamics or the US will continue to come up short on its goals to over power such groups.