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Archive for July, 2009

New Atlanticist

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Is running my Nexus of Education and Grand Strategy post. Nice!

Guest Post at It’s the Tribes, Stupid!

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Novelist Steven Pressfield invited me to do a guest-post at his new blog giving my take on the polarized debate regarding his high profile, vblogging, presentation on tribalism. Here is a small snippet:

The Learning Curve

….There was enthusiastic praise for ‘Tribes”, naturally, but the criticism was equally as strong because Pressfield’s theme of tribalism as a general explanatory model is a powerfully attractive one. Too attractive, in the view of subject matter experts (SME) who drill down to a very granular level of detail and see all of the particularistic caveats or limitations of tribalism that exist in a given society. Tribalism among the ancient Gauls was not a carbon copy of 21st century Afghanistan, the artificial kinship network of the Yakuza or Shaka Zulu’s Impi formations. Yet, some similarities or congruencies remain even among such historically diverse examples because a tribe is a durable social network. In terms of resilience, a tribe may be the most adaptive and secure social structure of all.

Read the rest here.


Nathan Hamm, the founder of Registan.net asked some critical questions of me at It’s the Tribes Stupid! and for whatever reason, I have tried multiple times to post a reply and my comment does not appear. Therefore, I emailed it to Nathan and I am replying here so those interested in following the discussion can see it. My apologies for the inconvenience. Here’s the reply, Nathan’s questions are in bold text:

Hi Nathan,

Alexander’s armies had quite a few Persians…..but they were probably shiny, moreso than the Macedonians toward the end.

Good to have you here. For Steve’s readers who may not be familiar with Mr. Hamm or Registan, Nathan has been an important voice on Central Asian affairs in the blogosphere for years on a number of respected regional sites and has extensive experience living in the region.
Let me try to address your concerns in reverse order:

“Mark, so what? This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I know I fall into that category, but from where I sit, I see neither interest nor inclination to engage or respond to these criticisms”.

The latter statement has to be addressed by Steven Pressfield rather than me. On the other part, as a learning aspect, when SME are writing to the uninitiated, there’s often a too large assumption about what the laymen know and a tendency to bring an overloading amount of complexity to the discussion. I am guilty of this myself at times when teaching or writing about my research interests. Pressfield is probably not writing for a typical reader at Registan but his readers may become interested enough in Afghanistan or tribalism that they may start reading articles, books and sites like yours as a result. Where you see a static end-state, I see a gateway or a hook.

“Coincidentally, some colleagues and I were recently trying to turn up academics who specialize in Afghanistan who say that tribe is the critical or even very useful factor for understanding how Afghan society organizes and behaves”

Richard Tapper has written on the negotiation of identity, with one of the major components being “qaum”, which if I recall has (or can have) a loose “tribal” meaning. I’m not qualified to rate experts in your field Nathan, but Nojumi describes the Parcham-Khalq Communists in Kabul thinking the tribes were important enough to warrant sending out the meddling Marxist officials to their villages ( incidentally, the Soviet advisers had cautioned the Taraki regime against it). Flipping through Ewans’ Afghanistan: A Short history, the tribes are present as at least a background political factor from Ahmed Shah Durrani to the fall of the Taliban. Here’s an analysis of warlordism and tribes in Afghanistan by Antonio Giustozzi and Noor Ullah (2006):

I suppose point in the argument hinges on what you mean by “critical” or “useful”. That Afghanistan (or any society) is far more complex than one variable, is something I’ll agree with but for an “unimportant” factor, tribal structures in Afghanistan seem to enjoy considerable longevity.

“If we say in COIN theory that we should know the population, we shouldn’t stop halfway with a nice theory that doesn’t have sufficient predictive or explanatory power because of an aversion to academic particularism”

First I am not suggesting we stop halfway. I think that you and Josh fear that will happen with some readers. It will happen with some of them, you’re right. I’m more interested in those readers who are inspired to go further and keep learning.

I think also, on a methodological point regarding Social Science. “Predictive” is a high bar more suitable for hard science that can have appropriate experimental controls. For SS, I’d use “descriptive”, “speculative” and perhaps at best “probabilistic” analysis.

