By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 28, 2009
The thoughts and I ideas that I will put forward in this paper are mine alone. Although I credit the U.S. Army Special Forces for the training I have received and the trust of [its] commanders, nothing in this paper reflects any other person’s or organization’s ideas.
This is the opening author’s note from Maj. Jim Gant’s paper, “One Tribe At A Time,” which this blog is proud to present–in excerpt and quasi-serialization form–over the next few weeks. We’ll archive the posts in one place as they appear and also have a free downloadable .pdf of the full piece soon.
Why do I think this presentation is valuable? First I agree with it. I believe tribal engagement is the best, if not the only, “light-footprint” way to stabilize the current situation in Afghanistan and offer hope for a long-term Afghan-centric solution. Second, Maj. Gant’s ideas form a revealing and instructive complement to Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai’s actions and proposals, which this blog is presenting in this space each Friday. Third and most important, because Maj. Gant and his Special Forces team have tried these ideas in the real world and they have worked.
I have fought [Maj. Gant says] on the battlefields of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is by far more the trying, the more difficult and the more brutal operational environment. The enemy there has never been defeated. And time is on their side. Trust me. I have sat face to face with Afghans, both friends and enemies, who will endure hardships that are unimaginable to us. They will do it, their children will do it and their children’s children will do it. They own all the time.
When one says “Afghan people” what they are truly saying is “tribal member.” Every single Afghan is part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever understand who are our friends, who are our enemies and how the Afghan people think and what is important to them, because they are all tribesmen first.
“One Tribe at a Time” reflects what I believe to be the one strategy that can help both the US and the people of Afghanistan by engaging the centuries-old tribal system present in Afghanistan. We must engage these tribes at a very close and personal level and with a much deeper cultural appreciation than we have ever had to engage in before. When we gain the respect and trust of one tribe, in one area, there will be a domino effect throughout the area and beyond. [One tribe] will eventually become 25 or even 50 tribes.
I asked Major Gant, “Isn’t the U.S. implementing a form of this strategy already?” Yes, he said, but not with the depth of understanding and commitment that is necessary to make it work.
This is Ph.D. level warfare and one that will take a drastic shift in the current paradigm held by the US military.
What is needed, Major Gant says, is a strategy based on US Tribal Engagement Teams (TETs) working with Afghan Tribal Security Forces (TSFs) to secure tribal villages and districts from infiltration, intimidation and domination by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, corrupt warlords or other insurgent forces.
TSF is an acronym that will be used throughout this paper for Tribal Security Force. I will put the term Arbakais beside this term … as this is the Afghan term that is most used to describe the type of element the TETs would “advise, assist, train and lead.”
These American Tribal Engagement Teams will not be big, heavy-footprint behemoths, but small teams whose members would commit to living and fighting with the tribes over the long haul–months and years. They would be given the broadest possible latitude in action and support in firepower, funding and civil affairs assistance. Could it work? Maj. Gant has no doubt that it will with the Afghans. The biggest problems, he fears, will come from our own hidebound military bureaucracy. Below are just the first few in a long list of “questions, criticisms and obstacles” …
[A true strategy of tribal engagement will require a] complete paradigm shift at the highest levels of our military organizations–and then the ability to push these changes down to group/brigade and battalion commanders. I believe Secretary Gates, Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal are flexible enough and forceful enough to embrace and initiate a strategy of this type. [My fear is that] the farther down the “food-chain” it went, the more it would be resisted by the ground commanders. What changes would need to happen to make this strategy work?
1. Command and Control of the TETs would have to be streamlined dramatically. “One radio call could get an answer…”
2. The CONOP approval process (the process currently used to get missions approved from higher headquarters) would also have to be streamlined and shortened. To take this one step further, some missions would have to be conducted with no approval, due to the time-sensitive nature of the opportunity. The TETs would need special “trust and approval.”
3. The risk-averse nature of our current method of operating would have to change. American soldiers would die. Some of them alone, with no support. Some may simply disappear. Everyone has to understand that from the outset.
4. The TETs must be allowed to be on their own to grow beards, wear local garb, and interact with the tribesmen at all levels, at all functions. [They must be allowed] to be what they are: “American tribesmen.”
5. The OPFUND (money) issue would need to be streamlined and made more efficient. The TETs will once again need special trust to do what is needed with the money that they are allocated to help the tribe. Money and guns equal the ultimate power.
6. Rules of Engagement (ROE) must change. Using the TETs will become a very intense, personal fight. If they need to drop bombs or pursue an enemy, they will need to be able to do so. [Because the teams will always be fighting in conjunction with Tribal Security Forces], no missions will be conducted unilaterally. There will always be an Afghan face on any mission. However, there will be much fighting at some point.
8. The problem of identifying, attracting and training American personnel who could truly do this type of mission would be a daunting task.
Major Gant cites this recent quote from Inam-ur-Rahman, head of the Swat Valley peace committee in Pakistan: “Even if you take a Pashtun person to paradise by force, he will not go. He will go with you only by friendly means.”
Afghan tribes always have and always will resist any type of foreign intervention in their affairs. This includes a central government located in Kabul, which to them is a million miles away from their problems, a million miles away from their security.
“Democracy” only has a chance to be cultivated at the local level by a small group of men who are willing to dedicate their lives to the Afghan people and cause.
At a time where the outcome of the war in Afghanistan hangs in the balance … when high ranking military officers are asking for more troops … I believe the [light-footprint] approach put forth in this paper will not only work, but will help to ease the increasing need for larger and larger numbers of US soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan.
[End of Post #1. These excerpts are from only the first six pages of “One Tribe At A Time,” which is 55 pages long. Lots more over the coming weeks. This initial post at least gives a flavor of Maj. Gant’s thinking. He goes into great depth and detail in future segments. Stay tuned each Monday. We’ll archive all “One Tribe” posts in one place for easy reference. Thank you, Maj. Gant, and thanks to our readers.]