What I Would Say Differently If I Were Saying It Again

The “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” series launched just over a month ago.


The first episode and blog entry laid out my thesis—that what we’re up against in Afghanistan is tribalism and the tribal mind-set. The comments started arriving.


Tribes, the Tribal Mindset, and the Enemy


Fabius Maximus was among the first to comment. He quoted the following from my post:


“What struck me most powerfully is that that war [Alexander’s Afghan campaign, 330-327 B.C.] is a dead ringer for the ones we’re fighting today. … the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It’s about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven’t changed in 2300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.”


Fabius Maximus commented:


“Economist and businesspeople discuss the Competitive Advantage of Nations (as in Michael Porter’s 1990 book of that title). Social scientists and geopolitical experts discuss Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory. But Pressfield goes beyond these. In effect he calls for a long war. War between ‘polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable’—perhaps running until one side is exterminated or conquered.”




Insert another blogging lesson learned:


I never called for a “war between ‘polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.’” In fact, as my posts have built upon the original series, I’ve called for finding common ground.


In Robert Kaplan’s article “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” (which ran after my op-ed by the same name), Kaplan wrote:


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. Throughout the Arab world, old monarchial and authoritarian orders are now weakening. 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.”


Polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable? Yes. The tribes are not going to bend, and allow an overlay of Western democracy and culture. But can we find a way to work together? Yes. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Well, when in the East . .  .  See my post “A Tale of Two Captains.”


Fabius Maximus then wrote:


“Using Alexander’s invasion of Afghanistan as a paradigm raises as many questions as it answers. What were Alexander’s reasons for invading Afghanistan? Nothing rational, little more than love of war, power, and loot. Do we have such aggressive motives? Or do we fight legally under the international laws we both promulgated and signed, which means acting only in defense? 


“Answering that requires a clear statement of the threat the tribes of Afghanistan pose to us. Victory is impossible without a clear understanding of the threat and our goals. How can the tribes be enemies without a strong understanding of this?”


Whether you are for or against being in Afghanistan, the reality is that our troops are in Afghanistan. And as long as they are there, they MUST work with the tribes. I wrote my initial post, which Fabius Maximus quoted, in absolutes—black or white, friend or enemy. Maybe that was too much. But I never said that enemies couldn’t become our friends.


More from Fabius Maximus:


“It is the missing link of the war, as I have not found anything like this from someone with actual area expertise (not just by COIN or geopolitical gurus).  The closest I have seen is Pakistan on the Brink by Ahmed Rashid (a Pakistani journalist) in the 11 June 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books, many of whose assertions are contradicted by other experts on the subject.


“I believe that America’s greatest enemies are not Afghanistan’s tribes, or fundamentalist Islam. Pressfield’s explicit assumption that the Afghanistan tribes are our enemies show the core threat:  our own hubris and paranoia.  For more about this see


America’s Most Dangerous Enemy

America takes another step towards the ‘Long War'”


Are the tribes our greatest enemy? No. Is the tribal mindset an enemy? Yes. Let me rephrase this.


“Good” Tribalism and “Bad” Tribalism


I would define “bad” tribalism as that practiced by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I know, I know . . . critics will say that both those groups are pan-Islamic, ideology-driven, supra-national, propelled more by Salafism and Deobandism than pure tribalism. I would not argue with that.


But if we probe beneath the surface, we recognize virulent tribalism at the heart of the belief systems of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I would cite the following “bad” tribal characteristics: hostility to all outsiders; perpetual warfare; codes of silence; duplicity and bad faith in all negotiations with non-insiders; suppression of women; intolerance of dissent; a fierce, patriarchal code of warrior honor; a ready and even eager willingness to give up one’s life for the group; super-conservatism, politically and culturally; reverence for the past and, in fact, a desire to return to the past.


Defined in relation to its opposites, “bad” tribalism takes its stand against everything open, inclusive, modern, progressive, secular, individualistic, Western, female-empowering.


