forget it, jake. it’s the middle east.

the western world doesn’t understand middle easterners (or any of the peoples who live in the greater arabized region) — we really don’t. the headlines about iraq from this past week illustrate this — in technicolor:

iraq - sectarianism

sectarianism. yeah, right. as if the issues between the peoples in iraq are theological ones. (just like they were/are in northern ireland…amirite?! or in burma these days.) and then there’re these sorts of headlines:

iraq - isis

yeah. ’cause isis is badder than the baddest guys in the middle east, al qaeda. and that’s the only way we westerners can understand the world — it’s the good guys vs. the bad guys. white hats vs. black hats. the freedom fighters vs. the hussein/gaddafi/assad regimes.

here’s the war nerd on what’s really going on in iraq right now:

“The War Nerd: Here’s everything you need to know about ‘too extreme for Al Qaeda’ I.S.I.S.”

“Syria should have been ISIS’s greatest moment, but things didn’t work out for it there. Not because it was ‘extreme,’ but because it tried too hard to dominate the market against savvy local competition….

The local/universal tension is deep in Islam, which borrowed Christianity’s universalizing mandate. In theory, a Chechen who knows the Quran is as entitled to tell a Syrian what to do as anyone else. In practice, he’s a jerk, and if he tells you to do things a different way than your family has done them for generations, you don’t care how many verses he can quote at you. You’re pissed off.

“ISIS’s Syrian forces were full of loudmouthed young Islamic pedants, all heavily armed, and all eager to tell the locals how to live. It didn’t go over very well. It wasn’t about ‘extremism’ as much as ‘localism.’ ISIS was eventually forced out of Aleppo in favor of Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic Front — both every bit as extreme as ISIS, but with more local recruits who didn’t rub everybody the wrong way quite as much. Zawahiri chimed in from his hiding place in Pakistan to scold ISIS, saying in typically florid jihadi lingo something that amounted to ‘You’re gonna screw us up in Syria just like you and Zarqawi did in Iraq!’ His verdict was that ISIS should move east to Iraq, and Jabhat al Nusra should be Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

“Abu Bakr did not take kindly to this sort of provincialism. When you’ve been fighting for ten years, and seen pretty much everybody you care about killed, often in fairly gruesome ways, you don’t really want to hear a lot of noise about how local sensibilities must be respected, and corporate HQ back in the mountains of Pakistan must be obeyed.

“ISIS replied with a program of assassinations directed at dissenting jihadis, starting in January 2014. When they killed al-Suri (‘The Syrian’), Zawahiri’s envoy sent to settle the dispute, in February 2014, it was flat-out war between ISIS and every other faction in Syria. More than 2,000 casualties later, that feud is still simmering.”

what comes first and foremost to the peoples of the middle east is what is local. sure some people rally for their particular sects or movements, but first comes the extended family, clan, and tribe. half the time, local militias just say they’re al qaeda or isis or some other faction when what they’re actually doing is using alliances with those larger groups to further local goals. remember this about how it works in afghanistan?:

Mike Martin’s oral history of Helmand underscores the absolute imperative of understanding the highly local, personal, and non-ideological nature of internal conflict in much of the ‘third’ world.

“‘An Intimate War’ tells the story of the last thirty-four years of conflict in Helmand Province, Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of the Helmandis. In the West, this period is often defined through different lenses — the Soviet intervention, the civil war, the Taliban, and the post-2001 nation-building era. Yet, as experienced by local inhabitants, the Helmand conflict is a perennial one, involving the same individuals, families and groups, and driven by the same arguments over land, water and power….

Today, much of the violence is mischaracterised as ‘Taliban’ insurgent violence, when in fact it is not linked to the Taliban or the GIRoA, but is driven by local dynamics between groups and individuals on the ground. The Helmandis describe the conflict as *pshe-pshe*. This literally translates as ‘leg-leg’, but refers to the different legs of a tribe or clan (the English term would be ‘branch’). So, metaphorically, the phrase *pshe-pshe* means group-on-group warfare. It is a (micro) civil war….

“Currently, our ideas are largely based upon Maoist descriptions of insurgency; they highlight the importance of ideologies and organisation to motivate insurgents. The Army definition of an insurgency is ‘an organised, violent subversion used to effect or prevent political control, as a challenge to established authority’; it was from this that the ‘insurgency narrative’ was drawn.

“But this is not what took place in Helmand. The US and Britain were imposing a view of the war that bore little resemblance to the local understanding. The clearest example was the British ignoring Helmandis’ historical hatred (and related feelings of revenge) for them because it did not fit their understanding of the official narratives of the war….

He [martin] catalogues in microscopic detail how first US Special Forces and then British troops were constantly manipulated by their Afghan allies into fighting on their side as part of local feuds and criminal enterprises that were only very dimly related to the ideology of being pro-government or pro-Taliban.

