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22 November 2009


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Major Gant's paper is stunning!

William deB. Mills

The question of how to bringing sufficient peace, stability, and good governance to Afghan society so that the war can end with hope for Afghans and the world has no easy answer, but the first step is to focus our thinking on the underlying principles, and the second step is to set clear priorities.

All the endless debate over tactics is nothing but a sandcastle unless it stands on a foundation of correct principles and priorities. The choice between the goals of a well governed Afghan society on the one hand and some combination of establishing Central Asian military bases for the empire, guarding pipeline routes, or defeating an insurgency on the other is a choice that matters. All the above goals may be defensible, but where to put the focus matters profoundly.

Three core underlying principles should define Washington’s starting point:

· Local Control: Muslim socio-political reform should be managed first by locals and second by neighboring non-Western societies;

· Civil Society First: The method should always give precedence to civil society reform with military action firmly subordinated;

· Afghan Independence: The goal should not be incorporation into the American system but the establishment of an independent society.

To begin the arduous process of implementing these principles, make the following two steps top priority:

1. Washington announces that it will vacate any region of Afghanistan that is either -
* peaceful and drug-free or
* guarded by an international force, preferably from Muslim societies
2. the international force will have two duties -
* preventing the use of force to resolve conflict
* eliminating illegal narcotics, with emphasis on destruction of the refinement business.

Let those who disagree make their case…but at this level. Before the U.S. can sensibly consider issues related to military tactics or which Afghan politician to support, it needs to determine why it is in Afghanistan and what would constitute an acceptable exit strategy.


Compare and contrast with Wm Polk editorial at juancole.com. He emphasizes the necessity of declaring a date certain for leaving Afghanistan as the necessary initial move to get a truly Afghan solution started. He knows the territory and makes a lot of sense.



Thanks, for the hyperlink to “One Tribe at a Time”.

Another good article is "Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template".

The Vietnam War was; however, first, a continuous conflict between the US Army and the Peoples Army of Vietnam, fought on the borders of South Vietnam. Some of the battles were not too different than the last months of the Civil War or World War I; men attacking entrenched foes, “The Battle of Hamburger Hill”. Others consisted of stealth and maneuver and only fought when the Vietnamese had an advantage, belt to belt. The Montenyard Tribes were recruited to fight the Vietnamese in this war. Second, the Vietnam War was an attempt to pacify the rural Vietnamese population to accept governance from Saigon. This was the mission of Charlie Company 2/503 during 1969-1970 when I served. Its reincarnation, Chosen Company, was on a not too dissimilar mission at Wanat in 2008. In both cases as soon as American troops left their valleys, their foes regained control of the inhabitants.

The United States is not fighting a war of maneuver against State forces in Afghanistan. It is a clash of cultures, a religious war; similar to the Indian Wars of North America. There is a reason that the uncontrolled areas are called “Indian Country” or a tribal leader in the article is nicknamed “Sitting Bull”.

Americans are so blinded by our own perspective that we do not see the perspective of others. The US Army is in the identical position as the German Wehrmach in France or the Red Army in East Germany but without the overwhelming force. The only way the United States can establish a Western hegemony in Afghanistan is to pacify one valley at a time. This is a difficult bloody task; think of the fighting the Iroquois, Sioux or the Apache; even more so in Afghanistan. The Afghans are best prepared peoples in the world for the Clash of Religions, having defeated every other invader of their mountains and now they have radios, AK-47s and IEDs.

A retreat to the perimeter around Kabul will assure an eventual withdrawal just like the Soviet Union. The United States cannot afford to stay in Afghanistan forever.

Sometime far in the future someone may note that the Vietnam War, Gulf Wars I & II, and the Afghanistan War were all for nothing, and that the retreats from Afghanistan precipitated the collapse of two Empires, probably in Mandarin.

Clifford Kiracofe

"The rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) will ever remain a watershed in the annals of the trans-Indus regions. Maharaja Ranjit Singh undertook to subdue and control effectively the ferocious tribes populating these regions. After the conquest and annexation of Multan and Kashmir, he led his legions across the Indus. This was a big challenge to the valiant Afghans who raised a cry of Jehad under Azim Khan Burkazi, ruler of Kabul. A big Afghan army collected on the bank of Kabul river at Naushehra. Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory and Ghazis were dispersed in 1823..."

"In order to understand the defence measures of Hari Singh Nalwa, it is essential to be conversant with the geographical conditions of this region as well as the tribal distribution...."

"The Afghan and Pathans always considered themselves superior to the people on the Indian side. They looked down upon Indian Muslims and contemptuously referred to them as Hindko. Their pride was pricked for the first time as they had been defeated by the Sikhs whom they considered infidels...."

"It was prudently realised that although the spell of Afghan supremacy was broken, the region predominantly populated by turbulent and warlike Muhammadan tribes could not be securely held unless a large army was permanently stationed there....

