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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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“Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces”

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski - a.k.a "zen"]

A remarkably blunt article on SF/SOF (“special forces” is being used as an umbrella term for both) in the context of policy and strategy, from the perspective of an emerging great power by LTG Prakosh Katoch of the Indian Army. The American example of SOCOM in Afghanistan/Iraq/GWOT has obviously had an impact here, as has the negative example of Pakistani use of terrorists as proxy forces and ISI covert operatives for direct action in Indian territory and elsewhere. Quite aside from global conflicts and the bilateral rivalry with Pakistan, India also faces more than a dozen long term irregular conflicts with their own dynamics, such as the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency , which Katoch places in the context of Chinese strategic ambitions against India.

A must read.

Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces

….In India, the lack of strategic culture, more on account of keeping the military out from strategic military decision making, has led the hierarchy to believe that conventional forces coupled with nuclear clout can deter us from irregular threats. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Pakistan, though conventionally inferior, has been successfully playing her ‘thousand cuts policy’ knowing full well that India has failed to develop the required deterrent. It is our inability to find a cure to this Achilles’ heel, that has led China, which was hitherto using Pakistan as proxy to wage irregular war on India, now directly aids and supports insurgent and terrorist outfits inside India.

….Why the US has managed to secure its mainland post 9/11 is not only because of an efficient Homeland Security organisation but because the US Special Forces (USSF) are operating in 200 countries including India. Significantly, USSF have undeclared tasks such as conducting proactive, sustained ‘man-hunts’ and disrupt operations globally; building partner capacity in relevant ground, air and maritime capabilities in scores of countries on a steady – state basis; helping generate persistent ground, air and maritime surveillance and strike coverage over ‘under-governed’ areas and littoral zones and employing unconventional warfare against state-sponsored terrorism and trans-national terrorist groups globally. Before 26/11, Al-Qaeda had planned similar operations against New York but could not because the USSF had infiltrated Al-Qaeda. One cannot guard the house by simply barricading it. You must patrol the streets and the area outside.

Growing inter-dependence and interlinking of terrorist groups regionally and internationally should be a matter of serious concern. It is not the US alone that has deployed its Special Forces abroad. This is the case with most advanced countries including UK, Russia, Israel, China and even Pakistan. Pakistan’s SSG was operating with the Taliban in Afghanistan and has been active in Jammu and Kashmir, Nepal and Bangladesh, primarily training anti-India forces. There is a strong possibility of their presence in the Maldives and Sri Lanka as well, aside from presence within India. The Chinese have been smarter. For all the development projects throughout the globe, including in Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan-POK, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Seychelles, contracts underway by PLA-owned/affiliated companies employ serving and veteran PLA soldiers and disguised Special Forces with assigned tasks, including evacuation of Chinese citizens from that country in case of emergencies. 

Read the rest here.

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Are Insurgencies “Antifragile”?

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book,  Antifragile . It’s a highly intriguing book and I will give it a full review soon, but Taleb’s core concept of antifragility is important  and lends itself to wide application. Here’s Taleb on what constitutes “antifragility” – things that gain or improve with disorder – which he was careful to distinguish not just from “fragility” but also from “robustness” and “resilience”:

Almost all people answer that the opposite of “fragile” is “robust”, “resilient” , “solid”, or something of the sort. But the resilient, robust (and company) are items that neither break nor
improve, so you would not need to write anything on them – have you ever seen a package with
“robust” stamped on it? Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. It’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed. [31]

Italics in original.

Taleb uses a number of metaphors – the Phoenix, the Hydra – as well as examples to get across the point that an antifragile entity overcompensates in reaction to stress/damage/disorder by becoming better, growing stronger, more powerful, adaptively improving itself. Think of the effects of weight training in building muscle or a wildfire spurring bountiful growth in an ecosystem. There’s more to Antifragile than this but the gist is sufficient for now.

Which brings me to the question, “Are insurgencies antifragile?”

