Not Really Sure What to Say

by Joshua Foust on 2/8/2010 · 8 comments

I thought I’d made peace with the Small Wars Journal. Sure, about 70% of what they run is crap, but there is, on occasion, some compelling content they link to. I’d even come to grips with the free-wheeling nature of the site: despite the drawbacks, it does present a forum for soldiers and researchers to discuss wars (I’ve even taken advantage of that).

However. By allowing any old anybody to write essays, regardless of veracity, logic, or even general adherence to fact, I’m afraid I have to revisit my charge that SWJ aggressively dumbs us down. SWJ is not Wikipedia—it is not a hippie experiment, nor is it as rigorous. It presents shallow sloganeering in the the guise of authoritative analysis.

Which is a long way of introducing “Tribal Engagement: The Way Forward in Afghanistan.” When something is so fundamentally wrong, it can be difficult to know where to being. So in the interests of brevity, I shall only discuss the first paragraph in any detail.

Following the cooption of the powerful Shinwari tribe of eastern Afghanistan last week, it seems defense planners have finally realized the unsophisticated reality that tribes form the fabric of Afghan society.

Besides being the opposite of decades of universal academic consensus on the topic of tribe and identity in Afghanistan, this is circular logic: defense planners “coopted” a powerful tribe, so therefore tribes are the basis of society. That’s backwards. (Oh, and no one—not one person—who has ever had to work with Afghan communities considers their reality unsophisticated.)

The compounded impotence of the Karzai regime and the recent successes of direct tribal engagement have highlighted the potential of empowering tribal institutions, but years after the success of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, why are we only now choosing to tap the power centers that have driven the history of Afghanistan for centuries?

Repeat after me: Afghanistan is not Anbar. Afghanistan is not Anbar. Afghanistan is not Anbar. Afghanistan is not Anbar. Afghanistan is not Anbar. Afghanistan is not Anbar. Afghanistan is not Anbar. Also, what successes? These first two assertions are unsupportable by any means.

Perhaps it is Afghanistan’s imperial legacy, which speaks to the “ungovernable” nature of tribes that have devoured armies whole, or perhaps naive political hopes for a robust central government, a situation more or less unknown in Afghan history.

Someone who actually ever read a book about Afghanistan wouldn’t say it has never had a robust central government. In fact, a robust central government has been the norm for Afghanistan—it is the chaos of recent years that is the exception.

A third possibility may lie in the popular myth that the “backward and anarchic” habits of tribes preclude their integration within the institutions of a modern nation-state, lest their inherently belligerent and barbaric nature lead to its ruin.

He must mean Steven Pressfield’s Small Wars Journal-approves hypefest about “tribesmen” and how they’re not like good old Western citizen-individuals. Again with the circular logic!

Whether stalled by daydreams of a different political reality in Afghanistan or by recalcitrant Afghan elites in Kabul, recent developments suggest that warfighters and scholars like Major Jim Gant, author of “One Tribe at a Time” and an outspoken advocate of tribal engagement, seem to be gaining traction within the defense establishment.

Right. Have we mentioned this is a bad thing?

But the question remains: what will a tribal strategy spell for the future of Afghanistan?

According to Kimberly Marten, a political scientist at Columbia? VERY BAD THINGS.

Almost point for point, this plan repeats the terrible mistake that the British colonial army made in the Pashtun tribal areas in what would become Pakistan, in the late 19th century.

The British disrupted local Pashtun power balances by injecting outside money into tribal politics. British intelligence officers created charts of which sub-tribes and leaders (or maliks) had the most influence, and paid them extra money. The favored maliks in turn used these funds for patronage, paying off their supporters. Canny Pashtun factions second-guessed the British, creating security problems that they then “solved” to look more powerful. British payments to the new “official maliks” became hereditary. This system violated the tribal code of equality among all Pashtun men, but the official maliks accepted it with enthusiasm.

You know we’ve said the same thing. So that thing about creating charts? Steffen Merten, the post’s author, works for Courage Services, a company whose income depends on charting tribal entities for the intelligence community. Merten perhaps could have done us the courtesy of revealing that he was writing ad copy for his employer before, you know, saying Afghanistan is just like Oman (and yes, he does that too).

