Posted by: Christian | March 11, 2009

US Army Tribal Engagement in Afghanistan

If you don’t mind, I’ll review the second-in-a-row of military journal articles. Up next (h/t SWJ) is an article on SF tribal engagement:

‘Tribal Engagement in Afghanistan’, by Major Darin J. Blatt, Captain Eric Long, Captain Brian Mulhern and Staff Sergeant Michael Ploskunak. Special Warfare, January-February 2009, Volume 22, Issue 1.

Have these US Army special forces soldiers come up with a workable model of  “tribal engagement” in Loya Paktia that should become a model? They certainly seem to think so:

During a recent rotation to Operation Enduring Freedom, Special Forces A-detachments 3321 and 3315 developed models in the Paktia and Paktika provinces of what can be accomplished in terms of tribal engagement by working within the existing tribal power structure in Afghanistan. An examination of the detachments’ understanding of the operational environment and subsequent methods of engagement can provide a model for others to use throughout Afghanistan.

Before dismissing this as mere public relations, consider that this article is published in a military journal that is published essentially for internal reasons (and at the worst, self-promotion). It is not the same as a Public Affairs Officer lavishing praise on some US military operation or tactic. Their audience is intended to be other military professionals. But I gave it a read anyway and I have a few things to say.

Pic: not SF, but it’s from the same area.

There is much in the way of basic introductory stuff, such as describing the Pashtun/Pakhtun population of their area of operations:

Each tribe is divided into sub-tribes, all possessing unique cultures, norms and hierarchy of needs. Concepts such as national identity are far outweighed by loyalty to family, clan and tribe. Through the SF detachments’ analysis, it became clear that tactics, techniques and procedures used against a relatively sophisticated and networked adversary were going to need adjusting. Because all the tribes are concerned mostly with providing for their immediate future, successful engagement is simply a matter of making their lives a little better.

So the sub-tribes are unique, yet have in common a hierarchy of loyalties that give precedent to the local, plus a dose of rational economic behavior thrown in. Now I’ll get straight to the parts I find problematic:

In eastern Paktia, three centers of gravity are the real power needed to influence the population: the tribal elder, the local political leadership (the subgovernors; commanders of the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF; and other IROA/CF-sponsored leaders) and the local mullah. The power-broker who holds primacy is determined more by strength of personality, the problem at hand and the current local conditions than by any set of ideological values. If an element can influence the balance of power by tipping it to one side with incremental inputs, then that player has become the de facto power broker in the region. This was the genesis of the Moqbil Project.

This immediately illustrates the issue with any prospective “tribal” engagement: the “tribal elder” is not the only source of authority and leadership.  The religious and government factors are also at play here, in what seems to be nearly an unspoken competition between the “power-brokers” who draw their authority from contradictory sources: God, the government and local authority (i.e., “tribal”) structures (not that this stops some people from attempting to draw on multiple sources).

Pic: according to the flickr tags, these would be the authors’ predecessors in the Chamkani District of Paktia, doing some sort of “tribal engagement”.

Back to the article:

The Moqbil Project (named for the predominant tribe that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) required an in-depth understanding of the local cultural norms. In eastern Paktia, the population’s ethical decisions are not governed by a rigid moral compass based on moral imperatives. Ethics are based on self-interest and self-preservation. Using one’s position to better one’s family, clan, village or tribe is expected. Why else would a public official hold an office, if not to advance his tribe’s interests? Understanding the culture, and working within the culture of eastern Paktia, not of the Western world, was essential if the teams were to make progress. The goal was to manage a tolerable level of what might be looked on as corruption in the Western world. The challenge was to get the mix right.

So, “the population’s ethical decisions are not governed by a rigid moral compass based on moral imperatives. Ethics are based on self-interest and self-preservation.” Is this an unspoken rejection of Pashtunwali? It does seem so. And that makes sense. I believe that using Pashtunwali to ‘anticipate’  individual and group actions will heap failure upon you. Using a basic rational choice model (self-interest/preservation), as posited above, will still bring a level of failure, but will be far, far better that referring to Pashtunwali.