“Indeed, according to Dr Martin’s research, the two were often labels adopted by factions and warlords in need of material support from either the Nato forces or the Taliban….

“Nor that there was no inconsistency between being pro-government and pro-Taliban on any given day for a militia commander.

“highly local, personal, and non-ideological.” it’s not any different in iraq, i assure you. we don’t know what’s going on there. we really don’t. it’s all waaaay more complicated than anything you’ll see reported in the news outlets. and it’s not black and white in the way that we westerners like to see things.

one would’ve thought that at least our military forces would’ve had some clue about the importance of clans in the middle east — that’s why they’ve got anthropologists on the force, right? nope, as martin in his book (quoted above) revealed about our involvement in afghanistan — and as mark weiner explained in The Rule of the Clan about the u.s. military in iraq [kindle locations 542-550]:

“When we fail to understand the clan heritage of a great many of our enemies, their motivation for taking up arms against us in the first place will remain obscure.

“We also find ourselves in a far weaker position when we engage them in battle. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, winning the support of Iraq’s scores of individual tribes was vital to the success of the war effort — each tribe that supported al-Qaeda in Iraq or the larger insurgency substantially diminished the likelihood of a coalition victory. The Albu Fahd, Albu Mahal, and Albu Issa were particularly significant to coalition efforts in al-Anbar province, which includes the city of Fallujah, site of one of the bloodiest battles in the war. Given the complexity of Iraqi tribal alliances, one might have expected that American knowledge of the tribes and their individual social and political characteristics would have been encyclopedic. Instead, one of the earliest Department of Defense efforts to come to grips with the strategic value of Iraqi tribes was completed a full three years after the war began.

as the internet would say: *facepalm!* =/

what they should’ve all read, of course, was steve sailer’s “Cousin Marriage Conundrum”!

previously: “pshe-pshe” and misunderstanding afghanistan

(note: comments do not require an email. what is the MATTER with you people?)


  1. Well, I would say the scale shifts up and down. I will illustrate my meaning with Afghanistan.

    From the earlier link on Afghanistan ( )

    ”Thus, the Taliban are religiously inspired insurgents who are opposed to the democratic and women’s rights that the GIRoA embodies and promotes. But this ‘insurgency narrative’ does not fit with my experiences as an officer. I went to Helmand several times (in and out of uniform), with appropriate gaps between visits for study and reflection, and this analysis seemed further and further from the events that I was observing and participating in. In my view, the Taliban are not the main drivers of conflict; and earlier periods, including the Soviet, the civil war and the Taliban eras, have been similarly misconstrued.”

    The above is fine until he gets to the last sentence. Mike Martin’s perspective has the strengths and the weakness of his hands-on micro approach : it’s biased toward the present and what he has witnessed. It lacks the broad sweep of the last 36 years of war in Afghanistan.

    The phrase “The Taliban”, like the phrase “al Qaidah”, maintains the illusion of continuity of an organisation which effectively ceased to exist some time ago. Mullah Omar may still be in hiding somewhere, and there were enough Afghans who wanted to drive the foreigners out. But he lost organisational control once the Taliban were driven from power and their military operations were forced to operate through local cells and local “shadow governors”. So local dynamics became important.

    But this was clearly not the case in 1994-2001. The original core Taliban were a group of multi-clan, multi-tribal Pashtun from Kandahar, who, with Pakistani help, conquered the rest of Afghanistan province by province. The Taliban were initially much less a tribal or clan phenomenon, than a regional phenomenon — the south — that succeeded in becoming an ethnic nationalist one.

    The pre-2001 Taliban were overwhelmingly “Durrani” — not the name of a tribe but the name of a confederation of tribes concentrated in the south of the country. This is a matter of dozens of tribes and thousands of clans. The old king, as well as Hamid Karzai and the Taliban all belong to tribes which are part of the Durrani confederation. Because of their royal associations the Pakistanis had mistrusted the southern tribes during the Soviet war and supported the Ghilzai confederation of tribes which are located in the northeast of the country. Most of the US-Saudi funds went not to the southern Pashtun mujahiddin, but to the northeastern ones (Pashtun and Tajik), simply because that’s what the Pakistanis wanted.

    By the time the Taliban conquered Kabul and the entire Pashtun belt, they remained majority Durrani but did incorporate non-Durrani. The complete ethnic, confederal, tribal and clan affiliations of the members of the three Taliban “shuras” (sort of like a governing committee) in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad were published in the late 1990s. They were clearly multi-tribal, multi-clan, albeit with a southern weight, but also largely a mono-ethnic phenomenon of Pashtun. The one non-Pashtun in the Kandahar shura was a Tajik who grew up amongst Pashtuns and spoke Pashto. Thus it is conceivable to argue that the extreme Islamism of the original Taliban was the attempt by primitive ideologues to express supra-tribal, Pashtun ethnic solidarity and nationalism.

