The Tribes

More interesting news is coming out of Kabul as the drive-by media continues its impressive efforts trying to explain our Commander in Chief’s continuing dithering on what to do about Afghanistan. His obvious attempt at moving President Karzai out of the way has ended in abject failure straining relations with the Kabul government to the point of breaking and driving Karzai right into the hands of the very people we have been trying to get off the Afghan stage. An excellent explanation on how the administration completely screwed themselves, the Afghans and the rest of us can be found in this Power Line post.

But the stupidity of our current administrations efforts are not what got the blood up this morning….what do you expect from a President with no prior executive experience and Hillary Clinton?  This article from the New York Times about tribes resisting the Taliban is why I’m pounding away on the laptop in a Dubai hotel lobby. Authored by Dexter Filkins the article announces a new strategy to called the Community Defense Initiative which is designed to engage and arm the tribes in the east and south. The article talks about our bearded Special Forces helicoptering into Nangarhar Provinces Achin district with flour and some other nonsense to support the tribal chiefs who have run out the Taliban. It talks about other SF soldiers “fanning our across the country” to engage the tribes and support them in defending their lands and way of life from depredations by the Taliban. Dexter Filkins writes a great article and it is worth reading but unfortunately as in most things published by the New York Times it is complete bullshit.

Chief Ajmal Khan Zaizi who has been featured in a series of blog posts by Steven Pressfield  and is a friend of The Boss. The Boss gave Ajmal a very competent Ghost Team member to start some major cash for work programs in his tribal area on the Pakistan border. We had worked out the logistics of going into the Jaji valley which is surrounded by areas under Taliban control and sent out a query to the local US Army COP about using their LZ to fly our guy out when he was finished. Here is the response we received:


Thank you for your message. Any development project in Jaji would be great, but I would like to ensure that it ties into the district development list/tribal development list, in order to ensure that the district leadership is not undermined.

Unfortunately, Ahjmal Khan Jaji is not a tribal leader at all. I do not want you to come into this environment thinking that to be a fact.

Additionally, the security force of Amir Muhammad is an illegal force that is not endorsed by MOI.

The facts are that Azad Khan, the Jaji Sub Governor, has a great relationship with the tribes a focus for his district. The ANSF in this area (ANP and ABP) are a professional/legitimate force that does a tremendous job in keeping the best security for the people.

Yes indeed the Jaji Sub Governor has everything under control, the security situation is fine, and the tribes apparently content. That seems to be at odds with everything anybody knows about the portion of Paktia Province which borders Pakistan but there it is. How can the local American Army commander be so stupid you are no doubt asking yourself and the answer is he probably isn’t stupid – he is doing what he has been told to do.

You see the American military is an effective military leviathan which, unlike most other components of American society is focused on one thing – its assigned missions.   Mission accomplishment trumps everything else for the military and they are expected and will forfeit their lives and the lives of their men to accomplish their assigned missions.   The main mission for our military in Afghanistan is to nurture and support GoIRA – the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.  In most places we know and work in the government is more of a problem for the local people than the Taliban. This is a well documented fact which has zero impact on the American military.

Tribal Chiefs like Ajmal Zaizi are focused on their people and must protect them from outsiders who try to take their lands, rape their children, and disrupt the delicate balance of tribal social mores which allow all to live in peace. I have not heard of one reported rape of a child by Taliban but you can find dozens of articles about Afghan Security Forces being accused of that heinous crime with a simple goggle search. So when a tribal chief drives all the unsavory characters preying on his people off his lands who is it that he is driving out?  In Ajmal’s case it was both the Taliban and the GIRoA officials appointed by the Karzai government in Kabul.

Thus a western educated, populist style leader who has been on the run from the Taliban, who lost his father to the Taliban, who has driven out the Taliban, established good order and discipline in his strategic valley and even reached across the border into Pakistan to strike up alliances with the hard pressed Shia tribes located in the Parrots Beak area (didn’t know there were Shia there did you?  Me either but I know how important that is and also how much those people need friends like us) is now considered by the U.S. Army to be an AOG leader.   AOG means “Armed Opposition Group” which means Ajmal is now lumped in with the Taliban and drug barons.

