It's the Tribes? That's Stupid. - Lieutenant Colonel John Malevich, Canadian Army -- U.S. Army / U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, Combined Arms Center Blog.
When you are a stranger in a strange land, you need to be aware of, and hold on to, and be proud of your culture. In my experience you can become susceptible to myth and unfounded fears of a super warrior that you have not yet engaged. I was chatting with a young Afghan who, full of Pashtun bravado said to me "westerners were from a feminine culture," because we spent the majority of our economic activity on goods and services and not on weapons of war and the military. Being one half Irish and one half Yugoslavian culturally speaking, I am not inclined to walk away from a fight and "them sounded like fighting words to me." I asked my Pashtun buddy to show me how westerners greet each other. He extended his hand in a wave. I pointed out the open hand and said, "do you know why we do that? The open hand shows the other westerner that 'I have no weapons;' so, I won't try to kill you, this time." It seems we are not such an effete culture after all, my Pashtun friend!
In our ninth year of insurgency in Afghanistan it seems that we are turning to romantic notions and silver bullets to extricate ourselves from what seems like an unending conflict. The latest great hope is the tribes. The idea being that if only we could mobilize them, we would be halfway to a solution to this insurgency.
I think that this approach smacks too much of military orientalism. We seem to be looking for the Jean Jacque Rousseau "noble savage." Or in modern terms, I would call it the "Avatar Effect" or "Last Samurai last hope." In the search to find a way out we are pinning our hopes on the weakest link in the Afghan conflict chain.
I will not look at this problem from an anthropological point of view but rather from a strictly military point of view. There are limitations to the tribal style of warfare that have always limited their effectiveness and always will.
Tribes fight within the limitations of a complicated honor code that requires the respect of both sides to work. Pashtun culture sees the fight as being a matter of honor, worth fighting only if it is an affair between men taking equal risk i.e. it has to be a fair fight. The targeting of women and non-combatants to gain an advantage is out of the question. Once you do that, the Pashtun leaves the fight. Historically, this has been a very effective method of defeating them. British Aerial Policing did this, Taraki's bombing of revolting villages did this, and the Taliban fanatics are not above targeting non-combatants either.
The Pashtun fight for booty or land not ideals. This limits their zeal because once the objective is taken, the spoils are distributed and the fighting stops. After that comes the squabbling between tribes as to who gets what from the spoils. So, motivating them to expel the Taliban from their midst is really a non-starter because there is no money in it.
Real soldiers know that it is all about logistics. Start running out of ammo in a firefight and you know what I mean. Afghan tribal fighting style and honour code demand that Pashtuns should all fight all the time. That is a great line for Star Ship Troopers, but not militarily practical for the Pashtuns. Because they will not take less honourable duties like logistics, their style of fighting is best suited to the advance where they can live off the land like armies of old. They cannot support themselves outside their immediate area, or Kehl.
Getting tribes and clans and different communities to fight side by side is problematic. Disputes over spoils or disputes over perceived slights can quickly turn allies against one another. King Ammanullah was able to use the mullahs as interlocuters between the tribes and as logisticians in order to keep them fighting the enemy not each other. This time, the enemy is the mullah. Who will keep the tribes on side? P.S. This week, two Shinwari sub-tribes took up arms to fight each other over an ancient land dispute, leaving at least 13 people dead. This is the same tribe who were supposed to work with Coalition forces for a cool million.
Tribes cannot call jihad, thus their dead cannot be shaheed (martyrs). This limits their enthusiasm for the fight. We want them, in fact, to fight against those that have called for jihad. How do we cross that bridge?
Jirga/Tribal structure makes planning too slow. It is easily infiltrated and the supporters are too easily identified and targeted with night letters and murder, and of course their plans can be communicated to the enemy quite easily.
Tribal war is all about the survival of the tribe and the protection of the status and possessions of the elders who are reluctant combatants because they have the most to lose. The elders that we put our faith in are the least —to fight because they take the greatest risk. They have land, women and houses that are not easy to walk away from. It is the young who have the most zeal because they have the least to lose. The tribes are most likely to join you only when you are winning and the can get in on the booty.
They are first to quit. In fact, the Taliban never took all of Afghanistan. They merely built up a head of steam and the tribes/warlords flipped over on their backs like submissive dogs in order to preserve their status. After 911, they flipped back against the Taliban, because momentum was with us and we would preserve their status. The mistake we make is that in our culture, changing sides is seen as the worst kind of evil, but in Pashtun culture it is seen merely as clever because it is all about survival of the tribe.
Let's look at the recent history of the tribes. The tribes tell us they hate the Taliban, the Taliban are trumped up school teachers who have stepped above their station in life, the tribes are full of mighty warriors, and it is the Elders who should be in power. If this were the case, the Taliban would have been chased out a long time ago. It seems to me, the tribes are either not capable or not —to take on the Taliban and are content to maintain the status-quo and their position within it.
Which is it?
LCol JJ Malevich, Canadian Exchange Officer, COIN Branch Chief, US Army/ USMC Counter Insurgency Center. This statement is my own and does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense.