In Which I Take a First Stab at Explaining Cultural Relativity

Cultural relativity is a heinously difficult concept to fully comprehend. I want to say: “Look, there are some cultures where they do certain things that ‘we’ find abhorrent. But that’s the way their world works.” Yet in the same breath, I have to say, “Yes, it’s probably not desirable in the long run, but it’s still just the way some people live.” The two are parallel, in the purely geometric sense of the word—they run alongside each other, ‘and never the twain shall meet’. When they do, we inevitably find conflict. 

The inspiration for this post came from an NPR story, by Quil Lawrence and Ahmad Shafi, about an Afghan girl sentenced to death for possessing a mobile phone, and allegedly using it talking to a (presumably non-related) boy. To ‘Western’ sensibilities, such a sentence seems repugnant. But in a culture where strict delineation of the sexes is observed throughout all spheres of life, it is at least comprehensible.

What is interesting about this report to me, in terms of my Ph.D. research, is the predicament in which places the American soldiers. The girl came to a US army base seeking refuge. It was duly provided. But the soldiers in the base—trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local population—will be making no friends by sheltering this girl from the punishment which her culture has deemed appropriate.

It’s a deadly Catch-22. If they let the girl return to her family, she will most likely be killed. If she stays on the base, what little local support the Americans in the area have gathered in the years they have been there. The point that Quil and Shafi raise is, in a counterinsurgency environment:

When she came to an American military base pleading for help, U.S. officials had to figure out how to save her life without enraging the local community.

This is an extremely difficult question to answer. Part of my purpose with the dissertation is to develop metaphors to help us understand these cultural differences, and to accommodate as many of them as possible. It is not my intention here, or anywhere else, to ‘draw lines’ around what is acceptable and what is not. But I will write more on the ways in which these different cultures might not see eye to eye.

As an example of why the cultural differences are so important, consider the following observation from the historian and anthropologist, Thomas Barfield. We must consider the ‘perceptions’ of the girl’s presence on the base. As a matter of honour for her family, this could legitimately be considered a grave undermining of her male relatives’ authority. As Barfield points out: “Because honor itself [is] judged in the theoretical realm, perception [is] more important than reality.”1 The majority of Afghans, whether or not they are Pashtun by descent, follow the precepts of pashtunwali: “a code of principles thoroughly rooted in the primacy of maintaining honor and reputation.”2 In Afghan culture, it is vital to the integrity of the family that these principles be upheld.

The necessity to uphold honour is so important that, as Quil and Shafi point out:

This is where the story in Afghanistan often ends: The woman is sent home, and later killed by her family to cleanse the dishonor.

In this case the story ended more happily. From the point of view of this post, however, the comments of the girl’s Marine caretaker is more telling:

There are so many women who have this issue. It would be nice if there was something we could do that was tangible, but I don’t know what that thing is.

I’m going to keep searching for something. But it will be a long and difficult struggle to find a way to reconcile to very different cultures. And these cultural differences don’t make the delicate matters of counterinsurgency any easier.


1. Barfield, Afghanistan, 185.

2. Barfield, Afghanistan, 59.

Organizational Structures (M-Form and U-Form)

This Yesterday morning (still working on being actually efficient) I read about organizational structures in the context of insurgencies. (Hat tip to Sam for providing me with some papers on the subject.) I first got wind of scholarship on the interaction between organizational theory and insurgency from Seth Jones’ book, In the Graveyard of Empires. In the book, Jones describes al-Qaeda as a ‘complex adaptive network’ (Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires, 224-227). Such networks are flexible and ‘adaptive’. This flexibility gives that group, and others based on similar setups, a great deal of robustness. It is able to cope effectively with seemingly ‘catastrophic’ losses.

Patrick Johnston’s 2008 paper, “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone,” discusses two main organizational principles for insurgencies: U-form and M-form. (U-form designates groups with ‘U’nitary leadership; M-form applies to groups with ‘M’ultidivisional leadership.)