“At best, I understand this to be a descriptive model, and one that is hopelessly broad…and that “tribe” probably describes informal networks all humans create to deal with insecurity and uncertainty and that there is probably an inverse relationship between security in society outside the netowrk and the strength of bonds in these networks”

Tribes are a type of network structure and they can be artificial (social, legal, political) as well as being based on lineage. Most historical lineage tribes had provisions for adopting new members who were unrelated by means other than marriage ( though that was the most convenient device). Within sufficiently large tribes you can have both weak and strong ties or even other kinds of network structures present ( modular, hierarchy, scale-free etc). Network analysis is a useful tool for examining how people seek security and advantage within a group.

Being a long time advocate of horizontal thinking, I like broad comparisons and recognition of patterns and congruencies. They give us data that compartmentalizing, isolating and drilling down often does not ( those are useful tools as well. Granularity is a good thing -it is just not the only thing).


Hi Josh,

Regarding Tapper, in my view, he seems to be very interested in the construction and negotiation of identity and critical of how previous generations of scholars categorized peoples in ethnographic studies. I believe you that he wrote tribes were not important in understanding Afghanistan because his analysis of identity in Afghanistan used three categories including sect and “qaum” sort of a familial/traditional designation which are understood in a fluid sense. Well, ok but for a guy who dismisses tribalism as a variable, the existence of tribes seems to run through Tapper’s academic work on Afghanistan and Iran. Which makes me wonder if Tapper’s framing of identity and downgrading of the tribe is not in part an intellectual reaction to what is and is not acceptable in the modern academic culture of his field? If they are unimportant, why have the tribes of Afghanistan not faded into historical memory? Endurance as a social structure is incompatible with arguing that they do not matter in terms of identity – they seem to matter to some Afghans or they would have all gladly joined the Communist Party or become urban bourgeoisie or cab drivers or emigres or whatever.

Regarding tribal identity being only one part of a whole identity though, I agree with you on that. The level of nuances are often complex with people who move between traditional and modern roles as many Afghans do. However, jumping into that sort of high level complexity and minute detail right off of the bat is a sure-fire guarantee to go over the heads of most people approaching the subject for the first time and makes it probable that they may never come back to the subject a second time. A basic category, be it ethnicity, tribe, language or religion is a good starting point for a novice. Not a stopping point but a place to begin

“The Big Picture”- the Nexus between Education and Grand Strategy

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

This will be the first of several related posts. 

The other day, I happened to be talking to my friend Dr. Von, a physicist and educator, and he brought up a post by The Eide Neurolearning Blog, on educating children in terms of “big picture thinking”:

What is ‘big picture’ thinking? Business consultant Andrew Sobel described it as:

1. Having a simple framework
2. Using analogies and metaphors
3. Developing multiple perspectives
4. Looking for patterns and commonalities

Instead of training for compliance, careful rule-following, and exact memorization or a paragon of crystallized intelligence, we need to make more room for ‘big picture’ thinkers – while still recognizing the need for basic skills and knowledge.….Pint-sized big picture thinkers really do exist and they seem to be over-represented among gifted children who underperform or cause behavioral disruptions in their early elementary school years. Many of these kids are ‘high conceptual’ thinkers, those who like discovering novel subjects, themes, and things that don’t make sense(“The thing that doesn’t fit is the interesting thing” – Richard Feynman), but the reason for this is often not random – inductive learners (learners who derive rules from examples) use novelties to generate new hypotheses or new rules.If you really want to teach and interest big picture thinkers, you would expose them to rich multisensory and chronologically-advanced experiences. Look for subjects, phenomena and ideas that could be compared and contrasted. Complexity should be embraced and not shunned. For big picture thinkers – complex is simple and simple is complex. Complexity often brings more meaning because there are enough examples that one can make a pattern.….Many of them are seeking the overarching framework inside which they can put their new bit of knowledge. Often these are ‘why’ kids – who need to know why something is true, not just that something is true.