"In order to consolidate the defence of the north western frontier, Hari Singh Nalwa closely studied the topography of the Peshawar region...."

And so on...

US political science/international relations became divorced from its traditional link to history (diplomatic, political, and military)after World War II.

In the Cold War era, the Rand Corporation and others pioneered mathematical modeling of international relations, etc. This level of abstraction-fantasy is useless for practical foreign policy in the real world. Professors in the Ivory Towers have made careers with it though and still do.

McNamara loved his little mathematical models and charts, too. I remember press photos of him pointing to his charts and graphs..."Whiz Kid" like Kagan and McChrystal etal. today.

N. M. Salamon


The over riding question facing Mr. Obama and under his direction the Government and Congress is whether to waste another 100 billion on Afganistan, another 50 or more billions on Iraq, Somalia [via paid proxies] and another billions on blind support of Israel OR to repair in as much as possible the USA economy on one hand and prepare for the coming crunch in oil supplies, the age of electric cars, the age of CAREFULLY TAKING ALL STEPS TO REUCE ENERGY WASTAGE [war being the greatest wastage, for it cost to wage, then comes the cost of rebuilding]!

Pleae note only one choice is possible, the USA economy and the preparation for the future, or wars. Your grandchildren and all other grandchildren [including mine] will judge Mr. Obama, the Congress and influential people [among them yourself] on how this choice is made.

Were a poll conducted in USA [or any NATO country] where the choice is the summary of the two possible outcomes, the answer would be so overwhelmiong that the NEO-Cons and related arm chair generals would SH*T their pants.

I believe that you would agree with the last statement, especilly after your great points re AC/PAC war at intellingernce squared.

Thanks for your attention!


Colonel Lang-

It is an interesting idea, but how many officers like Major Gant would a government actually need to implement this policy? To generate the strategic effect, but from the tactical level he writes about?

Hundreds? And then of course also the bureaucratic-oriented but at the same time strategy-oriented apparatus necessary to carry the policy out . . .

Patrick Lang


You misunderstand the character of SF ODA teams like the one described Gant. Not officers necessarily, not at all.

I think it is quite possible to find, train and retain the number of SF soldiers required. We did so before.

As Gant says they, too, are a tribe. Membership in that tribe becomes something precious. pl


Colonel Lang-

Point taken, "officers" defined broadly, but how many such would it take to gain tactically the strategic effect necessary?

In this case, we are after all attempting to change strategic ponies "in mid-stream", that is after eight years of neglect. How exactly does one ignore the center and focus on the periphery in such a situation? Has this been tried before, and what was the result?

I see a bit of "Lawrence" in Major Gant, which I see as a good thing. There were undoubtedly such US officers in Vietnam, and at the end of the Cold War. Today, I wonder if the best thing is not for the Major Gants to come home . . .


"defined broadly as SF ODA teams"


Over the past few days, before reading Major Gant's paper, I was thinking (partly inspired by Russell L. Ackoff - look him up in Wikipedia) that any strategy must use the structures in Afghan society that are in place.

It is great to see that vague intuition fully developed into a strategy, in this, IMO, very good paper.


Major Grant's proposal sounds an awful lot like the general British and Russian strategies during the Great Game.

The more things change....


According to the Guardian, the program is already in place: US pours millions into anti-Taliban militias in Afghanistan

US special forces are supporting anti-Taliban militias in at least 14 areas of Afghanistan as part of a secretive programme that experts warn could fuel long-term instability in the country.
The attempt to create what one official described as "pockets of tribal resistance" to the Taliban involves US special forces embedding themselves with armed groups and even disgruntled insurgents who are then given training and support.

In return for stabilising their local area the militia helps to win development aid for their local communities, although they will not receive arms, a US official said.

Special forces will be able to access money from a US military fund to pay for the projects. The hope is that the militias supplement the Nato and Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.

Clifford Kiracofe

Today's Telegraph (London) contains very useful context with respect to Iraq. The after action/lessons learned reports are no doubt of particular interest.

"On the eve of the Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion and its aftermath, The Sunday Telegraph has obtained hundreds of pages of secret Government reports on “lessons learnt” which shed new light on “significant shortcomings” at all levels.

"They include full transcripts of extraordinarily frank classified interviews in which British Army commanders vent their frustration and anger with ministers and Whitehall officials.

"The reports disclose that:

"Tony Blair, the former prime minister, misled MPs and the public throughout 2002 when he claimed that Britain’s objective was “disarmament, not regime change” and that there had been no planning for military action. In fact, British military planning for a full invasion and regime change began in February 2002.

"The need to conceal this from Parliament and all but “very small numbers” of officials “constrained” the planning process. The result was a “rushed”operation “lacking in coherence and resources” which caused “significant risk” to troops and “critical failure” in the post-war period.