Considering insurgent groups from an organizational theory point of view is helpful, because it allows us to differentiate between types of insurgent groups, and—more importantly—to be more specific when discussing the aims and objectives, activities and operations of different groups, and how they change over time (See Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies”). In 1997, Kristian Berg Harpviken published a similar study of some of the main groups operating in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s, called “Trascending Traditionalism”. Three groups come under scrutiny: the Pashtuns, the Hazaras and the Taliban. He suggests that the Pashtun tribes were slow to react to the Soviet invasion: “The Islamist activists who triggered early uproar elsewhere were lacking in the tribal areas.” (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism,” 276)

Berg points out that different organizational structures ‘defined’ different groups. This led to them pursuing and achieving different ends, employing different means. They were unable to work together. They were divergent. (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism.”) Sanín and Guistozzi argue that, leaders of rebel groups “have to decide which organizational techniques they will utilize” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 849). However, these choices are not conscious; Mullah Omar did not sit down and decide to create an ‘M-form’ movement. By a process of co-evolution, based on rules of thumb and responses to outside pressures, the Taliban movement developed into an ‘M-form’ institution, with its own benefits and drawbacks. Despite this caveat, Sanín and Guistozzi also argue that “organizational trajectories strongly ‘trap’ and ‘enable’ actors that operate within them” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 850). This suggestion implies that, once an organization makes the ‘choice’ to be either M-form or U-form, certain fundamental emergent principles of those forms ‘guide’ and ‘constrain’ those actors.

(At the risk of over-extension, we might also posit this as a reason why democracies function in the way they do. A strongly ‘U-form’ structure, coupled with—in most cases—decent government ‘penetration’, endears democratic states to certain courses of action.)

Another weakness of M-form organizations is that they are prone to opportunism. Their dispersed nature—in which information is necessarily atomized and not available to all members of the group (importantly the leaders) at all time—creates “[a]gents who enjoy greater autonomy from leadership and are [thus] able to pursue private objectives, often diverting the organization’s resources from their intended uses for their own.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 114, emphasis added) Problems also arise in terms of cooperation with ‘bandits’ and groups which, if the leadership had more direct control, would not be permitted to access the Movement. Because the Taliban is an M-form organization, local commanders (who may not have the same standards as the main leadership) are charged with recruitment, and thus, “there has been some contamination of the Taliban by bandit groups.” (Guistozzi and Gutiérrez Sanín, “Networks and Armies,” 847)

Johnston closes his paper with the notion that “[n]egotiations involving M-form organizations [are] likely to fail because the nature of M-form hierarchy makes it very difficult for top-level commanders to affect compliance from mid- and low-level subordinates.” (Johnston, “Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 136) This has serious implications for the recent peace talks in which ‘the Taliban’ has been engaged. The sheer chaos of Afghanistan makes it unamenable to that sort of organization. As Johnston points out of Liberia under the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the early 1990s, Liberians living under Charles Taylor’s regime complained of “decrepit infrastructure and communications technology” that allowed Taylor’s “mid-level commanders to operate relatively autonomously from those in the Gbarnga capital.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 122)

Johnston posits the hypothesis that “insurgent groups that are ethnically homogeneous will be more effective.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 118) This was a key strength of the Taliban in their early days. Their ability to mobilize the Pashtuns is what set them apart from other, better equipped, better organized, more coherent resistance groups in the early 1990s.* A big-picture view of Johnston’s thesis presents more evidence that (modern) insurgent groups are rarely homogeneous. Often divisions fall along ethnic or tribal lines.

In terms of notes for the future, I’m now looking into the Taliban’s organizational structure and how it has changed over time. I also need to start looking for information about how the drug trafficking groups are organized. I think I’ll re-read Seeds of Terror (although I’ll be a little more skeptical this time round).



