By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 30, 2009
[Some of the smartest and most interesting input we’ve received on this blog has come from the Comments section. Alas, such contributions often go unnoticed, buried as they are in the “back pages.” In an attempt to rectify this, I’d like to present here on the front page a very insightful response to Maj. Jim Gant’s paper, “One Tribe At A Time,” from former infantry platoon leader and Brigade Intelligence Officer Jim Gourley–along with a reply-in-depth from Maj. Gant. This is long, but worth it. I’ve edited the piece lightly for acronyms and so forth.]
Dear Maj. Gant,
I’ve read your paper, “One Tribe At a Time.” I appreciate your viewpoint from the foxhole of a decorated warrior who’s been “out in the fecal matter” and slogged through some of the worst combat action possible with your tribal brothers. However, there are a few points I’d like to challenge you on from the viewpoint of a former Infantry PL turned Brigade Intel Officer. Please consider this as loyal opposition, and only until I’m convinced by your presentation, at such time I’ll be a loyal ally.
To begin, I will state a few of my preconceived notions.
1) We’ll never get the central government of Afghanistan to function such that it can reasonably provide for the common defense, insure domestic tranquility, or establish justice. There will never be a sheriff in Afghanistan. Our best bet is to make sure all the gunfighters and horse thieves maintain parity.
2) We can never overcome the Afghan perception that they will outlast us, because even our new strategies still maintain getting out as the ultimate goal.
3) As Al Qaeda continues to franchise itself across Southeast Asia and into Africa, the relative importance of Afghanistan diminishes, especially with regard to securing the United States against terrorist attacks.
With that said, I’ll begin. I immediately and whole-heartedly agree with you on the streamlining of the planning process, the need for “one call” philosophy of team support, and the change of Rules of Engagement. However, the consequence I envision of this is the creation of a relationship between the fielded teams and the supporting higher headquarters that will become immediately and irrevocably adversarial.
Teams would act virtually autonomously, be highly susceptible to suspicion of the headquarters and thus encouraged to be uncommunicative. Simultaneously, headquarters would lose information, have a poor field of vision on the battlefield, and be handicapped in its efforts to provide teams the instantaneous support that is needed. Meanwhile, the headquarters must maintain its own non-Tribal Engagement Team forces in order to accomplish other missions. How can a headquarters keep its battlespace coordinated when so many elements are “cut loose” from it? I understand that the tribes don’t come to OPORD briefings at Corps as it is, but I’ve been in more than one situation where Special Operations Forces refused to cooperate or share information with a battlespace owner, and there’s no denying that there have been SOF SNAFUs in the past which caused local socio-political fallout. It’s hard to blame the man with the stars on his collar for being nervous when he’s going to be the one left holding the bag. What’s the balance between autonomy and accountability?
I cannot disagree with you more on the risk-averse nature argument. Our armed forces will always go back for our fallen, we will never leave a man behind. For that very reason, a TET left flapping in a firefight will always take priority. That means an extraordinary investment of time, resources, and additional risk. If this aspect of the tactical situation is critical to your strategy, I can’t see it succeeding. Is it possible to work around this?
I draw a problematic connection between finding qualified officers and NCOs for the TETs, allowing the teams to “go tribal”, and the level of trust and power given to a team. Not without a little humor, I believe what you’re advocating is the creation of three new Special Forces Divisions. I think you’re asking for a group of men with a kind of stamina, quick thinking, patience and maturity found only in SOF and on a Space Shuttle. There haven’t been that many astronauts in our nation’s history, and the problems of the 18X program in “growing” more SF soldiers are well documented. You’ve been extremely successful in your endeavors. One could almost characterize you as “Lawrence of Arabia for the 21st Century”. Certainly it must be recognized that you’re a special individual. But if everyone had the same capabilities we wouldn’t think of you as special, and we’d probably have our TETs. My question is whether you believe there are enough individuals with your level of qualifications and potential out there, and whether we can entice enough of them to the TETs to make this work?
I will lastly posit this question to you. If the fundamental consideration of the tribes is how they will continue to secure their safety and prosperity for the long-term, how can the TET concept compete with the Taliban/Al Qaeda strategy of omnipresent threat? As Bin Laden said, “People follow a strong horse.” If even in the long term of our strategy we’re able to assist the Afghans in their security, how can we ever really overcome the temptation of joining the Taliban if the Afghan population, as they certainly realize they must, is on the lookout for their safety in the long-term? I wonder, in (correctly) asserting that we can’t totally eradicate the Taliban, do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? We can’t “kill ‘em all”, but is there a valuable Psyop/Civil Affairs message projected by killing enough of them? Do we prove ourselves to be the strong horse? I hardly doubt such a strategy would be MORE effective than TETs, but I wonder if you feel a parallel effort would be a force multiplier or even as effective.
