Paramilitary: The Immortals


December 24, 2017: Most Westerners don't understand how important tribal politics is to the persistent mayhem in so many parts of the world. Not every group of armed men wearing uniforms and carrying modern weapons belong to what is generally considered organized “security forces. No, a large number of these gunmen are irregulars and members of some tribal or clan group, usually described as a “militia” or “self-defense force.” What creates and controls these men, who account for most of the death and destruction attributed to military conflict, answers to tribal or clan leaders not governments recognized by the United Nations. These tribes are not represented at the UN nor do they have ambassadors or embassies,

Because of this "tribal politics" is something most Westerns just can't take seriously, or even get their heads around. Consider that in the main combat zones of the war on terror (including Arab states in general, South and Southeast Asia and Africa), tribal politics cannot be ignored. Yet in many parts of the world, where the tribal forces predominate, it is because the tribal organizations are the ones people trust the most. The national governments are often seen, accurately, as a bunch of larcenous strangers who are only interested in stealing from you, or worse. For most of these 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.

Much of the current Islamic radicalism and terrorism has its origins in tribalism, a curse that has largely disappeared in the West. A few thousand years ago nearly everyone lived in a tribal (a collection of families and clans related by blood) culture. But since then, the tribal social relationships have faded, superseded by kingdoms and then nations. But there are still several large tribes left in Eurasia and they are at the center of much of the unrest on the planet these days.

First, there are the Pushtuns of central and south Asia. This is a collection of dozens of tribes sharing language and customs. There are over 40 million Pushtuns and their range is from eastern Iran to western Pakistan. They are a minority in every country they live in, although they are the dominant minority (40 percent of the population) in Afghanistan. Then there are the 24 million Kurds, who live as minorities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. There are also fifteen million Baluchis, living as minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The Baluchis are also unique in that they have not really caught the nationalist fever. They want more autonomy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And they are fighting for that. But calls for forming a Baluchistan have, so far, been muted.

What these three tribes have in common is that they have never been able to form their own nation. The Italic tribes did this in Italy over 2,000 years ago, the Germans did it later in Germany (and Austria and Switzerland), the Greek tribes in Greece eventually formed a nation (after first creating city states), the Turkish tribes in Turkey (and other Turkic tribes like the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azeris, and Kirgiz in Central Asia) all eventually coalesced into nations over the last few centuries. The Mongol tribes have had their own nation for centuries. The Tajiks, who are like the Pushtuns, Baluchis, and Kurds an Indo-European people, have their own country (although most Tajiks live in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan).

When a large tribal population does not, in this day and age, have its own nation, there tends to be a strong desire to form one. The Tajiks got lucky, having been conquered by the Russians in the 19th century and then able to set themselves up as an independent nation when the Soviet (Russian) empire fell apart in 1991. That independence may not last but, for the moment, the Tajiks have a place they can call their own. It's different with the Kurds and Pushtuns. Both are cursed with the desire for nationhood and the inability to settle internal disputes. Both tribes have been sitting where they are for over a thousand years, uniting temporarily only to fight outsiders. The other mega-tribes of Eurasia eventually found a string of strong and resourceful leaders who united the tribes and formed nations.

The Kurds are blocked from statehood by the more powerful nations they inhabit. The Turks, Iraqis, and Iranians are particularly resistant to giving up real estate and population to form a Kurdistan. Fortunately, the Kurds never embraced Islam in a big way and their separatist groups tend to be socialist, or simply nationalist. Thus the Kurds are allies of the West in the war on terror, not an enemy.

The Pushtuns are another matter. While the Pushtuns basically control Afghanistan, that's not saying much. Afghanistan is little more than a tribal coalition, with tribal politics more important than national level stuff. Most Pushtuns live in Pakistan, where they are a small (less than ten percent) minority. The Pushtuns are less educated (or even literate) than the non-Pushtun majority in Pakistan and thus never a major threat to the majority. The Pakistani government kept the British colonial policy of allowing the Pushtun tribes to use tribal customs instead of national laws and essentially government themselves in their “tribal territories.” That included letting the tribes fight each other as long as they did not bother the majority (or anyone outside the tribal territories).

The British was one of the few European nations with recent experience dealing with troublesome tribes. At the same time the British were taking over what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and so on, they were dealing with the last armed and organized tribal group in Europe; the highland clans in Scotland. The British carried this out in a particularly brutal fashion but, worse of all to the British, it was expensive in terms of cash and people. The British went on to adopt more creative, and less expensive ways to deal with the many tribes it encountered and had to deal with in the 19th and 20th century. That worked for the British as long as the tribes were far from Britain. But when they are next door it is a different matter.

That can be seen playing out now as the Pakistani and Afghan Pushtun tribes are also going through their own civil wars and revolutions. New technologies and new ideas are upsetting the ancient traditions. The Pushtun tribal leadership is being threatened from several directions. Young men, made wealthy and well-armed by the drug trade, refuse to obey their tribal elders. Other tribesmen, hearing a call from God (to join the Taliban or al Qaeda) have also ignored their tribal leaders. The government has backed the tribal leaders, creating a bloody generational conflict. Tribal politics is a dirty business and always has been. The violence in the tribal areas of Pakistan, just from battles with the army and police, has been escalating over the last decade. Now it is war and the Pushtuns are facing yet another defeat.

While the Kurds are embracing education and modern life, the Pushtuns, at least the most violent ones, are embracing an Islamic past. Thus do the lost tribes of Eurasia stay lost.

Africa was different. North Africa was on the Mediterranean and all areas around the body of water were exposed to new ideas quickly. Thus these tribes quickly evolved into city-states, kingdoms and empires. Egypt was one of the earliest examples of empire building and those concepts were improved on by the Greeks (early democracy), the Romans (the Republic for 500 years than an empire that lasted for over a thousand years). Republics persisted in Italy and were key to the renaissance, industrial revolution and modern democracy. But getting from the Roman Republic (which voted by tribes) to modern democracy took over 1,500 years and tribalism was a major obstacle for most of that time. Do not underestimate the persistence of tribalism and get lost seeking a quick solution.

The persistence of tribalism can be seen in many of the current hotspots. Libya continues to be torn apart by tribalism and Egypt still has problems with it in the Sinai. The Syrian civil war may be over in late 2017 but the Assad government inherited a devastated country dominated by tribal militias that remained loyal to the Assads or are willing to become loyal again. There is a similar situation in Iraq and Arabia, well Arabia was always and still is dominated by tribalism. This is still the case in parts of the Philippines, India, Burma and Indonesia. Most areas troubled by tribal violence usually have local political groups that incorporate factions from several tribes. But the tribal loyalty gets in the way of national unity. Even when tribalism loses it power the regions of a country tend to be dominated by ethnic groups that can break away and form local militias to defend themselves. This was common after most communist governments in Europe lost power between 1989 and 1991. This included the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 14 nations. Many of those new states still suffer tribe based violence.

Another former communist state that came apart, Yugoslavia, did so without any tribal component. The Yugoslav mess in the 1990s was all about ethnic identity. That ethnic separatism has long characterized the Balkans where Yugoslavia was a failed attempt to overcome it. Nearly all the tribal structures in the Balkans faded as they did in the rest of Europe although some remain among the Albanians.

The most persistent “wars” are usually in areas where tribal or clan organizations are dominant. Each new generation brings with it new recruits for tribal militias who are willing to continue battles that have been going on for many generations. These ancient feuds are often ignored or underestimated when peacekeepers or some other pacification force arrives and discovers that there is no quick solution to problems that regenerate with each new generation.


Article Archive

Paramilitary: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. 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. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close