Posted by: Christian | January 18, 2010

Petraeus and McChrystal Drink Major Gant’s Snake Oil

I’ve just lost a lot of respect for these two. They have just demonstrated how clueless they are in regards to Afghanistan and how desperate they are for some silver bullet of an idea. Or is it a Hail Mary Pass? Or deus ex machina? Whatever it is, it is a sad commentary on these two men and on the efforts in Afghanistan.

So, what am I talking about? There’s an article in the Washington Post about Major Gant and his terribly faulted paper on Pashtuns and tribalism in Afghanistan. The article by Ann Scott Tyson – titled “Jim Gant, the Green Beret who could win the war in Afghanistan”- reads like a press release by some public relations rep. David Ignatius’ WaPo piece on Gant was similarly fawning. In the Tyson article there is this disappointing passage:

“Maj. Jim Gant’s paper is very impressive — so impressive, in fact, that I shared it widely,” Petraeus said, while McChrystal distributed it to all commanders in Afghanistan. One senior military official went so far as to call Gant “Lawrence of Afghanistan.”

[…] Adm. Eric Olson, who leads the 57,000-strong Special Operations Command, said in the latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly that Gant’s proposal is “innovative and bold” and likely to have “strategic effects.”

And here I was thinking that Rory Stewart is the “Lawrence of Afghanistan.” But seriously, the fact that McChrystal and Petraeus were impressed by this paper and that they possibly see it as a model is seriously troubling. That Secretary Gates liked the paper doesn’t surprise me too much, I expect him to be ignorant of ground-level issues such as this, but not the military commanders.

You can find Gant’s paper here and give it a read:

Maj. Jim Gant, 2009. ‘A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan: One Tribe at a Time.’

What problems do I have with this paper? I’m in agreement with Judah Grunstein’s short criticism of Gant’s work. But I have other issues with the work as well.

Well, for one, he committed a war crime. And a rather serious one at that. He wrote:

The highland people had taken and were using some land that belonged to the lowland people. The Malik told me the land had been given to his tribe by the “King Of Afghanistan” many, many years ago and that he would show me the papers. I told him he didn’t need to show me any papers. His word was enough.

I made the decision to support him. “Malik, I am with you. My men and I will go with you and speak with the highlanders again. If they do not turn the land back over to you, we will fight with you against them.” With that, a relationship was born. […]

Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that the dispute with the highlanders was resolved.

This is also known as “ethnic cleansing.” He doesn’t identify the “highlanders”, so if they are Pashtuns rather than Pashai or Nuristani speakers then it’s not ethnic cleansing, just “tribal cleansing” – American sponsored brutality against Pashtuns. So, we’ve left a bunch of people without the land they’ve been farming/grazing and living on for at least the last 50 years, and possibly well before that (this may be land seized by King Zahir Shah or a previous ruler as punishment and/or granted as a reward to a loyal local leader). It’s as if Gant is a recruiter for the insurgents. What will these people do now? If I was them, I would join the insurgency for sure.

Other problems? Gant’s paper certainly is not informed by history, anthropology, religious studies, etc… The best the references get is 3 pages in an older book by Antonio Giustozzi.

Gant starts his foreword with this eye-roller:

Afghanistan. I feel like I was born there. The greatest days of my entire life were spent in the Pesch Valley and Musa Qalay with “Sitting Bull” (a tribal leader in the Kunar Valley)…

Gant is, well…he’s on Pandora, 10 seconds from scoring with a blue skin lizard-cat girl. His avatar is a beard and some local clothing. He’s obviously not of the scary Kandahari variety of SF. Unless of course you see things from the perspective of the highlanders. Then he’s very scary.

He soon follows with this:

I love the people and the rich history of Afghanistan. They will give you their last bite of food in the morning and then try and kill you in the evening.

I have no idea what that means, but it belongs in the 1850s in the private diary of some British traveler. Still on the same page, Gant writes this clunker:

Afghan tribes always have and always will resist any type of foreign intervention in their affairs. This includes a central government located in Kabul, which to them is a million miles away from their problems, a million miles away from their security.

Ignoring the fact that he uses tribes as a unit or reference for the time being, why does he neglect to mention American interference in their affairs? Why highlight Kabul and not America? And why does he think that Kabul is not tied up in local politics? It most definitely is, as the fact that his friends were claiming a piece of land that the King of Afghanistan had given to them.

Now, at this point it appears I am picking around the edges and just mocking the accompanying commentary rather than going for the core of the argument. So I will go for the core. Gant writes:

The central cultural fact about Afghanistan is that it is constituted of tribes. Not individuals, not Western-style citizens—but tribes and tribesmen. It is my deep belief—and the thesis of this paper—that the answer to the problems that face the Afghan people, as well as other future threats to US security in the region, will be found in understanding and then helping the tribal system of Afghanistan to flourish.

Afghanistan is not constituted of tribes, no matter what wikipedia or your local friends tell you. The decisions of individuals and of men who are not identified as tribal leaders have always had, and still have a huge amount of relevance. Examples, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hizb-i Islami is a Kharoti Pashtun. But he is no tribal leader. Communist-era President Najibullah was an Ahmadzai Pashtun. But he is no tribal leader. Mullah Omar is a Hotak Pashtun. But he is no tribal leader. All of these men recruited from a broad spectrum of Pashtuns and even non-Pashtuns (Omar less successfully). At times they used tribal networks. But mostly they totally disregarded them. These men need to be considered individuals, not prisoners of a tribal system that dictates their moves. The insurgents have members from every tribe, the government has members from every tribe. These people often made decisions independently.

Looking at Pashtun tribes, how is it that in a single tribe, even khel or family, there are divisions and divided loyalties that can often become violent? Using “tribe” as your dominant analytical tool will lead to failure. The individual is important. Even if it is not as obvious as in western Europe. The anthropologist Martin Sökefeld (“Debating Self, identity, and Culture in Anthropology” in Current Anthropology, #40) sums up the earlier conceptions of the individual in the “East:”

In the conceptualization of non-western selves, the Western self was taken as the starting point and the non-Western self was accordingly characterized as its opposite: unbounded, not integrated, dependent, unable to set itself reflexively apart from others, unable to distinguish between the individual and a role or status that individual occupies, unable to pursue its own goals independently of the goals of a group or community. Effectively, this characterization involved the negation of all the definitional qualities of the self…

Martin Sökefeld of course dismantles these ideas. Related reading can be found in James C Scott’s work, wherein you will find that individuals in “eastern” society do matter.

Moving on, Gant seems a little too positive on the power of SF:

I believe the “light footprint” approach put forth in this paper will not only work, but will help to ease the need for larger and larger numbers of US soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan. I firmly believe that a relatively small number of special officers and noncommissioned officers could maintain influence on large portions of Afghanistan by advising, assisting, training and leading local tribal security forces (Arkabai) and building strong relationships with the tribes they live alongside.

