“Breaking” the Tribal Model

by Joshua Foust on 11/26/2008 · 9 comments

“Afghanistan is a tribal society,” they all say. Who is “they?” Well, just about any non-academic who has ever written of the country—military, pundit, columnist, you name it. Afghanistan is a tribal society, so therefore we must learn the tribes in order to pacify it.

But what if it’s not? As a thought experiment, consider this: Afghanistan has tribes, yes, but does that necessarily make it a “tribal society,” as in a society organized principally around tribes? Bernt Glatzer (pdf) recently argued:

There is a difference in the congruence of local and tribal ascription between east and west Afghanistan. East Afghanistan has a much higher degree of conformity between local and tribal units, whereas in the western Afghan plains there are no areas that are attributed to certain tribes, although Afghan rulers in the 19th century tried their best to create tribally homogeneous areas in west Afghanistan.

The outcome of my recent interviews with eastern Pashtuns reveals clearly that people from eastern and south-eastern Afghanistan define their social identity much more along local categories, whereas my informants from south and west Afghanistan (I also went to Quetta for interviews) stress their tribal and ethnic identity first and foremost. Even if taking into consideration the interview situation and the fact that respondents always reflect the assumed knowledge or ignorance of the interviewer, the difference between a primarily local social identity in the east and a primarily tribal and ethnic identity in the west is striking.

Striking, indeed. This is getting at a fundamental ordering principle in Afghan Pashtun society (there is yet more distinction between Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns, starting with the state-led formalization of some tribal institutions in the FATA around 1903 or so): Pashtuns are not all alike. While it might seem tempting to say “just engage people at the local level,” that doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome, either—outside of the east.

See, tribal identities—even when highly prized, as you’d find among, say, the Zadran—are not the only identities we have to deal with. Elsewhere, Glatzer argued (pdf):

In Afghanistan which recently has sunk into chaos and turmoil and where tribes have gained considerably in importance, the tribal system is only one component within a much more complex social and political web. This is true as well for areas populated homogeneously by Pashtuns. The tribal system does or did not only reside in remote and backward areas but permeated and still
permeates all levels of the society from the nomad camp up to the royal palace, from the remote mountain village up to the university and to the head quarters of the armed forces.

From this we can understand that “tribe,” as an ordering principle within Afghan Pashtun society, is one of many ways in which Pashtuns define Self and Other. There is also ethnicity—usually expressed in opposition terms, though Robert Canfield wrote a persuasive occasional paper for the Asia Foundation in the 1970s (sorry, no soft-copy yet) that when Afghans in general express “ethnicity”—especially in a negative or oppositional sense—they are usually expressing local disputes in a different way.

I would wager that in a lot of cases, that is true of tribe as well. Antonio Giustozzi once argued that, while certainly expressed as a tribe, much of the insurgency in the south (and to a lesser extent the east) is really something else—whether it be competition over an inheritance, rights to smuggle timber or opium, a patch of arable land on a hillside, rights to a well, or even control of a border crossing. The Noorzai and Achakzai of Kandahar, for example, have exchanged control of Spin Boldak several times over the previous few decades—and the losing side always gets persecuted. This is a tribal dispute, yes. But it is also another kind of dispute as well.

How could this possibly be important? By focusing solely on tribes—by defining, as the U.S. government so often does, Afghanistan as a “tribal society”—a number of assumptions get placed on what is motivating behavior that really have no business being around. If tribe were a primary motivating factor, for example, the Taliban would almost certainly display a much stronger tribal character than they really do (see here)—which would then open up a host of problems about why the can attract some people from some tribes but not other people from other tribes.

While understanding the desire for simplicity, there is, unfortunately, no way I can see in short-cutting the actual complexity of Afghan identity and conflict models. There is a tribal element, to be sure—no one could honestly deny the role tribe plays in forming identity—but tribe is not by a long shot the only, or even most important, way in which Afghan society organizes itself. While this whole phenomenon certainly requires some more thought, I think it is pointing at the fundamental folly in the ideas currently working their way around the Army about how to “fix” the war in Afghanistan: it’s missing the point.

