E-mails from the Troops
[This is going to be a long post. What follows are just some of hundreds of e-mails received by Maj. Gant in response to his paper, “One Tribe At a Time.” The first is from Luke Murray, who lost his leg in an IED strike near Sarkhani, Afghanistan on 18 July 2003 as a member of Maj. Gant’s ODA 316. He gave permission to post his e-mail to the blog.]
Just finished reading your paper. I have been following it on Mr. Pressfield’s blog for the last couple weeks. Being one of the privileged few who actually saw these practices first hand, I know they work. Your articulation of what you did and how to improve these basic ideas into TET’s is perfect. The writing was laid out so even someone without any type of military background could understand it and see the wisdom in this approach.
I know that these strategies work. I know what a dedicated team can do. Everytime I hear about how we are losing the war in Afghanistan, I always think of our success in Mangwel.
I think of you and the others often. Good hunting on your next trip, and, as always, if there is anything you need brother, do not hesitate to ask.
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Dear Jim (if I may)
I’m a former commander of the British SBS and I read your paper “One Tribe at a Time” with great interest and approval. I and two friends/colleagues have been trying to push the tribal line for the past nine months or so but without much success. We’ve pushed our views at quite a few influential and heavyweight people on both sides of the Atlantic but no one seems convinced enough to join the cause! The only headway of any promise so far has been with Paddy Ashdown (Lord Ashdown – former leader of our Liberal party) who was at school with me and also in the Royal Marines and SBS. Paddy as you may recall was in the running to be the UN supremo in Afghanistan (in 2008) but (not surprisingly) was turned down by Karzai. He has started to say some of the right things. I would very much like to establish contact with you and discuss how best and how much further we can push the word. I’m convinced that the only route with any realistic chance of success is the tribal one – all other options currently being discussed are, in my opinion, based on flawed assumptions or hopes, e.g. Afghanistan needs a western-style centralised government in order to prosper and keep out Al Qaeda; the Taliban and Al Qaeda can be defeated or kept at bay with large numbers of troops from a centrally controlled army and that these can eventually be provided by an expanded and western trained Afghan army and police force. It doesn’t need me to point out to you what’s wrong with these ideas.
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I just read your piece, One Tribe at a Time. You are 110% correct about what you wrote. I was in Jalalabad from Sept 02 to April 09 and worked the intel and did all the liason work with the tribes. It was a flashback in time for me, as we both used the same techniques to stay alive. I carried a book with 9/11 pics much the same as you did on your computer showing elders in the Tora Bora mountains why we were there. Maybe someone will listen.
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Hello MAJ Gant,
I just finished reading “One Tribe at a Time”. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful piece. I was particularly interested in how your coments on how a Tribal Engagement Strategy promotes good governance. I served at Kandahar Airfield from XXX, where I was the Command Judge Advocate for ARSIC-S and legal mentor for my counterparts in the Afghan Army at Hero Camp. (In civilian life, I have been an assistant district attorney in XXX for many years.) I worked with the Afghans five days a week and I also participated an assessment of the civilian criminal justice institutions in Zabul Province in 2007. I quickly learned the Afghan “governmental” legal system is absent in great stretches of the country, and where it does, it is thoroughly corrupt. Afghans don’t trust the formal courts,and with good reason. I was glad that you mentioned the Taliban’s efforts to provide their own Sharia-based dispute resolution service who told me that villagers preferred it to the government’s courts because it is honest, fast, and free. I heard about this from the British legal advisor in Helmand Province. I want to say,as a lawyer, I think you are right on when you advocate encouraging and supporting the use of tribal shuras and jirgas in resolving disputes. It will be many, many years before Kabul will be able to extend its court system into the provinces, if ever. When I heard about Pashtunwali, I read as much as I could find about it. With some modification, I believe it could and should serve as the first level of a justice system. I think this is especially true when it comes to disputes over land and water rights.
You write on pg. 26 on the the tribal jirga system could enforce the rule “backed up by a Tribal Engagement Team to bring U.S. resources, leadership, and training. to bear.” As you can I see, I agree with you wholeheartedly about strengthening Pashtunwali, jirgas, and shuras, but I’m wondering, if our government could be convinced, specifically how we would bring U.S. resoruces, leadership, and training to bear.
