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Lawrence of Arabia on Tribes

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 18, 2009

Maj. Jim Gant, ODA 316, with Malik Noor, Mangwel, Konar Province

Maj. Jim Gant, ODA 316, with Malik Noor, Mangwel, Konar Province

I like very much Gen. McChrystal’s idea for a new Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell (cited in Max Boot’s article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal). This entity would be an ongoing “corps of roughly 400 officers who will spend years working on Afghanistan,” even when they are not actually in-country.

That’s the kind of continuity T.E. Lawrence would have approved of–keeping officers and men on station long enough, not only to become intimately familiar with the leaders, customs and languages of the country, but to be known by these leaders¬†and thus to be trusted and to achieve influence. Like the Mafia, tribesmen and tribal chiefs deal in-person, man-to-man. ¬†Here is Lawrence, from the Arab Bulletin, 20 August 1917:

Their minds works just as ours do, but on different premises. There is nothing unreasonable, incomprehensible, or inscrutable in the Arab. Experience of them, and knowledge of their prejudices will enable you to foresee their attitude and possible course of action in nearly every case.

Lawrence of course was speaking specifically of Bedouin Arabs, but his advice, I believe, is worth taking seriously by any Western political or military official whose role is to assist, coordinate with and fight alongside tribal peoples anywhere. “In a tribal society like Afghanistan’s,” says Max Boot’s article, “the key to effectiveness is having personal relationships with tribal elders, which argues for keeping troops in place much longer than currently is the case.” Frequent rotations home, says Boot, will help ease the stress of such longer tours. It wouldn’t hurt, in my opinion, to layer on a whole new raft of bonuses and incentive pay as well. Our men fighting that fight will earn it. This will not be just deployment, it’ll be immersion. The last word from Lawrence:

The secret of handling Arabs is unremitting study of them. Keep always on your guard; never say an unnecessary thing; watch yourself and your companions all the time; hear all that passes, search out what is going on beneath the surface, read their characters, discover their tastes and their weaknesses and keep everything you find out to yourself. Bury yourself in Arab circles, have no interests and no ideas except the work in hand, so that your brain is saturated with one thing only, and you realize your part deeply enough to avoid the little slips that would counteract the painful work of weeks. Your success will be proportioned to the amount of mental effort you devote to it.

Posted in Afghanistan, Agora, Editorial, On Tribalism

One Response to “Lawrence of Arabia on Tribes”

  1. June 28, 2009 at 6:15 am

    Which are the noble tribes of Afghanistan – the ones that claim to descend from Muhammad the Prophet?

    V/r,
    Sam