The study of insurgency, terrorism and revolution, while important and useful tend to suffer from several drawbacks. One is compartmentalization and academic specialization. As Robert Bunker pointed out in Narcos Over the Border,  a problem like “criminal-insurgency” attracts very different reactions from Law enforcement, intelligence analysts, the military, counter-terrorism officials and other experts (to say nothing of politicians) which makes consensus over a common analytic framework very difficult. Sometimes even defining the problem across domains is frustrating. As a result, many studies are too narrow and the few admirably ambitiously broad ones are deeply stamped in the political lens of the era in which they were researched and written – i.e. imperialist Small Wars, the Cold War, the War on Terror, Pop-centric COIN of Iraq and Afghanistan wars etc.  It is a subject that requires both more (and more intellectually creative) scholarship and a greater degree of synthesis.

In the meantime, I’d like to offer some speculation in an effort to answer the question:

  • The characteristics of “antifragility” in terms of at least some kinds of insurgency bears a striking resemblance to that of “wicked problems“, which has also been used to categorize some enduring irregular conflicts. Particularly in the sense of not having natural stopping points , manifesting complex interdependencies and resistance to simple, silver bullet solutions that could destroy it.
  • Moreover, most successful insurgencies are not, contrary to Maoist theory, autochthonous  - they draw many resources from external sources – black globalization, foreign patrons, legitimate trade, fundraising – and from the very state waging counterinsurgency warfare against them. The Afghan Taliban would be a much poorer military force without the vast amount of American aid passing through the hands of Pakistan and the Karzai regime
  • An insurgency’s claim to being “antifragile” may rest as much or more upon the general political and socioeconomic environment being relatively chaotic than on the nature of the insurgent organization itself.  The Chinese, Russian and Lebanese civil wars, Mexico’s narco-insurgency, West Africa and Afghanistan in the 1990′s, the Congo basinand Iraq in the 2000′s all had polycentric and disorderly environments that allowed  irregular groups to rapidly rise and fall on a local and regional basis. By contrast, “bilateral” insurgency vs. state dynamics can stabilize conflict for decades
  • An insurgent organization may lose antifragility as it restructures itself over time to become either more robust (ex. -Hezbollah) subnational entity or to accept greater fragility in order to acquire state-like hierarchical advantages ( political discipline and specialization). Note that “fragile” does not mean “weak”, it means “vulnerable”. States can be very strong and concentrating massive amounts of resources and coercive force, yet be strangely vulnerable to internal coups, popular uprisings, economic collapse, strategic myopia or even natural disasters. One of the great dangers today are complex systems that combine epic power with extreme fragility – small disruptions by irregulars yield huge ROIs.
  • States might be able to seek a strategic advantage over insurgencies by improving their robustness and smother the relatively ineffectual kinetic attacks of guerrillas or terrorists with inertia, refusing to “feed” the growth of an antifragile insurgent opponent, starving them of material resources and political oxygen. India has trucked along with something like seventeen ongoing insurgencies and episodic acts of major terrorism for decades without the Indian state remotely being in jeopardy of being overthrown by, say, the Naxalites, Sikh extremists or Kashmiri Islamists. Compare that with the rapid collapse or retreat of the state in places like Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Syria and so on.
  • The effects of globalization and information technology, the ability to have  John Robb’sopen source” decentralized, fast-evolving, insurgencies, give an an impetus to insurgencies becoming antifragile. At a minimum, it improves the odds.
Comments welcomed
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Empirical Studies of Conflict Site

Monday, January 21st, 2013

For those studying war, insurgency, irregulars or terrorism ESOC will be extremely useful – and depending on your area of research, possibly invaluable – as a resource.

Small Wars Journal had this to say about ESOC:

.…ESOC identifies, compiles, and analyzes micro-level conflict data and information on insurgency, civil war, and other sources of politically motivated violence worldwide. ESOC was established in 2008 by practitioners and scholars concerned by the significant barriers and upfront costs that challenge efforts to conduct careful sub-national research on conflict. The ESOC website is designed to help overcome these obstacles and to empower the quality of research needed to inform better policy and enhance security and good governance around the world.

