An Open Letter to Gen. James Jones, National Security Advisor

[This week has been a rough one for our troops in Afghanistan–and a contentions one among policymakers here in the States.  I’m going to interrupt our ongoing interview with tribal chief Ajmal Khan Zazai to post this open letter.  The same note was sent by e-mail two days ago to the parties below.]

TO: Gen. James Jones, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal

FROM: Steven Pressfield

SUBJ: An opportunity in Afghanistan

Dear Gen. Jones,

I’m the author of Gates of Fire. I read in a newspaper interview a few years ago that Gates is your favorite book–and you and I have corresponded briefly by e-mail in the past. I cite this connection in the hope that it will give me enough credibility in your eyes that you’ll keep reading this note.

I want to draw your attention to a situation in a valley in Afghanistan that may afford an opportunity for real progress in the Afghan campaign. Please bear with me for a little background.

A pro-American Tribal Chief

For some months I’ve been writing a blog called “It’s the Tribes, Stupid.” Its address is The thesis of the blog is aligned very much with Gen. Petraeus’ and Gen. McChrystal’s COIN strategy of “protect the people.” Recently I’ve been running a series on the blog–a multi-part interview with an Afghan tribal chief, Ajmal Khan Zazai of Paktia province. Chief Zazai holds the paramountcy of eleven tribes in the Zazi valley. He’s an extraordinary man. He and his father fought the Soviets in the 80s and the Taliban after that. Chief Zazai’s father was assassinated under orders from Mullah Omar; the chief himself has survived two attempts on his life.

Chief Zazai, right, with his father and bodyguard, both murdered in 2000.

Chief Zazai, right, with his father and bodyguard, both murdered in 2000.

Chief Zazai was educated in Canada; he’s an excellent English speaker and holds Canadian citizenship. He has been a champion for his people for decades; in fact right now he is in London meeting with Sir David Richards to try to further his country’s cause.

A grass roots anti-insurgent force

This past summer Chief Zazai formed a Tribal Police Force of 85 men. This is purely a grass roots effort, intended to protect the people of the valley and founded by the chief under his own initiative. He has been in contact with the 10th Mountain Division, whose Area of Operation is the Zazi valley; in fact elements of the division helped provide security this past July for the tribal council at which the TPF was organized. The chief’s earnest hope is to ally with U.S. forces, to share intelligence and to work together to “protect the people”–i.e., his eleven tribes–in the valley.

Zazi Valley, Afghanistan.  The meeting place of 11 tribes this summer to organize a Tribal Police Force

Zazi Valley, Afghanistan. The meeting place of 11 tribes this summer to organize a Tribal Police Force

Three weeks ago, the Tribal Police Force was attacked with an IED. The enemy (no one knows who) struck at a mosque where the unit was dining at the end of Ramadan. Just a couple of days ago, a second attack occurred on a road in the valley. So far, luck has held. No one has been seriously hurt.

If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then Chief Zazai and his tribal police are America’s friend. But they are in danger.

Thank God somehow the main bomb in the mosque did not go off [Chief Zazai wrote to me], if that had gone off, it could have killed as many as 30 to 40 people easily. The reason the insurgents planted this bomb is that they are aware we are siding with the US, just imagine if this bomb had gone off and killed this many people, do you really think I could have been in the position to form another such group? No, never.

A chance for COIN to work

Here’s what I’d like to put before you, Gen. Jones:

If you or Admiral Mullen or Gen. Petraeus or Gen. McChrystal could assign one aggressive young officer to look into this situation (and grant that officer access to you), I believe a real breakthrough could be made that might serve as a model for U.S.-Afghan cooperation.

A beginning this summer

A beginning this summer

We need some on-site person to bridge the gap between 10th Mountain Division commanders and Chief Zazai’s tribal police. As it stands right now, chain-of-command bureaucracy is deadly. If no action is taken, this opportunity will fizzle. This is a classic situation of How To Lose A War, if “business as usual” is allowed to prevail. We need a man on the spot. Somebody who can assess the situation and move for action up the food chain. Here’s a note from Chief Zazai yesterday:

I spoke to Wayne (Borders, the 10th Mountain Division commander in Ali Khell in the Zazi valley). There is not much he can do to help really, what I need is more resources, more support … Wayne is a great guy, he already expresses his total support and is 100% dedicated to help in any way he can, what he can do really is put some good words for the Programme to his superiors and I believe he has done so already.

The relationship is there, it’s building, what really is missing is lack of logistical support for my Tribal Police Force programme. With proper funding I will be able to have proper Intel teams and my night Working team who will look after these [bad] guys who have taken safe refuge in my Valley!

