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Summing Up: Our First Week and What We’ve Been Talking About

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 16, 2009

Courtesy Prof. Andrew Lubin

Courtesy Prof. Andrew Lubin

This blog has been up now for a little more than a week. Many thanks to all who have contributed comments–and to all who will do so in the coming weeks. Now seems as good a time as any to pause for breath and ask, “What have we been trying to say here? What exactly is the thesis of these videos?”

Their target audience, beyond us regular chickens, is those who have a hand in making this nation’s policy. Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Mr. Secretary of Defense, Gen. Jones; military and political decision-makers inside the Beltway and “downrange” in Afghanistan and other places. This humble blog is hoping to call your attention to, or heighten the attention you are already paying to, tribalism as it exists and will continue to exist in the parts of the globe where our fighting men and women are deployed and where our vital national interests are at stake.

Here are the points these videos have tried to make:

1) That there is such a thing as the tribal mind-set. It exists. It’s for real.  We ignore it at our peril.

2) The tribal mind-set (whether we’re speaking literally of tribes–or of tech-savvy, media-hip, 21st century idealogues and militants who nonetheless operate with the tribal cast of mind) is different from the mind-set held by you and me. Tribes have different values than we do. Their notions of virtue and vice, of freedom and of time, of what constitutes the good life, of the proper role of men and women (and many other things) is completely different from ours. We cannot assume that “inside every Afghan is an American struggling to get out,” to paraphrase the Marine general in Full Metal Jacket. Tribes are different from you and me.

3) Tribes are here to stay. The roots of tribalism are deep and strong. They predate Islam by thousands of years. The tribal way of life delivers powerful emotional, social and psychological payoffs. Tribal people love their way of life and are willing to die to preserve it. We will not make Pashtunistan into New Jersey.

4) If we Americans choose to make tribal peoples and the tribal ways our enemy, we must recognize the formidable nature of the foe, particularly when he is operating out of his strength–defending his territory against an alien invader.  Afghan tribal warriors have defeated Cyrus the Great, held their own against Alexander the Great, driven out Akbar the Great, beat the British twice in the 19th Century at the height of English imperial power, and drove the mighty Soviet army back across the Peace Bridge in defeat in the 1980s.

5) On the other hand, if we elect to work with tribalism instead of against it, we may find that the interests of tribes and of tribal peoples are, or can be, surprisingly in alignment with our own–particularly if our own objectives are limited, non-imperialist and short-term. I’ve changed my mind about a few things, just during the one week that this blog has been up. Commentators and correspondents have taught me things I didn’t know. I stand corrected in a number of areas.  One of these is the nature of Pashtunwali, the code of honor and behavior of the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pashtunwali is not the same as Sharia law, the strict Islamic code that the Taliban seeks to impose wherever it takes over. Pashtunwali is thousands of years older. It is more liberal, particular in regard to treatment of women. Many Pashtuns hate the imposition of Sharia law and resist it mightily. In other words, if we of the West are seeking to hold the line against the incursion of militant extremism in tribal areas, it might be in our interest not to attempt to impose our own Western models but instead to align ourselves with the ancient tribal ways. Tribes may not be democracies in the sense of holding elections and having parliaments and courts, but their councils and jirgas are famously egalitarian. Every voice has a chance to be heard. In many ways, tribes are more democratic than democracies.

What these videos are hoping to suggest is that if we Americans can open our minds to the presence, power and persistence of tribal ways and the tribal mind-set; if we can seek to understand and respect these (as Kipling did, as T.E. Lawrence did); if we can grant tribal ways equal legitimacy with our own ways of viewing the world; if we can work with the tribal mind-set instead of against it, we may find that we have an ally (though probably not a friend) that we didn’t know we had.

Speaking of such an embracing of on-the-ground social and cultural reality, Robert Kaplan has written

“There is nothing wrong or cynical about this. Where democratic governance does not exist, we must work with the material at hand. We have inherited our Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty and democracy just as other peoples, with different historical experiences and geographical circumstances, have inherited theirs. And these other peoples yearn for justice and dignity, which does not always overlap with Western democracy. Keeping societies stable will depend largely on tribes, and the deals they are able to cut with one another. In the Middle East, an age of pathetic, fledgling democracies is also an age of tribes.”

Friends, thanks again for your comments. Please keep them coming. I’m going to give this blog a rest for tomorrow, Wednesday, and be back on Thursday. See you then.

Posted in Afghanistan, Agora, Editorial, On Tribalism

One Response to “Summing Up: Our First Week and What We’ve Been Talking About”

  1. Joe Mendenhall
    June 20, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    I think it is interesting that Robert Kaplan mentions “Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty and democracy” because the Angles and the Saxons were germanic TRIBES which invaded and ruled England from the fall of the Roman Empire until other germanic tribes the danes and the normans showed up. Our culture seems far removed from the tribalism of Iraq and Afghanistan, but in point of fact we too are descendants of a tribal tradition. Our tradition of liberty and democracy is founded upon the value of the individual. We would be wrong to attempt to overlay the evolution of our tribes onto theirs before they are ready. I would think that the allemanic tribesmen of southwestern Germany probably had a similarly negative reaction to the arrival of the Romans. 2000 + years ago.