Tribe and Prejudice

by Joshua Foust on 2/11/2010 · 12 comments

I have a piece out in the Abu Dhabi National’s The Review, discussing the bad assumptions behind any “tribal strategy” in Afghanistan.

But the Shinwari pact is merely the most recent of America’s attempts to exploit Afghanistan’s tribes. There is a widespread belief in the military, policy community, and public that an intimate understanding of Afghanistan requires an intimate understanding of its tribes, and the US has tried to work with tribes since the earliest days of the invasion in 2001 – selecting charismatic leaders to lead their men into generously-funded battle. Despite a UN-led effort to demobilise these non-government militia groups, over the last eight years the US has continued small-scale experiments with what they now call community or local defence initiatives – to almost no effect. In many areas, especially in the south, these programmes have actually served to enrich and re-arm various Taliban groups.

It’s significantly more involved than this, so please go check it out!

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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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M Shannon February 11, 2010 at 10:07 am

Does anyone believe that the Shinwar Tribe can be bought off of for only $1 million? That’s a few bucks a head which pales in comparison to the revenue they get from having Hwy 1 run through their area.

Here’s a likely scenario: The Taliban aren’t welcome in Shinwar already. Insurgents may pass through but ops would interfere with the commercial traffic the local leaders make their living off of, but since the US is handing out cash the tribal leaders will ask for what they think the PRT is capable of shelling out. The requests for additional cash, training and guns to build some sort of tribal security force are probably already submitted.

This is a scam soon to be repeated across Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust February 11, 2010 at 5:50 pm

I think the scam already HAS been repeated. We know that’s exactly what happened in Uruzgan in 2006, Kapisa in 2007, and Kunar in 2005 (or so). Another favorite maneuver is to claim some tribe is all Taliban, and if America gives this one family money then their tribe will totally pinky swear fight them.

Laurence Jarvik February 11, 2010 at 10:13 am

Josh, Thank you for posting this link. It is a very thoughtful article, especially your conclusion: “The curious inability of policymakers to view Afghanistan in its own context – choosing to see it as it is, rather than what they wish it to be – reveals a worrying artifact of American policy. The political and military leadership of the war have eschewed a difficult, complex view of the country (despite always proclaiming that they understand its complexity), and seem intent on relying on assumptions and quick fixes instead. Until that mindset changes, until there is an appreciation for the unique features of Afghanistan’s social fabric, we can expect the war to continue to unravel before our eyes.”

Reader February 11, 2010 at 11:44 am

You need to write a book, and quick, so we could see you on The Colbert Report! where you can reach a wide audience…Exum has walked the walk, but I think you can talk the talk!

Joshua Foust February 11, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Flattery will get you everywhere!

Blaine February 12, 2010 at 1:29 am

Great article. Although, not one I wish you had to write. But someone has to. The unfortunate problem with the human mind, is that many times, we search in vain for a “simple solution” to a complex problem (Which we often believe is much more simple than it really is). This silver bullet approach, as you ably noted, ignores so much about the reality of the situation, and that, in turn, could end up resulting in some unintended consequences that could be devastating both for us and even more so for the Afghans.

As a side note, I enjoyed your brief mention of the fact that the Taliban is not a tribal militia in the sense that it does not define itself tribally. The amount of people I run into, and debate this topic with, that believe the Taliban is tribal ideologically is staggering.

carmela@israel February 12, 2010 at 11:28 am

somehow afganistan is involved into the games of usa and russia. i perfectly remeber no-one-need war of russia and afganistan-cruel and illigal action of russian solders there. i am just very sorry for this country to be involved in another shit.