But… “Understanding the culture, and working within the culture of eastern Paktia, not of the Western world, was essential if the teams were to make progress.” Does it not seem like the behavior described above is essentially the same as that of the “Western world”? Especially the Western world during its periods of war and unrest? Self-interest and self-preservation are not unique to rural Pashtuns.

The above passage immediately moves on to this statement:

The goal was to manage a tolerable level of what might be looked on as corruption in the Western world. The challenge was to get the mix right.

Well, that basically says that “we” and these rural Pashtuns are essentially the same in the behavioral sense, we just have some semantic differences (i.e., “corruption” versus “self-interest”).

And parts of the article are far too brief:

Although Arbaki (tribal militia) are not an official part of the security team, their support in the local villages is essential.

Now given the relatively lively debate over the issue of “tribal” militias, I was hoping there would be more information forthcoming. Unfortunately there is not.

Next up:

The JTOC provides a physical structure for sharing the common intelligence picture. It enables the leaders of the local tribes to report information to the IROA, vet the information against personal vendettas and leverage the responsiveness of the ANP and ABP, combat-advised by U.S. Special Forces, to respond to the requirement. Furthermore, through a tip line, locals can call information into the JCC/JTOC. The JTOC not only provides the ability to deconflict but also provides a venue for synchronizing operations in order to prevent the tribes from playing one element of the security force against another.

Hopefully this runs as smoothly as described, because calling in an airstrike or a raid on your neighbors “the Taliban” has been far to common in the past.

Pic: Hopefully, as the description says, this bonfire in Paktika was a Taliban safe-house.

There is at least one passage that sound a wee bit like a Public Affairs Officer:

The ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] presence was warmly received by the locals. In Pesho Ghar, the local merchants stated that they could go home without worrying about criminals robbing their shops. What is more interesting, at the Naray Pass checkpoint, 50 locals came out with shovels and pickaxes to help the ANSF construct the checkpoint.

Now, I’m sure this actually did happen. The PAO comment was not the main point. The point is that insurgents, the government and foreign troops are not the only problem for locals here. Criminals, of both the government-uniformed and common variety, are a real concern that needs to be addressed. There is a reason that the semi-official Taliban mythology stresses the pre-Taliban crime levels: it resonates with a lot of people.

Now, I complained about the Arbaki militias getting too short of a treatment in the article, but this episode has many more words but still a lingering confusion (my underlining):

There are many ways to separate the insurgents from the population. At times, the method of choice is through lethal targeting. At other times, it is through nonlethal engagement. In the Moqbil tribal region, one venue for engaging the tribes was the repatriation of Mullah Noor Kabahr. Noor Kabahr, a key leader and respected elder of the Moqbil tribe in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, had been detained by coalition forces in mid-2007. First, Team Chamkani was able to articulate why Noor Kabahr’s repatriation would facilitate connecting the IROA to the population. Then, Team Chamkani gained influence over Noor Kabahr, and by working with the Moqbil tribal elders, the ABP and the Patan subgovernor, the ODA was able to leverage his release to develop influence with the Moqbil tribe (the population in the area).

The ODA leveraged SOTF-33’s excellent relationship with the Combined Joint Task Force, or CJTF, at Bagram to coordinate a large ceremony for Noor Kabahr’s release from detention. Following an overnight stay at the firebase, Team Chamkani escorted Mullah Noor Kabahr back to the Moqbil tribal area. A key leader engagement, or KLE, was held near Noor Kabahr’s home. The Patan subgovernor spoke to the many Moqbil elders in attendance. Following the KLE, Kabahr invited the ODA to a small lunch. Immediately following lunch, Team Chamkani and the ANSF established the series of checkpoints along the border of Pakistan in the Moqbil area. The following day, Noor Kabahr held a shura with the elders from the Pakistan side of the tribe. During the shura, the elders focused on securing their tribal areas and recognizing the importance of the new security positions along the border.

So, for some unstated reason, Mullah Noor (Nur) Kabahr was detained and held at Bagram. And then he is released by the Americans and given some sort of bat mitzvah/quinceañero/sweet 16th celebration with his new friends followed by a US Army pajama sleep-over? And then he is a successful KLE? Um…more information please?

