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January 18, 2010

The World According to Gant
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a some rather interesting debate about Jim Gant, a 35-year old Green Beret, and his plan for tribal engagement in Afghanistan. Gant published a paper this past Fall called One Tribe at a Time that Sunday got the Washington Post treatment . . . with a glowing article about Gant's rising profile and the tag line, "The Green Beret Who Could Win the War In Afghanistan":

In recent months, Gant, now a major, has won praise at the highest levels for his effort to radically deepen the U.S. military's involvement with Afghan tribes -- and is being sent back to Afghanistan to do just that. His 45-page paper, "One Tribe at a Time," published online last fall and circulating widely within the U.S. military, the Pentagon and Congress, lays out a strategy focused on empowering Afghanistan's ancient tribal system. Gant believes that with the central government still weak and corrupt, the tribes are the only enduring source of local authority and security in the country. 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," wrote Gant.

"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."  

I'm not really in the best position to judge the merits of Gant's arguments, although I would note that smart people like Josh Foust, Christian Bleuer and the ever-astute Judah Grunstein have criticized the basic idea of bribing Pashtun tribes to turn on the Taliban. Beyond the problem of figuring out which tribes to support/bribe; Gant's advocacy of taking sides in tribal conflicts seems like it might risk involving the US in conflict that are tangential to the overall US mission in Afghanistan . . . and getting a lot of innocent Afghans killed at the hands of the United States.

But here's the part I really find confusing. A couple of months ago, after first reading the Gant paper, I also read this document, put out by the US military training and doctrine command (TRADOC). It is written by actual experts on Afghanistan . . . and it comes to a very different conclusion about the effectiveness of trial engagement:

Military officers and policymakers, in their search for solutions to problems in Afghanistan, have considered empowering “the tribes” as one possible way to reduce rates of violence. In this report, the HTS Afghanistan RRC warns that the desire for “tribal engagement” in Afghanistan, executed along the lines of the recent “Surge” strategy in Iraq, is based on an erroneous understanding of the human terrain.

In fact, the way people in rural Afghanistan organize themselves is so different from rural Iraqi culture that calling them both “tribes” is deceptive. “Tribes” in Afghanistan do not act as unified groups, as they have recently in Iraq. For the most part they are not hierarchical, meaning there is no “chief” with whom to negotiate (and from whom to expect results). They are notorious for changing the form of their social organization when they are pressured by internal dissension or external forces. Whereas in some other countries tribes are structured like trees, “tribes” in Afghanistan are like jellyfish.

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

So why if the Army's own Afghanistan experts concluded that tribal engagement doesn't work and may actually be counter-productive is Major Gant being feted in the Washington Post as the man who can win the war in Afghanistan, praised by P4 an M4 and being asked to return to Afghanistan to work on tribal issues? I don't really have an answer to this question, but it does seem curious. Doncha think?


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As far as I know Gant revealed that the South African Government - already financially 'stretched' due to the 2010 World Cup - would not need to provide funding for the 'F1 project', saying: "I have no doubt that we will be able to source the capital required to build".

Thanks, Michael -- this is a really interesting insight about the profound importance of local culture and history to constitutional design in Afghanistan. Along these lines, you and DA readers might be interested in a new piece I have up at PPI's new site, the Progressive Fix, about an "ultra-federalist" approach to Afghanistan. I've pasted a relevant graf below. The piece is at:

“Ultra-federalism” in Afghanistan should mirror and embrace the country’s unique and disparate elements. The new system should include established practices and political values that accept and incorporate the ethnic divisions between the country’s major and minor ethnic groups: the Pashtuns and Tajiks (both historically Iranian), Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimak, Turkmen, Baluch, Nuristani and other small groups. Constitutional law should embrace not only Pashto and Persian, the two official languages of the country, but Uzbek and Turkmen, which are spoken in the north, and, to the extent possible, the 70 other dialects throughout the country. As far as tribes go, the Pashtuns alone have at least seven tribes, the Durrani, Ghilzai, Jaji, Mangal, Safi, Mamund, and Mohmand, which generally distribute authority to elders through patrimony. Those power structures ought to be recognized and brought into the ultra-federalist system, just as the pre-existing American states were incorporated into the 1787 Constitution.

Not too sure where Mike's (Signer) analysis differs from Maj. Gant's, in the end - ethnic recognition/support instead of tribal? I mean, both Mr. Signer and Mr. Gant have captured the sort of gut instinct about Afghanistan which pretty much anyone and everyone has asserted, and yet is still sinking into our national strategy: There is no central government; Afghanistan is a completely decentralized nation.

With this recognition, it seems logical to look towards solutions that incorporate, or at least don't artificially paper over, this fundamental decentralization of power. Maj. Gant's tribal strategy and Mike's ethnic(?) one both move in that direction, and I think more such analyses are direly needed, or will be in 18 months when Obama checks back in on his war and nothing has really changed.

As for your skepticism, Mr. Cohen, I think it's a little harsh. I'd say Maj. Gant and the like offer at least an easier path for us in Afghanistan than trying to essentially create an honest central government from scratch.

By the way, I think (don't know) that TRADOC is increasingly losing intellectual influence within the military to operationally derived analyses and strategies like those of Maj. Gant, suggesting that Maj. Gant's plan is actually a rebuttal to your quote, not the other way around. See:

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.

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Anyone see overwhelming, overall successful momentum in Afghanistan as as result of TRADOC input so far?

The Afghans in general receive us well - because of the village-level improvements. Villages in Afghanistan are, (gasp!) tribally organized.

Petraeus was right in Iraq. Things would have been much different had his early success been modeled countrywide. His approach is pragmatic, and takes the local factors into account.

Proof is in the pudding, as they say. Petraeus has a credible record. If he has faith in Gant, I say it's worth pursuing. Whenever we leave, the tribal influences will remain. This must be respectfully and comprehensively addressed. sesli sohbet sesli sohbet thank you moderators

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