* See Sinno, “The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews and Tarzi (eds), The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, 59-89; also Harpviken, “Transcending Traditionalism,” Journal of Peace Research, 34 (1997): 271-287.

Works Cited

Harpviken, Kristian Berg. “Trascending Traditionalism: The Emergence of Non-State Military Formations in Afghanistan.” Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 34 (1997): 271-287.

Sanín, Francisco Gutiérrez, and Antonio Guistozzi. “Networks and Armies: Structuring Rebellipn in Colombia and Afghanistan.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Vol. 33, No. 9 (2010): 836-853.

Johnston, Patrick. “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone.” Security Studies. Vol. 17, No. 1 (2008): 107-137.

Jones, Seth G. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. np: Norton, 2009.

Sinno, Abdulkader. “Explaining The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews, Robert D. and Amin Tarzi (eds). The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2008. 59-89.

To Be, Or Not To Be – A Question of Identity

I just got back from a talk by a PhD student at Swansea University. She was talking on the subject of Uighurs (pronounced wee-gers—finally I learn how to pronounce it!), and their subjugation in China. They are not officially acknowledged by the Chinese government. (Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not recognize ethnicity, as a rule.)

It was fascinating because a lot of the thesis, although it was principally concerned with abstract concepts of ‘securitization theory‘ (the point of which, frankly, I have never really understood), was concerned with the notion of Chinese Uighur identity. The thesis is particularly interested in the representations of identity within the diaspora. It is apparently difficult to establish a true identity for Uighurs. They define themselves mostly by what they are not, as opposed to what they are.

In the Q&A after the talk, the point was raised about the importance of a collected history in establishing an identity. Apparently, throughout Chinese history, the dynasties have, as a matter of course, destroyed the historical documents of the previous dynasty, and rewritten the history to place the current dynasty in the best possible light. This means that there is very little written history in existence about ancient China.

The Uighur have little to draw on in terms of history, then. So I made the point that, Uighurs defining themselves by what they are not, rather than what they are, is similar to the American approach to identity formation. There are few defining characteristics of American people. The culture might be defined in grandiose terms with words like freedom, equality, opportunity. (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” anyone?) But ask an American what an American is and, in my experience at least, you are likely to get something diametric.

    In the early twentieth century, it was American not Bolshevik.
    In the 1910s-1920s it was American not ‘European’ (later refined to not German (more precisely ‘the Hun’)).
    In the 1930s and early 1940s, it was American not Communist.

And so on.

Now, you’re American not a terrorist.

So Americans and Uighurs have little collective history from which to draw their identities. A Norwegian in the group pointed out that Norwegian identity was very much based on the Vikings, and Valhalla. I added something about British identity being loosely concerned with the Tudors and such. Point being, by and large, European cultures and societies have deeply rooted and strong identities, formed out of a sense of being; as opposed to non-being.

A Little Orientalism

The Uighurs have staged four major protests in recent years. One in 1990, and three more recently still. The first three were not covered by Western media, because the Chinese banned reportage. The most recent protest, in 2009, was the first that Western journalist were allowed to cover.

However, the event was stage-managed. The journalists were shepherded from a hotel, onto a bus, and were being taken to the ‘site’ of the protests. What happened next was that “a group of 100 or so Uighurs came round the corner” and a picture was taken. This picture:

Image from

This was held up by Western media as representative of the ‘type’ of people protesting—i.e. “Muslims”. (The Uighurs are predominantly Muslim. In fact that is one of their key ‘outward’ defining traits, which is to say: a trait that is not reliant on others.)

The speaker suggested, however, that in her discussions with Uighurs, both ex-pats in the diaspora, and officials in the region, that another picture represented, to the Uighur themselves, the ‘type’ of people in the protest. That was this picture:

Image from The Jakarta Post

This picture clearly shows a young woman who, from her dress, one would be hard pressed not to consider ‘Western’. And this is the picture with which the Uighur predominantly tend to relate. To me, as a student of Afghanistan, and learning more about Pashtunwali, some of the precepts of which are entirely alien to Western thought, I was struck by the West’s continuing inability to assess the feelings of other nations.

