Tribal Engagement Tutorial: Introducing a New Series

As the debate over what to do in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond continues, United States soldiers and Marines are on the ground fighting and sacrificing.

While this blog will continue focusing on that debate, the greater focus will be on providing soldiers and Marines practical, battle-tested information, which can help them on the ground. 

A few weeks ago, Newsweek reported:

Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, coauthored a refreshingly candid and very public report that said, among other things, that the “U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy” in Afghanistan. (Among his views: there’s too much emphasis on intel for killing bad guys, and not nearly enough on information to help soldiers understand what’s really going on in the society.)

William S. “MAC” McCallister (USA, Ret.) underscored:

We may be focusing too much on specific questions and not enough on adapting our mental models to reflect the cultural environment and identifying cultural operating codes and coordinating messages. One of the challenges with our current intelligence collection and assessment process is that we delve too much into the minutiae and miss the bigger picture or patterns of social behavior. It is an appreciation for the patterns of social behavior not answers to specific questions that allow us to predict and shape an outcome. There are places in the world where the past, present, change and continuity coexist in the same social space. Our intelligence collection and political and military strategies should express this condition.

We asked Major Jim Gant, Mr. McCallister, and Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai what information they would provide to the soldiers and Marines on the ground. For what information should our troops be asking-and what information should they be questioning? What is it we believe to be true about the rest of the world, that just ain’t so? 

Major Gant mentioned that some of this information is passed on from unit to unit in “continuity books.”

The purpose of a continuity book is to ease the hand-over from one unit to another in conducting their mission. It is very detailed and covers every aspect of the mission and the area of operation (AO). It usually will go from very general to very specific in case there is a change of mission and so that there will be a depth of understanding about the AO that will allow the incoming unit to “hit the ground running.” The better the continuity book, the quicker the new unit will be able to start being successful and the less time they will waste in “getting their feet wet.”

The goal for this “Tribal Engagement Tutorial” series is to provide the atmospherics portion of the continuity book, as it relates to tribal engagement. There is much more that goes into a continuity book. This series will cover one portion. 

And, as Mr. McCallister pointed out:

In my opinion, all questions concerning a given AO are situation based. We should also gain an appreciation for how the social system in our AO works. Questions concerning my AO will differ from someone else’s because of location, situation, mission, enemy activity, and personalities involved, etc. This is about “how to think” versus “what to think” about an AO. 

Keep that in mind, too. This series will offer information that must be approached from specific AOs. This is a starting place. 

Though their answers were different, they shared the same core:

1. People

a) What are the critical groups in the area of operation (AO)—tribes, aqwams, and ?

In a lot of cases it is very difficult to determine who is who. We have gotten better at that, however, in remote areas (as ODA 316 was in 2003) it was very difficult to determine if who you were dealing with who was/is THE tribal leader or a clan leader or what. Go in with as much information as you can about ALL the groups in your AO…CF, Afghan forces, tribes, enemy, “fence sitters”…etc

—Major Jim Gant

b) What are their populations?

c)What are the cultures, traditions, and social structures? How do they use Jirgas or Shuras? What form of law do they follow—Shari’ia, Pashtunwali, and/or government-imposed law? What are their importance holy and historic days? How do they treat the different sexes—what are their customs/mores? What are their dietary habits? What are their traditions related to birth and death?

It is always very helpful to mention in every meeting that the US Army is in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people, they are not there to go against their culture or religion. It is always helpful for the officers to provide a praying area during the praying time (Muslims pray 5 times a day).

—Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai

“Just asking the question about how they handle, for instance, a murder is very important to know because you can determine a lot about the tribe based on how they deal with punishing crimes. For instance, do they follow “Pashtunwali”? A Shar’ia law? Or do they try to put the person into some type of local government judicial system. This tells you a lot about who really owns the power in the area.”

—Major Jim Gant

d) How do they identify themselves and what are the inter, and external dynamics among these groups? What are the names of the tribes, clans, sub-clans? What are the tribal dynamics? Who are the leaders? Do their mullahs and other influential elders play a role in governing the tribe? If yes, how much? What is the historical origin of the tribe? What is the focus of their history? As warriors? As Muslims? As Pashtuns? What portion of their history do they identify with the most? History is very important to the tribe. The more you know about the history of the tribe, the more you will be able to not so much anticipate certain reactions, but narrow down the many reactions that MAY occur to certain situations.

e) Who else is operating in the AO? Foreign Nation support? Central government representatives? Other solidarity groups? Insurgents? Which of these groups are friendly and which aren’t? How do these other groups play into the tribe?

Many local elders and tribal chiefs get intimidated by the Insurgents. When, and if, they cooperate with U.S. Army, there has to be an approach by the U.S. Army in order to make sure some meetings takes place very quietly and some publicly. Many Tribal Chiefs and elder would wish to meet with the U.S. Army officers in private and inform them of situation in their villages, towns and valleys, but because sometimes these meetings are taking place in a public manner, they keep quiet.

—Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai

If possible, put into place mechanisms that will allow the tribesman to speak with you in a non-conspicuous manner. Never “visit” just to gather information. In most cases, if you are working with them in the correct manner, you will have more information than you will know what to do with.

—Major Jim Gant

One of my base assumptions about the frontier is that there already exist mechanisms and established rituals (procedures) for managing violence, patronage relationships, alliance networks or in this case communicating inconspicuously. We need to identify, mimic and or adapt these existing mechanisms and rituals (procedures) so we might effectively communicate our intent to the locals.”

—MAC McCallister

2. Alliances

Which groups are allies (alliance networks and or patronage relationships) or rivals, and which ones are actively feuding? Who are their leaders? How do their leaders operate? Veiled threats/insults? Straight talkers? What is their history with the central government, with insurgent groups, and with coalition forces? How have they worked with Americans and other Westerners in the past? How have they used their credibility and legitimacy to enhance prestige and/or create new alliances and strengthen existing alliances. Once you determine which other tribes they cooperate with, and which other tribes they are at odds with, you will have a great amount of information on their true intentions. *REMEMBER: These intentions can change over time based on YOUR actions/inactions.

