It's the Tribes, Stupid
© 2006 Steven Pressfield
Forget the Koran. Forget the ayatollahs and the imams. If we want to understand the enemy we're fighting in Iraq, the magic word is "tribe."
Islam is not our opponent in Baghdad or Fallouja. We delude ourselves if we believe the foe is a religion. The enemy is tribalism articulated in terms of religion.
For two years I've been researching a book about Alexander the Great's counter-guerrilla campaign in Afghanistan, 330-327 B.C. What struck me most powerfully is that that war is a dead ringer for the ones we're fighting today – even though Alexander was pre-Christian and his enemies were pre-Islamic.
In other words, the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It's about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven't changed in 2300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.
The West is modern and rational; its constituent unit is the nation. The East is ancient and visceral; its constituent unit is the tribe.
What is a tribe anyway?
The tribe is the most ancient form of social organization. It arose from the hunter-gatherer clans of pre-history. A tribe is small. It consists of personal, face-to-face relationships, often of blood. A tribe is cohesive. Its structure is hierarchical. It has a leader and a rigid set of norms and customs that defines each individual's role. Like a hunting band, the tribe knows who's the top dog and knows how to follow orders. What makes Islam so powerful in the world today is that its all-embracing discipline and order overlay the tribal mind-set so perfectly. Islam delivers the certainty and security that the tribe used to. It permits the tribal way to survive and thrive in a post-tribal and super-tribal world.
Am I knocking tribalism? Not at all. In many ways I think people are happier in a tribal universe. Consider the appeal of post-apocalyptic movies like The Road Warrior or The Day After Tomorrow. Modern life is tough. Who can fault us if now and then we entertain the idea of going back to the simple life?
The people we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan live that life 24/7/365 and they've been living it for the past ten thousand years. They like it. It's who they are. They're not going to change.
How do you combat a tribal enemy?
Step one is to recognize that that enemy is tribal. We in the West may flatter ourselves that democracy is taking root in Iraq when we see news footage of blue-ink thumbs and beaming faces emerging from polls. What's really happening has nothing to do with democracy. What's happening is the tribal chief has passed the word and everybody is voting exactly as he told them to.
What is the nature of the tribe? What can sociology tell us about its attributes?
The tribe respects power.
Saddam Hussein understood this. So did Tito, Stalin, Hitler. So will the next strong man who ultimately stabilizes Iraq.
The tribe must have a chief. It demands a leader. With a top dog, every underdog knows his place. He feels secure. He can provide security for this family. The tribe needs a Tony Soprano. It needs a Godfather.
The U.S. blew it in Iraq the first week after occupying Baghdad. Capt. Nate Fick of the Recon Marines tells the story of that brief interlude when U.S. forces were still respected, just before the looting started. Capt. Fick went in that interval to the local headman in his area of responsibility in Baghdad; he asked what he needed. The chief replied, "Clean water, electricity, and as many statues of George W. Bush as you can give us."
The tribe needs a boss. Alexander understood this. Unlike the U.S., the Macedonians knew how to conquer a country. When Alexander took Babylon in 333 B.C., he let the people know he was the man. They accepted this. They welcomed it. Life could go on.
When we Americans declared in essence to the Iraqis, "Here, folks, you're free now; set up your own government," they looked at us as if we were crazy. The tribal mind doesn't want freedom; it wants security. Order. It wants a New Boss. The Iraqis lost all respect for us then. They saw us as naive, as fools. They saw that we could be beaten.
The tribe is a warrior; its foundation is warrior pride.
The heart of every tribal male is that of a warrior. Even the most wretched youth in a Palestinian refugee camp sees himself as a knight of Islam. The Pathan code of nangwali prescribes three virtues – nang, pride; badal, revenge; melmastia, hospitality. These guys are Apaches.
What the warrior craves before all else is respect. Respect from his own people, and, even more, from his enemy. When we of the West understand this, as Alexander did, we'll have taken the first step toward solving the unsolvable.
The tribe places no value on freedom.