So Gant believes that he can take Rumsfeld’s basic strategy and retool it for success? And how, outside of Loya Paktia, will these be done? Please, please read this:

Susanne Schmeidl and Masood Karokhail. 2009. ‘The Role of Non-State Actors in ‘Community-based Policing’: An Exploration of the Arbakai (Tribal Police) in South-Eastern Afghanistan’, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 30, No. 2.

Schmeidl and Karokhel’s work should bring one’s arbakai fantasies down to a more realistic level.

Continuing with Gant’s writing:

One Tribe at a Time reflects what I believe to be the one strategy that can help both the US and the people of Afghanistan by working directly with their centuries-old tribal system. We can only do this by giving top priority to the most important political, social and military force in Afghanistan—the tribes.

But what does Gant know of previous centuries? The previous centuries are littered with discarded tribal names and new tribal names and tribal splits and detribalization and Pashtunization and… I could go on. The point is that Gant’s appeal to history should be able to get past a historian. I’m only a junior historian, but his call to history is lost on me. As for Gant’s view that “the most important political, social and military force in Afghanistan [are] the tribes.” Well, feel free to ignore me and say that I’m young and inexperienced, but for God’s sake listen to someone with about 50 years experience. The anthropologist Richard Tapper in Conflict of Tribe & State in Iran and Afghanistan (1983) writes:

The notion of ‘tribe’ is notoriously vague… it has almost ceased to be of analytical or comparative value.

And a leaked military publication collected these three quotes:

No clear evidence exists of tribes actually coalescing into large-scale corporate bodies for joint action, even defensively, even for defense of territory.

The tribal system is weak in most parts of Afghanistan and cannot provide alternatives to the Taliban or U.S. control. The Pashtuns generally have a tribal identity. Tribal identity is a rather flexible and open notion and should not be confused with tribal institutions, which are what establish enforceable obligations on members of a tribe.

…As a matter of fact in most cases tribes do not have observable organizations which could enable them to perform collective actions as a tribe.

The quotes belong to Jon Anderson, Gilles Dorronsoro and Bernt Glatzer, respectively. That a ridiculous amount of combined expertise right there. Glatzer doesn’t deny that tribes exist, just that “the tribal system is only one component within a much more complex social and political web.”

Gant’s dream rolls on:

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. One tribe will eventually become 25 or even 50 tribes. This can only have a long-term positive effect on the current situation. It is, however, not without pitfalls and difficulty. But it can and must be done.

Pitfalls and difficulties? Gant gives as an example of his successful strategy an anecdote where he helps his favorite tribal personality wage war on his neighbors and accumulate more land at their expense. How the hell is his strategy going to work when in the Byzantine local political and social environment making a friend with one can often mean making enemies with their enemies? And by enforcing the power of one tribal notable does he not think there will be resentment by rivals with the same tribe or even family? And we’re supposed to expect that American soldiers can navigate all of this while embedding with a local tribal leader?

Another observation from Gant as he imagines himself as an Afghan:

If the national government cannot protect “us,” if US forces cannot protect “us,” if we cannot protect ourselves . . . the only answer is to side with the Taliban. How can you blame anyone for that? I would do the same.

Protect from whom? He makes the assumption that the Taliban is the main threat. The threat can be the Taliban, but it can also be the government, and it can also be your neighbors, and it can be your brother. The assumption for the need of protection is in need of some serious qualification here. And going back to the “highlanders,” it’s clear that they required protection from Gant himself.

As for the government…

A strategy in which the central government is the centerpiece of our counterinsurgency plan is destined to fail. It disenfranchises the very fabric of Afghan society. The tribal system in Afghanistan has taken a brutal beating for several decades. By supporting and giving some power back to the tribes, we can make positive progress in the region once again.

First sentence: sure. But what does Gant know of the tribal system as it pre-dates 1979? And can “we” transform an entire society back to even just a reflection of some imaginary past? That’s some massive hubris right there. “We” have problems tying our shoes in Afghanistan. Now we should bolster the “tribes” as if they are some sort of entity with regenerative properties that fit your ideal and can be used for your benefit? We do not have the skill, expertise, the time or the will to even just give this a try. There are many roads to failure, and this is definitely one of them (good chance that all the roads at this point lead to there).

To bolster his argument, he uses Seth Jones as a back-up:

Even the people who advise our national policymakers see the need to engage the tribes. “The Afghan government is not competent enough to deal with the dire threats that currently face Afghanistan,” says Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corp. who advises the Pentagon. “This means working with tribal leaders.”

Big difference in severity scale between “working with tribal leaders” and Gant’s strategy. Gant takes Jone’s quote to the extreme and uses it to back up his strategy. But I just don’t see that in a short quote.

Gant then makes an appallingly misleading comment on Afghans:

When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member.” Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.

Then why do anthropologists find conflicting views when Afghans tell them what their society is all about? Why are there observed contradictions in action? How is it that Gant thinks every Afghan  is a member of a tribe when many have never in their history been in a tribe and when for many a tribal identity is a fuzzy historical memory? Why can’t Gant find an anthropologist to agree with him? Why does Gant not define or analyze tribalism in Afghanistan in a historically and socially informed manner instead of using personal anecdotes?

And that’s just Gant’s introduction. On to chapter one:

We will be totally unable to protect the “civilians” in the rural areas of Afghanistan until we partner with the tribes for the long haul. Their tribal systems have been there for centuries and will be there for many more. Why should we fight against not only what they have been accustomed to for centuries, but what works for them? They will not change their tribal ways. And why should they?

“Works for them?” The two relatively stable periods in modern Afghan history were preceded by the stomping of local leaders by the central government. I don’t advocate that now. And it wouldn’t work now even in a Machiavellian sense. But more importantly, we do not know or understand to a sufficient degree what was happening in rural Pashtuns areas for the last few “centuries.” And I don’t think Gant is the one to make the breakthrough one this (it’s not going to happen, BTW).

Gant puts an exclamation point on his work:

Bottom line: “Winning” in Afghanistan will be an elusive prospect until we base our operations within the cultural framework of the tribal systems already in place.

Gant’s point here is that we need to understand the  “cultural framework of the tribal systems already in place.” Unfortunately Gant does not understand the “cultural framework.” He needs to convince us that the anthropologists have it wrong and he has it right. So he moves into chapter 2:

Afghanistan has never had a strong central government and never will. That is a fact that we need to accept, sooner rather than later.

Major Gant apparently does not know about Amir Abdur Rahman, nor of King Zahir Shah and his early rule (mostly of his relatives, I know). The central government was formidable during these times. And Dost Muhammad and Nadir Shah were hardly irrelevant Mayors of Kabul, for their part. This is one of the popular myths about Afghanistan, and Gant swallows it whole.

Gant keeps making bold statements:

The only existing structure that offers governance and security for the Afghan people is at the tribal level. We should leverage this and use it to our advantage—before it is too late.

Really? Maybe all the options are faulted, but there are option to tribal membership when looking for governnace and security.

Gant asks a question, I’ll answer it:

Tribes offer their members security, safety, structure and significance. What other institutions do that right now in Afghanistan?