3. Geography

Where are the key market towns and vital trade routes in our area of operation? What tribes border the TET’s AOtribes which might be working with separate TET’s.

This is one of the questions I am asked most often. TETs would not infil into bordering tribes without the “approval” of the tribe that was contacted initially. If a TET were to infil into an adjacent tribe, the elders of each tribe would meet with the TETs and there would be clear AO’s established and agreements would be made that would ensure that all the tribes involved were satisfied with the arrangement.

—Major Jim Gant

If I might add to Major Gant’s answer concerning a given TET’s area of operation. A TET would most likely be initially associated with a specific solidarity group or alliance network. Patronage relationships shape alliance networks and afford solidarity groups access to limited resources (honor, guns and money). Security is a commodity. Specific territories are associated with alliance networks and patronage relationships. The term territory does not have to imply physical territory only. A given territory may be a patchwork of sub-loyalties within a system of solidarity groups rather than an area of physical territory with a precise boundary. An aligned TET would therefore be unable to infiltrate a different alliance network without the expressed approval of all parties involved. A TET may be able to cross network boundaries if a given alliance network links into a greater network.”

—MAC McCallister 

 4. Security arrangements (segmentation)

What currently exists between the various aqwam, and for protection of key market towns and vital trade routes? Are there Tribal Security Forces (TSF)? If yes, where are they, what are their training and capabilities, their systems and armament, and their disposition?  


In future posts, we’ll break out points in the above, an go through them in depth, with Major Gant, Mr. McCallister, and Chief Zazai weighing in, providing their opinions and examples of their experiences with these various points.

We’d also like to hear from you. If you have experiences that relate to the topics we’re discussing, please post them in the comments section, following the appropriate post.

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  1. Erich Simmers on January 23, 2010 at 8:40 am

    Mr. Pressfield,

    I enjoy your blog very much, and I have recommended your “Writing Wednesday” posts to my students. Do you have a link or citation for the Mr. McCallister’s comment regarding “places in the world where the past, present, change and continuity coexist in the same social space?” I looked in the Newsweek article and can’t seem to locate it. Your help would be very much appreciated.


    Erich Simmers

  2. Jim Gourley on January 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    I’ll try not to respond to this too passionately, but this post hits very close to home on a problem members of the intelligence community have tried to rectify since the dawn of their profession. Again, I have the utmost respect for everyone involved and I’m pointing at the mistakes, not the men.

    I’m sure General Flynn and Mr. McCallister had a different meaning than what gets conveyed in their words, but here’s how an intel guy translates their quotes.

    Flynn: “I have little regard for the capabilities and efforts of my intelligence Soldiers and officers. They can’t read my mind or give me what I want without me directly asking for it. I thus marginalize their importance.”

    McCallister: “The intel folks are turning this thing into a science project. They have a completely wrong paradigm for the situation. Because of that, they’re going after all this useless information. Social pattern. Shape. Outcome. Predict things. Make predictions. Nothing specific.”

    The two gentlemen accomplish the antithesis of what they aim to do, which is to understand cultures and influence them to produce positive results. Their statements are ill conceived, poorly constructed, and do nothing but damage their relationship with the intel community.

    General Flynn and Mr. McCallister are forgetting some fundamental elements of the operations-intelligence cycle. They are the two cardinal rules of how to use intelligence in the conduct of operations. Breaking them are cardinal sins. These are:

    #1 – Intelligence drives the execution of operations
    #2 – Operational planning drives intelligence requirements

    If General Flynn sees his intelligence assets as only marginally useful, then he should re-write his task organization to the Operations Order and send those people home. It’s his strategy. That strategy was based on his perception of the problem, its solution, and the most effective method of achieving it. That perception, per rule #1, was shaped by the intelligence he received. However, he can’t wag his finger at the intelligence community for the information they bring him because, per rule #2, it was developed for the sole purpose of delivering answers to questions he asked.

    No intel guy in his right mind goes off creating reports and power point slides for fun. Every intel officer, analyst, and collector out there should be working their keester off to answer questions the commander has asked. The doctrinal term for these questions is “Commander’s Critical Intelligence Requirements”, or CCIR. The word commander is specifically rooted in that doctrinal term for a very good reason– to force a commander to recognize that he’s in charge of his intelligence collection efforts. There is absolutely no way on earth you can blame the intel community for putting emphasis on the wrong things. It’s his emphasis by virtue of our doctrinal assignment of command authority and responsibility. I refer to FM7-8, Appendix A, page 4: “The platoon leader is ultimately responsible for everything the platoon does or fails to do.” If the General is not getting his questions answered, maybe he needs to reevaluate if he’s asking the right questions. His intel officer is his advocate for accomplishing that process. The operations officer should also be involved, because he brings a key element to the table– knowing whether or not operations are achieving the desired effects.

    That brings me to the point General Flynn ends on, which is more heavily discussed by Mr. McCallister– the conflict between specifics and generalities. The pair would like the intelligence folks to help Soldiers to “understand what’s really going on in the society” and “identifying cultural operating codes”. I’ll not approach the magnitude of the challenge we face in getting our 19-year-old Privates, battle-worn Staff Sergeants, and still-green Platoon Leaders to achieve half the level of cultural awareness as people like Major Gant. Instead, I’ll frame the impossibility of the problem in the context of the ops-intel relationship.

    – I’d like to see General Flynn and Mister McCallister attempt to provide, without any collaboration, definitions of “what’s really going on in the society” of Afghanistan that match each other word for word.

    – I’d like either of the gentlemen to point out in either the intelligence or operations manuals the definition of the doctrinal task “identify cultural operating codes and coordinating messages.”

