Eastern Libya's Tribes, Jihadism: Did U.S. Consider Its Own Libya Intel?

I believe most Americans support military actions that protect the vital interests of the United States. Major American military initiatives, however, especially those involving the military invasion of a Muslim country in the era of the global jihad, have consequences and should only be taken because our vital strategic interests are at stake.

Thus far, no vital American strategic interests regarding Libya have been stated. Rather, official government policy appears to be designed to get rid of Gaddafi because he’s a tyrant, and to protect Libyan citizens on humanitarian grounds.

Our policymakers seem to believe that once this mission is accomplished some benign coalition of pro-democratic leaders will arise and take command, and all will be well.

There seems to be a huge general assumption that anti-Gaddafi forces are pro-American forces that should be armed and organized by the United States, but as you will see below there is documentary proof that at least some of the anti-Gaddafi forces are anti-American and pro-jihadist.

Even more disturbing: I have heard nothing from any policymaker, either political or military, that indicates that any of them have the slightest idea of the nature or make-up of Libya’s tribal society and how this will impact our ability to establish post-Gaddafi governance.

According to Libya expert Hanspeter Mattes of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Libya is the most tribal of all the Arab states.

The country has not had a constitution since 1977, and there are virtually no democratic civil institutions -- such as trade unions or PTAs -- in the country, making the 140 tribes, clans, and powerful families key elements of society.

About 30 of these tribal entities have significant political power. Some, like the Maqarha and the Warfalla tribes, are in alliance with the Gaddafi tribe and have dominated the army, police, and intelligence services since Gaddafi took power. Others, such as the Zuwaya, control the key cities in the Gulf of Surt -- where oil is exported.

While knowledge of the political power and connections of tribes is a must for any policymaker planning on transforming the country, this isn’t the only knowledge required.

Tribes are notorious for doing only what’s in their interests, which means that they often change sides. This is why the Iraqi tribes in al-Anbar province went from fighting American forces alongside al-Qaeda to joining American forces to kill their Muslim al-Qaeda brothers.

They made this dramatic shift because the U.S. could better serve the tribes’ interests by providing money and services -- such as civil projects and government jobs -- that al-Qaeda couldn’t deliver.

Another aspect of tribal society that is vital for policymakers to understand are the tribal concepts of honor, humiliation, and revenge. Tribes seek revenge against all who have dishonored them, and an understanding of these dynamics can mean the difference between success and failure when attempting to build tribal coalitions to govern the country.

The importance of tribes and the lack of democratic civil institutions in Libya should have been a huge red flag to any policymaker contemplating an intervention there, especially given the fact that the U.S. has a dismal record of understanding and dealing with tribes. It took our military leaders four years of trial and error in Iraq before they realized that dealing with the tribes of Anbar could give us the leverage we needed against al-Qaeda. Moreover, after more than eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with the tribes there. This lack of grounded truth and strategic thinking didn’t work in Iraq, isn’t working in Afghanistan, and won’t work in Libya.

Some of the questions our policymakers should have answered definitively before any serious military attack was contemplated:

Who are the protesters?

What do they want?

How are they organized?

How do they view the U.S.?

Are they likely to work with the U.S. in the region after Gaddafi, or might they side with Iran?

To what extent are they Islamist and have sympathies for the international jihad?

While some of these questions will take time to know, the answer to the last question is completely known, and disturbing.