Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”

Today’s post examines advice to us from historian Steven Pressfield:

“The real enemy in Afghanistan isn’t Islamism or jihadism. It’s tribalism. … Can we Westerners impose ‘citizen values’ on a tribal society?”  (from his website)

Some people say our real enemy in Afghanistan is their religion.  Pressfield says our enemy is their form of society.  Both sides agree that they cannot be left alone, since they are “the enemy”.  This debate goes to the heart of our Long War, as both sides usually ignore the question of why we fight — and exactly how these people threaten us. 

This post examines Pressman’s work, as an educated and articulate advocate in this important debate.  Pressfield is the best-selling author of Gates of Fire, The Virtues of War, and The Afghan Campaign.


  1. Pressfield’s essay about our tribal enemies
  2. Another perspective, the big picture about our war with tribes
  3. Today’s featured viewing selection:  Pressfield’s videos about our tribal enemies
  4. Reviews and rebuttals on other sites, plus background info
  5. A brief profile of Pressfield
  6. Reviews of his books
  7. Afterword and for more information

(1)  Pressfield’s essay about our tribal enemies

It’s the Tribes, Stupid“, Steven Pressfield, posted at Defense and the National Interest, October 2006 — Excerpt:

Forget the Koran. Forget the ayatollahs and the imams. If we want to understand the enemy we’re fighting in Iraq, the magic word is “tribe.”

Islam is not our opponent in Baghdad or Fallouja. We delude ourselves if we believe the foe is a religion. The enemy is tribalism articulated in terms of religion.

For two years I’ve been researching a book about Alexander the Great’s counter-guerrilla campaign in Afghanistan, 330-327 B.C. What struck me most powerfully is that that war is a dead ringer for the ones we’re fighting today – even though Alexander was pre-Christian and his enemies were pre-Islamic.  In other words, the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It’s about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven’t changed in 2300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.

He then discusses the following:

  • What is a tribe anyway?
  • How do you combat a tribal enemy?
  • What is the nature of the tribe? What can sociology tell us about its attributes?
  • The tribe is a warrior; its foundation is warrior pride.
  • The tribe places no value on freedom.
  • You can’t sell “freedom” to tribesmen any more than you can sell “democracy.”
  • The tribe is bound to the land.
  • The tribe cannot be negotiated with.
  • How to deal with the tribal mind.
  • How Alexander got out of a quagmire.
  • The outlook for the U.S. in Iraq

He discusses this theory on his blog.

(2)  Another perspective, the big picture about our war with tribes

Presfield’s sociological analysis of tribes in general, and specifically in Afghanistan, I leave for relevant experts.  For a more sophisticated description of tribal societies I recommend reading Chapter One of Martin van Creveld’s magnum opus The Rise and Decline of the State.  Perhaps readers can cite other works, preferably online, in the social science literature.

Nor will I comment about his tactical advice for the Afghanistan War, which is beyond my competence to judge. 

However, we can all look at his essay in the broader context of American grand strategy.  Please consider this astounding statement:

“What struck me most powerfully is that that war is a dead ringer for the ones we’re fighting today. … the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It’s about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven’t changed in 2300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.

Economist and businesspeople discuss the Competitive Advantage of Nations (as in Michael Porter‘s 1990 book of that title).  Social scientists and geopolitical experts discuss Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory.  But Pressfield goes beyond these.  In effect he calls for a long war.  War between “polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable” — perhaps running until one side is exterminated or conquered. 

Using Alexander’s invasion of Afghanistan as a paradigm raises as many questions than it answers.  What were Alexander’s reasons for invading Afghanistan?  Nothing rational, little more than love of war, power, and loot.  Do we have such aggressive motives?  Or do we fight legally under the international laws we both promulgated and signed, which means acting only in defense? 

Answering that requires a clear statement of the threat the tribes of Afghanistan pose to us.  Victory is impossible without a clear understanding of the threat and our goals. How can the tribes be enemies without a strong understanding of this?

It is the missing link of the war, as I have not found anything like this from someone with actual area expertise (not just by COIN or geopolitical gurus).  The closest I have seen is Pakistan on the Brink by Ahmed Rashid (a Pakistani journalist) in the 11 June 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books, many of whose assertions are contradicted by other experts on the subject.