UPDATE: I want to make two things clear: First, all this talk of tribe and Pashtuns really only applies to 40% of the country, concentrated in the south and east. The other 60% of Afghanistan—”Tajiks,” Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Nuristanis, Heratis, and on and on and on—doesn’t face the same sort of challenge. They have their own complexities, absolutely, but the scale of the problem is so much different it might be worth keeping in mind that an obsessive focus on Pashtuns will lend the wrong idea about the country. For example, the current drive to unconditionally flood “trouble” districts with reconstruction money (on the assumption that reconstruction will undermine the insurgency) has left the neglected, and peaceful, district governors openly wondering if they should have some insurgents attacks so they’ll be eligible for money as well. In other words, we seriously risk making the problem grow worse by considering it in a limited context… which is an indirect point this post tries to make as well.

Secondly, here is the link to Afghanistanica’s post on Qawm, which is a vital concept for which there is a lot more literature to read.

Referenced:
Glatzer, Bernt (2001). “War and Boundaries in Afghanistan: Significance and Relativity of Local and Social Boundaries.” Weld des Islams, 41, 3, pp. 379-99

Glatzer, Bernt (2002). “The Pashtun Tribal System.” in Pfeffer, G., and D.K. Behra (eds.), Concept of Tribal Society (Contemporary Society: Tribal Studies, Vol 5), pp. 265-282.

Giustozzi, Antonio (2007). Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 9 comments }

David November 27, 2008 at 7:36 am

‘Tribe’ ranks among the most pernicious concepts that outsiders use in their efforts to operate in Afghanistan for many of the reasons that are outlined here. But it’s got company.

A far more important concept is qawm in part because that’s the one which is widely used by Afghans themselves to identify commonality and difference.

Unfortunately qawm is a complicated concept that the people themselves are not able to explicate how they use and manipulate. And when it comes to translating it, most of the interpreters simply gloss it as ‘tribe.’ That doesn’t help.

I repeatedly refer anyone who is heading to Afghanistan to look at the excellent short piece that Afghanistica produced on this. It captures the essence of qawm and the various bases that the people themselves use to establish commonalities or differences. It’s a brief but elegant write-up but probably only appears as such to someone who already is familiar with the qawm concept.

On another level is the question of how most effectively to understand Afghans and how they act: whether to approach them as individuals or as members of groups and categories, whether ethnic, tribal, regional or sectarian. (Not since the Marxists has anyone tried to use class.)

Obviously one size doesn’t fit all but the military and pretty near every other outsider who has not been able to conduct serious research in Afghanistan opts to use the group approach. Clearly it’s much easier to ascertain the criteria of group membership of particular individuals and then make assumptions on how they will act based on those external attributes.

One wants to pull his hair out when he hears General McKiernan lament how complicated Afghanistan is with its 400 tribes. Undoubtedly the faux experts (who will likely increase in numbers now that Afghanistan and Pakistan are where the actions is) will step forward and offer up maps and charts to designate the tribal and ethnic composition of Afghanistan. Thanks but no thanks.

And if tribe is a lousy concept, so too is ethnicity. It is just as slippery and just as subject to manipulation as is defining commonality based on patrilineal descent. Conrad Schetter has written extensively on this.

And let’s not forget ‘village.’ We tend to assume that just because people live in geographical proximity they share common interests and are keen on joining in common effort. That assumption doesn’t necessarily stand up either.

I am pessimistic about the prospects of weaning outsiders from the concept of tribe in Afghanistan. This is so firmly entrenched in the way that we conceptualize all non-western people that we simply have no other concept can be readily applied to approaching the non-western Other.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and it also means that it’s going to be darned difficult to be effective as long as we continue to lack this fundamental situational awareness of Afghan realities. If the people are the center of gravity of counter-insurgency then we’re playing a fool’s game if we continue to force Afghans into categories and groups that are irrelevant.

Reverend Doctor November 27, 2008 at 5:25 pm

I am pessimistic about the prospects of weaning outsiders from the concept of tribe in Afghanistan. This is so firmly entrenched in the way that we conceptualize all non-western people that we simply have no other concept can be readily applied to approaching the non-western Other.