More than just one valley

I would not put this before you, Gen. Jones, if I didn’t think this particular situation bore enormous potential for expansion beyond just this one valley. When the eleven Zazi tribes met this summer,

… the Tribes were excited to take part in the gathering and this was seen widely throughout Afghanistan by many other tribes on Shamshad TV which broadcasted the event for 3 days and a momentum is now circulating around Afghanistan for a tribal united front which could find a way forward. My team in Kabul and Zazi have been contacted by many Tribal chiefs throughout Afghanistan who wish to join our efforts for uniting all the Afghan Tribes.

Chief Zazai’s father, before he was murdered, worked for years to unite the Afghan tribes–not only the Pashtuns, but the Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others. Now Chief Zazai himself is championing this cause.

Yes, this is only one man and only one valley. But the opportunity is real and so is the peril. If the next IED attack succeeds, this bottom-up effort could be snuffed out before it even gets going.

At a time when the U.S. Afghan mission is under tremendous pressure politically at home and under attack in the world press, here in Ali Khell in the Zazi Valley is a chance to “protect the people”; to ally with a passionate, articulate, pro-American Afghan patriot; and to link with a true grass roots movement that is on our side and only wants to help and work with us.

I can put you, or any officer you designate, in touch with Chief Zazai. Just respond in the Comments box below or write me at steve [at] stevenpressfield [dot] com.

Chief Zazai and I have been invited to speak in January at Marine Corps University; we will be at other venues and media outlets in Washington D.C. as well. But that is a long way away.

I salute you, Gen. Jones, and Adm. Mullen and Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal on giving your all to an incredibly daunting and complex task–one that has frustrated no less illustrious a personage than Alexander the Great (not to mention Cyrus the Great, Genghis Khan, Akbar the Great and the Brits and Russians) in the past.

Please consider what I have put before you here. Just one bright, assertive young officer could make an enormous difference if he were given latitude to act and direct access to you. Thanks and all my best …

Semper Fi,

Steven Pressfield


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  1. Gene on October 9, 2009 at 3:49 am


    I commend you for your commitment to our troops and their efforts in Afghanistan. I believe this letter to General Jones expands your original objective: “I’m a Marine and I don’t want young Marines and soldiers going into harm’s way without the full mental arsenal of history and cultural context.” Your blog among other things has hit me in the head like a 2×4 and freed me from the ranks of the silent majority. In the last several months, I have written a cartful of short, to the point letters to my elected officials here in the State of Missouri as well as to the Armed Services Committee, one letter even encouraged them to visit this blog frequently and to read it attentively. Alas, in six months, I have not had the professional courtesy from any of the recipient’s of even a form letter response. I’m betting that our military leaders, Generals Jones, Petraeus, McChrystal and Admiral Mullen won’t dismiss you and your open letter with the casualness and thoughtlessness that most elected officials dismiss the communiques from the constituencies that employ them. Take heart and pride in a job well done and keep your brass balls warm.

    Gene Kraay
    USAFA ’71

  2. wisner on October 9, 2009 at 6:43 am

    I like what you have done here very much. Thank you for doing it and letting us in on it.

  3. Jordan Mason on October 9, 2009 at 8:07 am

    I’m crossing my fingers so hard that your letter truly gets through to your recipients.
    Great letter and thank you so very much for your work.

  4. S.Tabriz on October 9, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Jordan – I agree, let’s just hope they associate the right name w/ the “young officer.” We shall see…

  5. Jane Alexander on October 9, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Yes, thank you for your Work and Endeavour. So many lives have been lost, mutilated, and the Afghan War continues, every day – there is much that I don’t understand about it … for example the constant flow of Suicide Bombers … I don’t understand where “Their” Glory lies, when they do so much damage to innocent lives. Every day.
    I hope that your Endeavour will be fruitful, my Heart lies with you, thank you for your good Work.

