Last fall, an American special forces commander acquired the fawning nickname “Lawrence of Afghanistan” after he published a study on military tactics in Afghanistan. Based on his own experiences, Major Jim Gant advocated for an alternative to reigning counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and apparently caught the attention of General McChrystal, who widely redistributed the report.
The report involves a case study in Kunar province where his team of special forces operated in 2003. At first this involved Armed Reconnaissance Patrols through the countryside, “basically announcing our presence and inviting contact, friendly or hostile.” At one village, they were told there was a “problem” in a different village called Mangwel, to where his eight-man team then went and subsequently met a local leader, Malik Noorafzhal.
Here’s how Gant recounts the forming of a significant relationship with Noorafzhal, a tribal leader in Kunar province:
… there was a “highland” people and a “lowland” people… The highland people had taken and were using some land that belonged to the lowland people. The Malik told me the land had been given to his tribe by the “King Of Afghanistan” many, many years ago and that he would show me the papers. I told him he didn’t need to show me any papers. His word was enough. He then told me he had given the highlanders 10 days to comply with the request or he and his men would retake it by force…
He had asked for help, a thing he later would tell me was hard for him to do (especially from an outsider) and I had many options. Could I afford to get involved in internal tribal warfare? …
I made the decision to support him. “Malik, I am with you. My men and I will go with you and speak with the highlanders again. If they do not turn the land back over to you, we will fight with you against them.” …
Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that the dispute with the highlanders was resolved… (link to pdf)
The current term for actions of this sort is ethnic cleansing, which according to a US State Dept study “entails the systematic and forced removal of members of an ethnic group from their communities to change the ethnic composition of a region.” When official enemies do this, it is cause for an international crisis and accompanying vilification in the media. However, when our side does it, few so much as take notice.
Even on its own terms, Gant’s approach, as he describes it, hardly merits the term strategy as tribal alliances like the one he modeled are quite ad hoc and don’t readily lend themselves to horizontal spread. Thus the basic requirement, under military doctrine, of “unity of effort” would be elusive at best.
In a review of Gant’s paper the Long War Journal similarly notes some fundamental flaws in his argument:
[Gant] himself points out that he and his team were safer in the village than in their outpost, and that he was unable to prevent the attacks the village suffered as a result of its cooperation. In other words, there’s a real confusion about who was protecting whom… (link)
It is worth noting, however, that one innovation which Gant proposes appears to have been taken up by US military commanders. The latest military jargon for COIN theorists and commentators insists that troops have to live among the people. General McChrystal himself told the New York Times about his hopes in such terms, saying “we literally want to go in there and squat among the people.”
Recent announcements indicate that that approach is being operationalised and the above comments from the Long War Journal thus apply equally to McChrystal’s emerging strategy.