Thanks again for a great piece.
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Finished reading “One Tribe At A Time”. Wow…somebody gets it. Your analysis is on target and your solution is a good one. Served as a PSYOP officer in Afghanistan in XXX. It was very discouraging. Also served as CA Officer (CERP Manager) in Iraq XXX. It was quite frustrating at times due to the restrictions and limitations on the use of the money. Let’s hope the leadership takes your ideas and implements them.
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Dear Major Gant,
Let me first congratulate you for “out of the box thinking”. I guess all the War Colleges and think tanks in the US don’t preach or teach what you are proposing. All one needs to study is the way Al Qaeda (Arabs , foreigners..) were able to make Afghanistan their home base. I have always maintained that the only people who will defeat Talibanism and as a corollary defeat Al Qaeda will be the Pashtuns. Even the Pak Army fully committed has only so much stamina.
Take it from a Pashtun.
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I was a student of yours approximately a year ago. I just finished reading your paper and I must tell you that it was remarkable. I truly hope you pursue numerous further publications in the future because I feel your insight and knowledge are both priceless. I always felt that you were the single greatest instructor/mentor a warrior could ever hope to receive and the lessons I have learned from your instruction and the example you set for us have led to great success for me and my team, both personally/professionally, as well as operationally. It seems like every email I write you is more of a thank you letter, but its much less than you deserve. So once again sir, congratulations on writing an outstanding paper and thank you again for sharing your wealth of knowledge.
My best wishes to you and your family,
Strength and Honor.
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You article is without question one of the best written on the war in Afghanistan. All of the military folks I have assigned to me have this as a must-read within the next 2 weeks. I wish everyone in Congress, DoD and the State Department would read this as well. I do not know if you saw the Frontline episode on Afghanistan a couple weeks ago. There was one part that summed up what we are doing wrong. Went like this. Marine NCO armed to the teeth telling the local Afghan villagers that the Taliban will not hurt them if they go to the market. The interpreter did not speak the local dialect which led to the frustration. How can you tell villagers (farmers) that they won’t be killed when you are armed to that extent? We just don’t get it.
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Jim, I wish you the absolute best in the future wherever that may be. I have the utmost respect for your professionalism and dedication to the fight. If there is anything at all I can do please let me know. Lifelong offer.
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I am a Platoon Leader deploying to Afghanistan shortly. Having recently read your paper, I am inspired to follow up. I passed your paper along to my Squad Leader for a LPD, with the assignment to assess and develop ways to integrate the tactics outlined in your paper for a conventional infantry platoon. I am anticipating some good feedback and ideas. If time permits, would you comment on this same topic?
I fully intend to glean what I can from One Tribe at a Time and this correspondence in order to exert such tactics in our fight.
Thank you Sir,
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Enjoyed your article – you and your old ODA deserve any accolades that may be coming your way. Sent out your piece to all the Co. Commanders and the Command Group in my unit. Will provide you any feedback if you are interested. On tap to go back to OIF this Summer, but we are all hoping to get changed to Afghanistan. Like you, I miss a lot of the people there and still keep somewhat in the loop through my old interpreters. Even went so far as to inquire about the Afghan Hands Initiative, but was told all slots were filled. Take care.
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I’m sure you’re getting bombarded with emails. I just finished reading your article. I think your assessment is spot-on and certainly consistent with my experiences (especially in Nuristan and Kunar–I’ve spent many a day on the Pesch River). Unfortunately, due to family health issues I had to leave the Q-course prematurely, so I may never get the chance to serve on a TET. A couple of questions did pop into my head, that I’d like to ask you if you don’t mind and have the time.
1) How does the TES prevent a resurgence in tribal strong-arming and warlords? If for example the Ghilzai Pashtuns outnumber the Safi Pashtuns in Laghman Province, how does the TES promote a peaceful coexistence without open warfare? Perhaps the possibility of tribal warfare is preferred to the status quo, which is already filled with fighting?
