By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 9, 2009
[Today we have a special follow-up interview with Maj. Jim Gant, on the subject of how big (or small) a Tribal Engagement Team should be—and what kind of large-scale support it would need. But first I want to say thanks to the many, many readers who have responded to Maj. Gant’s paper “One Tribe At A Time” and to all the members of the military, policy and journalism communities who have helped to circulate it. Special thanks to James Dao of the N.Y. Times (“Going Tribal in Afghanistan”), James Meek of the N.Y. Daily News (“Memo to Obama: Talk to Jim Gant or Risk Losing Afghan War”), to Small Wars Journal and to Col. Dave Maxwell, to BlackFive and Andrew Exum at Abu Muqawama, and to Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) and Mark Safranski (Zenpundit.)
[Now to our interview:]
In a Tribal Engagement strategy, sometimes less is more—at least as it applies to the size of the individual Tribal Engagement Team. I wanted to get Maj. Gant’s thoughts on the subject:
SP: Jim, in your paper, “One Tribe At A Time,” you describe the ideal size for a Tribal Engagement Team as between six and twelve. In fact your original ODA team in Konar province was just six men. Why do you believe smaller is better?
JG: Steve, just to clarify, I started with nine guys on the team, but only six were Special Forces. We picked up three additional men in Afghanistan—a TAC-P, a PSYOP attachment and a Civil Affairs attachment. Those three guys went through all of the team’s individual skills training and all the team’s Immediate Action Drill (IAD) training. They lived with us, slept where we slept and did what we did. They were as much a part of the team as anyone. Now to answer the question:
Smaller is better for a Tribal Engagement Team (TET) for several reasons (and this only applies to tribes in Afghanistan.) First, with Afghan tribes there is what I call an “acceptable level of integration.” It is something that can be hard to determine unless you are on the ground with the tribe daily. Too many soldiers in a tribal area can cause major disruption of the daily life of the villagers. It can also bring a fight to the tribe that would not otherwise have been there. With a platoon of soldiers, who likely will set up a mini-fire base, walking around in body armor and helmets, the tribesmen will quickly become alienated by their presence. This is at the tactical level. At the strategic level, too many troops and we become “occupiers.”
What we are after at the tactical level is cooperation without dependence. The bottom line is that the tribe must be able to protect itself. We, the TET, will help facilitate this in a major way, but the TET cannot “secure” the tribe. The tribe has to secure the tribe.
Another point is that this “smaller is better” is counter-intuitive, like a lot of things we do at the tactical level. Tactically what we are dealing with is not a “clash of cultures” but we commit “cultural fratricide,” and too many troops with the tribes would be doing just that – trying to help would actually make the situation worse.
Another positive aspect of using a small team is that we show trust in the tribe on Day One by showing up with so few men. The tribesmen that I have dealt with are extremely smart and savvy. They understand the symbology of coming in with such a small force. It says more to them than any number of words. I can hear critics saying “symbology?” You are willing to risk your life and the lives of your men just to prove your men’s warrior ethos to the tribe? The answer is yes! On the flip side is this: how urgent is it for the TET to establish relationships? To be of value? To show their worth? It will be critical because their lives will depend on the tribes for protection.
The final aspect is one that I think a lot of people are missing. We aren’t going to roll the dice and play “pick a tribe.” Some serious analysis and information gathering must take place prior even to initial contact. That is where a prior relationship is an enormous plus. The Tribal Engagement Team can literally take months (six to nine) off the timeline to start seeing success because they will be going in with a prior relationship.
SP: When we were talking the other day, you said that an Afghan tribe could easily kill the U.S. Tribal Engagement Team attached to it any time it wanted to, because the team’s numbers were so few. Yet you also stated that you and your team felt safer in the village of Mangwel than you did in your own firebase. Why?
JG: As I have said over and over to my students at the unconventional warfare (UW) stage of their Special Forces training, It is not the armor on your vehicles, your body armor or your weapons systems that will keep you safe … it is your relationship with the indigenous force that you are working with. “Friends don’t let friends get hurt.” This was true in my experience in Iraq, where the fighting was almost constant in ’06-’07, and of course it was true in Afghanistan with Malik Noorafzhal (“Sitting Bull”) and his tribe. “Rapport” is a word that is often thrown around. But what does it mean? It means relationship. What is a relationship based on? How strong is it? Is it mutual? How do you get it?