I believe that America’s greatest enemies are not Afghanistan’s tribes, or fundamentalist Islam.  Pressfield’s explicit assumption that the Afghanistan tribes are our enemies show the core threat:  our own hubris and paranoia.  For more about this see

(3)  Today’s featured viewing selection

Pressfield’s videos, from the website War and Reality in Afghanistan

This five-part series is about war in Afghanistan, ancient and modern. Each video is 5 minutes long. I’m not doing this for money. I have no political axe to grind. I’m a Marine and I don’t want young Marines and soldiers going into harm’s way without the full mental arsenal of history and cultural context.

What’s my thesis? That the enemy in Afghanistan today (and in Iraq and Pakistan) is not Islamism or jihadism. It’s tribalism.  The tribal mind-set (warrior pride, hostility to all outsiders, perpetual warfare, the obligation of revenge, suppression of women, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, extreme conservatism, unity with the land, patience and capacity for hatred) permeates everything in Afghanistan and its neighboring Islamic republics. For war-making or peace-making, it cannot be ignored.

Think of these videos as a crash course in tribalism. Start with Episode 1. I invite discussion. Tell me I’m crazy, tell me I’m out to lunch. If you agree, tell me too.

Episode 1: “It’s the Tribes, Stupid”

The real enemy in Afghanistan isn’t Islamism or jihadism. It’s tribalism. Mr. Pressfield compares Alexander the Great’s Afghan campaign (330-327 BC) to our own wars today.

Episode 2: “The Citizen Vs. The Tribesman”

Citizen = Western. Tribesman = Eastern. These are two different breeds of cat, who see the world in diametrically opposed ways. Can we Westerners impose “citizen values” on a tribal society?

Episode 3: “Tribes Are Different From You and Me”

What qualities define tribes? Warrior pride, hostility to all outsiders, perpetual warfare, the obligation of revenge, suppression of women, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, extreme conservatism, unity with the land, patience and capacity for hatred.

Episode 4: “Fighting a Tribal Enemy”

Lessons from Alexander, the Brits, the Russians. What qualities make tribal fighters such formidable opponents—and how can they be beaten?

Episode 5: “How to Win in Afghanistan”

History’s lessons point to a radical method of war-fighting and peace-making, quite different from what the U.S. currently has in play. As Rod Serling used to say, “submitted for your approval.”

Hat tip on these videos to Winslow Wheeler, a Director at the Center for Defense Information.

(4)  Reviews and rebuttals on other sites, plus background info

A.   Joshua Foust gives a rebuttal

These are posted at Registan — “All Central Asia, all the time.”

  1. Steven Pressfield Thinks All Wars in South Asia Are The Same, 9 June 2009
  2. Steven Pressfield on “The Tribesman”, 9 June 2009
  3. Argh. More Praise for Pressfield, 12 June 2009

He posted a comment at Pressfield’s blog, the best brief analysis I’ve seen of Pressfield’s theory.  I recommend reading it.  Excerpt:

“The Taliban is not tribal. In fact, it is explicitly NON-TRIBAL, and explicitly pan-Islamist. They fight for their version of Islam, to convert Afghanistan into a Islamist state. Ditto al Qaeda: their ultimate ideology isn’t some animalistic sense of tribalism the way you describe it, but pan-Islamism.”

{Update: I deleted the 2 comments from at Registan that were shown here}

B.  An analysis by Zenpundit

Pressfield’s Reified Tribalism”  (well worth reading).  His analysis is at the end of the post.  Excerpt:

What Pressfield gets horribly wrong is the discounting of the religious radicalism aspect as being superceded by atavistic, superempowered, Ur-tribalism. Umm, no and not at all. The neo-fundamentalist Salafi and Deobandi Islamist radicals are, as Josh correctly argued, pan-Islamist militants who are deeply hostile to tribal customs and authorities they view as “jahiliyyah”, un-Islamic or even blasphemous apostasy. … Tribesmen and Islamist radicals are not natural allies unless we put them in that position …

C.  Valuable background reading about tribes

  1. How to work with Tribesman” by W. Patrick Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired), posted at his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis. The date of writing is not stated, but it was included as an large DOD-funded study “Iraq Tribal Study – Al-Anbar Governorate“, completed in June 2006.  (Hat tip on this to Major Scarlet)
  2. Tribal Alliances: Ways, Means, and ends to Successful Strategy“, Richard L. Taylor, student paper published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, 1 August 2005 (Hat tip to Slapout9)
  3. Glatzer, Bernt (2001). “War and Boundaries in Afghanistan: Significance and Relativity of Local and Social Boundaries.” Weld des Islams, 41, 3, pp. 379-99
  4. Glatzer, Bernt (2002). “The Pashtun Tribal System.” in Pfeffer, G., and D.K. Behra (eds.), Concept of Tribal Society (Contemporary Society: Tribal Studies, Vol 5), pp. 265-282.
  5. Giustozzi, Antonio (2007). Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007.
  6. Shahrani, Nazif (2002). “Factionalism, and the State in Afghanistan,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, No. 3.

