Saturday, 5 December 2009
One of the significant differences between the British and US armies is that the latter seem to be able to engage publicly in a much franker level of discussion about issues raised by the conflict in Afghanistan. Although the British Army allows blogs from soldiers serving in Helmand (see Frontline bloggers or Helmand Blog), these are little more than cheery news from the frontline about the latest successes. They don't set out to confront any of the serious issues and nor do they challenge official doctrine.
In contrast, there are some fascinating blogs and writings by serving US soldiers. One of the most striking of these is a pamphlet called One Tribe at a Time, by Major Jim Gant of the US Special Forces, published recently. In 2003 and 2004 Gant fought in Kunar and Helmand provinces before working as an adviser to an Iraqi National Police Quick Reaction Force battalion. He then spent the next two years as an unconventional warfare instructor for Special Forces.
Gant argues passionately that the key to success against the Taliban is to work with the tribes. He says: We demonstrated month in and month out that a small effective fighting force could unite with an Afghan tribe, become trusted and respected brothers-in-arms with their leaders and families, and make a difference in the US effort in Afghanistan. In doing so, we discovered what I believe to be the seed of enduring success in that country."
His strategy is based on the idea of Tribal Engagement Teams, working as part of an overall strategy that allows these teams working closely with a tribal group to decide how to engage the enemy. As Gant says: "TETs must be allowed to be on their own, grow beards, wear local garb, and interact with the tribesmen at all levels. They must be allowed to be what they are: American tribesmen...Rules of Engagement must change. Using the TETs will become a very intense, personal fight. If they need to drop bombs or pursue an enemy, they must be able to do so. The teams will always fight alongside Tribal Security Forces (TSFs), and no missions will be conducted unilaterally. There will always be an Afghan face on any mission."
It is hard not to feel that Gant has somehow 'gone native' while reading his pamphlet. He refers to a local tribal leader in Kunar as 'Chief Sitting Bull' and says things like: "I feels like I was born there. The greatest days of my entire life were spent in the Pesch Valley and Musa Qala and with the great 'Sitting Bull'...I love the people and the rich history of Afghanistan. They will give you their last abit of food in the morning and then try and kill you in the evening. A people who despite their great poverty, as as happy as any American I have ever met. A people who kill and fight and die for the sake of honor. A great friend and a worthy enemy."
Gant believes that specially trained soldiers can win trust with Afghan tribes and gradually spread their influence across the country. He speaks eloquently of his own experiences in Kunar where his special forces group were able to win over one tribal grouping - and to be treated as fellow tribesmen.
All of this, to anyone who has never visited Afghanistan before, is very intoxicating. Afghan friendship is something special. And for Gant and his comrades, there is something very heroic about these Pashtun fighters. They uphold many of the values he himself holds most dear - although Gant does not care to mention any of the less 'heroic' values that sometimes go with village life, such as honour killing of women.
In truth, it is unlikely that the generals of the US Army would allow small groups of soldiers to embed themselves in Afghan tribes - or that any kind of coherence would be the result. As Gant may know, feuding is a national pastime in parts of Afghanistan, much of it between close relatives. Almost the first action through which Gant won trust from his hosts was a threat against another tribal group that had taken over some land. How do you decide who is right?
Gant's pamphlet is a very human document. He came to Afghanistan as a soldier and found men to whom he could relate and who impressed him with their warrior qualities. He is not the first person to whom this has happened. Nor will he be the last.
In the introduction to his pamphlet, Gant says he started writing it in 2008 after he received orders to return to Afghanistan. It was to have been his 'Intelligence Preparation for the Battlefield' (IPB) document. A few days before he was due to leave for Afghanistan early in 2009, he was told he was not being sent there after all. Instead he was being sent to 1st Armored Division for a return tour to Iraq. Make of that what you will.