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In September 1898, an outnumbered British-led army battled the forces of a Muslim fanatic in Omdurman, Sudan. The Brits unleashed machine-gun fire and artillery on the primitive warriors and suffered a loss of 48 dead and 434 wounded, while killing 9,700, wounding 13,000 and capturing 5,000 of the enemy. Winston Churchill, who was present, called it “the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians.” The British ruled Sudan for another five decades.
In October 1993, badly outnumbered American troops battled the forces of a Somali clan leader in Mogadishu. We unleashed machine-gun fire and helicopter gunships on the primitive warriors and suffered 18 fatalities and 73 wounded to as many 5,500 Somali killed and wounded. It was a fight nearly as lopsided as the Battle of Omdurman, but the U.S. was out of Somalia within a year.
Since the 1990s, we have witnessed the revenge of the tribes. For hundreds of years, the result — with some spectacular exceptions — of a clash between modern and primitive armies was a bloodbath and disorienting humiliation for the primitive forces. When Inca emperor (and sun god) Atahualpa ventured out into battle in 1532 with a force of 80,000 against an invading Spanish contingent of 168, he was immediately captured and eventually executed. Now, tribes, clans, and primitives of all sorts represent one of the most intractable problems in the war on terror.
Throughout the past century, the rules and goals of the West have changed. We are thankfully no longer as comfortable slaughtering people, and we no longer want to directly govern third-world areas. Our goal, on humanitarian and — since Sept. 11 — on security grounds is to create decent indigenous governing authorities where otherwise chaos would reign. And this is the problem — tribes and clans can’t beat back a conquering Western army but they can, quite naturally, frustrate attempts to govern them.
In western Pakistan, Gaza, southern and eastern Afghanistan, Somalia, and western Iraq, it has been ungoverned spaces that have created the environment in which terrorists can thrive. Our problem in the war on terror is less the absence of democracy than the absence of strong states. Tribes are inherently difficult to govern because they, as James Kurth writes in The American Interest, “do not see themselves as citizens who enjoy equal rights within one homogeneous nation,” but as “at most a collection of nations in a nation, but not of it.”
This is why even the mind-bogglingly brutal Saddam Hussein had trouble handling the tribes of Iraq. The extraordinary progress we have seen in Iraq in the past six months has less to do with winning new converts to our ideological vision of liberal democracy, and more with how we have — through inspired and very practical work at the local level — turned the tribes in our favor. We have greased palms, stroked egos, and benefited from the excesses of an al Qaeda so savage and dark that it represents a threat even to the not particularly gentle or enlightened way of life of the tribes.
President Bush doesn’t appear to have entirely absorbed this. He still insists that Muslims desire freedom as much as Methodists do. This may well be true of Muslims who are as deracinated as most Methodists are — living in societies that have dissolved traditional ties of clan and sect to make possible the individualism upon which modern liberal democracies are built. Most Muslims in the Middle East don’t live in such societies, of course, and creating them would represent a radical social revolution almost as threatening to tribal sheiks as the vision of al Qaeda.
What we are instead witnessing in Iraq is a necessary American accommodation to people for whom blood and soil mean much more than constitutional rights or democratic procedure. Is that ideal? No, but consider it part of the revenge of the tribes.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate