Tribal Engagement Teams
Last week in our first excerpt from Special Forces Major Jim Gant’s paper, “One Tribe At A Time,” Maj. Gant laid out the concept for a specialized type of American unit–a Tribal Engagement Team. Such teams would be small, highly trained and motivated, and granted broad latitude in the means of pursuing their mission. They would live full-time in the villages with the tribes, “lead, assist, train, supply,” and help organize Tribal Security Forces (TSFs.)
Will this work? How does Maj. Gant know? This week I’d like to examine the real-life basis for the Tribal Engagement Team idea, from Maj. Gant’s experience. Here he describes his team’s arrival in Afghanistan:
ODA 316 [Maj. Gant’s 12-man Special Forces “A” team] deployed to Asadabad in Konar province in April of 2003. The mission was broad, “kill and capture anti-coalition members.” We needed to immediately get a feel for the area and everything that entails. I came up with a plan to conduct multiple Armed Reconnaissance patrols to gather information and meet with as many village elders as possible.
In the village of Mangwel, ODA 316 encountered and befriended a tribal chief, Malik Noorafzhal, who was then at the brink of an armed conflict with other tribal elements who were affililated with HIG, Hezb-e Islami, the party loyal to the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
It is hard on paper to explain the seriousness of the situation and the complexity of what we both were facing. [Malik Noorafzhal] had asked for help, a thing that 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 some internal tribal warfare? What were the consequences if I did? With the tribe? With the other tribes in the area? With my own chain of command? The decision I made was to support him. “Malik, I am with you.”
To make a long story very short, the dispute was resolved in Noorafzhal’s favor after it became clear that the Americans were on his side. Stability was restored. A bond had been established between the tribe and ODA 316. Not long after, the Malik invited the team to spend the night in his village, pledging that he would protect them.
… we moved to Malik Noorafzhal’s compound. I immediately was able to count over sixty [tribal] warriors, all armed, in the area. There were sentries high in the mountains (on the Pakistani side) that we were not meant to see and at least three layers of security near his compound. The Malik then approached me and told me he wanted to take me somewhere very special. I, of course, agreed. I grabbed three of my men, gave a quick contingency plan to the rest of the team, and got in several pickup trucks with Malik Noorafzhal and his men. We began traveling up towards the beautiful mountain range behind Mangwel (with just weapons, no body armor) towards Pakistan. We drove up a valley and began passing an Afghan cemetery with the large flat rocks emplaced into the ground. There were many graves. Off in the distance there was what appeared to be an old village that had been destroyed. The vehicles parked and we all got out. Malik Noorafzhal grabbed my hand and we walked hand in hand up a small valley into the mountains. We turned a small bend and there was a beautiful waterfall. He told us to drink the water. He then came next to me and said, through my interpreter, “Jim, the last time I saw a person with a face like yours (meaning white), the Russians killed 86 of the men, women and children of my village.” He continued, “This is my old village. We fought the Russians. They never took my village. We are ready to fight again if we have to.” He looked and finished with, “You have great warriors with you. We will fight together.” We then just stood there for a few minutes and looked back into the valley, where you could see the old village and the new one. It was an incredible moment that cannot be put into any metrics or computer program that says “success” today. But it was. The bond continued to grow.
A unique aspect of Special Forces training is that it stresses “people skills.” One of the missions that SF teams train for is insertion into remote areas with the aim of establishing rapport with the local “G-chiefs”–guerrilla leaders–and indigenous elements. This means face-to-face, person-to-person.
I want to interject a couple of situations that might also tell of the relationship that was built with Malik Noorafzhal and my team. He and Dr. Akbhar were very open with their homes and families. I spent countless hours playing with Dr. Akhbar’s small children and the Malik’s grandchildren. The Malik used to say to me, “Jim, I am getting too old, play with the children today, they love you.” So do you know what my primary task would be for the day? I would play with the children–for hours. They would teach me Pashtu and I would teach them English. We would be watched by literally hundreds of younger children and women as we played. I often thought that these ‘play sessions’ did more for our cause in the Konar than all the raids we did combined.
