Small Wars Journal

One Tribe At A Time

Mon, 10/26/2009 - 10:49am
One Tribe At A Time (A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan) by Major Jim Gant at Steven Pressfield's War and Reality in Afghanistan: It's The Tribes, Stupid!

I've been promising for several weeks to have a free downloadable .pdf of One Tribe At A Time. Finally it's here. My thanks to our readers for their patience. On a personal note, I must say that it gives me great pleasure to offer this document in full, not only because of my great respect for Maj. Jim Gant, who lived and breathed this Tribal Engagement idea for years, but for the piece itself and for the influence I hope it will have within the U.S. military and policymaking community.

One Tribe At A Time is not deathless prose. It's not a super-pro Beltway think tank piece. What it is, in my opinion, is an idea whose time has come, put forward by an officer who has lived it in the field with his Special Forces team members--and proved it can be done. And an officer, by the way, who is ready this instant to climb aboard a helicopter to go back to Afghanistan and do it again...

One Tribe At A Time

This is well worth the time to read all 45 pages. I strongly recommend it. MAJ Jim Gant, SF despite his extensive and demonstrated expertise in Afghanistan is being deployed on an Army requirement for a transition team back to Iraq (although he is not without previous experience in Iraq as he was previously on a transition team and was awarded a Silver Star for actions there). There is probably no better field grade officer for the "AFPAK Hands" program than Jim Gant (though he still needs to command a B Team and be a battalion S3/XO when he gets back from Iraq!)

This paper is an excellent example of the application of the Foreign Internal Defense concept of Remote Area Operations (not an exact application but certainly tailored for the tribal conditions that exist in Afghanistan):

Remote Area Operations. Remote area operations are operations undertaken in insurgent-controlled or contested areas to establish islands of popular support for the HN government and deny support to the insurgents. They differ from consolidation operations in that they are not designed to establish permanent HN government control over the area. Remote areas may be populated by ethnic, religious, or other isolated minority groups. They may be in the interior of the HN or near border areas where major infiltration routes exist. Remote area operations normally involve the use of specially trained paramilitary or irregular forces. SF teams support remote area operations to interdict insurgent activity, destroy insurgent base areas in the remote area, and demonstrate that the HN government has not conceded control to the insurgents. They also collect and report information concerning insurgent intentions in more populated areas. In this case, SF teams advise and assist irregular HN forces operating in a manner similar to the insurgents themselves, but with access to superior CS and CSS resources. (From FM 3-05.202 Foreign Internal Defense 2007.)

One Tribe At A Time


Marcus Custer (not verified)

Mon, 11/02/2009 - 2:39pm

Working with the tribes is our only option for success in Afghanistan. I am not sure that the US Army command structure is capable of managing these operations.

One great fallacy is that there is no national government in Afghanistan. That idea is a western illusion not shared by the tribes or the insurgents.

Another problem is the use of the word Taliban. This word had meaning 15 years ago, now it loosely describes any one opposed to the coalition forces. It dignifies criminals and leads us to think that any one who opposes the coalition is part of an organized movement.

The issue of narcotics must be dealt with. The instability in Afghanistan is fueled by billions of heroin dollars. We should buy it from the farmers at market prices and work long term to change the environment.

This was filmed in the Pesch Valley:…

To Colonel Ridderhof: Compare the ineffective government in South Vietnam in our previous war to the government in Afghanistan. You are obviously a student of military history. Isn't Major Gant recommending the same project we began with the Montengnards in South Vietnam? Didn't they have the same beefs with authority? The government did not care about them and could not protect them from Viet Cong and NVA enemies in their areas. The Special Forces that trained with them, embedded with them and fought with them gained their trust and confidence. Aren't we just trying to dry up the swamp in Afghanistan to get rid of Al Qaeda, its sanctuaries and other anti-west terrorists with global reach? In the short term, it seems that the embed strategy must be done to deny the Taliban the tribes they need to support them. Long term, after Al Qaeda, what does Afghanistan really mean to us? Do we really care if it ever develops into a real nation? So we have several pacts with tribes in the area. We have done this before. Our strategic interests are best met by embed with the tribes and direct support of tribes that are pro US and anti-Taliban/Al Qaeda. Nation building is the height of folly in a nation where most people have no education and no understanding of the modern world. The tribe is the governmental unit that they understand and that will endure long after our war. We should be flexible and not try to reinvent the wheel. Use what works.

This is a well-developed and thought provoking piece. My comments are mainly questions, and Ill admit up front that I havent been to Afghanistan, or am I anywhere close to being an Afghanistan scholar.

My read of this, as a strategy or basis for campaign design, is that it really requires the whole issue of governance to be re-thought. Rather than integrating tribes into a government (regardless of how federal or centralized), its more about building that government on the basis of the tribes in the first place. That concept alone will require re-thinking our approach and our definition of "Afghanistan" as a sovereign nation with a functioning government. As described, the tribes fill a "whole of society" role, not just security. Shouldnt our "whole of government" approach be aligned in this way--PRT-type organizations focused on tribes, and not provinces? What is the utility of competing local government structures (tribes vs. provinces)?

The pitfalls that occur to me, along these lines, are that we will really be basing our long term commitment to Afghanistan on multiple commitments to individual tribes, rather than a collective commitment to a single Afghan government. Maj. Gant well describes how to engage a single tribe. What I would be concerned about is how we grow this to multiple tribes. He references "picking tribes", and in one instance reflects on "What is his role in inter-tribal warfare?" This seems to me to be a big question. At some point, we will get involved in tribe vs. tribe issues (unless someone can tell me that Afghan tribes dont fight or struggle with one another). We will possibly be in the position to have two Tribal Engagement Teams (TETs) arrayed against one another. I understand references to inter-tribal councils. Will we have to be prepared for "peace enforcement" measures to prevent "allied" tribes from fighting one another? Or do we pick winners and losers?

