Yet Another “Bribe the Tribes” Pundit

by Joshua Foust on 9/24/2009 · 7 comments

So first we had Fareed Zakaria saying that all we have to do to win in Afghanistan is bribe the tribes until we withdraw. Simple! Then Fred Kaplan had a curiously similar idea. It got me thinking: do these people all hang out and decide to write mass op-eds?

Anyway, now it’s David Ignatius’ turn, and he has a fun new angle.

When it comes to Afghanistan, the British have a special perspective: Every mistake the United States has made recently, they made 150 years ago. So it’s worth listening to British experts in the debate over Afghan strategy.

Hahaha, I know right, like when we razed the Kabul bazaar to the ground, or demolished the garrison at Ghazni, right? Oh wait.

The best answer the British came up with was working with tribal leaders in the border regions — paying them subsidies, wooing them away from the baddies who genuinely threatened British interests, but otherwise letting them run their own affairs. That was a cynical approach and it left Afghanistan a poor, backward country. But it worked adequately, especially compared with the alternative, which was unending bloodshed in a faraway country that refused to be colonized.

Aside from the inconvenient fact that the British approach actually failed (remember that whole history thing?), I think Ignatius could do us a tremendous service by defing “worked adequately.” Then there’s the annoying problem that “tribe” doesn’t really have much meaning in Afghanistan, and even if it did, we’d have no idea whom to pay off anyway.

But I mean, hey, it worked 15 decades ago for the British, so whatever, right? I’m waiting for the inevitable Tom Friedman column, now complaining that the Afghan system is so much better than ours because you can just bribe your way to preferred outcomes.

P.S. Let’s not mention that we tried that in, you know, 2002, and the outcome really hasn’t helped us too much.

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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 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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Oblat September 24, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Worked in Iraq didn’t it. Provides a useful cover for managing the publics perception of the defeat.

Consumatopia September 24, 2009 at 8:46 pm

If every option that vaguely resembles some previous failure is off the table, that leaves pretty much nothing but withdrawal.

Toryalay Shirzay September 24, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Whatever happened to “American ingenuity “?can writings such as those by DAVID Ig,Tom Fr ,Consuma and etc be considered to represent American ingenuity? Or is it gone kaput?

sağlık personeli September 25, 2009 at 4:36 am

I do not think I would win his conviction completely wrong old

AG September 25, 2009 at 8:02 am

Well, the British approach was fairly effective: a few hundred thousands in subsidies to Abdul Rahman and a few guns kept things chugging along in India. They never had the intention of denying terrorists heaven or democracy, or whatever it is that white people want these days.

Tribes may be fictitious but then what isn’t? Isn’t Afghanistan a fiction? Yet we use that category. None of the identities were set hard and fast in stone, the British made it so by forcing people to identity themselves through specific categories and lo and behold it became real. Just depends on how badly one wants it.

Raymond Turney September 26, 2009 at 8:59 pm


Good piece on an interesting phenomenon.,

That’s life. These people think of the US as the inheritor of the British Empire, and it doesn’t occur to them that the Brits left us both Israel-Palestine and the situation in Kashmir. So maybe the Brits don’t deserve the enthusiasm they inspire in the US elite.

I’m a little surprised at the enthusiasm for tribes, because I thought Shuja Nawaz argued a while back that the reduction of the influence of the tribal system {because radical clerics with Saudi patronage were richer than tribal notables} was a big part of the problem in Pakistan. Since this argument made sense to me, I assumed it would make sense to the US opinion leadership. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe they didn’t read Shuja Nawaz.

Anyway, good luck. My limited knowledge of history suggests that we are likely to need it.


Dafydd September 28, 2009 at 6:50 am

I think ‘worked adequately’ means ‘failed less spectaculary’.

That is, while the Brit policy of the time may well have been a failure (we were ultimately defeated in Afghanistan), it would have been a more spectacular failure had we fought harder, and lost more clearly, in front of native Indian soldiers.

It would have cost more lives, and probably more money.

Bribing the tribes is a good policy if you view ultimate defeat as inevitable. If you think NATO can defeat the insurgency, bribing not only delays the necessary sacrifice, it probably makes it more expensive.

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