ONE TRIBE AT A TIME

One Tribe At A Time

“One Tribe at a Time”

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.

Maj. Gant and ODA 316 in Afghanistan 2004

Maj. Gant and ODA 316 in Afghanistan 2004

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.

Maj. Gant with Dr. Akhbar and others, Mangwel village, Konar

Maj. Gant with Dr. Akhbar and others, Mangwel village, Konar

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.”

Operating with the Tribal Security Force (TSF)

Operating with the Tribal Security Force (TSF)

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.]

Posted in Afghanistan, Agora, Editorial, One Tribe At A Time

12 Responses to ““One Tribe at a Time””

  1. September 28, 2009 at 4:01 am

    Nothing like getting the story from the front line in real time. Thanks to Major Gant for sharing this with the clear understanding that these thoughts and ideas are his alone. While I’m certain this blog is being followed by the acadmics at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, I’ve passed it on to my contacts and colleagues to make certain. I believe our future leaders should follow this closely.

  2. September 28, 2009 at 5:36 am

    This makes perfect sense to me – there is no monolith society there – less at home day by day as well for that matter (Are Tribes emerging at home as people lose faith in the State?)

    So back maybe to the Brits in India pre Mutiny and pre Memsahib – where men man a lifetime commitment to the culture and to establishing relationships locally – arrive aged 20 and leave if still alive aged 50. Speak the language. Have the power to act. Young man can be assured that they can call on larger forces at will. Make it clear that there will be revenge and retribution delivered personally if you are killed.

    Even today, young subalterns in the Gurkhas go to Nepal and live with the families of ex NCO’s to absorb the culture. They join their men speaking Gurkhali, knowing the families of many of their men, knowing the stories, the food, the people, the connections, what home means and looks like.

    This is possible – the model that Maj Grant offers is known to those that care to study it – there are people alive today that have lived it.

    In addition, the new science of “Emergence” supports this model as well. Our military is captured by a Kinetic world view. But human society is Energetic. Ideas and Culture spread like a virus or not. All depends on the Trust Connections and the Influence of the Connector.

    If our aim is to exclude a Virus – extreme Wahabism – then a Kinetic approach leads only to defeat. Only an Energetic approach – one Tribe at a Time – one Warrior to another – has any chance.

    It is also much much less expensive in lives and treasure.

    But the culture of Big Army will hate this and would rather be defeated than go along.

    So for me the issue is how to get Big Army out of the way – is this even possible – there will have to be a Sun Tzu esque strategy to pull this off.

    Buhler Buhler?

  3. wisner
    September 29, 2009 at 9:04 am

    I hope Maj. Gant’s paper gets some play up the chain of command. This is why Specail Forces was made. SF and Special Operation Forces proved their ability in the begining of this war. Why not let them do it again? It seems that everyone has fallen in love with the Direct Action aspect of SF/SOF. There is only one group designated as counterinsurgency experts…SF. Here you have a ground commander and a home grown tribal cheif and movement moving towards the goal of stabilization and I wonder if anyone is listening?

  4. KellyC
    September 30, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Wisner’s comments are right on. Gen. McChrystal comes from special forces; let’s hope that he’s already thinking this way.

    While I agree with the ‘light footprint’ model that Maj. Gant espouses, I do think that a larger footprint will be required along the border with Pakistan until Pakistan itself is truly in control of their own frontier areas.

  5. S.Tabriz
    October 1, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    I agree with Major Gant’s assertions. We must act with a significantly smaller footprint (I am concerned with recent reports of possibily increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan by 40,000). We need to reach out and understand these people by tribe – if we attempt to force our own values and morals, we will only drive them further away from our cause. We must find a way to make our cause their cause and vice versa. I look forward to this paper’s future installations.

  6. Douglas A Franklin
    October 2, 2009 at 8:04 am

    This is a fascinating article. I was a Captain in the initial attack into Iraq, this was something we were experimenting with while I was in OIF1, working with tribesmen and clan leaders. I think that this is one of the first times I have seen it so clearly described. Much of what the Major is saying is already Text book doctrine, unfortunately a few hundred pages long. The problem is I think I and only a few others have actually ready the book, everyone else is reinventing the wheel.

