Why Nomads Win: What Ibn Khaldun Would Say About Afghanistan

Like millions of others, I have been reading Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem.

Maybe unlike most others, I found that it reminded me of Iraq and Afghanistan. That's for one particular reason.

The writer is fascinated by the relationship between traditional, nomadic Mongols and the wolves that share their grasslands. They hunt the wolves but they also learn from them. It turns out that the wolf pack are experts at hunting, lining up in formation for a three-pronged attack on a herd of gazelles, and waiting patiently for hours until the best moment comes for them to charge.

Jiang Rong has also been mulling over a question: Why have the Mongols so often defeated the Chinese in battle, even though the Chinese have been technologically much more advanced? He suggests the answer might be that the Mongols have learned their strategies from the wolves. Genghis Khan chose the most expert wolf hunters to be his warriors.

I have been thinking, on and off, about the same question as Jiang Rong. Not only was the great Chinese empire defeated so often by its poorer, apparently more primitive nomadic neighbors; but plenty of other famously terrifying warriors have been nomads. The Huns that defeated the Roman empire nearly two thousand years ago; the Arabs whose armies reached as far as India in the seventh century; the Mughals who later ruled India; the Turks who conquered Byzantium. All the languages of the Middle East are descended from the languages of nomads, of the Syrian and Arabian deserts; the languages of settled people, of Ur and Babylon, are long ago extinct.

Landless nomads have less to lose from war than settled people; they have a more precarious life, too. In Sicily, traditionally, the Mafia would recruit shepherds as gunmen, to terrorize -- largely speaking -- settled people, such as people with small farms. The nomad-settler conflict is a story as old as Cain and Abel, the first farmer and the first shepherd.

Incidentally for some vivid stories of raids by nomadic Turkmens on the villages of north-eastern Persia, read Arminius Vambery - who, before teaching Bram Stoker about vampires, traveled (dressed as a dervish) from Tehran to Khiva.

Nomad-settler fights happen today in Afghanistan, too. And in a wider sense we could say that the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere are trying to enjoy the same advantages as the nomads: striking at and terrorizing the settled population, while trying themselves to have no assets that can be targeted in response. Nor perhaps is it entirely a coincidence that the populations among which they tend to base themselves -- Pashtuns, and the Arabs of western Iraq -- have a nomadic tradition.

This doesn't explain, of course, why nomads should be successful at organized invasions, let alone ruling empires. Neither wolves, nor a harsh environment, can explain this directly.

The great North African historian Ibn Khaldun looked at this question, hundreds of years ago. His conclusion? That there was a property called asabiyyah, meaning basically a kind of solidarity which makes people trust each other, and support each other. It is this which he thought the successful rebel movements and empire-rulers have had, and the regimes they defeated had lost.

No, this article is not truly about real nomads: it is about nomads of the spirit.

And there are a couple of examples, recently, which show that this isn't just about the fourteenth century. Just as the Qing empire was ruled by a Manchu elite who kept themselves deliberately separate from their Han Chinese subjects, so in our own time both Syria and Iraq have been ruled by a narrowly-based elite with a strong sense of separate identity.

Asabiyyah isn't about race; it's about group identity. The 'tribal' politics of political parties in Western democracies, which often seem to hold on to mutual loyalty more strongly than they do to ideology, are inevitable: without a strong sense of being on one team together, and being able to trust each other, politicians couldn't function together in a single Government. That's asabiyyah too. And it doesn't come from just agreeing with each other -- it's about knowing that they can trust each other, or up to a point anyway.

What would Ibn Khaldun make of Afghanistan today? He thought that corruption and decadence set in when a ruling class had been in power for three generations. It's been quite a lot faster than that in Kabul (see this UNODC report for some recent proof of that). But maybe that's because the Afghan Government lacks that quality of asabiyyah, which successful ruling movements ought to have.

Ibn Khaldun might not be surprised, either, to see the trouble the government is having in recruiting a police force and army that are effective and ethnically balanced. What's the ideology or the common background that could give the military or the police a sense of unity and motivation? Where's the asabiyyah?

Where's the sense of pride that might inspire government officials to serve the public without demanding bribes for doing so?

The solutions to this are not easy ones. It will take decades to rebuild a sense of common nationhood in Afghanistan, and probably generations to build a class of public servants who believe in the nobility of doing their jobs without private profit. My own feeling is that Western powers and the Afghan government have no choice except to use the groups that have real purpose and strength in Afghanistan -- tribes and warlords -- and find ways to make them behave well.

In fact, I think Ibn Khaldun, who saw many governments rise and fall in his own time, would want to see an Afghan government that was willing to stand up for itself a bit more, and rely rather less on foreign aid. Only by having its own vision and by making an effort to realize that vision can a government ever really command loyalty. It is good news that Afghans are to play a prominent role in the coming operation in Helmand: maybe one day they will be the ones to announce these operations, too.

Perhaps visionary leadership for the police and army, and a growing sense of Afghans taking over responsibility for their own security, will inspire a greater esprit de corps. Let's certainly hope so. The historical odds, as Jiang Rong suggested, are otherwise all on the side of the hungry, nimble, nomadic rebel.