Understanding tribal connections

May 7, 2008

WHEN BRIAN Kwoba ("Don't stereotype Iraqis") rejects Ashley Smith's use of the word "tribe" in a review of a book by Patrick Cockburn on modern Iraq ("The rise of Moktada al-Sadr"), he makes a specific mistake and a general one.

The specific mistake is to take Smith, in describing a point made by Cockburn, as saying that conflicts between Sunni Muslims and Shias are "tribal." Kwoba correctly points out that this would be as ridiculous as saying that divisions between Irish Catholics and Protestants are tribal. But Smith and Cockburn's point is much more specific--that Saddam Hussein built his power with heavy reliance on connections within a single Sunni kinship group.

Kwoba's general mistake is to dismiss a concept that is sometimes crucial to understanding power relations in places where state authority is weak. In such circumstances, alternative forms of authority--often based on kinship or religion--fill the power vacuum. Because of the weakness of the central state, tribal and clan connections play an important role, for example, in places such as Afghanistan, post-invasion Iraq, Somalia since 1990 and Pakistan's "tribal areas."

Again, Kwoba is correct to say that tribal and other kinship structures are not monolithic, eternal or irrational. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. Their persistence today shows that tribal connections are fluid and "modern"--and that they are the product of material causes.

One sign of the adaptability of kinship power structures is the way that some of them are interlinked with modern state power. Saddam Hussein's state, for example, was not merely a family enterprise. The secular nationalism of the Baath party, though it stood in logical contradiction to Hussein's sectarian and kinship affiliations, succeeded in drawing in a much wider layer of Iraqis with ties of loyalty and patronage.

In Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), tribal chiefs known as "maliks" have been integrated with central state power for decades. Governors of FATA are appointed by the central government, but they exercise their power through the maliks. Maliks, in turn, exert undemocratic control over "their people" under the authority of tribal law. The governor keeps the maliks under control with government funding--patronage money. A governor may also dismiss an uncooperative malik, while the position remains hereditary for those who tow the line.

The U.S. scheme for controlling Afghanistan through Hamid Karzai has followed a similar pattern of attempting to win tribal and ethnic clients through the distribution of "development funds" and government jobs. The inherent fragility and corruption of the scheme is evident, however, in the warlords' use of Western patronage as a lever against tribal and ethnic rivals.

Following the destruction of the Taliban's weak state in 2002, U.S. policy has thus been to fill the power vacuum by methodically re-arming and relegitimizing ethnic and tribal warlordism.

If we follow Kwoba's advice and swear off any mention of tribal or kinship politics, we'd be giving up any hope of understanding what's going on in the world's weak and "failed" states--including the ones the U.S. has systematically destroyed.
David Whitehouse, Chicago

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