Small Wars Journal

Towards a Theory of Applied Strategy in Tribal Society

Fri, 02/22/2008 - 5:20pm
The term strategy is generally applied to describe an "idea" of a direction, plan, concept, and courses of action in which to proceed. (1) Strategy is fundamentally concerned with the application of instruments or elements of power (diplomatic/political, economic, martial and informational) to achieve political objectives in cooperation or competition with other actors pursuing their own objectives.

The underlying assumption of strategy is that other competitive entities have interests that they pursue to the best of their abilities. Strategy reflects a choice, a preference for a future state or condition. In an attempt to create this condition, strategy confronts adversaries and unforeseen events beyond one's direct control.

Strategy is about how (way or concept) available power (means or resources) is applied to achieve objectives (end) in support of interests. Experts stress that the strategist must know what is to be accomplished and that only by analyzing and understanding the internal and external environment in which he operates can the strategist develop appropriate objectives leading to the desired end-state. The theory itself highlights the requirement for strategy to ensure an appropriate balance among objectives, methods, and available resources. (The force that balances the objective, methods and available resources is an example of a Center of Gravity and reflects Chinese military thought to first "attack the strategy, then the alliance, and lastly the soldiers themselves").

Discussion of power should not be limited to only two categories; soft and hard power. Power may also be described as potential power. The power to initiate change; applied force to drastically change the existing sociopolitical condition. Initiating fundamental changes in the present with expected benefits to be realized in the future.

Hierarchical versus Networked Strategy

The western way of strategy is based on the premise that strategy is hierarchical and that best case it is both a reflection of national consensus and comprehensive direction. It further purposes that the political leadership both insures and maintains its control and influence through the hierarchical nature of state strategy. (2) Strategy in tribal society on the other hand is of a networked nature. The reason why is found in the way the tribe is governed and administered.

The paramount sheikh of a given tribe is assisted by a number of confidential advisors and principal lieutenants consisting predominantly of senior nobles and a few outstanding commoners. His brothers and paternal uncles, in particular, are everywhere entitled and expected to assist him and thus have special authority over portions of the tribe as a whole. In carrying out his specific duties the paramount sheik, in addition to his immediate family, is also assisted by various grades of local authority. The tribe is therefore administered not so much by the paramount sheikh alone as by the whole of his family and local authority, though as holder of the office he personally has distinctive powers and privileges. In terms of tribal strategy development, all factions represent powerful interests whether based on familial politics, economic or security considerations competing for position and influence.

While the paramount sheikh is the representative and spokesman of the tribe and is responsible for the tribe's external relations, the strategy to care for his people and to promote the tribe's welfare and security is a reflection of various powerful interest groups competing with one another for positions of advantage within the tribe. The outward expression of what we perceive to be strategic consensus at any given moment is the product of adaptation, competition and cooperation within the tribe itself and subject to change as one or another faction gains or loses influence. Much adaptation is intuitive and less based on rational cost-benefit analysis but influenced by traditional rules of behavior that governs competition and cooperation amongst the various factions. A good deal of confusion can result when Coalition Forces are approached by one faction or another trying to improve their relative position within the tribe, or as one local authority seeks to strengthen his specific political, economic or security jurisdiction, and is believed to speak for the tribe as a whole. In this case, if the local authority is successful, his initiative may well be adopted into the overall tribal strategy and the strategy evolves from that point forward. On the other hand, his attempt may fail, regardless of whether he is individually successful especially if he is opposed by a more powerful faction or is unable to attract enough allies to support his effort. As a result, his strategic design reflects a mixture of intuition, flexibility, competition, cooperation and adaptation to local conditions vice a hierarchical design seeking a decisive battle in every encounter. This same dynamic can be observed when political parties compete for power.

Western hierarchical strategy rests on the premise that it must be comprehensive and conducive to facilitating control. It encourages the strategist to think holistically and to reflect on the whole of the strategic environment in his analysis. Analysis is based on comprehensive knowledge of what is happening and the potential first; second, third, etc., order effects at the tactical and operational levels. Strategy is therefore the product of a thorough analysis and knowledge of the situation and environment.

The Achilles Heel of western hierarchical strategy may well be exposed when confronted by a networked tribal strategic design. While there is no disagreement that we must appreciate the situation and achieve an appreciation for the potential first, second, and third effects at the tactical and operational levels, comprehensive knowledge of all the things that might influence the overall strategic design may be a bridge too far. Effects are determined not simply by preceding causes but are part of a continuous process of evolution. These complex interactions are too numerous to predict, identify and observe as they manifest themselves in their various end states along the historical timeline.

