Small Wars Journal

One Tribe at a Time

Wed, 12/09/2009 - 6:32pm
We've been told via blog comments and e-mail that Major Jim Gant's "One Tribe at a Time" (at Steve Pressfield's It's the Tribes Stupid) cannot be accessed from at least some .mil domains. We have been granted permission to repost it here at Small Wars Journal to facilitate the maximum access possible.


HH (not verified)

Sun, 12/05/2010 - 9:25am

Hi dear friend Maj Gant!
I think we saw each other in CSC/ USMC. And we talked about some of these issues. Again, I would say, what American think in US is much better than the reality in the ground (in Afghanistan). God bless u guys(American) for helping us (Afghans) in our affairs that we should do that. Allas for our people who are losing this Gulden apportunity. Otherwise, we could get or learn alot out of your presence in Afghanistan. If i say the reality, I would say it is not just Afghans' fault rather than, it is US's policy makers fauld too for supporting ONe person and ignoring a nation.

M. Costen (not verified)

Tue, 10/05/2010 - 1:27pm

Awesome article. Someone finally got it right and wrote about it. After spending time with my "Boots on the Ground" (Gardez, A-Stand 03-04)I must agree with Major Gant totally. He got it right.
Afghanistan is not a conventional conflict. Surge troops are not going to win the conflict in the long run. We must link up with and bond with the local tribes in the building process. Western ideoligies and government outlines that do not take the tribes into consideration as the primary building block will not work.
Our nation was started from the ground up also, not top to bottom. (This shows the loss of not teaching REAL American history to many generations of americans) People assume too much about things they know nothing about.
The mainstream Army must wake up and stop the "Feather in my Hat" & "No Risk is Good Risk" approach to management of forces on the ground. Get the footprint smaller. Utilize this information and outline as a guideline to implimenting it in one form or another. Give those teams the freedom and support they need to do it. Search high and low for the type of Men who already possess the skill set needed to not only do this, but make it a success. They are out there. I've worked with them, I've seen it firsthand.

Enjoyed all the postings
Marcus Custer, Hi Sir, enjoyed the video, why didnt you send her to Gardez?!!


Thu, 08/05/2010 - 7:05am


Hope all is well.

I haven't forgot about getting you my reading references. My current problem is I am swamped and my reference material is spread out between Fort Bragg, Washington DC, Kabul, and Bagram just to name a few.

I'll get it to you by 2014.

I promise.



"See references to the Village Stability Program (article excerpt below)."

Looks like it is going ahead.....good stuff. It'd be great if us GPF types could play.

See references to the Village Stability Program (article excerpt below). This is a natural evolution from engagement of local villages in 2002 following the fall of the Taliban regime, to the estbalishment and disbanding of "local militia forces" from 2002-2006, to the Afghan Public Protection Program, the Local Defense Initative to the Community Defense Initiative to the current Village Stability Program. While MAJ Gant's Tribal Engagement concept may not be executed exactly as written in his paper, there are and have been numerous efforts to execute like programs. One of the important contributions of MAJ Gant and his paper has been to get these fundamental concepts accepted beyond the Special Forces community and the Village Stability Program is evidence of that.

Special Forces Training Afghan Villagers
June 09, 2010
Agence France-Presse

American special forces are helping Afghan villages organise their own protection against Taliban militants, a US army chief in southern Afghanistan has told AFP.

Brigadier General Ben Hodges, head of operations for US forces in southern Afghanistan, said some Afghan villagers have been provided basic training and cash in areas beset by the Islamist insurgency.

"There are some programmes where special forces units are out in a village stability programme where they might find a large village and then help train the locals to defend themselves," Hodges told AFP in an interview.

"We don't have enough police and army and coalition forces to cover every single village," he said...

<a href="… Forces Training Afghan Villagers</a> for the rest of the article.

Mike Few (not verified)

Thu, 07/08/2010 - 11:49am

"Given the interest that MAJ Gant's paper has generated, has there been any move towards implementing the tribal engagement plan? If so, will it be a primarily SOF effort?"

One can only hope. I've been considering that for RC-East. If the conventional guys can do enough of killing the TB when they mass in force then that would create the space needed to recruit, train, and employ the tribes.

The most difficult part as many of the detractors have observed is to get the tribes alligned with the gov't throughout the process and minimizing the armed rogue tribes. If that's possible.

An endeavor of that scale would probably require a joint RA and SF effort for the time window that we're looking at, but it's a much better plan than putting the patrol bases back in those valleys.

Given the interest that MAJ Gant's paper has generated, has there been any move towards implementing the tribal engagement plan? If so, will it be a primarily SOF effort?


Tue, 06/15/2010 - 11:39pm

One Tribe at a Time: The Way Forward

Tribal engagement is the most viable option we have for changing the tide of the war in Afghanistan. Tribes, though weakened by decades of war and social unrest, remain the defining local organization in the rural areas of the east and south. This insurgency is about the Pashtuns. Pashtuns are waging the insurgency in the Pashtun tribal belt. The key to success in this very difficult and complex situation lies in the minds and the actions of the Pashtun tribesmen, not in the motivations of some foreign and Afghan officials who have far less invested in the wars outcome and are sitting in offices and ministries in Kabul and Kandahar protecting the "status quo."

