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REVIEW: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen']

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

When I first posted that I had received a review copy of American Spartan from Callieit stirred a vigorous debate in the comments section and also a flurry of email offline to me from various parties. Joseph Collins reviewed American Spartan for War on the Rocks , Don Vandergriff posted his review at LESC blog , Blackfive had theirs here,and there was an incisive one in the MSM by former Assistant Secretary of Defense and author Bing West, all of which stirred opinions in the various online forums to which I belong. Then there was the ABC Nightline special which featured Tyson and Gant as well as an appearance by former CIA Director, CENTCOM, Iraq and Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus:

Major Gant was also a topic here at ZP years ago when he released his widely read and sometimes fiercely debated paper “One Tribe at a Time“, at Steven Pressfield’s site, which launched all of the events chronicled by Tyson in American Spartan.  To be candid, at the time and still today, I remain sympathetic to strategies that enlist “loyalist paramilitaries” to combat insurgencies and other adversarial irregular forces. It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered. With that background in mind, on to the book.

First, as a matter of literature and style, Ann Scott Tyson is a gifted writer who can weave a compelling story with dramatic flair. American Spartan is a page turner from start to finish. Having all the ingredients of a Hollywood action movie or bestselling novel, American Spartan would appeal to a wide audience, not simply readers with military experience or a wonkish interests in foreign and defense policy. Moreover, Tyson is well served by her long experience as a war correspondent. She gets the gritty texture of the theater of  scenes and little details of Army outpost life right in a way that other civilian writers sitting at a remove, recycling war stories could not. American Spartan is compared to Sebastian Junger’s War for good reason. If you like a good story and that is reason enough for you to read a book, buy American Spartan; it will not fail to engage and entertain.

Secondly, we need to be frank regarding Tyson’s objectivity. It is clear-cut; she has none. American Spartan is not a work of journalism or a biography of Jim Gant, it is Tyson’s memoir and apologia. She was not an observer or an anthropologist among the Mohmand. Nor is she merely partisan scribe on Gant’s behalf. Tyson is a full-fledged participant in events – even battles -in her own right.  Tyson pleads her own cause as well as Gant’s in American Spartan. This is an ancient rhetorical tradition that goes back to Xenophon and Julius Caesar and it is often a noble one, but to the reader, with this kind of genre, caveat emptor.

The substance of the book, Gant’s implementation of his “One Tribe at Time” strategy among the Pashtuns and his rise and fall with the hierarchy of the US Army is more complicated and begs for deeper examination. Readers with knowledge of Afghanistan, the Army, American policy or some combination of the three will find nearly as much to read between the lines of American Spartan as they will in the text itself. It is fascinating, really, and the moral implications are deeply disturbing.

To summarize, American Spartan lays out a tragic paradox. My impression is that the tribal engagement strategy Gant championed would never have been permitted to succeed, even had he been a Boy Scout in his personal conduct; and secondly, even if tribal engagement had been fully resourced and enthusiastically supported, Gant himself would have self-destructed regardless.  A Greek tragedy in a khet partug.

Gant has frequently been compared to the legendary Lawrence of Arabia and the fictional Colonel Kurtz.   Interestingly, both of those figures died early and untimely deaths, having long outlived their usefulness for their respective armies. Major Gant is, fortunately, very much alive today which may be the only good outcome associated with his fall from grace.  Given his predisposition for assuming heroic risks, taking battle to the enemy, chance hazards of war and Gant’s own struggle with PTSD, alcoholism and pills chronicled by Tyson, the bitter vendetta of Gant’s immediate superiors ironically may have kept him from also becoming Afghanistan’s John Paul Vann or Bernard Fall.  Gant is not a Colonel Kurtz. That charge would be a slander; nor is he really T.E. Lawrence either, though that is a much better comparison. Gant had more bite to Lawrence’s bark and that was at least part of the equation in Gant’s success.  The al-Saud and al-Rashid tribes and Turkish pashas did not fear Lawrence the same way Taliban commanders and rival Pashtun subtribes personally feared Jim Gant, whom one of his fiercest anthropologist critics called “very scary”.  It was not only tea and beards, nor could it be.

