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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ancient Nomads Help Explain Modern Crises

APThe traditions of Afghan nomads, like these women carrying water outside Kabul, provide insights into today's events.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Every summer for the past eight years, Michael Frachetti has come to the desert steppe that rolls like endless yellow waves across this expansive Central Asian nation searching for evidence of a vast, connected nomadic society.

With each new excavation, Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University, hopes to complicate notions of the lives and societies of the nomads who once thrived in this region.

Frachetti's work concerns Bronze Age nomads, and his scholarship is aimed purely at a historical understanding of how a preliterate society functioned more than 3,000 years ago. But his work coincides with a geopolitical reality that has important implications for U.S. foreign policymakers: Many of the countries that most trouble the West -- like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia -- have government institutions that reflect a nomadic past.

"Take Afghanistan, where politics are much more dispersed," Frachetti said while sitting in an Almaty cafe in July, a few days before trekking to the Saryesik-Atyrau Desert to conduct that remote area's first archeological survey. "I think some of our foreign policy complications derive from our inability to locate a nomadic dynamic within contemporary political structures."

Recent investigations have challenged long-held views of nomadic culture as purely transient, with little impact on the urban, sophisticated societies that emerged later.

Instead, scientists like Frachetti are discovering that nomadic cultures are flexible, switching between transient and more sedentary ways of life, and assimilating and inventing new ideas and technologies. Nomads created political cultures that still influence the way those countries interact with outsiders or negotiate internal power struggles.

While the view that tribe and clan -- the basic building blocks of nomadic societies -- influence the contemporary politics of some countries is nothing new, specialists argue that policymakers have overlooked important "cultural intelligence," like family relationships, when analyzing governments that grew out of tribal traditions.

"Families, tribes these are the things that matter here," said Oraz Jandosov, co-chairman of a Kazakh opposition political party. "Foreigners talk about these things, but it's only talk. They don't understand them."

Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may have the trappings of modern, Western nation-states, researchers say. But politics are still driven by the customs and institutions of nomadism, in which political disputes were settled family, clan and tribe levels.

"In and of itself you can't graft what happened 2,000 years ago and say that's what it is today, but it helps to understand how these societies have found successful strategies and how they respond to outside forces," Frachetti said. "We are naive to an important aspect of the social fabric of parts of the Near East and Central Asia."

The U.S. military has learned the importance of tribes in Iraq, as evidenced by its policy of arming Sunni Arab tribal chiefs in Anbar province to fight the leading insurgent group there, al-Qaida in Iraq.

Yet, despite calls for a deeper appreciation of the nonmainstream, "the United States government hasn't been willing to pony up the money to educate" policymakers on "these areas with deep nomadic traditions," a Central Asia specialist working for the U.S. government said. The official requested anonymity because he was not cleared to speak with reporters.

"It takes a half a million dollars and four or five years to train a specialist in these parts of the world," he said. "Even now, we hardly have anyone up to speed about the border areas of Pakistan or the tribal politics of Somalia."

And in Central Asia, recent U.S. foreign policy setbacks -- such as a deal in May between Turkmenistan and Russia to build a new gas pipeline, widely viewed as a rebuke to U.S. interests -- can be traced partly to an American misunderstanding of how nomadic traditions shape attitudes in the region.

In that case, said Sean Roberts, a Central Asia researcher at Georgetown University, U.S. negotiators mistakenly emphasized the benefits of joining the orbit of Western nations. With its nomadic traditions, he said, Turkmenistan emphasized independence more.

"If there's anything for U.S. policymakers to understand about formerly nomadic people it's that they generally place an all-important pride in their independence," he said.

Pride in nomadism itself is on the rise, with many countries using an increasingly glamorous historical inheritance as an important nation-building tool. When Kazakhstan's government-subsidized film company decided last year to film a national epic that would galvanize the population around a unifying myth, studio executives reached into the country's past and produced "Nomad." The movie has been a huge hit across the former Soviet Union.

In some instances, politicians seek to use nomadic traditions to justify their policies, just as U.S. politicians try to exploit nostalgia for the United States' rural past to justify farm subsidies, said Robert Rotberg, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who studies failed states in Africa and Asia.

"Take Gaddafi in Libya," he said, referring to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. "He would say, you Westerners don't understand us because we have a nomadic ethos that is essentially socialist, and so we have to nationalize our country's oil industry to be true to our tradition."

Nomads continue to hang on in a substantial area of Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and in many cases are prospering. But in evaluating the influence of nomadism on contemporary politics, it is important to look past superficial elements, said Roberts of Georgetown.

"What's almost as dangerous as ignoring the cultural context of politics is misinterpreting it," Roberts said. "The policy community just doesn't have a background at looking at cultures' differences. So even if they do the right thing and start to look at cultural intelligence, the result is they will take stereotypes of Kazakhstan's nomadic past and call it a complete truth."