Thursday, August 09, 2007

Borat Must Go

The Kazakh film "Nomad" (2005)

The NYT published this story yesterday on the intellectual challenge that nomadism and tribalism in Central Asia and the Near East present to policy makers. Bronze Age archaeologist Michael Frachetti from Washington University argues that today's foreign policy failures in that region derive from a misunderstanding of the part played by tribe, clan, and a kind of vestigial nomadic culture in contemporary politics. Take Turkmenistan as an example. Sean R. Roberts, a central Asia researcher from Georgetown University, points out that the West underestimated the nomadic value of independence in seeking to pry the country away from the Russians in an energy deal. To say that nomadism adapts itself to modernity in sophisticated ways might sound to the casual observer like an academic's apology for a primitive way of life. And that is surely how many have viewed and will continue to view the non-sedentary. But sooner or later, you have to grapple with the dynamism of these social structures to achieve lasting political and military success in these regions.

This blog has often argued that US foreign policy community suffers from a deficit of knowledge in the Middle East, but the Times piece both expands on that conclusion in geographic scope and sharpens it. From Gaza to Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan, one hears a lot these days about tribe and clan. The US in Anbar province in Iraq and the British in Helmand province in Afghanistan have both seized upon tribal leaders as key allies in stabilizing countries without an effective political center. A deeper commitment to understanding these cultures ensures that the military isn't just talking to the right people, it's talking to the right people in the right way. Quite frankly, one can't have much confidence in the American government on this score when one reads:
Yet, despite calls for a deeper appreciation of cultures far from the mainstream, “the United States government hasn’t been willing to pony up the money to educate” policy makers on “these areas with deep nomadic traditions,” said a Central Asia specialist working for the United States government. The official requested anonymity because he was not cleared to speak with reporters.

“It takes a half a million dollars and four or five years to train a specialist in these parts of the world,” the official said. “Even now we hardly have anyone up to speed about the border areas of Pakistan or the tribal politics of Somalia.”

This is frightening. Moreover, this revelation of ignorance lends an air of the surreal to the Democratic presidential aspirants' debates over hypothetical invasions of tribal Pakistan. (I for one feel that Barack Obama's ship is balanced precariously on the crest of a wave of no mean size after the senator's "robust" defense of his foreign policy credentials).


Noah K said...

Obama on Pakistan:

Amos said...

The point made by the Georgetown University Central Asia scholar strikes me as somewhat silly. Is independence valued only by nomadic cultures? And are Turkmenistan's elites beholden to the demands of vestigial nomadism more than those of capitalism and geopolitics? Even if they were, I could imagine that there are other reasons for Turkmenistan's decision to stick with the Russians.

Nevertheless, the argument you make here is a good one. As I've said before in conversation, the relative primitiveness of certain people doesn't strike me as an interesting or easily resolvable question. I have no problem calling particular "tribal" practices "backward" or "primitive," but this is hardly a useful substitute for the kind of analysis that successful policy requires.

I am skeptical about attempts by anthropologists or political scientists to generalize too broadly about "tribal" or "clan-based" cultures. However, I am all for rigorous historical study of the role of tribes and clans in particular settings, and the ways in which such social and political forms have changed over time. Since I first heard about reports of U.S. cooperation with "tribal leaders," I've been trying to understand how these are different from militia bosses.

The very fact that the terms "clan" and "tribe" are often used interchangeably suggests the imprecision of the terminology being used now.

One other point. As I think I have said before, I see the major problem in areas such as NW Pakistan as well as in Iraq as related to the failure of state sovereignty, which is a political and military problem. In other words, the number one concern is not some kind of cultural deficit ("tribalism").

