Tribal Conflicts: What to Do?

In the past 20 years, millions more people have been killed in tribal conflicts than by AIDS. Tribal conflicts were responsible for the two worst American military setbacks since Vietnam (the destruction of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, where 241 people died, and the loss of 18 Americans in Somalia in the 1993 raid against Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed's tribal leadership). Tribal conflict also drew us into a major role in Bosnia. Whether we like it or not, an increasing share of American foreign policy is devoted to dealing with tribalism. We need to learn the rules.

For these purposes, a "tribe" is defined as a self-conscious ethnic, religious, language, racial, cultural, or clan group. While tribalism is not a subject taught in American schools, and though it doesn't get much mention in political speeches, such conflict has brought much suffering to the world in this generation. The following list of current and recent tribal feuds is illustrative but excludes many examples, such as those in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

*Nigeria: In June 1967, massacres of Ibo tribespeople, a distinct language and geographic group, in non-Ibo areas of Nigeria caused them to flee to the Ibo homeland, the Eastern State. There they declared their independence as the nation of Biafra. A civil war began immediately and an estimated 1 to 3 million people died of military action, starvation, or disease.

*The 1994-95 conflicts between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes in Rwanda led to the death of an estimated 500,000 people and the creation of several million refugees. The danger of a similar outbreak of violence between these same two tribes in neighboring Burundi remains.

*Centuries of tribal strife in Lebanon preceded the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Over the next 15 years the conflict took some 150,000 lives and caused an estimated $100 billion in property damage, almost entirely destroying downtown Beirut as well as many outlying towns.

*Until 1983, Sri Lanka was a functioning democracy with an enviable reputation for economic development and social justice. That year a series of ethnic murders ignited long-standing mistrust between the two predominant tribal groups in the country, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. These groups are divided by religion, language, and ethnicity, and each feels its existence is threatened by the other. Fighting since 1983 has killed 50,000 people.

*Fighting in Afghanistan has continued since the departure of Soviet troops. Although depicted by the press as a conflict between Muslim fundamentalists and nonfundamentalists, at its root, the causes are tribal. The groups fighting for control include Pushtu speakers in the south and east, the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Panjshiris in the north and east, the Uzbeks in the northwest, and the Hazara Shiite Muslims in the center of the country. It seems none of the groups has the strength to subdue all the others, nor is there enough trust for any coalition to dominate, or even survive. Each group is convinced it is fighting to protect its heritage and future, making compromise difficult.

*The Angolan civil war broke out in the mid-1970s and led to as many as 100,000 deaths and the devastation of the non-oil sector of the economy. It is remembered as a classic cold-war conflict with Cuba, the Soviet Union, South Africa, and the United States supporting various factions. Each of the three main Angolan combatants was basically tribal: the MPLA was identified with the Mbundu, UNITA with the Ovimbundu, and FNLA with the Bakongo. The outside world may have intervened to "save" socialism or freedom, but the Angolans themselves were fighting a tribal war.

Americans have cultural baggage that handicaps us in developing policy in tribal conflicts. Our deeply held values include stamping out racism, integrating society, and treating all Americans as equals. "Separate but equal" is a disgraced concept. To say that one "tribal" group in this country is "better" than another is deeply offensive. Similarly, efforts in the scientific community to explore the possibility of intellectual differences among racial groups are bitterly resented. While we rightly cherish our egalitarian values, they make it difficult for us to understand tribes that emphasize and even glorify racial, religious, ethnic, or cultural differences from their rivals.

Tribal conflicts have common characteristics. "Defend our sacred birthright," is the usual rallying cry from one side, and often both sides, in tribal conflict. It is almost impossible to overestimate the depth of emotion with which a tribe can react when it feels threatened, or the zeal it may develop when it sees the chance to even scores for depredations suffered from its age-old enemies.

In the midst of the paranoia, the worst mistake outsiders can make is to be seen to support one side. This not only escalates tribal neurosis but also makes the outsiders part of the problem. For example, when the battleship New Jersey shelled Shiite and Druze centers in September 1983 during the Lebanese civil war, the parties in Lebanon assumed, not surprisingly, that the US had intervened for the Maronite Christians and against their tribal opponents. It is doubtless not a coincidence that within weeks after the shelling, a suicide bomber drove a truck into the Marine compound near Beirut airport and blew up the barracks. (The FBI estimated that the explosion had the force of 12,000 pounds of TNT, making it the world's largest known nonnuclear explosion.)

Similarly, when General Aideed's faction in Somalia killed 23 Pakistani soldiers in an ambush in 1993, the subsequent US attempt to liquidate his tribal military leadership, had it succeeded, would have earned generations of tribal enmity rather than providing what policymakers at the time considered a logical solution to a difficult problem.

There are examples of tribal conflicts that have softened somewhat, such as in Lebanon, between Arabs and Israelis, and, until the recent renewal of violence, in Northern Ireland. The common traits of all three are that each side has suffered great pain over a period of at least a decade. We may surmise that the parties are beginning to understand that they can never completely vanquish their enemies, leaving only the prospect of continued conflict and escalating costs.

In view of this, a few suggestions are offered for the State and Defense Department handbooks on how to deal with tribes.

*Do not take sides. Make it clear that you do not threaten a tribe's existence. Be dispassionate. Both sides should know, however, that transgressions from a clearly described standard will be met by the appropriate means, including overwhelming force. It should be understood that your policies concern specific actions only and are not a threat to the group.

*Develop direct means of communication with all components of the tribal leadership. Make it clear you are always eager to talk.

*When you talk of force, do not bluff. If you must use force, use too much rather than too little. Try to destroy property. In the Somalia situation noted above, a better response would doubtless have been to blow up the main bazaar in Aideed's tribal area.

*Sometimes tribal conflicts simply must exhaust tribal emotion and paranoia before settlement is possible. There are times when nothing can be usefully done by outsiders except, perhaps, to intervene minimally to prevent slaughter and to keep channels of communications open. If there is an international consensus, express it clearly and often. If there is no consensus, stay out. In any case, be patient and avoid mindless deadlines.

*Clark Rumrill served in the US State Department for 25 years and now lives in Reston, Va.

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