Posted by: Christian | July 26, 2009

Strategic placement of family members in Afghan conflicts

I asked this question 2 weeks ago:

During the Soviet-Afghan War, some prominent Afghan families strategically placed one son in the mujahideen and one son in the communist government (and perhaps sent off one son to get a spiffy professional education). Basically, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” applied to your children. It says a lot about self-interest versus ideology.

Who wrote about this? It was a rather small mention in a long article or book. I’m in the US without my books or notes and I’m trying to go off of memory. And it’s not working.

I received many answers, which you can read in the comments to the original post. They include anecdotes that demonstrate similar behavior during various conflicts in Afghanistan. And as I said in the comments, I’m aware that this is rather common as far as conflict goes (and even law enforcement versus criminals). But finally one commenter nailed it. Vern Liebl stepped up and provided the passage:

This is a historical tendency among Pushtun tribes; most families/-tribes will play multiple axes, just in case. For example, during the Soviet occupation era, it was not unusual at all to send a son (either of the family or the khel) to join the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Army, essentially serving the Communist regime, another son or sons to join one or more of the various mujahedeen groups, another son to a madrasah in Pakistan, another son to the West to study and/or work, and a last son to stay and work to keep everybody else alive. From the current lack of overwhelming support to the Karzai government or to the Taliban, the issue in Afghanistan of who will triumph, at least among the Pushtun, appears to still be in doubt.

The source is page 497 of:

Vern Liebl, “Pushtuns, Tribalism, Leadership, Islam and Taliban: a Short View”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Volume 18, Issue 3, (Sep 2007).

Liebl commented on this passage:

I wrote it based on my experience and observations from 1995 thru 2006. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any other source, which is why it isn’t foot noted. Might be elsewhere, is a fairly prevalent practice and must have been commented on by others prior to me. I am just not that smart.

You need an institutional subscription to access the article. But just send me an email and I will share it with you for,.. uh… “collaborative research purposes.”

Thanks to Vern Liebl (CV in Word Doc) and all the commenters for being my “free research consultants.” It’s much appreciated.


  1. No idea why I couldn’t come up with this one, considering that I just read Liebl’s article about two months ago. Glad you tracked it down.

  2. […] Added July 26: Question answered here. […]

  3. This was a while ago, but I just came across a relevant passage while looking back at Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War. In talking about hedging and fence-sitting during civil wars:

    Particularly risky (and less frequent) is the family strategy of purposefully sending offspring to serve in competing armies. During the English Revolution, “some contemporary cynics argued that these family divisions [between belligerents] were part of a carefully arranged insurance policy, so that whichever side won there would always be someone with influence among the victors to protect the family property from confiscation and dismemberment” (Stone 1972:144). Kalyvas 2004:229

    This might’ve been the mention that you originally were thinking of (“…someone who’s been writing a while like Rubin, Doronsorro or Roy…”) besides Liebl.

  4. Ok, I’m retarded. You mentioned Kalyvas in the comments of the original post.


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