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

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Debate: On Strategy in a Tribal Context

For a recap, this below is the discussion I'm continuing here, if you wish to trace it:
And there's also a new contribution from Josh Foust at Registan, since yesterday:
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Firstly, a few remarks to hint at what this post is all about. William S. McCallister published an interesting take in January on how one should focus on a model of tribal operating codes (shame and honor, segmentation of tribes, patronage and territory) and coordinating messages (“no stability without us” and “what have you done for me lately, what will you do for me tomorrow?”), to weave oneself onto the correct strategic path in trying to influence what's happening in Pakistan's so-called tribal areas. It is a useful model, built on undoubtedly useful concepts. It's important to see, however, that as a model, it is supposed to simplify reality, not to draw a perfect mirror image of it. An advantage of a model like this is that it allows for controlled predictions to be made. Its predictions are not to be accepted as future-telling, instead its predictions are but hopefully useful enough theories about the complex relationship between certain variables. I, for my part, expected McCallister's model to be potentially useful in general, and here's some support to that thesis to begin with.
The Tribalisation of Talibanisation in the FATA: The Security Dilemma Strikes Back
To some degree, the tribal rules of the game as outlined according to the model certainly do matter in Pakistan's FATA.
McCallister rightly notes that generally even Islamists have to creatively use tribal rules to their advantage if they want to gain, preserve and expand a foothold in tribal areas. Right here I should refer to this recent, excellent article from Jamestown, titled The Impact of Pashtun Tribal Differences on the Pakistani Taliban, written by Rahimullah Yusufzai. Already its title gives away much: tribal differences do have an impact on what the Pakistani Taliban are able to achieve. Here is the section on the "Tribal Nature of the Pakistani Taliban" to run the point home:
"The tribal nature of some of the Taliban groups soon became evident when militants in North Waziristan warned the Mehsud-led Taliban in neighboring South Waziristan not to launch attacks against the Pakistan Army in their part of the tribal region (The News International, January 30). The warning came from Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the amir of the Taliban in North Waziristan, despite the fact that he was earlier named deputy to Mehsud in the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan. Association with the TTP and being its deputy leader did not mean much when it came to the territorial and tribal limits of each Taliban group and commander. Hafiz Gul Bahadur was particularly furious when Mehsud’s men started firing rockets into the army’s camp at Razmak, a town in North Waziristan, during the recent fighting between the military and the Mehsud-commanded militants.
It was also evident that Hafiz Gul Bahadur and his Taliban fighters failed to abide by one of the major decisions of the TTP by refusing to coordinate attacks on the security forces in North Waziristan to help ease pressure on the Taliban fighting under Mehsud’s command in South Waziristan. This failure defied a Taliban decision that every Taliban group was required to come to the assistance of others in its area of operation that were under attack from the Pakistan Army. As part of that policy, a Taliban group in the semi-tribal area of Darra Adamkhel seized five military trucks packed with ammunition and supplies for the troops in South Waziristan. The attack triggered fighting in the gun-manufacturing town in a bid to overstretch the resources of the Pakistan Army (Dawn [Islamabad], January 26). Taliban factions in Mohmand, Bajaur and Orakzai tribal regions and also in the Swat district of the NWFP launched attacks against the security forces during this period as part of a strategy to ease military pressure on Mehsud and his men. But instead of launching attacks on the military, the Taliban fighters in North Waziristan announced an extension of their unilateral ceasefire with the government and even issued a warning to Mehsud to stay out of their territory. One reason the North Waziristan militants stayed out of the conflict in South Waziristan was the fact that they belonged to different Pashtun tribes; Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud belongs to the Mehsud tribe, while Hafiz Gul Bahadur and others in his group belong to the Torikhel Wazir and Daur tribes."
And so on. Baitullah Mehsud's operations are inhibited by conflict even within South Waziristan, between the Mehsud and Ahmadzai Wazir tribes. And even his own Mehsud tribe lacks unity to a critical degree. His support is the strongest from his own clan, the Shabikhel.
