A Critical Reading of the Interim Report of the USIP Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) recently released a report by its Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. The report (.pdf) is entitled “Beyond the Homeland: Protecting America from Extremism in Fragile States.”

The report is intended as a sequel to the 9/11 Commission Report, and had the same co-chairs (former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton). But the USIP Task Force report, at roughly thirty page of text and notes, in no way compares, in either length or depth of research, to the 9/11 Commission Report (.pdf), a book-length document that clocks in at some 567 pages. (True, this is an “interim” report from the Task Force, with a final report to follow in 2019, but they’re the ones who advanced the comparison, not me.) And whereas the 9/11 Commission Report was the outcome of an in-depth inquiry that attempted to understand what happened in a critical event and why, the USIP Task Force report is – to be blunt – a short, superficial, ideologically-motivated document that aims less at explaining anything than at justifying the status quo in American foreign policy.

To start, there were many assumptions baked in to the writing of this report. Let’s quote the legislative language cited in the report:

Funds made available pursuant to subsection (a) shall be transferred to, and merged with, funds appropriated by this Act under the heading “United States Institute of Peace” for the purposes of developing a comprehensive plan (the Plan) to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Near East.

Before spelling out some of these assumptions, it is worth pointing out that the one member of Congress that USIP names and thanks is Senator Lindsay Graham, who is one of the most hawkish members of either party. As commentators such as Paul Staniland and Jason Lyall have pointed out, the USIP Task Force’s report reads as an effort to push back (and not always convincingly) on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the contention that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” The USIP Task Force, in contrast, argues that “As long as extremism fuels instability, the United States cannot compete effectively against strategic rivals such as China, Russia, and Iran. Nor can the United States confront extremism without addressing the ways our rivals exploit and contribute to this threat” (p. 1). “Graham versus Mattis” would be a simplistic way to understand the debate, but there would be worse ways of understanding it. The Graham side of argument isn’t even persuasive, moreover: have all of the United States’ interventions in “fragile states” since 2001 made the country stronger, or weaker? The answer should be obvious.

Against the backdrop of what is, essentially, a debate between two different visions of hyper-aggressive U.S. foreign policy, I view with skepticism the following assertion from the USIP Task Force:

The time has come for a new U.S. strategy. We need not only to defeat individual terrorists but also to mitigate the conditions that enable extremist ideologies to take root, spread, and thrive. Going forward, the priority for U.S. policy should be to strengthen fragile states—to help them build resilience against the alarming growth of violent extremism within their own societies. (p. 1)

Why skepticism? Because this sounds a lot like the thrust of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, especially since 2011 or so. What is the substantive difference between USIP’s language here and the language in this 2011 USAID paper? Or the language in the 2002 National Security Strategy, which argued the following:

We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world. The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.

The USIP Task Force, then, is not pushing for something new but is pushing a defense of a long-running status quo.

(By the way, both the “fragile states/counterterrorism” and the “great power competition” frameworks, in my view, are not just wrong but almost suicidal – future generations in a world wrecked and disrupted by climate change will surely curse everyone on both sides of this ridiculous debate.)

The USIP Task Force report is, moreover, structured around a set of clichés and buzzwords rather than around fresh thinking into the problem of jihadism. “Violent extremism,” “fragile states,” “arc of instability,” “safe havens,” “governance,” “underlying causes,” “partners,” “interagency approaches” – these terms are so familiar to Washington that a report like this is basically just painting by the numbers. That’s how you get bolded, supposedly groundbreaking assertions like this, scattered throughout the report: “Extremism emerges through the confluence of poor and undemocratic governance in fragile states and extremist ideology and organization” (p. 2) or “The gap between government failures and citizens’ aspirations, above all else, is what facilitates the spread of violent extremism” (p. 3). Again, these ideas are the opposite of new – they are the same ideas pounded into all of our heads at every single conference, meeting, speech, and workshop on jihadism that I’ve ever attended. None of the buzzwords, moreover, are ever subjected to any critical scrutiny, even though critics are easy to find – for example, Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf have questioned the idea of “safe havens.” The Task Force, moreover, seems to have a weak grasp of the histories of individual jihadist organizations and individual conflicts, opting for strangely one-dimensional explanations of complex phenomena. Thus we read that “analysts have attributed Algeria’s paroxysms of extremist violence in the 1990s to the influx, three decades earlier, of foreign teachers, many of whom held extreme religious views” and also that “in Yemen, the arrival of Saudi fighters in 2009 led to the formation of AQAP” (p. 16). The report is also highly repetitive, perennially restating the same two points (extremism+fragility=extremism; and extremism+fragility+non-US powers=really bad for the US) and punctuating them with sometimes misleading examples.

