FIGHTING A TRIBAL ENEMY
War & Reality in Afghanistan
A CONTINUING CONVERSATION
With Author & Historian Steven Pressfield
Part 4 of 5
How tough are tribes as military enemies? Afghan tribes defeated and killed Cyrus the Great of Persia. They fought Alexander to a standstill. They beat the British in the nineteenth century at the height of the British imperial power -- twice. And they humbled the mighty Russian army, which was the blow in the 1980s that really finished off the Soviet Union.
WHY ARE TRIBES SO TOUGH TO FIGHT?
Tribal warriors are so tough to fight because the primary occupation of the tribal male is Warrior. In most tribes all other occupations are absolutely forbidden. One further distinction about tribal fighters: they're not soldiers, they're warriors. Which means that they don't fight for a cause or an ideology, or even for money - they fight for personal, family and tribal honor.
TRIBES ARE HOSTILE TO ALL OUTSIDERS
Each tribe considers itself the original chosen people. If you think about the names tribes have for themselves: the Navajo call themselves the "dine" which means "the people." So the tribes think of themselves as the center of the world and everything else is an outsider, not part of the tribe.
TRIBES ARE ALWAYS AT WAR
Tribes are perpetually at war with all other tribes. If you think about the Plains Indians of the American West. The Sioux were constantly at war with the Crow and the Blackfeet and the Comanche never gave the Apache a moment's rest.
TRIBES THRIVE ON HARDSHIP AND ADVERSITY
There's a true story that in 333 B.C. a delegation went to visit Alexander to try to convince him not to invade their territory. And what they said to him was: "You may be defeat us, but you will never defeat our poverty."
Tribes thrive on hardship and adversity. Tribes are primitive. That's what gives them their strength. Afghanistan today is the fourth-poorest country on earth. To the tribal mind as a war-making machine that's an advantage. Because they believe time is on their side in the sense that the Western enemy can't endure the same level of hardship and adversity that they can because they've been inured to it over millennia. So the tribes believe that the Western enemy is going to quit, going to pack up and go home. They always have in the past and they always will in the future.
TIME MEANS NOTHING TO THE TRIBE
I was reading an article about Ariel Sharon, who was a tribal leader if there ever was one. He was walking with a reporter through a certain part of Israel and he pointed up into the mountains and he said that the Biblical character Abigail lived out her story in these mountains. And as he was telling the story, he began to weep. And what that meant was that this story, that happened 3000 or 4000 years ago was still absolutely viscerally alive to Sharon today.
To the Arabs, the Crusades happened yesterday. And that is one of the functions of the tribal mind, one of the attributes of the tribal mind. You can crush it in one century and they'll come back two centuries, three centuries later, just as pissed off as they were the first time.
I have a friend in the special forces, Major Jim Gant, and he says there's a saying over there in Afghanistan: "We've got the watches, but they've got the time."
TRIBAL VIRTUES ARE THE VIRTUES OF WAR
In our society, we train our warriors essentially to be tribes. If you think about Marine boot camp, Army Ranger training, Navy SEAL training...the whole process is to take Western individuals and turn them into a tribe, to inculcate the same virtues we've been talking about-cohesiveness, loyalty, hostility to all outsiders, a code of honor. All of these warrior virtues are tribal virtues.
TRIBAL VIRTUES ARE ISLAMIC VIRTUES
I'm venturing beyond my pay grade to address this issue, but it does seem to me that Islam forms almost a perfect overlay over tribalism. Both of them value the same virtues: warrior pride, God-fearingness, fidelity, loyalty, hostility to all outsiders, reverence for the ancestors and tradition-the ancient ways.
Islam and tribalism deliver the same psychological payoffs too. Islam gives you that sense that you belong, the sense that you're part of a group greater than yourself. It provides significance to your life. There's meaning to what you're doing. It's an entity that's greater than yourself to which you can belong and which supports you. Islam, just like tribalism, is a highly structured system. You know who your enemies are, you know who your friends are, you know what to wear, you know how to feel, how to treat women, you know what to eat, when to pray, what to say when you pray.
Islam, like tribalism, prizes male virtues and suppresses women. It supports all insiders and despises all outsiders. It's a warrior religion, a religion of the sword. In that way too it mirrors tribalism exactly.
ISLAM IS TRIBALISM ON STEROIDS
Islam is tribalism on steroids. It takes tribalism to the next level. It creates a super-tribe that allows each individual tribal society to move to a global level. For instance, if you're a tribe in a valley in Afghanistan, or you're in Anbar province in Iraq, or in Arabia or in Palestine, Islam gives you this super-tribe to which you can belong that's global in scope, but yet keeps all the tribal values and all the virtues the tribesman prize.
The other thing that Islam brings to tribalism that's kind of dangerous for us in the West and makes it inflammatory is Islam brings an expansionist dimension to tribalism. Tribes, traditionally, were stay at home fighters. They were at their best defending home turf against an invader. Islam adds a convert-the-unbelievers aspect to tribalism. In other words, it's not enough to just believe in your own little area, or to be what you are in your own little area. It's an obligation to convert the unbelievers and bring them into the fold. So that creates this expansionist, imperialist dimension that is very inflammatory in the world today.
THE ISLAMIC WARRIOR IS A TRIBAL WARRIOR
Think about Osama bin Laden. Now he is really a highly educated son of an incredibly wealthy man. He could very easily wear a Savile Row business suit and pull it off. But he chooses not to do that. He chooses to present himself to his audience wearing a beard and a shalwar kameez. And he's in a cave. Osama bin Laden is not stupid; he knows exactly what he's doing. What he is presenting to the tribal east is that image of the ancient, proud, traditional warrior. And that plays like gangbusters throughout tribal society in the east.