Does this mean that the Pakistani Taliban are a force that cannot operate independently from tribal rules? They did so, many times of course. Assassinations taking out tribal leaders opposed to Talibanisation played a large role in, yes, the Talibanisation of the area. William McCallister is right, however, in that the "DNA code," as he says, of the basic tribal rules of the game, may reassert itself over whatever Islamists dream of. It may. And if it may, from that it stems that perhaps even external assistance could play a role in that. If exerted in a smart way, uninfluenced by other actors willing to manipulate these external endeavours aimed at empowering tribal structures, to possibly hijack them. Which is the point I was making the last time around, too.
But it's important to see that there is a hybrid sociopolitical order to deal with, one in which there are mutually exclusive game rules (Islamist vs. tribal), and the outcome of the interplay of those is not necessarily certain. Whichever of the mutually exclusive game rules prevails, if any of them definitively do, it remains to be seen. But the outcome will most likely be a hybrid order of sorts.
Islamists' rules would demand greater unity against the external enemies, not just stricter adherence to a lifestyle regarded as ideal by Islamists. And that unity is not working all that well, because of the tribal rules. Tribal rules, important to note, have an impact indirectly, not directly. It is because of the existence of the social construct of the tribe that there is a security dilemma to be managed in inter-tribal relations. And the basic tribal rules McCallister's model reckons with are the institutions meant to do just that.
It is the security dilemma that Islamists tend to be ideologically blind to, when they imagine unity there where there isn't real unity in action. Tribes will be worried by that if their lands are affected more than that of others' by warfare even when the latter results from the concept of a struggle they'd otherwise agree with. And they will also be worried if hundreds of armed men from another tribe start roaming their land claiming to be just marching for jihad there. Thus Islamists disregarding the tribal rules do get penalties as McCallister suggests.
The Pakistani state could never become a Leviathan-like pacifying third party in the FATA. And it seems now that for its part Islamist ideology cannot be the networked equivalent of the Leviathan in the FATA.
I'll therefore form here a hypothesis to conclude this first part of my response. If we, wrongly for that matter, suppose that Talibanisation may naturally and comprehensively be completed in the FATA, it's important to see that it may be completed without a FATA-wide strategic unity of Islamist forces. That's of course a hybrid outcome right there, one I was theorising of. This first part of my response comes in agreement with William McCallister's earlier piece inasmuch as it supports that the most basic tribal rules would matter in the FATA, even if the FATA were to end up fully Talibanised.
While that likely won't be the case, however, the "game" (consider McCallister's football game analogy here) will not be the same. With increasing Islamist influence, honour will mean a whole different thing - for women for example. Also, honour cannot mean the same when some consider it good to post videos of someone's beheading to a global audience on the internet, and to sell that same video in the local bazaar.
Or consider for that matter how the testing of another tribe's power will be an entirely different experience when IEDs are blowing up, and AK-47 rounds are flying around.
The tribe remains a factor, and as a result some of the institutions that manage inter-tribal relations will also continue to operate. This certainly can't be equated with the preservation of a static culture. Tribalised Talibanisation, as I have put it in the title, might lead to a homogenisation and simplification of tribal structures.
I feel now that this is what McCallister was willing to imply, but I would add that for this basic insight one needs not go into a very detailed study of, or even mention, the various rules of Pashtunwali and how those actually vary from place to place. Why one does need to go into that, which by the way Josh Foust is also suggesting in his comments on this debate, is that such knowledge might help in finding the locally most efficient ways of empowering tribal and other social structures in the not yet Talibanised tribal areas.
Savages and barbarians in the fog of war
Josh Foust at Registan quoted this post by Barnett Rubin, and in the context it came up in it reminded me of something generally observable in some counterinsurgency thinking nowadays. That something is laziness that is partly explained by the fog of war. I'll elaborate, of course.
Rubin remarks in light of the Awami National Party's (Pashtun secularists) win in the North-Western Frontier Province: "the Cold-War minded Bush clique, which cannot conceive that a non-violent democratic party could be a better partner for opposing jihadi terrorism than a military dictator." That started a train of thought in me.