    My Brigade Commander’s answer (1BCT 4ID (the ones who got Sadam)) doctrinally correct answer to the Iraqi and Foreign insurgents was “Detailed Route Reconnaissance” in force, and on foot along every major road; inspecting culverts and likely ambush sites in detail. He called it “Detailed Route Reconnaissance” and everyone knew what he was talking about. We also used random timing intervals along all major US routes. Our engineers literally took turns honoring good behavior among troops by giving them a throw at a dart board and the number struck represented the time the patrol went out on that day of the week. The enemy could not predict when the next patrol would arrive and we destroyed many IED teams. The result was for a period of about 6 and a half months where we, and every unit, that passed through our sector took ZERO IED casualties. We simply intercepted and destroyed every IED and ambush before they could initiate, against friendly troops.

    One of my few frustrations with the Army while I was active was that there were so many brilliant people who worked hard and applied their experience to our development of Doctrine but so few others who actually read and then understood it, let alone applied it. All Doctrine really is, is a common language so everyone knows the mission, after only a few words. I’m glad the Major made the effort to publish this, hopefully it will find its way into enough planners reading material that they begin to apply these hard earned lessons.

    Thank you for you time gentlemen.

    Douglas A Franklin
    CPT, IN
    IRR

  7. Jim Gant ( Jim's dad
    October 2, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Major Gant,

    Nobody cares about your shit!

    Love

    Dad

    I AM MY SON’S KEEPER

    • Jim Gant (Jim's son)
      October 2, 2009 at 1:07 pm

      Dad,

      I know! I know! Everyone has told me that. Even Steve told me that!

      Love

      Kirk

      I AM MY FATHER’S KEEPER

  8. October 4, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I think Major Gant’s observations are excellent–potential war winners. Yes, acquisition of suitable personnel may be difficult but is doable. Yes, mlitary bureaucracy is traditionally ‘hidebound’, as are most bureaucracies, but resistance can be overcome.

    One problem, probably presently insurmountable, is political. There is simply no way that the present Administration would permit these American Afghanis the ‘broadest possible latitude,’ and such latitude would be essential for the program to work.

    At one level…because lower troop levels might be possible…Gant’s proposals might be attractive to our present Administration. On another level, however, the Obamistas…should they even momentarily consider such a program…would place so many operational restrictions on such teams as to greatly reduce ther effectiveness, and likely get them killed. For example, it might be necessary at times to ‘lean’ on a suspect i.e. to fight in traditional Afghan fashion. Considering that the Administration has shown a keen interest in prosecuting CIA officers for similar actions, it is highly unlikely that they would give such teams appropriate support.

  9. Shukri
    December 2, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    The strategy proposed above by Major Gant would be successful except for one thing. It requires the US to submit to the will of the Afghan tribes. This will never happen as long as the US is an independent nation.

  10. RayB
    December 3, 2009 at 7:50 am

    This is an excellent article. I have to disagree with Shukri, I do not believe that we have to submit to the will of the Afghan tribes. There is a common bond that is developed by shared experience. You do not have to speak the language as tone and body language conveys a message loud and clear to even the youngest member of the group. I heard the words trust and faith often used when coalition forces talked about the afghan. I was an Embedded Trainer in 2006 (ETT, 2nd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 203rd Corp) and the American soldiers that I spoke with often found it hard to believe that my ANA did not immediately trust them. How could I tell, my ANA would never send just one squad with just any unit. They always sent at least two. Once they got to know the soldiers then in some cases they would send one squad but it took time to develop the relationship.
    This is a proud people, with many tribes of different ethnic backgrounds who are able to tell by physical features, method of dress and by name who you belong too. In the end we can find a common ground, most people are concerned about their family doing as well if not better. We have to focus on improving the infrastructure, food, water and shelter. The point on OPFUND (money) issue is vital to improving the infrastructure. The points on CONOP approval process, Rules of Engagement (ROE) and method of dress (“American tribesmen”) all go to the issue of security for the team that will mitigate some but not all of the risk (risk-averse nature). I agree that the conventional army does not like those things that are different. However, if we really want to change the way of life in remote lands, then we have to be willing to convince people of another way and that does not happen in a short time frame. It is not the current generation that we have to change it is the next, those children in the streets are our best hope.