17 March 2010

Is It the Tribes? Someone Just Tell Me Already.

Another interesting article pertaining to the relative strength of Afghan tribes is up at SWJ titled, “The Tea Fallacy”. The author, Michael Miklaucic highlights a couple of points that definitely have some validity.

1. Locals know sooner or later we're leaving Afghanistan. That has to weigh heavily on a person sitting on the proverbial fence. Looking back at historic references, it would be interesting to determine what counterinsurgent nation political entities were telling their constituencies. Were they telling their populace the same thing Americans are being told, out in 2 years? Did the folks at home during the many COIN conflicts over the last two centuries even care or truly understand (by and large) what was going on? Would it have been different if communications and media were the same as they are now?

2. First impressions. I'm not 100% on this one, but I think it bears mention. Are we already too far into this to truly change the average Afghan’s opinion?

3. Do the tribes really matter? According to Mr. Miklaucic and LCol JJ Malevich they're overrated. According to MAJ Jim Gant, they're imperative. I'm yet to experience an Afghanistan deployment, and AfPak is not my primary research/reading region, so I’d enjoy comments from those more enlightened than I. Instinct tells me that MAJ Gant is a lot closer to “right” than the other two, but my instincts have failed me once or twice in Vegas before as well.

Comments, as always, are welcome and encouraged.


  1. I'm no expert on this topic, but I've been following it recently. It seems to me that the majority (and most compelling) of the literature supports the don't-engage-the-tribes camp. This is counterintuitive to Iraq vets, but it seems that the Afghan "tribal system" (if there is such a thing) is vastly different than Iraq's and can't be used in a similar manner.

    A topic I feel is missing from this debate is understanding what we gain at the strategic vs. tactical levels. MAJ Gant engaged a local tribe in order to fulfill his mission. But if you read his paper, he supported that tribe's attack of another, competing tribe based on what his tribal leader told him. That action probably met his tactical and immediate needs, but who on earth knows what the strategic ramifications of doing so are?

    My view is that while tribal engagements/empowerment meets immediate and tactical needs, it may be counter-productive towards our strategic and longer-term needs. And we shouldn't do it.

    All in all, it seems that we don't understand how the social network of Afghanistan works, or we'd have an answer on this. That might be reason enough to stay out of this fight.

  2. As Gunslinger has mentioned, Gant did indeed write that when he and his men took up residence in an area (of which I know neither the location nor the names of the actors involved) one of his first tasks was to assist members of one 'tribe' (and I use that term with caution for want of a better one) in combating another. He did this apparently without contacting any superiors, without trying to ascertain the facts before engaging, and though he gives few details in his paper it is entirely possible that he and his men were engaged in ethnic cleansing (we should be careful and only say 'possible' until evidence is provided). All this makes for dangerous suggestions. It is of course true that occupying solders may have a need to help certain groups fight other groups with whom they have a rivalry, but it is not something done casually.
    On whether or not tribes in Afghanistan do actually act as a 'corporate unit' (that is to say, they are bound to act as others of their group do) I honestly don't know. I know that apparently buying off one leader will not necessarily buy off all under that leader's command, but that does not preclude the possibility of tribal activity. It is true that the Mehsud 'tribes' has produced many high ranking leaders of the anti-American, anti-current Pakistan militant groups, and appears to have a rivalry with the Wazir tribes (who also are anti-American). I am certain that there is definite ethnic loyalty, though that is not precisely the same thing. Pashtuns on both sides of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border consider themselves to be the same people (and indeed do not recognize the border), Punjabs (who make up a large portion of the so-called 'Pakistan Taliban'*) also have their own loyalty.

    To summarize in less eloquent and deceptive language, I have no idea. Tribal identity might matter or it might not, the only way to know for sure is through years of research and/or results on the ground. I suspect that the various peoples of Afghanistan wouldn't even understand what we mean when we try to adapt our own understanding to their cultural norms.

    *You might find the April 2009 issue of CTC Sentinel useful in learning more about just how many different groups there are in Pakistan (including the Punjabs) that we indiscriminately label as 'Taliban' despite the great differences among them. http://www.ctc.usma.edu/sentinel/

  3. Thanks for jumping on this one. I was going to blog this debate myself but I am still away on a business trip.

    All we are really stating with a tribal engagement strategy is that third party population-centric COIN operations are much easier if you work with, not against, the local power structure. I think the academics are digging too deep on this one.