Thanks for your time. Best of luck to you in your travels and to Mr. Pressfield in nurturing further discussion.
Thank you very much for reading the blog and posting. You have more than earned the right to voice your opinion and disagree with me. I respect your viewpoint more than you know, and I bet when the dust clears we are closer to one another than either of us would like to admit. So … a “preface” before I address your points.
As I said in the paper, I do not have all the answers. I have some good experience in Afghanistan working with a tribe, backed by some research and a good basic understanding of COIN and unconventional warfare (UW). I have a God-given gift of being able to “build relationships” with indigenous fighters–as do many, many others. I love both the Iraqi and the Afghan people and culture. I used that and incorporated what I had learned in Iraq as a combat advisor and my time spent out at Robin Sage (the unconventional warfare portion of Special Forces training) to try and verbalize and put together a model for success at the tactical level when dealing with a tribe in Afghanistan. (Note here: If one does not believe that the tribes play a key central role in Afghanistan, then the Tribal Engagement premise is not worth considering. However, I believe it is the critical factor and the one variable that we have to positively influence to succeed. Getting the tribes on our side will not ensure ‘success’ but not getting them on our side will ensure defeat).
Now, I also said that what works with one tribe, in one area, with one team, may not work with the next tribe or even the next team. What worked in ’03 may not work in ’09. Does that mean that I am backing off of my premise? Not at all. If anything, it has become even stronger over the last few weeks as the popularity of the blog and paper has forced me to answer some very tough, very good questions – like the ones you have asked. The tactical tribal engagement (TTE) that I wrote about through the use of tribal engagement teams (TETs) and the larger, overall tribal engagement strategy (TES) supports another aspect of what I believe to be true. We have to deal with the overall problems that we are facing in Afghanistan from the lowest level possible for further improvements along several different lines of operation, such as, security, infrastructure development, governance, etc. But what do we do for instance with “good governance?” The tribes have good governance within the tribe. Ask them. What do they gain by accepting a central government that can do little to help them? Do we all believe that the Afghan central government is corrupt? If we do, how does that make us look when we support that government and try to push it off onto the tribes? Does the central government need the tribes? Do the Taliban? Do the tribes need the Taliban? Do we need the tribes? Do the tribes need us?
One last point before I answer each question. I believe that when you say “Afghan people” what most people mean is “Afghan tribesmen.” Break it down further. When you say “Afghan tribesman,” you’re really saying “Pashtun tribesman”. Afghanistan will not be ruled/governed/lead by anyone other than a Pashtun. I believe that to be true. Does that mean we don’t deal with the Hazaras, the Uzbeks or the Tajiks? No, of course not. We just have to do it differently.
So, here we go:
1) I agree that the GIRoA will never look what we want it to look like. I agree that whatever model we use for “success” cannot be one that we develop or one that we can even completely envision right now. I do however, believe this: They have to have some type of system that allows them to have a “face” to the rest of the world. Someone who represents Afghanistan to the rest of the world and secondly, the tribes will play a major role in this hybrid form of government. What will the government of Afghanistan look like if the Taliban prevail? Will there be a “leader”? Will he be accepted by the rest of the Afghans? The rest of the world? Will there be another civil war? Will we support another Northern Alliance-type of resistance or insurgency? So, I agree with you. The current Afghan government is not our “horse” for establishing a western-style government. Looking back at historical boundaries of empires that spanned Afghanistan, before there was an Afghanistan, we have had successful confederations of tribes that allowed for governance and justice. Up until the Soviets, this trend continued. With the tribes functioning in Afghanistan, I think we would be surprised at what would come out in the form of security, justice, and governance.
2) I will take this a step further and say we will never outlast the Afghans because we can’t. We do not have the same type of make-up as individuals. Time is on their side and when I say that, I mean for both the Taliban and the Afghan people. They are in no hurry. They can and will endure hardships that we cannot even imagine. Just as importantly, they know we can’t outlast them. So again, I agree with you. However, TETs never leave so it has a different goal. The US, or any fully developed nation for that matter, never fully leaves an area that it has had a military presence. Operations continue and relationships are maintained long after major combat operations are over.