Answer: The Taliban. And that’s just one of many answers. The idea of a society with a single source for structure and significance is, to anyone who has read a book from the modern (post-WW2) era of anthropology, absurd.

Gant goes to another RAND expert to back this point up:

“Tribes,” says RAND Senior Fellow David Ronfeldt in his paper, Tribes First and Forever, “can foster a sense of social solidarity. [Belonging to a tribe] fills people with pride and self-respect. It motivates families to protect, welcome and care for each other and to abide by strict rituals that affirm their connections as tribal members to their ancestors, land and deity. This kinship creates trust and loyalty in which one knows and must uphold one’s rights, duties and obligations. What maintains order in a tribe is mutual respect, dignity, pride and honor.”

But nowhere in this quote does Ronfeldt say that the tribe is the sole source of all. Religious institutions, governments, family, friends, professional networks, insurgent groups, secular civil society, terrorist groups, etc… compete with tribal identity and give people options when they don’t get what they want from their tribal identity, if they actually have such an affiliation. That is why identity and loyalty is situational and flexible, a basic thing you get in intro anthropology.

Now to irritate the historians:

Tribes by nature are conservative. They hate change and they don’t change. “The more tribal the society, the more resistant it will be to change.” (Ronfeldt, Tribes First and Forever, p. 73). The tribal system has been the means of governance in Central Asia for centuries. It has resisted and defeated invaders since Cyrus the Great. The more an alien force tries to change the way tribes live, the more the tribes resist.

Tribes don’t change? I’m not a throwback to the old modernizations theorists who believe that the modern state will steam role everything in its path, but the above statement has no basis in the history of Central Asia. First of all, in much of Central Asia the tribes WERE the invaders. A sedentary non-tribal society “mixed” with Turkic and Mongol invaders. Even Pashtuns have expanded into non-Pashtun areas and displaced cultures whose cultures we know much to little to nothing about. And Afghanistan, in its modern form, is more so the product of invading and occupying peoples who stayed than it is locals who resisted. And Cyrus the Great? Have I read an entirely different history or does his name not belong in the passage above?

On to one of my favorite myth-making subjects:

What about democracy? A tribe is a “natural democracy.” In Afghan shuras and jirgas (tribal councils), every man’s voice has a chance to be heard. The fact that women and minority groups have no say in the process does not make it less effective nor less of a democracy to them. Asking them to change the way they have always conducted their business through their jirgas and shuras just does not make sense.

Every man’s voice has the right to be heard in the same way in does in the West, meaning that the powerful often monopolize the debate. As for the fantastic jirgas… Let’s check out these sources on the Loya Jirga:

Christine Noelle-Karimi (2002). “The Loya Jirga – An Effective Political Tool? A Historical Overview.” In: Noelle-Karimi, Christine, Conrad Schetter and Reinhard Schlangenweit (eds.), Afghanistan – A Country Without a State? (pp. 37-52). Frankfurt: IKO-Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation.

Benjamin Buchholz (2007). “Thoughts on Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga: A Myth?” In Asien, No. 104.

M. Jamil Hanifi (2004). “Editing The Past: Colonial Production of Hegemony Through the “Loya Jerga” in Afghanistan,” Iranian Studies, Volume 37, Number 2, June 2004.

Would you believe they don’t share the same idealistic view of jirgas? And how many shuras and jirgas have happened at all levels since 2001? Jirgas and shuras are tools that are better than nothing, and probably better than many other options on the table. But such a glowing praise for these meetings of notable local men is totally misplaced.

Onward to chapter 4 and Major Gant’s personal experiences with his local friend Noorafzhal…

I will not get into the specifics of the different clans and sub-clans but there was a “highland” people and a “lowland” people. Noorafzhal’s tribe included people whose physical location is on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The highland people had taken and were using some land that belonged to the lowland people. The Malik told me the land had been given to his tribe by the “King Of Afghanistan” many, many years ago and that he would show me the papers. I told him he didn’t need to show me any papers. His word was enough.

He then told me he had given the highlanders 10 days to comply with the request or he and his men would retake it by force. Here was the critical point for me and my relationship with Malik Noorafzhal. It is hard on paper to explain the seriousness of the situation and the complexity we both were facing. He had asked for help, a thing he later would tell me was hard for him to do (especially from an outsider) and I had many options. Could I afford to get involved in internal tribal warfare? What were the consequences if I did? With the tribe? With the other tribes in the area? With my own chain of command?

I made the decision to support him. “Malik, I am with you. My men and I will go with you and speak with the highlanders again. If they do not turn the land back over to you, we will fight with you against them.” With that, a relationship was born. Malik Noorafzhal then told me he had only eight warriors on duty at the current time. I told him, “No, you have sixteen.” (I had eight team members at the time).

[…] Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that the dispute with the highlanders was resolved.

This is the stupidest, most criminal thing I ever heard a soldier admit to outside of a court martial or criminal trial. Imagine for a moment that Gant met the highlanders first. The highlanders would have given their own version of how the King of Afghanistan had stolen their land and given it to some guys from down the valley. The SF team, following Gant’s playbook, would kick the shit out of the people down the valley and then congratulate themselves on how damn smart they think they are. Bottom line: the locals played Gant and destroyed the livelihood of their neighbors. Is this a model to defeat the insurgency? No. It’s a model for driving Afghans into the insurgency.

An even more absurd scenario following Gant’s model would be if another US Army SF was embedded with the “highlanders” while Gant was embedded with the “lowlanders.” Both SF teams, having gone native, would be all pissed off on Pandora wanting to ride some banshee down upon their enemies so that their friends can keep their Home Tree. The US Army could then fight itself. Well, of course not, you say. There would be a mechanism to prevent that. But there would still be a losing side as both SF teams would claim that they guys they drink chai with are the good guys. This is the model that is supposed to be replicated across a landscape fill with local conflicts?

Anyways, Gant has more fun stories with his friend:

He then came next to me and said (through my interpreter), “Jim, the last time I saw a person with a face like yours (meaning white) the Russians killed 86 men, women and children of my village.” He continued, “This is my old village. We fought the Russians. They never took my village. We are ready to fight again if we have to.” He looked and finished with, “You have great warriors with you. We will fight together.”

This gets back to an earlier point about tribes. Gant was in Kunar and in his paper he inserts a map of where Mohmand Pashtuns live and remarks that his friends straddle the order. So I’ll make the obvious assumption that his buddy is a Mohmand Pashtun. And his friend says that he fought the Russians. What he fails to mention is that there were Mohmand Pashtuns in the communist government and communist military forces. So there is apparently an alternative to tribal loyalty. On the plus side, this got a Mohmand Pashtun into outer space thanks to the Soviets.

Jihad, or outer space? Outer space:

As I mentioned above in regards to alternative loyalties, loyalty to the Soviet cosmonaut program was hardly the one and only thing that could overcome the Middle Earthesque predetermined loyalties of Pashtun tribesmen.