Gant was the best qualified SF officer to go on the mission he was assigned, to win over Pashtun tribal support against the Taliban, but was in no condition to do so in the aftermath of his firefight-heavy deployment in Iraq.  Gant went to Afghanistan anyway, despite jealous Kabul based colonel-bureaucrats warning him and and his mission off as unwanted.  This is a brutal and seldom fully appreciated aspect of our recent wars. In Vietnam, two combat tours was considered heavy-duty and three or more tours could have you marked as a “combat bum”. Today three combat tours are not unusual and I have met men with five and seven. This burden is distributed with great inequality among uniformed personnel and even more so among society at large. To this burden is added an incredible degree of micromanagement of fighting units by the chain of command, particularly in Afghanistan. In this respect at least, Gant proved the exception to the rule: he defiantly operated largely free of oversight or constraint.

The behavior of the US Army hierarchy toward Jim Gant and his mission as chronicled by Tyson in American Spartan could only be characterized as schizophrenic. Gant enjoyed tremendously intimidating “top cover” support for most of his time in Afghanistan – Admiral Eric Olson, head of SOCOM, General David Petraeus, head of CENTCOM (later ISAF commander), General Stanley McChrystal, ISAF commander, Lt. General John Mulholland (who would later cashier Gant), head of Army Special Operations Command, Brigadier General Michael Repass, the commander of Army Special Forces, several key members of Congress and the powerful Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. As a result, Gant enjoyed tremendous autonomy in his operations in Mohmand territory, both with the tribe and how and where he chose to engage the Taliban. There was a distinct lack of curiosity, a studied looking away of Gant jettisoning counterproductive ROE, refusing micromanagement by radio during firefights or even what could only be called the batshit crazy decision  to have Tyson live with him as his camp “wife” in Malik Noor Afzhal’s village. That Tyson was useful to Gant in dealing with Mohmand families and winning the trust of the tribe is true but her presence was also a mad risk and so flagrant a violation of the rules that Gant was essentially daring a termination of his mission and likely his career. Despite her presence being well known – the Taliban openly spoke of Tyson’s presence on their radio –  these things were ignored because Gant was producing the political results he promised the top brass without losing a man to the enemy.

Not that this success made Gant popular with his immediate superiors or staff officers at ISAF headquarters. By contrast they termed him “an alcoholic, womanizing, mentally unstable, maverick”.  But smarting from being publicly overruled on tribal strategy by General Petraeus, having failed at sidelining Gant into a desk job and then thwarted in an attempt to divert Gant to a different district, Gant’s nominal superiors in Afghanistan were too afraid to try to openly derail his  high profile operation a fourth time. So they retreated to a campaign of petty bureaucratic harassment and non-support of Gant’s mission.  Needing an experienced SF team of AfPak hands, his superiors assigned Gant soldiers from conventional units, transfers from noncombatant positions, green recruits straight from boot camp and those who had washed out elsewhere. They issued lengthy, niggling,punitive, regulations prescribing the precise grooming and length of beards worn in the field and the placement of patches. They slowrolled supplies and later squeezed money and ammunition and eventually succeeded in removing Gant from the Army, partly on Mickey Mouse violations but mainly because of  his cohabitation with Tyson. In short, the Army bureaucracy demonstrated with Gant’s mission all of the utter lack of urgency regarding the war, blind obstinacy, misplaced priorities, selective ethics, politicized incompetence and manipulative self-regard that has helped the US maintain its  glide path to defeat in Afghanistan.

Gant, however, made their task easy once his superiors felt safe to pull that trigger.