The ESOC team includes about forty researchers (current and former) and is led by six members: Eli Berman, James D. Fearon, Joseph H. Felter, David Laitin, Jacob N. Shapiro, and Jeremy M. Weinstein.

The website is organized by countries and research themes. The six country pages are: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The content is structured according to five themes: Demographic/Socioeconomic, Geography, Infrastructure, Public Opinion, and Violence. The website currently hosts about 45 ESOC data files, over 35 ESOC peer-reviewed publications (with replication data), and ten working papers. The ESOC team has also posted links to many external data repositories and external readings that have proven useful for analysis. The website will be regularly updated with new micro-level conflict data and contextual information, as it is compiled and submitted by ESOC researchers.

One caution: based on my source who was one of the folks gathering data for part of this project, as with all quantitative method research, there are hidden qualitative decisions in who did the counting, how and by what yardstick. If you are drawing conclusions about big picture trends in insurgency or irregular warfare across periods of time you are good to go. If your research is sharply confined to a specific and narrowly defined historical case study (say one campaign, a battle, one district – whatever), then drill down into ESOC’s data and methodology to the granular level before drawing a conclusion vice your sources and data outside ESOC.

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William Lind on the Taliban’s Operational Art

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Adam Elkus directed my attention today on Twitter to a new piece by William S. Lind, “the Father of 4th Generation Warfare” at The American Conservative:

Unfriendly Fire 

….The Soviet army focused its best talent on operational art. But in Afghanistan, it failed, just as we have failed. Like the Soviets, we can take and hold any piece of Afghan ground. And doing so brings us, like the Soviets, not one step closer to strategic victory. The Taliban, by contrast, have found an elegant way to connect strategy and tactics in decentralized modern warfare.

What passes for NATO’s strategy is to train sufficient Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban once we pull out. The Taliban’s response has been to have men in Afghan uniform— many of whom actually are Afghan government soldiers or police—turn their guns on their NATO advisers. That is a fatal blow against our strategy because it makes the training mission impossible. Behold operational art in Fourth Generation war.

According to a May 16 article by Matthew Rosenberg in the New York Times, 22 NATO soldiers have been killed so far this year by men in Afghan uniforms, compared to 35 in all of last year. The report went on to describe one incident in detail—detail NATO is anxious to suppress. There were three Afghan attackers, two of whom were Afghan army soldiers. Two Americans were killed. The battle—and it was a battle, not just a drive-by shooting—lasted almost an hour.

What is operationally meaningful was less the incident than its aftermath. The trust that existed between American soldiers and the Afghans they were supposed to train was shattered. Immediately after the episode, the Times reported, the Americans instituted new security procedures that alienated their native allies, and while some of these measure were later withdrawn,

Afghan soldiers still complain of being kept at a distance by the Americans, figuratively and literally. The Americans, for instance, have put up towering concrete barriers to separate their small, plywood command center from the outpost’s Afghan encampment.

Also still in place is a rule imposed by the Afghan Army after the attack requiring most of its soldiers to lock up their weapons when on base. The Afghan commanding officer keeps the keys….

Lind has lost none of his skill for zeroing in on which buttons to push that would most annoy the political generals among the brass.

However, I think Lind errs in ascribing too much credit to the Taliban here. A much simpler explanation is that the usually illiterate ANA soldier is a product of the same xenophobic cultural and religious environment that created the Taliban, the Haqqanis, vicious Islamist goons like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or the Afghan tribesmen who slaughtered the retreating garrison of Lord Elphinstone in 1841.

While the Taliban have infiltrators, it remains that many of the “Green on Blue” killings are just as easily explained by personal grievances, zealous religious bigotry, indiscipline, mistreatment by American advisers or Afghan superiors and sudden jihad syndrome. While it is impolitic to emphasize it, Afghan betrayal and murder of foreign allies (generally seen as “occupiers”) is something of a longstanding historical pattern. The Taliban capitalize on it politically but they are not responsible for all of it.

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