And Gant loves the kids:

I want to interject a couple of situations that might also tell of the relationship that was built with Malik Noorafzhal and my team. He and Dr. Akbhar were very open with their homes and families. I spent countless hours playing with Dr. Akhbar’s small children and the Mailk’s grandchildren and great grandchildren. The Mailk used to say to me, “Jim,I am getting too old. Play with the children today. They love you.” So do you know what my primary task would be for the day? I would play with the children—for hours.

The little girls and I would walk around the village holding hands and laughing at “stuff.” They would teach me Pashto and I would teach them English. We would be watched by literally hundreds of younger children and women as we played. I often thought that these play sessions did more for our cause in the Konar than all the raids we did combined.

Now Major Gant, close your eyes and imagine what the children of those highlanders are doing at this moment with the land they relied on for their livelihood being stolen by your friends. Were any of their parents killed? Are they starving? Did their parents have to sell them into marriage at an early age? Did they pack up and move to Jalalabad, Kabul or Pakistan to eke out a miserable existence as a day laborer? Do you realize that not just your friends have children? I realize that this gets a little to close to point number 13 in my tips for bad writing on Afghanistan. So let’s toss moral outrage and focus on the fact that making friends with kids does nothing to counteract the fact that you’ve given the Highlanders a massive incentive to join the insurgency. This is bad for the US military.

But, not all fun and games:

Over time, it became very clear that the relationship we had built with the tribe was causing them to become a target for HIG [warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s armed party, Hezb-e Islami] in the area.

Now why would anybody in the local area want to target Americans and their local allies? Perhaps the Americans intervened strongly in a local conflict and forced one side into the insurgency? Just maybe.

Gant then dedicates a chapter to Pashtunwali and argues that the “”tribesman”

…lives in a regional world where day-to-day military strength means the difference between survival and being overrun by other tribal elements whoever they might be (the Taliban, other aggressive tribes, or the Russian army).

Gant proudly admits that he overran another tribal element. Why then not mention the US military as a threat? And how can he not be sure that his friends are not one of those “aggressive tribes”?

Gant attempts to discuss Pashtunwali without actually defining it or looking at any of the studies on Pashunwali, which would actually deeply disappoint him. Pashtunwali, like many codes from other cultures around the world, is riddled with contradictions and loop-holes. Pashtunwali, which was likely shaped in popular understanding by nationalist urban Pashtun intellectuals (dating from the rule of Prime Minister Daoud), can be endlessly researched, yet will not allow you to accurately predict human behavior.

Gant also decides that Shari’a and Pashtunwali are incompatible:

It is also important to remember that most of the insurgents are Pashtuns. In many cases the Taliban rule of law (Shar’ia law) is in direct conflict with Pashtunwali. We currently are not using this to our advantage.

Ask a Pashtun what comes first, Islam or Pashtunwali, and he will invariably answer: “Pashtunwali.” (Malkasian and Meyerle, Difference in Al-Anbar)

As written on paper, Shari’a and Pashtunwali are in conflict on many aspects. But in practice there is no great social divide that can be exploited effectively, and most certainly not by Americans. Anyways, ask an insurgent what comes first, Islam or Pashtunwali, and he will invariably answer “Islam.”

Gant emphasises his point:

Bottom line: A thorough and deep understanding and respect for Pashtunwali is critical for the success of US Tribal Engagement Teams and the overall US strategy in Afghanistan.

Well, it’s hard to find any sort of consensus on Pashtunwali, and I caution against Major Gant’s sub-wikipedia level analysis becoming our guide.

One example of how Gant has emphasized Pashtunwali while completing ignoring it: Gant stresses the importance of Pashtunwali while also extolling the value of jirgas and shuras (meetings where important social, military and political issues are discussed and issues ironed out – in their ideal state). Now what did he do when the issue of a land conflict came up between his local friends and the “highlanders”? In the broad definition of Pashtunwali you can find conflict prevention and resolution tools where situations like this are solved without bloodshed or massive economic loss for one side. You can check out Alef Shah Zadran or Willi Steul’s work for examples from Loya Paktia. Same goes for jirgas and shuras, in their ideal state they would allow an issue like this to be resolved.

But what did Gant do? He skipped the possibility of a jirga or shura and he disregarded Pashtunwali and used good old-fashioned violence or the threat thereof. Now, I’m under no illusion that these traditional tools would have resolved this issue to everybody’s satisfaction. But Gant didn’t even try what he recommends in this paper. His case study contradicts his main points.

Anyways, this gets me to page 23 of 45. But I can’t take this anymore. I’ll just say that the second half is just as bad as the first half. It is filled with contradictions, fallacies, horrendous mistakes and wishful thinking. Gant ends with this:

Bottom line: There may be dozens of reasons not to adopt this strategy. But there is only one reason to do so—we have to. Nothing else will work.

Is this what is going through McChrystal and Petraeus’ minds? A year ago I was positive that Petraeus had dumped any idea of a tribal/militia strategy. The military leadership was quite skeptical, including Gen. McKiernan (whatever happened to that guy?). I take the current enthusiasm as a sign of desperation. However, this strategy will just do more to brutalize local communities and strengthen the insurgency. Doing nothing is actually better in this case.

Honestly, I don’t care about Major Gant. What I’m worried about here is that Petraeus and McChrystal have demonstrated just how clueless and desperate they are for new “bold” ideas in regards to Afghanistan. I don’t recall ever trashing these two in this manner. Or even trashing them at all. This is no anti-war blog. I’m no leftist. I’m not anti-American. I’m genuinely disappointed that our leadership appears to be so bankrupt and intellectually lazy.

You can read the document below for yourself, and then read the leaked military document below it that pushes back against similar ideas.



  1. Christian,

    What do you propose we do? What security strategy should we pursue?


  2. What do you propose we do? What security strategy should we be following?

  3. “Studies of human behavior reveal that the actions we undertake as individuals are closely related to survival, more importantly, survival on our own terms. Naturally, such a notion implies that we should be able to act relatively free or independent of any debilitating external influences—otherwise that very survival might be in jeopardy. In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action. The degree to which we cooperate, or compete, with others is driven by the need to satisfy this basic goal. If we believe that it is not possible to satisfy it alone, without help from others, history shows us that we will agree to constraints upon our independent action—in order to collectively pool skills and talents in the form of nations, corporations, labor unions, mafias, etc.—so that obstacles standing in the way of the basic goal can either be removed or overcome. On the other hand, if the group cannot or does not attempt to overcome obstacles deemed important to many (or possibly any) of its individual members, the group must risk losing these alienated members. Under these circumstances, the alienated members may dissolve their relationship and remain independent, form a group of their own, or join another collective body in order to improve their capacity for independent action.” -Col. John R. Boyd, Destruction and Creation, 1976

  4. Christian, many thanks for this very articulate, detailed and, above all, very necessary critique. I hope very much that your piece here is getting some wider circulation somewhere (or perhaps the GoA blog is as wide a circulation as you need!). I had read the Gant piece last year and dismissed it for similar reasons to you. But I second your worry that “senior management” in the US may be thinking of embracing the “conclusions” of such a paper.