What about “good” tribalism? “Good” tribalism is the ancient, proud, communal system of family- and clan-based local governance that has been practiced in Afghanistan and many parts of Central Asia for millennia. Tribal jirgas resolve disputes and give a voice to all members; tribal militias protect the land and the people. “Good” tribalism wants to be left alone to live its own life. In a way it’s democracy in its purest and most natural “town hall” form. It has worked for thousands of years and it’s working today.


Proof that there is such a thing as “good” tribalism is that the Taliban has targeted it fiercely. Hundreds of tribal elders have been murdered or driven from their homes. Why? Because “bad” tribalism knows “good” tribalism is its enemy. The following is from Seth Jones’ In the Graveyard of Empires:


“The Taliban’s strategy was innovative and ruthlessly effective. Unlike the Soviets, they focused their initial efforts on bottom-up efforts in rural Afghanistan, especially the Pashtun south. They approached tribal leaders and militia commanders, as well as their rank-and-file supporters, and attempted to co-opt them with several messages. Taliban leaders claimed to provide moral and religious clarity, since they advocated a return to a purer form of Islam . . . and they tried to capitalize on their momentum by convincing locals that resistance was futile. They used their knowledge of tribal dynamics to appeal to Pashtuns and, when they didn’t succeed in co-opting locals, they often resorted to targeted assassinations to coerce the rest.”


Both “bad” and “good” tribalism are here to stay. We’re not going to change them any more than Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Brits or the Russians changed them.  What to do then? The answer, in my view, is to establish the minimum achievable goals that we can live with—i.e. per Secretary Gates, prevent militant and terrorist organizations from using Afghan real estate as a base from which to attack the United States—and then tap into the “good” tribalism to work against the “bad” tribalism.

Islam is Not the Enemy


Zenpundit commented:


“What Pressfield gets horribly wrong is the discounting of the religious radicalism aspect as being superseded by atavistic, superempowered, Ur-tribalism. . . . The neo-fundamentalist Salafi and Deobandi Islamist radicals are . . . pan-Islamist militants who are deeply hostile to tribal customs and authorities they view as “jahiliyyah”, un-Islamic or even blasphemous apostasy. . . . Tribesmen and Islamist radicals are not natural allies unless we put them in that position.”


I must offer a mea culpa here. Because I agree completely with Zenpundit. Somehow my statements in the videos must have failed to express that.


Indeed Islamic radicals have targeted and continue to target on-the-ground tribal leaders. What I’m saying is they’re doing it less from an Islamic angle (no matter what their rhetoric states) and more from an even more radical tribalism—insular, xenophobic, past-worshipping, us-versus-them, outsider-loathing, atavistic tribalism. 


The Taliban and al Qaeda, in my view, express not tribalism-as-Islam but Islam-as-tribalism.


In Michael Yon’s article “Philippines: Some Notes, Thoughts, and Observations” Michael discusses “rido,” which is inter-clan, tribal violence. Michael spoke with Philippine Army Colonel Rey Ardo about “rido”:


“As with other Filipino officers, Islam is not [Col. Ardo’s] big concern. Islam is an overlay. The local culture is the plumbing.”


I agree with Mr. Yon. I am not discounting the role the Islamic extremism plays in Afghanistan and other regions in the world. Rather, I’m asserting that we need to address the tribal mindset first, rather than focusing on Islamic extremism first. The United States is trying to push out the Taliban, but much of this relies on the tribes.


Let me give the last word (until next time) to David Ronfeldt, who said this in his Los Angeles Times article titled “21st Century Tribes“:


The United States is not at war with Islam. Its struggle is largely with insurgents who behave in the manner of tribes and clans. Some are members of true tribes; others are patched together by radical clerics or jihadist recruiters operating among alienated migrants. U.S. forces are learning this the hard way—on the ground.



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  1. Tim of Angle on July 14, 2009 at 9:30 am

    *sigh* There is so much wrong here that it is difficult to decide where to start.


