By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 22, 2010
As the debate over what to do in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond continues, United States soldiers and Marines are on the ground fighting and sacrificing.
While this blog will continue focusing on that debate, the greater focus will be on providing soldiers and Marines practical, battle-tested information, which can help them on the ground.
A few weeks ago, Newsweek reported:
Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, coauthored a refreshingly candid and very public report that said, among other things, that the “U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy” in Afghanistan. (Among his views: there’s too much emphasis on intel for killing bad guys, and not nearly enough on information to help soldiers understand what’s really going on in the society.)
William S. “MAC” McCallister (USA, Ret.) underscored:
We may be focusing too much on specific questions and not enough on adapting our mental models to reflect the cultural environment and identifying cultural operating codes and coordinating messages. One of the challenges with our current intelligence collection and assessment process is that we delve too much into the minutiae and miss the bigger picture or patterns of social behavior. It is an appreciation for the patterns of social behavior not answers to specific questions that allow us to predict and shape an outcome. There are places in the world where the past, present, change and continuity coexist in the same social space. Our intelligence collection and political and military strategies should express this condition.
We asked Major Jim Gant, Mr. McCallister, and Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai what information they would provide to the soldiers and Marines on the ground. For what information should our troops be asking-and what information should they be questioning? What is it we believe to be true about the rest of the world, that just ain’t so?
Major Gant mentioned that some of this information is passed on from unit to unit in “continuity books.”
The purpose of a continuity book is to ease the hand-over from one unit to another in conducting their mission. It is very detailed and covers every aspect of the mission and the area of operation (AO). It usually will go from very general to very specific in case there is a change of mission and so that there will be a depth of understanding about the AO that will allow the incoming unit to “hit the ground running.” The better the continuity book, the quicker the new unit will be able to start being successful and the less time they will waste in “getting their feet wet.”
The goal for this “Tribal Engagement Tutorial” series is to provide the atmospherics portion of the continuity book, as it relates to tribal engagement. There is much more that goes into a continuity book. This series will cover one portion.
And, as Mr. McCallister pointed out:
In my opinion, all questions concerning a given AO are situation based. We should also gain an appreciation for how the social system in our AO works. Questions concerning my AO will differ from someone else’s because of location, situation, mission, enemy activity, and personalities involved, etc. This is about “how to think” versus “what to think” about an AO.
Keep that in mind, too. This series will offer information that must be approached from specific AOs. This is a starting place.
Though their answers were different, they shared the same core:
a) What are the critical groups in the area of operation (AO)—tribes, aqwams, and ?
In a lot of cases it is very difficult to determine who is who. We have gotten better at that, however, in remote areas (as ODA 316 was in 2003) it was very difficult to determine if who you were dealing with who was/is THE tribal leader or a clan leader or what. Go in with as much information as you can about ALL the groups in your AO…CF, Afghan forces, tribes, enemy, “fence sitters”…etc
—Major Jim Gant
b) What are their populations?
c)What are the cultures, traditions, and social structures? How do they use Jirgas or Shuras? What form of law do they follow—Shari’ia, Pashtunwali, and/or government-imposed law? What are their importance holy and historic days? How do they treat the different sexes—what are their customs/mores? What are their dietary habits? What are their traditions related to birth and death?
It is always very helpful to mention in every meeting that the US Army is in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people, they are not there to go against their culture or religion. It is always helpful for the officers to provide a praying area during the praying time (Muslims pray 5 times a day).
—Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai
“Just asking the question about how they handle, for instance, a murder is very important to know because you can determine a lot about the tribe based on how they deal with punishing crimes. For instance, do they follow “Pashtunwali”? A Shar’ia law? Or do they try to put the person into some type of local government judicial system. This tells you a lot about who really owns the power in the area.”
—Major Jim Gant
d) How do they identify themselves and what are the inter, and external dynamics among these groups? What are the names of the tribes, clans, sub-clans? What are the tribal dynamics? Who are the leaders? Do their mullahs and other influential elders play a role in governing the tribe? If yes, how much? What is the historical origin of the tribe? What is the focus of their history? As warriors? As Muslims? As Pashtuns? What portion of their history do they identify with the most? History is very important to the tribe. The more you know about the history of the tribe, the more you will be able to not so much anticipate certain reactions, but narrow down the many reactions that MAY occur to certain situations.
e) Who else is operating in the AO? Foreign Nation support? Central government representatives? Other solidarity groups? Insurgents? Which of these groups are friendly and which aren’t? How do these other groups play into the tribe?
Many local elders and tribal chiefs get intimidated by the Insurgents. When, and if, they cooperate with U.S. Army, there has to be an approach by the U.S. Army in order to make sure some meetings takes place very quietly and some publicly. Many Tribal Chiefs and elder would wish to meet with the U.S. Army officers in private and inform them of situation in their villages, towns and valleys, but because sometimes these meetings are taking place in a public manner, they keep quiet.
—Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai
If possible, put into place mechanisms that will allow the tribesman to speak with you in a non-conspicuous manner. Never “visit” just to gather information. In most cases, if you are working with them in the correct manner, you will have more information than you will know what to do with.
—Major Jim Gant
One of my base assumptions about the frontier is that there already exist mechanisms and established rituals (procedures) for managing violence, patronage relationships, alliance networks or in this case communicating inconspicuously. We need to identify, mimic and or adapt these existing mechanisms and rituals (procedures) so we might effectively communicate our intent to the locals.”
Which groups are allies (alliance networks and or patronage relationships) or rivals, and which ones are actively feuding? Who are their leaders? How do their leaders operate? Veiled threats/insults? Straight talkers? What is their history with the central government, with insurgent groups, and with coalition forces? How have they worked with Americans and other Westerners in the past? How have they used their credibility and legitimacy to enhance prestige and/or create new alliances and strengthen existing alliances. Once you determine which other tribes they cooperate with, and which other tribes they are at odds with, you will have a great amount of information on their true intentions. *REMEMBER: These intentions can change over time based on YOUR actions/inactions.
Where are the key market towns and vital trade routes in our area of operation? What tribes border the TET’s AO–tribes which might be working with separate TET’s.
This is one of the questions I am asked most often. TETs would not infil into bordering tribes without the “approval” of the tribe that was contacted initially. If a TET were to infil into an adjacent tribe, the elders of each tribe would meet with the TETs and there would be clear AO’s established and agreements would be made that would ensure that all the tribes involved were satisfied with the arrangement.
—Major Jim Gant
If I might add to Major Gant’s answer concerning a given TET’s area of operation. A TET would most likely be initially associated with a specific solidarity group or alliance network. Patronage relationships shape alliance networks and afford solidarity groups access to limited resources (honor, guns and money). Security is a commodity. Specific territories are associated with alliance networks and patronage relationships. The term territory does not have to imply physical territory only. A given territory may be a patchwork of sub-loyalties within a system of solidarity groups rather than an area of physical territory with a precise boundary. An aligned TET would therefore be unable to infiltrate a different alliance network without the expressed approval of all parties involved. A TET may be able to cross network boundaries if a given alliance network links into a greater network.”
4. Security arrangements (segmentation)
What currently exists between the various aqwam, and for protection of key market towns and vital trade routes? Are there Tribal Security Forces (TSF)? If yes, where are they, what are their training and capabilities, their systems and armament, and their disposition?
In future posts, we’ll break out points in the above, an go through them in depth, with Major Gant, Mr. McCallister, and Chief Zazai weighing in, providing their opinions and examples of their experiences with these various points.
We’d also like to hear from you. If you have experiences that relate to the topics we’re discussing, please post them in the comments section, following the appropriate post.