In between Gant’s arrival and his departure from Afghanistan, Gant demonstrated that he was a remarkably talented SF officer, gifted at recruiting and training indigenous forces and adept in harmonizing tribal politics to a convergence of interests with ISAF security goals.  Gant expanded his earlier rapport with “Sitting Bull” Malik Noor Afzhal, integrating his unit with Noor’s Mohmand villagers and himself with the tribe, eventually becoming a malik himself and virtual son of NoorAfzhal.  Gant’s methods, leadership based on personal example and building trust cemented by careful adherence to local conceptions and customs of honor, paid dividends. Taliban influence in the area receded and neighboring district subtribes, once determinedly hostile, began to waver and send feelers to Gant. However, these methods required working with tribes from a posture of respect, adjusting to the ways of Afghans rather than trying to adjust the tribesmen to the ways of America, living with them, eating their food, listening to their advice. If Gant resembles T.E. Lawrence in anything, it is here; with the Mohmand, Gant walked their walk and the Mohmand responded.

Until Gant’s downfall at the hands of a malcontented subordinate, vengeful superiors and his own personal foibles, he was doing exactly what special forces were created to do – connecting the tactical to the strategic by enabling indigenous troops to become real force multipliers. This is also inevitably a political act in the local context. As villagers become armed and trained they become empowered to defend their own interests.  That changes the power calculus not only against the Taliban insurgents, but also against wealthy bigwigs, criminal gangs, corrupt provincial authorities and the central government itself. That threat was why Karzai had so little tolerance and even less enthusiasm for “arm the tribes” American schemes and why a national expansion of Gant’s “One tribe at a time” template was unlikely to happen. It was politically impossible in Afghanistan, as Gant himself conceded to General Petraeus. Arguably, it may have also irked the chain of command to have some “cowboy” Major free-lancing thousands of tribal fighters from his qalat in rural Afghanistan, accountable to no one, while they sat at desks in converted shipping containers  designing power point briefs and attending to paperwork. Hence their accusations that Gant had “gone native” and had become a Colonel Kurtz-like mad warlord of Chowkay. Gant was subsequently broken in rank, his special forces tab was revoked and was retired as a captain.

The story of Major Jim Gant, placed into historical context, should give us pause for several reasons:

First, is the repeated difficulty of the American military in the modern era to effectively fight counterinsurgency wars.

One element in our failure may be the historic intolerance of a swollen military bureaucracy for the inherently political demands of unconventional and counterinsurgency missions that require greater flexibility and autonomy of judgement on the part of NCO’s, junior and field grade officers than standard procedures and regulations normally permit. Repeatedly, COIN wars tend to yield up “mavericks” like Gant whose successes in the field are conducted by methods at odds from the expectations of micromanagers running headquarters. Or whose local successes result in an overselling of possibilities at the policy level to scale these efforts up to an unsustainable degree. It may also be that the sizable expansion of special forces and special operations forces in size since 9/11 have also resulted in an importation of greater bureaucracy into the way that even these relatively nimble, elite units conduct their missions. I’m not certain, but when it takes the concerted intervention of a constellation of  three and four star generals, including theater and combatant commanders to force something as simple as the deployment of one single SF officer and a small unit to work with tribesmen, something is seriously wrong.

Secondly, the shifting of costs in our recent wars has become troublesome at a moral level.

Seldom in American history have so few bore so much on behalf of so many who did so little in wartime. Major Gant’s flaws and mistakes are his own but it is difficult to argue that a tempo of overdeployment to “hard combat” that is burning out and breaking down the SF/SOF community was likely to improve his or anyone’s performance as a soldier and commander. The AVF was not designed to fight a decade of war without calling up all of the reserves and/or returning to conscription but that is how we have prosecuted our wars, including temporary gimmicks like stop-loss orders and lowered recruitment standards to patch over the manpower deficit. As a result, the cost of doing the real work of fighting fell on far too few with the unsurprising rise in PTSD, broken marriages and suicide among veterans while absolutely nothing has been asked of society at large. Nor have we done right by those who have helped us. By that I do not mean the corrupt and incompetent Karzai and Maliki regimes, but of the ordinary Iraqis and Afghans who stuck out their necks to fight with Americans against the enemy as interpreters, allied units or tribal irregulars. As a seventy year historical pattern, the USG and military bureaucracy always abandons our real friends to the enemy, denying them visas, money or even ammunition even while continuing to lavish aid dollars on treacherous thieves like Hamid Karzai.  When we leave and the day of reckoning comes for those who helped us, we look away and accept no responsibility.