Another point here is that my men developed their own very personal relationships with the people. Each one had his own “following” of people that included other elders and other children. When we would drive up to the village, different sets of people would run up to different members of the team calling them by name.
One of the most critical and underappreciated aspects of fighting an insurgent enemy is the acquisition of actionable intelligence.
Then the Malik told my interpreter he needed to speak with me alone, outside. He then handed me a list with five names on it. He said these men were “bad and against the government and U.S. forces.” I had my interpreter read the names to me and knew that at least two of them were local members of Hezb-e Islami. Then the highlight of my military career took place. The Malik took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said through my interpreter, “Commander Jim, I have 800 warriors and they are at your disposal. You only need to ask and they will be yours…”
As our relationship grew, there many other stories and examples that I could give the reader to make my point, but I will only give a few more examples. One particular trip, Malik Noorafzhal said he had a “problem” he wanted to discuss. He said “people” (between the lines it was personnel from HIG) had come down in the village and accused him of allying with the Americans and that he and his village were becoming “Christians” and that Allah was going to make them pay for their actions. We spoke about the topic for quite a while. The bottom line was that I told him,” We should kill them.” While all of this was going on, we were getting an incredible amount of actionable intelligence from Malik Noorafzhal’s “kasheeka.” We received a lot of information from locals at our firebase on a daily basis, but most of it was worthless. The intelligence we got from Malik Noorafzhal and his men was correct–100 percent of the time.
Maj. Gant acknowledges one mistake that has powerfully influenced his conception of future Tribal Engagement Teams–the fact that he and ODA 316 did not have the resources to maintain a 24-hour presence in the village of Mangwel to help provide security for the tribe.
It became very apparent that the relationship we had built with the tribe was causing them to become a target for HIG in the area. We could not stay in the village 24 hours a day due to our othermission requirements and in retrospect and many more years of experience under my belt, not moving to Mangwel was a mistake. Since we could not maintain a 24 hour presence in the village (which they had asked for on two separate occasions), I decided to give them as many weapons and as much ammo as I could get my hands on. I felt like not only was it the right and best thing to do, but the moral thing to do as well. I had asked them to risk so much–what else was I supposed to do? I am very comfortable with the decision for two reasons. First, they needed more weapons to help defend themselves and more importantly Malik Noorafzhal and his people viewed us giving them weapons as gifts. These gifts bound us together even more than we already were. Power in this area was about the ability to put armed men on the ground to attack an adversary or defend their tribe. Guns were the ultimate currency.
The Tribal Engagement Teams proposed in Maj. Gant’s paper would arm the Tribal Security Teams and finance them, as well as living with them, training, assisting and leading. Could such a Tribal Engagement strategy work today in Afghanistan?
The key to this strategy is going to be the ability to identify men (Tribal Engagement Teams) who have a special gift for understanding cross-cultural competency and building rapport. These men will have to like to fight and spend countless months, even years, living in very harsh circumstances. They will have to truly understand concepts like honor, loyalty and revenge. Initially, they will have very little physical security other than the AK-47 they carry, their planning skills and the tribal fighters they live with.
My true belief is that a relatively small number of special officers and non-commissioned officers could maintain influence within large portions of Afghanistan by advising, assisting, training and leading local tribal security forces– ‘arkabais’–and building true relationships with the tribes they live alongside.
The tribes are not the enemy. The ‘insurgents’ are the enemy. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, HIG (Hezb-e Islami) and the Haqqani networks and several other enemy elements are the enemy. The tribes and their systems are not the enemy. Most of the Taliban are Pashtuns. However, all of them are from tribes. Doesn’t it make sense to make friends with as many of them as we can, while at the same time learning about our enemies? In truly engaging the tribes and understanding tribalism at its core, we will also be able to link and understand the problems in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
[In Part 3, next week, Maj. Gant’s paper will get into the “how” of Tribal Engagement. Meanwhile this blog’s crack design staff–former Army captain Printer Bowler of Missoula, MT–is busting his butt preparing a free, downloadable .pdf of the entire document. We’ll post it in this space as soon as we’ve got it.
[Questions for Maj. Gant? Type them into the Comments boxes. Maj. Gant is currently at Fort Bliss, TX, preparing to deploy to Iraq.]