reader February 12, 2010 at 1:09 pm

The article makes me wonder to what extent is our tribal policy, and that of our British predecessors, more a case of incompetence or cynicism. Tribes don’t emerge in a political vacuum. The mythology makes it seem that a guy just has a bunch of sons, and they have a bunch of sons, etc, etc. but tribes have been formed by political fiat. In fact, forming tribes by fiat in the Middle East and C. Asia dates back centuries. And as British and American frontier officials realized in North America, it is easier to deal with a single leader than many. As an example, thanks to these policies we now have a “Creek” people in Oklahoma whose constituient parts didn’t consider themselves a people, until “encouraged” to, or even speak remotely related languages. Keeping that in mind, Mr. Foust, to what extent do you think our policy makers are aware that they are artificially creating tribal leaders by disbursing monies and patronage? On a related topic, is this why we, an ostensibly democratically-minded people, talk so much about jirgas?

Gerard February 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Dear Joshua

I like your website, and your sceptical approach is healthy. On this issue, though, you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Tribal identity is alive and kicking in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and a proper understanding of how it works is essential to understanding the place (yes, even to understanding Gul Agha Sherzai’s business dealings in Kandahar). This is particularly true in Loya Paktia, and Helmand/Kandahar/Uruzgan. Very often Afghans in the country’s south have told me, ‘so-and-so was a good Governor: he understood the tribes’. For more on this, see my own blog tomorrow…

The fact that the Taliban carefully balance tribal affinities in their leadership structures shows how important they are: it’s not something you would need to bother with, in a non-tribal society.

Belonging to a tribe doesn’t mean all acting in the same way, or obeying a single person – very often tribes, like families, benefit from being represented in all the different factions. What you will consistently find, though, is a preference from people in certain tribes to work with, or employ, members of their or allied tribes.

Finding a single person, or better a group of people (a shura) who have disproportionate influence in a tribe is a good idea – and can avoid the need for conflict. The UN proposed such an idea in the context of the Zadran Arc Stabilization Initiative back in 2007-8.

Most often, projects of this kind fail because they are badly negotiated and there’s no follow-up or policing of the agreement. But we shouldn’t play down the whole idea of tribal identity altogether. And agreements of one kind or another, with the Taliban, the Government, tribes, warlords, ulema, etc etc, are essential. it seems to me the issue is how they’re done, not the fact of doing them.

(But by the way – the people the US army worked with in and after 2001 were jihadi commanders, not specifically tribal leaders. I can’t really believe that back then, the US could tell a Zadran from a Kharoti. And in Afghanistan in 2007-8, the military took some convincing that tribal shuras were entities worth engaging with. Likewise in Iraq in 2005, where many people were saying that Saddam had destroyed the Iraqi tribes. In Iraq I found the tribal affinities weaker than in Afghanistan.)

For a piece written by an Afghan on this, see

Best wishes!

Joshua Foust February 16, 2010 at 8:52 am


I’m a big fan of Karokhail—I even obliquely referenced one of his papers in that piece.

But if you read my piece closely, I don’t argue that tribal identity is non-existent, I merely say that a) it is only one of the many ways Afghans self-identify and make decisions; and b) we in the West are especially bad at understanding how that works and have the history to prove it. It’s why my preferred frame of reference is “community,” which still isn’t technically correct in terms of how solidarity and peer groups actually work, but it encompasses both tribe and non-tribe neighbors who may have common interests.

Another point here is to rail against relying solely on tribe. The recent capture of Mullah Baradar is a great case in point: he is a Popalzai Durrani, just like President Hamid Karzai. How would tribe have told us anything about the war in this case? It wouldn’t.

Lastly, finding a single person with lots of influence has been our M.O. so far and it’s collapsed in flames. How’s that ZASI project going? It’s stalled out. When we go into a community we pick winners and losers, and often pick really poorly, and create new elders with money and influence when they weren’t before and that usually makes communal relations worse, rather than better.

Again, we have a really bad history of relying on magic Pashtun leaders. I’d say it’s our insistence on doing so that has led to the halting progress we’ve seen so far. A shura makes more sense, but if people are just assembling a shura or jirga to ask the Americans for money then it’s really not what we’re after, either.

