Going Tribal in Afghanistan

Going Tribal in Afghanistan - James Dao, New York Times.

In Washington, the debate over Afghanistan seems to center around two broad ideas: counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism. Should the United States add troops for a more population-centric strategy, as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal advocates? Or should it use a less ground-heavy approach, disrupting Al Qaeda with Special Operation Forces and unmanned drones, as Vice President Joseph Biden argues? There is, of course, no shortage of other ideas, many of them afloat in the blogosphere. Among the more provocative ones has been posted on Steven Pressfield's blog, It's the Tribes, Stupid, and it comes from an Army Special Forces major who has spent much time in both Afghanistan and Iraq training indigenous fighters.

The 45-page paper, "One Tribe at a Time" by Maj. Jim Gant, argues that one way to undermine the insurgency is to return, in part, to the strategy that ousted the Taliban to begin with: Embed small, highly skilled and almost completely autonomous units with tribes across Afghanistan. Much like the Green Berets who worked with the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban in 2001 and 2002, the units, which Major Gant calls Tribal Engagement Teams, would wear Afghan garb and live in Afghan villages for extended periods, training, equipping and fighting alongside tribal militias.

The goal would be to encourage what Major Gant sees as a natural antipathy between many tribes toward some of the more ideological, anti-American segments of the insurgency. Just as the Sunni tribesmen dubbed the Sons of Iraq turned against foreign al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq, Major Gant argues that Tribal Engagement Teams can counter al-Qaeda networks in Afghanistan by creating or strengthening indigenous fighting forces built upon local militias. That kind of strategy has been discussed in Afghanistan, where critics argue that it would undermine the central government in Kabul and encourage warlordism...

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I am in the process of finishing a college paper which addresses this issue. While debates rage over the effectiveness of these tribes to the US strategy, the Taliban have been eliminating threats from these same tribes and have been doing so for some time. We are quickly losing anti-Taliban allies who have a much better knowledge of local terrain and alliances than coalition intelligence does. I believe both views (Major Grant and the Army report)have merit and help explain the situation. Neither though is an end all on the subject. There are Pashtun tribes standing against the Taliban as I type and are receiving little to no help for either the Karzai government or coalition forces. If support is not provided to these fighters soon, an indigenous resource will have been wasted and it will be much harder to meet the goals offered by President Obama during his December 1st speech.

Major Gant's essay was most touching but one can only wonder if that's what policy is all about. Each "warrior" generation seems to relearn the lessons of the last; each paying dearly for that education. And yet, it's all stumble bumble learning, is it not? How much of Pashtun-SF relations are the essence of policy? Can we ever match the control that Taliban have over the rugged countryside? The Vietnam lesson tells us that we never did and maybe never will; our success to a "better war" was never rural in character. Our "better war" resulted not from our SF being "in" with the locals, going native, but from South Vietnam turning in a few years from 85% rural to 75% urban. Per the Viet Communist Party, therein lay the demise of the Viet Cong for once the guerrilla "fish" were left high and dry by the peasant "sea" that moved to the cities to, in the words of Radio Hanoi "become petit bourgeois," The VCI desiccated as it had to infrastructure in the urban areas and Hanoi had to resort to the Tet Offensive directed at the urban centers. That failed and from then on the war was against invading North Vietnamese regulars whose accent, demeanor and attitude were quite distinct and vicious. One wonders then in going native with the Pashtun is not a romantic boyish notion rather than a solution. For the ties that Maj. Gant speaks of with rightful pride are tenuous at best and, obviously from evolving events, no match for the Pashtun ties of the Taliban and even alQaeda. Everyone is there, in the words on Mama-san, "short-time," and the long term is what the Muslim brotherhood worked on. Let's admit we're no match. But Saudi Arabia is proof that Western ways have tamed the violent resistance with urbanization and education. The former we must do, the latter we must leave to the national government. Let us not have illusions that we "Crusaders" can win-em-over as that only wasted heroic moms and dads whose primary mission is defending the home front and raising upright well educated future Americans, not develop one-year-long tribal ties. These don't last and sap our nations bleeding human and material assets as we, again, lose strategically because we only think tactically, in the end depending on airpower and firepower instead of tribal ties. I saw the Russians achieving such relations. It was only when their reforms led to violent revolt that they got frustrated and shot at everyone. They couldnt afford the cost of "nation building" so they resorted to annihilatory class struggle instead. Can we afford to try and do what our hubris tells us we can do as we create lots of orphans and widows back home?

I would rather call it the bottom up approach. It starts with giving local people control over their fate and seeing us as facilitators that can help them with protection, money and influence.

It means largely ignoring the central government. But that has its advantage as it forces that government to accept the local public opinion and disables its tendency to appoint cronies who will exploit the local population and make them receptive for guerrilla influence.

It is something different from supporting militias. US forces in Afghanistan have often the tendency to support any militia that offers itself - also when are just the force of some tribal faction or are local brigands. This method supposes that only militias are supported that reflect the local population.

This is what we did In Iraq with the Anbar Uprising. Supporting local tribal leaders was the closest we could come to local democracy. It helped undermine the appeal of Al Qaeda and it forced the Iraqi government to treat the Sunnite minority better.

In Afghanistan we saw this strategy in the beginning of the war, as described in "one tribe at a time". It is also the diplomacy-aspect of the 3D-approach used by the Dutch in Uruzgan. Pakistan uses it as the standard way to rule its tribal areas and calls it just "drinking tea" - an expression used much in Afghanistan too.

