Counter-Terrorism: The Tribal Curse And Islamic Radicalism

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September 6, 2012: Much of the current Islamic radicalism and terrorism has its origins in tribalism, a curse that has largely disappeared in the West. A few thousand years ago nearly everyone lived in a tribal (a collection of families and clans related by blood) culture. But since then, the tribal social relationships have faded, superseded by kingdoms and then nations. But there are still several large tribes left in Eurasia and they are at the center of much of the unrest on the planet these days.

First, there are the Pushtuns. This is a collection of dozens of tribes sharing language and customs. There are over 40 million Pushtuns and their range is from eastern Iran to western Pakistan. They are a minority in every country they live in, although they are the dominant minority (40 percent of the population) in Afghanistan. Then there are the 24 million Kurds, who live as minorities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. There are also fifteen million Baluchis, living as minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

What these three tribes have in common is that they have never been able to form their own nation. The Italic tribes did this in Italy over 2,000 years ago, the Germans did it later in Germany (and Austria and Switzerland), the Greek tribes in Greece eventually formed a nation (after first creating city states), the Turkish tribes in Turkey (and other Turkic tribes like the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azeris, and Kirgiz in Central Asia) all eventually coalesced into nations in the last few centuries. The Mongol tribes have had their own nation for centuries. The Tajiks, who are like the Pushtuns, Baluchis, and Kurds an Indo-European people, have their own country (although most Tajiks live in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan).

When a large tribal population does not, in this day and age, have its own nation, there tends to be a strong desire to form one. The Tajiks got lucky, having been conquered by the Russians in the 19th century and then able to set themselves up as an independent nation when the Soviet (Russian) empire fell apart in 1991. That independence may not last but, for the moment, the Tajiks have a place they can call their own.

The Baluchis are also unique in that they have not really caught the nationalist fever. They want more autonomy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And they are fighting for that. But calls for forming a Baluchistan have, so far, been muted.

It's different with the Kurds and Pushtuns. Both are cursed with the desire for nationhood and the inability to get along with each other. Both tribes have been sitting where they are for over a thousand years, uniting temporarily only to fight outsiders. The other mega-tribes of Eurasia eventually found a string of strong and resourceful leaders who united the tribes and formed nations.

The Kurds are blocked from statehood by the more powerful nations they inhabit. The Turks, Iraqis, and Iranians are particularly resistant to giving up real estate and population to form a Kurdistan. Fortunately, the Kurds never embraced Islam in a big way and their separatist groups tend to be socialist, or simply nationalist. Thus the Kurds are allies of the West in the war on terror, not an enemy.

The Pushtuns are another matter. While the Pushtuns basically control Afghanistan, that's not saying much. Afghanistan is little more than a tribal coalition, with tribal politics more important than national level stuff. Most Pushtuns live in Pakistan, where they are a small (less than ten percent) minority. The Pushtuns are less educated (or even literate) than the non-Pushtun majority. And now the lowlanders of Punjab and Sind are using their numbers, and more powerful weapons, to crush a religion based (Taliban) tribal uprising.

The Pakistani Pushtun tribes are also going through their own civil war and revolution. New technologies and new ideas are upsetting the ancient traditions. The Pushtun tribal leadership is being threatened from several directions. Young men, made wealthy and well-armed by the drug trade, refuse to obey their tribal elders. Other tribesmen, hearing a call from God (to join the Taliban or al Qaeda) have also ignored their tribal leaders. The government has backed the tribal leaders, creating a bloody generational conflict. Tribal politics is a dirty business and always has been. The violence in the tribal areas of Pakistan, just from battles with the army and police, has been escalating over the last decade. Now it is war and the Pushtuns are facing yet another defeat.

While the Kurds are embracing education and modern life, the Pushtuns, at least the most violent ones, are embracing an Islamic past. Thus do the lost tribes of Eurasia stay lost.

 

 


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