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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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Anonymous February 8, 2010 at 11:01 am

I’ve actually gotten myself into trouble over at SWJ. But they quickly forgave me- gentlemen that they are.

Yes, I don’t agree with many of their views presented on Iran and Afghanistan (a recent essay by a certain Pakistani major comes to mind). Nevertheless, I still browse the site regularly, if only to comment on certain weaknesses I come across in their postings.

Joshua Foust February 8, 2010 at 11:02 am

I can’t ignore them because a) they do sometimes post material that is genuinely compelling, and not “counterinsurgency lessons learned from Iran”; and b) they are so enormously influential.

steve February 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Great post, Josh.

Madhu February 8, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Wow. And I thought I was the crankiest person on the internet.

The commentors and the “Council” discussions are interesting at SWJ, and, if you are a layperson, not a bad introduction to certain material. From there, you can move on to other sites, such as, say, Registan? As for the amount of influence the site holds, well, I’m just a small person out here in the hinterlands and from this vantage point I see lots of bad ideas take hold in D.C. and its environs. An awful lot of those bad ideas come from academia and academic consensus formers, too. Not talking about Afghanistan, but more my area… .For Afghanistan, I think the biggest problem is that, somehow, people in positions of power can’t see the region clearly. Or won’t. But, really, the fault is with the policy planners and the goal of unstable endstates. The military is stuck. What are they supposed to do in the middle of all that madness?

Dafydd February 10, 2010 at 10:09 am

Really, I think the problem with Afghanistan is that we are trying to do nation building. That is pretty much a modern day politically correct term for colonialism.

Colonialism in a place like Afghanistan is really VERY expensive. We are not dedicating the resources necessary. I don’t just mean money. We would have to put in a large proportion of our very best people full time to help givern the place. Some for pretty much their whole career.

reader February 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm

“For Afghanistan, I think the biggest problem is that, somehow, people in positions of power can’t see the region clearly. Or won’t. But, really, the fault is with the policy planners and the goal of unstable endstates. The military is stuck. What are they supposed to do in the middle of all that madness?”

Excellent point, the US can’t fix these problems for deep structural reasons all its own. Moreover, I find it strange that MidWestern congressmen like Dick Lugar or Sam Brownback continue to take such an interest in C. Asia when their own backyard is starting to look a little too much like Gaza employment-wise. I suspect the attitude is its easier to fix, or to appear to be fixing, problems “over there” then “here.” The problem is this attitude, both cynical and naive, fixes problems in neither place. Combine some pseudo Calvinistic American exceptionalism, high profit margins, easy Chinese credit, a willingness to take risks with the lives of foreigners of dusky visage, the need to appear macho to the folks back home (not just rubes btw; soccer moms as well) and you have the makings of one nasty little cake. The icing on the cake must be changed from time to time, too much Americana and macho, turns some partyers off, so now we have a slightly more ethnic, fiesta themed cake. But it’s the same cake, just with different icing.

Regarding the military. I wouldn’t call them hapless victims. The Pentagon needs wars to justify its budget, and you can’t tell me that every soldier goes forth with head hung low wishing that he/she didn’t have to fight. There is that small percentage that want to “git sum.” As one person said, war is a force that gives us meaning.

Madhu February 8, 2010 at 5:39 pm

“Regarding the military. I wouldn’t call them hapless victims.”

I didn’t meant to, reader, and I’m sorry if my comment – which was too strongly worded and glib, I think – sounded that way. I am always skeptical of everything and maybe that blinds me.

Schmedlap February 9, 2010 at 6:29 pm


I don’t assume that SWJ endorses the views of everyone, or even most, of the authors on their site. They post material primarily to spur discussion. Take, for example, their recent posting of Gant’s article. It was met with a fair amount of skepticism by most readers and I don’t have any reason to believe that the editors buy his argument (but maybe I’m wrong – do they?). Also consider that Gian Gentile, who is portrayed as “anti-COIN” (really he’s just anti-foolishness), is welcome to post there, despite perceptions that the site has a COIN fetish on par with that of Abu Muqawama.

Much of what they post is fairly non-controversial. I’m thinking, in particular, of their daily feature: the SWJ roundup. Every morning, Dilegge or someone else at SWJ wakes up at about 0400 and pulls all of the national security related articles from the major rags and summarizes and links to them. It’s like a human news aggregator.

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