Basically, polities like Pakistan are closer to empires than nation-states, in that they have fuzzy frontiers rather than clearly-defined borders. Points of comparison from European history: the Cossacks in the Russian empire, the "Grenzer" in the Balkan parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Excellent post, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Hazbani saying
Hi there, for a minute (well, several weeks), I was thinking you went to the north pole to report on the Russian Canadia situation there. By the way, last news from Finland is that the Russian underwater pictures are copied from a movie about the Titanic, but back to the Levant ( or is it the orient)
1) On another blog I asked about the armenian trib in Lebanon, In Gaza the Hamas has broblems with all kind of families and tribes, who is holding Shalit? . So we have tribal mentality all over the orient.
2) I was thinking, while reading the blog and Amos response, what would have the late and unlamented Eduard Said said about this central Asia Commity and what would have Miss Bell, TL, Glubb and all the rest Filby father & son, Svein Hadden? Kipling ? could we get some advice concerning oriental & Asiatic nomadic tribal mentality from their books?

Noah K said...


I know, I know, I might as well be calling for a rewrite of "The Arab mind." I think the piece was making the point that archaeologists and anthropologists are critiquing the long held views of some on nomadism, tribalism, etc. And, yes, my post, nor the article for that matter, didn't parse tribe, clan, nomad in a way that is obviously necessary for a useful discussion. So instead it's a call for more scientific study of these cultures than the kind of people Said wrote about were engaged in. Still, I apologize for the Machiavellian tone of the post.

But is the goal so different? Has the blog become neo-imperialist? I hope not (too much so). This is not so much a question of empire as a problem of sovereignty, particularly in the Pakistani case. Pakistan does not appear to be exercising its sovereignty over all of its territory. So what do the world powers who are threatened by the status quo do about it? One route is that voiced by Obama: violate Pakistani sovereignty on actionable intelligence and strike militarily. But it appears to me that the US has a lot of work to do in terms of intelligence in this particular region, in terms of cultural understanding. Ultimately, a deeper understanding of local culture, call it orientalist research of the most repugnant form, whatever, is the only thing that is going to provide peace and security in in tribal Pakistan -- and Afghanistan. There is, as is clear to everyone, no way you solve the problem of central authority in Afghanistan without dealing with these tribal areas of Pakistan. With all the sabre-rattling on Pakistan in the US these days, my hat is off to the Times for running a piece (admittedly buried in section A) on the shortcomings of US cultural intelligence in these critical regions.

Noah K said...


You write:

"Since I first heard about reports of U.S. cooperation with "tribal leaders," I've been trying to understand how these are different from militia bosses."

Are you asking how one can distinguish between tribal leaders and militia leaders, or just how in practice, the two types of leaders amount to the same thing, operate in the same manner? To me it seems, with my very limited, layman's knowledge of these places rather obvious how in some cases it's quite obvious that these are not the same people, even if they operate in the same way. In Anbar province, as in Helmand in Afghanistan, it seems to me, you have "elders," traditional power brokers, who exercise an kind of "inarticulate power" over areas that the state does not fully control if at all. But look at the local commanders of the Mahdi army, like those duking it out in a place like Diwaniya. Do these guys report to Moktada al-Sadr? Well, not exactly, as he can't control all of them. So whence their power? I think that some of the militia leaders are more akin to common criminals than the kind of "tribal leaders" that the US brags of allying with in Anbar. One more thing, you'll read stuff about Saddam's own effort to disassociate himself from his "tribe." Saddam was originally known as al-Tikriti, and there are a number of guys from his inner circle who are also "al-Tikriti." Sometime soon after the coup he dropped the name.

Amos said...


My apologies again for the long delay. I saw your comment on Jeha's blog and also tried to weigh in there with my guess-work.

On Putin's recent handiwork, I will cite the words of our foreign minister, Peter Mackay: "This isn't the 15th century." Unfortunately, that is not going to be enough to deter the Russian bear. Canada's only choice is to talk very seriously with the Americans and have them supply Canada with the muscle to assert Canadian sovereignty in this region. Whatever legal grounds we may have, they will be mere "scraps of paper" if they cannot be turned into facts on the ground. Turning Canada's de jure control over the area into de facto sovereignty will surely cost the country something, but the expense is definitely worth it in the long-run.

You guessed well though, in that I have indeed traveled north of the border; I hope that my return to the Republic of California in a few weeks will coincide with increased blogging activity.

