There is a dark irony to the faintly racist idea that Afghans are unprincipled mercenaries available to the highest bidders, especially given the rampant panic in Washington at the inescapable conclusion that Hamid Karzai stole his own reelection. And still, after failed eight years of alternatively condemning a “culture of corruption” and thinking we just need to bribe the Afghans a little more, you see ostensibly smart columnists suggesting we try to bring back the nineteenth century.
Bribing the tribes is a variation of “arm the tribes,” a meme that swept the reporter-world in 2008 but then swiftly disappeared. The Big Thinkers who crafted U.S. military doctrine in Iraq began training their eyes on Afghanistan in the latter half of 2008—and the reporters following them often uncritically repeated the same old stories without question or criticism. In short, the press fell down on the job, waiting until the DOD stopped pushing a given idea—paving the roads, arming tribes, and so on—before they finally questioned it.
Now, though, it’s the pundits’ turn. Fareed Zakaria kicked off the latest trend, writing in early September that, “Buying, renting, or bribing Pashtun tribes should become the centerpiece of America’s stabilization strategy, as it was Britain’s when it ruled Afghanistan.”
Did you know the British were successful in ruling Afghanistan through Pashtun proxies? The actual British would probably disagree. They went to war with Afghanistan three times, invading it twice. In 1842, after a few years of their propping up a corrupt and unpopular king, the Afghans rebelled and killed 16,000 troops as they tried to retreat to Jalalabad—one of the most spectacular defeats the British Army ever suffered. When the British Empire tried again to invade Afghanistan in 1878, they barely lasted a year before the British mission, and their Indian guards, were killed by Afghan troops demanding additional bribes. The third Anglo-Afghan War was, at best, a draw, with Britain winning a few battles but Afghanistan gaining full independence from British domination.
There’s also the somewhat inconvenient fact that Afghanistan in 1838 is not the same as Afghanistan in 2009.
A few days after Zakaria’s call for rampant bribery, Fred Kaplan joined the fun, proclaiming that bribery “does tend to work, at least in the short run.” Unfortunately, his reason for saying so is that that’s how General David Petraeus “pacified much of northern Iraq.” Besides tripping over a basic, somewhat obvious premise—Iraq and Afghanistan are very different countries—it is an illogical argument: the Afghan government is illegitimate and corrupt, so therefore we should bribe them for our own ends. It fails a basic “a, therefore b” test.
A week later, David Ignatius chimed in, this time combining the ideas of Zakaria and Kaplan. “The best answer the British came up with” to working with the Afghans, he says, was “paying them subsidies, wooing them away from the baddies who genuinely threatened British interests, but otherwise letting them run their own affairs.” It’s noteworthy how he papers over the word “bribe,” since it carries such tremendous baggage. But how well did the British approach work, David? “That was a cynical approach and it left Afghanistan a poor, backward country. But it worked adequately, especially compared with the alternative, which was unending bloodshed in a faraway country that refused to be colonized.”
What a remarkable statement. Despite three horrible, bloody wars that killed tens of thousands of British citizens (not just soldiers, but their families as well), Ignatius claims the British policy “worked adequately.” Also, considering the British response to each massacre actually was incredible bloodshed—they burned central Kabul to the ground in 1842, for example—I’m not really sure how he can be so certain that the Brits think their Afghan policy actually served their own interests.
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.