The tribe is the most primitive form of social organization. In the conditions under which the tribe evolved, survival was everything. Cohesion meant the difference between starving and eating. The tribe enforces conformity by every means possible – wives, mothers, and daughters add the whip hand to keep the warriors in line. Freedom is a luxury the tribe can't afford. The tribesman's priority is respect within the tribe, to belong, to be judged a man.
You can't sell "freedom" to tribesmen any more than you can sell "democracy." He doesn't want it. It violates his code. It threatens everything he stands for.
The tribe is bound to the land.
I just read an article about Ariel Sharon (a tribal leader if there ever was one.) The interviewer was describing how, as Sharon crossed a certain stretch of Israeli real estate, he pointed out with great emotion the hills where the Biblical character Abigail lived out her story. In other words, to the tribesman the land isn't for sale; it's been rendered sacred by the sagas of ancestors. The tribe will paint the stones red with its own blood before letting itself be evicted from the land.
The tribe cannot be negotiated with.
Tribes deal in absolutes. Their standards of honor cannot be compromised. Crush the tribe in one century, it will rise again a thousand years from now. We're seeing this now in a Middle East where the Crusades happened yesterday. When the tribe negotiates, it is always a sham – a stalling tactic meant to mitigate temporary weakness. Do we believe Iran is really "coming to the table?" As soon as the tribe regains power, it will abrogate every treaty and every pact.
The tribe has no honor except within its own sphere, deriving justice for its own people. Its code is Us versus Them. The outsider is a gentile, an infidel, a devil.
These are just a few of the characteristics of the tribal mind. Now: what to do about this?
How to deal with the tribal mind.
You can't make deals with a tribal foe; they won't be honored. You can't buy them; they'll take your money and despise you. The tribe can't be reasoned with. Its mind is not rational, it's instinctive. The tribe is not modern but primitive. The tribe thinks from the stem of its brain, not the cortex. Its code is of warrior pride, not of Enlightenment reason.
To deal successfully with the tribe, a negotiator of the West must first grant it its pride and honor. The tribe's males must be addressed as warriors; its women must be treated with respect. The tribe must be left to its own land, to govern as it deems best.
If you want to get out of a tribal war, you must find a scenario by which the tribe can declare itself victorious. The tribal mind is canny; it knows when it's whipped. But its warrior pride is so fierce, it cannot admit this. The tribe has to be allowed its face.
How Alexander got out of a quagmire.
It took Alexander three years, but he finally got a handle on the tribal mind. (Perhaps because so many of his own Macedonians were basically tribal.) Alexander produced peace by marrying the daughter of his most powerful enemy, the princess Roxane. The tribe understands such an act. This is respect. This is honor.
Alexander made the tribesmen his equals. He acknowledged their warrior honor. When he and his army marched out to their next conquest, Alexander took the bravest of his former enemies with him as his Companions. They rode at his side in stations of honor; they dined at his shoulder in the royal pavilion. (Of course he also beat the living hell out of the Afghans for three years prior, and when he took off he left a fifth of his army to garrison the place.)
The outlook for the U.S. in Iraq
In the end, unless we're ready to treat them they way we did Geronimo, the tribe is unbeatable. They're just too crazy. They're not like us. Tolerance and open-mindedness are not virtues to them; they're signs of weakness. The tribe is too rigid to bend, and it can't be negotiated with.
Perhaps in the end, our leaders, like Alexander, will figure some way to bring the tribal foe around. More likely in my opinion, they'll arrive at the same conclusion as did Lord Roberts, the legendary British general. Lord Roberts fought (and defeated militarily) tribesmen in two bloody wars in Afghanistan in the 19th century. His conclusion: get out. Lord Roberts' axiom was that the farther away British forces remained from the tribesmen, the more likely the tribesmen were to feel warmly toward them; the closer he got, the more they hated him and the more stubbornly and implacably they fought against him.
Steven Pressfield is the best-selling author of Gates of Fire, The Virtues of War, and the recently published The Afghan Campaign. DNI has reviewed the Virtues of War and The Afghan Campaign.