3) That is a very good point. However, I believe that right now and for the foreseeable future that the south and east portions of Afghanistan are of strategic importance to al-Qaeda because this area acts as a buffer for the FATA and NWFP regions of Pakistan. Why is this important? I believe that the FATA and the NWFP regions are currently the only locations on earth where al-Qaeda must maintain physical control of to be effective. Who provides al-Qaeda their safe-haven within these areas? Tribes. It is through building lasting, true relationships with the tribes in the southern and eastern portions of Afghanistan that we will be able to influence what is happening on the ground in Pakistan. Unless of course we are willing to say that we will, at some point, invade these regions with combat forces. Does Afghanistan lose strategic importance over time? Maybe. Does the “Pashtunistan” region? I don’t believe so. I believe other regions become more important, but that does not mean that this region becomes less important.
Now to your doubts and objections:
A. Your first major concern is not only valid, but has a much more important impact than just this war and this scenario. It goes to a deep-rooted paradigm that both Special Operations forces and general purpose forces must deal with better. Has it gotten better? I know that in my time on the ground in Afghanistan, I had no issues. However, at that time, SOF owned the ground, so of course it was easy – for me. I haven’t been to Afghanistan since the change in command and control, since there are battle space owners (BSO), etc…I do know this however: That battle space owner wants to win his part of the war. That TET team leader wants to win his part of the war. As a TET team leader, I would be just as concerned with establishing rapport with that BSO as I would be with the tribal chief. The TET could not, and would not be successful without the BSO not only knowing, but supporting what the TET was doing and vice versa. I would not as a TET leader run around half-cocked all the time, doing things that I knew were outside of the intent of what higher general command, the Battle Space Owner, was trying to accomplish.
I would spend as much time as necessary prior to infil, planning and coordinating my efforts with his. If I can’t do that, then I can’t be successful. Period. A TET cannot go into an area where they are not wanted or needed by the BSO. This would go back to the initial planning stages. I would totally incorporate my plan into his. Now, would there have to be some type of give and take? Yes, of course. I would have an “OP Box” of some sort where I would have to be given notice of operations that were being conducted and of course I would inform the BSO if I ever left that “OP Box”. I would share all relevant information with him and help answer his PIR. I would support his mission accomplishment. I would facilitate his plan in my “OP Box”. To do anything less than that on both sides (the TET and the BSO) would be criminal. Will there be issues? Of course. Will there be TETs that will be difficult to work with? More than likely. Will there be BSO that don’t want to work with TETs no matter how much they could help them? Yes. So how do I answer that question? For this to work it has to be part of an over-all plan and strategy, where the relationship between the TET and the BSO is crucial and a synergistic effect is the outcome.
Another part of me says this: Tribal Engagement Teams have their own battlespace. They have no need and no desire for conventional forces in these TET zones. Tribes will tie-in as the situation dictates and develops. The tribal engagement strategy is an economy of force effort. Some staffs and commanders are systemically and conceptually unable to manage tribal engagement, so we will move them out of the areas and put them in places where we can generally play to their strengths. The TETs are specifically designed to work in this type of environment. Additionally, battlespace owners are not deconflicting battlespace in the current operational environment. There are multiple units of varying countries that are moving independent of “coordination.” TETs are easy. They own their own space and have accountability for what goes on within it. I would also argue that 2001-2003 was Afghanistan’s best years because of 1) decentralized action , 2) small footprint of US forces, 3) no major “occupier” type bases, and 4) no cumbersome chain of command to slow operations down.
B. Risk Aversion. When we put restrictions on ourselves that hurt our own ability to win a war, that is a bad thing. What makes it even worse is when these restrictions are put on units because higher command believes it is actually protecting its soldiers. In many but not all cases, these orders or mandates are counterproductive. One example: in Afghanistan an order came out that “all missions would be conducted in MICH helmet and body armor.” Well, I am sure that got put in there because someone, somewhere did a direct action mission without a helmet and got shot in the head, or something like that. What did that cause? My ODA and I were in the Konar Valley fighting and hunting a very smart and brutal enemy. Where did they hide. Deep in the mountains. To get to them was a monumental task, which would have been impossible with helmets and body armor. What do you do now as a small unit leader? Wearing that stuff in 105 degree weather, five kilometers into a nine kilometer movement that started at 2,300 feet and will end at 6,000 is suicide. You have three choices and all of them are bad. It puts me as a small unit leader in a situation where I have to decide if I am going to follow an order that is putting me and men at more risk and increases the chances of mission failure or to not follow an order.