    No, there is no “good” tribalism, and there is no “bad” tribalism — there is merely tribalism; so-called “good” and “bad” tribalism are merely two sides to the same coin. Tribalism is a primitive social form suitable for a primitive people; if people decide to remain in a primitive state, then tribalism is a good fit for them. The problem is that it’s a package deal; if you belong to a tribe, it won’t allow you to quit, because that weakens the tribe, and the tribe responds negatively to whatever will weaken it. Europeans were tribal, too, over a thousand years ago — but we’ve changed since then, and most people would agree that those changes were a good thing. They are, indeed, “incompatible and irreconcilable”.

    Islam IS the Enemy

    Islam is an oppressive totalitarian ideology with which no co-existence is possible. Most people refuse to accept that fact because of the religious angle; but the religious dimension merely means that God commands the Muslim to conquer the world, rather than the mechanical forces of history as with the Communist. Those who do not belong to the Dar al-Islam belong to the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, and will get war whether they want it or not — it only takes one side to make a war, and the side that refuses to fight (or refuses to acknowledge that there is a war on) LOSES.

    Wakey, wakey.

    We are in The Long War, and have been ever since the 7th century. Our choices are (1) fight or (2) lose. That’s all the choice we have. Better get used to it.

  2. Ian Wendt on July 14, 2009 at 11:34 am

    People need to get over the Islam angle. Islam is NOT the driving force of the Taliban and Al-Quaeda. It’s merely something for them to hide behind, a recruitment aid. Religion is a very effective tool when it comes to persuading largely ignorant and illiterate people to fight for a “cause”.
    It IS possible to co-exist. But not for as long as ignorance thrives on both sides of the fence. And boy howdy, does it ever thrive on both sides of this fence.

    As far as tribalism just belonging to primitive peoples… Please, we’re all primitive then. Tribalism is alive and well in modern day western society. It’s never gone away. It’s changed, sure. But you can see examples of tribalism at every turn.
    In some ways, our tribes have merely gotten larger. In other ways, tribalism has also “specialized”. Do you really think that sports fans don’t exhibit tribalism? Do you really think that most sports aren’t a more “civilized” version of tribal warfare?

    Mr. Pressfield, I’m finding that more and more I agree with your perspectives on this. Very interesting.

  3. Printer Bowler on July 14, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Those are reasonable distinctions about the reality of Islam and America today. Unfortunately, Muslims quickly abandoned the nut of Mohammed’s original teachings, just as many elements who profess Christianity have little in common with Jesus’ teachings (WWJW: Who Would Jesus Waterboard?). Mohammed taught a version of the Golden Rule; recognized Abraham, Moses and Jesus as God’s prophets. He swore he would never lift a hand against his wife, whom he respected as an equal. After M’s death, Islam split into the Sunnis and Shias, and countless warring sub-factions since. Today raped women are punished by Muslim clerics, wife-beating a common practice; the old laws of respect for other religions and hospitality for all strangers are but memories. It’s a long list of comparisons of departure from the original fount in both religions.

    People take what they want from religious “authority” and twist it into their own hammer. In reality, it has nothing to do with religions, any more than the British landlords and Irish farmers were about Protestant/Catholic (It’s About the Rent, Stupid!) “Good” tribes, “bad” tribes? Of course, like there are good Christians, bad Christians, good neighbors, bad neighbors, ec. (Can’t resist paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton’s great observation that there’s nothing wrong with Christianity—it just has really been tried yet.) Way back when, Pope Urban II was facing political unrest and needed a distraction from his own corruption and negligence. Solution: A Holy War against the Mohammedans, re-take Jerusalem, sure to fire up every God-fearing man in Christendom. That was the beginning of the end of any chance for co-existence. The British made sure of that with their 19th century colonial rampage into the Middle East. And now we have grabbed their baton and are slogging with it. Today’s big diff: the stakes are nuclear.