The Pashtun tribes, with U.S. military assistance and on-the-ground presence, are the only force capable of pushing back the Taliban and providing the central government and Afghan security forces the time and space in which to assert greater stability. Seen in that light, contrary arguments that empowering the tribes would weaken the central government, interfere with the building of the Afghan Army and police, or prove too risky or unfeasible are short-sighted and reflect a failure to grasp the essential role of Pashtun tribes and tribal relationships in shaping the countrys future.

At the same time, if we do not use this opportunity to give Pashtun tribes a voice in politics at the district, provincial and central levels of a reformed Afghan government, the long-term stability of the nation will be threatened. Borrowing a term from David Kilcullen at the tribal engagement workshop, the real challenge may be the "catastrophic success" of tribes that are providing security but are not empowered politically.

A strategy of tribal engagement in the east and tribal-building in the south will play a vital role in determining whether Pashtun tribal influence becomes a force to help stabilize Afghanistan rather than another missed opportunity. Trained teams able to speak Pashtu and see things through the eyes of a tribesman are essential to building the enduring relationships with tribal leaders necessary to make this time-sensitive yet resource-efficient strategy succeed. The Pashtuns have a saying: "You can build anything, but you cannot rebuild trust once it is broken."

The Pashtun tribes want "people" not a plan or a process, a reality that has hit home as Ive brushed up on my Pashtu over the last four months in preparation for deployment. The real question is - are we willing to give them that?


Jim Gant

Dennis (not verified)

Mon, 03/29/2010 - 1:40pm


I haven't seen the CPAU site, so thanks for the reference. It looks like there is a lot of interesting work done there.

I appreciate the entire discussion.

Ian (not verified)

Mon, 03/29/2010 - 8:33am

Dennis, we're on the same page. And I do not belong to the camp of Major Gant's detractors who want a Western-style system of government imposed on people up in the mountains in Paktika. Local engagement is necessary, but augmenting the local dispute-resolution system solves the little problem that arming tribes has. I.e., you are licensing non-governmental groups to kill people--and that has not had very good results in Afghanistan, or elsewhere for that matter.

I don't know if you've seen it, but CPAU has an excellent series of papers out on local disputes in AF, if you're interested:

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Sun, 03/28/2010 - 2:33pm

MikeF---as someone who learned the hard way in SF to "defeat him become him" and who has been in the thick of the irregular fight for literally way to many years--Yes to disengage is the hardest thing you will ever do.

And you will never truly disengage as even your wife or your closest friends will never ever really understand.

The closest thing one can get to is packing it into a small box in the back of one's brain and hope that the memories start to fade which they will but I am sorry to say it takes way to many years to reach that level in my case VN is safely in the past---trying to work on the Iraq part now.

In some aspects even insurgents who had been in what the East Germans use to call "the war on the invisible front" or what AQI would/did call "the private face of a secret organization" who have survived for a number of years actually during interrogations would voice comments about problems they faced and it would seem that they were voicing things that we ourselves make comments on. So I personally think that whatever side one is on in an insurgency we all share to a degree similiar problems in the adjustments.

We tend to forget that the insurgent also in fact gets into our mind sets in order to defeat us.

Dennis (not verified)

Sun, 03/28/2010 - 11:12am


Your comments at the other board are right on. Honestly, I wasn't stealing your ideas!

What bothers me most about the attacks on Gant's ideas is that they are based on the premise that it is a zero-sum game -- either it's "One tribe at a time" or nothing. The fact is that Gant's approach is a great idea for what it is, namely a tactic for local engagement. It also recognizes that for right now, the central government has zero credibility much beyond Kabul.

But at some point, as you and I and others have said, we have to get the central government to penetrate into the countryside. Everybody seems to agree with that, to one degree or another. However, there are many (especially among MAJ Gant's detractors) who seem to argue that the central government needs to follow a western model of government.

By the way, I have talked with a number of lawyers who have worked on rule of law issues in both Iraq and Afghanistan who can only seem to accept a common law/American-type system of justice as "real" justice, failing to recognize that these countries (especially Iraq) have had justice systems of their own before we even got there. And they also forget that most of the rest of the world uses legal systems that are vastly different than the American/British system.

The reality is that we need to build on what existed before we got there, not try to impose our system and values on the population. There are dozens of ways to skin a cat, just because we skinned our cat in one way 200+ years ago doesn't mean that its the best way.

But in defense of MAJ Gant, we need to engage at the local level in Afghanistan. The only question is, to what purpose. That is what we need to figure out.

Ian (not verified)

Sat, 03/27/2010 - 8:08pm


Your point is well supported by very recent research in Afghanistan on local disputes, as well as by a long history of anthropologists. E.g., Alef Shah Zadran's dissertation--he was a Western-trained Pashtun anthropologist, who went to live with a tribe not his own in Paktia, if I remember correctly. That, for anyone who doubts he had boots on the ground.

