Tribe and Prejudice, Part Deux

by Joshua Foust on 11/18/2010 · 7 comments

Remember earlier this year, when I wrote this?

Despite such a rich history of failure, one still finds a common idea in the testimonies, strategy papers and briefings of the policymakers in charge of America’s Afghanistan strategy: Afghanistan is a “tribal society”, and the exploitation of those tribal ties is the key to fighting the insurgency. Practically every pundit, soldier and official repeats this as an article of faith, to the point where it has strayed into tautology. Because the Taliban is Pashtun, and because Pashtuns are tribal, we therefore must understand the tribes to defeat the Taliban.

It is one of the most frustrating assertions about Afghanistan, directly contradicted by decades of academic research.

And so on. Anyway, so the U.S. has decided it’s going to use the Alikozai tribe to defeat the Taliban in Sangin—if we can convince them we won’t hang them out to dry (and assuming there’s enough of a unified command structure across different Alikozai communities for the idea to mean anything). There are so many things wrong with this plan, but no joke I’ve been arguing against those very things for, oh, three years now (including from within the Army as an actual Cultural Advisor). It’s obvious no one at the decision-making level is interested in listening. So I’m not sure ranting and wailing is really worth it at this point.

Anyway, it’s a really dumb idea.

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– 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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Abdurahman warsame November 18, 2010 at 7:18 am

I’m sure the tribes are the ones doing the exploiting: their dynamism and knowledge is underestimated.

Brett November 18, 2010 at 10:21 am

I’m sure the tribes are the ones doing the exploiting: their dynamism and knowledge is underestimated.

I suppose they could always try and play both sides, and get as much money and guns from the coalition government as possible.

It’s obvious no one at the decision-making level is interested in listening. So I’m not sure ranting and wailing is really worth it at this point.

Hey, you never know. Perhaps someday, an important congressman frustrated with the progress of the war will ask one of his significantly younger aides for a report on it, and that aide, having had in his RSS feed, will include your ideas in the report.

You can dream, right?

t November 18, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I think you are absolutely right with your criticism of American perceptions of Afghanistan’s social structure. The average person and, commonly, the average official will make the tired argument that Afghanistan is all about the tribes and that we must “engage” them, without specifying how or even what that means. To be fair though you are replacing the ‘tribes are everything’ narrative with a ‘tribes are nothing’ narrative. I am sure the latter is much closer to the truth but it might be helpful addressing the particular nature of the tribe in question. I am sure there are varying degrees of tribal unity throughout Afghanistan.

Perhaps you have addressed this in other articles, but what is your alternative to this strategy? I mean I believe one of the assumptions behind the arming of tribal militias is to transfer more of the fighting to Afghans as a part of ISAF’s ‘fight to leave’ strategy. The danger as you pointed out is that there is no guarantee these militias will disarm once the Taliban are defeated or follow orders from Kabul. But my general point is that I don’t believe the war can be won with 95% (or some other large arbitrary number) of the population sitting on the sidelines. Now I am not arguing that these community defense initiatives are necessarily the best way to do this, I am not knowledgeable enough to say, merely that the Afghan population will be crucial to success or failure. This has been a common refrain over the last two years or so but I don’t think it is understood completely. The status quo will not be sufficient, if Afghans do not choose to actively support international forces than the Taliban will win a war of attrition (despite recent arguments otherwise). Afghans have been victims of the war, attempting to survive violence from both the US and Taliban. As a whole they seem most concerned with surviving this conflict rather than winning it for one side or the other. This is an understandable position but I do not see it as tenable from the United States’ point of view. I would argue the American prosecution of war has forced a by-stander position on the Afghan population but any positive end state for the US must be secured by the Afghans themselves. Obviously ‘hearts and minds’ or control of the population or whatever have been a component of our strategy but I am puzzled that it is not THE strategy. Our strategic choices of waging a part COIN part CT war, supporting Karzai despite his widespread belief he is a fraud, and not solving the problem of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan suggest that we are unsure of exactly what we are doing in Afghanistan and what our exact goals are. I am not going to pretend these are simple problems with obvious answers, but it just seems that our choices do not align with a settled and methodical strategy that ends in victory.