    Funny enough, my first reaction was the same as Dan’s comment – what to do? Not because it is perhaps easier to criticise than to construct, but because I would be genuinely very interested to hear your thoughts, given your deep and broad understanding of the dynamics of this complex region.

    So, my question to you:

    What policy/policies/practices should be adopted by the international community in relation to Afghanistan over the next 2-3 years and where do you see the country in 5 – 10 years?

    Thanks again for a very interesting piece.



  5. Dan and Tim,

    I’m sure Christian has an excellent response of his own to your “What is to be done?” question. But in the meantime, I would just say, why is “tribe” the default, and all other choices seem so exotic and hard to think about? Do we not have ways for dealing with insurgencies in non-tribal societies? I thought counterinsurgency theory was so robust and flexible that it can deal with all sorts of different situations… But maybe counterinsurgency theory really just boils down to constructing very rigid, simplistic identity categories and then enforcing them with guns (preferably 6-man SOF teams with guns, and beards). Who cares what was there before we showed up or what we leave behind when we leave, right?

  6. Christian,
    A very nice and fair piece. It joins up with my own researches about Iraq. Perhaps “counterinsurgency” (in the current US ‘Orthodox’ version) is too biased by the projection of the US/Western imaginary about those countries, those societies, and eventually our countries and societies.
    What do you think of David Killcullen’s distinction between the Authority Structure in Afghanistan (namely, the Triad formed by the tribal elders, the religious elders, and the government representatives) on the one hand and the Anbar Tribal structure (more centralized)?

  7. Awesome, awesome, stuff as always.
    One thing that gets me: I’ve always felt that the “tribes!” strategy gets so much run because it follows an easy narrative for Afghanistan: Uneducated tribal types get bewitched by bin Laden and his Taliban outsiders, Americans come in to rescue them and restore “the natural scope” of things. And any argument against this tribal structure is hard to get heard, even if it comes from an ANTH nerd, because it just sounds wrong to RAND folks.

    I’m thinking of just referring to the Gant Theory as the Hutuization of Afghanistan. Academically and geographically dishonest? You bet. But at least it illustrates why you shouldn’t invent tribes.

  8. I would suggest that the criticisms of his actions in aiding one group fight another be condensed into a clearer essay and not broken up. Also, as an earnest question do you have any data about what the situation was following this? Was any disciplinary action taken by the U.S military, did the area become peaceful, what became of the people driven out?

    On another note, what institutions, governmental or other, do hold an amount of influence in Afghanistan? Mosques, the Taliban, a warlord?

  9. In my view the word tribe is being substituted for the names of ethnic groups 1. to be politically correct and 2. to avoid imaginary ethnic conflicts.

    Where Gant wants to say Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara or Uzbek, he says tribal groups. This is misleading and vague so it only confuses.

    It is long past time for the West to break the taboo of naming ethnic names in Afghanistan and revise old British map making instead of sticking to 19th Century colonial geopolitical nation creation schemes.

  10. Christian: If you havent touched down on the fact that were actually perfoprming a targeted assasination campaign, complete with random torture and selective ethnic cleansing in certain parts under Mc Chrystal, then you fail. Its what he did in Baghdad, with the powerdrills and all that. Watch Bagram slide out of US “control” so he can get his hands clean.

  11. Great post. It’s definitely a little disheartening to see McChrystal and Patreus heap praise on a paper that trots out such a bad idea (for like the billionth time). One wonders though, if they indeed adopt Gants strategy (We can only hope they don’t), how McChrystal and co. will square this paper with the population centric COIN strategy they pushed to Washington and the public to get the troop escalation. Gant outright admits he entered into an armed conflict against another tribe, that isn’t exactly “protecting the population” unless I missed something and the definition of protect suddenly became “harm.” So how could they spin this? Or will they simply advocate “living amongst the tribes” without getting into local politics? That seems out of the realm of possibility IMO.

    I’m wondering why exactly we can’t seem to move past this “tribal” crap that keeps getting paraded about to be honest. I realize that tribes may exist on some level in Afghanistan, as a few experts have noted. But as they noted, and as you reiterated, the word itself is incredibly vague and flexible and thus is of limited use in the grand scheme of things. But this constant talk of “tribes” in Afghanistan by non-experts, like in Gants paper, wreaks of an elitist, condescending stench that almost seems to be a not so subtle way of trying to say those damned Afghanis are “so backwards” and “stuck in the past.” I could be wrong, but given the history of the word tribal, I have a sneaking suspicion that its over use (and lack of a definition) in non-expert circles has a lot to do with how a lot of people in this country view (in a not so flattering light) Afghans and Afghan culture.

  12. Dan,

    I won’t pretend to have a comprehensive security plan in my head or on my laptop. And I would be suspicious of anybody who did. So for the time being, my suggestion is to not follow Gant’s advice.


    Your question is even broader, and I am even less equipped to answer that. As for the future, I’ve read enough old history and polisci-influenced work to know that I should not be making any bold comprehensive predictions about the long term future. But I do occasionally feel qualified to warn that a new tactic or strategy has flaws.


    That triad tool is sort of useful if one recognizes that these three poles are far from unitary actors, and that coalition forces often create a new pole…and that criminal networks are another new pole, etc… Anyways, it had more use when Akbar Ahmed first described this in Pakistan. As for Afghanistan, David B Edwards actually wrote an entire book about this: ‘Heroes of the Age.’ Kilcullen should give it a read.


    I have no data on this small area. I have no idea what happened to these people. Kunar, as a whole obviously slid downhill. But that can hardly be blamed on one SF Major. As for your second question, that is an 800 page answer that varies across province, town, neighborhood, family, brother, etc…


    You and Black Five, both grumpy at me over the same blog post? Oh well, you can’t please both political poles at the same time, and sometime you anger them both. But think of it this way, if I was an anti-war blogger who had consistently screamed for the blood of McChrystal, would anybody outside of my leftist circle even pay attention when I pick on him over this issue? You can now point to me and note that one of those spineless moderates have finally turned against him…

    Sorry if I missed any questions…

  13. Christian,

    My only issue is I’m guessing you’ve never spent time in the military or are not currently active, let alone never been involved in combat. If you were in the military you probably served in a support role. Not that it’s a bad thing, but you just don’t understand.

    You have no idea what it is like to be in his shoes, how to win or even attempt to beat the insurmountable. To be given the task of “Make it happen.” Sure there are going to be mistakes like even any business, it’s just that in war the costs are higher and you have to react much quicker. Not only that you are sitting a million miles away arm chair quarterbacking after the fact. He has to make life and death decisions in seconds, sometimes god willing, minutes.

    Not only that you don’t even provide a hint, a hint of a solution. This sickens me, you sit at home and tell someone like him how to do his job when you yourself are too cowardly to even join the military and if you are in then I guarantee you, you are not in Special Forces nor would even attempt to join the ranks, because you don’t have what it takes. You actually sound like the type who might have even tried and failed and now you bash on him.