I wrote a very similar comment about 3/4 down in response to Mac Mccallister on this post (not to claim priority but to say, I agree wholeheartedly with you):


Dennis (not verified)

Sat, 03/27/2010 - 5:50pm

There is a lot of criticism of MAJ Gant's piece that I have read recently. Much of it does not offer any workable alternative approaches. However, they do offer some legitimate criticisms of his proposed strategy.

Most notably, these critics note that the strategy might require the TETs -- and therefore the U.S. -- to pick sides in an otherwise local dispute. They also note that it may be that the tribal power structure is not as clearly defined as we would like. Finally, many object the defining these groups as "tribes," arguing, it seems to me, that the term "tribe" is a kind of anthropological term of art that defines how a particular group behaves. From what I can discern from this criticism, the groups in Afghanistan do not behave in the way a "tribe" should.

First, I should state up front that I am just a typical grunt, a junior infantry officer who has not served in Afghanistan (and my experience in Iraq did not require me to confront many of these issues). I am now a third-year law student. However, the main focus in my legal studies has been international human rights and criminal law and have been most interested in post-conflict rule of law issues. It seems to me that a discussion of MAJ Gant's proposal is going to touch on these areas of the law.

In defense of MAJ Gant, I would first say that it really doesn't matter what you call these groups -- tribes, solidarity groups, bands, clans, whatever. That is a question of semantics. The problem that MAJ Gant is trying to address is interacting with the society at a local level. His theory is an acknowledgment that the central government has little to no authority or influence out in the countryside.

From what I have read, that assessment is not exactly controversial. The history of centralized government in Afghanistan is not good. I am not sure there has ever been a powerful central government. Maybe there has been a nominal central government, but most often the central government has been of a feudal nature or has been constantly engaged with an insurgency that challenged that authority.

The U.S. goal seems to be to prevent the Taliban from regaining control of the countryside to give the central government room to build political support around the country. Engaging with the "tribes" seems to be the best way to fight the Taliban -- to keep them from controlling the rural part of the country and undermining the ability of the central government to make headway in the countryside.

At this point, I guess I should point out that my characterization of Gant's proposal as a "strategy" might be inaccurate. In reality, it is more of a tactic -- a means to effect the strategy of creating an environment for the central government to actually assert some influence -- or at least to gain some political support -- in the countryside. At the end of the day, creating a strong central government with support throughout the country is the only way to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for AQ.

The next point is more of a question: Isn't part of the skill set of SF to be able to work within indigenous groups? Doesn't that skill also imply that an SFODA should be able to figure out what the power structure of that groups is? That is critical to any engagement with a group. I fully accept that not every group is the same.

Likewise, how a group behaves, no matter what "type" of group one is talking about, is always going to be unique. I would hope that an ODA is trained to be flexible and does not simply apply a rote model every time is interacts with a group.

Small aside -- this is a big complaint with the training I got as an infantry soldier and officer. I was never taught to THINK -- only to react. I assume that SF training involves much more problem-solving and thinking than standardized if/then scenarios than IOBC and ICC.

So, assuming the best about SF training, the type of power structure analysis that would be required to do this tribal engagement would seem to be SF's bread and butter. It shouldn't matter whether the group is a "tribe" in the strict sense or some other kind of group.

As to the first criticism about picking sides, I actually have a proposal that might help to fill out MAJ Gant's theory. Instead of picking sides in a local fight, why not work to help resolve the dispute?

In many tribal structures, there is some kind of traditional dispute resolution mechanism. Often these mechanisms are in addition to government run courts, and often have more legitimacy. It would seem that the Afghan court system does not have much legitimacy for a variety of reasons. So why not co-opt the traditional dispute resolution fora to handle inter-tribal disputes?

In a way, this could be used to broaden the influence of the central government. For example, I have been involved in a study in Tanzania on the implementation of an anti-sexual violence statute in that country. One of the things we found is that there is a lot of dispute resolution that is done outside of the court system. Local areas are governed by a locally elected (or otherwise chosen) leader that is actually a representative of the central government. In essence, the tribal governance has been given the imprimatur of the central government. This local government actually includes boards which hear and settle many different types of disputes -- just as "tribal elders" did.

I realize that this is not a complete proposal. My main thrust is that a TET need not pick sides in a local fight. It would be more effective to either mediate the dispute or to facilitate some kind of arbitration or mediation by another party. It may be worthwhile to consider how the central government can be somehow involved in such dispute resolution in a way that is sensitive to the lack of legitimacy that the central government seems to suffer from. The resolution can be monitored and enforced by the TET.

Obviously, this is not a precise plan that can be operationalized immediately. Nor am I under any illusions that it would work in all circumstances. Hell, I don't even know if it would be workable at all, having never been in a village in Afghanistan, much less worked with a tribe there.