    They can’t do it. For starters, it must be made plain that they can’t read each other’s mind. Neither can intel analysts. The “big picture” has to be defined. It should be a collaborative effort between the commander, the ops officer, and the intel officer, but at the end of the day no one scores points for waving their hand and using generalities to drive efforts. That’s garbage going in, and the output is going to match. To Mister McCallister’s great credit, he’s bringing huge advancements to our paradigm for the current situation in Afghanistan. However, he forgets in his opening remark that this is revolutionary, big picture stuff. At the end of the day, we are going to use our intelligence to execute a mission, and every mission has a task and purpose. “Gain a better understanding of a village” works as a purpose, and “go execute a firing range with the local tribal police force” is a good task. But if we want to get the ball into the endzone, things are going to have to get a lot more specific. Those specifics are defined in the CCIR and the concept of the operation, which is written by an operations officer.

    That’s a major point. It’s not an intel analyst’s job to figure out what Mister McCallister is trying to say in his comment above. My “translation” of his statement earlier became broken and distorted for a reason, because that’s exactly how it starts coming across. You want to understand tribal whatsits? You need to coordinate cultural whazzadiddles? The folks out in the trenches don’t have a reference for what he (or many in the upper echelons) is saying. If he wants the troops to have a better mental framework for Afghan culture and his intelligence to stop digging around in what he considers useless minutiae, then an operations officer is going to have to take the commander’s “big picture” and break it down so everyone else can understand it. Mister McCallister himself recognizes this in his closing sentence: “Our intelligence collection and political and military strategies should express this condition.”

    Everyone falls into this pit over and over– the belief that intelligence collection is solely the responsible of the intel guys. That’s doctrinal heresy. I’ve already pointed out that the CCIR belong to the commander. Intelligence collection is an operation. That means the operations folks have a stake in it. Everyone loves to invoke rule #1 so they can blame “bad intel” on a FUBAR mission. Nobody wants to admit that rule #2 dictates that the intel wasn’t bad, it was just wrong. It was the collection that was bad. If the condition is to be expressed as articulately as necessary, then it will take three voices to do it– The Commander, the Ops Officer, and the Intel officer. Mr. McCallister, Major Gant, and Chief Zazai do a phenomenal job in laying out just a few specifics of CCIR above, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. What’s most important is the method demonstrated. It’s a round-table discussion. Mr. McCallister has the big-picture concept of a commander, Major Gant has the ground-level know-how of an operations officer, and Chief Zazai has the insight and understanding of an intel officer. They talked just a few specific items, but look how much clearer the situation becomes for our boys out in the weeds than the way we opened this post.

    That brings the crucial piece, the actual collection. Intel officers and Soldiers rarely collect actual data. That work is done on a daily basis by the infantrymen, company commanders, pilots, engineers and medics interacting with the people. Are commanders and operations officers forcing units to send reports up to their Battalion S-2’s? Is that information filtering up to Brigade? If a tree falls on Osama Bin Laden’s head in a forest and no one sees it, does it really happen? I never hesitated to grab my brother captains by the collar and get in their face when they’d grouse about “intel not giving us anything”. “Really?” I’d ask them. “What have you given me this week? How many patrols did you conduct? Talk to any tribal leaders? Did you bother to shoot me an e-mail? You know what you know, and I only know what you tell me.”

    And that’s the ultimate crux of the situation. An infantry company commander and a brigade assistant S-2 can go practice arm-bars and choke-holds on each other every time an operation goes bad, or commanders and staffers at the higher echelons can take the time to sort out “the big picture”. But until the big picture can be broken into CCIR, specific questions, missions, tasks and purposes, we’re going to flounder on the big picture. We have got to get out of the philosophical and the theoretical and get to the very real and very simple. Are you unhappy with the intelligence data given to you? What questions are left unanswered? How would you like to answer them?

    I’m sure the assembled cast of this blog has heard the old saying before– “In combat, there are operational successes and intelligence failures.” It’s time we got past that, admitted our shared culpability in the failures, and embraced our roles in achieving success. We all have a role in helping the commander to succeed, even though the ultimate responsibility of success or failure goes to him. Let’s stop playing the blame game and remember who he’s ultimately responsible to– the troops following the orders and carrying the bulk of the load.

  3. "MAC" McCallister on January 23, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    Why worse case the comments? Does it really have to be that MG Flynn has “little regard for the capabilities of (his) intelligence Soldiers and officers” or that I might be arguing “they (intelligence community) have a completely wrong paradigm for the situation”. Why the adjectives “completely” or “useless” to describe the noun “information”? I never said that, why should you? Your interpretation is a bit too quarrelsome for my tastes.

    You are absolutely correct. I am addressing paradigms or mental models and the need to recognize patterns of behavior so as to better shape outcomes. I explicitly state that the collective “we” may be focusing too much on specific questions. You might also have noticed that my intro comments were not so much in support of MG Flynn’s quote but as an introduction to the types of questions we should be asking before commencing operations in a given area of operations.

    Be that as it may. I personally did not imply nor state outright that the intelligence community had failed anyone which you accuse me to be the case. Bummer, since you proceed to initiate a number of extensive and articulate rhetorical counterattacks based on what you thought I said. On the other hand, I would be interested to know what you think I might believe to be “useless minutiae” and the reasons why. Especially since I actually believe that there exists this thing called “useless minutiae”.

    Like you, I also understand the function of intelligence during operations. While it is a fact that intelligence drives the execution of operations and operational planning drives intelligence requirements both occur within a wider context. This context is cultural, social, systemic and procedural. No one here has argued that the commander isn’t responsible for asking the appropriate questions or that he must paint the appropriate operational picture. Silly question: Do you think that MG Flynn’s report could be an attempt to deflect blame away from himself now for some potential failure later?

    It is not the first time that I’ve heard tell that it is just too damn hard to inculcate our soldiers and Marines with the appropriate levels of cultural awareness required to fight an unconventional or non-traditional or irregular war or whatever the label for the type of conflict in which we are currently engaged. We are a professional military. I actually expect that our 19-year old privates, battle-worn Staff Sergeants and green Platoon Leaders take an active self-interest in learning about the society and its rules in which we are fighting and will not make excuses for those who don’t. One of the differences between the Major Gant’s of the world and others is a thing called curiosity. Although curiosity might have killed the cat, it is also an asset easily turned into leverage.

    In closing, I am actually pretty good at breaking down the “big picture” so that “everyone else can understand it”. Applying the cultural operating codes and coordinating messages makes it much easier.