Nbrs 3 -6 are from Foust at Registan.

(5)  About the author

From Wikipedia:

He is an American novelist and author of screenplays, principally of military historical fiction set in classical antiquity.

His historical fiction is well-researched, but for the sake of dramatic flow, Pressfield may alter some details, like the sequence of events, or make use of jarring contemporary terms and place names, his stated aim being an attempt to capture the spirit of the times. To enhance his readers’ immersion in ancient times, Pressfield typically writes his novels from the point of view of the characters involved. For instance, The Virtues of War is told from the first-person perspective of Alexander.

His epic novel Gates of Fire is required reading at the U.S. Military Academy and the Virginia Military Institute, and according to the L.A. Times, “has achieved cult status among Marines.”

Pressfield served in the United States Marine Corps in the 1960s, and later graduated from Duke University.

T.X. Hammes (Colonel, USMC, retired), author of The Sling and the Stonesays this about Pressfield (source):

Steven Pressfield is known to a generation of Marines for his book The Gates of Fire. In that work, he captured the essence of why western soldiers fight. With this video series, Pressfield draws on his research for The Afghan Campaign to provide essential insights into why tribal warriors fight. He discusses the unchanging aspects of two millenniums of western experiences fighting Afghan tribal warriors. He explains why, for very good reasons, western ideas about government simply do not apply to these tribal peoples.

(6)  Reviews of his books

Reviews by Chet Richards (Editor of DNI, Colonel, USAF, retired):

(7a)  Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

(7b)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about our wars in Afghanistan:

  1. Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
  2. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  3. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  4. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  5. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  6. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  7. Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
  8. A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
  9. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  10. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  11. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  12. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  13. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  14. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  15. America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009  
  16. New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
  17. The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan, 1 June 2009

26 thoughts on “Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid””

  1. Robert Petersen

    I think that Steven Pressfield in a narrow sense is on to something: This is also partly a war between a conservative tribal warrior society and a cosmopolitical West – “an army of one” – which stresses individuality and emancipation of women. A Jihad vs. McWorld. I say partly, because I think there are several reasons why we are fighting over there – and why they fight back.

    I think – however – that Pressfield has got one thing totally wrong: We don’t want the tribes to change – not any longer. It might have been a goal back in the days in 2002-2003 when the Americans thought they could walk on water and nothing was impossible, but today the war has become about COIN and that includes “winning hearts and minds”. This means cooperation with the local population which again means you have to RESPECT their way of life, even though it includes looking the other way while they harvest opium or beat their wifes. To do anything different would mean fighting everybody and we don’t have the manpower or the will to wage such a genocidal war.

    So we will go on killing Taleban and if we are lucky we might win so that some even worse tribal-religious group in the name of “democracy” can rule the country. I don’t think it will happen, but we can hope it will. And they will continue to beat their women, kill gays and harvest opium. It is kind of funny – though – that some feminists in the Western World actually think this is “their” war. It never has been, but if that makes them happy I won’t disturb their illusions.

  2. I think Pressfield is on to nothing. The purpose-less distinction between tribes and citizens is less than informative as we certainly have both people who are both citizens and tribal members in this country. Two primary tribes? Republican and Democrat per Pressfield’s definition: “The tribesman doesn’t want individual autonomy. The tribesman is a proud member of a group. What the tribesman wants is cohesion, belongingness, significance to be a part of something greater than himself.” (Instead of thinking for themselves, there are many a person who enlists the partisan position to substitute for critical thinking, gaining cohesion, belongingness and significance of the greater whole.)

    Also there are many “tribes” around the world such as indigenous peoples in almost all the continents sans ice caps. Yet none of these threaten the national security of our country or threaten global instability. Instead Islam provides an uber cult that’s truly global with local franchisees — some of them quite violent and threatening. An uber cult like Islam cuts across nationalities, societal organizations, races and even families because it promises a perfect after-life abstraction that cannot be reasoned or negotiated with. The beauty of its proliferation is that the local franchisee can interpret Islam in any way he chooses — “have it your way.” The local franchisee is always right because the infidel is always wrong. *In effect, we’re fighting against Islamic extremists on this physical, McWorld plane and they imagine that they are fighting us on an eternal, after-life plane.* The sooner we understand how implacable this foe really, the sooner we’ll have some real strategies.