  6. Matt on October 9, 2009 at 2:43 pm


    Might I offer a suggestion, that might provide a solution for this tribe. Create a social network site around this tribe, and institute a grass roots movement of international support. Reach out to the diaspora of Afghanis out there that might want to cheer on the good work of this tribe, as well as those of us that want to defeat the enemy, by giving us a way to help.
    People will support, what they help to create, and if you allow your supporters and the supporters of this tribe a way to contribute, then I think we will see good things in this little corner of the world.
    The two examples I want to point to, as to the power of Web 2.0, is Obama’s social network created during his campaign, and the sniper support website called American Sniper.
    The two key components of a social network site created around a cause is ‘the brand’ and ‘the architecture’. People first have to believe in the cause, and then you have to give them a place to rally at. Online social networking sites are just the trick to organize and rally folks.
    This tribe could request specific equipment or even request volunteers, and through the social networking site, they could put it out to the community to donate or to provide solutions. Individuals throughout the social network site could communicate with one another about solutions. The site leaders could put out calls for all sorts of needs of the tribe. The tribe could talk about victories, and post video and pictures of fights or of it’s warriors, and the cyber tribe could cheer it on. The social networking site would basically be a way to expand the size of Zazai’s tribe, and use the power of the internet and world support to provide the tools necessary to do what he needs to do.
    Best of all, this system completely bypasses aid groups or government organizations, and connects the support directly to the leader(s) who need that support. Better yet, if governments and aid groups actually funneled people traffic to this site, then that would be a way to expand the cyber tribe. For cyber groups, traffic is everything, and all celebrity and political prowess should be directed towards getting supporters to one rallying point. That would be the social networking site.
    I bring up Obama’s social networking site (, because he was effectively able to raise over 200 million plus dollars through this site. Thousands of people were giving small donations to the campaign, with a simple donation button, and those pennies from all over equated to a lot of money.
    With the American Sniper program, equipment needed by snipers were provided by a massive sniper support network, that raised money or just sent the equipment. That support has equated to better equipped sniper teams, which equals more enemy kills and less KIA’s on our side. It has also given a way for people to contribute to the war effort, by directly supporting those they want to give support to.
    Both of these groups had massive support from their base, and were called upon multiple times with calls of action. If Obama’s team needed folks to rally at such and such place, then the orders were given through the network. Same thing with the American Snipers network, and if people really believe in the brand, then they will do what they can to support it. A well designed and organized social networking site will provide the leader of a group to rally the troops easily, and it also allows the leaders to listen to what the group has to say. Which is the next most important part.
    Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is a concept any tribe/company/organization should constantly strive for. Social Networks are perfect mechanisms for obtaining feed back for continuous improvement. Your COIN experts, or military gurus, or even the Afghan mavens out there, can all contribute to the continuous improvement of this tribe, all through the mechanism of a social networking site. If the tribe has a tactical problem, and is looking for solutions, then the tribe asks the community what they should do. It could all be done using an encrypted email system through the social networking site–something like a ‘Hushmail’ system, or even just use Hushmail.
    There are all sorts of technologies in the Web 2.0 world, that can totally bring in the supporters and afghan diaspora out there. Twitter and Facebook (for marketing and rallying the supporters), Google Adsense and PayPal (for money infustion), Ning (for the social network site), Ushahidi (for crowd sourcing), etc. etc.. To expand the power and financial resources of a tribe that has the goods, then Web 2.0 is a no brainer.
    And honestly Steven, with your celebrity and supporters, you could easily rally a core band of them to get up on this thing. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of your supporters actually did this on their own. But if you fronted this thing, you could make this Chief’s tribes a global tribe, with the full force of that support all geared towards him.
    One warning though. People will also smell a fake a mile away. If this tribal leader does not have the goods, no one will throw money or support his way. It is all about the brand, and this brand has to be something everyone believes in as legitimate, strong and not corrupt. He has to be something that provides all of his supporters, both foreign and domestic, a symbol of something good and righteous.
    For the record, I did not vote for Obama, or am I a member of the American Sniper team. I am an observer and a security contractor blogger, and I have a profound dedication to the ideas that work regardless of where they came from. Semper Fi. -Matt

    • Steven Pressfield on October 10, 2009 at 12:58 pm

      Matt, that’s a fantastic idea. I have forwarded it to Chief Zazai and the rest of our decidedly non-professional “team.” Thanks very much for taking the time and for being so thorough. I just finished reading Seth Godin’s book “Tribes” (which is not about Afghan tribes but about web-based and other post-modern movements, etc.) and this is it exactly. Thanks for writing!

      Steve Pressfield

  7. Matt on October 10, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    No problem, and thanks for the heads up on Seth’s book. I have made it a point to write about and study how Web 2.0 technologies could be applied to warfare and to the security contracting industry. The social networking site could definitely provide a boost to any organization. The catch is that some sites take off like wild fire, and others kind of fizzle. It takes a social networking researcher, or a guy like Seth or a guy like Mark Zukerberg (the founder of facebook) to come up with the correct architecture for something like this. And if this tribal leader has the goods, and the respect of outside observers, then you will have the brand to build from. If he is loved by his people, and the outside world views him as a good guy, then you shouldn’t have any problems building on his brand.
    Another thing to remember is that once this guy has the goods to be a rock star leader, then that is when you use all the celebrity and political power you can garner to get traffic to that online cyber tribe. Make it sexy, make it cool, make it the thing that everyone can jump on board as the ‘new thing’. Once you get the masses to the site, then that is when a good writer with a solid brand to promote can really do their magic. Even this site would be a great stepping stone for this cyber tribe, or any of the cyber tribes you might create elsewhere. (Somalia, Iraq, elsewhere in Afghanistan)
    You have to account for a percentage of folks that will stick around in the marketing campaign, and you have to account for those that will not stick around. I am sure Seth has the numbers on that. The key is to get the supporters to hang around, and make it really easy for them to contribute and support the cause in a number of online ways. Make them feel like they are a part of something big and create something they would be proud to contribute to.
    In another sense, this is just an extension of ‘Charlie Wilson’s war’ or any of the other grassroots support groups formed over the years to support wartime cause. What makes this different is that Web 2.0 makes forming these kinds of groups extremely easy to do, and if done properly, could be shockingly effective and lethal. That is my view on the potential of this, but because this all so new, no one really knows how to use it properly or guarantee it’s success for wartime use.
    I do know one thing, and that if this does materialize, I would support it and give a few dollars to the cause. Nothing would make me more happy than to see this tribe successfully defeating the Taliban up in those hills. S/F -Matt