American Spartan is not a book, it is a mirror held up to America’s war effort at the granular level.

Strongly recommended.

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& a new post — Time & Space, exact and vast, in few words

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- matching aphorisms for a glimpse of contrasting worldviews -- Western, Taliban, South Asian, African, ISIS ]

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Francesca Borri, writing for Al-Monitor under the title Behind the black flag: current, former ISIS fighters speak, is my source for the aphorism in the upper panel, which, if I might move up a level or two of abstraction, translates to the “ratio”:

you : bounded :: we : boundless

in spatial terms — really not a far cry from its temporal equivalent in the lower panel:

you : time-bound :: we : time free

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Here’s a touch of context for the ISIS fighter’s remark:

M. is still a fighter. When ISIS withdrew eastward, he withdrew, too, speaking to Al-Monitor via Skype from Al Bab. Aleppo’s countryside is scattered with ISIS gunmen.

I asked M. if his movement was bent on redrawing the map of the Middle East, to which he replied, “There is no map. … Where you see borders, we see only your interests.”

And here’s Joel Hafvenstein at Registan, supported by the redoubtable Joshua Foust, describing the alleged Taliban aphorism as “oddly condescending and inapt” in a 2010 post titled Oh, And We Have The Watches Too:

I’m curious: has anyone out there ever personally heard an insurgent (or any Afghan, for that matter) use the proverb, “You have the watches, but we have the time”?

I’ve heard it quoted grimly by a lot of NATO military personnel, and of course it’s been repeated ad nauseam by the media.  But it sounded strange and inauthentic to me from the first time I heard it in 2003.   I never saw it attributed to an actual Afghan; many early reports openly called it apocryphal, before it took on a life of its own.  In my admittedly limited experience, I’ve never heard it used by an Afghan.  But it’s a familiar phrase in other parts of South Asia and Africa, where it’s used very differently: to contrast the soulless Western rat race with the local good life.

So the DoubleQuote may be a QuoteMisquote, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned – but whether its talking insurgency warfare or the good life, it suggests — as does the upper quote — that an overly-calibrated life may lose in its rigidity what a more free-form and responsive life may gain in fluidity.

Shades of Lao Tsu, and the way that can be quantified is not the way of quality!

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The ISIS flood in my twitterstream today 2: big picture

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an attempt to "curate" the onrush of news, hitting the high points on a low, low morning ]
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I have tried to keep the tweets here limited to their own texts, with illustrations only where essential, and without “parent tweets” and other encumbrances. Even so, it’s a long read — my advice would be to take it fast, first, and then come back to click on articles and other details that look like they’re of particular interest.

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And I’m sure a lot has happened during the half-hour or more it has taken me to put even this small selection of relevant tweets together!

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Posts from my Coursera classes 2 — angles on the Taliban

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a follow-up post, includes the "brother against brother" issue & Afghan Taliban  ]
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Following up on my previous post in this series, I’ll begin with some comments specific to the Taliban that address the issue of dehumanization I raised there… and conclude with some comments on “brother against brother” in warfare in general and Afghanistan in particular.

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Since various people have mentioned the Taliban in this thread, and some have attributed the actions of al-Qaeda to them — even actions taken many thousands of miles away from Afghanistan and Pakistan — it may be helpful to recall that the Taliban is not al-Qaeda, and has from the beginning had its own bones to pick with them.