Pic: Ain’t no party like a NATO party (pic is not of Mullah Kabahr).

In a perfect world, “our” new Mullah friend has see the light and will work to inform the locals of the benefits offered by cooperating the Americans and the Afghan government. And in reality? Is this the self-preservation that was spoken of earlier? And what of the medium-term? Do some of the locals consider him a lapdog of the Americans? Is their a price on his head? Is he going back to his old ways, whatever those were? Has he lost whatever independence he had? Would Mullah Kabahr be embarrased if he found out that he is being offered as a model for coopting local elites? I could keep piling up these questions. But on to the next excerpt:

The ability to target the key tribal facilitators within an area is essential to building a bond between the IROA and the tribe.

In Loya Paktia (Paktia, Paktika and Khost) or in the broader region? Because many argue that tribal structures are strongest in Loya Paktia and significantly weaker elsewhere. Perhaps instead of “tribal” we could switch semantically to “local” and note that there are a wide variety of local elites/authority figures that don’t neatly correspond to any sort of fixed tribal hierarchical leadership. Onward:

One of the essential aspects of tribal engagement is that it is done through the IROA [Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] subgovernors. Tribal engagement was a means of establishing the legitimacy of the IROA, not supplanting it. Likewise, in an area where the tribal elders speak for the tribe, Team Chamkani’s approach moved the local population toward a representative form of government, not away from it.

So, the goal is to use tribal enagement to strengthen the central government, an entity that has in more recent Afghan history (i.e., Abdur Rahman, Daoud, etc…) attempted to supplant the tribal/local leadership? Even if the “masses” want more government involvement in their lives, do the local elites?  I’m sure some locals see the contradiction in “working themselves out of a job.” As regarding the last sentence, noting that there are areas where “tribal elders speak for the tribe” means that there are areas where tribal elders do not “speak for the tribe.”

On to the very next paragraph:

For example, in the Serangur village, historically an insurgent support site, the ODA lent its firebase bulldozer to the village elders. The ODA provided fuel and an operator. The village elders were entrusted with the bulldozer for three weeks. This single action caused a major change in insurgent tactics. The insurgents were no longer welcomed into the village by the elders and were forced to move through the mountains. Although that did not stop insurgent infiltration, it did deny the insurgents the use of a high-speed avenue of approach. Alone, the action does not sound significant, but coupled with similar programs, it went a long way toward separating the insurgents from the population.

Pic: bulldozer-based COIN? (864th Engineer Battalion in Paktika).

No commentary on that, other than to say that reaping quid pro quo benefits from lending people your bulldozer does not require any strong cultural knowledge. Related to providing locals with material benefits:

Another of the keys to engaging the tribes through the IROA leadership is coordinating government officials’ actions. First, the ODA conducted internal team planning and coordination (including the CAT and TPT). The ODA knew what resources that it could offer and what it wanted to achieve. Then the ODA organized a weekly security meeting at the firebase. The subgovernors from the surrounding districts, as well as the ANP and ABP chiefs, met to discuss pertinent security issues. At first, the Afghans were hesitant to talk. Over time, and when they came to realize that the ODA could facilitate certain resources, the Afghans began to take the lead. The CF simply sat in the back and observed the IROA officials discussing concerns and conducting coordination for items of mutual interest.

Does this not reflect the supremacy of material needs? Again, no deep understanding of local culture needed, just the understanding of local needs (check out Joshua Foust’s related article on local needs).

And what of the progress of this tribal engagement model?

While it is tough to measure the effectiveness of tribal engagement, there are regular indications of improvement. For example, the ODA commander was invited to a shura held by the Chamkani subgovernor. The issue at hand was the debt between two individuals from the Jaji and Mangal tribes. The Mangal man had kidnapped the Jaji because of an unpaid debt. A month earlier, the Chamkani subgovernor, with the support of the ABP and ANP (advised by the ODA), conducted a patrol to the Mangal’s village and freed the Jaji man. At that point, the Paktia provincial governor ordered the Jaji man to remain in the custody of the Chamkani police during the subsequent investigation. A jirga, or assembly of elders, was held that included the IROA and elders from each tribe. With the blessing of the provincial governor, the decision was made by the elders for the Jaji man to repay his debt, minus an amount to compensate for his time while detained.