    Thanks for the post. Keep’em coming brother.


    • Jim Gourley on January 24, 2010 at 10:15 am

      Mr. McCallister,

      I appreciate your reaction to my tone. Understand that it was deliberate, because I wanted to highlight a theme we keep talking about on this forum. In addressing concerns about our intelligence system, your comments necessarily were regarded as being directed toward the “intel tribe”– a group within the military as unique in its customs and rituals as the Rangers within the Infantry or the Tajiks within Afghanistan. Regrettably, though you didn’t intend for your remarks to be placed in the context of MG Flynn’s, that was a consequence of their proximity in the body of the post. I understand what your intentions were, but they were skewed due to a misunderstanding of the intel tribe’s cultural operating codes and a failure in the coordination of your message with MG Flynn’s. I wanted my reaction to underscore the impact such things have on efforts to shape outcomes. If I’d been your intel officer and you or MG Flynn my commander, your comments would have produced some change in the short term, but in the long run the relationship would have been damaged. This is especially true in the case of Flynn, who I’d regard as a guy who’ll throw me under the bus at every opportunity.

      Again, I wasn’t assaulting the man, but the mistake. My absolutes are derived from the way your words came across, and I specified that what was heard was counter to what you meant to say. I think that’s still important, because more important than any particular questions we should be asking is the process by which we arrive at the questions.

      I won’t conjecture about the purpose of MG Flynn’s remarks, but regardless of what it might have been, the statement itself smacks of the “ops success and intel failure” paradigm. And I feel it was (and still is) crucial to point out that the General indicated that it was intel efforts pointing our forces in the direction of executing kinetic operations. Intel guys never give the order to “kill Osama”. That’s an operational decision. If the intel is too focussed on killing people, then MG Flynn owes it to our forces to give the intel a new focus.

      You yourself demonstrate the importance of resolving this paradigm. You challenged me to explain what I think you mean by “useless minutiae”, with the accompanying implied challenge to comprehend how it might not be useless. I’ve already argued that it’s folly to make the intel guy decipher what the ops guy/commander is talking about. I’ve got all these customs and structures within Afghanistan to figure out. Why should I have to do all the extra work involved in figuring out what my fellow American is saying? To go back to your direct quote in the blog post, you talk too much about delving into minutiae, and later in the post you talk about justice and patronage systems. What’s minutiae and what isn’t? I understand that’s not technically what the post is about and you probably didn’t have room to go into it, but you haven’t distinguished between the two. The situation is still confused. There are certainly intricate and tangled contexts at work. The cultural environment is incredibly dynamic, and even our most fundamental assumptions about its functions should be reassessed on a cyclical basis. But at the end of the day we’ve got to boil it down to terms we can use.

      One of the best leadership lessons I ever learned came during my time at the Infantry Officer Basic Course in Fort Benning. The man who taught me was a fellow student, a former SF medic who’d finished college between deployments. During a lesson on doctrinal tasks and terms he told me, “Never tell one of your Joes to suppress an objective. He’ll just shoot blind and blow through his ammo. Instead, tell him to kill those guys over there. ” The lesson had such a profound impact on me that I’ve carried it in my tool kit through two deployments and across seven years to this blog. You and I in the Brigade and Battalion HQs need to discuss the clash of civilizations and the making of Afghan order, but up in the mountains Joe and the PL need to have a clear understanding that you don’t piss off Chief Sitting Bull, and here’s your top-10 list of do’s and don’ts when you go meet him today. Petraeus knows more about counter-insurgency than he could ever hope to inculcate me with. Therein lies the brilliance in his “clear-hold-build” model. It makes things so simple a caveman could do it. Not every American Soldier is a caveman, but I’ve met my fair share of Soldiers (and officers, too) that are. We can’t exclude them from the process just because they’re not curious.

      To that end, I’d recommend to the blog’s cast that we try to modify the attempt made here to sharpen the big picture. The best method of doing so would be to invoke the fathers of strategy, Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz. We’re already trying to come to a better understanding of ourselves, the battlefield, and the enemy. Why not use a doctrinal framework that everyone understands? I recommend good ‘ol Center of Gravity analysis. Let’s define what the Critical Capabilities, Critical Requirements, and Critical Vulnerabilities of a tribe are. Doing so would put all the concerns (and more) listed above into a cohesive, doctrinally-sound, plain english document that people could rapidly digest and comprehend. It would be the best way for the contributors to this blog to accomlish its ultimate objective– the production of something useful for the man on the ground.

  4. "MAC" McCallister on January 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    Thanks for the conversation. Please remember you are conversing with a former infantryman…getting dirty and all that.

    This exchange may actually represent a teaching moment but I can’t for the life of me figure it out aside from accusing me of intel tribe bashing. Mr. Gourley, you have already misquoted me twice in two separate responses. I can only surmise that my comments are being read at a glance and are eliciting an emotional rather than rational response. Not that there is anything wrong with emotion or passion but it makes no sense for us to continue this conversation if my comments are to be labeled solely as attacking the intelligence community in general and the intelligence system in particular, or to serve as fodder for some therapeutic exercise for getting back at the operations tribe.

    Nowhere in my comments do I explicitly or implicitly attack the existing “intelligence system” or “intelligence community”. Please stop chastising me for doing so. I want you to know that if I served as S3 or G3, I would not expect my intelligence officer to provide me with cultural information. There are other resources available to assist me in this endeavor. But should the need arise; I would take great care in formulating the question, critical information requirement, or request for information, etcetera. I personally have never had reason to bash my S2 or G2 (intelligence), S4 or G4 (logistics), something type A personality operations folks are wont to do from time to time.

    You may continue to associate my comments with MG Flynn, or accuse me of nefarious intentions towards the intelligence community because of what you may or may not believe my motivations for participating in this interview series, but it is a waste of time. I am not interested in participating in this food fight.