  4. @Abu Nasr: that is in essence correct, but it ignores a fundamental question. Precisely who is the local power structure? Is it the imams? The traditional elders (whose precise title I cannot remember)? Perhaps the so-called 'warlords' who are a mixture of many areas and defy easy definition? Trying to focus on the wrong elites will be worse than a simple waste.

  5. @Gyre: Okay I see where you are going with this. Completely agree. Forcing engagement with tribes because the COIN manual or frago says "tribes" may be forcing a square peg into a round hole. I often used tribal engagement synonymously with engaging the true local power structure. Is there an actual, not theoretical problem (not just anecdotal) in a specific theater of troops engaging the wrong local elites?

    This was one of the greatest benefits from working with the human terrain teams; they mapped out the true local elites. In a situation like that, publicly available information that is common knowledge to the locals is far more valuable that clandestine intelligence. I personally trust 200 people telling me Shaykh ___ is important over an opportunist telling me the shaykh works with al Qaeda. Too often local rivals use ignorant foreign forces to unwittingly settle disputes.

  6. I inject this perspective: COIN must consider both who the warlords are and their reach of power as well as the resources they use to sustain or expand power.

    Major Matthew Lewis (West Point, MIT, Leavenworth) states in his paper entitled, Warlords and Democratization;
    "These warlords control many instruments of power and play a critical role in the ultimate objective of creating stable democratic government."

    The instruments can be utilized to create or prevent progress (as growth is stable). This we know is directly connected to insurgency violence and diplomatic efforts. So, why not seek a way to integrate resource-management into COIN strategy? Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq re-states Major Khan's perspective;
    "...most insurgency is localized and fought for more pragmatic reasons...[despite] religious rhetoric much of the violence was actually waged over cultural, economic, and political differences."

    Identifying the tribal resources (and how they fight or share) can help broker with local personalities who drive sustainability.

    *This perspective is theoretical in nature (for now) and fails to bullet-point logistics. It is meant to create further dialogue on strategies in order to effectively document and plan logistics integrated into COIN. I encourage feedback.

  7. Just a quick two cents from my point of view. Having spent two tours in the east part of Afghanistan, I think we must educate leaders before we step forward with this one. The tribal system is vastly different than that of Iraq, and as Gunslinger mentioned, Gant took sides in a seemingly small, but potentially strategically important tribal issue with no regard for secondary or tertiary effects in the region. That was with a SF team. Imagine the potential cultural and tribal “solutions” that traditional IBCT commanders today would try to solve. You would have opposing battalion and brigade commanders playing chess against one another with their respective tribes whenever issues arose at the tribal level. This would create utter chaos. I have seen a number of issues arise from tribal levels and land owners at the 0-5 level attempt to carve out solutions that are not rooted in any knowledge of either regional history, tribal and regional hierarchy or common sense. This is quite dangerous.
    We must continue to empower the HTT, but there needs to be more training and education done at home station so that senior leaders hit the ground with a solid understanding of the history, culture, tribes, and issues based on multiple sources, whether land and resources, power, tribal disputes etc. Until commanders, and not just the few LTs and CPTs who realize that the people are more important than the enemy, realize that they must have the information prior to making a decision, we run the risk or creating further destruction and destabilization through injecting western solutions, albeit with good intentions, into the Afghan problem. We did this when we empowered war lords in early stages of the conflict, thinking they were the power brokers and failing to examine follow on effects of aligning with them and Karzai. We must not make the same mistake again.

  8. Do any of the above approaches get us down to force levels under 40-50K say before 2030? *

    *[if you haven't been paying attention to domestic affairs, we're broke and it's getting worse.]

    Maybe we should take a look at what worked for Alexander, Timur, or the Raj if you prefer, and what didn't.

    I know nothing but what I read, but what I read indicates we're attempting to either 1) mold them to our expectations or 2) mold ourselves to their expectations - which will change in the next village.

    Dare I commit heresy and suggest perhaps we play to our strong points? It involves massing something rather unpleasant.

    I don't see us establishing any kind of democracy or reasonable central government as they never had it and never will accept it. Perhaps by above unpleasant massing we can convince them it would be most unwise to allow their land to be used as a staging area to attack our homeland. Which is why we're there in case it's forgotten.

    Academics should realize it's not an academic exercise at this point.