Our emphasis on comprehensive knowledge and control and reflected in a rigid strategic design limits our flexibility is the primary cause of much surprise when confronted with unpredicted events. Unpredicted events cause the system to revert to a reactive mode and therefore require time to realign itself so as to focus on the changed condition. Time that is used by an adversary who relies on intuitive, flexible and adaptive behavior to exploit opportunities so as to shape the situation in his favor. As the system realigns itself and is unable to adapt quickly enough to the changed circumstances we are forced to press on with inappropriate tactical and operational level actions so as to maintain momentum regardless of the applicability or desirability of the potential long-term strategic effects we may be initiating with these actions. It took three and a half years of hard fighting in Iraq to begin to change our mental model.

There is no need to change the strategy model. The model works well in structuring the analysis. There is a need, on the other hand, when engaged in a tribal society to adapt our thinking and to accept the fact that how we think is susceptible to exploitation, not necessarily because our opponent is smarter but because he thinks differently. An apt analogy to reinforce this point is to imagine a contest between two strategists. One thinks in terms of chess; the other backgammon. Success in both games is realized through the appropriate application of strategy and skill. But here is where the games diverge. The chess master is faced with diminishing options and opportunities over time. A certain opening gambit locks the strategist into a specific series of combinations that seek to take advantage of an opponent's mistake and to minimize the risk of making a mistake in return. The critical component missing in this relationship is chance. The operational environment is less dynamic for the strategist is focused on initiating the appropriate combination of moves in the attack to reinforce the defense or vice versa. Backgammon on the other hand also combines strategy and skill but the operational environment is inundated with the effects of chance; every throw of the dice in backgammon changes the conditions and by default the operational environment of the game. Just like in the game of chess, the strategist seeks not only to take advantage of an opponent's mistake, but also to exploit emerging opportunities presented with each throw of the dice. The strategist in backgammon therefore is likely to be more flexible, intuitive and opportunistic something that is also reflected in the execution of tribal strategy. This should not come as a surprise since backgammon is the game of choice in the Middle East and an expression of the way people think and act.

The strategist planning for operations in a tribal society must early on gain an appreciation for the historical, cultural, traditional and sociopolitical context of the environment she or he is attempting to shape. He should therefore begin to think in terms of social and cultural operating codes and coordinating messages. The social codes and coordinating messages are the foundation for the existing social contract upon which the existing political formula is based. The political formula in turn greatly influences the form and function of indigenous social institutions and organizations and reflects the accepted norms of behavior between individuals and groups. Although we will never gain a detailed understanding of cultures and societies different from our own, an appreciation for the cultural operating environment will go a long way in achieving political objectives in cooperation or competition with others pursuing their own objectives.

William S. McCallister is a retired Army officer who served in the Middle East in special operations assignments. He is a published author and authority on tribal warfare. Mr. McCallister is currently employed as a senior consultant for Applied Knowledge International in Iraq.


1. H. Richard Yarger, "Towards A Theory of Strategy: Art Lykke and the Army War College Strategy Model",

2. Ibid

Copyright © Jan, 2008 by William S. McCallister



Thu, 02/28/2008 - 7:01am

Posted for Mac.

Dear One-eyed Man,

At the risk of turning our dialogue into a love-fest, please know that I very much appreciate you taking the time to correspond with me. I would like to start by placing the Pakistan article into context. The article itself was in response to a question whether the Anbar model would be appropriate in the North-West Frontier. I personally believe it can not be templated in total whether in the rest of Iraq or the North-West Frontier. Each situation is different, period. On the other hand I do believe there are components that might be applicable but we must first conduct a very detailed area and target audience analysis before implementing this or any initiative. The intent of the article was to highlight the risks involved in becoming too deeply involved in a kinetic relationship with the Pathans since their social and historical experiences differ so very much from our own. In short: look before you leap. The article also sought to encourage greater contemplation on whether the target audience would be receptive to our current types of kinetic or non-kinetic forms of communication. I am a bit surprised that a number of respondents have focused on disproving the model or methodologys universal application; a point I never made nor believed to be true. Therefore, we seem to agree that the Anbar model is inappropriate for the North-West Frontier. Note that I do not retreat from my assertion that the model or methodology is applicable in Anbar province. We can continue to debate the specifics of words, definitions, or my dilettante approach to defining human nature but it seems to work for us in the western province of Iraq. Secondly, and I mean it sincerely for I am now speaking as a student who defers to your expertise; I can honestly say that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King. I hope this last sentence is not a failed attempt at levity for I am truly grateful for your mentorship.