  3. I think Pressfield is on to something, but his net is cast to narrowly. In such that his definition of tribalism;

    “What qualities define tribes? Warrior pride, hostility to all outsiders, perpetual warfare, the obligation of revenge, suppression of women, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, extreme conservatism, unity with the land, patience and capacity for hatred.”

    Fails to notice the similarity to America’s own right wing cultural sensibility. Tribalism in the wider sense would include our own faction of agrarian based inherited obligation family/tribal structure (as opposed to the liberal alternative negotiated commitment family structure. This oversight diminishes an otherwise perceptive observation into just another version of American exceptionalism. And probably why the ME wars were sold originally with the liberal rhetoric of transposing liberal values. However, the wider view of (of comparative) tribalism and liberalism would take notice of;
    1)the further (and more striking) incompatibly that liberal values are a mortal threat to tribal values in that they offer safe haven, or state power, to those that violate or stray away from tribal codes of behavior, and
    2) that the evolution away from tribal society toward western liberal alternatives follows closely (and is dependent upon) the parallel evolution of industrialization and the particularly modern demands upon the labor force.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Joshua Foust (Central Asia expert who writes at Registan) makes similar points in his comment at Pressfield’s blog.

  4. From the Southern perspective, our own civil war was often characterized as an an “imperialist” incursion from the industrialized North transposing liberal values upon traditional Southern (tribal) culture. One can only imagine how long that conflict would have lasted had the North been a foreign country with a different religion that was even more technologically advanced than the North ever was then. Because thats probably pretty close to what our odds of success are in Afghanistan.

  5. Steve Sailer’s essay in the Jan 13, 2003 issue of the American Conservative, “Cousin Marriage Conundrum: An ancient Iraqi custom will foil nation-building”, might be of interest to some. It doesn’t deal with Afghanistan specifically, but it does illustrate the difficulties in imposing a system of government on a people who believe the government should be used as a means to enrich one’s tribe. Good stuff. Please check it out.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Cousin marriage has been received attention for many reasons — an obstacle to modernity, as a impediment to assimilation to immigrants from Pakistan to the UK, and a health risk.

    Here are 3 from Stanley Kurtz, posted at National Review Online:
    * Marriage and the Terror War, 15 February 2007
    * Marriage and the Terror War, Part II, 16 February 2007
    * Assimilation Studies, 21 March 2007

    Also, here are two articles on the excellent genetics site Gene Expression:
    * Ways to skin the cousin marriage issue, 12 May 2008
    * Cousin marriage should not be banned (?), 24 December 2008

  6. @diogenes
    re. local franchise religion: I recently listened into a tribe of ‘Christian’ college students discussing the “Shack”. One commented that she finally found the God that is right for her – her personal franchise. What is any different in the proliferation of Protestant sects, and then Joseph Smith or Mohammed comes along for yet another.

    I believe much of the Western-taught hate for tribes is that we cannot just arrive and buy up individual holdings for our own financial motives. Witness the current Incan fighting to preserve control of their lands. Bush and Rice forced the Peruvian government to allow the U.S. access to the mineral wealth in order to preserve preferred-trading partner status. We want their land, and if we cannot get access, they are wrong. Similar problems are occurring in Mayan lands in Guatemala. It is not banana plantations now, but the silver and gold. Mayan belief is that silver-moon and gold-sun are diety representations and should stay where put by the gods- in the ground, not in Fort Knox. Local tribes (family or ethnic) stand in the way of the gods of Greed and Globalization.
    I was recently in Thebes, talking to a colorful Egyptian who had just returned after living in Santa Cruz, Ca. He proudly pointed out where his tribe lived – “from here up to the bridge” a few miles up river. His tribe knew everything that was happening to the members – who was hungry, and fed them; who stole, and punished them; who was drifting into drugs, and interceded. Yes, women were not social equals, but the tribe provided an extensive support system. They take care of their tribe/family – in Afghanistan that could mean defending against foreign aspirations.
    I find this anti-tribe/anti-very-extended-family diatribe going on in the U.S. interesting considering the Right-wing belief that the break-down in family and beliefs is what is wrong with America. So, family-tribe is not what is wrong, just being a different kind of family is wrong.
    Final comment: read Stanley in Africa – he states his purpose for going into Africa was to bring Christianity in to replace tribal-organizations. Africa could then be controlled by Europe and then could be used for economic purposes.