Perhaps that’s going to come across as a little harsh on “the West” (check me out, getting all Sam Huntington up in here (and a little Gsgbf over there!)). What I mean is, it’s difficult to envision a wider ‘spreading of democracy’ when ‘we’ get simple things like the portrayal of the people of other nations so wrong. In this instance, the Uighur woman in the first picture does little more than perpetuate stereotypes (or worse, create false ideas) about foreign groups, which Outsiders then carry forward. Really, the picture we should be painting is one of the progressiveness of the young Uighur woman. Someone who represents to the Uighur a collective identity, which is something they have been denied by history. In the words of one Uighur official, “Save our Identity.”

No Fly Zones

I’m reasonably ashamed to admit that most Sundays I buy a copy of the Sunday Express (a conservative British newspaper, only slightly less right wing than the Daily Mail). Although I only buy it for the general knowledge crossword (if anyone can suggest a less inflammatory newspaper from which I might procure an hour or so of entertainment on a Sunday morning, I’d be grateful) I had a flick through the paper itself. There was a cartoon that made me chuckle.

It is entitled “No Fly-Zone” and features David Cameron holding a can of “United Nations Approved” fly spray and a fly swat chasing off a disgruntled, winged Gaddaffi. It made me laugh because it so clearly depicted how easy Western powers thought defeating Gaddaffi would be.

I think it’s best summed up, in this instant, by Think Strat’s Facebook status from a few days ago, which reads:

So, our strategy seems to be: 1) Pass a UNSC resolution > 2) ? > 3) Gaddafi gone! A new Libya!

That seems to sum up the thinking. But, the last time that NATO forces tried to win a war by bombing was in the Balkans, and even there success (defined by long-term stability) has been patchy.

Just Once, Let’s Know How We’re Getting Out, Before We Get In.

I was in a seminar a week or so ago, when the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya had just been “put on the table.” One of the main arguments against the NFZ in the seminar was that, it should not be imposed until the rebels come up with a viable alternative. At present, it seems that Think Strat’s assessment (see above) still holds. We know that we the Libyan people don’t want Gaddaffi in power any more, but (to the best of my knowledge, which is limited) we don’t know what they want instead.

I have never advocated it and, in fact, agree wholeheartedly with Patrick Porter’s assessment of 9th, March. Namely, “[a] widely touted no-fly zone over Libya would probably not be a surgical intervention that would trigger the overthrow of Gaddafi, but the first step towards entanglement, further escalation, and deeper conflict.”

So the question remains: Where does this end? And I don’t mean that it a crazy conspiracy theorist kind of sense. Rather, I mean, how do we know when we can stop bombing Benghazi, and lift the no-fly zone?

Answers on a postcard (or, if you’d prefer, in the comments), please.

Stephen Walt on Afghanistan

Stephen Walt has a fantastic piece at Foreign Policy, discussing the current American ‘strategy’ in Afghanistan.

His argument is that there seems to be little connection between the strategy, as laid out in FM 3-24, and what is happening on the ground. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything he has to say.

My biggest issue with the current strategy, as I see it, in Afghanistan, is that there is too much emphasis on the protection of NATO forces, not enough on the protection of the locals. The indigenous population is the central focus of counterinsurgency. (It’s also the central focus of fourth generation warfare. See Thomas Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century) However, as recent operations have shown (see Joshua Foust’s indictment of the destruction of the village at Tarok Kolache—and, crucially, the American reaction to it), there seems to be little, if any, respect from the American soldiers for the livelihoods of ordinary Afghans—the very people they are there to protect, reassure and nuture.