I only suggest it because I think that while MAJ Gant's proposal is a great way to show support to the people on the ground in a way that will be likely to deny support to the Taliban, at some point we are going to have to leave. Without providing some power to replace the functions that a TET provide to that local population, eventually that group could again be controlled by the Taliban.

A previous poster mentioned efforts in his AO to integrate ANA personnel in the TETs. That is an excellent development and will accomplish many of the goals of my proposal. It just seems to me that local disputes can be a real obstacle to stability in the country. Creating some lasting institution to help resolve these disputes that possess the legitimacy that the courts seem to lack is critical to long term success.

I can only add one comment to the excellent commentary of Jim Gant and Outlaw7.


In truth, this is the step that must be taken; however, the intended and unintended consequences of this decision can be costly. We don't discuss it much, but the ramifications of really getting into your enemy's mind and decision-making cycle takes a huge psychological toll. David Donovan describes his readjustment in the final chapter of "Once a Warrior King."

Eventually, after you defeat your enemy, which you will, you must figure out how to unbecome him. It's a process that I'm still trying to discern.

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Sat, 03/27/2010 - 1:21pm

For those bloggers here that do not want to believe that Afghanistan is in fact a true gerrilla war need to read through this NYT's article---and based on a CNN journalist question to a US soldier in Kandahar yesterday who surprisingly stated "they do not want us in this town" and shrugged his shoulders it should be mandatory reading.

Would also like to understand just how the COIN concept of clear, hold, build, and raise poppies has become COIN?

Soviet troops used the drugs in Afghanistan and now we are supplying the production end--what a strange turn in COIN.

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Fri, 03/26/2010 - 12:57pm

MAJ Gant:

Amen-the creed of an irregular war fighter.

AND yes the Taliban are preparing if one really listens to their battle videos as they realize the war will not be won in the cities, but rather for the hearts and minds of the villages as it is from the villages come the attacks on the cities and not vice versa.

No guerrilla war has ever been won by totally ignoring the sanctuariies.

Just look at the recent US operations by the Marines---and YES the Taliban are still controlling the night.

AND they made immediate changes to match our TTPs--now they move and intiminate without weapons (based strictly on fear alone)knowing US troops will not engage people with no weapons.


Fri, 03/26/2010 - 8:35am


It is GREAT to hear from you. Keep up the good work my brother. "Hold the Line." What you are doing there is not only the right thing, but the best thing as well. Sometimes it is hard to find things that are both. I will be there soon and hope to contribute in some small way to the successes you guys are clearly having on the ground.

The toughest days and biggest battles are in front of you and us (SF). There are counter-plans being put into place by the Taliban as we speak.

I leave you with this brother (I wrote this and gave it to the Captains I had out at Sage who were headed to Afghanistan):

The enemy is brutal.

The enemy is smart - at least as smart as you are.

The enemy has a plan - in most cases it is better than yours.

The enemy is low tech.

The enemy is at home.

The enemy is willing to die.

The enemy is not afraid of YOU.

The enemy watches you every day. You operate in the open. You have no idea where he is or where he is going.

The enemy looks like your friend.

The enemy acts like your friend.

In some cases the enemy is your friend.


It is you ability to establish relationships that in the end will determine life or death, not your weapons...

I am proud of you guys and what SF is doing over there.

I hope to see you soon.



Jason Walters (not verified)

Fri, 03/26/2010 - 5:35am

I want to offer my update as I see it now from the ground. We currently have some teams with ANA out working in villages, operating within the concept of your tribal engagement strategy. The response from the local population is overwhelming and the Local Defense Initiative is now becoming a Main Effort. There has not been one report of warlord-ism or retaliation on opposing tribes. The proof is in the action of the local population and there are plans to incorporate GIRoA Special Operations Forces soon with US teams in order to continue to legitimize the GIRoA. The top down approach continue to show progress with minor, sometimes significant, setbacks and the bottom up approach is beginning to prove its worth. It appears that where the top down support stops at the district level, the bottom up approach (TES) is picking up and taking the support from the district level to the village and, most important, to the villager via the village elder. These efforts take the GIRoA into the village and demonstrate the reach that the GIRoA can have into the population. The locations in which we are working are significant and difficult but so goes the work of Special Forces. Many details are purposely omitted due to sensitivity but the results are the same. In it infancy, it shows positive progress.

kdog101 (not verified)

Wed, 03/17/2010 - 1:52am

Jim Gant,

I just read your paper "One Tribe at a Time", and enjoyed reading about your experience.

Can we arm other tribes or groups through the tribes we engage with? So effectively the tribe we engage with is playing a role of helping other tribes resist the Taliban, a multiplier effect of sorts.

Regarding your comments in that paper:
"It is immoral and unethical to ask a tribe to help us and promise them support and then leave them to defend themselves on their own. If our forces do withdraw from Afghanistan, we should decide now to arm the tribes who support us with enough weapons and ammunition to survive after we leave."

Isn't our relationship a mutual one, where we are helping each other? I agree with your statement though, and I would rather us not make promises and be honest as possible regarding our long term support. Do you think telling them we are here for the short term would ruin such a relationship?