    It is interesting that those who remind me of the dynamic nature of culture never provide a realistic timetable for cultural change to occur. I partially agree that the “cultural environment is incredibly dynamic, and even our most fundamental assumptions about its functions should be reassessed on a cyclical basis”. Some components of culture are quite superficial and fungible, others not so. How much time does it take for these different cycles to play themselves out: 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years or more? A somewhat important question since we are attempting to impose social and cultural change in Afghanistan. My first misquoted comment addresses this dynamic. I wrote that “there are places in the world where the past, present, change and continuity coexist in the same social space. Our intelligence collection and political and military strategies should express this condition.”

    Lastly, if there is value in the cultural operating codes and coordinating messages then use it. If there is some use, adapt it. If of no use, discard it. It is as simple as that.


    • Jim Gourley on January 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm

      Mr. McCallister,

      I think I’ve provided enough input to previous responses to assure you that I’m not a casual reader here, nor one that’s given to emotion over reason. If I’ve misquoted you, then I’ve misconstrued you. If I’ve misconstrued you, it’s because you’ve left yourself open to misinterpretation. My message throughout this dialogue has been pretty direct: be more direct. If you, the commander, can’t say what you mean in a way that it’s clear to everyone else in the room then the ops guy, intel guy, and logistics guy are all royally hosed. I read at a level much higher than the average American, which is about 8th grade. If I’ve misunderstood you, how many other people have? This is the teaching point.

      I’ve been specific on the point that I’m not chastising the man, but the mistake. I’ll not relent in that. Let me be specific about the mistake. I do not think your intent was ever to explictly or implicitly to attack the intel community. I don’t think you have nefarious intentions toward any community. But I don’t think your remarks accurately reflected your intent. Understand that, according to the report from which MG Flynn’s comments were pulled, there is an explicitly stated intent for intelligence to provide cultural reporting. Should intelligence analysts be looking at this sort of stuff? I yield to your imminent wisdom on the matter. Should I spend more time discerning the meaning of ambiguous, high-minded musings or the workings of the current operating environment? We both know the answer to that question.

      My therapeutic exercise was to separate myself from the Army, wear khakis instead of combat boots, and work in other endeavors. I have no interest in “getting back” at any community, and my utmost concern is in helping the system improve. We both know a cheap shot when we see it, and the net effect it garners. We’re also both much too old for food fights. Please sir, put your ketchup down, I’m not throwing jello at you.

      You said I misquoted your proposition that “there are places in the world where the past, present, change and continuity coexist in the same social space. Our intelligence collection and political and military strategies should express this condition.” I hope I didn’t, because I agree with it whole-heartedly. We go to Afghanistan and assume that the tribe we have at the middle of the deployment is the same tribe we met 10 months ago. Is that even feasible? We have personnel rotations, promotions, and changes in personal relationships among units throughout. Why wouldn’t a tribe change? If we’re not conducting cyclical reassessments, what are we opening ourselves up to miss? I agree that the question should be asked regarding the timetable for change. Again, I yield to your expertise. What’s the answer to the question? I said there should be a cyclical analysis. What’s the period of the cycle?

      It pains me that you overlooked my recommendation in light of responding to things regarded as more personal. This is the great tragedy of the intel/ops debate which, whether we wanted to or not, we engaged in. I’ll bring it up again if I still have your ear.

      The Army and tribes aren’t the only entities on the battlefield that are dynamic, positive agents that can muster physical resistance for the purpose of delivering blows to opposition. There are the Taliban, al-Qaeda, opium organizations, the Afghan Government, organized crime, and organized militias under warlords. The intracacies of culture cause these different organizations to overlap, but we need to separate them in order to understand them individually. A CG-CC-CR-CV analysis would help a lot of people better understand what overlaps and how. But I don’t think it’s fair for the experts on the blog to simply tell a battalion S-2 that how a tribal chief deals with a murderer or a thief is important. How is it important? If a tribal chief doesn’t stone a murderer to death, how does it affect his ability to lead his tribe to resist Taliban intimidation? We’ve got a cast of people here that have a vast amount of experience in the cultural ins and outs and have enough working knowledge of Clausewitz to do it. It took Congress 1,017 pages to lay groundwork for health-care. Petraeus took 282 pages to win in Iraq. I think the contributors here ought to be able to deconstruct Afghan tribes in less than 100 pages. If we want to achieve the blog’s purpose of helping the man on the ground, then it stands to reason that we’ve got to get from the all-important terminology of “cultural operating codes and coordinating messages” to the also-important “top-10 do’s and don’ts around Chief Sitting Bull.”

  5. SJPONeill on January 24, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    First up, I’d like to register my thanks to Mr Pressfield and his team for getting into this arena…and my disappointment that this isn’t being led out of out of the military lessons learned agencies…

    I’m not so sure that this is primarily an intel issue as identifying and disseminating best practice, especially in the short loop before the more formal doctrine side of the house can catch up…not to compete with intel functions as they current exist OR might be reconfigured under MG Flynn’s paper but to supplement those functions and also cut across functional boundaries/stovepipes.

    In the end, surely all we care about is getting the right info to the right people at the right time – and ensuring that they know what to do with it…? That definition blends the knowledge (lessons, intl, doctrine) with the training and command system instead of treating the information as an entity in its own right.

    • Jim Gourley on January 25, 2010 at 5:41 am

      Mr. O’Neil,

      I don’t believe MG Flynn is necessarily taking things in the right direction on a procedural/structural basis. His paper makes a lot of recommendations about pushing down Corps level teams and assets into Brigade and Battalion battlespaces. Those teams collect information and then bring it back to the higher echelon for analysis and consolidation. If I’m a battalion S-3, I get upset that I have to task a company to drag these guys around. If I’m a battalion S-2, I wonder if I’ll ever see the report on what these guys gather, or how relevant it will be to my little slice of the planet.

      Conceptually, MG Flynn and Mr. McCallister are right. We’re focussing too much on killing bad guys. The disconnect for intel/ops planners is figuring out how to realign our architecture and procedures in order to collect the intel we need. I say that we don’t need to. The architecture and processes are sound. They just need to be applied to a different set of circumstances. Clausewitz has survived industrial warfare, mass warfare, and maneuver warfare. He still works in assymetric guerrila warfare.