As Josh points out in his piece, “war is hell. … But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable.” Personally, I was concerned when I learned that the US were taking over operations in Southern Afghanistan last January. Their penchant for “high tempo, kinetic operations” (read: shoot now, ask questions later) smacks of an inability to comprehend the fundamentals of counterinsurgency.

However, a recent piece from the British army’s PR machine “Helmand Blog” (which I briefly mentioned here) tells the story of a village painstakingly de-mined. The result, a much happier populace, returning to their homes. Josh Foust’s response suggests that this is a model of “how you demonstrate good faith, good intentions, and a desire to delegitimize the Taliban (as opposed to merely destroying whomever you can identify).”

Granted, the American army, at the end of the Cold War, developed into a terrifically unwieldy beast, by the nature of its vast size, and training for Cold War-style, World War Two-style, set piece battles. It’s having trouble ‘training down’ to fight counterinsurgency effectively.


On a side note, has anyone else noticed a similarity between the fighting in Afghanistan (as represented by the documentaries Battle for Marjah and Restrepo) and the Spanish Civil War (as represented by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)?

Complexity, Confusion and Frustration

Ok, so there’s something that I need to get out, before I can get back to my ‘manuscript’:

I don’t have a clue what is going on!

There, I said it.

Every time I read something, there is something (a paper, a blog post, a photo essay, a news article, a book, the list is endless), somewhere else with a different, equally valid view, an equally valid opinion. And at that moment, all progress on the work that I am trying to complete grinds to a halt.

There is no right answer. But I feel like, to admit that in a Master’s thesis (or a Ph.D., if this thing doesn’t drive me bonkers) is to loose some credibility as an academic. After all, we’re prized and praised for stoic defenses of this position or that. But when it comes down to it, no one knows the right way to do things. There is no way to account for everything.

But back to my original question: How do you reconcile all these different points of view?


There are roughly 200 succinct(-ish) words of procrastination. I think that they neatly sum up the final conclusion of this New Yorker piece on a new book, The Thief of Time, about procrastination:

In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

Perhaps now I can get back to work.

Post Number One

I just read the latest ICOS report “Afghanistan Transition: Dangers of a Summer Drawdown.” [pdf]

Overall, it seemed to me to be rather negative, concerning the situation in Afghanistan. Two things in particular caught my attention. First, the critique of the ANSF seems unnecessary. Second, the statistics surrounding the Afghan people’s knowledge of why NATO forces are in their country.


However, the result of training as many ANSF as fast as possible is a flood of advanced weaponry into the hands of tens of thousands of mostly young men, whose allegiance is often fluid under the pressures they face. There is a risk of trained ANA or ANP switching alliances or fighting for the insurgency instead of for the Afghan state.

This section in particular, based on my understanding of the situation, seemed a little off-base. To threaten defection because of "fluid" allegiances is misleading. Moreover, it detracts from all the positive work that is being done with regard to the ANA and ANP.

It might well be the case that defection from the police is a serious issue in Afghanistan, but without any kind of policing, nothing long-term will be achieved. Of course announcing a date for the withdrawal of NATO forces was unwise, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have noble intentions. Of course we should be saying "end-state not end date." But there has to be room for development, and mistakes.

Omelette and eggs, I think.

A Tale of Two Statistics

I’m wary of quantitative data. Without extensive context, they are difficult to use for any real purpose. However, there were two pieces of data which—if they based on reliable informants and have not been skewed or otherwise manipulated—got my attention.

The first: only 8% of the 1,000 men of Helmand and Kandahar were aware of the "event which the foreigners call 9/11." Really, that speaks for itself.

The second: "in October 2010, 40% of interviewees in Helmand and Kandahar believed that foreigners were in Afghanistan to occupy or destroy the country, or to destroy Islam."

I was under the impression that extensive propaganda campaigns were engaged in at the start of the conflict (2001) to inform and reassure the Afghan people.

Was this not the case? If so, where do you think the disconnect between this information and the Afghan people lies?

I’m interested to read your thoughts.