  7. Well, it would seem from several previous comments that some people don’t think Pressfield’s point to be valid. My studies, and what I have learned in a few world travels, leave me believing Pressfield to be on to something quite valid.

    One reader points out that the description of tribalism could apply to modern American conservatives. True! Good point! However, the reader is denying that tribes and tribalism do exist in many countries, and are the source of local political action. Middle eastern and African countries, in particular, often see this dynamic. I think the closest we have ever come to this,in the U.S., might be the Louisiana political culture prior to the Vietnam war. What we HAVE often seen, is political machines, which are a different political animal than tribal culture.

    What I do think that Pressfield misses, is the point that, where tribalism holds sway is rooted in cultural milieu that is centuries old. Not my original idea, I actually heard someone discussing this on the radio – probably an NPR station, but it holds water.

    Whereas, in the technologically advanced world (the “First world countries”), we have had centuries to acclimate to the ideas of technology and science, the cultures of many of these countries has not. We aren’t jerking them from the 18th century into the 21st, it is more like jerking them out of the 13th century.

    Additionally, those parts of the national cultures that were acclimated, to some degree, to modern culture, have been killed, obliterated, or forced to leave. Witness Iraq and Afghanistan. In Kabul, the center, the island, really, of Afghani learning, whatever intelligentsia was there 30 years ago is gone. Or, at least, reduced to a small and insignificant factor in the national politics. Some few of their numbers may have survived, and returned to public life, but the culture is decimated. Iraq, slightly different political evolution, pretty much the same result. Some left under Saddam, more left after, when things got really bad. The ascendant cultures are steeped in real-life violence, without the cultural depth to counter the power vacuum at the top. Because of this, the situation is self-replicating, and difficult to alter. The worst part is that what becomes powerful in such situations are unalloyed greed and personality based power – both anathema to American thoughts of justice and political systems.

  8. FM note: I recommend reading this. The quotes are from Pressfield’s essay.

    “What makes Islam so powerful in the world today is that its all-embracing discipline and order overlay the tribal mind-set so perfectly. Islam delivers the certainty and security that the tribe used to. It permits the tribal way to survive and thrive in a post-tribal and super-tribal world.”

    Fact: Bedouin tribesmen are, by Muslim standards, notoriously bad Muslims. This is something of a joke within Islam, much as Kentucky moonshiners are something of a joke within American society.

    “Saddam Hussein understood this. So did Tito, Stalin, Hitler.”

    I suppose that Dracula and Lex Luther also understood this?

    The U.S. blew it in Iraq the first week after occupying Baghdad. Capt. Nate Fick of the Recon Marines tells the story of that brief interlude when U.S. forces were still respected, just before the looting started. Capt. Fick went in that interval to the local headman in his area of responsibility in Baghdad; he asked what he needed. The chief replied, “Clean water, electricity, and as many statues of George W. Bush as you can give us.”

    Ibn Khaldun went on at great length about how the city dweller in Islam and tribesmen were two very different fellows. You do not confuse them. Much like the farmer and the cowboy in the American west.

    “The tribe is the most primitive form of social organization.”

    See above. The “local headman” quoted above dwelt in a metropolis of many millions and wanted electricity. Some “primitive.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: Your comments remind me of similar views expressed in TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars”. Esp about the Bedouins and Islam, and the town-nomad dichotomy.

  9. FM note: I expanded the except from Shultz & Drew, and included a link to a free online version of a chapter.
    Fabius, you asked for references on “tribal” context. Included in the below (cross post on Pressfield’s site) are two.

    “{Somalia} was not the first time that western soldiers had been surprised by a form of fighting that the anthropologist Harry Holbert Turney-High called “primitive warfare” in his 1949 book (Primitive War} on the practice of war in traditional societies. Turney-High examined the conduct of combat by clans, tribes, and other traditional social units.

    … {Summarizing Turney-High}, soldiers and warriors are not the same. They come from different traditions, fight with different tactics, see the role of combat through different eyes, are driven by different motivations, and measure defeat and victory by different yardsticks… (in closing) If we fail to take these key principles of warfare into consideration and grasp their importance when fighting armed groups in tradtional societies – the warriors of contemporary combat – we will encounter bloody suprises and make deadly miscalculations.”