      I believe I understand Mr. McCallister’s paradigm to be that our fight no longer lies in defeating an enemy, but rather building up an ally. We’re thus no longer looking for an enemy’s critical vulnerabilities to destroy. Instead, we need to understand the critical requirements and capabilities of our allies to reinforce them. I believe the whole reason we’re having trouble doing it is that it’s so counter-intuitive. It’s not really much different than asking our S-2’s to perform intel collection on our own units.

      This is what needs to be expressed. When we reach an understanding that our objective is to give the people the ability to generate resistance to Taliban and al-Qaeda efforts, and how the tribal construct defines the methods by which that resistance is generated, then we have a very clear picture of what it is we need to do. With that clear picture and a troop-to-task evaluation, we can decide whether we need to be building schools, paving roads, or training tribal police forces. Until then, I would expect battalions and companies to operate under the umbrella of “provide security to the people”, which canalizes our forces back into “find bad guys and kill them” mode. Their operations and intelligence collection efforts will reflect that. The Taliban and al Qaeda are the most obvious actors in the country. We need a command-driven planning effort that recognizes that the tribes are as well, and articulates how they fit into our objectives.

  6. "MAC" McCallister on January 25, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    Brother, you have my ear. I’ve put away the ketchup bottle but the jello remains within easy reach.

    My mental model for Afghanistan encompasses the need for defeating an enemy AS WELL AS building up an ally AND creating alliance networks. My cultural operating codes and coordinating messages provide an alternative mental model to assist the strategist and planner in structuring the analysis and shaping the operational environment where defeating, creating and building is required. Why?

    I assume that in Afghan society there exists a distinct pattern for the creation and emergence of group identity. This pattern of behavior is an expression of four cultural operating codes and two coordinating messages. These are shame and honor, segmentation, patronage, and territory. The two coordinating messages are “what have you done for me lately what will you do for me tomorrow” and “no stability without us”.

    In this scenario I have been tasked to defeat and build in my area of operation. In line with segmentation, I look for any existing alliance networks or rivalries within the village, valley, or district in my area of operation (AO). Segmentation implies that the various actors are much more flexible than just being for, against or neutral on any given subject. Individual actors within an alliance network may actually be allies, adversaries, associates, rivals, accomplices, or all at once on any given subject. The patronage code reminds me that quid pro quo relationships exist. Patronage is also a means to attract potential allies, adversaries, associates, rivals or accomplices. An appreciation for the existence of patronage relationships provides me with something to target i.e. sever and reestablish with someone else. As mentioned before, specific territories are associated with alliance networks and patronage relationships. The term territory does not have to imply physical territory only. A given territory may be a patchwork of sub-loyalties within a system of solidarity groups rather than an area of physical territory with a precise boundary. Finally, shame and honor, provides the framework for communicating with the various solidarity groups in my AO. Shame and honor is about exchanging credibility, legitimacy, and prestige; all very tangible forms of currency in the defeating and building process.

    The Taliban or any other group, including us, looking to impose itself on another must adhere to these simple operating codes. Why, because that is how the locals conduct business. If we seek to disrupt, block, turn, or defeat an opponent’s effort in our AO, we must focus on alliance networks, patronage relationships and territory. The more accomplished strategist will be able to exploit the shame and honor operating code to create credibility, legitimacy and prestige.

    I can’t explain it any simpler than this.

    You are upset with me because I have not responded to your recommendation to apply the center of gravity analysis methodology and I apologize. The Center of Gravity (CG) – Critical Capabilities (CC)-Critical Requirements (CR)-Critical Vulnerabilities (CV) analysis methodology is a valid tool to gain insights into specific solidarity groups.

    I do not dispute the CG methodology or Boyd’s decision cycle model as valid mental models. I am here to share the cultural operating codes and coordinating messages mental model and not to argue the superiority of one over the other. If you want me to defend the mental model, all I can say is that it worked in Anbar. I have the documentation to prove it as written by the II MEF leadership, which includes not only the division commander but non-commissioned and enlisted personnel as well.

    I say this in a loving way: if the cultural operating codes and coordinating messages mental model works for you, then use it. If it doesn’t, disregard and stick with what you’re comfortable.


    • Jim Gourley on January 26, 2010 at 6:39 am

      Mr. McCallister,

      I agree with your mental model and I think it’s one that gives us a better method of analyzing the environment. That’s how I need to SEE things. But, to my mind, when it comes to what we’re going to DO about things, I need the other model.

      Let me see if I can qualify that. You say (and I agree) that, given a chief and his council, I have good guys, bad guys, and guys that are good and bad, depending on their interests and the other spheres of influence they involve themselves in for personal benefit. In a “good” tribe, I have a council that has a pro-coalition chief who hates the Karzai government, a high-level leader who runs poppy across the border, a guy getting paid off by ISI to provide info, and a commander of body guards who’s considering talking to the local Shadow governor about getting a better deal.

      Now, as the intel analyst, I’m going to use your model to comb through these guys and try to figure out what their relative levels of influence are and what their impact on my mission is. Obviously, all these guys are a pain in my fourth point of contact to some degree or other. What do I do about? I ask this question in the context of the Flynn report, which says half the problem I’m losing the fight is that the Taliban are well-resourced due to growing weapons stockpiles, and half the problem is that the Taliban are well-resourced due to a growing lack of faith in the US among the population.

      I think a major part of this problem is bounded by something you alluded to earlier– the amount of time afforded us to change the cultural environment. It could take me another five years to reverse public opinion on my presence. Or, due to the fact that I would have to stay five years, I may not be able to do anything about it at all. All this is moot against a timeline that is substantially less than five years. So, there’s both a troop-to-task and a time-to-task consideration.

      So I’ve got all these shady people of varying influence on my mission and, due to the time constraints, a more limited number of options in dealing with them. Can I really spend the time it takes to work on the connections between individuals or must I necessarily target individuals themselves? I ask that question with absolutely no supposition of an answer.