If a tribe is strong enough to stand up to the Taliban it is also strong enough to stand up to crooked politicians appointed by Kabul and their pedophile policemen. In areas with a strong governor and decent infrastructure like Nangarhar Province the tribes do not have problems with Afghan Security Forces because they will tolerate no misbehavior and the governor would be prone to quickly, decisively and one hopes brutally deal with miscreants who rape and pillage the population they are supposed to be protecting. In isolated portions of the country with little infrastructure and a weak provincial government this is not the case and thus men like Ajmal do what they have to do to secure their people and that means driving predatory government and security forces off their lands.

The FOB bound local American military units have little ability to observe or understand what is happening. They rarely leave their bases and when they do they have such large areas to cover that they can do little more than a “drive by” to show the flag or hand out some food stuffs or meaningless trinkets. The Americans have a mission to support GIRoA. Tribes with the cohesion and combat power to drive parasitic representatives of GIRoA off their lands are by default bad guys even if those same tribes are also keeping the Taliban wolf away from their door.

I know that I make this point over and over but feel compelled to point out yet again that one cannot “do” counterinsurgency by commuting daily from a large FOB. The concept of “bearded Special Forces” fanning out all over the country to help the tribal chiefs is a joke. What needs to happen is to put American troops into these tribal areas to live with, train with, and become allies with those tribes. There is no other way and you don’t need “Special Forces” for that mission – regular infantry can do the job with no additional training. The SF guys should shave off those beards anyway – 8 years of incompetently planned and executed “HVT” missions have given them a bad reputation while accomplishing nothing of strategic significance. What the hell is this helicoptering into Achin district by the “bearded soldiers” to pass out flour all about anyway? They could drive into the damn district in less than an hour, rent a nice safe house, move in and hang out for a year or two thus demonstrating a little commitment to the local tribes while simultaneously actually learning something about the place and its people. If they were really smart they would leave the beards, shed the uniform, rent local vehicles and ditch the stupid MRAP’s – that way the bad guys would not be able to target them with IED’s so easily – but that kind of thinking appears to be a bridge too far for the army these days.

The American military is a world leading institution when it comes to developing and using emerging technology.   Unfortunately that technology now allows our bloated, top heavy staffs to micromanage units in the field to an unprecedented degree. The results were predictable back in the 80’s when my Marine peers and I were first dealing with the impact of satellite position reporting systems, radios which actually worked most of the time and commanders who had video screens in their operations centers. What we predicted back then and are seeing today is the stifling of initiative on the ground combined with the removal of the tactical decision making by the commander on the ground. Our OODA loop has now been slowed down so much by the ability of multiple staffs far removed from the battle to insert themselves into the process that we risk becoming as slow and cumbersome as the old Soviet Army. If we do not step away from the computers, comfortable quarters, lavish DFAC’s and get our collective asses out into the field to really protect the population we are going to end up with another mark is the “lost” column. There is no excuse for that.

34 Replies to “The Tribes”

  1. Tim,

    Thanks for the post and I am glad you were able to provide the real deal on this story. I saw it too, and it would have been very easy for the non-initiated to accept it at face value.
    What I am starting to see is a trend in thought here, with the ‘underground think tank’. It is the bloggers, authors, and commenters that are coming up with the ideas of common sense. Guys like you and Yon and Pressfield and Maj. Gant and Bing West are all contributing to a picture that is clear and concise, not foggy and unclear. Pure shared reality, and I love it.
    I wouldn’t mind seeing those guys pop up in the comments section to share their thoughts on this stuff as well. Especially Pressfield, because of his tribe focused blog. S/F -matt

  2. Ditto. Great post.


    The comments about the SF guys may be a bit hasty or uninformed.

    From what SF Major Gant has written (“One Tribe At A Time”), he advocates the very things that Tim advocates– long term commitment, building real relationships with the locals, local garb, vehicles etc– and decries the same things that Tim does– the fly-by-night approach, the knee-jerk promotion of corrupt GOA institutions, MRAP’s etc…

    Whether a regular infantry unit could as well in working with the tribes/locals as the SF guys is debatable as this is not about mainly tactics and firepower but about the relationships and offering the Locals ASSISTANCE, not control.

    Everything that Tim has written on his blog is a testament to how much can be done by someone who simply understands the Locals and how to partner with them. Tim routinely goes into place considered “no go” and does it without MRAP’s, overwhelming firepower or heavy security details. How? The Locals have seemingly got his back. What Tim brings to the table is important to them and they make sure that Tim and his workers stay safe.

