Then again, we already tried that. It didn’t work, in part because in Afghanistan the word “tribe” is so ambiguous as to have almost no meaning. Seth Jones tries to use the idea of “tribe” (and a surprisingly backward concept of how power works in rural Afghanistan) to say that all we have to do is support the “tribes, sub-tribes, and clans” of the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan to inspire a native revolt against the Taliban. While he does us the courtesy of listing a few tribes in a few places, he doesn’t actually say how knowing tribal grievances can help the U.S. win the war—if we know in one place that water is scarce, and people have divided into rival factions to gain access to that water, and those factions happen to be tribes… how does knowing someone’s tribe actually help solve the problem? If you can figure it out, I’m sure ISAF is hiring.
The obsession with “tribe” and our apparently limitless funds for bribing them has its roots in a stereotype of Afghanistan, a false mythography that crowns them peerless warriors driven by xenophobia and locked into rigid cultural norms we’ll never understand. The reality is, most Afghans are below-average fighters in a traditional sense: while they may have impressed nineteenth century British soldiers with their jezail marksmanship, today most Afghan marksmen—whethers shooting at us or with us—can’t intentionally hit a barn. Similarly, while Afghans zealously guard their homes and communities—kind of like Americans, see?—there is nothing xenophobic or exotic about their zeal. Can you imagine how Americans would react if we had French soldiers patrolling our streets, handcuffing people?
Then there’s this culture thing. It’s been decades since anthropologists really thought of “tribe” as a useful descriptor for Afghan communities—“tribe” is a flexible concept, with identical names applying to different levels of genealogy. It also implies a hierarchy where none exists—if you know someone is from a “tribe” that is “higher” than his neighbor’s “clan,” will that give you any tools for leveraging influence or power? I assure you, it will not.
Alas, America’s pundits seem unwilling to do some pretty basic homework to get the facts right. In that, they’re not too different from most of the reporters covering remote areas of the country from Kabul—deriving ideas from stereotypes and rumors rather than facts. These facts are not terribly difficult to find—most of the articles that discuss how Afghan society works are available online, or at a local library. But you don’t need any special sources to know that advocating something that’s already failed is a bad idea. That concept is apparently not as obvious to our columnists as we’d like it to be.