Afghan Identity

Afghanistan Tribe Maps

We were doomed to fail in Afghanistan from the beginning of our involvement there. Relentless rebellion was inevitable and insurgency will always win the day. A piece of land can be occupied, but a people is another matter entirely. Insurgents, unlike their occupiers, identify with the land.  And identity is allegiance.

A map of the tribes of Afghanistan looks like a patchwork quilt. The Afghan Constitution notes 14 ethnic groups by name and there are still others.  Yes, citizens may carry a passport and there is a national flag but

make no mistake - their identity is not in the passport; the country is more a collection of tribes than a nation-state.

Speaking of flags, Afghanistan has gone through two dozen changes to its national flag, more than any other country in the world. A fair sign of a muddled and unstable national identity.

It’s easier for us in the West to deal with nation-states than to figure out a bunch of competing tribes with a very old and complex history.  The latter is messy.  We prefer to hold to the perception that Afghanistan (and the Middle East for that matter) and its people are  homogenous and cohesive and also, sort of like us operationally, culturally, politically, morally and socially.  Remember the confused disappointment at the apparent failure of the Arab Spring? Similarly, the western press lamented not being able to bring democracy to Afghanistan. But it’s not about democracy; it’s about identity. 

Since the departure of U.S. troops, the Taliban have been encountering relatively little resistance.  Although some local troops fight hard and are dying, even the Taliban has been surprised at how easy it was to step in and take over despite the well-equipped Afghan forces outnumbering them by a factor of four.  To explain the failure of $800 million to support a viable Afghan security force able to counter the Taliban, some have pointed to corruption.  Yes, corruption is rampant and education lacking in one of the world’s poorest countries. But despite bribes and threats, would Afghan soldiers fight bravely and with conviction if it were in support of a goal that closely aligned with their identity?  Family ties, religious beliefs, shared heritage and tribal affiliation make up an identity.  An identity simply cannot be forced on someone.  And let’s face it, your average Afghan solider has far more in common with a member of the Taliban than he does with U.S. soldiers hailing from Milwaukee or San Francisco.

Your identity is linked to what you value in life. The value system of the peoples who live in Afghanistan is quite different from that of the West. In the West, value is placed on individualism; in the East, it’s related to one’s community.  We in the West put the individual on a pedestal whereas in the East, it’s the tribe and the community that counts. In the West, we value personal freedom; the East values honor. And even when an American describes an honorable man he means that he does not lie or cheat and lives by a certain moral code. Honorable in the East has to do with people paying respect to an individual, that person’s power and his contribution to and stature in the community. In the West, we tend to admire financial and vocational success. In the East, status relates to one’s family and religious rectitude. All this informs allegiance. It determines what will bring people together and what they will fight for or, not.

Can you name one instance when an insurgency was successfully put down? From the British point of view, George Washington was an insurgent who resisted a strong occupying force.  His band of insurgents did not/no longer identified with England as a ruling power. And look how that turned out. A war may be ‘won’ via huge military might, a place and people may be taken over,  but then, resistance inevitably begins. 

Absent an honest understanding and acceptance of how things work in Central Asia, intervention efforts however well intended will inevitably meet with failure. Maybe the next time we feel compelled to wage war against a country, we first take a  careful, objective look at history and context.  Then, we take into account how extremely difficult if not impossible it is to impose on a people a new culture/identity/value system - not in twenty years, not in two hundred.


  1. C.B. on August 28, 2021 at 6:51 pm

    Interesting. Doomed from the very beginning, eh! Now do the Arabs and Israel. Will the former’s perpetual insurgency eventually end the existence of Israel? How about a comparative analysis? 
    C. B.

    • Chameleon Associates on August 30, 2021 at 9:12 am

      The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a very different situation from that of Afghanistan. Perhaps it is more akin to the historical conflict between American settlers and Native Americans. Both saw the land as their home. Both sides claimed historical or legal rights to the land. That bloody conflict lead to the eventual assimilation of (not all but mostly) Native Americans into American society through marriage. Many Americans today claim to be 1/16th Cherokee or Navaho. Native American culture, language, identity and religious beliefs outside of reservations have evaporated. There may be a class struggle and many other issues but no insurgent fight against an occupier.

      Tribes in the Middle East be they muslim, Druze or jewish, eschew assimilation. The Druze faith strictly forbids marriage outside of their religion. For orthodox and traditional jews, marriage outside of judaism is a strict taboo. Traditional Arab Muslim society strictly forbids a muslim woman from marrying a non-muslim; men can marry non-muslim women if the bride converts before the wedding.

      Most Israelis (more than 50% based on recent elections and polls) recognize that the Palestinians should have their own State. Israel has taken steps to do just that under both right and left wing governments. As you may recall, under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were granted autonomy in most of the West Bank and Yasser Arafat was allowed in the West Bank after spending decades in exile. Prime Minister Sharon unilaterally pulled the IDF out of Gaza. All Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were removed by force by Israel police forces. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians were given control of the Gaza Strip with the goal of forming a Palestinian country.