In the above section I was contributing to a debate that was initially framed around the question of how tribal traditions could be capitalised on in the face of Islamist reform attempts. How a tribal counter-revolution, or reaction, could beat the Islamists revolution. I'm of course deliberately using such confusing words - this is subversion for the sake of creative thinking. So I have to ask, are we really interpreting our role as though it was to sponsor a move back along a spectrum leading from all-out tribal to all-out Islamist outcomes? Above I already attempted to point out that the picture is necessarily more complex than that. In some places the best option now is to attempt to influence hybrid outcomes, and in other locales to attempt to contain the worst of those.
But there are other ideas and ideologies with something to say regarding how Pashtun society could be transformed, not just Islamism and a tribal reaction. In fact, to take that mistaken view would be a reflection of late colonial era thinking. Imagining that the distant colonial locals can only be either "savages" or "barbarians." (See Mark Duffield's Getting savages to fight barbarians: Development, security and the colonial present; in: Conflict, Security and Development, August, 2005, Vol. 5.: No. 2., pp. 141-159.) Savages submerged in tradition, not eligible to embrace modernisation, or barbarians willing to live off, and for, destroying achievements of modernisation, being rebellious children of the latter process. The instance of the Awami National Party, and its success, does show to all that Pashtuns for that matter are neither savages nor barbarians mostly. Just like most of the rest of the people on the planet.
I gave this section, which I'll now conclude, the sub-title I did, mentioning "the fog of war" in it. That's because I suspect that the tendency to think in terms of savages and barbarians is specifically connected to the Anbar experience, where "tribals" were co-opted to fight the "terrorists" according to the simplistic narrative (which of course is way too simplifying of reality). And that in turn stems from the reasoning that primarily guns are needed against guns. But actually that's not true all the time. And even when it is, be it the majority of cases (let's be realists), guns will certainly not suffice. Like, Iraq without a country-wide compromise will not work eternally with its thousands of sensitive local equilibria of guns nowadays.
So even in the fog of war we should see beyond the narrow circle of savages and barbarians.
It is telling that this false alternative comes in the shadow of the failure of the state, or, more exactly, that of the ideal of a modernising, enlightened, secularist dictatorship, the failure of "beardless" military leaders thought the perfect choice by some to maintain discipline. Because it is about the wish to discipline distant, unruly peoples that all the thinking of savages and barbarians emerges from. The modernising autocrat, "our guy," failed at reining in the barbarians, so let's fight them with the savages instead. Like, why try something more complex than fight raw force with raw force? (I'm not saying there isn't a more complex approach in practice nowadays - but the tendency to think so simplistically is definitely there in the minds of a great number of people in the so-called developed (="civilised") world.)
The refugee camp variable
Finally, in this third and last section, a part of the discussion that is more historical in nature, I'll address what William McCallister wrote of - I liked the way he put it - "the refugee camp variable" in the times preceding the rise of the Taliban. He outlines, as a part of his response, a cool conceptualisation of how refugee movements start, and how refugee life, and especially its socio-spatial organisation, might come to reflect the original tribal patterns of the refugee population. The theory looks strong indeed in accounting for "coordination, integration, regulation and synchronisation" factors of "contagion" in the near simultaneous departure of a large number of refugees from a country. It's a much wiser hypothesis to start with than often-heard, mistifying narratives of large exoduses tied to some major historical event as a trigger.
To test it, I was particularly interested in finding things anthropology had to say about refugee camps. I was even hoping to find something specifically on Afghan refugees from such a perspective, too. And I was happy to come across two journal articles in particular that are very relevant to mention here. Firstly, Michel Agier's Between War and City - Towards on Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps (Ethnography, 2002, Vol. 3.: No. 3., pp. 317-341.) - as the title shows, it is useful for a general starter on the subject. The other was the Centlivres' study on Afghan refugees' identity, from 1988 (Pierre Centlivres - Micheline Centlivres-Demont: The Afghan refugee in Pakistan: An Ambiguous Identity. Journal of Refugee Studies, 1988, Vol. 1.: No. 2., pp. 141-152.). The latter was the perfect source for me, since I was looking to find proof of my claim that the refugee camp variable is so significant that one should rather interpret the Taliban's emergence as something that came on the ruins, and not on the basis of, traditions. That was my thesis in the face of McCallister's one which suggested that tribal patterns of interaction were mostly preserved even in the refugee camps.
