The New York Times has a good overview of the pros and cons of relying on a weakened Pashtun tribal structure for counterinsurgency. Until Foust comes out with a ringing denunciation of how this-or-that error proves the Times‘ nefarious intent, I’ll recommend it.

What I’d add is a point less about tribes than about counterinsurgents. All good counterinsurgents say that all counterinsurgency is local. But all good thinkers want to invoke prior relevant experience as a guide to inform future behavior. In practice, “relevant” experience is harder to determine than it seems, and it’s a lot easier to say “Iraq should be our guide” rather than “the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan are so extensive that we should really not go down this thorny associative path.” So as much as every Obama counterinsurgency official cautions that they’re not treating Afghanistan as Iraq — and to say they are is, indeed, unfair; there are important differences — the template is visible. So, in Afghanistan, it’s hard to not view “tribal” as a proxy for “local,” though I hope that’s one distinction that holds.

Update: I should have been clearer about something. The link is to the Times article about the tribal-proxies debate. I liked that article. But the piece also links to a graphic about what the tribal structure is in Pashtun Afghanistan. I didn’t bother to read it, because I obviously lack the skill set to evaluate it. Josh Foust says in comments that it’s flawed, so I defer to him. But even if the graphic — and according conceptual understanding of the tribes — is lacking, the Times still does a good job of representing the debate and the stakes behind it.

Update 2: Foust does such a good job debunking the presumptions behind the Times‘ (mis)understanding of the tribes that I halfway want to retract my joke.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

18 Comments