    — from Insurgents, Terrorists and Militias; The warriors of Contemporary Combat by Richard Shultz Jr. (director of the International Securities Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School) and Andrea Drew, 2006.
    — {FM note: For more from this fine book, see this free online copy of chapter 8 – ”When Soldiers Fight Warriors: Lessons Learned for Policymakers, Military Planners, and Intelligence Analysts”}

    Published in 2006, I found it a major eye opener in an area of investigation even the “out-of-the box” 4GW writers had not touched on. More recently, David Killcullen’s new book The Accidental Guerrilla also discusses the major impact “tribal” has on both Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically addressing the fact that while a major context, it is distinctly different in the two environments and must therefore be addressed in country context.

    Problems are hard to solve unless one understands both surface and subsurface context. Before writing off operations as “buying off the tribes” (as in al Anbar Awakening) one should read Killcullen’s tribal context in Chapter 3. So good on you Mr. Pressfield for stirring the pot.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for the excerpt from Schultz & Drew!

    Note that the excerpt you gave was not about tribes, but about combat by pre-modern societies in general — of which tribes are only one form. That undercuts Pressfield’s assertion that “tribes” are the problem, or enemy (or whatever he means). Unless he’s saying the entire world other than the developed nations are inherently our foes.

    As for the “buying off the tribes”, I have read Kilcullen’s book and am not convinced that COIN played any substantial role in the Iraq War. His account provides little evidence that CIA bagmen could not have arranged the “Anbar Awakening” without lugging around a copy of FM 3-24. Occam’s Razor suggests that this was a confluence of events. The Sunni Arab tribes no longer wanted foreign Islamo-fundamentalists meddling, and desperation made the US willing to deal.

    Major nations have arranged many such deals over the past 3 millenia without the stew of pop sociology and CI theory that we call COIN. Money speaks every language.

  10. God help us all when these people discover Thucydides.

    Or for people who prefer a modern voice: “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War
    Fabius Maximus replies: Victor D. Hanson is a modern voice, but a highly idiosyncratic one. Often a misleading one, stating as fact his opinion about historical disputes (e.g., did Alciabides desecrate the statues celebrating Hermes the night before the expedition sailed to Syracuse?).

  11. “Tribes”, if not taken too literally (or fancifully, as in applying it to American conservatives), is a useful concept. For example, it approximately fits the condition of a multi-ethnic state like Yugoslavia, before the West began to intervene and break it up. Tribes can be highly individualistic, inward turning, etc, and yet get along by respecting each others boundaries. Of course they also war sometimes, when one transgresses another’s boundaries.

    Thom Hartmann, in his apocalyptic book “Dying of the Ancient Sunlight” forsees a possible future in which the American central government has lost all authority and all ability to govern, and the country reverts to a state he calls “new tribalism”, in which separate cultures and regions co-exist.

    To those who are uncomfortable with the militarized authoritarian society the US seems to have become (several readers on this site, I’d guess) the idea of self-supporting localized tribes might seem attractive.

  12. anna nicholas

    Suggestion : instead of ” Islam ” use the word “Faith ” or ” Religion “, unless specifically referring to something unique to Islam .
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a reasonable suggestion. However, since so many writers warning of the Islamic foe seek to stir visceral fear of “the other”, they are not likely to take your advice.

  13. For example, it approximately fits the condition of a multi-ethnic state like Yugoslavia, before the West began to intervene and break it up. Tribes can be highly individualistic, inward turning, etc, and yet get along by respecting each others boundaries. Of course they also war sometimes, when one transgresses another’s boundaries.

    There’s an interesting situation going on in northern Kosovo, which is predominately inhabited by ethnic Serbs, right now.

    The EU authorities, which are assisting the Kosovo government, have been attempting to establish two border check points along the Kosovo / Serb border since last December. The ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, who do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, view these check points as a threat.

    They have staged two protests so far, the last this Tuesday. Also, on Tuesday, Kosovo authorities issued arrest warrants for the two leaders of the ethnic Serbs because reportedly, during the first protest, they urged the demonstrators to burn the check points down.

    I predict that this strife will degrade the ability to prevent smuggling, which is rampant in those parts.

  14. Fabius, I think you misread Pressfield or at least misinterpret his meaning. He added in comments

    “…probably my fault for being unclear. It’s the distinction between tribes literally and the tribal mind-set. Let me see if I can make clear what I’m trying to say…I don’t mean to suggest that tribes literally are the enemy … if we hope to succeed at all in that part of the world whose emotional and psychological basis is largely tribal, we need to work with the tribal mind-set or work around it. Where our troops have done that successfully, as in al-Anbar province with the Sunni Awakening, things have actually changed for the good.”

