How Tribes Measure Their Own Strength


Near Camp Joyce, Konar province.  Photo by Andrew Lubin.

Near Camp Joyce, Konar province. Photo by Andrew Lubin.

In the videos (and posts) on this site, we’ve talked about the characteristics of tribes and the tribal mindset. Among these are respect for elders, hostility to outsiders, the obligation of revenge, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, hospitality, capacity to endure hardship and the suppression of women. These qualities appear to be universal, or nearly so, across all continents during all periods of history. They seem to hold true for Native Americans, Africans and Amazonians, ancient Celts and Gauls, Scottish highlanders and the savage tribes that fought Alexander, Cyrus and Xenophon.

Today I’d like to address another aspect of the tribal mind: how it measures power. 

Men with guns

How do tribes assess their own strength? Studies seem to indicate that it’s not by wealth or property (including number of wives or livestock) or even by possession of land (which is often held communally or semi-communally.) The measure seems to be the number of armed men that can be put into the field. The more of these a leader can call upon, the more powerful he is.

From Special Forces Maj. (then-Capt.) Jim Gant’s OPSUM [Operation Summary] of a 2003 shura with tribal elder Noorafzhal in Mangwal, Konar province, Afghanistan:

After the meeting was adjourned, [Noorafzhal] asked to speak with me privately.  So my terp [interpreter] and I went out back with him.  He took my hand in his.  “I want you to know, Commander Jim, that you have my loyalty.  If you need men with guns you come see me.”  He promised 800.

A July 22, 2009 article by Alex Rodriguez in the L.A. Times assessed the power of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban chief in South Waziristan:

Analysts say he has about 20,000 militants at his command, a much larger contingent that the 4,000 fighters believed to be loyal to the Swat Taliban leader Maulana Qazi Fazlullah.

Critics may of course protest that the Taliban are not a tribe. I would argue that they’re a super-tribe.  (See tribal characteristics in paragraph one above.) In any event, the natural measure of their power seems to be not wealth or property, but men with guns.

Men with guns compared to what?

Here’s where it gets interesting. Tribes measure their strength not in isolation but versus their most immediate and proximate rivals. The Blackfeet of the 1870s judged their mojo in comparison to the Sioux, and the Comanche rated their power vis-a-vis the Apache.

From an e-mail from Col. C.M. “Chipper” Lewis, Commander of the 174th Infantry Brigade:

I would add that the tribal system has a key vulnerability that can be exploited. Tribes first look at their power and influence relative to other competing tribes. I saw this when I was negotiating with the Jennabi and Zobay tribes in Baghdad. Both groups of Sheiks told me in separate discussions … that the key to turning them away from AQ [al-Qaeda] was that they were losing too many men and had lost much influence and capability relative to other tribes.

 How our men with guns can influence theirs

 Col. Lewis’ method was to “get kinetic” on them.

The bottom line was that the coin of the realm for [the tribes] was the number of males in the tribes they could count on.  Once we attrited that … relative to other competing tribes they quit and came to us.

In other words, one tribe could be played off against another. If the relative strength of Tribe X could be lowered enough so that they feared becoming vulnerable to rival Tribe Y, Tribe X became more likely to ally itself with Tribe Z–i.e., us. Theoretically, this could also work by augmenting the power of Tribe X, thus making Tribe Y feel more vulnerable and more disposed to turn.

[The tribes] didn’t give a shit what anybody else was doing except watching and gauging the relative power of others in their own area of interest.  [But if you’re going to turn them], you gotta do it one tribe at a time.  If you’re trying to influence or to attrit all of them simultaneously, they gain or lose power simultaneously and they fight on playing both sides of the fence.  Take ’em on one at a time and we could probably stack them up like cord wood and every subsequent tribe that turns will turn faster and with less casualties because they see what is happening around them.

Would this work in Afghanistan? Col. Lewis is dubious, because of Afghan and U.S. politics. Leaving that thorny issue aside for the moment, the point I would stress is the same one that this blog has put forward from its inception:

Work with the tribal mind, not against it

The tribal mind thinks tribally. It considers and weighs options from a completely different point of view than the western “national” mind. This can be leveraged to our advantage (and ultimately to that of the tribes, despite themselves) if we make the effort to understand the mechanism–and pick the right place to set the crowbar.


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  1. Nick Stump on July 27, 2009 at 5:13 am

    I’m curious if you’ve read Jim Webb’s Born Fighting. Webb contends the Scots-Irish still exists as a “tribe” in the U.S. today. If you haven’t read the book, I would highly recommend it, as I think it explains our culture better than most of what you might read about Appalachians.

    As you’ve probably seen many times, our guys with the guns often come with a hillbilly accent. Please understand I use the word “Hillbilly” with the pride of belonging and with no intent to malign our people with the popular stereotypes so often used by mass media.

    Thanks for the interesting work you’re doing online. I’m glad to see these subjects being discussed here.


    • COL Chipper Lewis on August 4, 2009 at 5:34 pm


      I have indeed read Webb’s book. I am one of those back country scot-irish that joined the Army to get out of the back country because I was born fightin’. I think your point is right on. This war ain’t nothin new. We’ve done this before.

  2. Scott on July 27, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    I’m not so sure about the Scots, Picts, and other Celtic tribes and “suppression of women.” While I recognize that much has been distorted about them by new age celtic spiritualists, I seem to recall from Thomas Cahill and others that the Celts (& Scots, etc) were pretty good with their women – at least, not keeping them covered from head to toe, allowing them to speak their minds, etc.

  3. Jay Taber on July 28, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Of course, now days tribes are as likely to act in solidarity within a pan-tribal network or institution. Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, and National Congress of American Indians come to mind. For most tribes, armed conflict is not an option; they instead have to rely on the value of cooperation and the deployment of moral sanction. For this type of conflict, indigenous peoples have had to make use of both traditional and modern forms of education.

  4. Nathan on July 29, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Setting aside the ahistoricism and overgeneralization of your definition of “tribe,” you essentially are observing that the corporate, political units you define as tribes behave like states in numerous international relations theories. This might suggest that this phenomenon you keep writing about, “tribe” minus the hodge-podge of cultural traits you tack on to it, is so broad that it describes some of the general ways that humans behave in groups. How is that particularly useful?

    • COL Chipper Lewis on August 4, 2009 at 6:27 pm


      Don’t confuse tribalism with nationalism. Tribalism at its core is based on kinshiip and common culture/religion. Nationalism is different. The existence of Amerrica is the argument against tribalism. That is why our history is replete with examples of defeating tribalism. America, in the view of our founding fathers and the truly enlightened is anathema to tribalism.

      I think I don’t need to name the wars – you’re smart enough to know them.

      Lastly, we dont send ambassadors to tribes. We send guys like me and my my peers to deal with them on terms we (us ovegeneralizing and anti historical neanderthals) and they, can understand. We think in terms of national interest (which includes our allies) and military strategery – not survival of a tribe.

      Its a different world out there brother. one that you won’t believe until you spend a big chunk of your adult life dealing with it.



  5. Of no consequence on July 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    People who give any credence to the nonsense posted on this website are tribal. They think in ways that the modern western mind dismissed years ago.

  6. Gordon Daugherty on August 2, 2009 at 11:39 am


    Check out “Albion’s Seed”, about how settlers from different parts of Britain settled in different parts of America and influenced how we are today. It’s not the same orientation as Webb’s book but touches on the Borderers and how they were/are different from the other colonists. Plus the whole thing’s just plain interesting: language, architecture, dress, economics, and much else. For example, much of what is thought of as ‘black English’ was actually learned from whites in the South. How could it be otherwise if you think about it?

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