IT'S THE TRIBES, STUPID
War & Reality in Afghanistan
A CONTINUING CONVERSATION
With Author & Historian Steven Pressfield
Part 1 of 5
I was researching a book about Alexander the Great and his campaign in Afghanistan in the exact same places where our troops are fighting today, 330 B.C. Two things struck me with tremendous power. First, Alexander's war was a dead ringer for ours, in that that it was a Western superpower undefeated army that for its day was a very high-tech army, fighting against a fairly primitive tribal foe who resorted to the tactics of insurgency. The second thing -- and this is very important -- is that Alexander was pre-Christian and his enemies were pre-Islamic. Now, if you think about it, this was 330 B.C.-three hundred years before the birth of Christ, nine hundred before the birth of the Prophet. Now what does that mean? What it means is if we have two wars that are exactly the same, you can take religion out of the equation. Then we need to ask ourselves, what is the common denominator, particularly about the enemies we're up against here. It can't be Islam because Islam didn't exist in 330 B.C. The defining characteristic of the enemy then and now is not Islamo-fascism or Islamic extremism, or jihadism, or terrorism. I believe it's tribalism and the tribal mind-set that give the enemy his power.
A DEAD-RINGER WAR
I was speaking at Annapolis with Col. T.X. Hammes who is the author of The Sling and the Stone and one of the foremost experts in asymmetical warfare, counterinsurgency warfare. And he pointed something out to me that I didn't realize about my own book, The Afghan Campaign. And that was that the phases of Alexander's campaign were identical to the phases that our campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan enacted.
See if this rings a bell with anything we've seen in recent years. First, he went in completely arrogant and ignorant of the country. The initial phase was a sort of shock and awe phase, where he swept through the Bactrian plain, through the cities, just rolled over everyone. Now came a premature declaration of victory, sort of like the "Mission Accomplished" on the aircraft carrier. Then, suddenly out of nowhere, an insurgency popped up. He responded just like we did with conventional warfare. If we think about the Marines sacking Fallujah. He did a couple of more things that we tried to do: seal the borders because there were cross-border sanctuaries. There was even a character, an Osama bin Laden-like character named Spitamenes, who was a Persian-trained son of a rich man, who went radical, went rogue on everybody and led an insurgency.
Take a look at these contemporary Taliban. I will bet the ranch that if we could beam Alexander back into this room or into Afghanistan to see these guys, he'd recognize them absolutely. He'd say, "These are the exact same guys I was fighting. The only difference is my guys were carrying spears and swords and these guys are carrying RPGs and AK-47s."
The next phase was a surge where Alexander literally sent back to Macedonia for reinforcements. And that began to make a little bit of a difference. The last phase that he did was he began to hire for pay the militias of the tribesmen who were against him, just like we have done in Al Anbar province in Iraq, the Anbar Awakening.
He did manage to extricate himself from this quagmire in a fairly successful way. I won't tell you how he got out, I'll save that for later. Suffice it to say that the greatest military genius of all time staggered out of the place black and blue, just like the Russians did and the British did 2000 years after him. What we're up against, I believe, is tribalism and the tribal mind-set.
TRIBALISM: THE ANCIENT ENEMY
What is the common denominator particularly about the enemies we're up against here? I believe it's tribalism and the tribal mind-set that give the enemy his power. Not only is the West up against tribalism in the obvious places like Afghanistan and in the tribal areas along the Pakistan border and in Iraq, Al Anbar province and the Mahdi army and places like that, but I believe we're up against it in Hamas and Hezbollah, certainly in the Taliban and largely in al Qaeda. And so I think it's very important that our policymakers and people who are involved in this are thinking in these terms. The West may be making the same mistakes today that Alexander made 2300 years ago.
THE SAME ENEMY THEN AND NOW
There's a pattern here. History does have lessons to teach us. In the next four videos I'd like to explore some of these aspects: the political aspects of tribes, the military aspects of tribes-why they're so tough to to fight against. I'd like to talk about the intersection of Islam and tribalism, and then we're going to have a section about the tribesman versus the citizen, the citizen being a Western type of person and the tribesman being an Eastern type of person. And the final section I'd like to talk about what lessons history might teach us about dealing with tribes. Is victory in the conventional sense even possible in a war like this?