    Gant is a great American attempting to accomplish the impossible for America so you can continue to complain about him. Sure he’s made mistakes. “Better to have tried and erred than not try at all.” Because from what I’m reading from you, you’d still be stitting there at the tribal meeting scratching your head, not accomplishing anything.

  14. You also immediately attacked his character and started leading others to believe he might have commited a “War Crime.”

    Do you know if he pulled the trigger on anyone?

    Maybe he and his team pulled security on the outskirts of town under the impression given to him by the tribal leader that they were not going to fight and things just got out of hand and he just happen to be in the vicinity? Trust me he has not control over what they’re going to do?

    Maybe his statement was one out of sadness and did not want to provide the details of the action, which is common amongst vets?

    Maybe they went there attempting to negotiate a peaceful settlement and when they approached the village/town they were attacked and had to defend themselves?

    Becareful with your words. It’s too easy to throw someone under the bus, but not to pull them out.

  15. John,

    The great thing about America, and many other countries in the West, is that its citizens are free to question the tactics and strategies employed by its military and police. Not being in the military or law enforcement does not mean that my opinions are invalid. If a cop shoots an unarmed person in the back, I have the right to criticize. If a US Army Major destroys the lives and or livelihood of a group of people he has never met who have nothing to do with insurgency or terrorism, I have the right to criticize. Beyond being morally wrong, these tactics suck and will backfire.

  16. You don’t know if he destroyed the village!
    You are only making an assumption based off what he wrote. You’re probably also throwing in the subconscience fact like most people when they hear Special Forces that he is a killer who thrives on killing. You’re throwing him under the bus and you don’t have the facts.

    Trust me in this day and age, if he was responsible for destroying a village he would be held accountable.

    Let me give you a little taste about public opinion and the effect it has politically and then militarily. When Americans started getting killed by IED’s in Iraq there was public outcry at the military and governments inability to properly equip it’s troops. Of course this had political impacts and the MRAP was developed in record time. Ever been in one of these? They are not good, sure it survives IED’s, but to exit one is poor and so is the mobility. This vehicles production was stopped due to cost and lack of mobility. It forced soldiers to exit the vehicles in open areas because it couldn’t move across easily traversed terrain.

    Why would the military purchase such an item one would ask?

    Because ill informed people cried when things went bad and our politicians over reacted. The politicians over reacted due to the civilians constant complaining. The military was fully aware of the situation and trying to rectify the problem and soldiers were adjusting on the ground as well. Now our tax dollars are wasted and soldiers lives were put at even greater risk since the development of these vehicles. Every war since the beginning of time had issues with this. Our tanks in WWII were poor so the soldiers adapted and put various stuff on the outside, while the military built better tanks. Ever seen the hedge buster? The government or civilians didn’t come up with the idea, soldiers on the ground did.

    I’m not saying don’t complain, you’re right it is your right and so is not providing a solution. You have an opinion on why you don’t agree or you wouldn’t say, what you said. But you choose not to provide one and that makes you cowardly in my book. You’re too afraid of someone critiquing your opinion. Do you do this in business, complain about the solution, but yet never provided any input into the solution? I hope not.

  17. […] Christian Bleuer is unimpressed by the growing popularity of a paper on “tribalism” amongst Pash… – Gant writes: The central cultural fact about Afghanistan is that it is constituted of tribes. Not individuals, not Western-style citizens—but tribes and tribesmen. It is my deep belief—and the thesis of this paper—that the answer to the problems that face the Afghan people, as well as other future threats to US security in the region, will be found in understanding and then helping the tribal system of Afghanistan to flourish. […]

  18. The Cyrus thing is a bit odd. Large parts of Afghanistan were part of the all three Persian Empires, not a very loyal part but that would seem to be a centre-periphery elite level thing rather than tribal resistance as such, also, as you mentioned, its the route that steppe dwelling tribesmen traditionally take on their never ending quest to uproot Central Asian infrastructure.

  19. […] is moot: to expect bright strategic contributions from Berlin when Washington and perhaps even the man himself seem to be somewhat desperate if not clueless about how to achieve success in Afghanistan. And to […]

  20. Christian-
    Thank you for tackling this topic. I disagree with you on most of your points and findings, but appreciate the dialogue. It seems that your argument boils down to two main points:

    1) Why take Gant’s word on COIN when he was involved in tribe-on-tribe (or village-on-village or qalat-on-qalat or whatever) conflict, regardless of whether there was violence or not–his paper does not necessarily indicate that there. You readily condemn him for this, based on two things war crimes and COIN.

    It was not a war crime. The area around Khas Kunar is not populated with ethnically different people. The Pashai, Tregama, and other various Nuristani ethnic groups are further to the interior of Kunar or further north of Asadabad, the confluence of the Pech and Kunar rivers (closer to Asmar). I don’t mean to play semantics. The fact of the matter is that he supported one group over another. Assuming the most probably (although not explicitly stated) scenario of open warfare between to clans/subtribes/families/villages/whatever-you-call-them, it is hardly a war crime violating jus in bello.

    As far as your critique about this act potentially pushing the “losing” group into the arms of the insurgency, you’re probably right. In 2003, we weren’t fighting counter-insurgency. Gant’s mission wasn’t to conduct COIN operations. His mission was most likely foreign internal defense (assuming the transistion point from unconventional warfare had already taken place–which is arguable). His mission was not to protect the people, but rather begin arming them and standing them up to defend themselves.

    The key difference between COIN and FID is that in COIN the parent force (French in Algeria, British in Kenya, America in Afghanistan)has the responsibility to provide the bulk of combat power and police force. This where the ridiculous calculations come (1 soldier to 25 civilians–or the 80,000 requested surge in Afghanistan). In FID missions, the security aims are met “by, with, and through” an indigenous force. No where in FID doctrine does it say it needs to be a heterogeneous force. If Gant’s SFODA, which was pretty much responsible for securing all of Kunar province, almost singlehandedly, felt that the application of Bentham’s utilitarianism was better suited to securing the rugged, mountainous, border province than Kant’s deontological theories–then he was probably right at the time. That probably was better suited based on what he had available.

    Your second main argument is that he just has it wrong about the tribes. I’m not an anthropologist so I will try to not weigh-in too much on this argument. I would agree with Gant that the centralized government does not seem to work well in Afghanistan. The provincial level seems arbitrarily contrived at times, as well. I do not know of the importance of “tribes” to the schemas that Pashtuns and other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. I would whole-heartedly disagree that we are substituting “tribe” for “ethnic group,” though. I don’t think Gant would suggest that either. Tribes are ethnically related, have shared norms and mores, and are probably related to a fairly high degree. I have worked with Pashai, Safi Pashtuns, and Kalasha in Kunar province. There do exist some tribal (although in this case also some ethnic) tensions. But is an arbitrarily contrived political structure layed over multiple groups and ethnicities improve anything? Why not a loose confederation of tribes or local groups with similar interests over a federal government like our own? Our military has attempted to force upon the ANA a structure, which seems more foreign to them than other military models. Are we not doing that at the central political level too?