Two western journalists who have lived in Afghanistan for years, Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn, have made this very clear in interviews, articles and books like An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan:

Most importantly, in their paper for New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan, Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn report:

Afghans have not been involved in international terrorism, nor have the Afghan Taliban adopted the internationalist jihadi rhetoric of affiliates of al-Qaeda.

This 2011 article titled The Taliban is not Al Qaeda summarizes some of the more significant differences between the two groups:

Kuehn points out that the Taliban and Al Qaeda adhere to different strains of Islamic thought, the Taliban associated with Saudi-influenced, Wahhabi-style Hanafi beliefs, and Al Qaeda associated with the more radical, more rigid Hanbali school. The Taliban, of course, are Afghans, and Al Qaeda mostly Arab and almost entirely non-Afghan. Generationally, they are different, too, with most Al Qaeda leaders older than the young commanders of the Taliban, and whereas many Al Qaeda people are professionals and well educated, the Taliban are rural, unschooled, and grew up in places like Kandahar where newspapers were nonexistent and even radios were in the hands of only a privileged few.

The Taliban, in other words, are Afghans concerned mainly about Afghanistan, while al-Qaeda is a multi-national franchise operation, originating in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and focused largely on “the far enemy” — ie the United States.

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And how do the Taliban themselves feel about dehumanization? Do they recognize the effects of war in those terms?

One of the best ways to get a glimpse into their hearts and souls is via their poetry, which van Linschoten and Kuehn have painstakingly collected, translated and published in The Poetry of the Taliban — it was researching this book for my review in Christianity Today’s literary review, Books and Culture that led me to several of the quotes I’ve used above.

Here’s a Taliban poem from that collection which directly addresses dehumanization, but through “enemy eyes”…

We are not animals,
I say this with certainty.
But,
Humanity has been forgotten by us,
And I don’t know when it will come back.
May Allah give it to us,
and decorate us with this jewelry,
the jewelry of humanity,
For now it’s only in our imagination.

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That pretty much wraps up the “dehumanization of the enemy” side of things for me, at least for now. Next up, the question of brother fighting against brother, and its implications in Afghanistan. What follows is also drawn from the thread on “Marines Urinating on Taliban” in the Princeton Paradoxes of War MOOC

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I’m going to bypass the “urinating on the dead” side of things for a moment, and offer a comment on the Afghan Taliban, specifically, and more generally the Afghan mujahideen (vs the Soviets) and  more generally still, the
issue of families that find themselves on both sides of a conflict. I’ll work in from the most general case, and wind up with the specifics of the contemporary Afghan Taliban.

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Not without reason, the American Civil War is sometimes termed a war of “brother against brother”.

There seem to have been many families where some members sided with the Confederacy and some with the Union forces. I am usually wary of believing Wikipedia without further research, but it appears that there were two instances in which a pair of brothers were each brigadier generals on opposite sides of the conflict: George Bibb Crittenden (Confederate) and Thomas Leonidas Crittenden (Union), and James Barbour Terrill (Confederate) and William Rufus Terrill (Union). The letters between James and Alexander Campbell are instructive on this point:

I was astonished to hear from the prisoners that you was colour Bearer of the Regmt that assalted the Battrey at this point the other day.  When I first heard it I looked over the field for you where I met one of the wounded of your Regt and he told me that he believed you was safe.  I was in the Brest work during the whole engagement doing my Best to Beat you but I hope that you and I will never again meet face to face Bitter enemies in the Battle field.  But if such should be the case You have but to discharge your deauty to Your caus for I can assure you I will strive to discharge my deauty to my country & my cause.

Interestingly enough, there’s an echo here of Matthew 10.21 in the Christian New Testament:

Brothers will turn against their own brothers and hand them over to be killed.