This is a knowledge intensive approach. Only with a lot of contacts can you find out who represents the local population and what are reasonable demands. And it requires a diplomatic attitude. Accepting local democracy means that you can't discard one leader for another.

By now, Ive read both Major Gants paper and the Leavenworth/HTC paper noted above. As one who has tried to learn a lot about tribal forms of organization, ancient and modern, I think Gants paper is on the right track, aiming in the right direction.

The HTC paper makes useful points too. But do they truly contradict or counter Gants?

The HTC paper finds that "'tribal engagement should not be pursued in Afghanistan like it was in Iraq, mainly because tribes in Afghanistan are quite different from those in Iraq." Thats surely true, but to my knowledge no one (Gant included) is perceiving or calling for an exact replication.

The HTC paper also finds that "tribe" is an inadequate concept for analyzing Afghanistan, and that terms that emphasize whats "local" would be better. This may be true to an extent in some areas. But exclusion of the term "tribe" and its complete replacement by "local" seems inadvisable.

The seeming disparity between the two papers derives partly from the fact that the HTC paper uses a narrower definition of "tribe" than does Gants. In the HTC paper, the term refers to a group of kinfolk who espouse a shared identity, have a chief, act as a unified group, and have informal but reliable modes of governance, as in Iraq. As the HTC authors point out, much of this does not characterize Afghanistan these days. But that shouldnt be the key point.

There are many tribal areas around the world, including in Afghanistan, that do not exhibit such tight, structured solidarity. Yet they are still rife with tribal dynamics: Kinship bonds, codes of honor, ancient narratives, ties to the land, respect for elders, and collective longings and identities still matter to a significant degree. And people caught up in such dynamics often shift their ties flexibly and pragmatically, alternating between fusion and fission. This may mean that, compared to Iraq, Afghanistan is loosely, qualifiedly tribal -- but its still rife with tribal kinds of patterns and dynamics. The HTC paper repeatedly substantiates this, even as it denies that Afghanistan exhibits an idealized tribalism.

The HTC paper identifies alternative terms that it deems more appropriate than "tribe": e.g., "qawm," "faction," "solidarity group," and "patronage network." Yet, in many respects, these are still tribe-like concepts. And the discussion about these alternatives still shows that large parts of Afghanistan remain fraught with classic tribal dynamics, albeit of a rather fractured, tempestuous sort that may not be unusual in high-conflict zones.

Gant may have been fortunate as to the specific tribe and chief that he got to work with. But even so, his paper is keenly attuned to the nature of tribal patterns and dynamics, in terms of both theory and practice.

It's interesting how much play this essay has received. When the Army convened people to actually study the phenomenon of tribes in Afghanistan, they came to a dramatically different conclusion:

In this report, the HTS Afghanistan RRC warns that the desire for
"tribal engagement" in Afghanistan, executed along the lines of the recent "Surge" strategy in Iraq, is based on an erroneous understanding of the human terrain. In fact, the way people in rural Afghanistan organize themselves is so different from rural Iraqi culture that calling them both "tribes" is deceptive. "Tribes" in Afghanistan do not act as unified groups, as they have recently in Iraq. For the most part they are not hierarchical, meaning there is no "chief" with whom to negotiate (and from whom to expect results). They are notorious for changing the form of their social organization when they are pressured by internal dissension or external forces...

Pashtuns motivations for choosing how to identify and organize politically -- including whether or not to support the Afghan government or the insurgency--are flexible and pragmatic. "Tribe" is only one potential choice of identity among many, and not necessarily the one that guides peoples decision-making.

Just some food for thought.

I read Maj Gant's "One Tribe at a Time" and thought it was a great read. I also thought it fell far short of providing any serious analysis of of how a strategy like this would end. Undoubtedly, Afghanistan is made up of tribes and COIN in Afghanistan certainly requires tribal engagement. However, an understanding of Afghan history, especially 1973-present, gives pretty good insight into how a large scale tribal militia strategy would end - chaos. The Akhzundhas' legacy in Helmand comes to mind.

Wimm - From your comments about Anbar, I do not believe you understand the differences between Sahawa al Anbar (Anbar Awakening) and what was later called the 'Sons of Iraq' as the other MND's tried to recreate what was done in Ramadi and Fallujah. Ricks' book The Gamble completely missed the target.

David - Having worked closely with the tribes in Iraq and currently preparing to work with those in Southern Afghanistan, I believe they are significantly different. In my opinion, we are much closer to a zero sum game situation in southern Afghanistan (if not all of it). I may not have it quite right but having read a good bit of Afghan history as well as the current reporting, I am fairly confident building out tribal militias will at best provide some very short term results and most likely result in increased instability that would far outweigh the benefit.


I enjoyed Gant's article and ideas also, but was left with the same question, tell me how this ends?

With perhaps the exception of France in WWII, I can't think of any resistance groups that we supported that contributed in a significant way to our strategic objectives, and normally the blowback wasn't worth their minimal contribution to the fight. Most of these resistance groups that we supported tended to evolve into thugs, destablizing militias, narco-traders, etc. Some examples include the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan that we supported that evolved into 9/11 and GWOT. The Contras were murderous thugs, that couldn't hold power once they won the fight. The WWII Burmese resistance evolved into various militia factions and / or drug runners leading to a state of chaos in Burma. The Kurdish militia in Iraq remains a destablizing force. The list could go on endlessly.

Tribal strategy is a short term expedient answer at best.