2) How do we ensure quality TETs? Currently, the vast majority of the military with the maturity and training to conduct TET missions would come from SF. Perhaps some members of conventional forces would have the right mindset, but certainly not all the majority. SF is already stretched thinly in Afghanistan with 40+ ODAs operating with ANSF. How do we recruit, screen, and train the necessary numbers of TETs? (By the way, sign me up!)
Regardless, I think if this article gets into the right hands, we may stand a chance at truly seeing success in Afghanistan. Thank you for writing this necessary piece.
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I am back in my old unit and leaving shortly for a great trip. I have been watching my younger guys and taking note of their UW/COIN knowledge. I have several former students of yours. Each team member is strong, motivated, and of above average intelligence and competence. I have been able to speak freely on our SF subject matter with each of them because of your/our cadres performance as RS instructors. I like to follow up on the effort that we put into these guys; I am thoroughly impressed, and I don’t give compliments freely. My team has been subjected to mandatory reading, self-study, and intense discussion on what SF should be; and they do with zeal. What finally prompted this email is that through self-study my junior 18C happened on your article “One Tribe at a Time”. I have not read it as of yet, but I’m sure I’ll be impressed. If it’s not too much to ask I’d like to be sent any future writing that you do, and the occasional piece of advice. I hope things are going well for you.
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I hope you are doing well and getting settled and ready for the incredible work you are about ready to conduct. We are all here in Iraq right now for the COIN academy. Most of it we already seen in Polk, but it’s good that some of the BDE leadership is seeing it, so we are hopefully getting on the same sheet of music. Because this is mostly death by powerpoint, I still feel I am in Polk instead of in a war zone. My only reminder is a cargo pocket of live ammo and helos flying overhead every now and then. In addition to the honor of calling you a good friend, I have a lot to thank you for. I feel that being exposed to your warrior ethos will carry me a long way in ensuring I’ll have what it takes to doing what needs to be done. You got my head right and focused on the job soon to be at hand. I do have inner excitement to get this started. Thank you. You take care of yourself and I look forward for the chance that our paths may cross again. ntil later,
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Dear Major Gant
Fraternal greetings. Being a past CIA para-military operations officer and police officer for over 35 years I now live quietly in the Southern Philippines, and work as a rural primary care physician serving poor indigent children. I received your book thesis ” One tribe at a time” via my CIA friends and was amazed that although we have never seen or met we have come to the same conclusion. In your case Afghanistan and in my case the Muslim controlled Southern Philippines.
I wrote my thought piece suggesting a new direction and not pointing blame at anyone. My only statement was “We are lossing- and the Basilan Model ( Used in the Southern Philippines ) the U.S. military holds up as success is a failue” Get over it and move on!”
One of the main problems is no one is willing to think outside the box. If you are a military officer (SF) or state department employee you must “ticket punch” and be a “team player” to progress in your chosen field. If you attempt to go in any other direction the building falls on your head and generally your career is over.
I sent my article via my CIA friends to folks in the know in the Pentagon who deal exclusively with the Southern Philippines. If I would have been a Catholic and writing about the church I would have been burnt at the stake.
Subsequently I have sent you my article as an attachment for your reading pleasure, and you be amazed how close we are.
Anyway enjoy your book – However I know you are going back, so work safe if you can.
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Dear Maj Gant,
I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your service. I’ve just started reading your monograph, “One Tribe At A Time”. I’ve come to the idea that it won’t be put into service because, frankly, it makes too damn much sense. Our new political masters have not, to date, shown much common sense. I will forward it, with your permission, to my Congressman. Additionally, if you allow, I will publish a link to your paper on my blog. I have (I think) maybe 10 readers, but every little bit helps. Thank you again for serving our great country.
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It’s great to hear from you. It was an honor for me to serve in Afghanistan. I think about Afghanistan and the Afghan people almost every day. I am at your service. I’d be honored to help you any way I can. Feel free to call me or e-mail me. Thank you for everything you have done, and everything you continue to do for our country.