    As I pointed out Kilcullen discusses this very point in great detail. The tribal context along with his defition of the problem set of fragile state, Insurgency, Outside Terrorists, and Communal Conflict is a model worth serious consideration, irrrespective of how/why/should we/shouldn’t we be engaged in the current campaigns or ever get engaged in “war amongst the people” or 4GW.

    As to the quote used, it was very much about “tribes” or “clans.” That is the nature of the book. Your distinction seems to be mincing words.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t understand what you are saying.

    (1) “I think you misread Pressfield or at least misinterpret his meaning.”

    If so, you have not shown how. As for his comment on his site, as far as I can tell it undercuts the core of his theory. As noted in my response. Not much is left after his correction, and what’s left are common views.

    (2) “As to the quote used, it was very much about ‘tribes’ or ‘clans.'”

    Look, the exact quote is there. It discusses premodern societies, defined as “clans, tribes, and other traditional social units.” That is a far broader class than “tribes.” If we substitute “premodern societies” or “traditional societies” into Pressfield’s text, then it no longer makes sense.

    (3) “As I pointed out Kilcullen discusses this very point in great detail.”

    Please cite where he discusses the very point I made in great detail. I don’t recall it. I re-skimmed the chapter and do not see it.

    (4) “{Kilcullen’s} is a model worth serious consideration”

    But that’s not what your comment #9 was about. The question was specific: what happened in al-Anbar? I said we were not following FM 3-24 in any meaningful sense, but using conventional 20th century CI methods. In this case, paying a popular front militia.

  15. Fabius,
    I’m trying to make a very simple point. Both books relate to fighting in a tribal/clan environment as being different and problematic for troops trained for conventional war or even in basic historic COIN context. That to me is what Pressfield is also saying.

    Kilcullen gives example in the Case Study beginning on page 154 through 174. and he distinguishes that from tribal relations in an Afghanistan setting beginning on page 87. All three sources make much sense to me and seem in supportive context.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This still makes little sense to me.

    (1) “different and problematic for troops trained for conventional war”

    Does anybody believe otherwise?

    (2) “or even in basic historic COIN context”

    Since he does not compare or contrast his theory to COIN doctrine, I don’t see how you can say this.

    (3) “Kilcullen gives …”

    As in your previous comment about “Kilcullen’s model”, I don’t see how this paragraph is relevant to what I said. It certainly is no rebuttal to my point about hiring private front militia in al-Anbar. I usually respond to specific quotes in order to avoid this problem.

    Also, the only substantial overlap between Iraq, COIN, and Pressfield’s essay is this quote from his essay: “You can’t make deals with a tribal foe; they won’t be honored.” We successfully hired the Sunni Arabs as our private militia (an ancient and proven tactic), which disproves his statement. Pressfield then contradicts himself in the comment you previously quoted: “Where our troops have done that successfully, as in al-Anbar province with the Sunni Awakening, things have actually changed for the good.”

  16. Dear god, I’m saying that a lot of that these days. We are all tribal or, as I prefer to call it, clan people.

    This is hardwired into our genes. Our polyglot societies have came about by nationalism, common justice (and for civilised societies) nationalised health systems, education, etc. Plus a, usually naive, belief that ‘we are all in this together’. We are not. And, very importantly, a belief that we were all richer and safer in these much larger groups.

    Elastic bands, holding us togther in much larger groups than our genetic programs normally deal with.

    But, kick out the underpinings, put the society under stress… and watch the fragmentation. Then the usual response from the ‘ruling backed by the doing ok’ groups is violence against the ‘getting in the neck groups’.

    In the US, without the European social nets, it could get very ugly (even there it is going to be bad). Naturally the elites will try to set sub-group against sub-group (time old tactics). But with modern communication, and even what passes for education these days, enough people will see through that. And as the middle classes become more empovrished, with their organisational skills then …. all bets are off.

    Remember East Germany. A total police state, with what … 40% of the population as informers, secret service, etc, etc. It literally went down in days. Once the ‘social compact’ was broken, crumbling happened at light speed.

    In the US fragmentation into ‘clans’ is the most probable outcome of current trends, which the elites will exploit.. but then someone will start to bring them together again. A new American Revolution again?

    The worst thing that can happen is that the people who can do that are the first victoms from the elites inevitable crackdown. Imagine South Africa if they had killed Mandella.

    But as I said a long time ago on this site, there is a big difference between the US elites and the UK and USSR ones. They went quietly (thank god can you imagine what would have happened if the USSR had gone down fighting, we, the few survivers, would be picking through the radioactive rubble for food these days).