Having said the above, we are still faced with developing a workable mental model for our soldiers and Marines operating in the areas under discussion. In my opinion, the critical requirement is to develop an "operationally relevant" mental model. Before I delve deeper into this discussion I feel obligated to tell you a bit more about myself for I want you to gain an appreciation why I think the way I do. I am an infantryman by trade and my target audience is the squad and platoon leader, company commander, Battalion Operations Officer, Battalion, Brigade and Task Force Commander. They are in the people business and when they complete their mission analysis, concepts such as "establish democracy", "restore stability" or "secure" a given area translate into X amount of trucks, X gallons of fuel, a specific task organization and X amounts of 5.56 and 7.62 mm NATO ball. This in turn translates into MEDVAC frequencies and Quick Reaction Forces (QRF), but you get the picture.

I have participated in many planning sessions where we debated words, their definitions and effects of those definitions on the ground. The word "secure" is a good example. Can I secure an area solely with artillery by "denying" an opponent the use of this area or do I need boots on the ground to accomplish the required effect. Not to mention the detailed discussions on the second and third level effects that this or that initiative might create over time. These discussions evolved at times into the equivalent of "it all depends on what your definition of 'is is" or specifying the number of angels dancing on a pin head. I personally think it is 17 but the verdict is still out.

One of my greatest frustrations while a serving officer was when faced with a problem (in time I learned to vocalize all problems as challenges), and I would receive two or three "different" reasons why something could not be done. I am fine with that since there are many instances where doing nothing is probably the correct answer. But, the military is in the execution business and therefore instead of telling me two or three "different" reasons why something cant be done, I would ask my folks to focus on providing me with options that would at a minimum shape the situation and move us closer to realizing the mission requirement. This in my mind is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. The model fits into the same category. If it works; use it. If it doesnt; adapt it. If you cant adapt it; discard it. In my mind it is as simple as that and the rationale for my "dont throw out the baby with the bathwater" comment. That comment of course is based on the assumption that the model or methodology has merit. If on the other hand you believe the model or methodology has no merit whatsoever then we are engaged in a completely different conversation. To be honest with you, I am a bit leery throwing around the term model or methodology without definition for we might get lost in the particulars. A model in my mind is a simplified construct of the real world. A methodology on the other hand provides the analyst a means to structure the analysis. It provides for a common terminology and vocabulary and hence a baseline for continuous and more detailed study and analysis over time. A common terminology and vocabulary is needed in an organization such as the military, especially as you correctly point out that "most counter-insurgents are too busy dealing with other matters" such as coordinating MEDVAC frequencies and ORF support.

I am a planner. Ive been given a mission; a task and purpose. Your very insightful essay has provided me with important information. I now know that there is a difference between the Pathans and Baluchi peoples and differences in institutions. There are leaders in Baluchi society who have enduring status and who exercise authority over their communities. My next series of questions seeks to answer how Baluchis create and maintain alliances (segmentation or maybe "coalesce" is a better term). How do leaders retain their authority (patronage, whether moral or material), and how is space divided among the society (territory) as a whole. Not everyone can live in one place. Is there a shame and honor code in play? I now ask the same questions concerning the Pathans. You have provided me a wealth of information here as well. Ill structure the analysis the same way. Is there a shame and honor code in play? If an honor code exists which requires vendetta, should this influence my decision who to target. Is the extended family strong enough to retaliate in a manner that jeopardizes the overall operation such as coordinated attacks or only results in individual drive-by shootings or IED emplacements. This type of information greatly influences force protection and risk considerations. Is there a pattern of behavior that reflects how alliances between groups that define relationships by commonality and differences are established and maintained (segmentation or ability to coalesce). Ibn Kaldun labeled this force of attraction asabiya. It appears that the Pathans have achieved an optimum balance providing just enough social and political cohesion without curtailing their aggressive energy and vigor. Is there ritual involved in establishing and maintaining alliances? Is it in Thucydides words a matter of honor, fear or self-interest? How are commonalities exploited? Are commonalities exploited based on shame and honor, patronage or territorial considerations? How is a patronage relationship expressed. Is it moral or material? I submit that patronage is driven by an ability to "attract". The patronage category may therefore allow us to focus our study on why a certain leader is accepted by consensus and to define why the community is willing to stand behind him. A key factor, as you pointed out may be based on this individuals ability to do for his people. Could I as a planner exploit the patronage operating code by either reinforcing his ability to provide for his people or to undermine him by sponsoring anothers ability to do so? Do certain extended families have distinct group personalities? They do in Anbar by virtue of what other tribes perceive them to be such as hardheaded, fierce fighters, trustworthy etc. Are there certain "extended families" more willing to defend their territory against incursions? Is there documentation that might shed light on this willingness to fight for territory i.e. British experiences in a specific extended family area.

