The Bizarro World of COIN in a Tribal Setting

Remember the Bizarro World, from Seinfeld and Superman comics? Everything is its opposite in the Bizarro World. Up is down, black is white, in is out.

Students of Counterinsurgency (COIN) and Tribal Engagement tell us it’s the same in their field. Who would have thought, for example, that killing bad guys would be a no-no? Or that a good old-fashioned grease-the-palm payoff would prove as effective as “winning hearts and minds?”

Here then, in no particular order, are a few other cherished maxims of conventional warfare that might profit, in the Bizarro World of tribal COIN, from being turned on their heads:

No beards

In Afghan tribal society, a beard is the sign of a man. Boys are clean-shaven. Capt. Michael Harrison reports from Konar today that he was able to bond with tribal elders in one village because they remembered fondly “the bearded Americans”—Special Forces ODA 316–who had been with them six years earlier.

Can discipline be maintained in a U.S. line outfit when troopers are shaggy and unkempt? Probably not. But on tribal engagement teams whose mission is to bond with native elders toward the end of living with and fighting alongside them, maybe the “high-and-tight” is not the best way to break the ice.

Always wear body armor

Clearly when a unit is in the field and expects to take fire, it must keep all defenses up. But once “inside the tribal gate,” in a shura meeting or over tea, such a posture offends the honor of the host. The Pashtunwali obligation of hospitality, melmastia, mandates that the tribesman protect the guest, even at the cost of his own life. Are we, the Kevlar-plated stranger, unwittingly offending the very benefactors we’re seeking to befriend?

Hang onto the purse strings

What we in the West call a bribe can be, in Afghan tribal society, simply good manners. Of course we don’t want American officers running around with open-ended slush funds. But friends help friends. And “gold is honorable.”

Such transactions must be conducted with extreme delicacy and respect, however. No condescension. No strings. And no after-the-fact monitoring.

"The bearded Americans" had success in Konar province

"The bearded Americans" had success in Konar province

If you leave five grand in an envelope for Tony Soprano (the mob is a tribe too), it’s in poor taste to come back and ask him what he did with it.

Never give them guns

Weapons carry big juju in any tribal society. The gift of arms is an act of honor and a profound statement of trust. Conventional wisdom says hell no, give ‘em guns and we’ll wind up promoting warlordism–or get our guys shot with weapons we ourselves put into the shooters’ hands. But a tribesman never forgets a favor or an insult and is honorbound to requite such exchanges in kind.

It worked in al-Anbar.

What makes Bizarro bizarre

The through-the-looking-glass aspect of certain COIN precepts in a tribal setting derives from the contradictions between the Western way of seeing the world and the tribal way. What seems irrational to our eyes often makes perfect sense through the tribesman’s.

Their minds [wrote T.E. Lawrence of the Bedu tribesmen he came to know so well] work 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.

If our mission hopes to succeed in the tribal areas of Afghanistan, we must learn to speak the cultural language–the street lingo of tribalism.

Lastly, the poppy

In the Bizarro World of tribal logic, let me venture the following proposition:

In dealing with issues around opium, whatever course we think makes the most rational sense … do the opposite.


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  1. Jim Carrozza on August 3, 2009 at 6:49 am

    Perhaps all of this should be taken a step further. Maybe the configuration of Afghanistan as we know it, should be reconsidered. If Kabul was responsible for less territory and there was a partitioning of the country along more traditional or tribal lines, it might create a new dynamic. If the tribal regions of Afghanistan don’t identify well with the government in Kabul, why force the issue. Let Kabul thrive independently (if it’s possible) of the outlying regions and if it becomes desirable, given time, maybe the outlying tribes will begin to gravitate toward the center. I don’t know — just a thought.

  2. Fred Woodbridge on August 3, 2009 at 7:28 am

    A good and relevant theme to pursue, this, Steven. Growing up in sub-Saharan Africa, most of your observations jibe with mine. I think the point you’re trying to make, in more eloquent terms than mine, is it’s only “bizarro” to the modern western mind and until we start to adapt, a la Lawrence, we won’t make much headway. Seems like we’re doing exactly that, but the sad irony is that regardless of how comfortable the western mind gets in that atmosphere (adaptation and so on), it will get disappointed again and again.
    Logic is not a strong suite in Afghanistan and the Near and Middle East and we are locked within its boundaries in the West.

  3. Dom Santoleri on August 3, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Some of this is painfully obvious, yet I would have never thought of the Body Armor example. By the way, what IS the prevailing idea about the Poppy industry? I don’t mean to sound like a simpleton, I really want to know if the message is clear enough that it can be translated to us ignorant blog readers?