— although here it is the new religious view which causes families to split apart…

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But there’s another strategy which pits brother against brother, not because of ideological principle or geographic sympathies, but as a means of risk management…

Kalvyas (The Logic of Violence in Civil War, p 229) quotes Stone (Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642, p. 144):

Particularly risky (and less frequent) is the family strategy of purposefully sending offspring to serve in competing armies. During the English Revolution, “some contemporary cynics argued that these family divisions [between belligerents] were part of a carefully arranged insurance policy, so that whichever side won there would always be someone with influence among the victors to protect the family property from confiscation and dismemberment”

And this appears to be a regular feature of Afghan Pashtun culture. Here’s Vern Liebl writing in “Pushtuns, Tribalism, Leadership, Islam and Taliban: a Short View”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol 18 iss 3, Sept 2007:

This is a historical tendency among Pushtun tribes; most families/-tribes will play multiple axes, just in case. For example, during the Soviet occupation era, it was not unusual at all to send a son (either of the family or the khel) to join the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Army, essentially serving the Communist
regime, another son or sons to join one or more of the various mujahedeen groups, another son to a madrasah in Pakistan, another son to the West to study and/or work, and a last son to stay and work to keep everybody else alive.

Jonathan Goodhand and Mark Sedra in “Bargains for Peace? Aid, Conditionalities and Reconstruction in Afghanistan” (Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, Conflict Research Unit, August 2006) put this in terms of the conflict of (presumed) opposites:

Afghans on both side of the conflict consistently subverted the bi-polar logic of their external backers; alliances in the field were constantly shifting back and forth between the mujahedin and pro-government militias. At the micro level Afghans would have family members in both the government forces and the mujahedin as part of a political risk spreading strategy.

And the Australian David Kilcullen — a senior counter-insurgency advisor to US General Petraeus — puts it very simply:

A lot of families in Afghanistan have one son fighting with the government, and another son fighting with the Taliban. It’s a hedging strategy.

So — a given Taliban fighter may have a brother working beside ISAF team members in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Is he perhaps “Taliban” only as a risk-avoidance strategy, on behalf of his father, mother, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, cousins? Because that’s not the same as hating all Americans…

And that’s yet another of the paradoxes of this particular war, I’d suggest…

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Once again I’m offering these mini-essays here in their original form, which offers opinion backed by research sources, hoping that comments here will point me in new directions and allow me to reconsider and rewrite these materials as I move towards book form…

Thanks in advance!

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Don Vandergriff Reviews American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen']

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson

Over at Fred Leland’s LESC blog, friend of ZP, Major Don Vandergriff has spot-on reviewed the controversial bio-memoir American Spartan:

 Have We Not Learned Anything From History? Don Vandergriff’s Book Review on American Spartan

 

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant  is a MUST read for any military professional on how the United States military, including US Special Operations Command remains a bureaucratic organization hampered by a top down hierarchy filled with people more concerned with their egos, status-quo, than accomplishment of the mission, regardless of who achieves that goal.

The focus of most reviews has been on Jim Gant’s unethical conduct (easily recognized as being caused by PTSD (Jim was in combat longer than most people)), while ignoring the main themes of the book. Most people have referenced Jim Gant going native and assuming the persona of rogue Special Forces COL Walter Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now (based on Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness (1899)). Unfortunately, based off personal experiences with the Army, I firmly believe his violations of breaking General Order #1 (and all the subsets of such which includes alcohol consumption, engaging in sexual activities with the woman who later became his wife, etc) had nothing to do with some Military brass desires in destroying his career—though these actions made it easier (how many of the brass flew into see Jim while these were going on, but as long as his actions were successful, tended not to notice them?).

Instead, I am almost certain it had to do with that fact that Gant was a major, did not plow the traditional lanes prescribed by the personal system. Gant was a proven combat leader (Silver and Bronze Stars as well as well as Purple Hearts), had a great idea, then had the moral courage to write and push it in order to win in Afghanistan. His paper “One Tribe at a Time” was recognized by the highest levels of the government and the military. But, and a big but, he did this as a major and not as a selected member of the club (which is actually more significant). He was so adamant in his belief on how to deliver victory, that he broke from the prescribed career course to accomplish this task. I can speak from personal experience.

