The Tribes – A Bottom Up Approach
The last post generated quite a few interesting comments about the Steven Pressfield Blog, Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai, and the prospect of using specialized troops to embed with the tribes and possible be used for cross border sanctuary denial work. With the election now decided this is an excellent time to talk about the tribes and more importantly a bottom up approach. The government in Kabul is not going to change – in fact they are already firing a shot across the bow of the entire international community sending a message that is easy to decipher. Check out this email which came from a senior security manager in Kabul last night:
Last night the Lounge Restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan was raided by police and all their liquor confiscated. They were also on their way to Gandamak but it was already closed. I made a phone call to the Regional Police Commander for Kabul who confirmed that the police is indeed conducting raids on restaurants for 2 reasons:
- Restaurants selling liquor are illegal
- Restaurants are being closed because of an outbreak of swine flu.
You are thus instructed not to visit any restaurants until further notice.
The restaurants servicing internationals in Kabul have been operating on average for six years now and are licensed, legal establishments who pay a ton in taxes and other charges to the local government officials. All of them openly sell liquor and always have – this kind of stuff has nothing to do with the rule of law or swine flu. The Kabul government can do what the Taliban cannot yet do and that is drive out foreign aid dollars and international aid workers if they insist on making life hard for them here and visa’s hard to get anywhere.
There will be little improvement in the ability of the central government which makes the option of bottom up change very appealing. Author Steven Pressfield, one of my all time favorite writers, started a blog in which has has posted a number of interviews with Chief Ajmal Khan Azazi who has formed a 11 tribe alliance in the Zazai valley of Paktia Province – an area which is astride the Pakistan border and thought to be under Taliban control. The interviews are remarkable for several reasons not the least of which is that Ajmal’s tribal fighters have driven both the Kabul government officials (who they consider to be corrupt and ineffective) as well as various Taliban bands out of their tribal lands.
I know Ajmal and have had two meetings with him in Dubai. He is good friends with The Boss and we are trying to get some cash for work projects going in his area. As you read through the various interviews with Chief Zazai you will notice instantly that he makes perfect sense and knows what he is talking about. Afghanistan has never been effectively ruled by a central government in Kabul and the one that is there now is no exception. If we want to try a bottom up approach it is going to have to be done by partnering with tribal leaders like Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai.
There is a plan out there which outlines a solid concept of employment and you can find it on the Pressfield blog. Major Jim Gant is a Special Forces Officer who has written a paper called “One Tribe At A Time” and the link to download it is on the homepage. It is a great paper especially as he relates his experience in the Kunar Province back in 2003 when the Special Forces has much more freedom of action than they do today. Major Gant succinctly covers why out approach today is not and will not work and then goes on to recommend a strategy based of Tribal Engagement Teams. I like the part where he describes patrolling with his tribal hosts without body armor or helmets. If we are going to fight with the tribes we have to fight like they do and that means no body armor if they have none. Wearing body armor in the high mountains is stupid anyway but not all the tribes live in high mountain valleys – there are plenty of flat lander tribes too.
Fielding Tribal Engagement Teams (TET’s) is a solid idea but only as a component of a larger plan. The tribal approach which could do very well in the border areas of Pakistan but I am not sure how well it will work countrywide. There are not too many chief Azazi’s running around the country and some tribal agendas are bound to conflict with ours. But the plan is worth a read and would be fascinating to see attempted.
The French used a similar concept during the Indochina War when they deployed the Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aerportes (Composite Airborne Commando Group) known by the French initials of G.C.M.A. They would send teams of volunteers deep into the North Vietnam mountains to link up with tribes who rejected the communist government. Fifty years ago the French lacked the ability to resupply or even in some cases maintain contact with their inserted G.C.M.A. teams which consisted normally of a junior officer and four sergeants or corporals. The only way out for the G.C.M.A. team members was to be wounded, very sick, or mentally broken in which case an airplane would be sent to a remote strip for a medevac if it were possible and it often was not. Some teams went out and were never heard from again, others ended up raising and commanding entire battalions of tribal fighters. None of the men involved received proper recognition for the unbelievable efforts they put into the program because in the end they were tactically irrelevant in the large scheme of things. The Vietminh’s effective (and dreaded) 421st Intelligence Battalion hunted successful G.C.M.A. teams as soon as they surfaced and they knew what they were doing.
The Tribal Engagement Teams proposed by Major Gant would not have to endure the isolation, lack of logistical support, absence of command and control nor the multi-year long missions which made the G.C.M.A. such a bad deal. But 2003 was a long time ago and special forces troops have not been engaging tribes as Major Gant was able to do back in 2003 – their reputation is not exactly great now that they are known more for direct action missions against High Value Targets (HVT’s) than for living out amongst the tribes doing the time intensive work of counterinsurgency.
I think these TET’s do not need to be special forces troops anyway – a rifle platoon would be a better organization in most locations given that tribal villages are often clustered about farming or grazing land giving the platoon the ability to deploy its three squads into different villages which are part of the tribal cluster. Regardless of who does the mission one thing is certain and that is a tribal engagement strategy can not and will not be the central component of our Afghan strategy. There is a government in Kabul and they would have to give buy in and support to tribal engagement which means it has to be directed towards an end which Kabul finds acceptable. Plus you cannot ignore developing the Afghan Security Forces (ASF) which has to develop the capacity to operate on their own if we are ever to get our ground forces out of here.
If they are tried they cannot be used as a platform to raid Taliban staging areas in Pakistan. That would cause us more problems than it will solve – let the drones handle Waziristan – all we need are tribal militias who can control their own territory.
Despite the inherent coolness of an outfit like the French G.C.M.A. the best they could have done was nip around the margins of the Vietminh Army and they didn’t do that. The danger of a tribal engagement strategy is that tons of scarce resources are committed only to produce highly localized, marginal gain. Provinces like Helmand, Farah, Nimroz and Ghor have populations of various tribes forcibly settled there by past Afghan rulers and do not have a tribal structure like those found in the Pashtun Highland Tribes. Plus there are the Hazara’s, Tajik’s Uzbecks and others of the Northern Alliance who we cannot ignore while we train and arm their age old enemy. Nothing about Afghanistan is easy or straight forward but the TET concept is worth a shot.