Swamps and Deserts

Some sort of update about my summer research is long since overdue, so here goes my summary of the past 2 1/2 weeks of research:

I started this project with the goal of writing about tribe-state relations in Iraq from 1991-2006, corresponding to the end of the first Gulf War to the beginning of the recent Surge strategy pursued by US forces in Iraq. I acquired and read through several books about the present war from the perspective of military leaders who fought there and journalists who covered the war in addition to reading a number of articles, some of them very dense, about tribalism in Iraq. I found a wealth of information and was increasingly saddled with the feeling that the literature of tribe-state relations in Iraq was huge, much larger than I previously thought, and large enough that any paper I would write would most likely be a redundant, summary echo of everything else that’s been said. I wasn’t ready to settle for some lengthy and superficial rehashing of established arguments, no matter how interesting.

Discovering that my initial topic was too big to succeed was a bit disappointing, but it reminds me that the literature on almost any topic is massive, and, as my advisor John Baltes told me, “if it isn’t, then you’re probably not looking hard enough.” I spoke with Prof Baltes about this problem and he recommended that I narrow my topic down to something more specific, more answerable, and more practical, and since then I’ve been sailing through an intermediate zone of research where I know that my initial topic wont work, but don’t yet have a fully crystallized idea of where I’ll end up.

I’ve been spending a significant amount of time reading articles about contemporary Iraqi politics, specifically called niqash.org (niqash is an Arabic word for ‘discussion’), sponsored I believe by The Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. The articles, which appear in English, Arabic, and Kurdish, are from Iraqi journalists and cover a variety of topics – politics, legislation, society, and economics. It’s a marvelous website and very helpful in identifying and providing some good journalistic coverage of recent trends in Iraq. Whatever I end up writing, I’m sure to reference a number of their articles.

One option is to talk about tribalism in the context of Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections, which took place in March 2010 but have yet to produce a government; the political wrangling between parties and coalitions is ongoing. The Iraqi High Electoral Council website lists the results of the election, but connecting these winners to various tribes is probably beyond me at this point. The documents that show the results for Iraq’s provinces list four names for each candidate, but that doesn’t necessary include their tribal name, so trying to match them with a tribe (I have an index of Iraq tribes) would be difficult to say the least. This could be a very interesting paper, one that could discuss what sort of tribal patterns have emerged in the election, and could compare them to the previous 2005 parliamentary election, draw some conclusions, etc. However at this point in time I lack the access to write that kind of analysis.

Another more viable option is to write an anatomy of the Sunni Awakening, sometimes called the Anbar Awakening (Sahwa al-Anbar), a movement of Sunni tribes in the western Al-Anbar province of Iraq beginning in late 2006 whereby tribesmen allied with US forces against ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’. This movement coincided with the well-known surge strategy lead by Gen. Petraeus and other US military leaders and resulted in vastly increased security for Al-Anbar and for much of Iraq as the Awakening spread to other parts of the country. It’s a remarkable story and a success story for Americans and Iraqis, but most articles on the topic stop at around 2008 and conclude with how the movement brought security. Recent articles have talked about the fading of the movement as it split into various groups and tried (with mixed success) to win political power through elections and become an integrated part of Iraq’s national security force (very mixed). I would be interested in writing about the movement from 2008 – present, with the following questions in mind:

1. What did the movement do after security was established in al-Anbar?

2. What are the goals of the movement? (How have they changed?)

3. Why did the Sheikhs splinter into several different groups for elections in 2009 and 2010?

4. How cohesive are tribal groupings in present day Iraq?

5. What can the nature of this movement teach us about tribal engagement in other areas of the Middle East?

I’m more confident that the above topic will bear fruit than my research into Iraqi electoral politics. But whatever the case, the past few weeks have taught me that what you start out with is rarely what you end up with. Staying on task is really more about the daily discipline of studying and reading various sources, and less about keeping to a rigidly defined topic. A certain degree of realistic adaptability is necessary in research – not every conceivable pathway will provide what you’re looking for.

I title this update “deserts and swamps” because the al-Anbar province is, for the most part, a giant dessicated desert. The irony is that I’m reading all about this bone-dry climate while sweating my guts out in the hot, hazy, humid, swamp clime of Williamsburg.

~Mike