zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Guest Post at It’s the Tribes, Stupid!

Guest Post at It’s the Tribes, Stupid!

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

2 Responses to “Guest Post at It’s the Tribes, Stupid!”

  1. Joshua Foust Says:


    Basically, you’re saying it’s wrong to consider Afghanistan only in terms of tribes, but that I’m wrong to say people should not consider Afghanistan only in terms of tribes.

    Think about that for a second before continuing this conversation.


    p.s. you still don’t seem to get the difference nathan and i are placing between "one of many identities" versus "most salient identity." tribes is most certainly the first — we all agree on that, but it is almost certainly not the second, which you agree with but then say shouldn’t matter.

    we don’t do anyone a service by selling them a half truth and pretending it makes things easy. even soldiers and novices need to know right off the bat that afghanistan is an incredibly complex place, otherwise they walk away with a pressfield-level understanding of the place and make horrendous assumptions and decisions about it. if you approach it from the perspective of knowing you can’t "get smart on it" really quickly, you’re on the right path, not if you think tribes are an okay halfway mark to soothe the egos of the unthinking. people are not that dumb.

  2. zen Says:

    "Basically, you’re saying it’s wrong to consider Afghanistan only in terms of tribes, but that I’m wrong to say people should not consider Afghanistan only in terms of tribes…. not if you think tribes are an okay halfway mark to soothe the egos of the unthinking. people are not that dumb."
    Well Josh, if that is what you have gotten out of what I have written on the subject in two posts and a reply to comments from Nathan and yourself, where I have explicitly made the opposite point, then it is time to bury the dead horse. It’s been sufficiently beaten.

Switch to our mobile site