Will the bottom up approach work in Afghanistan?

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 7 months ago

Steven Pressfield has probably led the charge to engage the tribes as a solution in Afghanistan.  But there is a growing chorus of voices saying the same thing.  The New York Times published an OpEd by Deepa Narayan on going from the bottom up as our strategy.

Myth No. 2: It is a weak state that is the problem. A central tenet in the current debate is that centralism is good and fragmentation is bad. The entire focus has been on presidential politics and on how to create a strong central state.

Our study shows, however, that in Afghanistan, with its rugged terrain, strong tribal affinities and extreme poverty, it is localism that will defeat poverty and corruption and knit a nation together.

More than 19 million people have participated in a community planning and budgeting process to decide how to best use government grants of around $30,000 per village. In a community in Kabul Province that was layered with 12,000 land mines, without a single standing building in 2002, the men decided to invest funds in reviving irrigation canals, and the women in electricity generators. Men in the village told us that animosities between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns had eroded as a result of the collective budgeting negotiations.

This assessment seems confused in that Narayan first hitches her wagon to the notion of strong tribal affinities, and then turns the argument on animosities between tribes being eroded by circumstances.  But if this assessment is confused, Tim Lynch has a better set of arguments for engaging the tribes.

But a seemingly definitive anthropological study on Afghanistan seems to debunk the idea that we can rely heavily on tribes.  It is entitled My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes” in Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army Human Terrain System.  This study doesn’t merely throw cold water on the idea of relying on strong tribal affinities.  It calls into question the very idea of reliance on local control at all.  The fractured nature of Afghan society, the treachery that underlies the familial structure (if there is any structure at all), and the constant internecine fighting, casts a dark shadow over plans to foment anything like what we saw in the Anbar Province in 2006 and 2007.  A few seed quotes follow.

“No clear evidence exists of tribes actually coalescing into large-scale corporate bodies for joint action, even defensively, even for defense of territory.”

“The tribal system is weak in most parts of Afghanistan and cannot provide alternatives to the Taliban or U.S. control. The Pashtuns generally have a tribal identity. Tribal identity is a rather flexible and open notion and should not be confused with tribal institutions, which are what establish enforceable obligations on members of a tribe.”

“… As a matter of fact in most cases tribes do not have observable organizations which could enable them to perform collective actions as a tribe.”

[ … ]

One reason why the “family tree” model of tribes doesn’t apply to Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan is because of the unique relationship between male father’s-side first cousins. It is so unique to Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan that one anthropologist goes so far as to say that first-cousin hostility is a defining feature of the Pashtun ethnicity.

The word in Pashto for “male father’s-side first cousin” is tarbur, which is, at the same time, also one way of saying “enemy” in Pashto.

Why would first cousins in a tribal society be enemies with each other? The standard model of a Middle Eastern “tribal society” says that close male relatives should be a source of support against more distant “relatives” in other tribes, not enemies.   For Pashtuns, it comes down to competition over the inheritance of land from common ancestors—especially from one’s grandfather on the father’s side.

[ … ]

“As an example, two […] cousins had neighboring plots. The cousin whose field was more distant from the village walked to his field on an ancient pathway which verged on the plot of his tarbur . There was a simmering dispute over the right to this narrow path which ended in a gunfight and the death of one of the man’s sons.”

[ … ]

The result of this special kind of intra-family relationship is that, during times when conflicts aggravate first-cousin hostility, the sides don’t necessarily break down along “closest male relative” lines. Whereas in a classical Middle East tribal situation, all the participants in a conflict pick sides based on which side represents their closest male relative, Pashtuns establish temporary factional groupings that are unpredictable and not necessarily based on familial relationships.

The entire document is worthy study for the thinking man or woman on Afghanistan.

My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes”

But even if there is a case to be made for stronger engagement of the locals in Afghanistan, we aren’t anywhere near the tipping point for such a strategy in Afghanistan.  In the Anbar Province in 2006 and 2007 the U.S. Marines were relentless and forceful enough that the idea of joining the insurgency was a distant third or fourth place in priority to joining the coalition.  In Fallujah in 2007 enough al Qaeda and indigenous insurgents had been killed and enough aggressive patrols had been conducted that the remaining locals respected the Marines to the point that every action and reaction by the IPs and Sons of Iraq were taken not only to suppress the insurgency but also to impress the U.S. Marines who were mentoring them.

We are currently on the defensive in Afghanistan and badly in need of more troops.  The advocate of tribal engagement has been bequeathed a high bar with this Leavenworth study, and even if there is a case to be made for such a strategy, it would appear many months and even years into the future, and indeed many Marines and Soldiers, from being a viable strategy.

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  1. On November 11, 2009 at 11:16 pm, Warbucks said:

    After reading the above report, the ancient 5000+ year old culture of the Pashtun sounds pretty much like Tenn. hills and rural areas of the early 1900’s. Clan feuds were more important than national policies. Bottom land owners at 30 to 32 bushels of corn per acre where at the top of the social structure with hill top folks barely pulling half that yield and just as much work at the bottom of the social structure.

    What changed their society more than anything else was the draft of WWI.

    The only thing that will change this 5000+ year old culture is an end-game war in their midst, the likes they have not yet encountered, that gives the jirga pause to reconsider granting hospitality to the likes of terrorists.

  2. On November 12, 2009 at 12:36 am, Herschel Smith said:

    And war in their midst is what they’ve got.

  3. On November 13, 2009 at 5:32 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    Again, it can’t be “either-or,” in this fight.

    The report by the Human Terrain Team is why it is better to think of engagement with “Locals” rather than with “Tribes.” Flexibility is paramount in each Province and probably in each district of each Province.

    Let’s consider at least a few things that seem solid:

    1. This is not Iraq or Anbar. Anbar experience is helpful insofar as it showed (a) that the U.S. military CAN do COIN and do it very, very well; (b) that winning the fight against an asymmetrical enemy requires flexibility and creativity blended to the Local situation– authority structures, politics, economy, geography, logistics, all of it; (c) that the population must FIRST be convinced that the U.S. is the winning side, or, as the Marines say, “No better friend, no worse enemy.”

    2. Tranlating to A-stan, we are dealing with a warrior culture in the rural areas where the fight is being won or lost. Whatever strategy or various tactics employed, we must convince the Afghans that we have staying power and will kick the crap out of anyone that messes with us. Both Maj. Gant and TCJ seem to be in agreement that we cannot shrink from a fight. Unfortunately, the current ROE seems to force U.S. military to humiliate themselves in front of the Afghans on a daily basis. It can never be a good thing in war when the Locals and the enemy are laughing at you because of ridiculous ROE.

  4. On November 14, 2009 at 9:59 am, TSAlfabet said:

    Interesting view by COIN expert, David Kilcullen here:


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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Tribes and was published November 11th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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