    Today, there’s such a long, dismal catalog of ill will between the American/European and all Islamic tribes that it might never get worked out. That is, unless we all reach way back and restore both Mohammed and Jesus and Abraham’s teaching (along with Buddha and Krishna) into our daily lives and national/tribal policies. Knowing human nature, the odds don’t look good—it’s not where the money and macho is. Could be a Long War after all. Ya never know . . . .

  4. Wisner on July 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    While we debate what tribalisms is and isn’t and what the driving force behind those who wish to destroy us is, we can use the simple, time tested rule of thumb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There is no doubt that Extremists are trying to destroy or intimidate the tribal leaders/tribes. What a great opportunity…one that was expolited in Al Anbar and in the Sawtalo Sar region of Afghanistan. Let’s hope that this lesson doesn’t have to be relearned in a few years. Great work on the topic Steven.

  5. andrew lubin on July 15, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Let’s not forget that there are as many sects (if that’s the proper word) of Islam as there are of Christianity and other religions, and it’s a mistake to lump them all together.

    Some are mild, like mainstream Catholicism or Presbyterians, others are more violent like the sect that shot the Kansas doctor in church. Same in Islam. Those radicals who wanted to establish a caliphate in Ramadi, or those who want to destablize Central Asia – northern Pakistan and put a caliphate there, are most definately enemies of the west. And many Afghan-Iraqi-NW Territories thugs and warlords hide behind a religious title. While it’s difficult to keep track of who is a muslim extremist and who is just an Islamic Tony Soprano, perhaps avoiding using blanket labels will help us address the situation on the ground more accurately.

  6. ZI on July 16, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Mr Pressfield,

    I have big troubles with your presentation. I am no expert of Afghanistan but I see a problem.

    First, “good tribalism” and “bad tribalism”. That strikes me as a useless distinction. Maybe Al-Qaida behaves like a tribe, but it’s not, not at least in the traditionnal sense. It’s certainly a community certainly but not all human communities are tribes and I really don’t understand why we should give the taliban the label “tribal” when they obviously don’t have much in common with a traditionnal tribe rooted in the tradition, the blood ties (real or imagined) and mutual support.

    On the “good” tribalism. The problem is that “the ancient, proud, communal system of family- and clan-based local governance that has been practiced in Afghanistan and many parts of Central Asia for millennia” is neither good nor bad. More specifically, it may good for some people and bad for others. Yes, the elders a

  7. ZI on July 16, 2009 at 10:57 am

    sorry I had a little problem.

    Yes the elders are quite happy with their system and their traditions, of course since they are in a dominant position in this system. But there’s other people in this community who may gain from destroying this “good” tribe. This is not a simple opposition between the bad taliban and the good tribesmen. Maybe the tribesmen like the taliban, maybe they find their elders to be a bunch of useless power-hungry cowards, maybe they are annoyed because the elders monopolize the reconstruction aid, or maybe it’s something else. The point, the tribe is not a homegenous group and there is varying actors with varying interests, including people who have an interest in supporting the taliban.

    Yes, in this particular valley (because of course, it depends on the region), the old tribal order maybe your ally but you shouldn’t be under any illusion that it’s good in any sense. By choosing one set of allies, you’re also choosing one set of enemies.

    Last, point there is actually some “good” tribes who support the taliban. The taliban were not tribal in the traditional sense but under their rule some groups were favoured and other sidelined. Likewise, when the taliban fell, these groups were sidelined by the new governement. So some traditonal tribes are in fact our enemies for now.

    Now, you can see wy I have a problem with this. I see it as a big simplification that isn’t very useful because local conditions vary from region to region and your friendly-looking bearded tribesmen has its own agenda that you barely understand. This isn’t some idle talk, you can see it concretely: this document ( http://easterncampaign.wordpress.com/2009/04/29/behind-closed-doors-coin-chatter-on-afghanistan/ ) gives an idea of the reality on the ground.

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