  4. John Boland on August 4, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Your observations about facial hair and body armor are spot on in my experience in Iraq. In Iraq, more men wear a mustache than a full beard, but the idea is the same. I found that when I wore a mustache (within Army regulations, by the way), I was treated much more positively by the locals I interacted with. Beards used to be an acceptable part of our military culture – take a look at any Civil War photo. The only practical reason to not allow them now is that one cannot seal a chemical protective mask with too much facial hair. But that’s not an issue in Afghanistan and perhaps the military should allow Soldiers and Marines who work extensively with Afghans to grow out their beards. The Army already allows the 11 ACR, the OPFOR at Ft. Irwin, “relaxed grooming standards” in order to simulate Iraqi and Afghan local nationals in training exercises. Good order and discipline is just fine that unit, so there’s no reason to think line units in theater would be any different. As for body armor, removing it when indoors not only shows that you trust your host, but also just makes you more human. Soldiers in full gear, with their body armor, knee and elbow pads, dark glasses (“eye pro” in Army lingo), and covered in ammunition, weapons, and commo gear, look like robots – very inpersonal. That’s fine when you want to overawe locals on the street, and certainly when you need all that stuff in direct fire contact with the enemy. But when doing personal man-to-man negotiations, its better to strip those layers away so they can relate to you as a human being.

  5. Wisner on August 4, 2009 at 9:05 am

    When I read good posts and comments as are listed above I ask myself these questions. I do not know the answers and would welcome any input.
    1. Do the current conflicts finally cement the legitamcy of the Special Forces relam of Guerrilla Warfare (which I think includes COIN)?
    2. Was the Special Operations community caught in a love afair with Direct Action and hence, outside of Special Forces, left with no training or depth of understanding about GW/COIN?
    3. Will we ever see a Special Forces commander in charge of a whole Area of Operation where he can use conventional and unconventional forces as He sees fit? (with the new overall commander in Afghanistan maybe things will be headed that way?)
    4. Will we see the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual be integrated with in all branches of the military (or is it already?)?
    It seems to me that we could have saved some lives, money and time if we let the ones with the expertise run the show instead of pay heavily for On The Job Training of our non-specialized commanders. Maybe I’m off base here. I am certainly willing to be educated.

  6. John Dethlefs on August 5, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    The bigger issues in Afghanistan are not beards and body armor. What do you do when they murder other Afghans because they converted to Christianity? Do we want to give them freedom or “Taliban light?” Is that just part of bizaro world? What about when they kill their own daughters in the name of “honor” because she was raped by one of their sons? What do you do when the Afghan police take a 13 year old boy and rape him for two hours? I love your work and this is useful discussion, but please don’t sugar coat it and say if we grow beards and understand them better it’s all going to work out. They have some real issues in their culture they are going to have to confront, and that’s the biggest obstacle to peace there.

  7. William Halverson on August 5, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Well John, we are not in Afghanistan to bring them our version of civilization. They don’t want it. We are there to get rid of AlQueda and secure right of ways for oil pipelines. Your comments indicate to me you have a ‘crusader’ mentality … not so useful in that part of the world. If you don’t like their culture, ignore it. Iran is more complex, but similar. Years ago my Persian girl friend told me she was cursed because she had gone to college in the USA. She knew the pluses and minuses of both society, and no longer fit into either. Societies are not ‘intermingle-able’. All you get is a broken society that does nothing well.

    • John Dethlefs on August 8, 2009 at 6:07 pm

      I have no interest in “Crusading” but you ignore their culture at your own peril. It’s their culture that enables and encourages them to fly airplanes into buildings to kill civilians because their culture is different. Yes we’re their for Al Queda but you ignore the fact that there were literaly millions of people in the middle east and Iran and Afghanistan that danced in the streets and celebrated what happened on 9-11. I don’t want to give them Jeffersonian democracy, but I think you’re wrong to ignore these things. So to follow your way of thinking, in World War II we should have removed the Nazis but allowed the extermination of the Jews to continue.

  8. Stephen Cornick on August 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm


    The USA is an intermingled society and it does many things very well. And it is not the only one.
    Ignoring the culture of societies like the Taliban has been feasible in the past, but globalization has changed that. Members of these hardcore fundamentalist tribes are entering modern societies like France, England, Germany etc., usually motivated by economic factors. They bring with them their societal values and some want to impose them on their host societies.
    We have to find a means of coexistence that recognizes this reality.

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