"Operations were so under-resourced that some troops went into action with only five bullets each. Others had to deploy to war on civilian airlines, taking their equipment as hand luggage. Some troops had weapons confiscated by airport security. ..."

Some will recall how the US media "managed" the reporting from UK during the run-up to the Iraq War. The ferocious debates in Parliament and the strong sentiment AGAINST intervention were suppressed in US coverage. The US media certainly did not want the US public to realize that the British Labour Party and other quarters there had substantial opposition.

Thus Tony Blair, and the UK as our "staunch" ally and all that were stressed in US media. Heaven forbide the US Democratic Party getting some ideas from the more sane elements of British Labour, or the Republican Party getting some ideas from the more sane elements of the Conservative Party etc...

Patrick Lang


I know the program is underway. What Gant argues for is re-establishment of this kind of UW in US Army Special forces as a basic mission. pl


Re: "US political science/international relations became divorced from its traditional link to history (diplomatic, political, and military)after World War II.

In the Cold War era, the Rand Corporation and others pioneered mathematical modeling of international relations, etc. This level of abstraction-fantasy is useless for practical foreign policy in the real world. Professors in the Ivory Towers have made careers with it though and still do.

McNamara loved his little mathematical models and charts, too. I remember press photos of him pointing to his charts and graphs..."Whiz Kid" like Kagan and McChrystal etal. today."

Mr. Kiracofe,

Unfortunately the U.S. is an engineering society. Hence all problems seem to have a technical solution (not!), the U.S. army is basically still Jominian in its worldview (OODA loop) rather than a Clausewitzian one. Hence the idea that concepts mathematically formulated with finesse are the panaceas to war along with other related issues.

"Whiz kids" like those gentlemen you've mentioned above are just merely reinventing the wheel, like those management "gurus" with their catchy phrases back in the 90s.

Col. Lang and his generation of warriors paid the price in serving the nation by adhering to the slide-rule war formulae coined by Ivory Tower warlords like McNamara et al., guess the present generation of young "grunts" are likewise paying it in blood for the decisions of these so-called COIN "experts".

"An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.": Niels Henrik David Bohr



Seems to me this is just as much about the 'core competencies' of Army SF as it is about Afghanistan. Gant's article is a bit of pushback against those that would have Green Berets as nothing more than bi lingual door kickers, imho. Bravo for his efforts.


FB Ali


The key question is: What is the US goal in Afghanistan?

In another thread you have recognized that it is to retain long-term power and influence in the country and region (“it is not politically possible on the world scene for the United States to abandon Afghanistan to the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Indians or whomever”). This, of course, is part of the expressed aims of the neocons, and, presumably, also of the US military-security establishment.

So far the policy followed by the US to achieve this goal has been to establish a friendly, client government in Kabul. McChrystal’s proposed strategy was in line with this. However, the election has driven home the reality that this was not a workable policy. (That the policy was intrinsically flawed could have been learned earlier from the Iraq experience).

The strategy you now see evolving would serve a policy of maintaining US clout and influence in the area through a long-term, direct US military presence there. I doubt if it can succeed. Garrisoning towns, COINing inside the ‘perimeter’, TETing in the villages looks great on paper, but it won’t work in a population that has fought, and defeated, foreigners for millenia. The US has tried it before in Vietnam. Even in Iraq, where the majority Shia needed you till they built up their own forces, you couldn’t stay on after you had outlived your usefulness. You said, The military art is the art of the possible. Under present conditions, it’s just not possible.

The other big flaw in this policy is that in trying to hold Afghanistan you could lose Pakistan to a hostile regime. And, how long will your country, hard-pressed economically, support these imperial adventures?

William Polk in his essay on Juan Cole’s blog makes a very realistic analysis of the options that face the US, and their likely outcomes. The policy that he proposes ‒ an organized exit ‒ is the best of the lot. It makes eminent sense if the US goal were in fact to prevent al-Qaeda and other jihadists from establishing a base in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this seems to be just for public consumption. I wonder if the delay in Obama’s decision has been due to a protracted battle by the military-security establishment to convert him to their real goal in Afghanistan.

Patrick Lang

Brigadier FB Ali

The neocons? "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then." Von Rumsfeld

"The US has tried it before in Vietnam." Ah. In fact our efforts in Vietnam were quite succesful. We achieved a fair amount of stability in the country before we left under the terms of the ceasefire that we achieved with North Vietnam. Two years later the US Congress defunded any possibility of any future US support for SVN. THe North Vietnamese correctly interpreted that law and then over ran the country in a CONVENTIONAL campaign. Remember the photos of NVA tanks in the streets of Saigon?