Shortly after my book Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs was published in May 2002, it was an immediate hit on the media circles (as well as being read at the highest levels of the government and Army). In early August 2002, while recovering from having the first of my two feet rebuilt, I received a call from a journalist. “Don, did you hear what happened at the Secretary of the Army [Tom White] media round table?” “No I did not.” I replied. Well, the journalist went on and told me that “he [the Secretary] held up my book and said it was the future blueprint for the Army.”

Immediately after a two hour briefing to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General Jack Keane, in late June 2002, the general told me to brief a long list of people, coupled with guidance from the Secretary of the Army’s staff, I spent two years from June 2002 to June 2004 briefing almost a hundred senior leaders ranging from senior generals, to Congressman, senior civilians as well as staffers and think tanks. All this, like Jim Gant was followed by a vocal order only. There was no written order or directive to my chain of command detailing these important additional duties prescribed by the highest levels of the Army. My wife and I were left to get me to the briefings on our own, with no assistance from anyone (I had one of two feet rebuilt at the time, so my wife Lorraine had to drive me all over D.C. to get to these briefings).

Shortly after Jim Gant’s VTC briefing with Admiral Eric Thor Olson Commander of Special Operations Command, who verbally ordered Jim to begin his mission, the warnings to watch your back began to appear, “But as quickly as Jim had gotten his dream mission, forces within his Army chain of command tried to take it away. Jim was fully aware that he, a lowly major, had unleashed a rash of professional jealousy by winning such high-level praise. What he didn’t realize was that two military hierarchies were about to battle over his fate—one in the United States and the other in Afghanistan.”

Compare the story of Major Jim Gant with how German Captain Willy Rohr changed infantry tactics, weapons and doctrine within the World War One German Army is a remarkable story. He succeeded in his task as a result of the German Army’s ideas of operational adaptability, mission command and decentralized authority. Captain Rohr changed squad warfare and German Army tactics in two years and seven months. Capt Rohr’s unit did it all – experimented with new weapons and equipment, combat tested new ideas, evaluated new tactics, and trained those which would change an entire army. He completely revolutionized the infantry linear tactics of the preceding hundred years. The German HQ used decentralization to great effect with Captain Rohr. No rules, regulations nor superiors held Captain Rohr from developing the doctrine or training the entire German Army on the Western Front.

Even with the excellent support that Jim Gant received from the Special Forces Chain of Command at Fort Bragg right after his VTC with Admiral Olson, he began to also get emails in contradictions to the intent of the chain of command in the U.S., “One morning just two weeks after he spoke with Adm. Olson, Jim opened his email at his house in Fayetteville to find a terse and defensive message from Col. Mark Swartz, operations director for the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command—Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) in Kabul…There is no intent to put you on a ‘special team’ conducting tribal engagement.”

To dig the dagger deeper, Swartz, echoing the command in Afghanistan, went on, “…instead,’ he said, ‘Jim would be assigned as a ‘staff officer to the J35 Future Operations Directorate,’ putting Jim in the last place on earth he ever wished to be: behind a desk.” Swartz went on to close out his email to Jim, “I understand that you were potentially putting together a select group of NCOs to accompany you to the headquarters. Now that you have a better understanding of the scope of your duties working within the J35, you realize you do not require a team of individuals to accompany you,’ Swartz wrote.” All this occurred in contrast to the support Jim had received from the President, Secretary of Defense, and senior military leaders such as Admiral Olson and General David Petraeus upon reading his paper. They recognized Gant had a solution to the strategic problem called Afghanistan. Jim Gant was one of the few that understood how to successful conduct Counter-Insurgency (COIN). The question would become, how much support would they throw behind this major?