      Based your answer, I then have lots of courses of action and not enough resources to pursue them all. I can build a school or I can conduct an air assault. I can train a tribal police force or partner with the local Afghan army unit. But I don’t really know what the value of each action is until I’ve broken it down. That’s why I emphasize the critical vulnerabilities. I either need to make the chief stronger, the taliban weaker, or crush the poppy guys. Clausewitz tells me how to do that. You tell me how to use Clausewitz and what the relative value of my actions are.

      I don’t dispose of anything. The great thing about the mind, and the reason it’s the greatest weapon, is that you can pack as much ammo for it as you want and your ruck never gets heavier. I feel like I need both methods because I can’t see a way to use a thumbtack to define an objective or target with your method. At the least, I have to get different colored markers and draw lines between thumbtacks. That’s valuable, because it tells me which thumbtacks are the most important, but I don’t think I’m going to become adept enough at drawing the lines in 18 months. It’s much easier to shift the thumbtacks, or take them off the map entirely. I can accurately and quantitatively measure whether a guy is dead or alive. It’s much more difficult (and time consuming) to assess whether he’s more or less “on my side”, or whether my efforts to influence him are trending positively. And even after my efforts, he could totally be suckering me.

      That’s not to say I think killing is always the best way. You and Major Gant have shown me the value of giving a chief a shotgun. Some alliances and relationships are very measurable. The chief is a pretty big thumbtack and has definite relationships anchoring him to the map. But what about ISI collaborator, poppy dude, or bodyguard man? Can I ever really know if I’ve changed the red/green status of that thumbtack? Going back to the Anbar situation, I look at the way the tribe established superiority through the security franchise.

      I’m not trying to sharpshoot you with the inevitability that someone will always hoodwink us, because it will happen regardless of our model. But what I’m curious about is whether you’d agree that finding and focussing on a few definites is better than trying to assess things that will always be at least a little ambiguous due to their intangible nature? To use my hypothetical, should I even worry about influencing the bodyguard and ISI guys, or just wait for them to make the complete transition to “the dark side” and simply kill them? If I do, what are the possible consequences of being so simplistic about it?

  7. "MAC" McCallister on January 26, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Dear Mr. Gourley,

    The cultural op codes and coord messages mental model is based on the premise from simple rules emerge very complex social dynamics and over time distinct patterns of behavior. I personally apply the mental model as a base for an overall appreciation for how the social systems functions and like you will use different diagnostic tools such as the center of gravity (CG) methodology, ASCOPE (areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people) template, or the USAID’s Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework (TCAF) to structure my search for information on local conditions. If I want to target something or someone, I apply a decide, detect, deliver, assess methodology.

    I apply the mental model to gain an appreciation of the cultural operating environment and to develop and wargame appropriate strategies to engage distinct groups. Sun Tzu’s counsel to attack an opponent’s strategy first, then his alliances, and the soldiery last becomes self evident when I view the Afghan area of operation (AO) applying the cultural op codes and coord messages mental model. Like you, when conducting a specific target or target audience analysis, I also use different analytical tools at my disposal. The accomplished analyst should not have just one favorite weapon. Translated: don’t be a one trick pony.

    I personally do not use the “good or bad” moniker. I prefer to label the various actors as ally, adversary, associate, rival, accomplice, and etcetera. Call me cynical, but labeling a group good or bad doesn’t mean the same in a social system in which segmentation or the tendency of all groups to engage in alliance and coalition building is the norm. Today’s good guy may be tomorrow’s villain. I actually cringe at labeling every opponent as terrorist, insurgent, rebel, insurrectionist, bandit or Taliban. Every man who studies Islam is a talib. Not all talib are Taliban. It can get a bit confusing.

    The emotional baggage associated with labeling every opponent as “bad” leaves no opportunity for conversation or as Sun Tzu counseled: to attack alliances. Alliances may be rendered ineffective if we can sever existing patronage relationships and establish new ones. The mantra “we don’t negotiate with terrorist” is one of the sillier war cries I’ve heard while serving on the frontier. I learned early on in Anbar that everyone talks to everyone else, all the time. How else can you drive a wedge between members of an opposing alliance or convince others to defect to your side. We are engaged in irregular warfare in which the strategic focus is to gain influence and support; the operational focus is on the relevant population and the operational objective to establish or exploit the legitimacy of the existing political authority in order to influence and shape that relevant population. Diplomacy in support of irregular warfare therefore differs from the more conventional approach of labeling a rival as simply “good or bad”.

    Course of action development, especially in irregular warfare is largely a function of politics. You are absolutely correct. I might partner with the local Afghan army unit, crush the poppy guys or empower one solidarity group over another but in the end, it is the central government that will decide if the local entity we support will be asked to engage in a patronage relationship or join its alliance network.

    An intelligence analyst could use the cultural op codes and coord messages model to gain an appreciation for the social dynamic in an AO, predict general behavior of various actors in a social system, or wargame engagement strategies. Throughout the analysis process, different diagnostic tools are used as required.

    I do not agree with the notion that “we are losing because the Taliban are well-resourced”. They are winning because they play by the existing social rules, and we do not. The Taliban are subject to the restraints and constraints of the social system. They, like all conquerors need local allies.

    Thanks for the post.


  8. Thomas Daly on January 26, 2010 at 8:37 pm


    I’m interested in seeing this conversation go one step farther. How does the mental model relate to tactical tasks? How do I stop missions like clear, capture, kill, disrupt and replace them with find, recruit and train? And I don’t mean find caches, instead, find the local sheikhs, mullahs, and other power holders. I’d also point out that training isn’t on a range, it’s conducting joint patrols with local militia, etc.

    If you really think about it, what is the tactical task used with the highest percentage in Afghanistan? When I was in Iraq in 06-07 it was disrupt AIF almost every time. In my opinion, the only way we are going to truly challenge the Taliban is by focusing on the same people they seek to murder and intimidate. That will only happen if our company level units are tasked to do so. In my mind, that means forgetting about CG, CV, because they are focused on the enemy. An enemy who is unseen until he chooses otherwise.