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It’s hard to believe that it’s been 9 years since we last talked. A lot has happened in that short timeframe. I’ve been doing a lot of study on Afghanistan and came across your article, “One Tribe at a Time.” I found it to be very insightful and well written. I fully agree with your premise. Knowing you as I did back then, I was not at all surprised to learn of your continued commitment and service to our Country –and to the people of Afghanistan.
I want to thank-you for your service and the sacrifices you have made and will continue to make. When I saw your name and photos in the article I was immediately taken back to an afternoon in my office when I counseled you on your OER. I remember the humility and embarrassment you showed when I told you you were the best lieutenant in our battalion. I remember sharing my assessment of your training prowess and of the warrior ethos you exuded.
I have always believed I am a good judge of character — you may have been embarrassed and humbled, but I clearly got it right with you. I retired in 2006. I am heartened to know that we have great Americans like you and your brothers from ODA 316 serving our country, our Army and brother warriors. Let me finish by saying once again thank-you for what you have done and for what you will surely do in the future. And as much as possible, be safe — Soldiers deserve your leadership.
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I want to start of by thanking you for your service in the military. I just finished reading One Tribe at a Time, and I don’t even know how to express to you what a relief it is to have read this. I am currently working on my Masters in International Affairs and my concentration is Islamic Reform movements, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, and I did my undergrad work in Middle Eastern Studies. My biggest fear is finding a job doing research, and watching it slowly diminish as it passes from hand to hand until all that is left is what fits into the politicians agenda. Policymakers tend to cling to outdated theory regarding conventional warfare and international relations, and it is time to examine the individual level of analysis. Not often do people have such experiences and are in the position to adequately and intelligently utilize what they’ve learned in the way that you have. You took a step that we, as students and researchers studying this region, have been waiting for for a long time, so thank you for that.
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I read the Internet .pdf download of your tome. I was intrigued by your explanation of how one may be successful in Afghanistan, in war, and with the Afghans themselves. It has always been my belief that the Arab world is ruled by tribes and families. That was about asfar as I got. Your interaction with the tribesmen really sheds some “much-needed” illumination. I found that by accepting your experiences of co-equal associationwith the Afghans, I was let into the group, even as one viewing from outside the tent. I learned a lot!
The question that kept nagging at my mind was: “Where in the Hell is the leadership of our strategic and tactical forces?!” General Petraeus and his “surge” in Iraq is one thing, but Afghanistan is an entirely different matter. All one must do is evaluate why the Russians got out of Dodge. They were unwilling to work with the people of the land!
I am so thankful that your treatise is available. Not only is it a testament of what has occurred, but it makes abundantly clear that you and your team have fostered exceptional good will among “Sitting Bull,” his men, and their families. That was no easy task, and yet it prevails – kudos!!
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Great paper – many truisms here – quick question – where are you now? Reason I ask is that I’d like to get you in front of my Battalion and impart what you know/have experienced to my officers and NCOs – thx!
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I just started reading your paper and agree with most of what you have said. Like you (but to a lesser degree) I have had substantial experience training Iraqi Army and Iraqi police being on 2 MiTTs (12 and 15 month rotations). I do not have any experience in Afghanistan and the dynamics there could be quite different. My only concern with training the tribes and empowering them as we would the local, district, provincial and National governments is that you legitimize them to the same extent as we are trying to do with the recognized government. My experiences in Iraq, with the Sons of Iraq (the awakening, concerned local citizens or Sahwa) was that some ground commanders empowered them so much that they felt they were equals to/as legitimate as the actual government. There were plenty of situations in which the SoIs felt they did not have to listen to Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police and routinely conducted their own missions, imprisoned “suspects” and wouldn’t turn them over to legitimate authorities. I would ask you, how do you find the balance between partnering with tribes and legitimizing the government. I will finish your paper and may find the answers out later. I wanted to get that question out to you while it was fresh in my mind.
Be careful down range.