So I guess my question out of all of that is, do you believe that it is important to bring the population off the sidelines (if you believe they are on the sidelines) to win the war? If so, how?

I apologize if these points have been addressed previously, I am relatively new to the blog. Thank you.

carl November 20, 2010 at 1:48 am

The problem we are trying to solve is one of local village defense. Mr. Foust makes pretty persuasive case that using the tribes to do this won’t work, but the problem still remains.

The Small Wars Journal blog of August 3, 2010 has an article about how the Thais successfully dealt with this problem in the 60s, 70s and 80s by creating village security teams that were local, effective and tied to the central government.

Mr. Foust, are you familiar with what the Thais did and if you are do you think something like that might work in Afghanistan?

Joshua Foust November 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm


I wrote about this a bit in July:

And back in March I about some of the challenges and possible solutions to locally-based militia groups:

Far as I’m concerned, though, there are fundamental problems with village security teams. The Thai government could manage those because it is a) relatively stable, and b) broadly considered legitimate. The Afghan government does not enjoy those luxuries. In fact, if the Thai government were as embattled as the Afghan government is now, I doubt they would have had as much success with LDIs.

Taken (for a ride) November 21, 2010 at 1:47 pm

“The stories were good, full of commando drama and globe-trotting derring-do in very dangerous climes.

They were so good that, ultimately, they didn’t ring true with a few students at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

They began comparing notes on what they heard in workshops on human trafficking and counterterrorism from instructor Bill Hillar.

They had believed the big man in his 60s with the close-cropped, military-style haircut was a retired colonel with Army Special Forces, a veteran of the elite Green Berets.

This week, MIIS officials said the school was mounting an investigation into Hillar’s background because of questions raised by students and a website dedicated to the military’s special forces. The website alleges that Hillar never served in the Army, but was a Coast Guard reservist.

“We did our research,” said website owner Jeff Hinton, who identifies himself as a retired Special Forces master sergeant, in an e-mail.”


This story is funny. I took a counter-terrorism seminar with this guy at monterey, as I’m sure so many other MIIS students have. afterwards me and a bunch of other students went out for beers (that old british bar on franklin) w/ him near campus. this guy had awesome stories. he married a hmong girl from his days in vietnam and had kids. a few years later one of his daughters (15 at that time) gets kidnapped, raped and killed by a human trafficking gang. this story was later adapted in that movie “Taken” w/ liam neeson:

he also had a story about going into the golden triangle for some black ops, only to get into a shoot out w/ DEA. the story had KIAs too.

I thought his stories were so cool and may be useful in the near future, so I emailed him shortly after for either some more stories or book recommendations. he sent me like 10 book recs and I read like six. I always thought it funny that most of his stories were found scattered in the books he recommended. I just figured, he was somehow part of the stories or he just used those stories because he wanted to use declassified stories in lieu of his own.

2 yrs later, fraud.

I know MIIS students that stayed at his house near DC who worked for Other Gov’t Agency, I hope they investigate this guy for possible Nat’l Security breaches.

Don Anderson November 22, 2010 at 9:38 am

Joshua et al..
These LDI initiatives are absolutely not well thought out. It would take the wonder kids at ISAF to long to get the necessary experience for them to understand each area in sufficient detail to make a “village defense” concept, “neighborhood watch with AKs” work.

Petraeus does not have a clue on what to do at this point. He is not getting along with Karzai, the Taliban is expanding and everything is working at cross directions. The Surge has failed to a great extent and all he has left is night raids and this “neigborhood watch.”

These LDIs are being done in a hit or miss fashion. One here, one there, one here maybe? It is being done with a “hey maybe here it will work” without fitting into any overall precise counter insurgent strategy. Just filling supposed holes in the picture is not going to keep the building from falling down.

There is no cogent workable strategy for the next several years. It is just really, hand off and pray, and if praying does not work, hand off anyway.

Obama’s review and the “tweaking” of this strategy is only putting a new coat of paint on a rusty unusable vehicle for change which does not run and has not been souped up by Petraeus of Iraq. But at least the children of Kabul are so much safer than in Glasgow according to another genius…Sedwill of Wazir Akbar Khan.

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