By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 15, 2009
Today marks the release of the final video in the “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” series. Believe me, I’m aware of the presumption of titling any discourse, “How to Win in Afghanistan. ” Even Alexander the Great would balk at treading that ground. So, as I say in the video, the thoughts therein are offered not with presumption but, as Rod Serling used to say on the old Twilight Zone show, “submitted for your approval.”
That said, I’d like to stick a toe into those waters by touching on a recent (last week) excellent white paper from the Center for a New American Security, titled “Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The paper too suggests courses aimed at that elusive object: success. The first of its two operational recommendations for Afghanistan is:
“Adopt a truly population-centric counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protecting the population [italics CNAS] rather than controlling physical terrain or killing the Taliban and al Qaeda.”
This seems exactly right, following the Ghostbusters theory of counterinsurgency which asks of the indigenous population, “Who you gonna call?” If the answer is “The government,” the counterinsurgency is winning. If the answer is “Whoever is in my village after dark packing AK-47s,” then the insurgency has the upper hand.
As Gen. Petraeus has very rightly said, “The people are the prize.”
Okay, protecting the population is Job One. Now the big question: How?
If I’m a villager in Konar province, who am I gonna call when things go bump in the night? Who possesses governance legitimacy in my eyes? Will I call the Afghan National Army (ANA), or the Afghan National Police (ANP) when I know that they are rarely onsite in force except in conjunction with American and NATO forces and then return to their base or station as soon as night falls? Will I call the U.S. military in my valley, knowing that they are indeed formidable warriors with invincible airpower backing them up? Will I do that, when I know that for them to protect me and my family, they have to leave their Forward Operating Base nine miles downvalley, drive across country that is a paradise for ambushers and IED-layers and that when they get to my village and sit in a circle with me and my neighbors (though I can see from their eyes that their hearts are in the right place and they are truly sacrificing only with the best of intentions), that they can’t tell which ones of us are legitimate villagers and which are the eyes and ears of the Taliban or al Qaeda in our midst? Will I call them, when I know too that they will be long gone when night falls and that if I show them any untoward sign of favor, I or my family will be paid back in blood by those who own my village after dark?
I’m agreeing with CNAS on the need to protect the people. I’m just asking, “How?”
The “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” series has pointed to the tribal mindset as an enemy. But if the United States gains a deep understanding of the tribal mindset, and how to work with it, then the enemy becomes the friend.
Can we turn the tribal mindset into our ally? Could part of the answer be “the tribes?” Is it possible to enlist this millenia-old social entity to do precisely what it came into being to do (and what we ourselves wish to accomplish)–protect the people? Is there a way to bring into being an Afghanistan version of the Anbar Awakening? Can we reach out to the tribes, particularly in the seven provinces from Kabul east to the Pakistani border? Can we arm them, assist them, back them up, fight alongside them? Can we be friends to them and make them friends of ours?
The CNAS paper also very wisely addresses the issue of metrics (by what standards do we measure progress?) Speaking of Pakistan, it says
“The assassination rate of maliks (government-appointed tribal representatives) is another indicator. The Taliban have killed hundreds of maliks since 2004, a sign of intimidation and illustrating the erosion of civil society and the collapse of law and order.”
If the Taliban have mounted a campaign to murder or put out of action tribal representatives, what does that say? Does it mean that the tribe is the natural antibody to militants and extremists–because the tribes are interested in preserving their own autonomy and don’t want to be ruled by these outsiders (the Taliban or anyone else)? If yes, doesn’t that make the tribes our natural allies–and us theirs?
Can we figure out a way to work with the tribal mindset instead of trying to impose our own? Is it possible, as Maj. Jim Gant, ex-team leader of ODA 316 and current instructor for unconventional warfare in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Special Warfare Center, who has fought in Konar and Helmand provinces, suggests, to take it “one tribe at a time” and put together a constellation of local micro-alliances that will stand up to the mutual enemies of the United States and the people of Afghanistan?
I don’t know. I’m just asking.