It takes time and patience, and most importantly a willingness to lay aside our assumptions about the place for things to have a real chance at working.

Gerard February 17, 2010 at 10:42 am

Hi Joshua. The fact that ZASI has stalled doesn’t prove tribal engagement to be a mistake, any more than the Musa Qala embarrassment of February 2007 proves it’s wrong to negotiate with local communities. But perhaps if you bring out more clearly what alternative means of dialogue you’re favouring, that would help me understand where you’re going with this.

Meantime, I would disagree with your assertion in your article that “Scholars studying the country agree unanimously that Afghans do not identify themselves primarily along lines of tribal affiliation or make decisions (like whether to join the insurgency) on the basis of tribe.” This isn’t right. Tribal affiliation isn’t the only basis for such a decision, but it does count. For example in Paktika, the Zadran are known to be more active in the insurgency than the Kharoti. In Helmand, the Ishaqzai are more affiliated with the Taliban than are the Alizai. You quote Giustozzi, so I shall too:

“With the fall of the Taliban, Alizai circles around Sher Mohammad Akhundzada were again elevated to the power they had been holding in 1981-94 and proceeded to marginalize and “tax” Ishaqzai communities. In 2006,
a violent conflict broke out. The Taliban exploited the conflict to consolidate their influence in Sangin district, where the Ishaqzai are the majority of the population, but this did not prevent them from maintaining their pockets of support among Alizai clans hostile to Sher Mohammad, such as in Baghran and in other parts of northern Helmand.”

As for the capture of Barader, here is an excerpt from an article by the scholarly Thomas Ruttig in Foreign Policy:

“Here, the ‘Popalzai connection’ kicks in again: If Karzai was talking about ‘brothers’ on ‘the other side,’ he might have a very certain ‘brother’ in mind. According to the Newsweek article cited above, Mullah Baradar also had sanctioned ‘feelers’ stretched out towards the President’s brother and ex-MP Qayyum Karzai (who stepped down from his parliamentary mandate to concentrate on reconciliation issues). ”

So, yes, in respect of the examples you give, which were Sherzai’s business interests and the capture of Barader, there is a tribal dimension. That doesn’t mean that there’s a single person to talk to who represents a specific tribe. But in your criticism of that idea, let’s not dismiss tribal identity in the face of what Afghans (rather than foreign sociologists) have to say about it.

Best wishes, Gerard

Joshua Foust February 17, 2010 at 10:49 am


We need to be clear: the Loya Paktia area is a uniquely tribal area of Afghanistan. And the reason I mention ZASI is, despite it being so explicitly tribal, we still cannot figure out how to “engage the tribes” to achieve some preferred outcome. We just can’t manipulate or work within those identities reliably. Which is why I advocate abandoning a tribal framework.

That being said, communities make a lot of sense for a basis for engagement. Often tribe is just a way of describing community anyway—including within Loya Paktia. Two neighboring tribes are bickering over something, and it turns out to be two neighboring communities in a dispute over control of a stand of trees or access to water. That’s far more common that these meta-tribal conflicts people mean when they talk about tribe.

In other words, tribe might be the point of cleavage, but it is not the cleavage itself—so focusing on tribe misses the real issue. I’m familiar with the Giustozzi quote above: do you think that conflict is about tribe, or about communities having access to powers of taxation and control of the police? If tribe matters so much (in this case, in Helmand), why do tribes “split” over whether or not to join the Taliban? You said above they don’t act as coherent political actors… if that’s the case, why would we focus on such an inadequate structure as “tribe” to do our engaging? That doesn’t make any sense.

And I’m actually right about the universal academic consensus on tribe. If you have counterexamples, I’d love to see them, but I’ve spent several years surveying the academic literature on this topic for my job; I can’t find it. I respect Ruttig very much, but he’s assuming a popalzai thing where Karzai hasn’t shown any inclination to favor popalzais in his decision-making. It makes for good copy, but it doesn’t actually describe anything.

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