HOW TO WIN IN AFGHANISTAN
War & Reality in Afghanistan
A CONTINUING CONVERSATION
With Author & Historian Steven Pressfield
Part 5 of 5
Ok, before we get into this final segment, I want to leaven what I have to say with a healthy dose of humility. I'm not a general, I'm not a pundit, I'm just a writer who has read history and has some things to put forward. Like Rod Serling used to say on the old Twilight Zone... "submitted for your approval."
The question is: what lessons has history taught us about dealing with a tribal foe? And I think there are three principles that we can pull out. The first one is to accept the fact that things are the way they are and we're not going to change them. We are not going to set up a Western style democracy in Afghanistan; it's just not going to happen. Pashtunistan, the area along the Pakistan border there, contains 42 million tribesmen-42 million Pashtun tribesmen in some of the ruggedest country on earth. We are not going to turn it into New Jersey.
Second, establish strictly limited goals. I think Secretary Gates is really on target for that where he has said in the papers recently that the goals for the United States in Afghanistan should be simply to deny the territory to al Qaeda as a base from which to launch future terrorist attacks on American soil.
The third point, and probably the most important point, is to work with tribalism, not against it. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean try to influence tribal societies where they can be influenced and don't waste time trying to influence them where they can't be influence. Now, let's start with what tribes understand. Tribes seem to understand three basic things that give us some leverage: tribes understand power, tribes understand other tribes, and tribes understand a deal.
TRIBES UNDERSTAND POWER
Bing West wrote a book called The Strongest Tribe about the Marines in Iraq. And that's what we have to be in Afghanistan, or in any society where we're dealing with tribal enemies. It doesn't mean we need to "defeat" al Qaeda, we don't need to crush the Taliban, but we have to let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they can never beat us. And that they can't outlast us either. And the good news is that we already are that. Our guys over there, who are largely elite force Rangers, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps, ARE respected as warriors by the tribes. And I know plenty of them and that is an absolute fact. With our air power, UAV technology and satellite technology, the enemy knows that in a straight up fight we would just vaporize them. So we are the strongest tribe. Step One: tribes understand power. We need to establish that we are the power.
TRIBES UNDERSTAND OTHER TRIBES
Step two is to conceive of our own forces as a tribe themselves. Fight tribes with tribes. Why? Because the Afghan tribes can understand and respect that -- it's speaking their language in terms that they can understand.
Specifically, begin with thinking of our commander as a tribal leader. Now I know the Pentagon is never going to implement this suggestion, but I think we put into place a larger-than-life figure, someone like a Patton or a MacArthur. In other words, a tribal warlord type figure and leave him there for ten years if it takes that long, for fifteen years if it takes that long. Again, why? Because this is something the warlords and the tribal chieftains can relate to. And I think that this commander should have plenty of potentiary powers, he should be able to, like a viceroy, make decisions in the name of the US government that he can back up. He should have plenty of money and plenty of latitude to do what he wants to do.
I also think that at the level of the fighting forces we should do this too, obviously with plenty of time off back home. But in a province like Konar let the tribesman know that this specific group of fighters were there last year, they're going to be here this year, they're going to be next year. We'll rotate them home of course so they can rest. And the other thing I think is because this is really hard on the troops, we're going to have to pay them a lot more money. If a Sergeant has to make $100,000 or $150,000 a year, it's money very well spent.
TRIBES RELATE MAN-TO-MAN
Now the other thing that's very important is that I don't think we're lacking at all, our guys, are warrior skills over there. But where we may be falling down a little bit, from my experience, are in people skills. Tribal leaders naturally deal man-to-man and person-to-person with somebody they know. Now if that somebody has kicked their ass a few times, that's all to the good.
We need guys over there-they should be screened for this and really picked and selected as elite units-guys who really respect tribes, who are really Kipling-like people who really appreciate this kind of warrior, Old-School, traditional type of fighter. Guys who can sit down in a circle, share some tea, talk man to man and be respected
TRIBES UNDERSTAND DEALS
The third thing that tribes understand is they understand a deal. I was watching Donald Trump on TV the other day and he was asked about what he thought of Condoleezza Rice. And he sad, "She never comes back with a deal. I see her getting on the plane, I see her getting off the plane. Where's the deal? She never comes back with a deal!"
Tribes understand deals. They've been fighting with other tribes for 100,000 years. They know exactly what an accommodation is. Let's not forget that the Afghan tribes are always broke. They have no industry, they have no commerce over there other than the heroin trade and what money gets sent in by rich Saudis, they don't have two dimes to rub together. So let's open the checkbook. Let's make a deal. Let's make deals all over the country. We give you this, you give us that. To a tribal warlord, to a tribal militia, we say, "In your province, you keep al Qaeda out, you keep the Taliban from dominating your scene, you keep your province your own and we'll give you money, we'll give you infrastructure, we'll give you medical, we'll give you whatever you want. That's the nature of the deal and that's the only way we're going to make any progress in Afghanistan. is the fourth-poorest nation on earth. Let's make deals all over the country.
LET THE TRIBES CLAIM VICTORY
Should we negotiate with the Taliban? Yes. The Taliban are not the enemy, the warlords are not the enemy. Al Qaeda is the enemy. The idea of a central government in Kabul reaching out to the provinces is a fantasy for the future. Tribal warlords, the militias, they are Afghanistan and that's where we have to make a deal.
DEFINING SUCCESS IN AFGHANISTAN
Who knows what's going to work in Afghanistan? I don't. But in an effort to pull together the threads we've been talking about in this series of videos, let me try to sum things up here.
First of all we have to recognize that tribalism and the tribal mind-set are the enemy. Recognize that we're not going to change that. Establish clear, simple goals and stick with those. Speak the language that tribes understand. Tribes understand power and they understand a deal. If we give them what they need, then maybe they'll give us what we need. It might not be pretty, it might not be long-term, it might not be glamorous. But it may be enough. It may be what we need.
In the end, the 21st Century West-East conflict is only going to be ameliorated by one factor and that's the rise of moderate voices in the tribal/Islamic world. When the extremist elements no longer have that sea to swim in, when they are no longer supported by that, then they're just going to fade away in the background.
Time is one our side, believe it or not in this thing. Because the forces of the Internet, of satellite communications, of female empowerment, of inclusion are all working to bring moderate voices to the floor. So our job is just simply to hang in there until that happens. If you think about the Cold War, that went on for fifty years. We didn't nuke Russia, we didn't start World War III, we didn't try to fight it out till the bitter end. We just waited and waited and waited and eventually the Berlin Wall fell all by itself.
So our job, bottom line here, our job is just to hang in until that happens. So this is the way, if victory has a shape, in my view, this is what it's going to be. It's not going to be pretty. It's not going to be glamorous. But in the end, it may be enough.