That said, I hope we keep some long term relationships like this going, as I would imagine that such relationships are valuable to the security, intelligence, and I suppose good will of our country. Also, I would rather support and promote one group in the world we can trust, then try to work with many we can not.

I share C.C.'s concern in regards to supporting a tribe / clan in warfare against their rival. When we make the agreement to support the tribe, don't we have to establish limits to our relationship? Make sure that they have some commitment to peace. Certainly the decision to support one group over another in a land dispute is a difficult one. Perhaps we have to recognize that this is a fact of life and the group that allies with us gains an advantage. As long as the group we support is committed to peace and respects human life it is something we tolerate. I think of Israel, as a group I believe is peaceful, and someone we support in a land dispute of sorts. I would be inclined to support the Kurds in N. Iraq in having their own country, because I believe they are industrious and generally peaceful.

Jack Thayer (not verified)

Wed, 03/17/2010 - 12:32am

A critical review of MAJ Gant's paper is a good thing and is always welcome by all parties. However, ad hominem attacks like the quote above "stop trying to behave like Lawrence of Arabia" are not helpful to anyone. Also, the assertion that "the mere presence of SF among local communities is unwelcome" may be true in one or another case, but clearly was not the experience that MAJ Gant had with the people in Mangwel. Logic is a great start point when criticizing a piece of work and is much more constructive than simply casting aspersions.


Next time please provide a summary rather than just a title and a link. While both are fine, your post without a summary resembles many of the spam posts I have to constantly deal with here.

Thanks much,

Dave D.

Why do you even need to meddle with the tribes in this way. The thinking behind this new strategy is so simplistic, the flaws in Gant's strategy have been perfectly highlighted by the link I provided above. Stop trying to behave like Lawrence of Arabia. I've personally spoken to people in areas where Special Forces are trying to 'advise, assist and lead local tribal security forces' and believe me they want nothing to do with them. The mere presence of SF among local communities is unwelcome, let alone any attempts to be 'buddies' and help them fight out their turf wars. Afghan government institutions need to be built up to help them do this, no one else should get involved. What Gant is proposing will only make things worse in the long-term. How can you pick sides when you clearly have no understanding of how complicated relations are between people?

It's almost laughable. Gant says 'when we gain the respect and trust of one tribe, in one area, there will be a domino effect will spread throughout the region and beyond'.

The only thing spreading like a domino effect is deep-rooted resentment due to indiscriminate SF search operations and abuse.

Bob's World

Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:18am


I opened your linked article with great anticipation, as I am always looking for keen insights to help shape my thinking.

Instead all I found were clever words criticising everything and offering nothing in return.

Disappointing. Not particularly surprising, but disappointing all the same.

Surely if you feel so strongly you must have some alternatives or derivative concepts to offer...



Mon, 01/18/2010 - 12:57am


Thank you for reading the paper and taking the time to post. I have enjoyed and learned from many of your articles.

I concur 100% with having a loyal Jirga where we offer an incredible amount of security - but we let them decide their leaders in their own way...

I really like what you said about "official" and "legitimate" and I also believe the use of TETs could be the linchpin in getting this accomplished.

The issue to me isn't if tribal engagement can and men proved it could and many men before us proved it could be done...the question is:

1. Would they be supported by our own military?
2. Can we do it large scale?
3. Do we have the right type of people, who will give up the time necessary to make this work?
4. What are the long-term effects if we do this; and what are the long term effects if we don't?
5. How will this effect the FATA and the NWFP inside Pakistan?

Thanks again for writing Sir.


I believe a 'one tribe at a time' approach is too tangled a web to navigate with any sort of good effect on a large scale. It can be effectively applied in limited areas where circumstances support. However, broadly applied, this concept will turn into a zero sum game that would very likely recreate the power struggle experienced in the early 1990's.

One of the important factors why the Awakening worked in Anbar was that Marines did not get bogged down in inter-tribal politics (for the most part). This was accomplished by primarily negotiating at the 'paramount sheik' level and leveraging/forcing this sheik to run his tribe in order to accomplish the endstate of the 'deal'. By doing this, it was the 'paramount sheik' who made the tough decisions regarding 'resource' allocation (be it CERP, checkpoint locations, detainee releases, reparations, etc.) based on his calculus and it was on him to sell/enforce his decisions to his subtribes. Had Marines tried to dictate to each subtribe what made sense to us based on fairness, it surely would have fractured the tribe and created pockets sympathetic to the INS that would have nullified whatever momentum was created in the first place.

In Afghanistan, there are no 'paramount sheiks' or even subtribe shieks with which to deal. Instead, there are tribal shuras. At which level within each tribe (subtribe, khel, clan) said shura has sufficient 'influence' over its land and people in order for us to effectively 'deal' with it is variable due to the fractured and non-contiguous nature of Pashtun tribes. This siutation is further complicated by pashtunwali, which will prevent the shura from being decisive in most circumstances...because we all know that there will be local winners and losers in doling out whatever 'influence' we are providing...and these losers will be obliged to avenge this slight. Without careful management, the second and third order effects of these decisions will ripple across boundaries and quickly outweigh the original benefits gained.