The Eides have given an excellent explanation of the big picture thinker as a cognitive type and had some implied suggestions in that description on how a teacher or professor could approach students to get them thinking – models, metaphors, analogies, exposure to patterns and multiple perspectives. Note: all students willl derive some benefit from these techniques and become better at seeing the larger context. Many people can, with sufficient practice, can become significantly better, but the natural big picture thinkers are the ones who will react with insightful leaps of reasoning, imagination and questions with little or no prompting.

Unfortunately, such experiences in public schools and even our universities have become increasingly rare. Dr. Von explains why:

When I talk with students (juniors and seniors in high school) about how different subjects and classes are taught, invariably it comes down to great amounts of memorization. Most students, when you engage them in real conversations about the education they receive, will open up freely and get right to the point…because of the continued emphasis on grades and GPAs by colleges, students feel the need to focus first on memorization and get the grade on the test, and then move on to the next topic without much concern with what was just studied. When this is the case in school, has true learning just occurred? Likely not, if students are unable to recall and actually apply concepts that were covered in the past.

….To make matters worse, as students rely so heavily on memorization and short-term success on tests (and this is driven home even more in the ‘high stakes testing’ environment we find ourselves in in the era of No Child Left Behind, as resently implemented), those students, many of whom are gifted, as the Eides point out, who prefer complexity in their learning, are not benefitting from the way many (most) classrooms are run. By complexity, I mean those students who want to ‘see the big picture.’ Those students who want to know why something works, and how it is related to the material that was studied last semester as well as to the material that was covered in another class. For example, I love when students in my physics classes come to me asking about how to interpret and apply a particular integral result which was just studied in calculus class, or how Einstein’s theories changed political and military history, as studied in a history course. Those moments happen every so often, as a result of student curiosity and their wanting to truly learn about the material rather than memorize something for the test, and good teachers recognize such moments when they happen…

It falls to me to discuss why it matters: As a nation we are crippling the next generation of visionaries by retarding their intellectual growth with bad educational policy as surely as we might if we were adding lead to their drinking water.

Scientists and inventors, philosophers and artists, entrepreneurs and statesmen, individuals who conceive of and accomplish great things do not emerge from schools and colleges that emphasize low-level thinking and a curriculum without intellectual depth or rigor. They emerge in spite of them.

To force a systemic improvement in public education, the Bush administration pushed through “No Child Left Behind” with rigid timetables, mandated high stakes testing and punitive consequences for schools and districts not making standards. That is to say, the Bush administration addressed the lack of rigor in educational process with a sledgehammer – but ignored the lack of rigor in educational substance ( at least directly – under NCLB some schools had to toughen their curriculum to teach to the state test, but other schools or schools in different states dumbed down for the same reason – curricular alignment).

That NCLB forced public schools to ensure that our weakest students verifiably succeed at understanding the fundamentals is laudable. That this emphasis increasingly comes at the cost of schools only educating all their students at the level of the fundamentals is inexcusable. Perhaps criminal. NCLB is the overarching legal framework that was superimposed on a system whose content was (and often still is) frequently less than demanding and taught by instructors who themselves have not majored in the subject they are teaching. 

At the postsecondary level, long before the measure and punish model of NCLB arrived at k-12 schools, colleges and universities abandoned any semblance of a core curriculum or traditional canon and undergraduate degree requirements were larded with plenty of au courant esoterica as course options. Esoterica formerly left for footnotes in dissertations or as the subject of longwinded, diatribes at the dreary meetings of extremist splinter parties. Ivy League, big state schools, small third tier colleges – it does not matter; with only a few exceptions, the “cafeteria a la carte” model of undergraduate education prevails.

While a few students absorb and become true believers of fashionable cant, most students graduate high school and college unaffected by the large amounts of rubbish and trivia they have been exposed to because it was presented without any kind of sensible context and being committed to short term memory, quickly forgotten. The real damage to students comes from the cumulative effect of the absence of substance – the waste of time where meaningful content and the pressure to think through hard problems should have been.

The costs of educational myopia are here and they will grow worse with time. We already see sharply declining public support for science (because more people are now ignorant of basic scientific literacy),  lower rates of innovation and other negative economic effects. In the area of governance, across the board, regardless of party label or ideology, we have national leaders in their 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s who see the world primarily in short-term, tactical terms and who confuse career or class interest with governing in the national interest. Oligarchy is inherently a non-strategic worldview because it eschews making choices because choices require sacrifice in the near term in order to acquire systemic advantages in the long term. 