    You may be right that a more decentralized approach may not be successful. I cannot imagine that it will be less successful than what we’ve been trying for the past 3 years (no, I do not see a major change in strategy in that time). Part of the problem stems from the fact that modern COIN theory is based much more on urban insurgencies (from Algiers to Baghdad) and much less on rural insurgancies (Mohmand Agency, etc). Thus what we’re doing currently is ineffective and counter-productive. Gant’s theory isn’t without flaws but it is more promising than the status quo.

    Gant’s theory also offers some other promising things as well. Yes, the total footprint could in theory be reduced. It will be incredibly difficult to find mature, competent individuals but a reproportioning of service members currently in theater would “flood” the rural areas with soldiers. Keep in mind that nearly 1:3 soldiers in Afghanistan is at Bagram (assuming that Kandahar is only half the size of Bagram, that’s still a full 50% of all soldiers in Afghanistan in a “Super FOB”). Going local reduces the need for securing logistics patrols along long lines of communications. Not only does this save the US massive amounts of money but also renders the IED threat moot (IEDs currently account for about 40% of combat-related casaulties in Afghanistan–and is a modestly growing threat to Afghan local nationals).

    Anyway, I don’t think immediately dismissing Gant’s idea out-of-hand is wise. Gant’s plan at least meets (or perhaps exceeds) the status quo, when judged against the criteria used for courses of action: Feasible, acceptable, suitable, distinguishable, and complete (or at least as complete as a plan at this high-level and early stages can be). I, for one, am glad that GEN McChrystal and GEN Petraeus are paying heed and considering ways of implementing some of Gant’s suggestions.

    As a final aside: I was just emailed a copy of “One Tribe at a Time” by my boss who has heretofore been unaware that I’ve read it several times already.

    Anyway, Christian, thank you for entertaining dialogue on this critically important dialogue.

  21. Capt.,

    Thanks for your lengthy reply.

    Now that you’ve clarifed who the victims were, something that Gant did not do, we now know that this was not ethnic cleansing, just plain cleansing (an option I left open). That likely doesn’t make the victims feel any better. And since Gant is so vague: “Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that the dispute with the highlanders was resolved”, I will keep asking whether violence was done towards these people. If not, only just losing your farming/grazing land in Afghanistan is not like losing your time share condo at the beach. It is a theft of your livelihood in a “state” that doesn’t hand out welfare checks. Bare minimum, Gant facilitated the illegal seizure of land, and at worst he helped his friends murder their neighbors (and shared ethnicity doesn’t make that any better).

    As for what Gant is liable for, I’m not asking for some TV JAG guys to cuff him and toss him in military prisonfor 15-20. But I do think that these people need compensation and an apology.

    As for what you are referencing when you write: “I would whole-heartedly disagree that we are substituting “tribe” for “ethnic group,” though.”, I can’t address that because I can’t tell what part of my writing that you are referencing.

    As for central governance, I do see the pitfalls, and I’ve written about it numerous, numerous times. The time to discuss this would have been 2002. It’s a little late in the game for radical changes, but I have always advocated giving local communities more input into development programs and for not appointing idiot and/or criminal governors.

    As for a “loose confederation of tribes of local groups” and a federal government, even if the US could force such a drastic change on Afghanistan in some massive imperial move, that would do little to nothing to defeat the insurgency. This situation has existed in Afghanistan’s history, and it was not some peaceful fantasy.

    Anyways, this could de facto be the situation in a few years. The last time local powers had their way, there was a civil war until the Taliban mostly ended it. Don’t think for a moment that local leaders don’t want to climb the ladder locally. If the government isn’t around to oppress you, your neighbors will still be (just like the area that Gant describes). There is no governance option right now that will make this war go away.

    As for forcing models on the ANA, the Soviets had far more success with the ANA that we have had. And they used a foreign model. If you are referring to arbakais, check out the Karokhail/Schmeidl article I referenced. I’ll send you a copy if you don’t have a subscription.

    Basically, I think Gant’s theory is -even tossing out moral issues- actually worse than the status quo. And that is saying a lot, I know.

    Have you ever wondered why independent analysts who have been involved in researching Afghanistan since before it became “trendy” (i.e., 2008-9) are so overwhelmingly against ideas like this? Political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO practitioners, etc… who have been in the game for longer than 5 or so years are so negative on tribes, militias and other such silver bullet suggestions while being extremely critical of this and similar military recommendations. And it’s not because they are anti-war. I know many of them personally and most of them were all about the military going in after 9-11.

    It’s like a contractor who can’t get an engineer to sign off one his blueprints for a bridge. It should make you wonder why.

  22. Christian,

    I think the Tsarist era Russian colonial (let’s just assume that, intentions aside, the reality is that the US is a colonial, perhaps temporarily, power) officials in C. Asia dealt with these sticky property dispute situations in the best way possible. They washed their hands of it and left it up to the qazis to decide. Of course such a solution isn’t perfect and one may be fair in assuming that unjust decisions were still passed, but at least the occupying power could disclaim responsibility.

    I know “life and death” decisions have to be made in a short time and all that, but the secondary and tertiary effects of any action must be taken into account. As cynical as this sounds, I don’t mind Gant sacrificing the livelihoods of those highlanders so much as his naievety. As you rightly point out, Major Gant was acting on behalf of the US government and in the name of “the Americans” as a collective. I don’t like all this Lawrence of Arabia-esque (thank you Brits, because it’s so much easier dealing with the Arabs than with the Ottomans) strutting and posing. Of course, even if the Major had been a little more reticent, he might have offended his friend. I’m not so sure on that score, but it is a possibility. Bad situation all around.

    I’m no Afghan expert, but with all this talk of jirgas, etc, why isn’t there much talk of involving the ulemma or more “official” Islamic judicial bodies? Based on Western reportage, iIt seems all the Afghan ulemma is up to these days is passing laws allowing Hazara husbands the right to coerce their wives and calling for the head of the one Afghan dude who converted to Christianity.

    But back to trained Islamic legal scholars, iIs this not a possibility in Afghanistan? Would it backfire? After all, a “tamed” mullah is sometimes worse than no mullah at all. I’m not even talking about the Taliban here, just Afghan society in general.

  23. What about taking the kernel of Gant’s “how”: small teams, not necessarily SF, and engaging them at the local level? Not to support one group against another, not to necessarily fight the Taliban/AQ, but to help the smaller segments of Afghan society understand just what the GoA is offering in terms of justice, security and access to the economy and through that cooperation and protection resist the encroachment of the Taliban. These would need to be led by Afghan government officials, have US/ISAF mil and development reps and some level of security forces w/ them or nearby. Sounds like the District Reconstruction Teams now that I think about it. Not sure how far that ever got.

    But the point is, the challenge at hand is demonstrating that the Afghan governement, from the top to the district to the village can indeed provide security, justice and economic access. You have to go to grassroots to make that case. Finding the right people and dealing w/ their exposure would be two challenges already detailed by Gant, but as he said, I think those are risks worth taking. Afghans take them every day.

