A few of the comments — like the first one below — reflect new reading or other research on my part. Most just reiterate points I’ve made before, mainly in other posts here, but sometimes a new angle is added.
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I remain a fan of Steve Pressfield’s blog “It’s the Tribes, Stupid!”, and of Jim Gant’s paper posted there on “One Tribe at a Time.” Pressfield’s blog and Gant’s paper comprise a singularly significant effort to urge attention to the enduring, strategic significance of the tribal form of organization — in their case, regarding the conflict in Afghanistan. I’m pleased and proud that my past writings have assisted their efforts.
Gant’s paper (not to mention Pressfield’s blog) has been controversial. It advocates a bottom-up, pro-tribal strategy in Afghanistan, whereas many mainstream analysts prefer a top-down or a middle-out strategy, or else a different kind of bottom-up strategy. A large part of the controversy has revolved around competing views about the definition and significance of “tribes” in the region.
Renown for Gant’s vision has spread through write-ups in the New York Times and Washington Post. Pros and cons have been debated in various posts and comments at the Small Wars Journal (SWJ) blog, as well as in scattered posts at other blogs, e.g., Combined Arms Center, Free Range International, Captains Journal, Blackfive, and Al Sahwa. Relentless criticisms have arisen at such blogs as Registan.net, Ghosts of Alexander, and The Security Crank. Gant has fielded effective, thoughtful replies to many issues in comments he has fielded in posts at Pressfield’s blog as well as at the Small Wars Journal blog.
Interesting as all this is from a TIMN perspective, I have kept my distance. However, a Small Wars Journal post praising Gant’s paper prompted a critic to recommend an interesting counterpoint paper — “My Cousin’s Enemy Is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun Tribes” — issued by an Army-related research center in the Human Terrain System (HTS) at Fort Leavenworth. That and other matters eventually led me to leave the following TIMN-related points in a December 2009 comment in the SWJ post noted above:
By now, I’ve read both Major Gant’s paper and the Leavenworth/HTS paper noted above. As one who has tried to learn a lot about tribal forms of organization, ancient and modern, I think Gant’s paper is on the right track, aiming in the right direction.With this in mind, I remain convinced that selectively, sensibly working with and through “tribes” should be made into a strength of U.S. strategy there. Seeking to repair and restore positive tribal patterns should be helpful.
The HTS paper makes useful points too. But do they truly contradict or counter Gant’s?
The HTS paper finds that “‘tribal engagement’ should not be pursued in Afghanistan like it was in Iraq, mainly because tribes in Afghanistan are quite different from those in Iraq.” That’s surely true, but to my knowledge no one (Gant included) is perceiving or calling for an exact replication.
The HTS paper also finds that “tribe” is an inadequate concept for analyzing Afghanistan, and that terms that emphasize what’s “local” would be better. This may be true to an extent in some areas. But exclusion of the term “tribe” and its complete replacement by “local” is entirely inadvisable.
The seeming disparity between the two papers derives partly from the fact that the HTS paper uses a narrower definition of “tribe” than does Gant’s. In the HTS paper, the term refers to a group of kinfolk who espouse a shared identity, have a chief, act as a unified group, and have informal but reliable modes of governance, as in Iraq. As the HTS authors point out, much of this does not apply in Afghanistan. But that shouldn’t be the key point.
There are many tribal areas around the world, including in Afghanistan, that do not exhibit such tight, structured solidarity. Yet, they are still rife with tribal dynamics. Kinship bonds, codes of honor, ancient narratives, ties to the land, respect for elders, and collective longings and identities still matter to a significant degree. And people caught up in such dynamics often shift their ties flexibly and pragmatically, alternating between fusion and fission. This may mean that, compared to Iraq, Afghanistan is loosely, qualifiedly tribal -- but it’s still rife with tribal kinds of patterns and dynamics. The HTS paper repeatedly substantiates this, even as it denies that Afghanistan reflects an idealized tribalism.
The HTS paper identifies alternative terms that it deems more appropriate than “tribe”: e.g., “qawm” (an Afghan term), “faction,” “solidarity group,” and “patronage network.” Yet, these are still tribe-like concepts. And the discussion about these alternatives still shows that large parts of Afghanistan remain fraught with classic tribal dynamics, albeit of a rather fractured, tempestuous sort that may not be unusual in high-conflict zones.
Gant may have been fortunate as to the specific tribe and chief that he got to work with. But even so, his paper is keenly attuned to the nature of tribal patterns and dynamics, in terms of both theory and practice.