There is one particular paragraph in your essay that highlights the difference in our thinking and hence is akin to me discussing apples while having to answer questions about oranges. I do not challenge the fact that complexities exist within populations. The operative word is "within". I submit that the complexity you speak of is present at the tactical level in the daily interactions of individuals making individual choices i.e. individual behavior that over time develops into a distinct rhythm or pattern of behavior for the population at large. Although I am very much concerned about individual behavior at the tactical level, especially when it comes to developing target folders or strategies for dealing with distinct individuals or groups, I am more concerned how this complexity will play itself out over time at the operational level. I therefore remain that an appreciation of cultural operating codes such as shame and honor, segmentation or coalescing, patronage and territory does just that for it provides me with a framework for the causal processes at work. My simplistic approach for understanding the people with whom we are interacting at the tactical level in the FATA is to study Pashtunwali as a baseline from which to adjust our behavior so as to effectively communicate intent within the target audiences cultural frame of reference. Since I actually believe that you cant beat a dead horse enough, Ill state again that the model also allows me to categorize certain individual behavior as a shame and honor, segmentation or coalescing, patronage or territory response as noted above.

If you would be so kind as to indulge my proclivity to beat dead horses and allow me to apply the model or methodology to answer your question as to what the social organizing principles are in my community. A couple of days ago one of my neighbors was engaged in a verbal confrontation in what appeared to be centered on another neighbor driving too fast within the confines of the condominium complex. Since I assume that the cultural operating codes of shame and honor, segmentation or coalescing, patronage and territory are a valid means to structure the analysis, Ill use it as a framework to assess the casual processes at work. Is the shame and honor code in play? What motivated my neighbor to confront the other for driving too fast? Did pride have anything to do with her decision to challenge what she perceived to be inappropriate behavior? Does she take pride in her role as enforcer of the standard, in this case the speed limit. Her approach was to shame the perpetrator; to make her feel guilty for the transgression. The perpetrator responded accordingly for she was not going to be shamed nor lectured by this self-proclaimed protector of the law. Could the confrontation have had anything to do with territory? Does the enforcer consider the condominium complex her territory and by challenging this act of speeding a means to maintain a semblance of control over her environment? In her mind she may be asking herself where will it lead? It starts with speeding, followed by loud pool parties and the first broken window and the territory that she loves is no more. She decides to fight back. I could have intervened but not without first considering the consequences; the potential pattern of behavior as the dynamic plays itself out over time. I could side with the enforcer and attack the perpetrator. I could attempt to mediate and appeal to both the enforcers and perpetrators sense of civic virtue and obligation to the community to follow the rules and maintain peace and harmony. Or, I could side with the perpetrator and attack the enforcers shameful attempts at imposing tyranny by supporting the perpetrators right of self-expression embodied in her flaunting the simple 15 mph rule. How might this scenario play itself out if I side with the perpetrator? Is the enforcer able to rally a number of likeminded allies. I assume that she may be able to coalesce with a number of likeminded individuals and denounce the perpetrator and me as anarchists who seek to turn the territory into an island of lawlessness at the next homeowner association meeting. Before acting in this case, it might be prudent to first study her existing alliance system in the territory and her ability to attract (patronage) allies whatever the cause. I may therefore choose to lose this engagement in preparation for the next confrontation. I can assume that the confrontation with the speeder is likely not the first time she has chastised someone for breaking some rule or another. I now seek out those that may have been on the receiving end of her civically virtuous behavior which actually translates into territorial control. I now seek to "attract" others to my cause (barbeques and free beer as a start) by exploiting the shame and honor code as I shamelessly stress that this woman should not be allowed to control our lives and by default the condominium complex. Armed with an alliance of my own I now seek to eliminate her as a threat at the homeowner association meeting after next.

