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The Global War on Tribes

By defining Iraqis as “savages,” the hit film American Sniper has drawn on a long tradition of American war fighting against tribal peoples. The so-called “Global War on Terror” has grown from Iraq and Afghanistan into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and beyond, all in the name of combating “Islamist terrorism.”

Yet within all these countries, the main targets of the wars have been “tribal regions,” and the old frontier language of Indian-fighting is becoming the lexicon of 21st century counterinsurgency. The “Global War on Terror” is morphing into a “Global War on Tribes.”

Modern counterinsurgency doctrine views tribal regions as festering cauldrons of “lawlessness” and “breeding grounds” for terrorism, unless the tribes themselves are turned against the West’s enemies. This threatening view of tribal regions is as old as European colonialism itself.

As Dr. Dan Wildcat states in his Red Alert, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “are often couched in terms of civilization versus tribalism…. once an enemy is identified as tribal, it becomes very hard for Americans to see anything good coming from a people understood as standing outside of civilization and ‘progress’.”

Tribes and Nations

Tribal regions are local areas where place-based cultures, dialects, and clan ties are the dominant social form, and trump state and ethnic allegiances. Although they are tribal, they are not always Indigenous peoples who still follow nature-centered beliefs. Nearly all tribes in the Middle East and Central Asia have converted to Islam, but they still retain their ancient kinship bonds.

Tribes are distinct from ethnic nations. Ethnic group identity is based on language, such as Pashtun, Tajik, or Somali. Tribal group identity is based on smaller and older regional clans and dialects such as Zubaydi (Iraq), Wazir (Pakistan), or Darod (Somalia).

These internal divisions are familiar to anyone familiar with Native nationhood. The Lakota Nation, for example, contains seven bands including the Oglala, Hunkpapa, and Sicangu. In most other countries, these “bands” would be termed tribes, and the Lakota Nation would never be called a tribe. Colonial authorities diminished ethnic nations by defining them as “tribes,” and often pitted them against each other.

Tribes can be viewed as the building blocks for ethnic nations, but in many countries the cement has never really dried. Even in Europe, local dialect regions were only absorbed into modern states such as France or Italy in the mid-19th century. Tribal regions in the Middle East and Central Asia form a layer below ethnic and religious territories, which in turn form a layer below modern states and their colonial boundaries.

Western society tends to dismiss “tribalism” as ignorant villagers brutally acting in their narrow self-interest. Yet in some regions, a local tribal identity may be more inclusive than larger-scale ethnic or religious identities. For example, some Iraqi tribes include both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and help to transcend the tense sectarian conflict.

In Pakistan, U.S. drones have attacked the “Tribal Areas” along the “Northwest Frontier.” President Bush evoked frontier imagery when he stated in TheNew York Times (2/18/07), “This is wild country; this is wilder than the Wild West.” But The Economist (12/30/09) clarified that the allegedly “lawless” tribes “decide…matters among themselves… remarkably harmoniously, through…tribal customary law.” In The Thistle and the Drone, Akbar Ahmed wrote that wars against such Tribal Islamic communities “may well bring about the destruction of one of the oldest forms of human society.”

Nothing New

If the “Global War on Tribes” is as old as European colonialism, in the United States it is as old as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and we can trace it back to the Indian Wars, the Philippine-American War, and the Vietnam War. In his classic Facing West: the Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building, Richard Drinnon documented that all three wars used identical rhetoric of enemy territory as hostile “Indian country.”

Drinnon concluded, “In each and every West, place itself was infinitely less important…than what the white settlers brought in their heads and hearts to that particular place. At each magic margin, their metaphysics of Indian-hating underwent a seemingly confirmatory ‘perennial rebirth.’…. All along, the obverse of Indian-hating had been the metaphysics of empire building…. Winning the West amounted to no less than winning the world.”

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One of the hallmarks of American colonization is to pit favored peoples against the national security threat of the moment—Crow against Lakota, Igorot against Filipino, Montagnard against Vietnamese, Hmong against Lao, Kurd against Arab. When the tribal allies (with their very real grievances) are no longer needed, Washington quickly abandons its defense of their “human rights.” We love ‘em, we use ‘em, and then we dump ‘em. These divide-and-conquer strategies are being revived today, as the Pentagon arms tribes against each other, renewing rivalries that had been dormant for years.

