The Desert and the Sown

“With me along some strip of herbage strown,

Which just divides the desert from the sown,

Where name of slave and sultan scarce is known,

And pity Sultan Mahmud on his throne”

-Edward Fitzgerald, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

In making a study of Afghanistan, in an effort to write my essay on the success of the Taliban movement, I have continually been thinking of Ibn Khaldun’s (d. 1406) essential societal thesis in the Muqaddimah, his prologue to history. In making a study of societies throughout history, Khaldun posited that societies of the desert, nomadic, tribal, and bound closely by social interactions of intimate scale, were more capable, due to harsher living conditions breeding martial expertise, of overrunning sedentary societies and urban spaces. While administering their recent conquests, the desert societies would slowly be co-opted into the structure and culture of the richer sedentary society they occupied, and would themselves become vulnerable to conquest from new incoming peripheral societies. Despite the wealth and the manpower advantages of settled societies had in raising armies, time and again the people of the deserts or the steppes could avoid being defeated when the enemy attacked in strength, and then effectively were able to overrun the settled societies when they were driven back on the defensive.

Ibn Khaldun witnessed the general shakeup of the Muslim world following the great tide of the Mongol conquests, threatened afresh in his lifetime by the power of Timur and the Transoxanian Turkic peoples who would eventually bring forth the ‘gunpowder empires’ of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Weak as bands of nomadic tribesmen might seem when disunited or in terms of their numbers, they were hard to destroy effectively in their own lands, and when united on the offensive they proved difficult to overcome.

Timur the Lame, Ibn Khaldun's inspiration for the Desert and the Sown. No images of him smiling, incidentally.

Timur the Lame, Ibn Khaldun’s inspiration for the Desert and the Sown. No images of him smiling, incidentally.

Especially in the period prior to the great advances in the power of centralized European-style states to impose centrally-administered and hierarchical structures of power and authority, the ability of the coordinated violence-specialist groups from the areas of nomadic, pastoral, and subsistence societies to dominate the sedentary and commercial societies were very great. It was difficult to place any definite authority over the peripheral areas of society and/or not profitable to do so. The ragged barbarians on the frontiers of the great sedentary societies might have been weaker in numbers or more divided in their horizontal structures, but they also were hard to make subject without a continuous, and extremely expensive, investment of time and manpower by the societies who faced them from city walls and across rivers and mountain ranges.

And, in the end, what was there worth conquering? Why did the Romans not advance into the Cairngorms? Because there was nothing there worth ruling or directly taxing. As yet, there was no hillwalking or tourist industry to make it worth a prolonged presence. The money was far better made in using the Antonine Wall as a funnel for a toll-booth for commerce north and south of the Forth-Clyde Valley.

Especially in the areas between great centres of commerce, and on the roads between them, the difficulty of sustaining this investment led to these gaps in direct control of territory by sedentary societies, and maps of ancient empires do not accurately reflect the realities of respective jurisdiction and authority. As one scholar has cogently expressed it, rule in Afghanistan historically resembles a slice of Swiss cheese as opposed to American cheese; holes and irregularities are expected in the former and considered odd in the latter. But it is the former form of administration that wins out because of sheer necessity.

The difficulty of holding the polyglot localities (to say nothing of their respective local elites of Kings, Princes, Nobility, Priests, Judges, etc) of pre-modern states together or harnessing them to a single objective was very great; hence Khayyam (more appropriately speaking Fitzgerald) invites us to “pity” the conquering Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, an Afghan-Turkish ruler of great power and renown, but forever struggling with nominally-aligned steppe nomads to his north and desert and mountain Pashtuns. Often, power delegation to local elites is effectively the only way to keep order, and today in Afghanistan the number of former Mujaheddin warlords who now hold provincial governorships, in some cases as mini-fiefdoms, attests that this strategy still holds considerable water. It will be interesting to see what the local Afghan police forces of these provinces will become in the aftermath of western disengagement from Afghanistan. They may not do much differently than they do now, they may just abandon their more ‘nationalist’ pretenses. This is not to say there is no Afghan nationalism, but the question is of the loyalties of the people providing law and order when their pay and requisitions come from local or ethnic-sources as opposed to a national police force.

