What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Debate: On applied strategy in a tribal society (Part one)

After the long silence of the week-end, I'm returning here with a pair of posts in which I'm happy and honoured to have the chance to publish parts of William S. McCallister's response, with his permission, to a lengthy post of mine that I wrote at the beginning of February. I came up with that blogpost in reaction to a debate between McCallister and Afghanistanica. I will collect some new thoughts to continue this discussion. But I will have to take my time doing that, since, just like in the case of William S. McCallister's earlier piece at the Small Wars Journal's blog (on which Afghanistica commented), while reading his thought-provoking remarks published here, a whole list of important research questions emerged in my mind. And trying to give but a preliminary answer to those will require some thinking through and delving into from my part, or anyone else's for that matter.
To give away something in advance, just consider what questions this discussion may structure about tribal relations in southern Afghanistan as well as the current ISAF/OEF counterinsurgency approach there (while the original discussion took place specifically concerning Pakistan's tribal areas so far, its ambition of universal relevance was never denied).
So, for those of you who have not been following this discussion, here are the earlier contributions to it.
And so below here are some excerpts from William S. McCallister's letter, dated February 22. This is part one as I have cut it. It elaborates on the author's arguments about the significance of tribal coordinating messages and operating codes.
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(from hereon you're reading excerpts from William McCallister's response)
I agree that culture is dynamic and adaptive. I had assumed that we would all agree intuitively that the only constant in life is change and that includes culture without detailed discussion but I was wrong. In my opinion, there are no static systems aside from mechanical ones, whether a bridge, a house etc, but even these systems are linked to the environment and therefore subject to forces that induce change of one sort or another over time. Even a M1 Abrams Tank breaks down if it isn’t periodically started in the motor pool. Hence in my mind, this tank, although a self-contained static system, is part of a larger system of systems that interacts with its environment. Something has caused the rubber hose or a particular seal to dry-rot that in turn causes a leak which causes something else to react so that the tank finally malfunctions.
I’ll return to the football game analogy once more. (...) If professional football players follow a set of simple rules but actions expressed on any given game day differ from the previous game what are we witnessing? Are we observing a given team adapting to the environment such as home field advantage? How about the opposing team lacking support during an away game? What about weather conditions. I am sure that a Florida team is likely to play differently in Illinois in the winter. How about styles of play? (...) Is this a form of evolution on the part of any given team? The greater question I believe is whether the game of football is itself evolving or are we watching the evolution of how the game is played? Can we identify these simple rules and then watch for patterns of behavior? If I was to argue against myself my first inclination would be to argue that we are indeed changing the way we play the game, hence, the game itself is evolving. We are attempting to make the game safer by more stringent rules. We are applying technology to assist the referees to make better calls. This by the way is analogous to your valid point regarding “the emergence and spread of all sorts of new technologies and its effects on traditions, reinforcing some, questioning others, making disappear yet others.” But I ask you, has the concept of the game changed? What are the simple rules that have remained unaltered?
Now, we can define a group of people in any way we like. We could call them a herd, a hive, or a community. The bottom line in my opinion is that it doesn’t matter what we call them. It is a living, breathing organism whether we call it a herd, hive or community and as such will adapt to its environment. It shapes and is shaped by the environment. It will defend itself and procreate. It seeks to survive and one of these survival strategies is to ensure that the community doesn’t commit suicide. This leads me to your proof positive that I assume culture to be static by (re) quoting my use of T.E. Lawrence’s “knowledge of their prejudices will enable you to foresee their attitude and possible course of action in nearly every case.” You see proof of my assertion that culture is static in this quote while I see an encouragement to study the simple rules that govern complex behavior. Have you considered the following? If I assume that a given community has a number of simple rules such as don’t’ murder, don’t covet your neighbor’s significant other (note that I have evolved socially but the rule basically remains the same), or slander another, can we further assume that if I murder, covet or slander that I might solicit a response from the individual whose kith and kin I have murdered, whose significant other I have molested, or the individual or individuals I have slandered? If so, might I not be able to foresee the likely attitude and possible course of action and consequences in response to my actions; a potential pattern of behavior? But I still don’t understand how the existence of simple rules translates into a static culture? I may decide to break the rules. (...) But there are consequences to my behavior just as there are consequences for breaking simple rules such as don’t murder, don’t covet, don’t slander. I may be able to take out a tribal sheikh because his tribe is weak. He doesn’t have enough rifles, sufficient alliances, etc but before he is taken out I better consider the potential blowback. (...) If by chance the simple rule of vendetta still exists, how could I as a military planner take advantage of this fact to support my military operation? But if I totally disregard the option that these simple rules exist (...) a whole range of potential options are disregarded. A crucial misstep when contemplating military operations along the north-west frontier where we know that Pashtunwali has survived, albeit in a morphed state in one form or another and still retains some applicability in the early 21st-century.
The cultural operating codes and coordinating messages are what I believe to be the first cause. I’d like to hold off discussing the differences between Arab tribes and other tribes around the world due to the danger of getting mired in the minutiae of specific values, beliefs, attitudes, customs and traditions (...) What I’ve attempted to do is to provide soldiers and Marines an operationally relevant methodology to assess the cultural operating environment. All the tribes I’ve studied, whether located in South Africa, Iraq or the FATA seemed 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 tribal actions. Cultural operating codes are expressed in combination or singly as are the coordinating messages. A brief example follows as to how the operating codes may be applied in assessing a given situation. A given tribe is perceived by others by virtue of its social network, alliances, martial prowess, patronage relationships and territory. The “force” that balances the objective, methods and available resources of the tribe is an example of a Center of Gravity (COG) and reflects Classic Chinese military thinking to first “attack the strategy, then the alliance, and lastly the soldiers themselves”. In tribal terms, methods and available resources are a reflection of the tribal leader’s ability to attract (segmentation), maintain (patronage) and defend (territory) allies. Other tribes may respond to overtures for cooperation by “what have you done for me lately, what will you do for me tomorrow” or if not asked to participate in the alliance “no stability without us” (coordinating messages). Each method and the available resources to implement a given tribal strategy signifies an attractor or force that potentially serves as a balancing mechanism between the objective, methods and available resource and therefore represents a potential decisive point for targeting. While school trained anthropologists may chafe at my dilettante attempts at simplifying complex human behavior into four simple rules and two coordinating messages the proof is in the pudding. At the risk of sounding too pleased with myself, or arrogant for that matter, we seem to be doing ok in Anbar using the codes and coordinating messages to assess the social dynamic in play.
The Taliban and AQ are as much subject to their social environment as we are should we decide to play in the north-west frontier. (...) Anbar province is a very non-permissive environment for AQ in Iraq (AQI) at present. Not so much because we secured the place but because we empowered the tribes to reconquer their territory. (...) Food for thought: there are a number of individuals being released from Coalition Forces prisons and many bodies have been subsequently found victims of what we call vigilante justice. Tribal law is in effect. Tribal law is a whole separate discussion and not easily dismissed as extra-judicial killings, or wanton murder. Suffice it to say tribal law is a valid system of justice just as deliberate and rational as the French legal code and English precedence law.
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