There are flashes of a more critical awareness scattered throughout the report, but these flashes are few. There is no acknowledgment, that I could find, of any American mistakes since 9/11, only an acknowledgment that “the political and strategic costs of seventeen years of ever-expanding war remain high” and that “the length and growing scope of the fight are driving Americans and their leaders to question the value of foreign military engagement” (p. 13). One even gets the sense of a kind of veiled contempt for voters or anyone concerned about costs – as always with such reports, there is the assertion that “we cannot solve the problem of extremism within the term of a single presidential administration” (p. 19). This is a document addressed, above all, to a permanent government, development, and think tank elite anticipating another several decades of the “War on Terror,” or whatever one is supposed to call it now.

The report is so repetitive that I’m afraid of this blog post becoming repetitive as I move through the document – so perhaps it’s best to cut this short here. The back half of the report, on strategies for preventing extremism and fragility, is just as predictable as the first half – micro-success stories plucked out of their contexts, disavowals of a nation-building agenda amid calls for massive expenditures overseas, etc. And of course, the obligatory warning that the Islamic State will soon re-emerge, which you think might lead to some soul-searching about how we got into this mess in the first place, rather than a kind of shell game where we just shuffle all the old ideas around and then present them as new.

I should end on a constructive note, I suppose. So here are my suggestions for the final report:

  1. Take to heart one key finding of the 9/11 Commission Report, namely that the 9/11 attacks were planned not just in one fragile state (Afghanistan) but in various states, including some in Europe. Think through what this really means about whether fragile states and “safe havens” are a threat to the U.S. or not.
  2. Probe more deeply into issues of politicians’ and states’ collusion with jihadist organizations. It’s not just about people’s grievances going unaddressed, it’s often about active collusion too.
  3. Defend your ideas not just against the “great power competition” folks, but also against the critics from the anti-imperialist left who see the War on Terror as a destructive and counterproductive exercise. You shouldn’t just write us off, because (a) we have a lot of strong arguments and (b) we’re getting louder now. U.S. foreign policy should be bigger than a debate between Lindsay Graham and Jim Mattis. It’s ironic that this report came out in time for the anniversary of 9/11, because this is the anniversary where I’ve seen the biggest range of views expressed since 9/11 itself (see, for example, here). The conversation is changing, and this report does not keep up.

[Disclosure: I was invited to one early meeting by Task Force staff. I revealed my dirty hippie leanings, sparred a bit with a right-wing think tanker, and did not contribute further after that one occasion. The criticisms here are all ones I previewed for the Task Force staff when they spoke to me.]


A Professional Update and Some Thoughts on the Two-Body Problem in Academia

As of today, August 20, I have a new position – Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University of Ohio, with a joint appointment in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Comparative Religion. I am thrilled to be joining one of the country’s leading universities and I am excited to work across two disciplines, especially given that my own research seeks more and more to speak to debates in Political Science.

I will deeply miss Georgetown University’s African Studies Program, where I spent four wonderful years as a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP). My colleagues and students there were truly fantastic.

I am joining Miami as a spousal hire in connection with my wife, who was offered a tenure-track position there. Given that some readers may also be confronting academia’s famous “two-body problem,” I thought it would be relevant to say a little about our path.

As a first note, I should say that we very much wanted to live together after we got married and we were willing to prioritize that over other concerns. That became doubly true after our son was born; neither of us wants to live apart from him. Other couples may make different choices.