    The NY Times article by Dexter Filkins does demonstrate what Tim has written about on at least one occasion from his own, personal experience: that the Locals make it clear to the Taliban that they do not want the Afghan engineers working on the local water project touched and the Taliban ignore this to their peril.

    As much as I hate the FOB-centric strategy in A-stan right now, maybe we can take a bad situation and at least leverage those FOB’s by using them as quick reaction forces (mainly air assets) to be called upon by the SF’s embedded with the Locals when/if the bad guys try to overrun an area.

    1. Fair one as The Bot would say. I should not insinuate that the SF guys on the ground are anything other than good troops doing the best they can. It is the leadership which dictates the mission and as all my friends and peers currently serving are at the senior Colonel/junior General Officer rank I feel much more comfortable critiquing them. The beard thing cuts many different ways – I wear one because with it and local clothes I am not so recognizable from a distance. Even with perfect language skills (which I do not have) I could not fool any locals as to who I am. Westerners walk differently, have different body shapes, use our hands differently etc….

      Were I an SF soldier in Afghanistan today and wanted to disguise who I was I would go in uniform clean shaven. Most locals know what men in uniform with a beard are and in most places their reputation is not too good.

  3. Love your post and your observations are no doubt correct, but you do seem to have a big chip on your shoulder about our government and military. Good you’re in Afghanistan to work it out; back here, you’d probably be shooting squirrels.

    1. I’m an apex predator dude and do not go after small game – thought the blog would make that sort of thing clear.

  4. Undoubtedly these “unnamed elders” were the ones we were working with last year to do this exact thing. Of course, ISAF & Co. balked at arming and assisting locals because Achin, after all, was as safe as Disneyland, and if we were reporting armed Taliban roaming openly we must be making it up or over-reacting. Besides, there’s an ABP OP down there, with so many guys that they can’t even cover their own security, plus a few hashish-stoned ANP at the DC, so they’ve got it covered. And the ANP and ABP are totally on the up-and-up, not protecting the poppy and weapons bazaar.

    I’m not of your opinion vis-a-vis beards, but you probably are okay with that.

    1. Dude – that is a true statement – I also need to not blog while hanging out with Ken in the Hofbrauhaus in Dubai.

  5. 1. Very discouraging.
    2. What pony should our (…) leadership hitch their cart to?
    3. Is there an alternative to the Mayor of Kabul and his cronies?
    4. The COIN mission takes too much time and patience.
    5. Don’t see my fellow citizens putting up with it for much longer.
    6. It is not what the miltary (Army) is structured to accomplish.
    7. If our national survival depended on accomplishment of the mission, we’d be sunk.
    8. The survival of the Afghan nation, as presently constituted, does depend on it. God help them.
    V/R JWest

  6. From a bunker buried deep in the Maryland red clay swamps…

    Thank you (for the words). Hope you don’t mind the links (to you) and the blogrolling (of you).


  7. Bro,
    Absolutely brilliant post. I guess clearing Afgh airspace and not being in the close proximity of the neuron sucking ethos of the big box FOBs has given you rest and levity. We have alot of work to do Babba.

  8. The cause of Obama’s “dithering” is that the March strategic review didn’t look at costs. When he got the bill ($1 million per soldier up front and billions down range in long term costs)he rightly got sticker shock and now is about to authorize an escalation he doesn’t actually believe will work militarily but hopefully will limit democratic congressional casualties in 2010.

    Fighting an optional war when the POTUS and an increasing majority of Americans don’t support it with borrowed trillions is guaranteed to be a losing combination. Gant’s tactics at the village level are interesting and the fact that he claims some success early in the war is nice but just as with French, USSF and USMC efforts in Indo-China, is irrelevant to the strategic question. Strategy always trumps operations and tactics. Just ask the Wehrmacht.

    1. I am one of the few bloggers who consistently raises the issue of cost versus benefit regarding how we are fighting this conflict. I also do not believe for one second that this facet of the operation has anything to do with Obama’s dithering. Our current President has spent more money in his first 9 months than any other President has during their entire administrations and most of that money has been wasted. He clearly has no concept of “cost” or “benefit” which is exactly what one would expect from a man with his limited, hyper partisan background.

      If Obama acted like a competent leader; said the military has no solutions and its performance is abysmal, the Karzai Government an unacceptable partner, that we have no money for this and our primary goal of driving Al Qeada out of the country was obtained long ago I would be most impressed and would opine that although I do agree with him his decisiveness worthy of a true world leader (and would immediately point out that Obama is doing what Rumsfield said we should do back in 01.)