Not much.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate. For a time, Major Gant had an unusually large amount of operational  leeway in handling his mission while his “top cover” lasted as well as high-profile “facetime” with the most senior leaders in the Army, including General David Petraeus. This contrasted with a bizarre allocation of personnel and at times, spiteful denial of basic military supplies, by Gant’s chain of command. The combination struck me as bureaucratically schizophrenic and self-defeating.

Vandergriff continues:

….The book also exposes the misuse of the Special Forces from a strategic asset to a tactical tool focused on attrition warfare. The organization is a strategic asset, experts at developing and assisting foreign forces in fighting our enemies, so US forces do not have too. Jim Gant’s push of “One Tribe at a Time” exposed the emphasis on tactical attrition in the use of “direct-action” missions (raids, assaults, the killing and capture of “high-value targets”).

No one questions the bravery and unique skills of the Special Forces soldier (I have many friends in Special Forces and they are some of the finest professionals I have had the honor to know), but transferring them from a strategic to a tactical asset fulfilled the short-term career outlooks of many officers. There was more glory in kicking in doors, seizing objectives in night time raids that satisfied the short-term requirements built into officer performance evaluations than the long term requirement, taking many years, to build up indigent forces.

Also the results from direct action missions brief better statistically on PowerPoint slides showing immediate, time-now progress, versus the time it takes to grow local forces easily emerges into the “show-me now” personnel system. The year-long rotation of individuals and units, a lesson not learned from Vietnam also fits into the former, and not the latter problem—people staying for less than one year, could not grow the relationships built on trust necessary for Jim’s program to succeed. Jim Gant recognized all these issues, but his highlighting them through “One Tribe at a Time” did not sit well with many middle grate and senior officers.

George S. Patton was a Lieutenant when World War I began for the U.S. Army. On May 15, 1917 he was promoted to Captain. Taking command of the new U.S. Army Armor school and recognized for his ability to train and innovate, he was promoted to Major on January 26, 1918. Upon assuming the command of the 1st US Army tank battalion, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on April 3, 1918. And for his heroic actions in leading the 1st US Tank Brigade in Meuse Argonne, he was promoted to Colonel on October 17, 1918 (though by 1920 he was demoted back to major in the peacetime Army—but he was put in a position based on his talents to help the Allies win the War).

Jim Gant recognized the downfall with direct action missions and even admitted that he to had been drawn to the excitement of conducting them. But he realized that it would not win the war in Afghanistan. As he experienced with his replacement in Kunar province in 2010, “…was already concerned about making the handoff in April to the incoming Special Forces team. The team leader, Capt. Randy Fleming, had emailed him asking questions about the gym and chow hall. Clearly Fleming had no concept of living in an Afghan qalat [compound], let alone the overall mission.”

Jim Gant did have allies, even though few stepped forward to do more than to give him vocal support by warning him to stay out of the middle of the bureaucratic battle that was reminiscent of high school power games than a professional army. At one point he was told after receiving high level support and guidance from Special Forces Command, “Your employment will be decided by the in-theater chain of command.”

The military system is unique where we thrive in ridiculous out of date concepts like “up or out” (first employed by the Navy in 1917) or “Never make your leaders look bad” (based on the fact that through most wars, superiors were not prepared competently for the challenges of combat). While in the true test of a military professional, Gant succeeded in his mission and in doing so, he made some military leaders look bad because they were more focused on routine, process and remaining in FOBs (Forwarding Operating Bases) than doing what it took to win. Jim even received an email from his commander prescribing the length of facial hair of Special Forces soldiers while he was in the middle of making his plan work in combat!

That part about an 0-6 wasting valuable time in theater fussing in minute detail about beards on a handful of soldiers who were working in mufti with Pashtun tribesmen struck me also as something straight out of Catch-22. Don has encapsulated many of the frustrations I felt when reading American Spartan all too well.

Read the rest of Don’s review here.

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