Counter-Terrorism: Why Tribal Politics Matters

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July 25, 2006: Most Westerners don't understand how important tribal politics is to the war on terror. "Tribal politics" is something most Westerns just can't take seriously, or even get their heads around. Consider that in the main combat zones of the war on terror (including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and many more), tribal politics cannot be ignored.
In all of these areas, the tribal organizations are the ones people trust the most. The national governments are often seen, accurately, as a bunch of larcenous strangers who are only interested in stealing from you, or worse. For most of these countries, the national government (and their lackeys running provincial and country governments) have never done anything positive for most of its citizens. While the introduction of mass media (radio and TV) has created the illusion of nationhood, when you get right down to it, people look to their tribal leaders (usually synonymous with the "tribal elders") for help. This should not be surprising, as the tribes are based on long tradition, and family connections. Given a choice, who are you going to trust? A second cousin you've never seen before, or a government bureaucrat you've never seen before?
Those most dependent on tribal leadership tend to be the less educated, and more religious. Over the last century, there's been a constant migration of educated and ambitious tribal members away from the tribal territories. These folks usually end up in a nearby city, or overseas. They stay in touch, usually maintain a respectful attitude towards the tribal elders, and might even have need to use the tribal elders to settle some family matter.
Religious conservatism goes along with reliance on tribal ties. The tribe is not held together just by necessity, but also by faith, faith in family, and in a Greater Power. However, tribal elders tend to be more conservative, than religious. It's usually younger clerics who get into extremism, and their power will often rival that of the tribal elders. Sometimes this will lead to bloodshed, with tribal elders being killed and terrorized. Tribes can be destroyed, and this is one of the ways it happens. It's why there are some very strong ones, and some weak, dying actually, tribes.
An example of how the tribal dynamics works in the war on terror, consider the situation in Pakistani Baluchistan. The situation is simple. Baluchistan has 36 percent of the countries natural gas, and only four percent of the population (spread thinly over 180,000 square kilometers). Some 80 percent of this natural gas is exported, and the Baluchis only get about twelve percent of what that gas is sold for. On top of that, corrupt officials steal much of what the tribes are supposed to get. Now the government wants to expand drilling and mining, and remove more of Baluchistan's wealth. The tribes are, literally, up in arms over this. Since the Summer of 2004, there have been several dozen violent incidents each week, ranging from tribesmen shooting at government facilities, or employees, or blowing something up (electricity transmission towers, roads, gas pipelines and so on.)
Note that the Baluchi tribes have never really been controlled by anyone. That's mainly because, until the oil and gas was discovered, there was nothing in Baluchistan that any nearby empire could justify going after. Armies are expensive, and Baluchistan was never considered worth the effort. Actually, the Baluchis have long been regarded as excellent mercenaries, and, until quite recently, hired themselves out in large numbers. But that market has changed, and the Baluchis are left with less work, and all this oil and gas getting stolen from their tribal lands.
It gets worse. Over the last 25 years, over a million Pushtun tribesmen have moved across the border to escape Russian invasion, and then civil war. The Pushtuns, like the Baluchis, are a family of Indo-European tribes, They are closely related by language, religion and culture. There are still 700,000 Pushtuns living in Baluchistan, most of them of the very conservatives, pro-Taliban variety. These Pushtuns, out of necessity, have maintained good relations with their Baluchi hosts. While most Baluchis do not share the Taliban's extreme form of Islam, they do share common dislike to outsiders. This includes the Pakistani government.
Now that there is something worth fighting for in Baluchistan, there are more Pakistani police and soldiers in the province than anyone can remember. For centuries, the local power would cut deals with the tribal chiefs, to keep Baluchi raids, piracy, and the like, under control. These deals basically came down to bribes for the tribal elders, and the threat of retaliation (sending troops through the tribal territory, burning and killing). But now the Pakistani government wants to protect its access to the oil and gas. The Pakistanis also want to shut down the tribal support network for the Taliban. But, let's face it, which of these two tasks do you think has the highest priority?
And so it goes, in the tribal territories.

 


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