  8. Angel Vallejo on October 11, 2009 at 10:19 am


    Be sure you do not need a guy as Seth Godin or the founder of Facebook to build a group in the web to give support and amplify the matter of the Afghan tribes. Godin´s “Tribes” is an amazing work (it is, indeed, one of my favourite books), and it shows that some very few movements can create a powerful group.

    In fact, some of the blogs that are currently making the trends, started as small “web meeting points” build up by an individual into the net. The tools are free at the web. You can build a totally operative blog by mean of using free software like “wordpress” or “blogspot”, easily reachable from any PC or Mac. Of course one CAN use web designers or programmers, but of course one does not need to start at that level to reach hundreds/thousands of people with a common interest.

  9. Matt on October 16, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I just picked up Seth’s book and it was a fun little read. Thanks for the tip Steve. S/F -matt

  10. Michael Grygar on October 17, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Mr Pressfield, I am an Army Major and am currently a student in the Command and General Staff College’s Intermediate Level Education course. I have just been alternating between studying and watching your videos and a thought hit me. I was reading COL Dale C. Eikmeier’s article, Center Of Gravity Analysis from the July-August 2004 Military Review when it struck me that the reason we have had such a hard time in Afghanistan is because of the difficulty in recognizing the enemy’s Center of Gravity (COG) and expressing it to others.
    So what is al Qaeda’s COG in Afghanistan? COL Eikmeier gives a four step process to identifying COGs.
    In step 1 we must “Determine the enemies critical capability, the absolutely essential function the enemy’s system performs. The system might have several capabilities, but not all are critical in every situation.” So what is al Qaeda’s critical capability? I would argue that it is their ability to govern and thereby provide a relative security and stability to the people of Afghanistan.
    Step 2 is to “Identify the enemies critical capability’s source of power, which is the enemies center of gravity.” I believe the source of their power is their ability to work within the tribal system to gain control of tribes in order to impose their form of governance on them.
    Steps 3 and 4 are to “Identify the center of gravity’s critical requirements” and then ”Identify the critical requirements or components that are vulnerable to attack or disruption. These CVs (critical vulnerabilities) become targets to attack or are requirements for the enemy to protect.” This is where our difficulty lies. In this case the critical requirements are an ability, and direct assault in the individuals who have this ability is often difficult or even counterproductive. So, how do you assault an ability? I believe that you and our SF have hit on the solution. We must do what the enemy does better than they do it. Direct action against al Qaeda members will result and we will probably have to kill many of them, but that killing of the enemy is actually secondary to our goal. The one on one interaction with the tribesmen by strong individuals who understand and respect them and their way of life and are willing to stand by them, to fight and maybe die with them, is the only way to do this. We must do this better than al Qaeda does it.
    You have a much stronger voice, a greater reach than I do. Maybe analysis of this type can be used to persuade our civilian and military leaders to adopt the methods you endorse here. I will continue to make this arguement here as well.

  11. Anonymous on December 1, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    6% of any population are naturally gay.
    All Afghan gays are closeted.
    Closeted gays are suicidal.
    Knock, knock.
    Who’s there?
    AlQaeda, anyone suicidal here? If you’re gay your secret will last forever, effortlessly! Only love other gays? There’s no gays in the US military. Not only that, the hypocritical Obama promised to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and didn’t. I will give you eternal honor of martyrdom and you will help me fight the hypocritical infidel straight US. No lost love for a gay to kill straights!

    “Denial by Death: Studies of suicide in gay and lesbian teenagers” p.7:
    “…studies have provided consistent evidence of unusually high rates of attempted suicide among gay youth, in the range of 20-30 percent, regardless of geographic and ethnic variability.”

    Remafedi, G., Farow, J.A., and Deisher, R.W. (1991). Risk factors for attempted suicide in gay and bisexual youth. Pediatrics, 87(6),869-875.

    Schneider, A.G., Farberow, N.L., and Kruks, G.N. (1989). Suicidal behavior in adolescent and young adult gay men. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 19(4), 381-394.

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