To specifically address your concern, I was not implying that we leave anyone “out to dry”. However, and without sounding like an ass or antagonistic–war is risky business. If we aren’t going to take some risks, we should re-think how we are fighting. Which is worse, four guys dying hitting an IED on a road that they are forced to travel on daily because there is no other road, or four TET members being overrun by a 300-man Taliban element in some remote tribal area? I would turn the question around and ask, What happened at Wanat? My point is that these TETs would have to rely on other things for protection than guns and armor. Interpersonal skills, courage, detailed planning, relationship-building skills, intelligence nets. The bottom line would be that it would be the tribes who would be protecting them. Now, we would bring guns, training, medical supplies, access to CF units resources, PRTs, NGOs, etc…but the TETs would rely on the tribe for a vast majority of their security and protection. That turns this equation around quite a bit – don’t you agree?
Another point that I want to bring out, on a personal note is: I was a combat advisor in Iraq for the National Police Quick Reaction Force Commando battalion in ’06-’07. Many lessons learned from that experience, but the point here is that every single CONOP [Concept of Operation] that I ever briefed had a section that said this: ”If we hear a net call that any US or Iraqi unit in Baghdad is involved in a troops in contact (TIC) we will immediately delay our mission and move to the area as quickly as possible to support…”
This happened dozens of times over the next 15 months. We bailed out many a US and Iraqi unit. That is what we do – all of us. Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine. Infantry, EOD, Combat Logistics Patrol, Special Forces, Navy Seals, Rangers, PRTs, whatever. We would all come to each other’s aid. Would I want your frequencies and call signs if I was located 40 kilometers from your firebase if I needed you? Of course. How about you guys out patrolling and you get hit right outside my tribal area? You call and one TET guy with 200 tribal security force members shows up in ten minutes with guns blazing, runs off the Taliban, takes your casualties back into their area, we begin treatment of the casualties in a secure village and call the MEDEVAC in there? Will that help? Will you guys now trust this tribe more? Will your battalion or brigade commander fly out the next day and thank these tribesmen for what they have done? Will he build on that relationship? Will the unit who was helped returned there and give the tribal leader a gift?
My point in saying that some TETs would die alone with no support is this: it will happen. Things can and will go wrong. But that happens with any strategy and mission, all the time. The type of person that I would ask to be on a TET with me would understand the dangers. It would be a “yeah, so what?” type of look if you asked them about it.
The willingness to go after the fallen does not equate to risk-aversion. Having been a part of personnel recovery planning for a lost US soldier, believe me, we are still risk-averse when it comes to even that mission. We are risk-averse because we build large bases, bigger vehicles, add more armor and equipment to soldiers instead of living with and fighting alongside Afghan tribesman. FM 3-24 is a great manual. However, it is also the “Catch-22 of counterinsurgency,” in that the more you force-protect, the less safe you are. If we do not plan to accept risk up front, then we need to reconsider what we are doing and how we are doing it…from the tactical to the strategic level.
I just don’t see the issue here. Is it possible to “work around” this? No. Two to six guys with the tribe. That’s all – that is it. More than that can be a problem. But again, it depends on the situation. Depending on where the TET is sent there is indeed the possibility that more soldiers would need to be sent…”Never say never…”.
C. I love the “space shuttle” quote…you are right and that was funny! Yes, this is problematic. This type of strategy and these types of teams would take a complete and total 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 one of the biggest challenges would be, if and when this type of strategy were implemented, that the further down the food-chain it went, the more that commanders on the ground would be unable to let it work. This also includes a dramatic administrative shift in our ability to put the right person, with right passion, in the right place. That is hard for us to do. When I watched General McChrystal on “60 Minutes,” I saw him ask on a VTC why it was taking so long for him to get the people he was asking for over to Afghanistan. If it’s this hard for him, how hard is it going to be to re-vamp the entire system? If you and I spend the next three years working in Pakistan as military advisors, what happens to our careers? I know that there are many soldiers who don’t really care about promotions, schooling, OERs, NCOERs, etc…they just want a good mission with good people. We have to harness them and those passions and find an alternate way to reward them for their sacrifices.
