Intelligence: Making Sense Of Tribal Politics


May 27, 2009: Winning the war in Afghanistan is all about politics, tribal politics. Most Westerners don't understand how important tribal politics is many parts of the world. "Tribal politics" is something most Westerns just can't take seriously, or even get their heads around. But consider that in the main combat zones of the war on terror (including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and many more), tribal politics cannot be ignored. U.S. appreciation, and exploitation, of tribal politics led to victory in Iraq. The same thing is happening in Afghanistan.

In many parts of the world, tribal organizations are the ones people trust the most. The national governments are often seen, often quite accurately, as a bunch of larcenous strangers who are only interested in stealing from you, or worse. For many countries, the national government (and their lackeys running provincial and country governments) have never done anything positive for most of its citizens. While the introduction of mass media (radio and TV) has created the illusion of nationhood, when you get right down to it, people look to their tribal leaders (usually synonymous with the "tribal elders") for help. This should not be surprising, as the tribes are based on long tradition, and family connections. Given a choice, who are you going to trust? A second cousin you've never seen before, or a government bureaucrat you've never seen before?

Those most dependent on tribal leadership tend to be the less educated, and more religious. Over the last century, there's been a constant migration of educated and ambitious tribal members away from the tribal territories. These folks usually end up in a nearby city, or overseas. They stay in touch, usually maintain a respectful attitude towards the tribal elders, and might even have need to use the tribal elders to settle some family matter. But the folks back home tend to remain uneducated, and very religious.

Religious conservatism goes along with reliance on tribal ties. The tribe is not held together just by necessity, but also by faith, faith in family, and in a Greater Power. However, tribal elders tend to be more conservative, than religious. It's usually younger clerics who get into extremism, and their power will often rival that of the tribal elders. Sometimes this will lead to bloodshed, with tribal elders being killed and terrorized. Tribes can be destroyed, and this is one of the ways it happens. It's why there are some very strong ones, and some weak, dying actually, tribes in Afghanistan . This generation gap is a major factor in the Afghanistan violence, and the Pakistanis have used knowledge of that, and how it works in each tribe, to get a handle on tribal unrest in what they call the "tribal territories." Unlike Afghanistan, most Pakistanis are non-tribal, and living in the lowlands of Sind and Punjab. Thus the Pushtun and Baluch tribesmen are feared by most Pakistanis, if only because the tribal territories are semi-autonomous, and those tribes have been raiding and invading the lowland peoples for thousands of years.

Pakistani Baluchistan is also different, because that's where  36 percent of the countries natural gas, and only four percent of the population (spread thinly over 180,000 square kilometers), is. Some 80 percent of this natural gas is exported, and the Baluchis only get about twelve percent of what that gas is sold for. On top of that, corrupt officials steal much of what the tribes are supposed to get. Now the government wants to expand drilling and mining, and remove more of Baluchistan's wealth. The tribes are, literally, up in arms over this. Since the Summer of 2004, there have been several dozen violent incidents each week, ranging from tribesmen shooting at government facilities, or employees, or blowing something up (electricity transmission towers, roads, gas pipelines and so on.)

Note that the Baluchi tribes have never really been controlled by anyone. That's mainly because, until the oil and gas was discovered, there was nothing in Baluchistan that any nearby empire could justify going after. Armies are expensive, and Baluchistan was never considered worth the effort. Actually, the Baluchis have long been regarded as excellent mercenaries, and, until quite recently, hired themselves out in large numbers. But that market has changed, and the Baluchis are left with less work, and all this oil and gas getting stolen from their tribal lands.

It gets worse. Over the last 25 years, over a million Pushtun tribesmen have moved across the border to escape Russian invasion, and then civil war. The Pushtuns, like the Baluchis, are a family of Indo-European tribes, They are closely related by language, religion and culture. There are still 700,000 Pushtuns living in Baluchistan, most of them of the very conservatives, pro-Taliban variety. These Pushtuns, out of necessity, have maintained good relations with their Baluchi hosts. While most Baluchis do not share the Taliban's extreme form of Islam, they do share common dislike to outsiders. This includes the Pakistani government.

Now that there is something worth fighting for in Baluchistan, there are more Pakistani police and soldiers in the province than anyone can remember. For centuries, the local power would cut deals with the tribal chiefs, to keep Baluchi raids, piracy, and the like, under control. These deals basically came down to bribes for the tribal elders, and the threat of retaliation (sending troops through the tribal territory, burning and killing). But now the Pakistani government wants to protect its access to the oil and gas. The Pakistanis also want to shut down the tribal support network for the Taliban. But, let's face it, which of these two tasks do you think has the highest priority?

In Afghanistan, it's also different. Unlike Pakistan, all you have is tribes, and the national government is an ongoing anarchy of deal making and attempts to keep the peace between the tribes. President Karzai is a tribal leader from one of the larger Pushtun tribes. But the Pushtun comprise only about 40 percent of the population. The rest belong to Tajik (Indo-European, like the Pushtun and Baluch), Uzbek (Turks) and Hazara (Mongolian, leftovers from the Mongol invasion and occupation centuries ago). There are also several other minorities, but it’s the Pushtun that matter most, which is why the national leader (long a king, now a president) was a prominent Pushtun.

When president Karzai goes on about "negotiating with the Taliban," he's talking about negotiating with the few Pushtun tribes around Kandahar, that provide most of the leadership and manpower for the Taliban. He's done a pretty good job, but now the Americans are turning lose their intelligence collection and data mining tools to sort out the pro-Taliban tribes and find where the weak points (leaders) are, and go after them. This is what worked so well in Iraq, identifying the Sunni Arab tribes that supported, or opposed, terrorism, and making the appropriate moves.

The Afghan effort will also include the drug gangs, which tend to be backed by one tribal faction or another. Some of those Pushtun tribes around Kandahar are getting rich off heroin and opium, and the rest of the Afghan tribes don't like. Most of the tribes have suppressed heroin production. Not because they don't want to get rich, but because they know the drugs have nasty side effects on the general population. Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan now have over ten million drug addicts because of those Pushtun tribes around Kandahar and their drug business.

There's lots of opportunity in all this. When there's tribal politics involved, there always is.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close