While I truly enjoy our discussion I will continue in my attempts to provide soldiers and Marines an operationally relevant methodology to assess the cultural operating environment. All the tribes or as you pointed out "extended families" (is the term clan appropriate) Ive studied, whether located in South Africa, Iraq or in the FATA seem to share a number of basic behavioral traits. These are the cultural operating codes and coordinating messages which appear to provide the framework for the causal processes at work and are repeatedly expressed in patterns of behavior.

What I am not attempting to do is unequivocally state universal truisms such as all leadership in tribes or extended families are based on bloodlines or kinship. Iraqi tribes may forego a given bloodline if the "other" is more able to provide for the good of the group. Fictive bloodlines exist in Anbar province. Nor do I seek to advertise this model or methodology as universally applicable or a silver bullet for any and every case. I do believe we can all accept the truism that the devil is in the particulars and that we can spend much time on debunking this or that specific statement in what appears to me be an attempt to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I only ask how much specificity can we endure before analysis paralysis sets in. A military organization can not afford analysis paralysis. The model is intended to preclude this effect and seeks to provide a mechanism to highlight the causal behavioral processes at work and to recognize patterns of behavior.


One-eyed Man

Tue, 02/26/2008 - 10:31pm

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this subject since its becoming more important by the day. Much of what is written and said about the people living along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is dangerously uninformed.

Concerning definitions for 'tribe,' a dictionary that aims to give a general definition offers little to practitioners. Before I consider the definition itself, its critical to recognize that tribe an English term that may or may not have a comparable term in the language of the people to whom we are applying it. Even if they have a comparable term, we cant take it for granted that their term means the same for them as it does for us.

As for my definition of tribe, I make a point of not using it. I see it as so saddled with confusion that its mere use leads to assumptions about the population to whom it is applied that are misleading and do more harm than good. What kind of assumptions? Ones that are taken as givens in your articles, that tribes are bounded groups, that the boundaries are clear and based on a principle such as patrilineal descent and that the tribe is headed by a leader with executive authority over the conduct of the people and who represents the group to the outside world.

Definitions you cite from are vague and could apply to practically any population just about anywhere. Theres nothing in that definition that would preclude using the term 'tribe' to refer to groups in U.S. or European society that meet one or several of those criteria, but we dont. We should ponder why we seek certain terms to describe groups in other societies while not using those same terms to describe groups in our society.

Obviously I dont banish the term from my casual conversation but I am uncomfortable using it in serious discussions about people such as Pashtuns without offering some kind of definition of what I mean by that term. It's more trouble than it's worth given all the caveats and conditions that have to be mentioned.

Secondly, your characterization of leadership among tribal peoples is simply inappropriate for Pashtuns. It may be somewhat more in the ballpark in describing leadership among the nearby Baluchi peoples where there is the institution of "sardars," or leaders who have enduring status and who exercise more authority over their communities than do leaders among the Pashtuns. With no knowledge of Iraq, I can't comment on its appropriateness there.

One serious problem with your definition of tribal leadership is that in Pashtun society, there is no single enduring group above the corporate, extended family that has any relevance apart from particular situations and circumstances. And this touches on the concept of "segmentation," which your paper on the Pashtuns mischaracterizes. It is not as you describe that there is a "tendency of tribes to segment," rather segmentation refers to the tendency of people to coalesce as a group based on tracing commonality to an common ancestor usually through patrilineal descent. So when the need arises and, depending on a host of other circumstances, people can use the idiom of common 'blood' to establish solidarity groups. As such, they constitute a patrilineally defined segment or portion of what they regard as a broader patrilineal descent group.

Anthropologists sometimes talk about 'segmentary opposition occurring in instances when a dispute arises within a patrilineal descent group. In that situation, the disputants will appeal to their closer patrilineal kin to support them against their more distant kin. It seldom works so elegantly, especially when many conflicts within a patrilineal descent group tend to be between closest kin. (Among Pashtuns, tensions between cousins (father's brother's sons) are so frequent and bitter that the word for cousin is also a word for enemy. In such instances, an obvious problem arises with each disputant trying to find kin to mobilize to support them. As a result, disputants who are close kin use other bases than patrilineal descent to establish commonality in order to find supporters. More about that below.)

