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Tribal Engagement at the Tactical Level

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Tribal Engagement at the Tactical Level

by Andrew Exum and Jason Fritz

Download the full article: Tribal Engagement at the Tactical Level

This short paper is intended to supplement the Tribal Engagement Workshop (TEW) Summary Report by addressing those findings at the tactical level. The information provided here was drawn from the experiences of the members of the tactical working group at the TEW to create a planning framework for community engagement at the tactical level -- specifically at the team or company/platoon level -- in Afghanistan.

At the tactical level, tribal engagement would best be leveraged as community engagement for reasons outlined in the TEW Summary Report. Community engagement at the tactical level is something that can be done by both special operations forces and general purpose forces -- but it depends on what you define as community engagement and where you attempt to do it.

Significant time and effort must be devoted to determining which areas and communities are ripe for engagement (and when) while also determining how engaging those communities would benefit the overarching regional or theater campaign plan. Some communities do not readily lend themselves to engagement, and other communities do not lend themselves to engagement at all times -- as any kind of engagement depends first and foremost on buy-in from local authorities.

Download the full article: Tribal Engagement at the Tactical Level

Andrew Exum is a fellow with the Center for a New American Security and served on active duty in the U.S. Army from 2000 until 2004. He led a platoon of light infantry in Afghanistan in 2002 and a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Most recently, he served as an advisor on the CENTCOM Assessment Team and as a civilian advisor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan.

Jason Fritz is a three tour Iraq veteran and 2002 West Point graduate. He served as a tank and scout platoon leader, troop executive officer, and squadron adjutant in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I and III. He was then assigned as the brigade planner for the 2d Brigade Combat Team of the 3d Infantry Division in preparation for and during Operation Iraqi Freedom V. He is currently a senior analyst with Noetic.

They served as a facilitator and senior analyst, respectively, at the Tactical Engagement Workshop.

About the Author(s)


Don Moss (not verified)

Tue, 05/04/2010 - 7:15pm

The increased focus on shaping and progressing with tribal engagement is long overdue. Numberous men and women in Afghanistan (military and otherwise) have succeeded in establishing beneficial relationships with tribal, village, religious (mulwi, mullah, etc) and government personalities in the last decade/s. Hopefully the lessons learned continue to be aired far and wide to mitigate the dangers of insufficient turnover. Safe travels always.


Don Moss

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 04/28/2010 - 12:15am

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

•The US creating autonomous local militias in Afghanistan to enable communities to defend themselves. This is a process that is central to what's called open source counterinsurgency. Naturally, the effort is being blocked by Karzai, who rightly sees it as a blow to Afghan sovereignty since "it runs counter to the goal of giving the state a monopoly of force" (which, by the way, is also the central tenet of US COIN doctrine). As with Iraq, this effort is being run as a grass roots effort by soldiers that see the benefit of using open source counter-insurgency rather than a defunct US COIN doctrine. Unfortunately, given the restrictions being placed on these efforts, it looks like the US defense establishment didn't learn anything from the unanticipated success of open source counter-insurgency in Iraq (it was the secret sauce of the "surge" and not the troop build-up).

Tuesday, 02 October 2007
After four painful years, the US military has stumbled upon (mostly due to the now classic Jihadi overreach -- as in Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.) the only model for fighting a mature open source insurgency: a decentralized model of security that forgoes centralized defense/police forces in favor of a plethora of independent militias. The success of this model in reducing violence (at least in the short term) in Anbar province, has led to its replication in other provinces.

This effort is essentially open source warfare in reverse (another way of looking at it is as the counter-insurgency equivalent of IBM's embrace of open source software -- a path I pointed out in the NYTimes back in 2005). In this model, the US military aligns itself with a plethora of militias (in this case hundreds) regardless of political/regilious/ethnic/tribal affiliation under the plausible promise of local autonomy. It is made fact as funds, weapons, and local control flows to these militias.

How this plays out over the next couple of years will be interesting to watch. It's fairly obvious that the US military doesn't have the skill sets for successfully managing this level of complexity (here's a minor example: it doesn't even have a relationship management system for tracking interactions with these militias -- something that could easily be constructed through a redux of commercial CRM software). It also runs counter to all of the classic goals of counter-insurgency and more importantly, the stated (and implied) goals for the US in Iraq:
•A viable central government. Every time a militia is stood up, it is at the direct expense of the central government. It loses the essential requirement for any viable state: a monopoly of force.
•A grand political bargain. An open-source counter-insurgency locks Iraq into a patchwork of mini-fuedal principalities with a large diversity of primary loyalties. Political settlement now becomes impossible since the sheer diversity of armed interests will overwhelm any attempt at reconciliation.
•A safe place for private oil companies and a long term US military presence. This new patchwork of armed groups in Iraq ensures chaos, which will make it impossible to attain any level of modern normalcy. Vendettas between militias, betrayal (of US troops), rampant crime/theft/corruption, and more is on the dinner plate for decades to come. Finally, the open source insurgency won't go away. It will only return when it revises its methods in light of the new conditions.


Tue, 04/27/2010 - 4:04pm

When describing the enablers, the authors mention that air support is required, but a female engagement capability is required if possible.

If "air means" means dedicated ISR assets, then I agree. But if it means "dedicated close air support assets" then that is neither supportable nor necessary. There are other solutions to kinetic encounters than dropping bombs. I'd rather have a FET. The wording implies that a FET team is a "nice to have" instead of an asset that should be a priority.

Jason Fritz

Tue, 04/27/2010 - 3:30pm

This paper is not a reflection of my experience or Andrew's, but is instead a very condensed outline of the discussion held by the tactical working group at the Tribal Engagement Workshop. I'll draw your attention to the statement in the introduction on how this is a supplement to that workshop's report - and really all of the other products found on the event page (

It's intended audience is that junior officer who may be tasked with this mission, but has never done it, been trained for it, or even thought of it before and arms him with some planning considerations. This is obviously not a soup-to-nuts "how to" on tribal or community engagement at the platoon level. It contains a distillation of the fundamentals as described to Andrew and I by true experts who have, are, and will do this again in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Matt (not verified)

Tue, 04/27/2010 - 2:57pm

This is some pretty thin scholarship. All of these suggestions are pretty well known among people with more relevant experience. Not that impressive.

Is Andrew the author of this piece? Hmmmm???

Matt (not verified)

Tue, 04/27/2010 - 10:01am

Thin is the right way to describe this article

I thought Andrew and Jason did a great job summarizing some of the difficult concepts we've been discussing the past year.

My only suggestion would be to expand on the shape phasing. You can never talk about reconnaissance enough :) and learning whom to trust and when conditions are set is difficult.


Vito (not verified)

Mon, 04/26/2010 - 3:32pm

Maybe the audience it was directed at is not quite the thick scholarship expert you seem to think you are. I'd be more impressed with your commentary if you'd kindly expand on the "more relevant experience". Care to take a shot, or just sit back and do snarky drive-bys?

Vito (not verified)

Mon, 04/26/2010 - 3:41pm

And to add on concerning the "more relevant experience" comment, from what I have read concerning that seminar there were literally dozens of participants with recent tribal engagement and Afghanistan experience. What say you A?

Andrew (not verified)

Mon, 04/26/2010 - 3:07pm

This is some pretty thin scholarship. All of these suggestions are pretty well known among people with more relevant experience. Not that impressive.