What We Talked About At ISA: The Imperial Sociology of the “Tribe” in Afghanistan

As has been established, encounters between the coloniser and the colonised led to the creation of truths, myths, legends and identities in which the two were mutually implicated. These encounters have also bequeathed a particularly problematic lexicon, one whose provenance is narrowly European and one which has been kept alive especially in the discipline of International Relations, even as it is increasingly renounced by other disciplines and in the world outside the Anglophone academy. In my talk at ISA this year, I sought to problematise the concept of ‘tribe’ and show how a monolithic and unreflective body of work became the norm with reference to Afghan social organisation as exemplified by this kind of statement made by General Jim Gant in 2009:

When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.[1]

By tracing the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, the paper (based on a dissertation chapter) performs two types of intellectual labour. First, by following the evolution of a concept from its use in the early nineteenth century to the literature on Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, wherein the “tribes” seem to have acquired a newfound importance, it undertakes an intellectual history of the term. The Afghan “tribes”, taken as an object of study, follow an interesting trajectory: initially likened to Scottish clans, they were soon seen as brave and loyal men, but fundamentally different from their British interlocutors – albeit interestingly always superior to the Hindus who often provided the necessary contrast – only then to be seen as a “problem” that needed to be managed, and finally, as indispensable to a long-term “Afghan strategy”.[2] And second, the paper endeavours to describe how that intellectual history is intimately connected to the exigencies of imperialism. My argument is that the “tribe” has become a familiar and accessible idiom – another expedient shorthand – used to make sense of Afghanistan’s diverse and complex social structure, but that in the process the term has veered far from the manner in which it was originally conceived and utilised. I aim to demonstrate not only how the term has become more thoroughly racialised, but also how it now amounts to a conceptually vapid word that has paradoxically been credited with ever more importance in “understanding Afghanistan”.

It is one man’s early 19th century writing that continues to be the capstone of much of the academic work done on Afghanistan today. Mountstuart Elphinstone was appointed in 1808 as the first British envoy to the court of Kabul under Shah Shuja by Indian governor-general Lord Minto. Elphinstone’s mission was the inceptive British diplomatic mission to what was to become Afghanistan which generated a wealth of material that he turned into a detailed report.[3] This text is Elphinstone’s enormously influential Account of the Kingdom of Caubul and its Dependencies, first published in 1815. Even in 2001, it could be stated that “Elphinstone’s Kingdom of Caubul is arguably the best book on Afghanistan today”.[4]

It is through a rather lengthy process of dissemination and dilution that Elphinstone’s insights have become definitive wisdom in Anglophone Afghan studies, albeit not necessarily in their original form. First, Elphinstone himself based his understanding of “the tribe” on his own personal experience as a Scotsman. The notion of tribe for him was analogous to that of the Scottish notion of clan, and he argues that the Afghan kingdom was remarkably similar to Ancient Scotland in its social and political organisation. Second, much of what was written by Elphinstone was based on rumour and an “intuitive understanding” of the “Afghan culture”. Large parts of the Account are anecdotal: in effect the musings of one person’s inescapably situated experience that has only retrospectively been granted the status of having laid the intellectual groundwork for the ways in which Afghanistan would be interpreted, known, and acted upon for many years to come.[5] For instance, it was through his conversation with a local tribesman on the latter’s opinion on strong government that Elphinstone based his generalisation about the tribes’ innate vehemence towards central authority.[6]

And finally, what Elphinstone himself conceived his notion of “clan” or “tribe” to be conveying was vastly different to the ways in which it was picked up and comprehended by future generations of East India Company and colonial administrators. Perhaps most strikingly, it is the lack of an explicit racialisation of “tribe” that sets apart Elphinstone’s work from that of his successors. Writing at a time before the “white man’s burden” was fully formulated and internalised by European travellers in distant lands, Elphinstone’s account of the Afghan tribes displayed a fresh intellectual curiosity, relatively unburdened by the essentialism that, while not the sole preserve of the nineteenth century, was certainly institutionalised after his time. Admittedly, the idea of a civilisational hierarchy precedes empire, but Elphinstone’s work drew upon notions of similarity (to an ancient Scottish past), as it were, as much as it did upon notions of difference. 

The changing political climate in British India, the pressure (tangible or perceived) from Russia, and an evolved sense of purpose led to decisive (and shifting) changes in British policy towards the Afghan tribes. This in turn led to new ways of thinking about and “managing” the “wild tribes”. And whilst Elphinstone drew on a fresh slate, his scions perpetuated a reified understanding of tribe, selectively gleaned from his colossal Account.

The “tribe” became a progressively more essentialised notion, losing its erstwhile association with the Scottish clan, and “tribalism” became innately associated with “Afghani character” and constitution. The irony is that Elphinstone’s conceptualisation of tribe was superseded by a much less nuanced and complex understanding of the social relations that purportedly constituted Afghan society. Equally ironic, the category of tribe has established its stranglehold on Western conceptions of the Afghan socio-political universe at a time when the fields of anthropology and sociology are steadily distancing itself from the study of “tribes” by pointing out the immense intellectual and conceptual shortcomings of the notion and of the manner in which it has been applied in the past. What we are left with is a watered down version of Elphinstone’s centuries-old conception of Afghan tribes, which has subsequently been repurposed, first in the (not quite immediate) aftermath of its publication by the officials of the East India Company, as well as those directly in service of the empire, and increasingly after the current intervention in Afghanistan. 

Through the particular articulation of the concept of “tribe”, my paper also seeks to that the discourse on Afghanistan is both typical and atypical of imperial modes of thought. It is typical in that the notion of “tribe”, not unlike those of “race”, “caste” and “ethnicity” found elsewhere in the colonies, has been mined and instrumentalised in the service of empire.[7] Tracing the genealogy of “tribe” in Afghanistan, however, also reveals the ways in which Afghanistan as a discursive regime is exceptional. It is distinctive in the way it has been carved out in accordance with the cadences of colonial interest in the region. Unlike colonial India, imperial interest in Afghanistan ebbed and flowed, alternating between long periods of apathy and short concentrated bouts of intense concern and involvement.

As such, this has led to a sort of “emergency episteme” of the Afghan tribe, a familiar convocation of alterity at the behest of empire, but without the intellectual, economic and emotional energies that were expended in the construction of other idioms of difference such as race, caste and ethno-nationalism. There has been a distinct paucity of resources devoted to studying the region, a lack of any profound academic engagement with the country, and most importantly, a lack of any consistent and sustained interest in the area. Even at the height of imperial involvement in Afghanistan, there were no monographic studies of tribes, few or no income and production surveys, and no colonial ethnography on religious leadership and other networks of the kind that were vital in mobilising armed resistance to the British.[8] Concomitantly, the imperative to churn out massive amounts of “knowledge” and be acquainted with the “facts” about Afghanistan – in a compressed period of time, for immediate political purposes – has become an enduring feature of “scholarship” on Afghanistan.

Over time and with repetition, any nuanced appreciations of social relations, intuitive and incomplete as they may have been, gave way to a generalised and abstracted understanding of tribal or Afghan “character” that in effect was “a list of traits that only restated the problem”.[9] The abstracted conception of Afghan character came to figure prominently in the official colonial institutional memory, and by the time the British Empire collapsed, all understanding of Afghanistan came to rely heavily on this trope, as a “common-sense” crutch for the necessary articulation of difference.[10] As Homi Bhabha reminds us, the processes of subjectification that these tropes and stereotypes unleash always affect both colonial subjects – coloniser and colonised.[11] But while the practices of citation, reusing and rehashing old material, have led to a less subtle, more detached understanding of Afghan social relations, they have also unwittingly compounded a problem that has plagued the study of Afghanistan from the outset: that of limited data and weak scholarly engagement. We now inhabit an intellectual world in which “Afghan tribes” are studied and acted upon unproblematically – one that pays no heed to the fact that both those terms have contestable and profoundly complex histories[12].