What the authors are making clear here (other than the honesty in saying that measuring progress is difficult) is that tribal engagement is just one component: the above anecdote includes Afghan government secuity forces, civilian governors, tribal elders and a US Army commander.

Now for a very problematic interpretation of another anecdote:

Another example is the detention of the target Abdul Jalil. Abdul Jalil lives in the Martwarkh village, but he would move between Pakistan, Khowst, Paktia, etc., on a regular basis. On April 12, 2008, the ANP received a tip that Jalil was back at his house (Jalil enjoyed freedom of maneuver because the ANP was not willing or capable to mount an operation to capture him.) The ANP chief decided to act. Following a cordon and search, the chief held a shura with the local elders. These are the same elders that the ODA/IROA had been working with over the past several months. The chief told the elders to have Jalil turn himself in to the ANP or subgovernor as soon as possible. He told the elders that Jalil would be arrested, “either tomorrow or 20 years from now.” When Jalil returned home, the elders forced Jalil to go see the subgovernor. Jalil did. The subgovernor thanked Jalil for being forthcoming and then brought him to the firebase.

The key take-away from this scenario is IROA tribal engagement. The decision in these specific cases was for the IROA to empower the tribal elders to have a voice in a criminal case that clearly involved elements of traditional Pashtunwali, or hospitality. This integration of Pashtunwali into IROA tribal engagement was not lost on the tribes. Having a coalition-force representative present (the ODA commander) in support of the IROA gave great credibility to the CF in the eyes of the tribal elders.

Minor point first: Pashtunwali is not “hospitality,” melmastia is (which is just one component of Pashtunwali). And just how Pashtunwali is on display here is not convincingly demonstrated. And in fact, it could just as easily be argued that the tribal elders violated nanawatey (sanctuary/asylum) – a key  concept of Pashtunwali – when, under pressure from the ANP, they forced Abdul Jalil to turn himself into the government. The shura/jirga was resolved in the government’s/American’s favor only after the big stick was waved around.

More vagaries:

Each week, the Bermel subgovernor holds a shura in the Bermel district center for the Bermel tribes. The Waziris have a majority, with minor tribes also in attendance. The SF teams operating in the area hold a weekly shura for the same Waziris from Bermel and the Kharoutis from northern Gomal. Forty elders regularly attend the Shkin shura — half from the Waziri tribe and half from the Kharouti tribe.

The actual authority of these tribal elders is unknown. At best they are respected community leaders whose input is valued by all, but at worst they are bored old men with white beards who are rounded up and lectured to (and the allowed to mumble a few complaints that are immediately ignored). Do not assume that power and authority rests in the hands of those who are identified as community leaders. [As an aside, the Kharoti (Kharouti) tribe mentioned above includes the Hizb-i Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the very dead Communist leader Hafizullah Amin as members, neither of whom seemed to make use of tribal identity.] So I am not convinced that this shura is effective.

Pic: Shura-yi Kanadayi.

OK, this is getting way too long. I’ll make it a two-parter and pick this up in the next entry.


  1. Two things:

    1) Don’t always trust Flickr tags to accurately describe the location of a picture (you know this).

    2) I am always fascinated by these sorts of publications.

    This one reads like an advertisement for ODA, and the area they speak of, Chamkani, has a newly-minted FOB. This seems to be a model — SOF moves in and sets up a base, then regular Army moves in and does the hard work.

    But that still means little. Infantry wrote a very similar article about a similar action in Kapisa; the result is a permanent presence, which is nice, but no real reduction in violence. East-Central Paktia is much the same way: “tribal engagement” might very well work, but ODA-types never stick around long enough to find out. Rather, the many SOTFs in general don’t seem willing or able to stick around to do the hard parts of engagement — repeated, long-term engagement, over months and years, building up a close friendship.

  2. Christian,

    What you don’t realize is that “tribe” is sexy and different. “Tribe” works as a fundamental element of analysis, especially in any country where the US conducts military operations… except “tribe” is never really defined. Could we call the Japanese a tribe? Or the Germans? If I remember my Australian filmography correctly, there used to be powerful tribes in Germania (and yes, I am referring to Gladiator).