It’s also worth saying that I have never been offered a tenure-track position by any institution, and I always urged my wife not to leave her tenure-track positions, given how rare and precious those have become. So we never had to pick between two, mutually exclusive tenure-track jobs. Perhaps that has been a blessing in disguise. Even in that situation, though, I like to think I would prioritize togetherness over a job.

In any case, in chronological order, we went through the following steps:

  • Long-distance dating before we got married (2013-2015), with her at Saint Louis University (first as a VAP, then on a tenure-track line) and me at the State Department on a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship (2013-2014) and then at Georgetown as a VAP (2014-2015);
  • Living together while married, first with her spending a writing sabbatical in Washington (Fall 2015) while I continued to teach at Georgetown (where I had a three-year contract, which was eventually renewed), and then living together in Saint Louis while I commuted to Georgetown (calendar year 2016);
  • Living together with no commuting after our son was born, first with me on an unpaid paternity leave in Saint Louis (Spring 2017) and then all three of us together in Washington while my wife and I did one-year fellowships (Summer 2017-Summer 2018). During that time I was still on the faculty at Georgetown but I effectively stopped teaching there in December 2016;
  • Living together with jobs in the same city (starting now).

We hope that eventually we will have two tenure-track jobs together at the same institution (preferably at Miami) or at least in the same area.

All of this, of course, has come with significant costs:

  • Time: It’s not that fun going on the market every year, for starters, but we felt that we had to do that in order to maximize our chances of living and working together. It’s also not fun moving multiple times in just a few years.
  • Opportunity Costs: All of the time spent on applications (and on moves back and forth from DC to the Midwest) reduced the time we could spend on research, fieldwork, and other forms of collaboration. Also, in coming to Miami my wife lost a bit of the time she had accrued on the tenure clock.
  • Putting down roots and then tearing them out: My wife really loved her job at Saint Louis University and I really loved mine at Georgetown. We are equally thrilled now to be at Miami, but obviously there are some logistical costs to starting over in a new position. Meanwhile, we made a lot of friends at our past institutions whom we now miss dearly. It’s hard to join a community, immerse yourself in it, and then have to leave.
  • Money: Commuting from Saint Louis to Washington was not cheap – during calendar year 2016 I would guess I spent around $20,000 on travel. It was also, obviously, a big financial hit to take an unpaid semester so I could stay home with my wife and infant son in spring 2017. During that period, any extra paid work I took on went to offsetting those costs, meaning I was often fighting just to reach the level of what my salary would have given me under different circumstances. Fortunately I do have regular opportunities to take on outside work; for academics whose work is less relevant to policy-oriented institutions and the private sector, I can’t imagine how one would make up the lost income.

On the other hand, I have found it well worth it to pay those costs – I have been present for many precious moments that would have eluded me had I been in a long-distance marriage or long-distance fatherhood. I also benefited from the tremendous flexibility that Georgetown was willing to offer at various points, and we have now benefited from the great good fortune of getting a spousal hire, an outcome that many peers in our generation have struggled to find. So on the whole, things have steadily gone in the right direction for us, and we are thankful for that.

Far be it from me to offer anyone else advice, but I guess my takeaway would be that for us, not being academic royalty, we had to be creative and patient in trying to get closer to the outcome we wanted. It’s not always fun patching things together semester by semester, but we found that fellowships, leaves, and other short-term options helped us stay together while we sought a longer-term and more stable arrangement. And I think there’s a lot of value in that.

Quick Thoughts on the Cooptation of Peer Review by Think Tanks and Other Quasi-Academic Institutions

There are numerous, perennial debates over peer review within academia, most of which are above my pay grade. Academic peer review, as currently managed and exercised, has a number of serious problems – vicious and destructive reviewers, cumbersome and debilitating processes of submission and re-submission to meet the demands of a shifting cast of editors and reviewers at a single journal, journals that function as essentially closed shops, escalating demands on authors, and so forth.

But I have been thinking about another problem, in some ways external to academia, and that is the cooptation of peer review by other institutions. The core problem, as I see it, is the use of peer review to attach legitimacy to commissioned works that stand no chance of being rejected during the peer review process. In other words, if an institution commissions a paper (and promises payment for it), and then turns it over to internal or external reviewers, but essentially commits to publish the paper no matter what the reviewers say, then we have something less than peer review.