In his description of the tribal environment, it really sounds like the Taliban and the current Government of Afghanistan both have the same goal: the recognition and authority as the sovereign rulers of a unified Afghanistan. In each case, this comes at some potential expense to the authority and autonomy of the tribes. The comment keeps cropping up that the Taliban dont need to "win", they just need to avoid losing. I would assert that while this may be the strategy while we are there, their ultimate strategy is to win--to become the effective local and national rulers of the country. Im wondering if a tribal-based strategy isnt really turning the tables on the Taliban. Rather than trying to "win" ourselves, we are just setting the stage to prevent them from achieving their national objectives through our web of tribal relationships. Rather than set up a central Afghan government, we merely establish, and manage, a web of security and economic relationships that must be constantly adjusted to keep the tribes strong enough to resist Taliban efforts towards either their destruction or assimilation. We also fight "not to lose."

Phil Ridderhof

Marzouq the Re… (not verified)

Wed, 10/28/2009 - 2:05pm

There can be a solution to the opium problem. It can be converted to biofuel (biodiesel, JP). Even better, convince them to convert to Marijuana since it requires less labor and is an even better source of biofuel plus textiles. NGO's could help in the construction of refineries.

MAJ Gant's paper will hopefully be read by those who can write his orders to return to Manguel. He is needed there much more than he is needed in Iraq.

Salaam eleikum Y'all!

Ron Holt (not verified)

Wed, 10/28/2009 - 7:26pm

Major Gant gets it right!Many of us have been calling for such an appoach.. Tribes and states have been in conflict since the invention of the state 5500 BCE... What is happening in Afghanistan is the interaction of a corrupt state with ideologically motivated tribal entities. The tribes have a thin overlay of Al Qaeda globalist Islam but the heart is still Pushtunwali first, Islam second and Pushtun nationalism third.Iran and Pakistan are experiencing a similar situation in Baluchistan. If the Pakistanis could be awakend from their India fixation, they would realize that crushing the Taliban is in their vital interest and necessary for the survival of the current Pakistani state. The only solution in Afghanistan is a tough anti-corruption compaign centered on the Police and a longterm commitment to the villages and tribes with embedded troops/contractors along the lines of the Marine CAP Program. Of course in some areas the tribes are hollow memories but the local villagers can function in a similar manner.
currahee y'all

G Martin

Tue, 01/12/2010 - 7:50pm

Great piece- really good job, Jim! You wouldn't believe how many people have emailed me this and are talking about it- even outside of the military and on Capitol Hill.

When I first read it I couldn't help to think of the obstacles to this approach (some of them already mentioned):

1) having to get the buy-in and cooperation of GIRoA
2) re-structuring our forces to support and execute such a strategy
3) selling the American people on what our interests are that merit such risk and possible losses

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it is a great tactical-level approach to most of the problems in Afghanistan. Since COIN is so much low-level anyway- this, IMO, would get at probably 70-90% of the problems--?

A HUGE challenge that has already been mentioned is the tying together of all the TET efforts into a TES- as you mention. An operational campaign plan to support this would require a very savvy approach and constant wheeling, dealing, and adaptation at our BCT, BN, SOTF, and B team levels- possibly something those staffs are incapable of--?

What kills me is why SOF didn't have a campaign plan that had portions of your TES as well as a plan for the cities and something for Pakistan as well, and tying it all together- for the post-Taliban rule era. CENTCOM has been blamed for not having a campaign plan for Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban- but if SOF had had something like the TES we might could have avoided a lot of the pain and could now be trying to connect the tribes with the central government- without tons of conventional troops on FOBs. Lesson learned for TSOCs IMO: don't rely on a COCOM for a post-MCO campaign plan- do it yourself.

Bob's World

Thu, 01/14/2010 - 12:56am

Good commentary. A couple of thoughts.

First, we all need to be relentless in pushing first for an Afghan government that the populace of Afghanistan believes is Legitimate. Without this, everything else we do is really a waste of time. (I stand by my position that the West needs to demand a comprehensive Loya Jirga, and then shut up and live by and support what comes out of it.)

The tribal efforts described by Jim have a very important role, as legitimacy here comes from the bottom up, not the top down. I constantly run into well intended smart people who use the terms "Official" and "Legitimate" as one and the same; but while the GiROA is "official" it all too often lacks "legitimacy" because of both its source and its lack of connection to the local populace where the ANSF operate.

This is where the tribal efforts come in, as they create tremendous "anchor points" if you will, where not only is there a zone of local securtiy and enfluence with full popular legitimacy; but also the presence of the SF team to connect them to other coalition and ANSF security forces operating in the area. Bringing "official" security and "legitimate" security together and allowing each to borrow from the other what they lack themselves (officialness to the legitimate force, and legitimacy to the official force).

I see this happening, and while it is a small, grassroots effort it does work. The keys will be:

1. Our commitment to not abandon those tribes who dare to place their trust in us and join such programs;

2. Our commitment to continue to dedicate high-value, low-density resources to such efforts;

3. And our development of a variety of ways to expand such efforts into the broader community, thinning and weaning them of the SOF that are critical for standing them up; and handing off effectively to conventional and ultimately, fully Afghan GiROA security institutions.