“Tribal Dynamics” and Wannabe Gordian Knot-Cutters

Reading Crisis Group’s latest report on Yemen, two sentences jumped out at me:

Western analysis tends to explore [al-Qaida]’s relationship with local tribes but less often examines the group as a tool for Yemen’s political elite to resort to subterfuge for financial and military gain. Yemenis, by contrast, view domestic political dynamics as fundamental to understanding and countering AQ and similar jihadist groups.

This observation about Yemen can be broadened to discussions of “counterinsurgency” in general. At policy-oriented conferences and in my reading, I’ve repeatedly run into the idea that attending to “tribal dynamics” is the key to understanding and solving conflicts, particularly in terms of stripping away local support from jihadists. Western analysts who glom onto the “tribal dynamics” hypothesis tend to speak as though they’re Alexander ready to cut through the Gordian Knot – as though they can slice through complexity with a single analytical tool.

It’s also remarkable how superficial the analysis of “tribal dynamics” often is. Whether the subject is Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., the template such analysts like to apply is simple and generic: a lot of talk about “honor and shame,” “revenge and feuds,” pre-modern societies, and so forth. Funny: if we’re talking about ultra-local dynamics, then how come the same framework can supposedly be applied in extremely different places? Are all tribes fundamentally the same? If analysts know the “local” so well, why do they so rarely provide any details about the specific tribes, situations, and customs involved? Analysts in this vein talk as though all you need to do is show up, find an old shaykh under a tent, remember not to eat with your left hand, butter him up about honor, and you can magically solve the world’s worst conflicts.

Additionally, as the quoted passage suggests, the emphasis on “tribal dynamics” is almost always a de-politicizing maneuver – a conscious or unconscious flight from the messiness of politics. It would convenient if conflicts could be solved just by appealing to shaykhs under tents, because that would eliminate the necessity to sort through the incredible complexity of state failures, elite infighting, ethnic and sectarian conflict, historical memory, etc.

At the end of the day I don’t think there’s a sword that can cut through these Gordian Knots. Conflicts are complicated. Societies are complex. Power is fickle and diffuse. Sometimes you don’t get a sword: you just have to try to pull the strings you can find. And sometimes you can’t even do that.

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