    At the end of the day, the Afghan government needs help making its National Development Strategy work (and updating its ANDS website, nothing new since Sep ’08). I really hope that Eikenberry and McChrystal are focusing US/ISAF ops/tactics in support of the ANDS and not just for US stated goals (they aren’t mutually exclusive, but focusing too much on AQ could prevent achieving the objective of a stable Afghanistan). I would also like a pony. No, I’m not that pessimistic, just good dump of snow before I go snowboarding again would be sufficient.

  24. Christian,

    Just because senior commanders are taking Gant’s thoughts into account doesn’t mean they like his strategy. Besides, there are elements of his paper that reflect McCrystal’s assessment.


    Come on, man. Dismissing people’s opinion on military affairs because they aren’t in the military is childish. Bravery does not a scholar make.

  25. Christian-
    You bring up some very valid points and weaknesses in Gant’s article. Thank you. I think critizism is always warranted and can only serve to make us better through reevaluation.

    I do agree that Gant’s plan could lead to a civil war. I think, however, so could the status quo. I don’t know how one will prevent that, in the long term, regardless of which path we take.

    I am a huge fan of pop-centric COIN. However, I think that pursuing a pop-centric COIN strategy in Afghanistan neglects large swaths of land and peoples. We’ve already told the 300k+ people in Nuristan that we’re not going to help them much any more. We’ve condemned them to living with and supporting HiG, TTB, LeT, and other insurgent groups because they’re not densely populated. It’s a shame.

    Of course the CT plan put forward by the vice president doesn’t cut it in those remote areas either.

    I’m pretty sure it was your own blog that covered the strategic importance of Nuristan and that it was a mistake to leave. (In fact I’m almost positive of it, as it inspired me to do some real digging and writing of my own). If it’s untenable to conduct COIN in that region, CT is ineffective, what’s left? How do we signal to them that we haven’t abandoned them? Could we selectively apply the Gant model there?

    In reference to the military models–I was thinking specifically about the success that the Soviets had. It seems to me that the Afghan culture, literacy rates, and current high-turnover in the military makes the Soviet model a much better fit. The American model presumes a highly literate professional NCO corps that has devoted much time to the service. I think we may have made a mistake when we started building the ANA in our own model, as opposed to the Soviet.

    One final note before I stop filling your blog with my nonsensical ramblings. First Andrew Exum, now you, who’s next? Josh Foust? All my favorite bloggers are “cutting back.” There will be no good blogs out there on Afghanistan in about two months… I’ve enjoyed reading your writings and will miss it (and I’ll become highly inpatient waiting a month between posts). Thank you for the service that you’ve provided!

  26. Christian,
    Your article is way over the top. Calling Major Gant a war criminal is pretty ballsey coming from a junior historian and student whose only experience of the Middle East and Central Asia comes from The Australian National University. Not to mention all the languages you’ve learned at Indiana University! Plus, let’s not forget all the liberal stealing you do from the social sciences and humanities. Wow! I can’t believe Petraeus and McChrystal didn’t call you first!

    You make extreme assumptions about Major Gant and before you start spewing off at the keyboard you might want to ask what really happened with the Highlanders? How does “nothing” sound to you? That’s right Doctor wanabe, nothing! It was a peaceful meeting between Sitting Bull and the Highlanders and without any violence. Suffice it to say that the children of the Highlands aren’t starving and Mommy and Daddy are alive and well on their land that no one stole!

    Initially I was going to take pot shots at your references but decided that it isn’t their fault you used their name in your plebian article. Instead I’m going to refer you back to the first page of Major Gant’s article. He clearly, and without doubt, states that the paper was based on his experiences alone. Nowhere does he say that his strategy is “thee” strategy and he could win the war with one ODA. He clearly states that his strategy could be a component of the larger strategic effort. Keep the paper in its proper perspective; it is based on his personal experience with a tribal leader and this is his story.

    But here’s what I want to know Christian; when you were in the Australian SAS fighting Al-Qaeda and Taliban, what was your impression of the Afghan non-combatants? What did the village elders discuss with you? What stories did the local populace share with you? Did you enjoy Afghan cuisine in the coziness of your Afghan Host’s home? I would love to see pictures posted on your website.

    And I whole heartedly believe that you do have to be in the military, boots on the ground, gun in your hand, patrolling for hours in the heat or cold, dressed in full battle rattle, trying to figure out who is friendly and who wants to kill you, or perhaps be in a position of responsibility over all those soldiers to have a legitimate opinion on military affairs. And “Bravery does not a scholar make?” You should erase the word brave from your vocabulary forever.

    You freely criticize everyone’s suggestions and strategies but you never offer a solution. I’m not just talking about this blog in particular. I’ve read the blogs from your archives. Your MO is to skate around every question asked. Take a look at this blog; “I won’t pretend to have a plan” or “Your question is even broader, and I am even less equipped to answer that. As for the future, I’ve read enough old history and polisci-influenced work to know that I should not be making any bold comprehensive predictions about the long term future. But I do occasionally feel qualified to warn that a new tactic or strategy has flaws.”

    You feel qualified to warn us about a new tactic or strategy? Really? You sit behind your laptop reading about everyone else’s experiences and studying all their research never having had any interaction with the people of any of the countries you’ve studied. Knowledge is good. Knowledge without experience? Not so much. Yet you’re about to be a PHD! Wow! You should see if the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies has courses in self awareness. Tell you what Christian, how about you stick to writing about the things you know about and not about the things you think you know about?!

  27. Fence-sitter,

    my opinion is that the ulema is far too fractured (and always has been) to provide governance in their sctor (not that the current government is doing a good job at that).


    Yeah, those district reconstruction teams never got out of the “idea phase.” I haven’t heard anything about that recently. And I’m fine with going to the “grassroots,” just in an informed way that acknowledges limitations (i.e., National Solidarity Program sort of things)

    Capt. Monkey,

    Thanks for the note. As for the Soviet model, they started training Afghan officers and NCOs long before the Soviet-Afghan War. They had a decade or more long head start. As for Nuristan, I think it is completely on its own. But it may quickly become less important as the insurgency grows in other areas. There are now easier ways (I assume) to get to the fighting in Kapisa and those areas than hiking through Nuristan (if that was ever the case). Nuristan may just become a backwater left to its own devices now (the Taliban pretty much ignored it at their peak in late 1990s-2001). But if (implausibly) the insurgency starts to get its butt kicked elsewhere then Nuristan would then get elevated in importance once again.


    Most unfortunately, I have not served in the Australian SAS and therefore have no right to comment on anything related to war. In fact, we should just turn over our entire government and war effort to SF and SAS who have at least 10 kills each. No more meddling civilians and REMFs. On a serious note, I have a right to criticize even if I don’t have a detailed plan of my own. This works in the same way that an American is allowed to express an opinion on the debates surrounding social security, healthcare and the economy even though they don’t have a 900 page plan to fix those sectors.

    Thanks for the comments everybody!

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