By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 14, 2009
The “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” series launched just over a month ago.
The first episode and blog entry laid out my thesis—that what we’re up against in Afghanistan is tribalism and the tribal mind-set. The comments started arriving.
Tribes, the Tribal Mindset, and the Enemy
Fabius Maximus was among the first to comment. He quoted the following from my post:
“What struck me most powerfully is that that war [Alexander's Afghan campaign, 330-327 B.C.] is a dead ringer for the ones we’re fighting today. … the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It’s about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven’t changed in 2300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.”
Fabius Maximus commented:
“Economist and businesspeople discuss the Competitive Advantage of Nations (as in Michael Porter’s 1990 book of that title). Social scientists and geopolitical experts discuss Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory. But Pressfield goes beyond these. In effect he calls for a long war. War between ‘polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable’—perhaps running until one side is exterminated or conquered.”
Insert another blogging lesson learned:
I never called for a “war between ‘polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.’” In fact, as my posts have built upon the original series, I’ve called for finding common ground.
“We have inherited our Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty and democracy just as other peoples, with different historical experiences and geographical circumstances, have inherited theirs. And these other peoples yearn for justice and dignity, which does not always overlap with Western democracy. Throughout the Arab world, old monarchial and authoritarian orders are now weakening. Keeping societies stable will depend largely on tribes, and the deals they are able to cut with one another. In the Middle East, an age of pathetic, fledgling democracies is also an age of tribes.”
Polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable? Yes. The tribes are not going to bend, and allow an overlay of Western democracy and culture. But can we find a way to work together? Yes. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Well, when in the East . . . See my post “A Tale of Two Captains.”
Fabius Maximus then wrote:
“Using Alexander’s invasion of Afghanistan as a paradigm raises as many questions as it answers. What were Alexander’s reasons for invading Afghanistan? Nothing rational, little more than love of war, power, and loot. Do we have such aggressive motives? Or do we fight legally under the international laws we both promulgated and signed, which means acting only in defense?
“Answering that requires a clear statement of the threat the tribes of Afghanistan pose to us. Victory is impossible without a clear understanding of the threat and our goals. How can the tribes be enemies without a strong understanding of this?”
Whether you are for or against being in Afghanistan, the reality is that our troops are in Afghanistan. And as long as they are there, they MUST work with the tribes. I wrote my initial post, which Fabius Maximus quoted, in absolutes—black or white, friend or enemy. Maybe that was too much. But I never said that enemies couldn’t become our friends.
More from Fabius Maximus:
“It is the missing link of the war, as I have not found anything like this from someone with actual area expertise (not just by COIN or geopolitical gurus). The closest I have seen is Pakistan on the Brink by Ahmed Rashid (a Pakistani journalist) in the 11 June 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books, many of whose assertions are contradicted by other experts on the subject.
“I believe that America’s greatest enemies are not Afghanistan’s tribes, or fundamentalist Islam. Pressfield’s explicit assumption that the Afghanistan tribes are our enemies show the core threat: our own hubris and paranoia. For more about this see
Are the tribes our greatest enemy? No. Is the tribal mindset an enemy? Yes. Let me rephrase this.
“Good” Tribalism and “Bad” Tribalism
I would define “bad” tribalism as that practiced by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I know, I know . . . critics will say that both those groups are pan-Islamic, ideology-driven, supra-national, propelled more by Salafism and Deobandism than pure tribalism. I would not argue with that.
But if we probe beneath the surface, we recognize virulent tribalism at the heart of the belief systems of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I would cite the following “bad” tribal characteristics: hostility to all outsiders; perpetual warfare; codes of silence; duplicity and bad faith in all negotiations with non-insiders; suppression of women; intolerance of dissent; a fierce, patriarchal code of warrior honor; a ready and even eager willingness to give up one’s life for the group; super-conservatism, politically and culturally; reverence for the past and, in fact, a desire to return to the past.
Defined in relation to its opposites, “bad” tribalism takes its stand against everything open, inclusive, modern, progressive, secular, individualistic, Western, female-empowering.
What about “good” tribalism? “Good” tribalism is the ancient, proud, communal system of family- and clan-based local governance that has been practiced in Afghanistan and many parts of Central Asia for millennia. Tribal jirgas resolve disputes and give a voice to all members; tribal militias protect the land and the people. “Good” tribalism wants to be left alone to live its own life. In a way it’s democracy in its purest and most natural “town hall” form. It has worked for thousands of years and it’s working today.
Proof that there is such a thing as “good” tribalism is that the Taliban has targeted it fiercely. Hundreds of tribal elders have been murdered or driven from their homes. Why? Because “bad” tribalism knows “good” tribalism is its enemy. The following is from Seth Jones’ In the Graveyard of Empires:
“The Taliban’s strategy was innovative and ruthlessly effective. Unlike the Soviets, they focused their initial efforts on bottom-up efforts in rural Afghanistan, especially the Pashtun south. They approached tribal leaders and militia commanders, as well as their rank-and-file supporters, and attempted to co-opt them with several messages. Taliban leaders claimed to provide moral and religious clarity, since they advocated a return to a purer form of Islam . . . and they tried to capitalize on their momentum by convincing locals that resistance was futile. They used their knowledge of tribal dynamics to appeal to Pashtuns and, when they didn’t succeed in co-opting locals, they often resorted to targeted assassinations to coerce the rest.”
Both “bad” and “good” tribalism are here to stay. We’re not going to change them any more than Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Brits or the Russians changed them. What to do then? The answer, in my view, is to establish the minimum achievable goals that we can live with—i.e. per Secretary Gates, prevent militant and terrorist organizations from using Afghan real estate as a base from which to attack the United States—and then tap into the ”good” tribalism to work against the “bad” tribalism.
Islam is Not the Enemy
“What Pressfield gets horribly wrong is the discounting of the religious radicalism aspect as being superseded by atavistic, superempowered, Ur-tribalism. . . . The neo-fundamentalist Salafi and Deobandi Islamist radicals are . . . pan-Islamist militants who are deeply hostile to tribal customs and authorities they view as “jahiliyyah”, un-Islamic or even blasphemous apostasy. . . . Tribesmen and Islamist radicals are not natural allies unless we put them in that position.”
I must offer a mea culpa here. Because I agree completely with Zenpundit. Somehow my statements in the videos must have failed to express that.
Indeed Islamic radicals have targeted and continue to target on-the-ground tribal leaders. What I’m saying is they’re doing it less from an Islamic angle (no matter what their rhetoric states) and more from an even more radical tribalism—insular, xenophobic, past-worshipping, us-versus-them, outsider-loathing, atavistic tribalism.
The Taliban and al Qaeda, in my view, express not tribalism-as-Islam but Islam-as-tribalism.
In Michael Yon’s article “Philippines: Some Notes, Thoughts, and Observations” Michael discusses “rido,” which is inter-clan, tribal violence. Michael spoke with Philippine Army Colonel Rey Ardo about “rido”:
“As with other Filipino officers, Islam is not [Col. Ardo’s] big concern. Islam is an overlay. The local culture is the plumbing.”
I agree with Mr. Yon. I am not discounting the role the Islamic extremism plays in Afghanistan and other regions in the world. Rather, I’m asserting that we need to address the tribal mindset first, rather than focusing on Islamic extremism first. The United States is trying to push out the Taliban, but much of this relies on the tribes.
The United States is not at war with Islam. Its struggle is largely with insurgents who behave in the manner of tribes and clans. Some are members of true tribes; others are patched together by radical clerics or jihadist recruiters operating among alienated migrants. U.S. forces are learning this the hard way—on the ground.