Of course, the reviewers’ comments, criticisms, and suggestions might drastically improve the paper, but if there is no chance of rejection, then it is just “peer input.” I have gone through this process myself with a few papers, and on my CV I do not list them as “peer-reviewed,” even though the commissioning institutions describe them as such. I have also been a reviewer in several such processes.

Admittedly, this can happen within academia too. Special journal issues can function this way, with no real chance of rejection for the papers included in the issue. I would also say that such papers are not fully peer-reviewed and I try to capture this distinction on my CV as well, although perhaps after writing this post I should re-categorize a few things. An even bigger question concerns books – I have to admit that in my experience publishing around ten articles and two books, I’ve found the review process much more “blind” with the articles than with the books, and I’ve found the chances of rejection to be much higher with articles. I do hear stories of book manuscripts being rejected by publishers because of negative readers’ reports, but I think a lot more of the rejection in the book publishing happens at the acquisition editor’s desk than in the review process.

There is something that bothers me much more, though, about non-academic institutions that co-opt peer review without any real risk of rejection for authors. The cooptation can give the illusion that a publication has been seriously vetted when in fact it hasn’t ever gotten an up-or-down vote from peers – rather, it is a commissioned work that reflects the priorities of those who commissioned it and their assessment of the author’s credentials, credibility, etc. The risk is that agenda-driven research that would not make it through a truly blind, unconstrained peer review will end up getting perceived by the wider public as somehow scientific, vetted, credible, etc.

More broadly, I’ve been thinking a bit about the two-way process whereby (a) academic institutions open their doors to non-academics as senior administrators, faculty members, and fellows, and (b) non-academic institutions adopt the language of academia to burnish their own images as objective, scientific, rigorous, etc. There are some real dangers here for academia, I think, in surrendering whatever independence remains to universities and in having the distinctions between scholarship and other forms of analysis get erased. No immediate solutions spring to my mind for how to address these dangers, other than to say that consumers (academic and non-academic) of “peer-reviewed” research need to be critical and open-eyed about that label really means. It would also be good, of course, for think tanks and other institutions to clarify what “peer-reviewed” really means to them.

Marcel Cardaire’s Figures for the 1952 Hajj

Very belatedly for someone who works on Islam in Africa, I read through parts of Marcel Cardaire’s L’islam et le terroir africain (1954) the other day. I hadn’t had much interest in the book before, given its implicit racism and the fact that it’s discussed extensively in more recent, secondary literature, but it’s now relevant to a project I’m working on, so I took a look.

Among various interesting bits, one thing that jumped out at me was Cardaire’s figures for the 1952 hajj (or, to take his phrasing, entry visas for Saudi Arabia in 1952, which I assume corresponds at least roughly to the hajj figures). He only lists figures for a few regions and countries, but here they are from largest to smallest. The total visas, he said, was 148,175

  • 27,611 Egyptians,
  • 18,314 Pakistanis,
  • 10,645 Indonesians,
  • 10,218 Indians,
  • 9,623 Turks,
  • 9,233 Sudanese (then “Sudanese Egyptians,” since Sudan wasn’t independent until 1956),
  • 6,101 Thai
  • 3,569 Iranians,
  • 1,634 Afghans,
  • 853 West Africans (called “Senegalese” by the Saudis but coming from across the region)
  • 30 Japanese,
  • 22 Chinese,
  • 1 American

Malley and Finer’s Foreign Affairs Article “The Long Shadow of 9/11,” Annotated

Robert Malley, president and CEO of International Crisis Group, and Jon Finer, former Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning in John Kerry’s State Department, have published an extremely important article in Foreign Affairs. Entitled “The Long Shadow of 9/11: How Counterterrorism Warps U.S. Foreign Policy,” the article makes a number of arguments that deserve wide amplification. To that end, I’ll make my small contribution by annotating some key passages from the article below. I also want to highlight a few areas where I think they could have gone further, and I’ll close with a critique related to optics. In my annotations, I’m working from the print edition (July/August 2018, pp. 58-69), because I do not believe the online version is up yet.