But the broader issue that concerns your papers is that Pashtuns do not have any enduring socio-political organization that corresponds to what you describe as tribe. Instead, Pashtun have an understanding of their patrilineal descent that allows them to define commonality (and differences) that they can use to mobilize a group to support them when the need arises.

You ask about the need for "jirga" among Pashtuns. This is straightforward. "Jirga" is nothing more than the consultative process that occurs within a community however defined arising from the need to discuss issues, large or small. Important attributes of the jirga are that anyone is free to talk and participate. When a situation arises, a matter is discussed informally and if it is deemed serious enough to merit a broader gathering, the call is put out for people to convene. Who decides to attend is an indication of the importance of the matter and their view as to whether it has sufficient relevance to them that they see it as in their interests to attend. As for the relation between this most egalitarian of processes and leadership, its worth pondering some important principles of leadership in Pashtun society.

Acephalous Pashtun society is such that there is no single or even a small number of individuals who have an exclusive claim to leadership of their community or patrilineal descent group regardless of the scale of segmentation. Sons of leaders have an advantage because they benefit from their fathers reputation and they have been able to observe their fathers in action. Claims to leadership based exclusively or even primarily on ones ancestry or inheritance count for little. Leadership among Pashtuns is largely earned based on what individuals can do for their people and the relations of reciprocity that are established. Leaders have no authority apart from that conferred by the consensus of their community and the willingness of their community to stand behind and support them.

Leadership among Pashtuns is tied to the 'hujra or guest house, which is a room where Pashtuns from the community or elsewhere gather to discuss matters of importance. For a Pashtun to be recognized and followed, he must have the economic means to have a hujra, to offer appropriate hospitality to callers and to be able to deal with issues that arise. A man who has wealth and integrity, who is intelligent and exercises good judgment, who is seen as working for the good of his community, and who is able also to speak persuasively will likely emerge as an effective leader. If a Pashtun simply has wealth and can host people lavishly but lacks other attributes and character, he can attract followers and hangers-on and may even wield some influence but he likely will not be recognized as a leader.

For Pashtuns accumulation of wealth is not seen as a virtue in itself. The value of wealth is in how it can be used to offer hospitality, to do things for people and thereby create a reciprocal sense of obligation, and to take actions to benefit the community. The greater the wealth, the larger the community that the man can direct his efforts and his influence could grow commensurately.

In Pashtun society, nobody is a leader if people dont follow him. The jirga involves discussion that aims to reach consensus. If a Pashtun fancies himself a leader and tries to force his opinion on the jirga, he may be able to do it at the gathering, but when it comes time to act on whatever was decided, the people likely will absent themselves, sending a clear message that repudiates his claim to being a leader.

So among Pashtuns leadership is predicated on ones ability to build and follow consensus. This doesnt mean that money is not exchanged or that nefarious actions aren't used to gain support. It happens all the time, for example, one Pashtun may agree to offer his support to another one in return for giving his daughter to the first man's son without asking for a high brideprice.

Two other interesting aspects of leadership figure among Pashtuns. Theres the Sayyids, those who claim to be descendants of the prophet who reside among the Pashtuns but who stand somewhat apart from the broadest patrilineal descent group to varying degrees. (All Pashtuns claim that they are descended from one man, Qais Abdur Rashid, who was converted to Islam by the Prophet himself. ) Sayyids' role in disputes and other matters is complicated. They speak Pashto and live like Pashtuns but for some purposes they are outsiders. Another aspect of leadership that is changing dramatically among Pashtuns is the unprecedented ascendance of religious persons into leadership roles. Among Pashtuns, religious figures did not become leaders. Mullahs or mawlawis had circumscribed and generally insignificant roles in Pashtun society. Usually they came from impoverished families and therefore could not have 'hujras and offer hospitality. Up until recently no self-respecting Pashtun would direct his son study to become a mullah because that was not seen as a manly career.

Until the disruptions associated with the Jihad against the Soviets, the only time that religious leaders assumed a leadership role was in times of great threat from outside and Pashtuns viewed the threat as so serious that they felt an imperative to rally in joint effort. Because of the competition and rivalries that existed among Pashtun groups, the Pashtuns wouldnt unite behind a single leader so instead they elevated a religious figure to pre-eminence. The Fakir of Ipi who managed to elude the British for decades was one such religious figure.

