Review

Why Afghanistan’s Tribes Beat the United States

Tightly bound kinship networks aren’t vestiges of the past. They’re a modern—and effective—form of political organization.

By , the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
An Afghan Pashtun tribal elder speaks to an interpreter.
An Afghan Pashtun tribal elder makes his case with an interpreter for the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during an informal meeting in the Zhari District west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Oct. 11, 2010. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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Leaving Afghanistan

The rapid collapse of the U.S.-constructed state in Afghanistan is a poignant reminder that states are not the only form of political organization. Far from it. The early decades of the 21st century are dominated by evidence of state collapse across the global south. States in the developed world are also in crisis, even in the most historically stable countries, including the United States and Britain. Authoritarian strongmen have risen in many crisis-ridden states to protect order against threatening collapse; they are responding to fears of collapse among the most privileged beneficiaries of the current institutions.

Sumit Guha’s slim and learned book Tribe and State in Asia Through Twenty-Five Centuries offers crucial context for understanding one of the most powerful forms of political organization pushing against states: the tribe. Guha is a historian of South Asia with a sociological orientation. He focuses on what he calls the “political ecology of tribal life.” Climate and topography, he argues, empower pastoral and decentralized forms of social organization on the edges of empires and states. The groups in these regions survive through kinship networks and adaptation to the land. They resist powerful intruders, and they adapt creatively to wider changes in politics and the economy.

<em>Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries</em>, Sumit Guha, Association for Asian Studies Publications, 156 pp., , August 2021. <em>Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries</em>, Sumit Guha, Association for Asian Studies Publications, 156 pp., , August 2021.

Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries, Sumit Guha, Association for Asian Studies Publications, 156 pp., $16, August 2021.

The rapid collapse of the U.S.-constructed state in Afghanistan is a poignant reminder that states are not the only form of political organization. Far from it. The early decades of the 21st century are dominated by evidence of state collapse across the global south. States in the developed world are also in crisis, even in the most historically stable countries, including the United States and Britain. Authoritarian strongmen have risen in many crisis-ridden states to protect order against threatening collapse; they are responding to fears of collapse among the most privileged beneficiaries of the current institutions.

Sumit Guha’s slim and learned book Tribe and State in Asia Through Twenty-Five Centuries offers crucial context for understanding one of the most powerful forms of political organization pushing against states: the tribe. Guha is a historian of South Asia with a sociological orientation. He focuses on what he calls the “political ecology of tribal life.” Climate and topography, he argues, empower pastoral and decentralized forms of social organization on the edges of empires and states. The groups in these regions survive through kinship networks and adaptation to the land. They resist powerful intruders, and they adapt creatively to wider changes in politics and the economy.

<em>Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries</em>, Sumit Guha, Association for Asian Studies Publications, 156 pp., , August 2021.

Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries, Sumit Guha, Association for Asian Studies Publications, 156 pp., $16, August 2021.

This latter point is one of Guha’s most important contributions: to show tribes are not antique vestiges of a lost past but instead dynamic, modern adaptations to threats and incentives in our contemporary world. He offers a brilliant survey of examples across the Asian continent, including Swat Valley tribes in Pakistan, ethnic minorities in China, and the Scheduled Tribes in India. Each of these groups has responded to the powerful states around them in ways that reshape the identity of their tribes for the purpose of survival. In India, for example, various tribes have used the Indian democratic system to appeal for quotas on government jobs and university placements, just as their counterparts in neighboring Pakistan have resisted the state and supported paramilitary groups crossing in and out of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a modern outgrowth of tribalism in Pakistan, working sometimes against and sometimes with the state in Islamabad.

Guha is critical of how academics, journalists, and policymakers generally talk about tribes. They are described in static terms, almost inevitably freighted with assumptions about cultural inferiority. If states are rational and innovative, tribes are depicted as static and tradition-bound. Americans of all political stripes cannot shake the belief they know better than the tribal inhabitants of Afghanistan they spent 20 years trying to organize as a modern military and state bureaucracy. Guha is not describing an alternative universe of tribal utopias but is instead knocking down the pretensions that the state can replace the tribes in Afghanistan and other places.

As powerful states try to impose their rituals and goals, tribes adapt and resist with remarkable ingenuity. They have an advantage where political ecology favors decentralized, pastoral communities. We have watched this dynamic play out for two decades in Afghanistan, with a very violent end. The Taliban have mapped onto the tribal structure of Afghanistan and Pakistan far better than the United States; that is how they survived repeated U.S. onslaughts. The Taliban will likely face future resistance from many tribes, especially in the north, but they will not try to build a centralized, bureaucratic state, as the United States attempted.

Guha writes of a “resurgence of tribes” in Asia and other continents. Communication and war-fighting technologies might encourage this political ecology, helping local networks organize and resist larger, distant forces. Of course, Guha also observes that the resurgence of tribes does not prevent the resurgence of empires, such as China, that leverage the same communication and war-fighting technologies for expansion and acquisition. The question Guha’s brilliant research motivates is whether state-building projects might get squeezed in between. Is the modern state, based on the integration of diverse tribes in a shared identity and bureaucracy, in decline? Are states disintegrating into what Guha calls “tribes with flags”?

Nationalism is a phenomenon Guha ignores in his book. It seems stronger than ever in China, Russia, India, Brazil, and many other ethnically heterogenous societies. If anything, the challenges posed by substate actors have triggered a militant return to claims about national superiority and a right to dominate others. Race is often folded into these nationalist claims, identifying who belongs and who does not. Although race can be associated with tribe, it is generally articulated on a larger national canvas. States today mobilize claims of racial superiority to justify expulsions and even genocides—from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to Crimea, Xinjiang, and other border zones. State power seems most ruthless as it also appears most under attack.

The payoff from reading Guha’s book is understanding states are not the only game in town, even though they remain the basic building blocks for most of our models and institutions. Tribes are equally modern, rational, and innovative. They compete inside and outside of states. They merit attention not as antique actors to be eliminated but as co-constituent elements of contemporary global politics.

These insights are enormously important for day-to-day policy analysis. Diplomats must learn more about the tribes that operate in foreign societies. Policymakers must approach them as serious negotiating partners. Leaders must recognize the state institutions they favor are not necessarily superior to tribal alternatives. Local practices are often the most modern and appropriate for their citizens.

How would this approach have made a difference in Afghanistan during the last two decades? Perhaps there were alternatives to trying to build an Afghan state. From the first days after the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, U.S. policymakers recognized the severe challenges of bringing Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and numerous other tribes together in a single political union. Based on U.S. history, leaders assumed that was nonetheless preferable, but Guha’s analysis points in a different direction. The United States might have tried to broker separate political institutions for different tribes that addressed their particular demands. By dispersing U.S. influence more deliberately from Kabul to tribal areas and emphasizing regional autonomy over national integration, Washington might have built more enduring relations. This approach would have rejected hopes for democratization and development in Western terms, but it might have increased tribal incentives to work with the United States rather than the Taliban and other groups.

We cannot know if a tribal approach to Afghanistan would have worked better than the U.S. state-building project. Guha’s book provides the foundation for a deeply researched and provocative exploration of that alternative. The United States will not stop trying to influence other societies, but it must do better than it has done in Afghanistan. A more sophisticated understanding of tribes as modern political actors will be essential to any serious policy reforms. Guha’s research has a lot to offer the foreign-policy community. As we write our difficult post-mortems on Afghanistan, this is the kind of book foreign-policy specialists really need to read.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

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