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Under your key tasks the idea of establish and maintain rapport with the main and most influential tribes is spot on. The issue is whether we want to work with the most influential tribe in the area. The decision won’t be made by you. It will be a political decision. And now – can you – with your idealistic idea of what this looks like, still do your job? Use the “USA Today” criteria…how will this play out when everyone discovers that yesterdays “Sitting Bull” is today’s “most dangerous warlord”…? Think about it.
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what if you get put with the wrong tribe, the “losing” political tribe? Not based on right and wrong, but of “who likes who”? You will not get this done. You are not “Lawrence of Arabia”…and you have made serious false assumptions about what the endstate in Afghanistan is.
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I am LTC in the Army, and though I enjoyed your article very much, what you are proposing is just not possible, feasible or even worth trying. How do we develop metrics (that are useful) for nation-building? We will need something to let us know that your efforts are working. Something more than your gut feeling. I think you over estimate your skills and under estimate the Army’s ability to do what needs to be done.
Mr. Pressfield / MAJ Gant,
I’ve read your paper “One Tribe At a Time”. I appreciate your viewpoint from the foxhole of a decorated warrior who’s been “out in the fecal matter” and slogged through some of the worst combat action possible with your tribal brothers. However, there are a few points I’d like to challenge you on from the viewpoint of a (former) Infantry PL turned Brigade Intel Officer. Please consider this as loyal opposition, and only until I’m convinced by your presentation, at such time I’ll be a loyal ally.
To begin, I will state a few of my preconceived notions.
1- We’ll never get the GoA to function such that it can reasonably provide for the common defense, insure domestic tranquility, or establish justice. There will never be a sheriff in Afghanistan. Our best bet is to make sure all the gunfighters and horse thieves maintain parity.
2- We can never overcome the Afghan perception that they will outlast us, because even our new strategies still maintain getting out as the ultimate goal.
3- As Al Qaeda continues to franchise across southeast Asia and into Africa, the relative importance of Afghanistan diminishes, especially with regard to securing the United States against terrorist attacks.
With that said, I’ll begin. I immediately and whole-heartedly agree with you on the streamlining of the planning process, the need for “one call” philosophy of team support, and the change of ROE. However, the consequence I envision of this is the creation of a relationship between the fielded teams and the supporting higher headquarters that will become immediately and irrevocably adversarial. Teams would act virtually autonomously, be highly susceptible to suspicion of the headquarters and thus encouraged to be uncommunicative. Simultaneously, headquarters would lose information, have a poor field of vision on the battlefield, and be handicapped in its efforts to provide teams the instantaneous support that is needed. Meanwhile, the headquarters must maintain its own non-TET forces in order to accomplish other missions. How can a headquarters keep its battlespace coordinated when so many elements are “cut loose” from it? I understand that the tribes don’t come to OPORD briefings at Corps as it is, but I’ve been in more than one situation where SOF refused to cooperate or share information with a battlespace owner, and there’s no denying that there have been SOF SNAFUs in the past which caused local socio-political fallout. It’s hard to blame the man with the stars on his collar for being nervous when he’s going to be the one left holding the bag. What’s the balance between autonomy and accountability?
I cannot disagree with you more on the risk-averse nature argument. Our armed forces will always go back for our fallen, we will never leave a man behind. For that very reason, a TET left flapping in a firefight or a DUSTWUN will always take priority. That means an extraordinary investment of time, resources, and additional risk. If this aspect of the tactical situation is critical to your strategy, I can’t see it succeeding. Is it possible to work around this?
I draw a problematic connection between finding qualified officers and NCOs for the TETs, allowing the teams to “go tribal”, and the level of trust and power given to a team. Not without a little humor, I believe what you’re advocating is the creation of three new Special Forces Divisions. I think you’re asking for a group of men with a kind of stamina, quick thinking, patience and maturity found only in SOF and on a Space Shuttle. There haven’t been that many astronauts in our nation’s history, and the problems of the 18X program in “growing” more SF soldiers are well documented. You’ve been extremely successful in your endeavors. One could almost characterize you as “Lawrence of Arabia for the 21st Century”. Certainly it must be recognized that you’re a special individual. But if everyone had the same capabilities we wouldn’t think of you as special, and we’d probably have our TETs. My question is whether you believe there are enough individuals with your level of qualifications and potential out there, and whether we can entice enough of them to the TETs to make this work?