    The Afghan civil war of 1996-2001 was purely ethnic. The Northern Alliance was a grouping of basically every single non-Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan, plus some royalist Pashtuns and northereastern Pashtuns who refused to go along with the Taliban, primarily because they were viewed as Pakistani stooges and Afghan enmity toward Pakistan has deep roots.

    But the first phase of the Afghan civil war, 1989-1996, was an utterly tribal and warlord free-for-all, exactly in the local way Martin describes for Helmand decade and a half later. But with a twist. When the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989, everyone expected the communist government (composed of Pashtuns) to quickly collapse because everyone had regarded them as mere helpless puppets. But they didn’t collapse until 1992. Because the Pashtun communists knew how to manipulate the divisions amongst their enemy, in precisely the ways the British didn’t in Helmand.

    The communists themselves were “detribalised” Pashtuns — they were the urban beneficiaries of Afghanistan’s first (and only) wave of modernisation under the monarchy. ( Afghanistan in the 1970s ) These “Parcham” communists had lost their links with tribes and in fact were so alienated from their roots they had switched to speaking Persian rather than Pashto. (Persian is regarded as the language of high culture whereas Pashto is regarded like, I don’t know, some archaic Gothic dialect, a rough-hewn speech of warriors.)

    The Parcham communists had been installed directly by the Soviets in 1979. They had invaded to remove the previous faction of communists — Khalq — who were also Pashtuns but only one generation removed from the sticks. The difference between Khalq and Parcham was not just tribal / detribalised, but also one of class, education, urbanity, etc. The Parcham regarded the Khalq as uncouth inferiors.

    Before the invasion, the Soviets had preferred that their client maintain the old arrangement of the Pashtun monarchy — rule the cities with the support of the Pashun tribes, but leave the tribes in the countryside the fuck alone. But the Khalqists — the tribal Pashtun hick communists only a generation removed from the villages — were extremists who wanted to abolish the tribal system, collectivise agriculture, modernise, etc., just like in those photos. So when the Khalqists went ahead with their overnight Stalinisation plan, the Pashtun tribes revolted en masse. When the Parcham faction dissented, the Khalqists started purging them. The Soviets intervened to defend the “moderates” and the rest is history.

    Of course, none of this would have happened if Afghanistan had not been a tribal society. But my point is it’s not always clan on clan, or even tribe on tribe. Things can scale up or down. The dysfunctions of a tribal society in its attempt to become a nation-state come in many flavours.


  2. I don’t know where I’d be without hbd chick, the Derb, Sailer, (bad tempered) Cochran and (well tempered) Harpending. Islands of sense in the world of madness that I thought I was fighting a lone battle against. Fighting the lone battle while my interests lay elsewhere. Fighting the lone battle for 30 years when what personally matters is another field – plus I am lazy so lately I have just taken to cutting and pasting them into Facebook without quotes or attribution.


  3. the western world doesn’t understand middle easterners (or any of the peoples who live in the greater arabized region)

    I think Rudyard Kipling had a good understanding of the psychology in that region. Try
    “Beyond the Pale”. A title with several meanings. But be warned: “Kingsley Amis describes this as ‘one of the most terrible stories in the language’.”

    And “The Man Who Would be King” is another good guide to what happens when westerners meddle with things they don’t understand. It’s included with “Beyond the Pale” here: Indian Tales.

    Unfortunately, this highly influential individual has not read much Kipling:

    “I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.”
    ―George W. Bush


  4. So help me out here. The situation in Syria and Iraq appears to be driven by the highly ideological religious war between Wahabi Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Or at least, they pony up the money for the various groups, none of which are self-sufficient in anything but recruits. And even many of the recruits are supplied by the Saudis and Iranians.

    So how does the localism fit into to this larger pattern, or is the larger pattern an illusion? And if it is an illusion, how do you explain 1400 years of incessant sectarian warfare? fbd?

    I note that the Ottoman Empire kept the peace by standing on the locals’ throats. Do we need to re-establish the Ottoman Empire? We do need the oil. In the new empire, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait would be non-voting provinces of Greater Turkey.

    Iran’s nuclear facilities would be nuked.


  5. This 1400 year “incessant sectarian warfare” between Sunni and Shia is a myth. After the original split back in the 7th century, It just does not loom large until the late 20th century. Certainly the analogy with Catholic-Protestant fails completely. Iran did not even become Shia until the 16th-17th centuries.