In 1988 there were three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The Soviet Union was already in the process of losing its will to fight. And the networks that later on, in 1994, speedened up the growth of the Taliban from a local armed vigilante group from Maiwand to a major player, already must have started organising at around this time. Mostly chatting and praying, of course, but with some of them already experiencing fighting together in the ranks of, for example, the Yunis Khalis faction of Hisb-i-Islami.
To start with a general perspective on refugee camps, from Agier's study I can point to his remarks on how refugee camps inevitably lead to reforming people's identity in general, even when the camp's sociospatial organisation tends to reflect pre-existing social divisions such as tribal or ethnic group boundaries (as was the case in the Kenyan camps he studied). Excerpt:
"(...) the camps gradually become the sites of an enduring organization of space, social life and system of power that exist nowhere else.
(...) the individuals brought together in these spaces are so solely because they have the recognized status of victims. This justification of their presence and of the existence of the camps makes them, from a humanitarian standpoint, nameless, in the sense that no identity referent is supposed to affect the support provided to the physical maintenance of the victims (security, health, food); this care is aimed at persons belonging indifferentily to factions, regions or states which may be friendly or hostile. Thus the humanitarian system induces the social and political non-existence of the recipients of its aid. Recognizing in principle only ‘victims’, refugee camps are spaces that produce a problématique of identity." (From p. 322. - P.M.)
"At the market, around the well, at the food distribution outlet and the health centre, interactions take place which before the camp would have been unthinkable" (From p. 336. - P.M.)
The Centlivres' study then explains how this exactly functioned in the case of Afghan refugees. They portray how Afghans' identity was transformed in a triangle of alternative identities of being considered as: I.) as mohajirs (Muslims moving to a land from their home to be able to loyally practice their religion, thus carrying out honourable religious duty); II.) as tribal guests relying on the tribal honour code (which isn't about endless hospitalty, and the host-guest relationship can transform, becoming more and more instrumental over time); and finally, III.) as refugees (who are, in light of the Refugee Convention, destitute people dependant on assistance; victims to be collected in camps and kept there for a while).
The article at one point hints that at times already refugee departure itself wasn't coordinated within the framework of the system of tribal ties, but by village mullahs telling people that they should become mohajirs, as opposed to subservient to an "atheist" regime in Kabul. But more relevant is perhaps how the Pakistani environment affected tribal relations and identities.
Pashtun refugees very soon became too numerous to find places for themselves among their tribal kin. Those who did so originally, also lost some face lent to them by tribal custom, as their stay became more permanent. (Not to mention that not only Pashtuns were leaving Pakistan, even if Afghan refugees in Pakistan were predominantly Pashtun.) Camped together as refugees, a great number of them were left having to accept how UNHCR disregarded tribal and other traditional structures and forced, with some "success," individualisation on them by preferring to provide aid to household heads, instead of through elders. Becoming a mujahed by going back to Afghanistan from this morally degrading context must have been a chance to prove worthiness for Afghan men, a chance to prove that they came to Pakistan as mohajirs and not as refugees in the first place. And of course for those who thought so, a number of secret services were ready to extend to them a helping hand. Tribal differences ended up mattering less and less in this context for those who went to fight.
Thus I'd say that the Taliban didn't come from "outside the social system." But they emerged as an organisation outside or beyond the tribal system. And they did get quite far, although they couldn't control the actions of their foreign Islamist guests, and that led to their demise.
The neo-Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan of the post-2001 era are much more difficult to gauge of course. But there's this excellent book written about them, and it surely helps clarify some questions.

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