Oligarchy” seems like a a harsh word because we think of “oligarchs” as being selfish, exceedingly greedy, political sociopaths. While such figures do exist outside of TV and the movies (Burmese junta, Iranian hardliners, Soviet politburo etc.) most people are neither particularly malicious nor eager to consciously and openly do things society acknowledges to be wrong or counterproductive. Even less so are they eager to be seen by the public as incompetent. The problem is that, frequently, people are prisoners of their own limited frame of reference and, when their conscience might be tweaked, they excel at rationalization and denial.

This is not a question of smart or dumb or of expecting politicians to be moral paragons. There’s plenty of IQ wattage inside and outside of Washington, DC and petty larceny in politics goes back to the stone age. Rather, on average, the difficulty is that our nation’s intellectual potential has not been effectively maximized. Is it reasonable to educate people in a way where all subjects are disconnected from one another, prioritizing narrow specialization, emphasizing accumulating facts over understanding principles, rewarding the “right answer” instead of the “best question”, demanding conformity instead of curiosity and then expect our leaders to be visionaries and adaptively creative statesmen who think in strategic terms?

Why would our societal orientation in complex, dynamic, fast moving situations be good when our educational system trains people only to think through simplified, linear, sequential problems? Strategic thinkers need to be able to see “the big picture” and handle uncertainty, or they cannot be said to be strategic thinkers.

The ship of state has been steered, over the last forty or so years, into an epistemological cul-de-sac and we are headed for the rocks. America needs a grand strategy for a competent citizenry in order to reach the point where it can again have a grand strategy to deal with an unruly world.


Red Herrings

Project White Horse

Fabius Maximus

The Committee of Public Safety ( provides an extensive analysis of the subject)


Liberty/SecurityRethinking liberal arts

Mustering the Tribe

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009


Steven Pressfield responds at It’s the Tribes, Stupid to Fabius Maximus, Michael Yon and….me!

What I Would Say Differently If I Were Saying It Again

“Good” Tribalism and “Bad” Tribalism

I would define “bad” tribalism as that practiced by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I know, I know . . . critics will say that both those groups are pan-Islamic, ideology-driven, supra-national, propelled more by Salafism and Deobandism than pure tribalism. I would not argue with that.

But if we probe beneath the surface, we recognize virulent tribalism at the heart of the belief systems of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I would cite the following “bad” tribal characteristics: hostility to all outsiders; perpetual warfare; codes of silence; duplicity and bad faith in all negotiations with non-insiders; suppression of women; intolerance of dissent; a fierce, patriarchal code of warrior honor; a ready and even eager willingness to give up one’s life for the group; super-conservatism, politically and culturally; reverence for the past and, in fact, a desire to return to the past.

Defined in relation to its opposites, “bad” tribalism takes its stand against everything open, inclusive, modern, progressive, secular, individualistic, Western, female-empowering.

What about “good” tribalism? “Good” tribalism is the ancient, proud, communal system of family- and clan-based local governance that has been practiced in Afghanistan and many parts of Central Asia for millennia. Tribal jirgas resolve disputes and give a voice to all members; tribal militias protect the land and the people. “Good” tribalism wants to be left alone to live its own life. In a way it’s democracy in its purest and most natural “town hall” form. It has worked for thousands of years and it’s working today….

Read the rest here.

Ink Spots

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

Ink Spots is the new COIN kid on the blog block!

All of the bloggers at Ink Spots are anonymous but from reading their posts, they seem like some of the legion of unidentified but regular commenters at Abu Muqawama decided to set up their own shop. Here are a few of their posts that I recommend:

Wrongly re-interpreting Rumsfeld through McNamara by Gulliver

Really? You don’t know who bought weapons in Liberia?? (minor updates) by Lil

Metrics: Telling the Story, Not Driving Policy by Gunslinger

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything by Gulliver

Hat tip to Dr. Michael Innes of CTLab ( who does not like anonymous blogging)

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