How Tribes Measure Their Own Strength

Near Camp Joyce, Konar province.  Photo by Andrew Lubin.
Near Camp Joyce, Konar province. Photo by Andrew Lubin.
In the videos (and posts) on this site, we’ve talked about the characteristics of tribes and the tribal mindset. Among these are respect for elders, hostility to outsiders, the obligation of revenge, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, hospitality, capacity to endure hardship and the suppression of women. These qualities appear to be universal, or nearly so, across all continents during all periods of history. They seem to hold true for Native Americans, Africans and Amazonians, ancient Celts and Gauls, Scottish highlanders and the savage tribes that fought Alexander, Cyrus and Xenophon.
Today I’d like to address another aspect of the tribal mind: how it measures power. 
Men with guns
How do tribes assess their own strength? Studies seem to indicate that it’s not by wealth or property (including number of wives or livestock) or even by possession of land (which is often held communally or semi-communally.) The measure seems to be the number of armed men that can be put into the field. The more of these a leader can call upon, the more powerful he is.
From Special Forces Maj. (then-Capt.) Jim Gant’s OPSUM [Operation Summary] of a 2003 shura with tribal elder Noorafzhal in Mangwal, Konar province, Afghanistan:
After the meeting was adjourned, [Noorafzhal] asked to speak with me privately.  So my terp [interpreter] and I went out back with him.  He took my hand in his.  “I want you to know, Commander Jim, that you have my loyalty.  If you need men with guns you come see me.”  He promised 800.
A July 22, 2009 article by Alex Rodriguez in the L.A. Times assessed the power of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban chief in South Waziristan:
Analysts say he has about 20,000 militants at his command, a much larger contingent that the 4,000 fighters believed to be loyal to the Swat Taliban leader Maulana Qazi Fazlullah.
Critics may of course protest that the Taliban are not a tribe. I would argue that they’re a super-tribe.  (See tribal characteristics in paragraph one above.) In any event, the natural measure of their power seems to be not wealth or property, but men with guns.
Men with guns compared to what?
Here’s where it gets interesting. Tribes measure their strength not in isolation but versus their most immediate and proximate rivals. The Blackfeet of the 1870s judged their mojo in comparison to the Sioux, and the Comanche rated their power vis-a-vis the Apache.
From an e-mail from Col. C.M. “Chipper” Lewis, Commander of the 174th Infantry Brigade:
I would add that the tribal system has a key vulnerability that can be exploited. Tribes first look at their power and influence relative to other competing tribes. I saw this when I was negotiating with the Jennabi and Zobay tribes in Baghdad. Both groups of Sheiks told me in separate discussions … that the key to turning them away from AQ [al-Qaeda] was that they were losing too many men and had lost much influence and capability relative to other tribes.
 How our men with guns can influence theirs
 Col. Lewis’ method was to “get kinetic” on them.
The bottom line was that the coin of the realm for [the tribes] was the number of males in the tribes they could count on.  Once we attrited that … relative to other competing tribes they quit and came to us.
In other words, one tribe could be played off against another. If the relative strength of Tribe X could be lowered enough so that they feared becoming vulnerable to rival Tribe Y, Tribe X became more likely to ally itself with Tribe Z–i.e., us. Theoretically, this could also work by augmenting the power of Tribe X, thus making Tribe Y feel more vulnerable and more disposed to turn.
[The tribes] didn’t give a shit what anybody else was doing except watching and gauging the relative power of others in their own area of interest.  [But if you're going to turn them], you gotta do it one tribe at a time.  If you’re trying to influence or to attrit all of them simultaneously, they gain or lose power simultaneously and they fight on playing both sides of the fence.  Take ‘em on one at a time and we could probably stack them up like cord wood and every subsequent tribe that turns will turn faster and with less casualties because they see what is happening around them.
Would this work in Afghanistan? Col. Lewis is dubious, because of Afghan and U.S. politics. Leaving that thorny issue aside for the moment, the point I would stress is the same one that this blog has put forward from its inception:
Work with the tribal mind, not against it
The tribal mind thinks tribally. It considers and weighs options from a completely different point of view than the western “national” mind. This can be leveraged to our advantage (and ultimately to that of the tribes, despite themselves) if we make the effort to understand the mechanism–and pick the right place to set the crowbar.