Defending from outside attack or profit-motivated offensives against certain rich enemies are the true bread and butter of collaborative tribal coalitions in Afghan history, supplemented by whatever profit was fed into the area by taxing the commerce of the sedentary peoples of Persia or the Subcontinent moving through Afghanistan. In modern times international aid and investment from occupying powers (USA, USSR, UK) and those who opposed them (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) has played a similar role. When the latter goes away, the unity of Afghan rule is subject to considerable disintegration. In effect, the holes in the cheese grow bigger and bigger as Kabul simply has no revenue-generation mechanism that can effectively support the duties of civil government. As it is, the tariffs and revenues are very much in the hands of local authority, backed up by local firepower, and all very cheerfully corrupt.

This is not good news for global commerce. Who wants to build a pipeline when one has to pay tax to a full score of different local authorities to keep it secure, nevermind having to pay off bandits and petty-warlords? The alternative is to either build it elsewhere, pay for your own army (a luxury that companies can increasingly afford), or not build it at all.

Nor is this a distinctly Afghan or Central Asian problem; managing the tribes beyond the Danube (The Gothic River) was a constant headache for Byzantine rulers who had great commercial cities and farming estates in Thrace to protect from Goths, Huns, Avars, and Bulgars, and beyond the Pale of Leinster, the weaker English monarchy of the Fifteenth Century required the power of Anglo-Irish magnates to safeguard the Dublin administration and hold the ‘Wild Irish’ in check. The designation that these are simply indicative of failed or failing states seems slightly one-dimensional in this light; historically speaking this has been the case more often than not.

Certainly it is possible for mass-communication and expensive weapons technology to multiply the force that the few of the centre can wield over the whole of the state, but simple strong-arming is risky and often does more damage than good. The French Monarchy did not bring about the bureaucratic miracle of Louis XIV’s war machine by simply using cannons to knock down every reticent noble’s castle and every Huguenot stronghold (though certainly that was part of it), but by building coalitions in the nobility and in the third estate. Attempting to push any collective interest too hard generally leads to rebellions, Frondes, and Tennis Court Oaths. In Afghanistan, with even greater local ethnic identity issues, it tends to do the same, and getting your cannons often depends on selling out to one foreign interest or another, whether it be Saudi Arab Wahabists or Heroin/Opium smugglers in southern Iran.

Ibn Khaldun would tell us that the strength of states in technology, manpower mobilization, and riches do not constitute an overwhelming advantage when one is facing an illusive enemy who is hard to run down and provides nothing of any great worth to the army or state that conquers them. Counterinsurgency theory of the past 50 years has done little to improve on that concept. America has had to learn this the hard way in Afghanistan; a war of punitive necessity followed by one of the most strategically ill-considered occupations in history, and one that has had the additional limitations of liberal-capitalist restraint to keep from the more epic butcheries of antiquity (and the way that states historically often finally subject their frontier enemies is by ruthlessly depopulating the regions they occupy, though often this serves little purpose if not completed and/or backed up by some alternative settlement plan).

And in the end, what does America gain other than a potential (very) forward base against China (which is contingent on sea/air access through Iran, unfriendly, or Pakistan, a friend which makes you prefer your enemies), a stability operation against a network-centric jihadist threat (which destabilizes the whole region, spreading the wires just to hit a few nodes), a friendly economic partner (with no economy to speak of), and the warm feeling you get when you spread democracy? Perhaps the Defense Industry has done well out of it, but on the whole the taxpayer has little to show for it in return for investment.

We have seen the desert move in once again onto the realm of the sown, and the successes of the Afghan Taliban, with their relative security on the Pakistan border and their successful implementation of insurgent tactics, are very much the product of historical forces familiar to Sumer as to the ISAF. Hopefully, in understanding this, the US, Britain, and the West can keep the lesson in mind for the next time the periphery presents a military opportunity. We are not doomed to be overrun by Pashtun Taliban at home, but we were never likely to totally destroy them from half a world away while letting the holes in the cheese remain as expansive as they have even been.

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One Response to The Desert and the Sown

  1. Camron Conners says:

    Where do I find that thesis by Khaldun, you definitely referenced it before and we had conversations about it, but I never read it!

    also, this is great.

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