‘Tribe’ is used here as an umbrella term to refer to groups of people with shared lineage or at least a strong affinity with each other. Tribalism is characterised by a strong sense of honour and loyalty to the tribe, a desire to protect territory, and a potential for confrontational relations with other tribes. A Utopian vision of governance within a tribe would emphasise the security and solidarity of a large family, but in practice tribalism has drawbacks.
It works best when each tribe has its own land. There is a strong sense of loyalty within each tribe but there are tensions on the boundaries between tribes, as described by Stanley Kurtz in an article I and My Brother Against My Cousin: it leads to “endemic, often pre-emptive, low-level violence and never-ending mutual distrust”. This is a description of Self-Protection rather than governance.
Tribes do not want to offer fealty to a leader who belongs to a different tribe, so tribalism sits badly with the Western model of national democracy – as is apparent in Afghanistan. Stephen Grey’s article, Cracking on in Helmand, described how the Western attempt to install a central government in Kabul, and the narrative of fighting an enemy called the Taliban, run counter to the reality of a nation of tribal leaders who have their own scores to settle:
“US counterterrorist efforts made matters worse, as special forces swept across Afghanistan in the next few years, time and again haplessly being used to settle tribal scores.”
Perhaps some of Hobbes’s thinking about the benefits of governance (2.3.2) can be applied to tribes. If one replaces independent individuals by tribal units in his thought experiment, it is possible to reach similar conclusions: all the tribes might benefit from agreeing to support a single government that undertook to keep the peace between them.
If there is a strong tribal tradition though, a political system which gives formal recognition to tribes might be more appropriate than a strong central administration. The BBC article, What is a loya jirga?, explains how this traditionally worked in Afghanistan.
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