It should thus come as no surprise that, in a context of social distance that marks the current intervention, hastily-applied and decontextualized notions of “tribal character” have continued to obscure more than they reveal. Based on an out-dated paradigm, as it were, they dangerously masquerade as a guide to practice in the form of tribal maps and tribal engagement workshops. Against the politically charged backdrop of war and an invasion in which foreign forces are committed to an avid restructuring of the Afghan polity, in a way that is sensitive to prevailing cultural mores and customs, any new account of Afghanistan that overlooks the shaky architectures of colonial power/knowledge – built around personal memoirs, travelogues and hearsay – that have given shape to the claims about Afghan “tribalism”, constitutes a lapse that is bound to have a mighty material fallout.


[1] Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan” (Los Angeles, CA: Nine Sisters Imports, 2009), 11.

[2] This comparison is an underlying theme in Mountstuart Elphinstone’s Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, of Olaf Caroe’s The Pathans and of John William Kaye’s History of the War in Afghanistan.

[3] C. A. Bayly, “Elphinstone, Mountstuart (1779–1859)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online ed., Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8752, accessed 4 Feb 2014].

[4] Nigel Allan, “Defining Place and People in Afghanistan”, 547–8.

[5] In Hopkins’s words: “For its European audience, including company officials it [the Account] set the bounds of what could be known about the Afghans” (The Making of Modern Afghanistan, 13).

[6] Stephen Tanner has called this propensity for warfare Afghanistan’s “enduring problem”: see his Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Taliban. The Examiner, in an article titled “U.S. should focus on Afghanistan’s tribal balance”, also cites the Elphinstone quote, advocating a “focus on developing the Afghan tribal balance and let[ting] history run its course” [http://www.examiner.com/article/u-s-should-focus-on-afghan-tribal-balance, last accessed 9/02/2015].

[7] Nicholas Dirks’s abovementioned Castes of Mind is an excellent example of a work similarly dedicated to the evolution of a concept: that of caste in British India. He demonstrates that caste, in the way it is presently conceived, was the product of a concrete historical encounter between the colonisers and the colonised. His contention is not that caste was invented by the British but that it was under the British that the vocabulary of caste became the only one capable of imagining the Indian political universe(s). Although literature on the inadequacy of the concept of caste as a “guide” to Indian culture continues to proliferate, there is no equivalent work on the notion of tribe. But see Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), for an account of how the British handled and literally “made up” tribal difference with their Mandate in Iraq, based on their experience in Afghanistan, and often implemented policies to align with their notion of “indigenous tribal authority”.

[8] Anderson, “Poetics and Politics in Ethnographic Texts”, 103.

[9] Ibid, 92.

[10] Charles Lindholm explores the prominence of this trope and its increasing control over British institutional memory, and also shows how these stereotypes reflected British concerns and anxieties (if not quite in these words) in his “Images of the Pathan: The Usefulness of Colonial Ethnography”, European Journal of Sociology 21, no. 2 (1980). Recently, Shah Mahmoud Hanifi has argued that Afghan elites have “uncritically absorbed and reproduced colonial frameworks of reckoning” about themselves and their homelands (“Quandaries of the Afghan Nation”, 86); while in The Making of Modern Afghanistan, Hopkins contends that the colonial state only partially penetrated the Afghan (self) imaginary, and that even this only happened many decades after “Afghanistan” was thought up by the British.

[11] Bhabha, “The Other Question”, 18–20.

[12] The Tribal Engagement Workshop, sponsored by Small Wars Foundation, the U.S. Joint Forces Command Joint Irregular Warfare Center, the U.S. Marine Corps Center for Irregular Warfare, the U.S. Army / U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, and Noetic Group, conducted 24–5 March 2010, which assessed the value of a “tribal engagement approach to Afghanistan”, is one particularly egregious example.



2 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: The Imperial Sociology of the “Tribe” in Afghanistan

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

  2. Pingback: Exploring India with Indiana Jones | The GreyWorld Blog

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