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:
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.
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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