January 18, 2010

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan

Maj. Jim Gant is, well, going Gant.

Christian and the Security Crank both let fly with both barrels.

Maj. Gant, for those just joining us, is the leading proponent of the "arm the tribes" solution to Afghanistan at the moment, who has grown popular for his advocacy for small Special Forces type teams disappearing into the mountains and essentially going native.

I've already cited my own concerns about the Gant approach, which aren't as extensive or condemnatory as those others.

Yes, it's absolutely true what Christian says, "Using “tribe” as your dominant analytical tool will lead to failure [in Afghanistan]. The individual is important. Even if it is not as obvious as in western Europe."

And it's true that Maj. Gant's writing is frequently lacking in both discretion and any kind of academic rigour, and certainly presumes too much in believing his approach in the eastern highlands could ever be replicated across all of Afghanistan, which is too complex a country for any "one size fits all" approach. There should also be serious concerns about how to keep any approach from undercutting parallel Afghan security force development efforts. He's clearly a rough-hewn fellow, one whose close association with sword-and-sandals fiction author Steven Pressfield has both helped and hurt. (And yes, the Washington Post piece on his being sent to Afghanistan is embarrassingly fawning.)

That said, I'd still have to agree wholeheartedly with the "smaller footprint" part of the argument he's making. Greater integration of Western forces with existing Afghan security structures, even the ad hoc, tribal kind, is a must. Getting out and living with the people is a must. We can't look down from on high and hope that's going to help. Given a choice between the continued kind of utter isolation we saw this year in incidents like the Kunduz tanker bombing and the Gant approach writ large, I'd still favour the latter. Insofar as he is an advocate for engagement qua engagement, he's in the right.

Also, the guy's a fluent Pashto speaker, who seems to genuinely like the Afghans he knows, and has no problem foregoing personal security and creature comforts and sharing risk and hardships living among them. The real problem isn't that there's a Maj. Gant. The problem is that, for whatever reason, and despite years of effort, we don't have more Gant-types in the western military contingents in Afghanistan than we do yet to compare and contrast with him. We should have had a lot more people with Maj. Gant's experiences behind them by now... and if we had, I daresay we'd be doing a lot better than we have been.

Maj. Gant doesn't have the history to really situate his ideas, but when he's talking about the tribes, what he's really evoking is dialling down the level of military engagement, back to a time (call it the 19th century on the Northwest Frontier) that talking about "the tribes" was top-notch stuff. Back then, Gant-ishness made sense, because it was the only thing possible, logistically. Nowadays we have almost no logistical limitations that matter, and it has led us to go in too heavy and too intrusively, too expansively right from the start... to the point where dialling things back down to something sensible and sustainable like "let's do what we need to do keep the Afghan urban majority safe and content, and not try to push further into their hinterland than their own government's writ extends, other than maybe with some Gant-style teams and bribery" seems ever so far away.

Maj. Gant is really one more version, a very flawed but personally charismatic one, of the increasingly general call for the Afghan military effort to return to some sense of reality, and he should probably only be engaged as such, not as a universal blueprint for success or anything. And frankly I very much doubt the American military leadership who's brought him back to Afghanistan sees him as anything much more than that. I give them that much credit.

War effort critics like Christian and the Crank, who come at Afghanistan from the academic, socio-political-anthropological field, and who both have extensive in-country "down among the central Asians" experience themselves, may not be seeing any commonality there, so caught up as they are in all the obvious and lamentable failings of the good Major's philosophy and writing. But the two of them and the Gantians seem really flip sides of the same coin in some ways, too. They don't need to like Maj. Gant, but I hope they wouldn't see him as an unremitting threat, either. Because unlike some people in the military they may have tried to work with in the past, Maj. Gant, or at least someone who had read and respected Maj. Gant, might be just the kind of guy who might actually listen to them and try to operationalize their work someday. Just saying.

Posted by BruceR at 08:56 AM