      Despite these moves by the Israeli government, Palestinian society has yet to form a solid and sustainable national identity on which to successfully found their country. They are still struggling between their national identity and religious identity. Months after Israel pulled out of Gaza, Hamas violently overthrew the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. Today, what maintains the Palestinian Authority in charge in the West Bank is the intelligence collaboration it has with Israeli IDF forces against Hamas and other radical extremist Muslim organizations.

      We should be careful comparing Afghanistan to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

      For one, consider the geographical distances. Ramallah, the Capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is less than two miles from Jerusalem, the Israeli Capitol. Qalqilya and Tul Karem, two large cities in the PA are located about 10 miles from Tel Aviv. Gaza, where Hamas currently rules, lies 50 miles from Tel Aviv. On the other hand, Afghanistan is located thousands of miles from the U.S. and basically the only Americans who have visited Afghanistan in the past 20 years are soldiers, military contractors and diplomats. Kabul is not a suburb of New York or DC.

      A better analogy to the Afghanistan war would be the occupation of Southern Lebanon by the Israeli Military (1982-2000). Israel went into Lebanon in 1982 to stop terrorist attacks and bombardments against Israeli civilians along its northern border. Today, most Israelis believe that Israel stayed in Lebanon for far too long. A limited scale and quick military operation (like the one that was conducted in 2006 against Hezbollah by the IDF) would have proven more cost effective (in terms of both lives and money) than a prolonged military occupation over a hostile population.

      Bearing all of this in mind, even the conflict in Lebanon is a poor comparison to the Afghanistan War. Lebanon shares a border with Israel while Afghanistan and the U.S. are on completely different continents.

      A more equivalent comparison might have been drawn had Israel formed an international coalition in the 1980s and 90s to attack and occupy Iran for harboring and supporting an anti-Israeli terrorist organization Hezbollah.

  2. Guard dog on August 25, 2021 at 3:10 pm

    Successful defeat of an insurgency? British in Malaya 1948-1960.

  3. James on August 25, 2021 at 5:11 am

    Britain achieved victory against insurgents during the Malaysian Emergencey, 1948-1960. However, except for this well-known answer to the question, even serious military historians would be hard-pressed to name any counter-insurgency victory by any country in modern times.

    Thanks to the author for an excellent and insightful article. Keep up the good work.,

  4. Jack Boothe on August 24, 2021 at 11:44 am

    There are many examples of occupying powers destroying insurgencies. Unfortunately, most have occurred in the narratives of Tacitus and during the middle ages. The tactics used were, to paraphrase Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and short. In the United States, the US Army successfully put down insurgencies by rounding and killing tens of thousands of Native Americans. When was the last time a Native American killed a white man (other than metaphorically at the craps table at Mohegan Sun) as an act of insurrection? I personally knew the war in Afghanistan was lost when the COIN mission devolved into a exercises more at home in Women’s Literature class at one of the “Seven Sisters” than on the battlefield.

    • Chameleon Associates on August 24, 2021 at 1:42 pm

      Ultimately, Native Americans assimilated into American society through marriage (see our comment above regarding marriage and counterinsurgency). The Native Americans fought against Settlers and not occupying forces. The Settlers and the Native Americans saw the same piece of land as their homeland. This situation is similar to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has not been resolved for over 100 years. Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews are unlikely to assimilate into one another through marriages in the foreseeable future.

      A better analogy for insurgency and counterinsurgency in the United States would be the War of Independence against the British.

      • Stuart Emmons on August 25, 2021 at 2:37 pm

        The question is simply, “Would Eisenhower have done this? The answer is no.
        Not only did the Great Thinkers not pay attention to the above mentioned facts they ignored Charlie Wilson’s advice. Then there is Pakistan. We gave these people billions in aid until finally Trump cut them off, As screwups go this is at the top of the list.

  5. Christopher Blocker on August 24, 2021 at 10:59 am

    Name an insurgency that was put down? The Confederacy was put down. The Pilgrimage of Grace was put down. Every insurgency against Alexander the Great and Caesar were put down. Your analysis is historically ignorant, and therefore analytically invalid.

    • Chameleon Associates on August 24, 2021 at 1:29 pm

      The Civil War in the United Stated was between two opposing forces within the same people. The Confederacy cannot be seen as an insurgency but as one side in a civil war. An insurgency can be quieted down by extreme violence. Certainly, Alexander the Great, Roman Caesars and others used extreme violence as a counterinsurgency technique. Overtime, they too, failed in their ability to occupy.

      One of the only ways to put down insurgency is by marriage. The occupier and the occupied are assimilated into one another.

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