    I think that if you took that article and replaced “tribe” with “local” it would be a much stronger argument, but much less sexy.

    As I read the section about construction projects, I was wondering what makes a particular building a “tribal building?” (…farming equipment storage building for the Moqbil tribe: $32,546. … Moqbil tribe government building: $31,846.) Are all members of the tribe able to use it, regardless of their physical distance from the structure? Is usage of the structure restricted to a particular tribe, hence possibly institutionalizing tribe-based ethnic conflict (see: Lebanon, Iraq)? Again, change “tribe” to “local” and it makes much more sense.

    Lastly, were you concerned that there were 10 ANP for the entire district, which according to the MRRD has 80,000 residents? If I were in that area, I wouldn’t go to the government for anything because there isn’t a government. All this talk about “connecting the people to the government” is immaterial when there is not government to go to.

  3. Wow this is a hell of a good read. I have not indulged in anything online that gives this kind of on-the-ground analysis of the nuances and complexitites of overlapping allegiances and the grass-roots political dynamic facing our special operations community in Afghanistan.

    While based on a critique of one “house-organs” type internal publication, the revelations in this post and their reflection on US strategy in the region are enlightening to an outsider.

    Much appreciated!

  4. Very interesting replies based on the article from the magazine. I will first address the very lengthy and response of Christen. As stated before the Special Warfare magazine is written for the Special Operations community not for the arm chair general to read and pick apart every detail that is not spelled out for them. Special Forces ODA’s that read the article understand it and take it for what it is, a tool and model that was successful in one area and that possibly can be used in another area to achieve success in Afghanistan. If you understood anything about Afghanistan besides what you have read in a book, journal or article your response would have been different. The second part of Christens response about what is a “Tribe” and that Tribe should be “local” and we use the word because it sexy?? My only advice from that is to read or re-read any book you have read about Afghanistan and you will clearly understand the word Tribe.

    Joshua Response. Firebase Chamkani was established in late 2002 and is not a new FOB. The regular army is not stationed there and has never been there. How quickly we forget the Special Forces ODA’s were in Afghanistan in October of 2001 and have been there since. SF took over the country in a matter of months. We have been in Afghanistan since the beginning we have been moved around in order to have the Big Army join the fight. Almost every firebase in Afghanistan has been established by Special Forces. As with SF doctrine we are not a sustainment force we are twelve men that have a task and purpose which is again not a sustainment force.

  5. Sean,

    Well, be thankful I was too bored to do the second part. The article actually contradicts itself fatally towards the end.

    Criticism sucks, but soldiers/marines are generally able to take constructive criticism. I’m sure that the confident ones don’t mind.

  6. I don’t mind at all. It is unfortunate the article was edited to sound like PAO hype. Thank you for your analysis and interest.

  7. Some interesting comments.

    First, Joshua, Firebase Chamkani was established on 17 Dec 2004 at 0800. Since then it has been an SF base of operations. No conventional forces are stationed there.

    g Funkalicious (name?) tribe is very relevant in this area. Local doesn’t cut it. The Kharouti in Moqbil tribes along with about 10 other sub-tribes/clans live in the Patan district area. Referring to the tribe differentiates similar to referring to a family name in the states. Referring to a local doesn’t tell you much about them and each tribe it’s specific enemies, which is the main reason to understand which tribe is which. For instance, the Kharouti and the Moqbil have been feuding for decades, which has resulted in many deaths, over a land dispute. Both sides have documents that specify that the land in question belongs to that particular tribe. In the case of the Kharouti the papers are 80 years old and were presented by the king at the time. In the case of the Moqbil the papers were presented some time in the 90’s by the Taliban (the legal government of the time). Better know the differences between the tribes because that can help you avoid problems, especially if a Moqbil tribe member tells you that a Kharouti tribe member is Al Qaeda.