  • p. 59: The article’s central argument is that “An excessive focus on [counterterrorism] disfigures American politics, distorts U.S. policies, and in the long run will undermine national security.” I couldn’t agree more.
  • pp. 58-59: One of the article’s biggest strengths is its attention to how counterterrorism policies distort domestic politics. As part of establishing this argument, the authors note the significant policy continuities across the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump when it comes to counterterrorism: “In an era of persistent political polarization, countering terrorism has become the area of greatest bipartisan consensus” (59). One might add that despite a fetish for bipartisanship among elite newspaper columnists and centrist Senators, bipartisan consensus can actually represent a dangerous stifling of debate. It’s a bad sign that we don’t have a more robust national debate about counterterrorism, or even about foreign policy generally.
  • p, 59: Malley and Finer clarify that they are not advocating a complete de-prioritization of counterterrorism: “The question is not whether fighting terrorist ought to be a key U.S. foreign policy objective – of course it should. But the pendulum has swung too far at the expense of other interests and of a more rational conversation about terrorism and how to fight it.” This is well said, although I think they could have been more forceful here: if you go by hard numbers about what threats actually affect the largest numbers of Americans, counterterrorism should be a second-tier priority at best, and probably more like a third-tier priority, well behind climate change and pandemics.
  • p. 59: “Those privy to the constant stream of threat information generated by U.S. intelligence services – as we were during the Obama administration – can attest to the relentlessness and inventiveness with which terrorist organizations target Americans at home and abroad.” This makes some sense. But it would also have been worth stating that immersion in that kind of environment could actually cause policymakers to lose, rather than gain, perspective. That kind of atmosphere also makes political appointees a bit vulnerable to manipulation by hawks in the intelligence community.
  • p. 59-60: “Unlike most other foreign policy issues, terrorism matters to Americans. They may have an exaggerated sense of the threat or misunderstand it, and their political leaders might manipulate or exploit their concerns. But politicians need to be responsive to the demands of their constituents, who consistently rank terrorism among the greatest threats the country faces.” This is true as far as it goes, but I think it only captures one part of a three-way interaction between the public, politicians, and the media. Politicians (as Malley and Finer discuss later) and the media (as they mention at the very end of the article) play major roles in shaping public perceptions. I don’t think that most of the public has a self-generated fear of terrorism – I think they are led into that fear by elites.
  • p. 60-61: “Trump’s rise…cannot be dissociated from the emotional and at times irrational fears that he simultaneously took advantage of and fueled.” This is a key point, perhaps the key point, of the essay. Why did Trump win? There are probably dozens of reasons – the tactical and rhetorical missteps of the Clinton campaign, James Comey’s clumsy and perhaps malevolent rhetorical interventions during the campaign, the electoral college, Russian influence, racism and sexism, economic stagnation for many Americans, a culture of celebrity worship, etc. But I think the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, and Trump’s exploitation of those incidents, have not been given nearly enough weight in analysts’ understandings of the 2016 election result. To put it more bluntly, Trump’s win is in large part a product of the War on Terror. In that sense, both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the “liberal” media, played significant roles in feeding public alarm about terrorism in ways that ultimately benefited Trump.
  • p. 61, “Trump is hardly the only [politician] who has hyped the threat of terrorism for political gain…It has become exceedingly rare for an elected official or candidate to offer a sober, dispassionate assessment of the threat posed by foreign terrorists. Obama tried to do so, but critics charged that at times of near panic, such rational pronouncements came across as cold and aloof.” I don’t know – I think Jeremy Corbyn’s approach after Manchester shows that there can even be a political benefit to leveling with the public. I think Obama could have done much more on this front.
  • p. 62: Here is where Malley and Finer pivot to their second main argument, namely that “The time spent by senior officials and the resources invested by the government in finding, chasing, and killing terrorists invariably come at the expense of other tasks: for example, addressing the challenges of a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, and a resurgent Russia.” Here I agree with the sentiment up to the colon, but I disagree with the other possible priorities the authors mention. The debate is too often framed this way – i.e., as counterterrorism vs. what I would call “great power bullshit.” If the point is to have a clear-eyed assessment of what actually threatens the United States, then trying to flex on Russia in eastern Ukraine or on China in the South China Sea are not priorities, they are problems partly of our own making. The big threat, again, is climate change.
