Special Operations: The Tribulations Of Tribal Politics


November 1, 2009: In this year's American defense budget, over a billion dollars is allocated, in effect, to bribe Afghan tribal leaders. This is not something new. U.S. commanders have been buying the loyalty (or at least neutrality) of dozens of Afghan warlords and tribal leaders since 2001. This is the way things are done in this part of the world, and American Special Forces troops knew that well from their experience in the 1980s, when the Russians were trying to hang on to Afghanistan. Actually, the Russians managed to buy off some tribes, but this did not work with many tribes because the top guy who took the money, often did not spread it around much. So his minions would often keep on causing trouble. The problem with Pushtuns (who live in the south and are 40 percent of the population), is that you can't really buy their loyalty, although it can be rented. You have to keep someone in the neighborhood to make sure you are getting what you paid for.

This approach to tribal politics goes way back in American military history. Back during the Vietnam war, there were deals with the tribes of Central Vietnam and Laos in the 50s and 60s, and before that in Burma during World War II, and before that in the Philippines, and before that in the American West. One of the more successful operators of that period, general Crook, would be right at home in Afghanistan.

However, most American civilians, and especially politicians, are unaware of this aspect of American history. The more you forget, the more you have to relearn. But in the American military, especially among special operations troops, the history of dealing with tribal peoples is well known, and regularly studied.

Many Special Forces officers believe that a more "tribe-centric" approach to Afghanistan would be more successful. However, even these operators admit that tribal politics, especially in Afghanistan, can be particularly nasty. Customs carry great weight, but that does not prevent Pushtuns from screwing you, or each other, when opportunity becomes too great a temptation. Another problem with tribes is that relationships are personal, not institutional. The Special Forces teams establish personal links, pledging their personal promise to do this or that. The tribal leaders can understand that. Send in an unknown officer, no matter how well equipped (with cash or other gifts), and he will have to start from scratch. Life is hard out in the tribal territories, and everything tends to be personal.

One things the tribe can understand is gifts, especially regular gifts of cash. In return they will grant favors. But the extent of these favors depends on what kind of personal relationship has been established. Try to run tribal relations like just another bureaucratic function, and you have a lot less to show for it. The amount of "face time" required to administer these tribal bribes annoys commanders, but the more astute ones realize that you either do it right, or end up getting screwed.

But even commanders that work with the tribal culture can get in trouble back home. Politicians or journalists will jump on them for "bribery" or "working with warlords." It's just another peril you face when you deal with tribal politics.


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