    Politicspeaksvalleys, you may want to reserve your praise. Christian is essentially critiquing the writing ability of the authors. He’s not bringing up anything of which he has first hand knowledge of. His knowledge comes from reading other peoples ideas and thoughts on Afghan culture. Think of it like this, remember the movie Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield (if you haven’t seen it you might rent it). Dangerfield is a millionaire entreprenuer who goes back to school, he takes a business class and the instructor (who has never started a business only read about it in books) is telling him how to run a business. Dangerfield starts referring to all the kickbacks that are required to get a construction project complete. The instructor is furious, he doesn’t understand the realities of the subject that he teaches. The old saying those that can DO, those who can’t TEACH.

    Christian, towards the end you refer to the elders as bored old men who are rounded up and forced to attend the meetings. Actually the Shura in Chamkani has been going on long before the firebase came into existance. Each commander has been invited to attend these meetings since the establishment of the base. During the initial deployment to the location it was the elders who created a document outlining the punishments if any member of any signing tribe attacked the camp or its members. They presented the document at the shura and requested the ODA Commander to sign it. This was done without prompting. Approximately 80 elders signed. The mullahs presented their own about a week later.

    Criticism is important to improvement. Your thoughts will keep the rest of us thinking. Just don’t be upset if the rest of us realize that your criticism in some instances is borne out of a lack of knowledge that isn’t shared by the intended audience of the article. You do bring up some great comments about Pashtunwali.

  8. Carl,

    My criticism of the use of tribe is based on the work of anthropologists and practitioners. I may not have kicked around Loya Paktia, but they certainly have. And they are pretty anonymous on the pitfalls of viewing through a tribal lens, even in the area of Afghanistan where tribe is most relevant..

    Tribal names come and go (seriously) as the fortunes of locals elites rise and fall. People’s “tribal” loyalties are one of many loyalties people go to. People dispense with this loyalty when it no longer serves them. One tribe, for example, had prominent members in the communists, the mujahideen and secular nationalists. And some didn’t care at all. Tribe, in this and many instances in quite unhelpful as an dominant variable analytical tool.

    Tribe at times is relevant, and then it isn’t. Identity categories are situational and flexible. This counts for religion, nationality, ethnicity as well as tribe. Tribe these days is very unhelpful.

    Why would so many academics who have done the fieldwork, NGO and International Organization people who have been practitioners, and civilian military analysts be more partial to my view?

    As for military practitioners, their thoughts and ideas on local conflict dynamics are not only hyper-localized and biased by their local informers, but often contradictory.

    Maybe there is a huge academic, NGO and international organization conspiracy. Maybe the most respected anthropologists with decades of experience are wrong. Maybe the Liaison Office people are wrong. Maybe the UN people are wrong. Maybe the military’s massive failure in “tribal” engagement is actually a secret success. Or maybe I, despite not having been there, am actually correct.

    You may want to read Barth, Edwards, TLO, HTS, Glatzer, Barfield, Rubin, Lindholm, Shahrani, etc… You may want to look at the Taliban’s successful playbook. You may want to notice the disagreement between the US Army and Free Range Int’l over who is actually the tribal leadership of a given area. You may want to read the TLO’s critiques of the arbakai. You might want to ask why Pashtun speaking anthropologists are more partial to my views. You may want to look at the gigantic pile of tribal names from throughout central asia that have been dispensed with.

    Don’t waste your time on me. If you can demonstrate that the consensus of the anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists on tribal identities are wrong then you would quickly become acknowledged as one of the greatest living social scientists.

    And as for that attempt at “those who can do and those who can teach.” Lame. When people like something an academic says they hold them up as some sort of wise sage whose views are irrefutable. And when they disagree, the academic is an irrelevant ivory tower leftist who has never actually been in the real world.

    And shuras and jirgas have trended towards “pretty useless.” Their track record of failure makes early Maoist industrial policy seem like a raging success in comparison.

    And PS: you misread the “local” versus “tribal” dichotomy. That’s some insider terminology that we didn’t explain. Sorry for that as it can obviously lead to some confusion.

  9. “The notion of ‘tribe’ is notoriously vague…
    it has almost ceased to be of analytical or
    comparative value.”

    —Richard Tapper, Conflict of Tribe &
    State in Iran and Afghanistan (1983).

    Just a word from someone who has been there and done that for decades.


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