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The West didn’t reckon with tribalism

Tribal elders in Kabul, 2014. Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

A tribal world, “where one’s prospects are bound up with the honour of kin”, has dominated our planet for most of the past 12,000 years, says Matthew Syed in The Sunday Times. Britain’s tribalism dissolved in the Middle Ages because of the Christian ban on cousins getting married. It means we struggle to grasp how it still holds sway in Afghanistan, which has one of the world’s highest rates of cousin marriage. The “middle-class innocents” who cook up our foreign policy tried to build a western-style centralised state. But in tribal societies, “democratic institutions are hijacked for sectarian purposes”. Judges appointed to uphold the rule of law favour their own kin.

Many seem to think Afghans want a “freedom-loving democracy with gender-neutral lavatories”. Yet just 1.6 million people voted in the country’s 2019 presidential election, out of a population of more than 30 million. Sharia law is favoured by 99% of Afghans; 85% support stoning for adultery, 79% execution for apostasy. Western policy wasn’t a total failure: we prevented terrorist attacks and widened education for girls. And we shouldn’t lapse into isolationism just as China is projecting its power abroad. But we need to learn the difference “between foolish and wise intervention”.

Why it matters One of the few winners from the Afghan debacle is China, says Robert Colvile in The Sunday Times. It’s already the largest customer for the Taliban’s mining operations and it has the rights to Mes Aynak, the world’s second largest copper mine, 25 miles from Kabul. Chinese state media has hinted that “the Belt and Road initiative can make good any shortfall in foreign investment under the new regime”.