Tribal engagement is part of the solution but lasting stability starts with restoring a workable balance of power at the district level. In my opinion, 'One tribe at a time' as described further distorts this balance power vs contributes to it.


You are correct. Absolute control is an illusion; however, we do have options a bit more powerful than spheres of influence. If we have to arbitrate or intervene with a specific tribe for breaking a treaty, then we can cut-off funding, take their weapons away, and boycott them.

As for your hypothesis that everything can fall apart in the end, I would submit that is a possiblity regardless of our approach. To this end, I think that Jim Gant is suggesting the least-bad choice to a situation that we have commited.

The key in any endeavor is ultimately two-fold. First, the political officer- the ability to negoitiate workable treaties of power, money, and land-rights. Second, proximity of the military officer to accurately describe the situation on the ground.


Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 12/19/2009 - 3:13pm

Much easier to transfer this to the discussion board, but I'm looking forward to the answers from the members.


You can't really control these groups, instead you look for levers of influence, which SF is good at doing. However, if and when they decide to profit from the narcotics trade (or other illicit activity) there isn't much you're going to do about it. We have been trying to crack down on these criminal organizations for years with limited success.

Tribes and other resistance organizations "might" unify to fight a greater common threat, but once that unifying threat is defeated (Japan, Germany, Soviets, etc.) then they'll divide and fight among each other again until whatever conditions are established that allow a temporary or longer lasting peace. Putting U.S. troops in the fray won't change that, it will just force them to get caught up in a fight that isn't in our national interests.

GPF and SOF are mutually supporting in most cases, and the roles of each depends on strategy choosen to achieve the strategic ends.

We need to be realistic about human nature. Ever since the Wall came down in Berlin our nation has developed some ideas that are only supportable by optimism about a greater global social order, not the historical record.



I'd like to offer some comments on how to possibly broaden your one tribe approach into an operational construct. I'm sure that you've gotten some pushback from both Regular Army and SF b/c you are suggesting that we promote paramilitary forces with undetermined allegiances to the central government. This criticism is valid given our past history of using paramilitary forces in both UW and IR. So, a counter-argument must answer several questions:

1. What control measures do we place on the tribes we train, equip, and employ?
2. How do we integrate the various tribes into a working coalition to counter the Taliban?
3. How does the General Purpose Force assists this fight?

For the first two questions, I'd suggest using the existing political structures of the Shura Council and Jirga (sp?) to develop areas of operation, information sharing, and a semblance of command and control. If possible, have the Karzai gov't facilitate the negotiations with a long-term goal of integrating the tribal structures into the broader gov't on the back end. Think of the political side as an Articles of Confederation with the final goal of a Constitution once hostitilites cease. Enforcement of the treaty should remain on US forces. For example, if one tribe abuses its power and funding by attacking across boundaries and raiding another tribe, then penalties are enforced.

As for the US forces, we pick-up three main tasks: 1. Train, Equip, and Assist the Army and Police. 2. Secure the Major Cities. 3. Respond as a QRF for SF teams. 4. Clear denied areas.

Additionally, while the military is working security issues, we must provide freedom of maneuver and assitance to the NGOs to build the schools and facilitate micro-loans (not grants) for small business.


Maj. Mike Few

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 12/19/2009 - 2:28pm

Pardon the typo at the bottom of my last post, I was starting with bonafides, then decided to not to, but didn't catch it on final edit.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 12/19/2009 - 2:21pm


Thanks for an excellent paper and your service on the pointy end of the spear. Your paper has reopened my internal debate on the value versus risk (strategic not personal) of employing UW. The positive results of UW historically have tended to be temporary in nature (perhaps true of other forms of war also), while in the long run they "tend" to be detrimental (Burma, Philippines, Italy, Afghanistan against the Soviets, Afghanistan 2001/2, Iraq with Shi'a post Desert Storm, Kurds, etc.) to our interests if we're attempting to create long term stability. We tend to hype (and perhaps rightfully so) our UW successes, but my internal debate focuses on what is the value of largely operational successes that rarely result, and sometimes hinder, overall strategic success?

I know this feels like a gut shot to many in SF, but I have 29 years in SF (a couple more in the Army) and believe in UW where applicable, so trust me this is a painful argument for me also. I agree UW has great merit when applied as a business merger to accomplish limited objectives, and it has a great merit when a society is "truely" seeking liberation from an opprssive regime and is willing to fight for their freedom (though this is actually a rare occurance in history other than counter occupation campaigns, and now we're the occupiers).

On the other hand I agree with your comment that there is no other way to achieve what we're trying to achieve in Afghanistan (and perhaps some other locations), so perhaps the real issue is that your approach simply doesn't align with our current strategic objectives, and what needs to be changed is our strategic objectives (align them with reality, not neo-conservative goals), and then we can apply the UW strategy to achieve them. Food for thought.


