As part of the Obama administration's policy in what has been described as an "Iraq first" strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iraqi Sunni tribes will play a big role. The administration and its partners in Iraq are referring to these tribes as the Iraqi national guard. During the height of the Iraq War and troubling insurgency, such tribes, referred to as part of the "Awakening movement," were crucial in the success of quelling the insurgency and enabling peace.

The overly sectarian former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki alienated much of the Sunni population, including these tribes. Current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has demonstrated that he will cooperate with the United States, especially by allowing U.S. troops immunity. This was a major point of contention with the Maliki government and contributed to the failure to keep a residual U.S. force in Iraq following the drawdown. Al-Abadi is also saying that he wants to be more inclusive toward disaffected Sunnis and is on board to train and equip Sunni tribes in ISIS regions that were overrun last summer when ISIS first entered Iraq and began to seize territory. A more formidable tribal force, with training and equipment, will give opposition forces a better chance against the highly sectarian ISIS militants. But is this a realistic or smart policy? 

According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "U.S. planners may be making a similar mistake in assuming that the tribal networks can be rebuilt quickly. U.S. officials believe that Sunni support has been galvanized by the removal of polarizing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite." Ignatius notes that Craig Whiteside, a professor at the Naval War College, has calculated that "1,345 Awakening members have been killed in Iraq since 2009 by the Islamic State or its predecessor organizations." Then from Whiteside's blog: "In the Sunni areas where the Iraqi government had little control, it did not take long for [ISIS] to slowly and methodically eliminate resistance one person at a time." There are some indications, however, that the Awakening model will not be used this time around.


Furthermore, Frederic Wehrey, senior associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that ISIS is hostile toward unsympathetic tribes. "Despite its pretensions of a 'soft-power' approach, [ISIS] still deploys intense violence to coerce and intimidate the tribes. In late June, the group destroyed the home of Anwar al-Asi, a leader of the Ubayd tribe near Kirkuk, after he refused to swear allegiance to [ISIS] caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After another sheikh of the tribe, Wasfi al-Asi, announced the formation of a tribal council to fight [ISIS], several Ubaydi sheikhs who refused to swear allegiance to the group have been kidnapped and some of them executed." This in spite of "tribal affairs" officials dispatched by ISIS that act as liaisons toward tribes, describing the group's goals. Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, reiterated a similar point in October, noting that ISIS does go after tribal leaders who oppose them but to date, they have not gone on a sustained campaign to decapitate tribal leadership.

Some tribes have requested support from Baghdad while others have acquiesced to the presence of ISIS for various reasons. "In a flurry of meetings in recent weeks, tribal leaders have demanded that Prime Minister al-Abadi address problems of missing weapons and lack of support as they hold out against extremists in the face of mass detentions and executions. ... 'We demand that the government does something,' said Sheik Naim al-Gaoud, a tribal leader with the Albu Nimr. 'We feel that we have been abandoned and neglected,'" The Washington Post reported.

A Department of Defense (DOD) budget request for their Overseas Contingency Operations — also referred to as the "war budget" and identified unfavorably by some lawmakers as a slush fund — asked for $24 million in supplies for Sunni tribes in Iraq. Some of the equipment the budget will pay for includes AK-47s, RPK light machine guns, .50 cal ammo, RPGs, grenades, 82 millimeter mortars, body armor/helmets and mobility vehicles.

In the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress has green-lit the overall DOD request for the Iraqi train and equip program, which includes training and equipping the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the Iraqi army and the Sunni Iraqi tribes. What has not been made clear yet, however, is how or if these Sunni tribes will be vetted other than the equipment going to "pro-[government of Iraq] tribal and local forces." As part of the initial congressionally approved amendment to train and equip Syrian rebels, the administration must, at a minimum, exclude individuals or groups "[associated] with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the Government of Syria, and groups associated with the Government of Iran. Such groups include, but are not limited to, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham, other al-Qaeda related groups, and Hezbollah."

The amount of arms the U.S. is willing to provide to these Sunni tribes is quite substantial. While the notion of an Iraqi national guard has become a generally accepted policy, its failure could have drastic consequences. As seen this summer when ISIS routed Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and captured a significant amount of U.S.-provided equipment, a failure in current policy could suffer the same fate. The U.S. is counting on a more inclusive government in Baghdad to support Sunni tribes.

A train and equip program could run the risk of another situation similar to arming the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviets during the 1970s and 1980s, many of whom became associated with al Qaeda — especially if the Iraqi central government continues to be exclusive. The U.S. cannot afford to provide arms directly to those who could use them against the U.S. again.

Additional complications with this policy include political and sectarian concerns. Wehrey noted that "the national guard plan presents a fundamental dilemma for the United States and the Baghdad government: how to devolve security to the local level and empower communities to fight [ISIS] while avoiding the inadvertent encouragement of greater fragmentation in Iraq, the formalization of militia rule, and future military challenges to central authority." Iran-affiliated Shia militias that run virtually outside the control of the Baghdad government will likely be disenchanted by this overt national and international support. There is a lot weighing on this policy.

Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.