      But Obama is not decisive nor does he act, talk or think like a true world leader. Obama is performing just like an inexperienced Battalion level commander performs after he successfully maneuvers himself back into the fleet having spent a career avoiding the responsibility and headaches which always accompany command. He spends all his time pointing out the shortfalls of the man who preceded him, hides behind his staff, and never makes a decision on principal but instead relies on some sort of consensus building model designed to deflect blame away from him in case the decision turns out poorly.

      The reason I would not agree with Obama in the scenario above is that this decision is cannot be made using a return on investment model. The reputation and ability of our country to see through what it has started is on the line. The full faith and confidence in the United States of America is what is hanging in the balance – these abstract ideas cannot be measured in dollars nor can the consequences of failure be anticipated at this point in time.

      The attack of 9/11 was not an attack on the American people – it was an attack on the global financial system designed to cripple the free market. If an attack of that magnitude happens again we do not have the adult leadership in Washington capable of rapidly containing the damage and getting the economy back on its feet. The current administration is comprised of the most corrupt partisans to ever lead our nation – their ability to flaunt our laws and not be held to account is unprecedented. You can dream all you want about a thoughtful, wise, and super smart leader who is carefully thinking through exactly how to proceed in Afghanistan. Those of us who live at the pointy end of the spear know exactly what is going on and even though a vast majority of us do not agree with the POTUS and are disgusted by our congress we will faithfully execute the missions handed down from on high. People like me (military folks both active duty and retired) swore to defend the Constitution and will do so until the bitter end regardless of who is in power and what we think of their decisions. But you have to remember this bit of wisdom taught to all young officers; “you cannot bullshit the troops – they may not have college degrees and may do stupid things on a regular basis but they also know intuitively when they are being lied to.”

  9. Ha ha ha OODA loop. Had not seen that one in a while. You get 100 points for using that in a sentence.

    Seriously. I could not agree more with the need to de-emphasize the day-raids by “Special Forces” even if the mission is humanitarian in nature it is only seen for what it is; a temporary approach to problem solving. What is required, as you rightly point out, is for people to live/eat/sleep/work among the Afghan populous both to protect them from Talibs but also to build infrastructure and provide meaningful services.

    Now then: Who says that this role should be lead by the military? All of this ‘working with the locals’ business is the purview of the U.S. Dept of State/USAID. Our soldiers/Marines are not nation builders. Never have been, never will/should be. The problem here is the Mil is being asked to do a job they are not suited for because DoS/USAID cannot pull their end of the rope. FULL STOP. Our foreign policy ambitions are moving at a pace that the DoS cannot keep up with. The success equation is pretty simple, in principle it goes as follows.

    Success = A+B+C

    A = NATO provides security and counter terrorism (CT)
    B = NATO trains ANA/ANP
    C = DoS/USAID cleans up the corruption and does the nation building

    There is no hope of accomplishing component C. So there won’t be any lasting Success. Corruption is not being dealt with within the government. The U.S. is viewed as complicit with the continued corruption. Therefore we are viewed as the occupying aggressor.

    Listen, I wish we had a nimble DoD who could adapt to the needs of this conflict and get off the FOBs. I wish we had a competent DoS capable of rebuilding a primitive country. I wish for a lot of things but wishing doesn’t make them come true. Time to face facts.

    1. Great comments Jake and glad to see you back online again. When are you coming over for a visit?


  10. Dude, the “young Captain” who sent that reply from the local Army COP near Jaji has recently, and quietly, been re-assigned. Looks like its “game on” with Chief Ajmal after all, Inshallah.

    1. So I hear and being one for high adventure I asked The Boss to wait until I get back before sending you to Jaji so I can make the first trip out there with you. There is a post in the making – and the post on Zarang will be started after I watch the Cowboys get their butts kicked later in the day Inshallah.

