I’m posting the first two of five video op-ed pieces on the subject of Afghanistan, U.S. troop involvement, and the nature of the enemy. #3 will be posted on Wednesday, #4 on Friday. #5 will wrap it up next Monday.

Why am I doing this? Not for money. I’ve got no book coming out, no tour, nothing. I just want this information to get out there. We did these videos—I and a group of smart and dedicated young filmmakers—just as concerned citizens, the way one might write an op-ed piece and submit it to a newspaper.

What’s the thesis of the videos? That the enemy today in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Iraq) is being mischaracterized as “militant Islamist,” “jihadist,” “terrorist,” etc. I don’t think that’s the defining characteristic. I think the single quality that most defines our foes is tribalism and the tribal mind-set.

What does that mean? It means that the qualities common to all tribes at all times and in all places—warrior pride, hostility to outsiders, fidelity to the group, the obligation of revenge, suppression of women, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, extreme conservatism, patience and capacity for hatred—are what characterize the enemy (as well as our potential friends) in Afghanistan and in Pashtunistan, the tribal areas along the Pakistan border.

Our young Marines and soldiers are in harm’s way now, and more will be deploying soon, in this strategically critical and very dangerous part of the globe. It’s imperative, in my view, that these men and women be armed with a full understanding of what they’re up against. I’ve spoken on this subject at West Point, Quantico, Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton and, though our young Marines and soldiers are getting some training in this area, my fear is that it’s not in-depth enough and that it’s not extending far enough down the food chain. Officers of course need a background in this subject, but our enlisted troopers on the ground—the much-talked-about “strategic corporals”–need it just as badly.

It is equally imperative, in my view, that our policymakers in Washington possess this historical and cultural grounding.

That’s why I’m posting these video op-ed pieces.

Tomorrow I’ll write about how this thesis evolved, what the sources are, and on what authority I “submit it for your approval.”


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  1. Carolyn Burns Bass on June 8, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Powerful. I stumbled onto this when I googled to find your website to gush about your book, THE WAR OF ART, in my twitter feed. Then I found this and saw another side of you and your work.

    Please get active with your Twitter account to let people know when you update. I predict your readership will explode once people begin reading these updates.

  2. Bob Mayer on June 8, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Loved Gates of Fire. As a West Point graduate, former Special Forces, and author, I know it’s critical to truly understand the enemy and the situation. I agree that this conflict is being wrongly categorized as religious when it is something that’s actually much deeper and ancient. My theory as an A-Team leader was to go ‘native’. Adapt to the environment we were in. I don’t see that happening. We’re trying to impose something in both Iraq and Afghanistan that will never work.
    Despite lots of changes at West Point and Annapolis, there is still a mindset that can’t quite grasp the realities of the situation. I am very alarmed at the ‘crusader’ mindset I see in some parts of the military. This is not a religious war. Rarely has an insurgency been defeated, especially by force of arms.
    All the best with your series. And yes, this was the first thing I’ve ever gone to after getting a “twitter” about it. So I’ll spread the word.

  3. inkgrrl on June 8, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Our publicly stated objectives and justification for action in the ‘stans have rarely aligned with reality and almost always neglected history’s lessons, but too many people have wasted oxygen with ad hominem attacks rather than examining the deltas and looking for a way forward. Various flavors of Islam are just the latest coat of paint on the ancient social constructs, not the structure of the societies themselves – to mash up metaphors, there’s a lot of work outstanding to ensure that our map actually matches the terrain. Thank you so much for bringing this context and clarity to the public conversation.

    And fansquee about Gates of Fire as well – one of my all-time favorite books!

  4. Jeremy on June 8, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Steve, you did an amazing job with this set of videos. Great stuff. I disagree with you only on the point that religion is not a part of the problem. It most certainly is. But I agree with you that an understanding of the tribal nature of the enemy is key to learning how to defeat him.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that you’re mostly right here. I come from the intelligence field and have adopted a more culturally oriented background and mindset. I went through a year of language school in Farsi. That training included many cultural lessons. I grew to love the Iranian people and, later, the tribes in Afghanistan as well. There is much good there. I have looked into the eyes of the good Iranians and Afghans. I know these people.

    But there is also radical Islam, teaching hate and a backward view of the world. I have also looked into the soulless eyes of the Islamic fascists. This is a very real and evil enemy. There is a large amount of Islamic “true believerism” at play in the radicals. It is evil and unrelenting. It can’t be negotiated with or appeased. It never forgets. It never forgives. And it will keep coming for us unless or until one or both of us is dead. That is the truth. However, it is extremely important to understand the cultural context the enemy works within, both on his home turf and in his embedded cells.

    Also note that the insurgent methods used against us since we left Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets are the same ones we trained the Muj to use against the Soviets. Mogadishu. Fallujah. Afghanistan. The Swat Valley. All the same tactics and strategy designed by a former SF officer working for the CIA all those years ago. This also comes into play. Why we don’t pull out the play book we designed for the Muj and develop a strategy to fight against it is beyond me. Our real successes have been covert and spec ops related since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan (when the CIA went in country in October ’01). Over and over I read of the various spec ops units successes and the conventional units failures, especially in Afghanistan. Still we insist on sending in conventional units to fight an unconventional war. And we hamstring our special operators with the most asinine rules of engagement imaginable. We reign them in when the “go native” (as Bob Mayer mentioned above). We seem to lack the stomach, the intestinal fortitude, to do what must be done…close with and kill the enemy….all of them. We fail to do so at our own peril.

    Again, great job Steve. From a film/video perspective, I really enjoyed the presentation and the professional production. I think anything that stirs up conversation in this area is a good thing. Bravo sir! (Note: I’ve also enjoyed reading the comments of your other readers and fans.)

  5. Anon on June 11, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I find your notion of “tribes” just a bit broad … and hazy.

    Were the Vikings not tribes? Their women were famously “off-the-leash,” so to speak.

    Even the notion that the Macedonians were not a “tribe” makes very little sense to me, they got fairly upset with Alexander when he began to bring in others into the power structure … and began adopting “eastern despotic” ways … ie acting like an Absolute Monarch, as opposed to a King who has to build consensus among his nobles … ie staying loyal to the “tribe.”

    Those videos are awfully sophisticated for the propagation of an idea with which you want to influence military policy in Afghanistan … and all on your own dime, too?

    Well, I’m a cynic, but, if so, glad to see there’s someone who cares out there enough to do so much.

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