    I guess my question is this, how does the mental model translate into a method of tasking? Or does it only seek to identify?

  9. To COIN, or not to COIN? | America at War on January 26, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    […] unreachable. Austerity will scale them back to the bounds of reality and perhaps a more modest, decentralized, emphasis. COIN will then become a normal component of military capabilities and […]

  10. "MAC" McCallister on January 27, 2010 at 9:35 am

    Mr. Daly,

    Thanks for the post.

    In my opinion, the key tenet of irregular warfare is to effectively communicate intent, whether kinetically or non-kinetically, within the target audience’s cultural frame of reference.

    The mental model describes how the social system behaves and why. In irregular warfare, every activity, such as isolate, disrupt, capture, secure, recruit or train sends a political message. An appreciation for the how and why of social behavior supports the development of appropriate operational and tactical tasks.

    An appreciation for segmentation or the tendency of all groups to engage in alliance and coalition building and patronage as a means to bind groups in alliance relationships, could link directly to the operational and tactical tasks of isolate (alliance network), disrupt (sever patronage relationship), secure, recruit and train.

    A tactical task in support of isolating or disrupting an alliance network may be to “secure” stretch of trade route from point A to point B. Merchant families and local land owners enter into relationships (alliances) with those able to provide security (security is a commodity). Unable to collect security taxes, local insurgents are unable to attract followers creating an opening for a group of our choosing (recruit and train) to occupy the function of security provider (patronage, territory).


  11. dblwyo on January 28, 2010 at 11:22 am

    First off thanks to Steve for providing a forum and introducing this topic. Cultural analysis is a critical part, as we keep re-learning. Now in fair disclosure I’m very much an outsider in this community but have been applying my approach to trying to frame some of the problem. Following along on this rather heated debate has been enlightening – standing apart from it it seems to me that both perspectives are making contributions and have more constructive synergy than might first appear. In my experience staff people do what you ask them to withing the limits of their training and attitudes (and boy oh boy the number of times that’s led my teams into trouble….). So whoever’s in charge needs to have framed the problem and provide the right, on-going coaching. On the other hand staff folks are also prisoners of their mental models and when the situation calls for changes that’s the most difficult thing to do. Conversely operations folks tend to be prisoners of their own doctrines – it’s the hardest thing in the world to have to rethink things while you’re in the middle of the heat. That works up and down the chain.
    For a few years now I’ve been attempting to take a multi-dimensional view of things and apply it to policy analysis and guidance from way outside. If you’ll permit me to share some of that you might find this running essay collection on Iraq of some interest:
    Iraq Lessons: Looking Back to Look Forward

    While this more recent running set of essays on broader ME challenges but specifically including Afghanistan builds on that earlier work:
    Middle East Solutions: Issues, Relationships, Frameworks and Approaches
    Fair Warning – this is on a higher level perhaps than the discussion here so far but there may be a fed tidbits and pieces of machinery that are usable.
    In any case I’m thrilled that these questions are getting such serious debate among smart and qualified people. Good luck to you all.

  12. Willard B. Snyder on January 29, 2010 at 9:36 am


    I have the impression from reading your extensive comments that there is a lot of fog/misunderstanding in the air. There is a source for some of this (not a universal answer) that you are grappling with. I think you should also consider the SF (Specail Forces) input to the situation. They live with the individuals on the ground and their success, when they are properly used, speaks for itself. They are not SEALS with strike missions, but trained to win the hearts and minds of the local indigenous people they are with on a longer term basis. Whether Pashtuns in Iraq or “Yard” Tribesmen in Viet Nam, they understand the local structures, languages and relationships. They may be difficult to access, but should their potential input therefore be ignored ? I only bring this up because I did not see any mention of them in your discourses about intel and its requirements and the need to understand the local situation.


    Willard B. Snyder

  13. "MAC" McCallister on January 29, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Dear Mr. Snyder,

    Thank you very much for your post.

    Why do you believe that the input of the Special Forces community is being ignored? Major Gant is a Special Forces operator. I personally draw upon my experiences in the special operations community and Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai is a local.

    Secondly, and this may sound a bit arrogant and so I apologize ahead of time, I believe that Major Gant, Chief Ajal Khan Zazai or myself are not so much grappling with the “issue” or the fog of misunderstanding. What we are grappling with is how best to share and convey our very personal insights with those that may not have experienced the place the way we did or are uncomfortable with describing the place in the way we do.

    I have presumed to speak for others without their consent and therefore will accept any chastisement from Major Gant or Chief Ajal Khan Zazai if I have misrepresented their opinion on the matter.


  14. Willard B. Snyder on January 29, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Hello Mac,

    I only brought up SF because I didn’t see any mention of it in all of the Commander and S-2 references. Also, as I had no knowledge of either your or Major Gant’s background in SpecOps, I didn’t want make an unwarranted presumption. I just hesitate to presume that the SF role is automatically understood and considered – particularly when dealing with EEI (probably an obsolete term).

    Thank you for taking your time and your considerate reply.

    With best regards,


  15. "MAC" McCallister on January 29, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Brother Willard,

    No… thank you for taking the time to engage in this conversation.

    You are right. There was something missing from the previous thread. What was missing in the conversation concerning the relationship between the Commander and Intelligence Officer was a conversation concerning mental models. In my opinion, mental models describe events and provide meaning to cause and effect relationships. Mental models filter information and influence our approach to problem solving. Problem solving requires analysis. Analysis is the process of asking and answering questions. Mental models influence the types of information we require to plan and execute an operation and the specific questions that will be asked to gain this information.



    • Willard B. Snyder on February 4, 2010 at 9:56 am

      Hello Mac,

      Do you ever get to Florida – the Vero Beach – Ft. Pierce area in particular ? If so, you might be interested in visiting the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum. If you are, let me know and I can send you a free ticket (as Pres., it is one of the few things I have authority to do).

      With best regards,


  16. Watcher of Weasels » Rethinking the on January 29, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    […] unreachable. Austerity will scale them back to the bounds of reality and perhaps a more modest, decentralized, emphasis. COIN will then become a normal component of military capabilities and […]

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