(As an aside, I note, apropos the two sentences on p. 5 relating to fns. 3 and 4 of the HTS paper, that the authors misread my 2007 Rand paper on tribes. It does observe that tribes precede states in the long sweep of social evolution, but I never claim that tribes per se are primitive. The authors also appear to prefer a questionable view that tribes arise historically often only after states intrude into a region. Thus the HTS report seems to reflect a bias in current anthropology to disavow tribes as a general concept.)
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While wondering about such matters earlier in November 2009, I spotted a post at an unfamiliar blog, Strategic Social, that aspired to define a “tribe” as “any group of people united by their recognition of organizational hierarchy within their group, who share a cultural identity and make up a unique speech community.” At least this blog was trying to raise attention to the significance of tribes in various areas of society. But this definition of the concept seemed misguided, and I blurted as much:
As one who’s interested in concepts about tribes, occasionally scouts the Net to see what others are saying, and finds myself here for a change, I’d like to offer a quick passing comment:After this led to a defensive rejoinder, indicating my comment would have little to no effect, I tried to elaborate:
I like the fact you recognize that tribes are a modern as well as ancient form of organization. But in my view, it’s not wise to start a definition of tribes with a reference to organizational hierarchy. That’s not what’s most important about tribes. Tribes may or may not have much hierarchy; hierarchical institutions are a later form to arise from social evolution. I’d suggest moving the other parts of your definition up front. I’d also suggest broadening the “speech” part, maybe make it “symbolic” instead.
It often makes a difference what is placed up front in a definition, especially when there is no statement about the weights of different components. But even if you fix that, I’d still propose that it’s inadvisable to define tribes in a way that leads the eye first to hierarchy. The consideration you gave to another pattern — consensus — may apply better to the nature of classic tribes.I hope this helps clarify aspects of the tribal form for other possible readers.
According to your definition, with its lead-off emphasis on “organizational hierarchy,” wouldn’t the Catholic Church or a Special Forces unit qualify as a “tribe”? Do you mean for that to be the case? Also, one of your examples of a tribe with a hierarchy — Survival International — isn’t really a tribe; it’s an NGO that represents tribes, not a tribe itself. Its own web pages offer a definition of “tribes” that says nothing about requiring a hierarchy. I would suggest opting for a definition that can identify the tribal qualities that may persist in such organizations . . . but that does not allow for turning all such organizations into examples of tribes.
The “power structure” of a tribe resides less in a hierarchy it may have than in the codes of honor and other codes of conduct that are embedded in the tribe. A tribe’s people are not primarily “united by their recognition of organizational hierarchy” but rather by their sense of identity, kinship and solidarity (as in the second, far-more-essential part of your definition). Furthermore, your definition of hierarchy posits “a decision making apparatus that creates rules members must adhere to in order to remain in good standing with their tribe.” But that’s more like a definition of an administrative, judicial, or bureaucratic hierarchy than a tribal hierarchy. For everyday matters, classic tribes have a cultural apparatus (the best term?) that sets codes and rules, more than a political decision-making apparatus. If issues arise that require a tribal council, then some hierarchy may well come into play — but so do norms for consensus.
Apropos this, you note that you “would be interested in any examples you or anyone else had of people organizing independent of leadership/hierarchy.” I presume you mean in reference to tribes. But is that really a key question? Instances of leadership or hierarchy normally crop up sometime somewhere in most all forms of organization, tribes included. and it’s conventional for modern analysts and strategists to go looking for leaders and hierarchies in all organizations. But according to the literatures I’ve scoured, classic tribes may not even have full-time chiefs, just the episodic “big man” depending on the matter at hand. And chiefs, when present, may not wield much hierarchical power. Where tribal chiefs do exist, it’s crucial to recognize them (as in conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan); but it’s also crucial to recognize what lies behind them (e.g., Pashtunwali codes). Beyond that, the more a hierarchical chiefdom is present and enforced atop a tribe, the more that society lies somewhere between being a tribe and becoming a state or element of a state.
I’m reminded of a documentary about a bad-ass low-life motorcycle gang in a city back East that was organized as a club and had an elected president who ran meetings and organized club activities. True to classic tribal dynamics persisting into the modern era, the president noted that he really didn’t run anything and couldn’t enforce anything on his own; anybody could do pretty much as he or she pleased, as long as they remained true to the club. So much for the importance of organizational hierarchy; it’s there, but not in the way or to the degree your definition presently poses. Tribes tend to be anti-hierarchical as much as, if not more than, pro-hierarchical. Indeed, your definition may fit a warlord and his clan better than a classic tribe.
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In this post and others in this series, I have corrected capitalization and other orthographic errors that exist in my comments as originally posted elsewhere. Also, in many instances I abridge or excerpt only part of my comment.