Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The seven feelers of wisdom

Optional reading: Counterinsurgency and Irregular Warfare in a Tribal Society, by William McAllister from the Small Wars Journal. The title itself brings up a subtle but important possibility. The US alliance with the tribes has been not only about counterinsurgency but also about irregular warfare -- against al-Qaeda. It was not only a shield but a sword.

In fact it might be argued that an authentic understanding of tribal culture implied how al-Qaeda might be routed under its unstated rules. The great strategic weakness of radical Islam is that it must rule. By definition theocracy means the subordination of the tribes to its overarching authority and the repeal of its ancient usages under the comprehensive new ideology. As a 7th century Islamic governor once emphasized to the tribes: Islam is a jealous master.

You allow kinship to prevail and put religion second ... tear down the order which Islam has sanctified for your protection ... I rule you with the omnipotence of God.

And this is particularly true of those who style themselves as latter-day messengers. Everywhere it operates al-Qaeda has no other Allah but its own peculiar one with Osama as his prophet. In contrast, the great strategic strength of the United States, which may astound its critics but which nonetheless remains true is its flexibility; its freedom from the Imperial model. America doesn't care a fig who your relatives are so long as you do well and don't trouble your neighbors. It gets rich by trading with successful societies and obtains far more wealth from Japan and Europe than it ever could get from Africa. Al-Qaeda's relationship with the tribes would tend to dominance. America's structural advantage is that it could deal with others as partners.

McAllister notes that much of the world remains tribal and while "large parts of the globe are inhabited by detribalized or non-tribal populations ... it is a mistake to underestimate the role and influence of the tribe in a multi-group political system." And therefore many of the ideas developed in Anbar may have broad validity all over the world. Because al-Qaeda by nature tends to conquest it allows Americans to wage "irregular warfare" against it in situations where radical Islamic outsiders have superimposed themselves over the traditional tribal structure. But the key to turning this simple idea into operational reality lay in a deep grasp of the details; in knowing the Why, Who and How of a situation. And also the How Much. Therefore operating in a tribal environment required knowledge above all -- the "information requirements" -- whose fulfillment in turn required time.

Much of McAllister's article is a practical guide to working within these contexts. It is a checklist of how to turn power-relationships into a weapon. The reader is told, convincingly, that war in the tribal context is negotiation conducted by other means. And because extremisms like al-Qaeda cannot bend but break; and cannot speak but to command they are at a disadvantage in situations where freedom remains a possibility.


Blogger LarryD said...

Supposedly it was Rommel who said something like "The reason Americans do so well at war is; war is chaos and Americans deal with chaos every day."

2/05/2008 06:55:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Isn't Australia equally chaotic?

Or India, or Russia? Or even poor little Canada?

Sometimes it gets a little annoying to *always* be the bug pinned down and having every small bug-like twitch minutely examined and commented upon.

2/05/2008 07:21:00 AM  
Blogger Dougman said...

That's what makes us special.

We're expected to cross reference and nail down the Truth.
For Goodness sake :)

And we do a damn fine job of it, I think.

2/05/2008 07:52:00 AM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

What leapt out at me when I read this is how differently NGOs deal with the tribal nature of the societies they operate in.

I worked with a whole range of NGOs in Africa, and it often seemed to me that the key to career success in UNDP, the World Bank, the British Council or any number of private groups was the ability to construct and present a version of what was going on which completely concealed the reality of tribal existence and practices. Reports are written, presentations are made, and appointments and goals established which just delete all reference to tribal values and practices.

It's fascinating to see how the military's effort in places like this, which actually gets to grips with how people behave, reveals the fundamental unseriousness which characterizes how NGOs interact with people in low income countries.

I could think of a hundred examples, but the latest one came just the other day when an American woman living in Kenya was interviewed on NPR about the recent riots there. Asked about whether there were any tribal tensions until recently she denied it, saying that until a few weeks ago she and her friends didn't even know which of the teachers at their children's schools belonged to one tribe versus another, but now they knew based on which ones had run away. Well, duh. 'Tribal tensions don't exist because we don't notice them'; I don't think so. This speaks volumes about how foreign aid workers and government employees live in places like Africa. They are there and yet they are not there.

Another aspect of this is deeply ironic. One of the reasons NGO workers are so dedicated to ignoring the social reality around them is that their managements back in the developed world, and their public constituents, 'can't handle the truth' about it. And yet virtually all NGOs operate through a strict 'command and control' structure, which means that only a version of reality which rinses out tribal practices is acceptable. The irony is of course that most NGO workers imagine that the orgnizations really hamstrung by a 'command and control' mindset are the Armed Forces, whereas what we see in this paper, and in the military's rapidly evolving practices in places like Iraq, is exactly the opposite.

2/05/2008 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

An NGO's reason for being is to make work for itself, to create a need for it to be there.

The military's reason for being is to solve the problem and leave.

Has there ever been an instance where an NGO completed a project and then voluntarily left on its own?

A tribe's reason for being used to be survival against the elements. Now that's changed, and tribes are looking for financiers and protectors, and if that brings them enough power in addition to poof up their honor, so much the better.

2/05/2008 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 02/05/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

2/05/2008 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger PapaBear said...

During the Middle Ages, the west used to have a lot of tension between religious powers and temporal powers. The kings and barons might give lip service to the bishops and Pope, but really did not want to have them telling them what to do in their own lands

Tribal leaders spent a lot of time and effort getting to the top of their hierarchy. Having some religious goons come in and claim authority must stick in their craws

2/05/2008 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger F451-2.0 said...


http://www.medal of freedom.com/william stephenson.htm

2/05/2008 02:26:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

CLC's Good, Arbakai Bad

2/05/2008 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wretchard's point here reminds me of Simon Schama's argument that the British (or, particularly, Pitt the Elder) wanted to create an "empire of trade and liberty" defined by economic partnerships with successful societies, but that they eventually got themselves a traditional empire instead, defined by dominance. Since I first heard that argument, it has seemed to me that we have taken up that mantle, and that what is often called globalization is really a process intended to bring about that world linked by trade and openness instead of military dominance.

2/06/2008 10:36:00 AM  

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