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

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A sidenote to an academic small war

There's been an interesting exchange of views through the quadrangle of a human map formed by William S. McCallister, the Small Wars Journal, Abu Muqawama and Afghanistanica. It all started by McCallister putting forward a comprehensive analysis of the tribal sociopolitical blueprint as he sees it, with its foundations presented as resting on the Pakhtunwali, as well as the general political economy of a tribal setting. He did so in order to offer some strategic advice regarding what the U.S. can or cannot achieve in Pakistan's tribal areas. Then Afghanistanica, in a typical fashion for a "fourth generation" scholar-guerrilla, came up with some brief, basic, to-the-point criticism of that, inserting a comment at a vital node in the scholar-blogger network, pointing out that this might be tantamount to giving strategic advice on the basis of the assumption that culture is static, non-evolving. McCallister replied at length that his writing was misconstrued.
In my view, communication hasn't been perfect between the two sides, and there are some misperceptions about what the other is willing to say in this debate, on the part of each side. McCallister wrote a good article with some important points in it, important points the importance and usefulness of which is not affected by an otherwise erroneous premise that Afghanistanica pointed out correctly (while, I assume, Afghanistanica may have done so without an ambition at that point to criticise McCallister's article in its entirity).
Two of the more important points made by Afghanistanica, that McCallister looked to deny, were that:
i) McCallister sees culture as static,
ii) on the basis of the construct of the tribal sociopolitical blueprint, that he outlines, he is wrong to assume that we might have a model that would offer us real predictive power.
(The latter by the way stems from the argument about the premise of a static culture being flawed.)
I think Afghanistanica made a correct observation there. Let me just point to one excerpt from McCallister's article that I see as proof of this.
" Study the tribesman and his culture. In the words of T.E. Lawrence “their minds work just as ours do, but on different premises. There is nothing unreasonable, incomprehensible or inscrutable [about the Pathan]. Experience of them and knowledge of their prejudices will enable you to foresee their attitude and possible course of action in nearly every case.(footnote omitted at the end; highlighting by me - P.M.)"
Quoting that from Lawrence in seemingly perfect agreement does actually amount to seeing culture as static and as though that offered us predictive powers.
So the question is, is this a wrong position to take then? And in what sense?
Well, first of all, one can look at whether the premise corresponds to empirical reality? Is culture static? In that sense the premise will be wrong. No doubt about that. A few arguments to run that point home.
McCallister is talking about the ancient tribal sociopolitical blueprint. However, even he can't get past the fact that the sociopolitical blueprint in question has in fact modernised to a degree - or let's just say it changed, that's more value-neutral. The spread of Islam created a new, hybrid sociopolitical blueprint for one important transformation. For another example, the emergence and spread of all sorts of new technologies (the evolution of the material context of culture) inevitably also had its effect on traditions, reinforcing some, questioning others, making disappear yet others. To mention something very basic, fighting with spikes and swords is a little different from fighting with assault rifles and RPGs. Using a sword is targeted killing. Well, most of the time. It could be about honour, at least the way some perceive that. Using an AK-47, on the other hand, is perfect for someone who randomly wants to leave bullet holes in the people within one's sight. Blood feuds may get a little out of hand with AK-47s.
Pic: Non-evolving Pathan/Pashtun tribesmen?
And then there is the issue of Islamists. I immensely liked the way McCallister conceptualised how a handful of Islamists can set up a base for themselves in tribal areas, creatively using institutions from both the tribal and the Islamic sociopolitical blueprint, which already form a hybrid, as I said. Using nanawati to set up dar-ul-Islam, to then wage jihad, the forces and the base area of which will in turn be protected by tribal lashkars fighting an attacker e.g. on the basis of badal. Uniting forces against an outside threat coming from dar-ul-harb, capitalising on the way tribes have a tradition of segmenting when faced with such threats. But the whole section of the article is essentially about an intelligent few manipulating the average multitude and the hybrid sociopolitical blueprint itself that those follow, to create an entirely new order yet again. Which is something like social engineering, effectively. Afghanistanica talks of the refugee camp mentality and its importance in understanding the old Taliban's emergence and worldview in the 1990s. Indeed, the Taliban are themselves the product of the new order I was just talking about. Of course, no such new order would have been created without accidental or willing facilitators, as the Soviet Union or Pakistan (or the U.S. for that matter), so Islamists can only claim this to a small degree as their own achievement. Which further reinforces my argument here. The Taliban was not the product of traditions, but of a world created partly on the basis, and partly on the ruins, of traditions.
But getting back to the question of whether McCallister was right in using the premise of a static culture, well, theoretical models have to simplify reality. That's the point. Reducing the world to a couple of key variables is what allows for controlled predictions to be made. So that others can look at those predictions, and inform those in a rational debate, by pointing out which of your premises they accept and those that in their view have to be modified to come to a refined conclusion.
The question then is whether the conclusions are such that I would see a reason to start attacking McCallister's premises? Is the static culture assumption that relevant? Well, in the case of some of these conclusions it will be. In the case of some it won't. Let's start with the latter. Those constitute the reason why I said I thought McCallister's was a valuable article.
There is an attack here, that I fully support, on the lazyness of West-centric thinking and how it assumes the applicability of its own version of concepts such as a distinction between radicals and moderates, pro-state actors and insurgents, good governance (as incompatible with selective patronage for example) and so on. Or the assumption that war's only sense in a tribal setting could be to bring about all-out peace for eternity, when in fact war by many in the areas concerned might not be perceived as automatically abnormal. And so on.
But then some of McCallister's points can be challenged. The most fundamental of those is the argument that the U.S. is dealing with a challenge of tribal forces primarily, and that that's why it should act taking account of the tribal rules. If this would be true, then the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida wouldn't have been busy killing those tribal leaders that were less friendly disposed to them in the past. I don't think this was only about communicating a tilt in the balance of power to convince tribes where their allegiance should lay. The terror effect of assassinations is not to be ignored, but still this wasn't purely about knocking off some leaders to then have entirely likeminded leaders (of the same age, the same view of traditions etc.) appear in their place, only with a different picture of the balance of power and thus being less reluctant to cooperate.
But even with that in mind, it's certainly not a bad advice to start with, that the U.S. should discount some of the West-centric misconceptions inapplicable in a tribal setting, when turning its attention more decisively towards Pakistan's tribal areas. The only concern I would voice, that remains, is one I've written in as a comment at Abu Muqawama's place. This is a major problem, however.
"... it's a little easier to feel one's way if one's own forces are present on the ground in large numbers. Trying to manipulate tribal affairs through Pakistani fixers and a handful of one's own special-ops sounds rather like being manipulated than being the manipulator to me."

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