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."
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.