    But the US elite has signalled quite clearly they that they are going down fighting to the bitter end. And if takes very dollar in YOUR pocket, and/or your/our lives, so be it. Good luck to all of us, we are going to need it. Because they are fools.

  17. Major Scarlet

    Here is some context that we, the military, are learning and inculcating in to our actions. The paper is about “Tribesman of the S’tiengan and Mnong Gar Peoples” and should be required reading is you interact with tribes.
    FM note: Thanks for mentioning this! The paper Major Scarlet refers to is the extensively and widely cited “How to work with Tribesman” by W. Patrick Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired), posted at his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis. The date of writing is not stated, but it was included as an large DOD-funded study “Iraq Tribal Study – Al-Anbar Governorate“, completed in June 2006.

  18. Update: an analysis by Zenpundit

    Pressfield’s Reified Tribalism“ — Well worth reading! His analysis is at the end of the post. Excerpt:

    What Pressfield gets horribly wrong is the discounting of the religious radicalism aspect as being superceded by atavistic, superempowered, Ur-tribalism. Umm, no and not at all. The neo-fundamentalist Salafi and Deobandi Islamist radicals are, as Josh correctly argued, pan-Islamist militants who are deeply hostile to tribal customs and authorities they view as “jahiliyyah”, un-Islamic or even blasphemous apostasy. … Tribesmen and Islamist radicals are not natural allies unless we put them in that position …

  19. Zenpundit: “Tribesmen and Islamist radicals are not natural allies unless we put them in that position …”

    I believe The Accidental Guerrilla is about this point, Oh but it’s the intent of the AQ element doing the putting together not us. Kilcullen’s mix of players, how we have fought that putting together, and how tribalism is part is worth a read or re-read. There is a real “operational thread” of tribalism in this mix, Pressfield may not have it all right, but IMO he’s a lot more right than this site gives credit.

    Interesting add, in the book by Shultz and Drew, they make the point that anthroplogist and sociologist had for all intents and purposes written off the tribal/clan world as relating to anything in our new globilizied world, only to find oops there are tribal warriors out there and they’re kicking some ass. given their finding, I’m somewhat amazed at how all these tribal experts are suddenly popping up. Oh, but then America has tribes all over, we know this stuff, I forgot – Clevland Indians, Florida State Seminoles, etc, etc.

    Might just be worth taking a step back and looking at Shultz and Drew, at Kilcullen and see where Pressfield goes. We might learn something – just a thought.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All interesting comments, but I don’t see anything on this site that diagrees.

    “IMO he’s a lot more right than this site gives credit.”

    Do you have anything specific to support this statement?

    As for the social sciences, COIN, and all that — great stuff! We should try it someday. It might work better than the standard counter-insurgency tactics we stick with (as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan) — massive firepower on civilians, search and destroy sweeps, and popular front militia.

  20. See the updates added to this post!

    Updates are being added to Section 4 — Reviews and rebuttals on other sites, plus background info. More reviews of Pressfield, plus sources of information about tribes.

  21. I think Pressfeild could have saved himself the trouble of setting up a spunky little website. What he proposes in terms of the “tribal mindset” has already been covered by folks such as Martin van Creveld ( The Rise and Decline of the State ) and James Bowman ( Honor: A History ). Pressfield innovates on their ideas only by making the campaigns of Alexander his grand metaphor- something (as I noted in the comments of Registan) one cannot do when equipped with even a cursory knowledge of Hellenic history

  22. As the site posts move forward, it’s unfortunate this thread moves to deep background. Review today of comments on the site shows opinion by those who have been there and worked in the “tribal” environment to be most supportive of Pressfield.

    But then again I’m biased – always take the side of the guy in the cockpit vice the fellow who can get up to get himself some coffee.

  23. @Ed: Josh Froust has been and worked in Afghanistan. No, he has never been in the cockpit. But he has made himself coffee in FOBs across Afghanistan — which certainly more than Pressfeild can say.

  24. Mr. Greer,
    Comment not pointed at Foust. Indeed, I am indebted to FM for having him on line and pointing to his site, which I read often. That lead to reading “The great Game” an excellent story, I would surmise few know.

    My point throughout these posts has been a different take than it appears you and others have. David kilcullen’s recent book weaves the issue of tribalism throughout (see post above for pages of a specific example) and, at least to me, indicates that this is a major element needing due consideration for our current operations (AND important whether you agree or not with being there, we are and must deal with). The comments by active duty Marines with time in the “cockpit” -read crucible of Afghanistan – require reflection, no?

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