With the uptick in Jihadi activity and the inflows of money from supporters throughout the umma, some of these mullahs are now wealthy and have ousted traditional leaders. They build followers both by the money they are able to dispense and by appeals to their faith. The means used by traditional leaders to build support have been swamped by these new means. In effect, this is disrupting Pashtun society, just as the emergence of Mujahideen Pashtun leaders who gained prominence during the fight against the Soviets disrupted Pashtun society. At that time the Pashtun commanders built their following and support using the resources they gained by their access to Pakistans ISI and the Jihadi parties.

As for your final question about what is the social organizing principle in play along the North-West Frontier, let me turn it back on you: what is the social organizing principle in play in your community? Im being a bit flip but my point is serious. Until we recognize that there is no single social organizing principle at play that transcends all or even most situations for a population like Pashtuns then we are never going to recognize the complexity of the situations and the peoples with whom we are dealing.

It would be wonderful if we could find the social organizing principle at play among a people because it would make it far, far easier to predict behavior but it isnt the case for your community and its not the case for Pashtuns.

Theres one concept which is incredibly powerful in aiding us in making sense of populations in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan. It has to do with identity and the way that people use their various identities to define commonalities and differences with others. Afghans, like people everywhere, have a host of different identities that they apply to themselves. Some are defined based on their relationship to others whether it be 'father, 'son, 'cousin, or 'in-law. Others are based on education, location, mother tongue, religion, shared experiences, common profession, or patron-client relations. And, like you and me, Pashtuns manipulate their identities to define commonalities or differences as they find it expedient to do so.

The term commonly used in Dari and Pashto and other local languages is actually an Arabic term, "qawm" (also spelled qaom and other ways). Heres part of the Wikipedia entry for Qawm:

Qawm is an Arabic protean term used in Afghanistan to refer to any form of solidarity. It may be based on kinship, residence or occupation. It is sometimes referred to as one's "tribe."

Afghans identify themselves by qawm, rather than by tribe or nationality. One's qawm identity is based on kinship, residence, and sometimes occupation. Although "qawm" is sometimes translated into English as "tribe," the qawm relationship may cross tribal or even ethnic boundaries. The qawm is the basic unit of social community in Afghanistan, which has added to the challenge of creating a national identity in that nation. A qawm is typically governed by jirga or shura (a council or assembly of elder males).

I am not comfortable with this definition because it reifies the boundaries defined by qawm. Afghans tend to use the term in different ways as they see fit. Nevertheless this definition does highlight how ones qawm can 'cross' boundaries of other social groups, which in some instances are based on patrilineal descent. Moreover, the notion in this definition that a qawm is governed by anything whether a jirga, shura or a leader is vastly oversimplified.

I urge you to take a look at a brief but far richer discussion of this term which teases out some of its complexity and utility. It is found at:…

Once one gets a grip on this concept, one starts to appreciate that Afghans are just like you and me: blanket statements cant be made about their behavior simply by their supposed identification with a particular group. Instead, a far more detailed understanding of the complexities of the situation and the considerations that weigh on individuals must be factored into their decision process.

(I'd caution that as useful as this concept is, it is not the single social organizing principle that you ask me about.)

Paragraph 3-39 in FM 3-24 gives a nod to the multiple identities of individuals but only differentiates between "primary" and "secondary" ones without any discussion of how individuals manipulate these and how different ones figure in specific circumstances.

What I intend by these remarks is to demonstrate some of the complexities and challenges of dealing with populations who are too often comprehended in ways that are overly simplified, inappropriate and indifferent to the complexities at play. My initial response to your papers was prompted by what I saw as a welcome and well-intended effort to help the counter-insurgent and war fighter to understand the people with whom they may be interacting.

Based on what Ive observed in the field most counter-insurgents are too busy dealing with other matters and do not have anyone or any resource that can aid them in coming to terms with the complexities of the societies in their AOs. So they end up using static and inappropriate concepts to define social and political groups and then assume that it's adequate for understanding and dealing with the people.

Sadly, there are no short-cuts that will simplify comprehension of the lives and actions of the people among whom today's counter-insurgents are operating. The factors informing these peoples social organization, leadership and decision-making are as complex and multi-faceted as those informing our own. If we approach them otherwise, we are diminishing the likelihood of achieving our goals.


Sun, 02/24/2008 - 9:58pm

We have a problem with OCONUS military logging on to our comments platform (TypeKey). Mac sent along the following response via e-mail.

