It's the Tribes, Stupid!
Quelling anarchy in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere, will require building on tribal loyalties—not imposing democracy from the top down
For more than 230 years, Americans have assumed that because we have had a happy experience with democracy, so will the rest of the world. But the American military has had a radically contrary experience in Iraq. And Iraq may be but prologue for what our troops may encounter in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Iraq has had three elections that have led to chaos. Bringing society out of that chaos has meant a recourse not to laws or a constitution, but to blood ties. The Anbar Awakening has been a rebuff not only to the extremism of al-Qaeda, but to democracy itself. Restoring peace in Anbar has been accomplished by a lot of money changing hands, to the benefit of unelected but well-respected tribal sheikhs, paid off with cash and projects by our soldiers and marines. Progress in Iraq means erecting not a parliamentary system, but a balance of fear among tribes and sectarian groups.
Because Iraq was among the most backward parts of the Ottoman Empire, tribalism has always been strong there. The power of the tribes intensified during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when the state was weakened in part by economic pressures. Because the tribes in Anbar, along the desert smuggling route to Syria, were too strong to subdue, Saddam Hussein had no choice but to co-opt them and make them part of his power structure – exactly as our military has lately been doing.
It is such traditional loyalties existing below the level of the state that historically both Marxist and liberal intellectuals, in their efforts to remake societies after Soviet and Western democratic models, tragically underestimated. A realist like St. Augustine, in his City of God, understood that tribes, based on the narrow bonds of kinship and ethnicity rather than on any universalist longing, may not constitute the highest good; but by contributing to social cohesion, tribes nevertheless constitute a good in and of themselves. Quelling anarchy means starting with clans and tribes, and building upwards from those granular elements.
"The Lawless Frontier" (September 2000)
The tribal lands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border reveal the future of conflict in the Subcontinent, along with the dark side of globalization. By Robert D. Kaplan
The tribal nature of Pakistan is even more pronounced than in Iraq. Pakistan, divided among geographically based ethnic groups, is a nuclear Yugoslavia-in-the-making. Our troops are already in Afghanistan. So it is highly conceivable that we will have boots on the ground in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan. This is the true frontline in the war on terrorism, where presumably the leadership of al-Qaeda is ensconced. Our troops will find there a deathly volcanic landscape of crags and winding canyons and alkaline deserts 1,000 miles long and 100 miles wide. In this high desert, the tribes rule: Dravidian Raisanis, Turko-Iranian Baluchis, and Indo-Aryan Pushtuns. Neither the British nor any succeeding Pakistani government has managed to subdue them.
The tribes of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province don’t require Western institutions because they already have institutions of their own. What we call warlords are often, in reality, tribal elders who settle divorce cases, property disputes, and other civil conflicts for which we resort to the courts or government. If the American military deploys to these badlands in numbers large or small, it will follow the Anbar example of working with the tribes, greasing their palms for information on al-Qaeda, while accepting their social and political way of life.
There is nothing wrong or cynical about this. Where democratic governance does not exist, we must work with the material at hand. We have inherited our Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty and democracy just as other peoples, with different historical experiences and geographical circumstances, have inherited theirs. And these other peoples yearn for justice and dignity, which does not always overlap with Western democracy. Throughout the Arab world, old monarchial and authoritarian orders are now weakening. Keeping societies stable will depend largely on tribes, and the deals they are able to cut with one another. In the Middle East, an age of pathetic, fledgling democracies is also an age of tribes.
When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he spoke about the need for “humility” in foreign affairs. Now that our troops are practicing what he preached, after years of failure we’re finally seeing some tenuous results. In striving for a new, post-modern order in the Middle East, we have awakened a medieval one, from which we must now build something permanent.