  6. Middle Eastern or not, religious conflicts are almost never ideological or theological. the angels-on-the-pinhead aspect matters maybe amongst high-minded elites, but at the mass level they are usually identity conflicts.

    Saudis are motivated by the fact that a large minority of their population is Shia (in the northeastern part of the country) and they have always been paranoid since the Iranian revolution (with some justification) about the restlessness of Saudi Shia. How can you blame them, really, since Iraq is now dominated by Shia and Bahrain’s “Arab Spring” was mostly a matter of Shia riots. The Saudis and the Iranians are just playing Kissingerian games and they merely exploit about the local issues.


  7. Another way of expressing my long post is that every society has concentric circles of allegiance, going from nuclear family to nation-state. Different societies emphasise different circles within the rings, but even the most tribalised society, when faced by a common external threat, generally tend to unite. Iraqi Shia did fight hard against the Iranians when the latter took the offensive in 1982 and repelled the Iraqis back to Iraq.


  8. Agree with pseudo – e that it is identity, not religion that drives religious conflict. I don’t recall transubstantiation being a key concept in the Troubles, for example. The religious issues are usually brought in to A) Fire up the troops, and B) get some money or weapons from outsiders.


  9. “Beyond the Pale” was always my evidence that Kipling was more than the evil white imperialist derided on my campus in the day. It is a terrifying tale and there are others equally truthful. My ancestors spent so many generations at work in India that one of them, who passed away around the time I was born, had a middle name Mourbhanjj jumbled in amongst his commonplace East Anglian names and surname.

    I heard tales as a boy far worse than “Beyond the Pale,” the most horrifying from the Northwest Frontier, which I can’t repeat here, though it almost happened to Flashman.


  10. @pseudoerasmus

    awesome afghan post.

    there are layers. the default layer in the wider middle east is the tribal one but there are others and from time to time those other layers become dominant but if they fall the dominant layer immediately goes back to the tribes.

    religion is so important as a motivator beyond the tribal *because* tribal is the default layer so if people need a bigger army for some reason they will tend to use religion as the glue but it’s not really about religion.


  11. @Magistra

    “I think Rudyard Kipling had a good understanding of the psychology in that region. Try “Beyond the Pale”. A title with several meanings. But be warned: “Kingsley Amis describes this as ‘one of the most terrible stories in the language’.”

    What a great story. Horrible but great.


  12. @CharlesK I heard tales as a boy far worse than “Beyond the Pale,” the most horrifying from the Northwest Frontier, which I can’t repeat here, though it almost happened to Flashman.

    Not something to dwell on. I’ve just been re-reading the book (and Flash for Freedom!). George MacDonald Fraser is another author that that Bush and the neo-cons could have read with profit. But perhaps they wanted the disasters they’ve created.

    @ Greying Wanderer
    What a great story. Horrible but great.

    I don’t like using the word “genius” outside the STEM field, because it’s over-used for the arts. But Kipling deserves it almost as much as Beethoven.


  13. I am blogging at more political blog, but I keep hammering home this home is my comments attached to news stories. I think a few are starting to realize it.

    Even left a comment at the Financial Times about it where a well-meaning (but not too informed) person suggested that the Middle East follow the example of the European Union (ever closer union).

    It is strange, it was written by a Muslim whose parents were from India. He must have gone native as far the clans go.


  14. It may very well be that the distinction between Shia and Sunni which no American used to understand will again be just a bit of geopolitical trivia.

    American GIs seldom could distinguish between a Bavarian and a Prussian as they stormed across the Rhine into Germany. The Russians were even less likely to be sensitive to such distinctions. To the invaders they were all just Nazis.

    We can today afford to indulge in Muslim spitting because we are rich and powerful. But America is in decline. Maybe that will reverse with a new President but maybe it won’t. If we get in a real shooting war with Islam we will be less inclined than formerly to put ‘boots on the ground’. Everyone remembers our casualties from the Bush led wars but no one remembers Clinton’s war on Bosnia fought from 30,000 feet. There were very damn few ‘Wounded Warriors’ in Clinton’s war.

    We have and will continue to have for the foreseeable future a technological advantage in any war. But because we are rich and nice we chose to literally descend to the level of our adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need not have done that. We could have employed our technological advantages.

    We stopped using our advantages at the end of WWII. When I was in high school (military high school) I asked one of our Korean vet teachers why we hadn’t done better. He said our troops were denied the use of our best weapons. The same thing was true in Viet-Nam. A lot of that circumspection then was because of the fear of nuclear escalation. But that fear no longer holds.

    We could fight in Iraq with nukes and Afghanistan with biological with not much risk to the homeland. We very well may do so in a world where America is weaker. Just how many of the Muslims that we incinerated were in one sect or another will be a question only for ‘Trivial Pursuit’.


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