  • p. 62: Here is a point I completely agree with – “The United States’ counterterrorism posture also affects how Washington deals with other governments – and how other governments deal with it…Washington’s willingness and ability to criticize or pressure the governments of Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, among others, is hindered by the fact that the United States depends on them to take action against terrorist groups or to allow U.S. forces to use their territory to do so.” In this connection, I will plug my wife’s book, which examines how Morocco has strategically benefited from the War on Terror.
  • p. 62-63: Malley and Finer go on to describe how American brutality in counterterrorism can feed and empower other countries’ brutality, in a kind of race to the bottom.
  • p. 63: Although this is not the heart of the article, the authors give a fascinating description of how counterterrorism distorts interagency policymaking within presidential administrations. “In one example from our time in government, in 2016, officials taking part in the more specialized counterterrorism side of the process debated whether to kill or capture a particular militant leader even as those involved in the parallel interagency process considered whether to initiate political discussions with him.” Unbelievable.
  • p. 64: Here is another critical point: “[The] policy distortion has produced an unhealthy tendency among policymakers to formulate their arguments in counterterrorism terms, thereby downplaying or suppressing other serious issues.” This crops up in the think tank world a lot, of course. It is an unfortunate trend with discussions of Africa, too – a lot of Africa watchers/think tankers, desperate to get more attention for Africa, play the national security card. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, a lot of the time, if what you care about is actually another issue, like development.
  • p. 66: The final main section is really strong as well. “Paradoxically, fixating on counterterrorism can make it harder to actually fight terrorism. The intense pressure to immediately address terrorist threats leads to a focus on symptoms over causes and to an at times counterproductive reliance on the use of force.” Very well said. This goes back to some of the dynamics highlighted above involving publics, policymakers, and pundits – if we are to get out of those cycles, policymakers and politicians may have to be willing to accept some short-term political losses in order to do some long-term good.
  • p. 66: “Sometimes what’s needed is a far broader approach that would entail, where possible, engaging such groups in dialogue and addressing factors such as a lack of education or employment opportunities, ethnic or religious discrimination, the absence of state services, and local government repression.” I sure think so.
  • p. 67: “An overly militarized approach aggravates the very conditions on which terrorist recruitment thrives. The destruction of entire cities and the unintentional killing of civilians, in addition to being tragic, serve as powerful propaganda tools for jihadists.” Yep. The right will contend that jihadists are strategic masterminds whose expansion reflects their own brilliance, but I believe Malley and Finer are correct that a significant part of the proliferation of jihadism has to do with our own actions.
  • p. 68-69: Somewhat surprisingly to me, Malley and Finer see “a window of opportunity” now to change the conversation on terrorism. They see a “small crack” in the political consensus, with a big of skepticism coming from the Trump administration and from Bernie Sanders. I’m really not sure how much the conversation is changing. I think 2020 candidates will still have big incentives, or perceived incentives, to hype the threat of terrorism. But I am glad to see this article and I hope will inspire more thinking and writing in this direction.
  • A final note on optics: I think Malley should have written this article solo. That’s not a knock on Finer, but I think Malley needs to be careful that he is seen first and foremost as the head of Crisis Group, and not as a former Obama administration official. As a big fan of Crisis Group, I’m concerned that this is becoming a pattern – Malley co-authoring articles with other former Obama administration officials. It would be a real shame if Crisis Group came to be seen as just another administration-in-waiting, as a foreign policy version of the Center for American Progress. That perception could cost Crisis Group whatever influence it has with Republican administrations, and could weaken Crisis Group’s independence when Democrats are in power; it could even affect Crisis Group’s reputation in Europe and elsewhere. So I hope that in future articles Malley will not team up with his former colleagues.



“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.