Dear One-eyed Man,

Thanks for your insightful observations captured in your response dated February 23, 2008 to my postings in the Small Wars Journal. We couldnt agree more on the subject of dealing with society as it is not as we wish it to be. I have included a number of definitions for tribe as a base line for further discussion and have taken the liberty to challenge a number of your assumptions and statements in turn.

You quote the following passage from my paper to challenge my assertions: <i>"The author has posted several articles dealing with 'tribes' without offering a satisfactory definition of this concept. In both this article and the one that he posted on the tribes of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, statements suggest that so-called tribes have a single paramount leader, a "paramount sheikh [who] is the representative and spokesman of the tribe and is responsible for the tribes external relations...". This is a wildly inappropriate description for Pashtun populations whose political organization is characterized as "acephalous," or 'without a head.'a "paramount sheikh [who] is the representative and spokesman of the tribe and is responsible for the tribes external relations...".</i> Unabridged (v 1.1) defines a tribe as 1) "any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc." 2) a local division of an aboriginal people.3) a division of some other people. 4) a company, group, or number of persons. 5) a class or set of persons, esp. one with strong common traits or interests.6) a large family.

My first question so as to define the discussion more clearly is therefore what your definition of a "tribe" is. I actually believe that a number of definitions highlighted in the preceding paragraph apply to the numerous social organizations present in the North-West Frontier region. Furthermore, there is much anecdotal evidence contained in the many writings describing the people living in that area expressing a number of behavior traits highlighted in the above definitions.

Secondly, you attribute only a snippet of a much more detailed comment to prove your point. You neglected to address my larger point that <i>"The paramount sheikh of a given tribe is assisted by a number of confidential advisors and principal lieutenants consisting predominantly of senior nobles and a few outstanding commoners. His brothers and paternal uncles, in particular, are everywhere entitled and expected to assist him and thus have special authority over portions of the tribe as a whole. In carrying out his specific duties the paramount sheik, in addition to his immediate family, is also assisted by various grades of local authority. The tribe is therefore administered not so much by the paramount sheikh alone as by the whole of his family and local authority, though as holder of the office he personally has distinctive powers and privileges."</i>

My second question therefore is if the social organization in the North-West Frontier is indeed <i>"acephalous"</i> i.e., lacking a distinct head or without a leader or ruler why would there be a requirement for the jirga system? Maybe you seek to imply that the reason Pathan society is labeled as acephalous is because it lacks a distinct western form of government. I dont know since we have not explicitly explained this definition either.

May I suggest that before we throw out the baby with the bathwater; in this case, question a persons ability to favorably contribute to the on-going conversation that is COIN or irregular warfare in a tribal society that we help to educate this individual. Since you feel that my pontifications appear to be so far off the mark I would very much like to hear what you believe the social organizing principle to be in play along the North-West Frontier. I am more than willing and indeed seek to learn from you and we can start by teaching me how group decisions are made in an acephalous society?

Thanks for your post.


One-eyed Man

Sat, 02/23/2008 - 10:29pm

The author has posted several articles dealing with 'tribes' without offering a satisfactory definition of this concept. In both this article and the one that he posted on the tribes of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, statements suggest that so-called tribes have a single paramount leader, a "paramount sheikh [who] is the representative and spokesman of the tribe and is responsible for the tribes external relations...". This is a wildly inappropriate description for Pashtun populations whose political organization is characterized as "acephalous," or 'without a head.'

But this gets to a larger problem which is that the concept of tribe can't be used without carefully defining it and recognizing that it is an alien construct that more often than not misleads outsiders to imputing social and political structures and forms of leadership that have no correspondence to reality.

May I suggest that before one strikes out on an ambitious effort to offer a discussion of strategy, applied or otherwise, in tribal society, that one first come to terms with the myriad difficulties in defining the concept of "tribe" in a manner that is broadly applicable and then ensuring that when discussing a particular population that the concept of tribe as defined has some correspondence to the empirical reality.

Based on my first-hand experience in eastern Afghanistan, I found counter-insurgents using the term 'tribe' to apply to populations that lack any of the attributes that are often -- and mistakenly -- associated with the term. They seem to assume that a rural population living in the region can be assumed to be a tribe and then make mistaken assumptions similar to those that this article's author makes about the nature of leadership and decision making.

Counter-insurgents to be successful need to deal with the society as it is, not the society as we imagine it to be.