(I have 29 years in SF)


Sat, 12/19/2009 - 10:19am

To everyone who has posted comments about "One Tribe at a Time"...I have truly learned a lot through reading posts and comments about the paper, both the positive and negative ones. It has broadened and deepened my knowledge on the subject and forced me to ask myself a lot of questions, continue my research, and to think through many of the tactical, operational, and strategic problems and challenges associated with tribal engagemnet (TE). Steven Pressfield and I regularly discuss and work through many of the issues that are brought up on these pages.

The issues, problems, and challenges that have been discussed have convinced me even more that a large scale tribal engagment strategy (TES) is the way forward in Afghanistan. Doing it will not ensure "success"...but not doing it does ensure "failure".


Jim Gant

Jason Walters (not verified)

Thu, 12/17/2009 - 3:51pm

I read it again and I am still on board. We Green Berets are extremely good at working in environments that do not require command and control from the heavy brass; we are good at commo in the most remote places; we can survive the harshness of the Afghanistan environment when others would fail. I believe that Green Berets are a unique breed of man that accepts chaos, confusion, living without resources, and making it all work. There is definitely a strategic impact that Green Berets can have as soon as we get out of the business of conventional approaches and risk aversion. You have given us a great framework in which to use and I hope we are man enough at the highest levels to take a chance. To counter the national news, Afghanistan is more secure than one is led to believe; even in Helmand Province (my personal paradise) we can do more engagements with the tribes. It works, we did it within the area of our firebase and it proved to be advantageous for force protection. It was very slow in development and would have taken another few months in order to meet my goal but my rotation ended early; the point being is that it works, some places faster than others, but it works. I will admit that my kinetic actions outweighed my non-kinetics but that is what the atmosphere called for then. Our non-kinetics, although small in number, proved very successful in our #1 goal of building rapport with the local populace. Around our firebase it was crawling with "bad guys" but they were eventually pushed out away from the firebase because the locals provided us with support in return for our support to them. I understand this is a simple example and does include the details but it is one that proved to me and my men that killing is not the absolute and we must be able to communicate with our foes in order to gain an understanding. The small group of ANA that we fought with had a great SGM and 1SG. We stood back and let them work and only got involved when the wolves were howling. The local populace respected the SGM and would be open and honest; the SGM was very good at calling their bluff or detecting deceit. This was the #1 advantage of the indirect approach and placed the responsibility of security on the IGoA through the ANA. USSF was involved but in a supporting role indirect approach) to the ANA. Green Berets are in this one for the long fight no matter what surges in and out of Afghanistan. We will have to work with locals in order to protect our future in their country. Politicians are counting the months before we can begin moving troops back home; Green Berets are counting the years they will endure maintaining a foot in the door. The pre-Bush administration removed us from Afghanistan on 2000 and we didn't have our ears to the ground to prevent our latest attack on America; that mistake will not happen again and it will be up to Green Berets to ensure that it doesn't. It all begins at the village level, not the other way around; bottom up with a push from top down. Sorry for the lengthy chat, just enjoying the reading.

MAJ John Litch… (not verified)

Wed, 12/16/2009 - 5:42pm

MAJ Jim Gants essay "One Tribe at a Time" lays down a powerful and compelling argument for greater emphasis on working through indigenous tribes and irregular forces in Afghanistan. In other words, complimenting our existing strategy with more Tribal Engagement and Remote Area Operations. Gants thesis essentially states that tribes are the key to social order and stability in Afghanistan and that any successful strategy must not only focus on gaining their allegiance, but enlisting them in the fight to wrestle control of their land from the Taliban. He drives the point home with a personal narrative that rings far more authentic and authoritative than any academic ponderings possibly could. His straightforward and plainspoken paper effectively captures the essence of an argument that has been difficult for many Special Forces officers to articulate, even to others within their own ranks.
Traditional social networks, like the tribes in Afghanistan, are absolutely the key to stabilizing a country that has no recent history of effective governance. Identity in Afghanistan is first and foremost tribal. This tribal identity greatly overshadows national and even religious allegiances. Yet, our own preconceptions and highly modernist ideas about state formation have largely blinded us to this reality. Even worse, some of our actions over recent years have attempted to rapidly reform that identity to make it fit within a liberal democratic state order. These actions ignore the fact that identities dont change; they evolve. Moreover, the evolution of identity takes generations, not years. Therefore, the only feasible course of action is one that capitalizes and builds upon that identity, while working over time to assist its evolution.
MAJ Gants personal narrative echoes the views expressed in a 2007 Strategic Studies Institute paper "Making Riflemen from Mud: Restoring the Armys Culture of Irregular Warfare" by LTC James Campbell. In it, Campbell details the historical experience of the US Army working by, with and through indigenous irregular forces throughout its history. He convincingly points out that irregular forces were assumed to be an essential enabler to almost any US military operation prior to WWII. His recount of history from the French and Indian War through the Philippine Insurrection shows that irregulars are particularly well suited for roles and missions such as: reconnaissance, scouting, constabulary force, interpreters, guerrillas, counter-guerillas, rear area or flank security, guides, agents, spies, village self-defense, and in limited cases even main force operations.
The significance of "One Tribe at a Time" is three fold. First, it insists that a successful and enduring Afghan government must be built upon the existing tribal social structure, especially at the provincial level and below. Second, it calls upon American strategists to incorporate the irregular capacity of the tribes to contribute to their own security as a critical enabling effort to the new campaign design. Third, it calls upon Special Operations community to critically evaluate the balance and emphasis of its current contribution to overall campaign.
The emerging campaign plan for Afghanistan appears designed to achieve greater security by massing more forces in populated areas as part of a clear, hold and build strategy. MAJ Gants proposal to employ irregular forces in remote areas provides a feasible, acceptable and suitable means of creating the economy of force required in the rural areas to achieve that mass in population centers. According to Colin Gray, economy of force, especially through unorthodox means, is one of two "master claims of SOF". While MAJ Gant calls for the creation of a new force for Tribal Engagement and Remote Area Operations, his own successful actions as a Special Forces detachment commander doing just that suggest that there is an organization capable and ready for that mission.