With regard to ultimate ends and goals in Afghanistan. I am quite willing to see a complete withdrawal in circumstances that indicate that Afghanistan will not become a state dominated by "political Islamism." pl

Patrick Lang


"Col. Lang and his generation of warriors paid the price in serving the nation by adhering to the slide-rule war formulae coined by Ivory Tower warlords like McNamara et al."

You don't know me if you think I "adhered" to anything the techno-nuts advocated. pl

Brad Ruble

I think Major Gant and those like him are on the right track.
As a practical matter though,if we are going to interact with tribes maybe we should look back a hundred and fifty years and see how the people in this country did it.
There were some very smart people out here at that time. I think there are some lessons that can be learned.
There is a fundamental problem though. I still don't know why we're there. Bill Moyer's Journal on Friday night explains some of the dynamic, but only some.
Money, power, momentum, ideology, a lot of people who just really want to help. OK. I'm not buying the Al-Qa'ida taking over stuff. These are tribes and this isn't 1999. Those guy's in the hills are as smart as we are and they saw what happened in 2001.
It almost seems like the Country Joe song "what are we fightin' for, don't ask me I don't give a damn, my next stop is Viet Nam".
In 1968 I was an E-3 and I asked an E-6 friend of mine what kind of changes he'd seen since he joined up in the mid '40's. The biggest difference he saw was "you can't bullshit Pvt. Jones anymore". When you tell him something you have to be able to explain why. For good or ill, that's the way it is. That's true all over.
If the people who run my government can't explain to me why we are using up our kids how can anyone really expect me to support what they are trying to do. They have no standing.
In the end we just waste another generation of Major Gant's. For me that's not acceptable but I'm at a loss for what to do.
Wouldn't it be nice to win one someday.


Col., sir:

My sincere apologies, sir. I guess I did ass.u.me a lil' too much...

I never was one to adhere to any rules or regulations either (f*** 'em). Good thing I never did join any military or political establishment. I'd probably end up as the biggest pain-in-the-a**.

Long live the mavericks! (a toast to you & the rest of 'em John Boyd types in the U.S. of A.)


Dear Pat,

I greatly appreciate your highlighting of the Gant paper and note that it was presented with an implicit endorsement by Ignatius and Cordesman, two influential figures for different reasons with whom I think you have disagreed on many of these matters as they have evolved.

I cannot disagree with your critique of the tragic end of the American involvement in Vietnam because I was too young at the time to appreciate that potential reality through the acrid smoke of public fatigue and the pall of apparent excesses... and that was the ultimate problem, n'est pas?

As the President and his colleagues prepare the new approach for public airing, I wonder how you and your fellow commentators would respond to these three questions:

- How does the very interesting methodology presented by Major Gant impact the larger "Pashtunistan" conundrum? Beyond the issues of scale and internal stresses, and even if it worked in Afghanistan, what about the interactions with the bordering tribal regions in Pakistan?

- Are there concrete reasons to believe that "one tribe at a time" is more (or less) durable in Afghanistan versus Iraq? For example, how does the rather clear-cut distinction between Shia, Kurd, and Sunni in both regional and political terms in Iraq compare with the notion of something like 40,000 tribes diffused throughout Afghanistan (and especially along the border with Pakistan)?

- Is it viable for Obama to simultaneously present both a surge in troops, however modest and yet necessary, and a timeline for the drawdown, however concrete and yet contingent? It sounds all too much like the "triggered public option" in the health care reform debate... both in the sense that it seems like a half-hearted approach that will soften neither of the hardened sides of the debate enough to lead to a durable consensus, and to the degree that it represents an honest reflection of the conundrum in which instant shifts in policy and practice are impossible if only due to the logistical and institutional inertia involved.

The first two questions are asked with no hidden agenda. The third point will be key, of course, because the only policy that can stand the test of time - meaning the next two or three years - will be one through which the President can gather a consensus from both sides of the aisle (IMHO, I believe that he can with the clear support of the key figures in the administration, in uniform, and in the Congress)...

Thanks again, Pat, for your contributions (and those of your more thoughtful correspondents...) to these deliberations in the public realm.

William R. Cumming

I have given up worrying about the US 'goal' for Afghanistan. My worry now is what is Obama's goal for the US over next two decades and as far out as November 2012. Is there a shared vision that voters in the US understand? What is interesting is watching the Republicans cover all the bases no matter what choices he makes! Now that is really thinking ahead. If constancy, and a fundamental approach to US foreign relations and foreign affairs is that whatever the US does is supposed to advance mankind and serve good, there is no consensus on what should be done. Do we (US) ever listen to those who know more and are more competent? Not-invented-here I guess if patented would be held by the US!


Pat... just a correction request because I should have said "40,000 villages" rather than "tribes"...

... but is it a reality that Afghan villages are generally smaller and are less bound to a common political (or religious) identity - other than Muslim and/or Afghan - than their Iraqi equivalents?

That was the point of the inquiry.

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