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Right On: Obama Turns to the Tribes

Sociologists are keenly aware that in societies like Iraq and Afghanistan the first loyalty of the people is to their ethnic or confessional group--to their tribe--and not to their nation. Hence, I (hardly alone) argued that in such societies it does not work to try to build up the national military and the police force and to try to disarm the tribes -- or to more generally rely on the "national" government. Indeed, I suggested that one should allow each tribe to establish security in its region, as the Kurdish peshmerga did so well in northern Iraq. I called such an approach, half in jest, "Plan Z," to contrast it with the often mentioned "Plan B," which seemed not to work (The National Interest November/December 2007). "Plan Z" does not demand for dismembering these nations, but instead favors the formation of a federation with a high level of devolution to the various regions.

True, such an approach leaves some issues, especially those concerning the borders among the tribes--in the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni parts of Iraq--and maintaining law and order in the few remaining mixed parts. However, managing these problems would be much less taxing than imposing American ideas about nation building throughout the large country.

It is just over one year since the publication of "Plan Z," and most observers agree that the turning point in Iraq came when the Sunnis were courted, changing them from a major base of the insurrection to a group that cooperates with the American military and has established a reasonable level of peace in the territory they patrol. In the process, the United States and its allies dealt with the Sunni sheikhs rather than their elected representatives in Baghdad. The increase in the number of American troops also did some good, but mainly because American soldiers worked with local communities rather than trying to disarm them. Moreover, as we have learned from Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan, even Anbar has been turned around, as the United States is working with a local Sunni group of sheikhs, collectively known as "the Awakening."

The same approach, it follows, ought to be applied in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies need to work with the tribes and their natural leaders, rather than try to subject them to an American composed and directed, very ineffectual and increasingly corrupt national government. After all, the United States did not overthrow the Taliban or free Afghanistan; it merely helped a coalition of tribes called the Northern Alliance to achieve these goals. Since then, the United States has tried to replace the tribal militias with a national army and police force, and substitute elected officials for tribal leaders. However, these attempts at nation building have met with very limited success. The United States should work with the tribes and their natural leaders--when they are ready or can be motivated to cooperate--rather than try to nationalize leadership. The good new is that over its last days the previous administration was reported to be moving in this very direction. The New York Times informed us that the "Afghans and U.S. plan to recruit local militias." Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that President Obama has little confidence in the national government of Hamid Karzai. (At the same time, the new administration is giving up on the idea that Afghanistan can be turned into some kind of modern, democratic society, and is focusing on establishing basic security. For more on the merit of this approach see "Reconstruction: A Damaging Fantasy?")

Finally, the same sociological approach can be made to work in the tribal parts of Pakistan. The United States can bomb the areas until the mules come home. However, bombings kill women, children and other innocent civilians, which fuels already strong anti-Americanism. The Pakistani army will be of little help, as it is even more rigidly geared for conventional warfare than the United States Army, and has a very hard time fighting in the tribal areas. The rough terrain only adds to the difficulties.

When I asked the CIA chief from the area whether all seven tribes that make Waziristan their home are of one kind and one mind, he allowed that they are not. Asked whether it might be possible for the United States and its allies to work with some of the tribes to hold the others at bay, he suggested that this is the only way the United States may be able to stop the area from serving as a haven for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Seven years into the area's military struggle, Pakistan and the United States have finally decided to arm some of these tribes to fight the Taliban.

There is no way on earth to turn any of these countries into genuine democracies or effective nation states in the foreseeable future. However, they can be helped to develop stable regimes, based on tribal forces and coalitions. These, in turn, could gradually evolve, as other tribal societies have, into national societies--and, over time, into some kind of democracy. But the prevention of terrorism need not wait until all these complex and slow processes mature, as long as the United States works with the tribes, instead of against them in the name of weak national governments and in pursuit of American fantasies.

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author most recently of Security First (Yale 2007) www.securityfirstbook.com email: icps@gwu.edu