MAJ John Litchfield, US Army
16 Dec 2009

TS Alfabet (not verified)

Tue, 11/10/2009 - 4:09pm

To Douglas J:

After reading the article you linked I can only say that, overall, it REINFORCES Maj. Gant's approach rather than refutes it.

The main point of the article is that the term "tribes" with regard to Afghanistan is misleading and would be better replaced by the term or concept of "Locals." I believe that this is Maj. Gant's approach as well, acknowledging that tribal engagement will be different and flexible depending upon the locality.

Eric Henderson (not verified)

Tue, 11/10/2009 - 4:08pm


I didn't say "abandon," I said a "sea change." Right now we are, as a matter of policy both de jeur and de facto, attempting to organize a government in Kabul which will serve as the source of legitimacy for any local arrangement. At least implicit in MAJ Gant's recommended COA is an approach wherein legitimacy flows from the periphery to the center -- a very different way of looking at governance. These two approaches are incompatible in the long run.

Incidentally, the current approach is based on the presupposition about the nature of political legitimacy that underlies European government. The alternate COA, at its root, is similar to the presupposition that drove our own system, at least for most of our history. I suspect this is one of the unacknowledged and misunderstood reasons why we have a hard time coordinating COIN with our European brothers.

Of course, the extent to which our own national security decision making elite do or even can share the "legitimacy is bestowed by the perphery on the center" perspective is itself debatable . . . All in all, a sticky wicket, as they say.

TS Alfabet (not verified)

Tue, 11/10/2009 - 3:44pm

Mr. Henderson,

Maj. Gant's approach does not necessarily mean an abandonment of the GOA. What we have with the Karzai government is like a clogged pipe; we simply do a 'workaround' for the time being by channeling aid and effort directly to the Locals and by-pass the central government in this aspect while continuing other efforts with the GOA.

Eric Henderson (not verified)

Mon, 11/09/2009 - 5:42pm

Reference the Swiss comment: When I was there as on a BCT staff in '06 and '07, we regularly, if informally, discussed the futility of attempting to impose a Western European social democracy on Afghanistan. As it happens, during the course of those discussions the Swiss model was often brought up as an alternative approach, adjusted for the obvious cultural and historical differences.

The problem with MAJ Gant's excellent piece, as I see it, is three-fold. In the first place, for a variety of reasons, such a strategy strikes me as politically unpalatable. If nothing else, it would mean a sea change in our approach to the GOA. Secondly, pursuing it would demand qualities of the general purpose force that I am not sure we possess in sufficient quantity. Finally, imagine the level of risk acceptance required on the part of senior leadership . . .

All together I suspect these hurdles make this approach infeasable. Of course, if he's right (I think he is) and it's the only way to win, and if I'm right about the feasibility of the approach (I hope I'm not) . . . well, the implications are unpleasant to say the least.


Sun, 11/08/2009 - 11:02am

It may be that the Pashtun tribal system may be too fragmented and uncertain to form a foundation for nation or state building. However, would it still not be suitable for something more modest, say, a network of tribes/villages/communities organized for self-protection from Taliban coercion? Just because a tribal approach may not be a magic bullet doesn't mean that it wouldn't be useful.

SWJED (not verified)

Fri, 11/06/2009 - 4:15pm

Can't repost it here it is copyright protected.

CJ Hemmer (not verified)

Fri, 11/06/2009 - 1:08pm

Can't access the linked blog from .mil account. Can we please host the document here so the rest of us can read it?

François Schaack (not verified)

Fri, 11/06/2009 - 2:17am

Why nobody thought about early swiss history as a very long-term solution surprises me.
Tribes, difficult terrain and most of all strong will eventually forming a tribal confederation (even named after a tribe, the helvetii) becoming one of the richest nations on earth. Happy end.