I will lastly posit this question to you. If the fundamental consideration of the tribes is how they will continue to secure their safety and prosperity for the long-term, how can the TET concept compete with the Taliban/ Al Qaeda strategy of omnipresent threat? As Bin Laden said, “People follow a strong horse.” If even in the long term of our strategy we’re able to assist the Afghans in their security, how can we ever really overcome the temptation of joining the Taliban if the Afghan population, as they certainly realize they must, is on the lookout for their safety in the long-term? I wonder, in (correctly) asserting that we can’t totally erradicate the Taliban, do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? We can’t “kill ’em all”, but is there a valuable psyop/civil affairs message projected by killing enough of them? Do we prove ourselves to be the strong horse? I hardly doubt such a strategy would be MORE effective than TETs, but I wonder if you feel a parallel effort would be a force multiplier or even AS effective.
Thanks for your time. Best of luck to you in your travels and to Mr. Pressfield in nurturing further discussion.
Great post…I am writing back…I am on page three and have more to go. Will try to get it out today.
Thanks for your service…I cannot imagine doing what you are doing right. A BDE staff? Now, that takes a special skill set!
You have made me think, and that is what I want.
Will post a reply tonight hopefully.
STRENGTH AND HONOR
I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you. Just read a piece titled “In the Quicksands of Somalia” by Bronwyn Bruton in the November/December edition of Foreign Affairs. While Afghanistan is certainly its own animal, Bruton illuminates some striking similarities between the two along the lines of tribalism.
Tribal conflict has played out in a unique and instructive way in Somalia since we left in 1993. Bruton asserts that, at present, no single alliance has the power to establish primacy among the innumerable conclaves of tribes, impoverished guns for hire, pirates, criminals and warlords. For all the talk about Al Shabab, Bruton proclaims that they’re a paper tiger. Meanwhile, tribalism has cut both ways– stymieing international efforts to create a central government as obstinately as it has rejected Al Qaeda’s inroads.
Bruton goes on to discuss his own views of a tribal approach from a less military-based perspective, but you may still find it interesting. Regardless, though it’s still troubling that a significant number of soldiers enlisting in “Jihad 2.0” are Somalis who have immigrated to the US, and in some cases have returned to Somalia. But I hit upon a question before I reached his “way ahead” discussion.
If the tribal structures of Somalia and Afghanistan are equally inhospitable to either an American or Taliban/ Al Qaeda victory, is our most favorable endstate a permissive hunting ground? In other words, if we can’t stand Afghanistan up under a single, authoritative form of government (tribal, democratic, or otherwise), is it good enough that it becomes a place where we know who our friends are and stay at their house until we bag our limit, then let the next group come in for their hunting season?
I wonder if this is the best-case scenario for both the tribes and ourselves. For the Afghans, it would guarantee a regular, if diminished, US presence. For us, it succeeds in keeping T/AQ destabilized in Afghanistan while allowing us to continue the effort at a more sustainable OPTEMPO and cost. This would also cut down the manpower requirement to a number that our TETs could be supplied by the people who I think you believe really should be doing it– the SF teams. Would that work?
If nothing else, I think you’ll enjoy the reading. I’m sure you’ll be full of turkey by the time you read this, so I don’t expect a fast response, but it’s helpful to me in the formulation of a project I’m working on. Thanks and looking forward to your 3-pager!
[…] One Tribe At A Time #8: E-mails from the Troops […]
Thank you SO MUCH for publishing such a thoughtful paper at this crucial junxture in our involvement in Afghanistan. One issue that I would like to get your comment on has to do with the long-term effcet of deep immersion of your TETs within Aghan tribes – possible religious conversion of American SFs to Islam. Since you envision that our soldiers would be fighting alongside the Afghan tribesmen as if they were one family, and since living with the tribe requires respect for all customs – including religious ones- what is your take on the TET members converting to Islam due to their “complete” immersion with a given tribe? Could this present a problem down the line?
Thank you for your great service to our country!