Going ‘tribal’: Notes on pacification in the 21st century



Few anthropologists today would consider using the term ‘tribe’ as an analytical category, yet it has become a focal point for military commanders and other leaders prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically, US-led occupation forces in both countries have begun pursuing ‘tribal’ strategies in which they have attempted to forge alliances with ‘sheiks’ and local power brokers. This article examines the reasons for the rapid rise of ‘tribal’ discourses, the role of social scientists in their propagation and the possible consequences for Iraqis and Afghans. It concludes by comparing these processes to ethnographically-informed pacification efforts initiated in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the European powers, and by suggesting that anthropologists can potentially play a critical role by challenging persistent, damaging assumptions.