Noah - I thought your response makes a lot of sense. Surely you are right that tribal leaders still wield some authority in Iraq that is of a different nature than that wielded by a charismatic religious leader such as Moqtada al-Sadr (though one can debate exactly how charismatic he is), a sheikh in al-Anbar, or a totalitarian dictator such as Saddam. I believe that Saddam tried to crush some tribal authorities while co-opting others. Of course, the aim of "crushing" these rival centers of power is not inherently totalitarian. The kind of authority that tribal leaders had in the past and today again exercise in Iraq are surely incompatible with the classic ambition of the nation state to hold a monopoly of violence in its territory.

I defer to authorities more knowledgeable than me to fill in the necessary details. Starting questions:

1. To what extent did Hussein really subdue tribes? whom did he co-opt?

2. How did his policies toward tribal leaders change over the course of the dictatorship, especially in the 1990s?

3. What periods of his rule can be classified as "totalitarian"?

PS: On Saddam dropping the "al-Tikriti" - was this an attempt to obscure his regional/tribal base (and the benefits his family members received from his rule) in order to project the image of national leadership?

Anonymous said...

Hazbani said.
Thanks for noticing me.
As for the North Pole ect. This could be the great day of USA, Canada, Greenland-Denmark, Norway, USA and Russia if it wants to. They should declare this whole gigantic area the Green Republic of The North. Call an international convention of all the countries bordering the area and initiate a joined Mandate of the whole area with a joint armed patrols and with clear cut limitation of any human interference, leave it for the next generations, just think about the pollution that an uncontrolled polar shipping between Europe and the far east will bring to this pristine land. If the energy of the European Greens, The Seal and the Whale people the tree hugger where ever they are and all the rest will be joined some thing great and good can come out of it. IF THE UN WILL BE KEPT OUT, if need be then yes! make it a white man club show all of them UN people what the decedant, imperialistic, white man can still do.

Talking about imperialism, as for neo-imperialism, probably the worse are the Israeli left. The white man burden that Hess, Levi and their like are carrying would have flattened good old Atlas to a one mm. thick pancake.

Beside, still, if every American politician would have been asked to read Kipling`s Kim and even TL two books about the Arabs, as a start, some good would have come out of it. And it is also not hard reading and fine reading material. Also, surprise surprise, supervised critical reading of the Bible, the historical stories not the prophets, about which these politicians talk so much, would have told them a thing or two about the contemporary ME. Later they can re-open the oriental departments.
Oh, yes, about the Armenians, Does Armenia have any influence on the Armenians in Leb?. It does depend on the good will of the so called christian nations and its troubles with the Islam are not over ,yet. Does the Dashnak still have branches in California? there used to be some Dashnak people there in what is now the land of Angry Arab, I have met some there many years ago in the citrus business, can the USA which is for the Hariri side (the Dahnak voted against Hariri and with Syria and Huzb-Iran)reach these people and through them communicate with their friends in Leb. Globokian charity founds(I think this is the name) were once active in Leb. and he, blessed be his soul where ever it is, was always on the side of the $ and Saudia Arabia. And Hariri is SA.

Amos said...


I don't think the Dashnak Party in the Republic of Armenia is that happy about what the party members in Lebanon are doing. But I doubt they have a lot of influence.

Lebanese Armenians played a significant role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Actually, last year one of the veterans of that war, Zhirayr Sefilian, who is an Armenian from Lebanon, was arrested for allegedly plotting a coup against the government. I don't know what the status of the case is now; it was obviously an attempt by the ruling party to crack down on the opposition.

Yes, the Dashnak (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) still has a branch in California. I think the Armenian population in the state is close to 500,000, many of whom live in Glendale.

Anonymous said...

No country should have to spend half a million dollars training one person how to be culturally sensitive in how he talks to a foreigner.

Everyone, no matter what culture he comes from, understands the basics: murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, adultery is wrong, covetousness is wrong, etc.

And if anyone doesn't want to understand those things, then he won't understand dialogue either, therefore there is no option for him other than to reap the consequences of his actions.