It seems like if we could all just agree to approach non-western Others as if they had identities like us. Because the way Afghanistanica frames qawm–and I agree with him–we could easily just translate that exotic word as “identity.”

Christian November 27, 2008 at 6:11 pm

RE Reverend Doctor’s comment: “It seems like if we could all just agree to approach non-western Others as if they had identities like us. Because the way Afghanistanica frames qawm–and I agree with him–we could easily just translate that exotic word as “identity.””

Replacing “qawm” with “identity” would semantically, in the eyes of a lay reader, remove the aspects of solidarity, kinship, strategic reshaping and fluidity that “qawm” encompasses.

I’m not a big fan of anthropological works that used up to a dozen untranslated native terms per page, but sometimes it is necessary to leave a word untranslated lest its subtly gets lost.

Reverend Doctor November 27, 2008 at 9:52 pm

What are the subtleties that get lost? Cause in a lot of places identity has to do with kinship, solidarity, strategic reshaping etc. Where doesn’t it.

Christian November 27, 2008 at 10:20 pm

RE:”What are the subtleties that get lost? Cause in a lot of places identity has to do with kinship, solidarity, strategic reshaping etc. Where doesn’t it.”

The subtleties get lost in the media and in works by authors such as Robert Kaplan: basically those who are stuck in a “primordialist” perspective on ethnicity/identity/tribe. When you read “identity” you get the subtly. When journalists and many of those who publish outside of the peer reviewed/academic world (or any place informed by it) write “identity,” they see identity as a rigid, organismic, static model: nicely categorizeable with members conforming to stereotypes.

Writing “identity” instead of “qawm” will, in my opinion, result in most readers (including policy-makers) immediately plugging in the western industrialized world concept of nationalism or ethnicity (or some concept like a “sub-cultural identity”).

I’m not being terribly original here, anthro writings on Afghanistan usually introduce the concept of “qawm” and then stick with the word.

Joshua Foust November 28, 2008 at 12:25 am

I want to echo Christian’s argument. “Identity,” in a lot of analysis circles, carries just as much unfortunate drama as “tribe.” Using “qawm” to describe Afghan identity (sigh) avoids a lot of that.

That being said, I didn’t mean this to be even much of an introduction to the idea of qawm. All I meant to do here (I’m slowly learning the value of limiting scope) was to discuss why the concept of a “tribal society” is inadequate for describing what happens inside Afghanistan—especially given the set of assumptions we place on the word “tribe.”

Reverend Doctor November 28, 2008 at 6:53 am

Christian, I see what you’re saying about people misunderstanding identity as much/more than tribe. I also see the challenge of getting the subtlety across with a scary italicized word. But that’s life. Ultimately people should read your post on Afghanistanica because I haven’t seen it put better and more succinctly.

Back to what Josh is saying in the post: “While it might seem tempting to say “just engage people at the local level,” that doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome, either—outside of the east.” I don’t see why Glatzer’s analysis of Pashtuns into east and south precludes a local approach–aren’t you still safe in not making assumptions (from a practical point of view)?

BTW Amazon says Glatzer has a book coming out in which he analyzes “the politics of ethnicity” (curious to know what that means) in the spring.

Blazingsuth November 28, 2008 at 6:48 pm

I have just returned from Afghanistan as a translator (sort of), and from the limited portion of the population I spoke with, most had either no idea what I meant by qaum, or they had so many options they didn’t even know where to begin. I would ask the following question in Dari, “what is your qaum?” 8 times out of 10 I got looks of complete confusion. However, when I asked the question in Pashto, or in Dari of a Pashtun, the answer was immediate and clear. From what I can tell, the concept of qaum is as fluid for Afghans as it is for academics or policy makers.

I do agree however that the term tribe is severely limiting and in no way encompasses the Afghan concept of the word.

Joshua Foust November 30, 2008 at 10:01 am

Blazingsuth, I think part of what your story highlights is that all this mystery about how to approach people and how they work really only applies to Pashtun communities. THere are issues in engaging with non-Pashtuns as well — absolutely — but the really “wicked” problems really only seem to crop up with Pashtuns.

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