I have put together a model of how I believe you achieve the ultimate relationship with your indigenous, irregular or host-nation counterpart—with the end-state being “cultural integration.” Cultural integration is the point where you can be yourself and your counterpart can be himself with no concern for cultural taboos or cultural mis-steps. Now this is a very detailed and very long process, but it can and has been done by many more Special Forces soldiers than myself. Take a look at what SF did with the Montagnards in Vietnam. I would also like to reiterate that many other conventional units have been able to establish rapport with irregular forces and have a positive influence over them. It all comes down to TIME. In this type of situation, you have to invest your most precious commodity as an advisor and that is TIME. That is why I don’t care for the term Key Leader Engagement (KLE). In most cases, this is a meeting. Issues are discussed, plans are made, and then everyone goes their separate ways. This is not Tribal Engagement as I see it. In Afghanistan, with the tribes that I dealt with, the relationships grew in direct proportion to the amount of time invested in them. Good old-fashioned seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years. The right five or six guys can offer a tribal leader and his tribe all the time in the world. Time is our greatest weapon at the tactical level and our greatest enemy at the strategic level.
As a tie-in to the above question – there is nothing (and I emphasize nothing) that can prove yourself and your team to the tribe more than fighting alongside them. That is the ultimate testament of your team as warriors and your commitment to the tribe. It will create the foundation for “influence without authority” that is the key to success in tribal engagement.
SP: One sentence popped out to me in last Monday’s post. If you remember, it was from an e-mail written to you by a female soldier who had served in Afghanistan in a capacity close to the tribes. She said, “The improvements in Paktia and Khowst were indescribable, but quickly faded as ‘big army’ moved in shortly after our exit in 2004.” Is there a point or number at which foreign forces on tribal turf become “too many” and cease being viewed by the tribes as guests and instead become occupiers? Do certain tenets of the Pashtunwali code of honor come into play, depending on how many Americans there are in an area?
JG: As I said above, there definitely is a point where too many troops becomes counter-productive. The hard part is determining where that is. There are times and locations where large-scale “search and attack” missions are not only necessary but critical. Even if a large-scale Tribal Engagement Strategy were adopted, there would be many times where a battalion of soldiers would need to air-assault in somewhere and kill insurgents. Also, make no mistake, there will be a lot of fighting at one point or another, even if the TET was extremely successful. The enemy is not just going to sit and do nothing as you build capacity within a tribal area.
SP: Col. Bing West, author of The Village and The Strongest Tribe, just wrote an excellent article for Small Wars Journal called “Afghanistan Trip Report.” One of his observations included the statement, “ … ODA teams quickly develop relationships [with tribes] regardless of tour length, because they are mature. Relationships with Afghan elders require elderly (ahem, E6 or above!) NCOs and officers … “ Would you agree that the ideal composition of a Tribal Engagement Team, in addition to being small, would also be “mature?”
JG: First of all, I am embarrassed to say that I just read The Village by Col. West a week ago. It is a tremendous book with so many lessons that it should be required reading for any TET.
Now, when talking about the specifics of what I would be looking for: first and foremost, I would want warriors–soldiers who like the fight, who enjoy the challenges of combat. Second, they would have to have excellent interpersonal skills. In a lot of cases, this would mean a more seasoned soldier. However, having just spent two years as an instructor out at the unconventional warfare (UW) phase of Special Forces training, I can testify that the majority of the time the worst soldier on the ODA would be the 18X; at the same time the best one would be an 18X. What is an 18X? It is a program where qualified personnel can join up and try out for SF “right off the street,” with no military experience. So I believe it is more about a skill set than about maturity. Now, the average age of a team that I would pick would be pretty “old,” with combat experience and very good interpersonal skills that I would have firsthand knowledge of. They would have to be effective communicators with extreme patience. Lastly, they would have to “want it.” This type of mission and this type of team would not be successful overnight; the team members would have to have an incredible commitment to the mission, the overall war effort, and of course to the tribe they would be living with.
[To be continued next Monday. I want to hear Maj. Gant’s thoughts on what sort of large-force backup the individual teams would need and how he would envision a full-scale Tribal Engagement Strategy working across an entire theater. My plan is to integrate these follow-up interviews as an addendum to the “One Tribe” paper.]