I bet that if you became a TET team leader, got some language and cultural training, some time to work on your interpersonal skills that involved scenario-based training, got to hand-pick your team and filled it with guys you knew and trusted, then you got to fly in and spend 60 to 90 days on the ground with me and my TET watching, learning and training; that now you and your team go somewhere else with another tribe and be successful. Would it take time? Yes. Would it be hard? Yes. ould high level commanders and policy makers have to push to make this happen? Yes. Could we do it? Yes.
Another personal experience. When I was in Iraq I did not have other SF guys working with me. I was assigned a transition team. I went through two of them. Bottom line up front: one of the teams was phenomenal…six awards for valor, aggressive, smart, enthusiastic…I would have put them up against any small unit in the country at “Mounted Operations”. We trained and rehearsed and trained and rehearsed, we worked daily on individual and collective skills that we needed to fight…and we went out and fought all the time. The second team? They were given the same mission, we did the same training, I pushed, pulled, prodded, coaxed, threatened, praised, begged, you name it…they just would not come together as a team. I wanted to stay in Iraq but I just couldn’t work under those conditions anymore. My idea is to very carefully select the TET team leaders. Then let him select his team. He will not pick his buddies or friends, he will pick the guys he knows will fight and die right alongside him, that have good interpersonal skills, that are smart and dependable, that are loyal and want to be there. Then you will have a great TET in the making. Am I wrong? Tell me if I am. I may be overestimating what I think about the US soldier, but I don’t think so.
The number teams needed would not be very high. The overall plan would look something like this:
1. Determine which tribes to support (this is currently being done and analyzed, I am sure, by people who know a lot more about it than I do). While doing research and putting the paper together I did come up with criteria for this, there are many people who have understanding, knowledge and backgrounds that would be needed to ensure the right tribes were chosen.
2. Determine how many teams were needed.
3. Begin small. One, two, maybe three teams.
4. Then the flow of teams happens in a “step” process. Are the current TETs being successful? What were you training deficiencies? How did the criteria we used to pick the tribe work? Etc…
5. Infil follow-on teams with the TETs that are currently on the ground to continue their training, their cultural knowledge and skills, to improve their language skills, and to just “get their feet wet”…
6. Infil them with their tribes…
7. Continue the process.
We just do not need a lot of people. I keep saying that. We need less, not more. If we have five successful TETs with major power brokers/tribes, we will have accomplished a great deal with a very small amount of resources. That’s with thirty or forty guys on the ground (now this doesn’t include the support and combat service support personnel). I could pick out almost that many right now. We are not looking to mass produce TETs or create a new branch. We can easily select, train, and OJT evaluate replacements for sustainment. As more tribes become attracted to success, we don’t necessarily need more TETs,. One TET could service multiple tribes. In fact, that is what we want. We want tribal alliances. Makes the end game more simple.
D. To your last point: I am an advocate of killing. There are many, many folks out there who are just going to have to die if we want to achieve success. Period. One of my favorite articles is “In Praise of Attrition” by Ralph Peters. If anyone sees TETs as Peace Corps with guns, they are missing the point. There will be a lot of fighting. A lot. The fight will become extremely personal and close up. The good TETs will be fighting for THEIR families, THEIR best friends, THEIR brothers, THEIR sisters … THEIR tribe. Some will die doing so. But in doing so, “we” meld deeper and deeper into their world and are accepted more and more–beating the Taliban and al-Qaeda at their own game.
Now, are we going to stay there for the next hundred years? No. But can’t we maintain some type of air power, some type of QRF, some type of logistical support for a very, very small group of people who will stay and remain a part of the tribal society? The other answer is to completely abandon them, which would be a strategic mistake and morally wrong.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda are not supermen. Who has the strongest ideology? Who has the stronger character? Who cares more about the everyday Afghan? Who is willing to pay a higher price? I don’t know. But I would personally like to find out.
I and five other guys I know are willing to give basically the rest of our adult lives to find out.
To the Taliban and al-Qaeda I would say, “Come on down here and try to hurt anyone in this tribe. Just one of us. But you had better pack a lunch, because you are going to be here for a while.”
Jim, I enjoyed writing this in response to your excellent and very thoughtful questions. I have learned a very important lesson over the last few weeks. It is almost impossible to express yourself, your passion, your values, your ethos, your beliefs over an email, a blog, a post or a paper. Everything that is said sounds egotistical, all-knowing, or stand-offish. I hope I didn’t come off that way to you. I believe in what I am saying and I respect and thank you for writing.
STRENGTH AND HONOR
Maj. Jim Gant