  11. Jake,

    Amen brother. As much as the DoD drives me crazy, the DoS is even worse. Unless substantial reform is initiated soon, we will lose this war because of the Afghan governmnent’s horrendous corruption. How in the hell am I supposed to look an Afghan village elder in the eye and tell him to “trust the government,” when I know that GIRoA officials will potentially be more trouble than the Taliban? Additionally, we grunts here on the ground can only do so much to dissuade the ANSF leadership we’re supposed to mentor from taking bribes, selling fuel, and other racketeering. The corruption all starts at the very top, and if the higher-level DoS government “mentors” cannot curtail it at their level, there is nothing the DoD can do to stop the ball from rolling downhill. And no, hanging out the Minister of Hajj and Islamic Affairs as the sacrificial lamb is not going to cut it:

    1. Well said Sister E but like Jake I do not see reform happening on the scale needed anytime soon. Welcome to the world of PBI (poor bloody infantry.) Remember it could always be worse. Hope you and the good Colonel have a happy Thanksgiving, stay safe and I will see you and your crew again next month for Christmas dinner. I’ll bring the wine……just kidding….heaven forbid that American military officers enjoy a good bottle of wine with Christmas dinner….what was I thinking. (I’ve got 3 bottles stashed but keep it quiet.)

  12. Tim,
    As one who has walked the mile and spent the year in A-Stan I applaude you and the job you are doing. To those who are doing the arm chair coaching, if you have not been there, I ask you to qualify your comments. There is much truth in the article and the commnets posted here. If you do not believe it be my guest to come over and see for yourself the truth of the matter.

    Enjoy your break. It will be here when you return. 🙂

  13. Tim: If the only thing to salvage from Afghanistan is US prestige there are two obvious questions.

    How much is US prestige worth? It’s not priceless so at $1 million per soldier per year plus another 200% for long term costs there must be a limit. Using the White House press secretaries date of “not past 2017″ the cost of the mission comes to about $2 trillion (four years of escalation followed by four years of draw down but not including whatever ‘enduring bases” are left).

    More importantly what will having the dollar cease to be the reserve currency do for US prestige?

    1. Brother what is obvious to me is that our country should be able to financially support the deployment of 60,000 soldiers for as long as it takes to get the job done. What is also obvious to me is that we are wasting billions because our various government agencies are unable to make accurate security assessments, deploy their personnel accordingly, and have those personnel live like I do without the lavish infrastructure found in Big Box FOBs or the Embassy compound.

      We cannot afford to spend at the rate we are spending in Afghanistan indefinitely without cutting back in other expenditures but that would require adult leadership from the White House and congress. We do not have that nor will we until the 2010 election cycle. My point is that because we have elected weak inexperienced President and a whole capitol building full of the most corrupt politicians I have seen in my lifetime should not automatically result in a cut and run strategy based on polling data which shows the neither the military nor the Afghans can generate enough votes to defeat democrats in the next election cycle.

      But there is no question that the expense per soldier deployed is ridiculously high. That is why I am a huge advocate of paying guys like me gigantic sums of money to get the job done instead of deploying more troops. I just can’t find the right people to talk to yet – maybe someday soon inshallah. I have three kids in college; no law degree and a frigging honest accountant. A desperate man is a brave man and I suspect when the current administration is done with our economy I’m going to become very brave.

    2. The relative worth of U.S. prestige will be valued lower by people who are ashamed of their country and think America has much to apologize for, and higher by people who are proud of their country and think America has much to brag about.

      “Face” and prestige are matters of life and death. Ask anybody with a Death Before Dishonor tat.

  14. Great post. I agree with your ideas. I, too, recommended something similiar…..get off of the FOBs and put US troops in the villages, longer deployments for US advisors (18-24 months), get away from commuter COIN ops.

    While in A’stan (Kandahar), I spoke with several local shop owners who did not want to be seen with us because they would be targeted once we left the area. We could mitigate that by living in those communities and ensuring safety for the locals, as well as training the ANSF.

    Perhaps our NCA ought to relook the idea of a “surge” and the hope of “success” by 2012 or 2017 or whatever nearterm date they select, and plan for a long-term (50+ years?) commitment in A’stan in order to assist the Afghans and help bring them out of the Dark Ages.

  15. The tactical solution to pacifying a village- “living off the FOBS” doesn’t address the strategic problems- paying for an very expensive war with borrowed money within the context of a weakening economy, decreasing support for the war in the west,and the lack of decent local or national Afghan government. On top of these problems are questions about logistics, force protection and the ability of the US Army to generate troops to live in villages without doing harm.

    It’s possible the “combat action platoon” model might work to pacify more villages in Afghanistan but the US probably lacks the time and the quality and quantity of forces needed to make any progress stick. How the central government is to take control of the country after every village militia has been armed and trained by US forces (which is in contradiction to FM 3-24) also remains to be answered.

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