Updating the War

Proponents of the “Global War on Tribes” are seemingly unafraid to connect it to military campaigns in North America. John W. Hall’s book Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War approvingly showed how the Army divided and conquered Wisconsin tribes in the 1832 war, and applies these lessons to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert D. Kaplan brazenly wrote in the Wall Street Journal (9/24/04) that “…the American military is back to the days of fighting the Indians ….The range of Indian groups, numbering in their hundreds, that the U.S. Cavalry…had to confront was no less varied than that of the warring ethnic and religious militias spread throughout Eurasia, Africa and South America in the early 21st century.”

Tribal resistance takes different forms in different countries. In Pakistan and Yemen, tribes may fight under the green banner of political Islamism. In India and the Philippines, some tribal peoples have fought under the red flag of leftist insurgents. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico, they have united in their own indigenist movements.

But to U.S. counterinsurgency tacticians, the ideology is secondary. The primary threat is a tribal identity that has not been formed or encouraged by capitalism. The goal of the Pentagon and the CIA is either to harness tribal loyalties to weaken their enemies, or to destroy tribal identities. Even in supporting tribal allies for their own ends, they may end up destroying the tribes.

In the Americas, powerful and growing Indigenous-led movements are increasingly being targeted by U.S. military and intelligence agencies in their counterinsurgency planning. The National Intelligence Council projected in its 2005 report Mapping the Global Future 2020 that the “demands of free markets...will fuel a revival in populism and drive indigenous movements, which so far have sought change through democratic means, to consider more drastic means” (p. 77).

The Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has applied this emerging doctrine to Latin America. In the Military Review (7-8/99), the FMSO lumped together “Insurgencies, Terrorist Groups and Indigenous Movements,” and warned of Indigenous rebellions in Mexico (5-6/97). The FMSO’s Lt. Col. Geoffrey Demarest stated in his Geoproperty: Foreign Affairs, National Security and Property Rights that “The coming center of gravity of armed political struggles may be indigenous populations…” and that the Internet is increasingly being used by “Indigenous rebels, feminists, troublemakers...”

Reasons for War

Wherever it is waged in the world, the Global War on Tribes has some common characteristics. First, the war is most blatantly being waged to steal natural resources under tribal lands. The rugged or inaccessible terrain that prevented colonial powers from eliminating tribal cultures also made accessing minerals, oil, and timber more difficult—and Indigenous peoples protected their biodiversity—so a greater share is now left on tribal lands than on more accessible lands.

Second, the “Global War on Tribes” is a campaign against the very existence of tribal regions that are not under centralized state control, and still retain non-capitalist social organization (even if they are not all egalitarian in their values). In her Paradigm Wars, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, ex-chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, commented that “promoters of economic globalization... use the overwhelming pressure of homogenization to teach us that indigenous political, economic and cultural systems are obstacles to their ‘progress.’”

Third, the collective form of organization enables tribal peoples to fight back, because they still have social networks of trust to defend their lands and ways of life. The Indian writer Arundhati Roy told me that tribal peoples “have an imagination outside this bar-coded capitalist society that everybody else lives in…that’s why there’s… a whole bandwidth of resistance that has actually managed for quite a few years now to stall the corporate onslaught” (3/29/10).

That’s why the “lawless tribal regions” have to be “tamed,” so as not to become a “festering sore,” and a source of resistance to the corporate state. The only way for tribal leaders not to be crushed by the counterinsurgency campaign is to accept its aims, its money, and its weapons.

In the 21st century— just as many remaining pockets of exploitable resources are located in tribal regions—the only successful pockets of resistance may be found in the mountains, deserts and forests where tribal peoples refuse to die.

Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a faculty member in Geography and Native American & World Indigenous Peoples Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, currently co-teaching a course on “Native Decolonization in the Pacific Rim.” His writings and presentations are at can be found here.