The Horror, the Horror: Afghanistan Edition

A paper by Maj. Jim Gant, titled, “One Tribe at a Time” (.pdf), has been getting all sorts of attention since it ran on Steven Pressman’s site a few weeks back. I finally got down to reading it last night after Andrew Exum flagged it as an alternative to COIN in Afghanistan.

Where to begin? The paper is a collection of nativist mythologies that have run as a theme throughout the West’s imperial age. Last of the Mohicans? Lawrence of Arabia? Dances with Wolves? They’re in there. So is an element of Stockholm Syndrome, for that matter. The problem arises not with Lawrence, of course, but with his evil twin, Kurtz, who has already served as a symbol of colonial-era (Heart of Darkness) and modern American (Apocalypse Now) hubris.

And if that seems like hyperbole, consider that Gant’s narrative begins with his apparently arbitrary and unilateral decision to take the side of one tribal chieftain over a rival group from within the same tribe, based solely on his gut feeling. Happily for Gant, it turned out that the subsequent alliance — which included him arming his “host tribe” — resulted in benefits for him and his squad. But how do you operationalize gut feeling?

Gant calls for small, autonomous units to essentially “go native” in order to win over allegiance at the tribal level. But how can the fragmented alliances that result be coordinated into a broader strategy? And what happens if one autonomous unit’s alliance conflicts with another’s? Or if it conflicts with the chain of command’s broader objectives? In other words, how do we establish unity of effort and command over such a network of alliances, when the Afghans themselves have not been able to?

As for Gant’s subsequent contention that his plan represents a “light footprint COIN” approach, he himself points out that he and his team were safer in the village than in their outpost, and that he was unable to prevent the attacks the village suffered as a result of its cooperation. In other words, there’s a real confusion about who was protecting whom.

Anyone who has worked in a helping role — whether in social work, aid and development, and apparently population-centric counterinsurgency — has witnessed (or lived) the phenomenon of a line worker identifying with the target population, especially when the line worker is subject to extended immersion within the social structure of the targeted population. Inevitably, it leads to a confusion of loyalties and friction with the broader institutional goals. There’s a very delicate balance between listening to and empathizing with the people you’re trying to help, and maintaining defined boundaries — to identify their needs, without identifying with them. But it’s an essential balance to strike, because the helping relationship is by its very nature vulnerable to manipulation and abuse, on both sides.

What’s also overlooked — by Gant, but also by more conventional COIN theory — is the fact that intervening in a social system creates both winners and losers. COIN bases its methodology in large part on the assumption that losers will shift loyalties in order to compete for the benefits on offer. Again, the lessons from the helping professions show that this is far from a foregone conclusion. The resulting power imbalances within the indigenous structure can instead lead to increased — and rigidified — resentment and hostility toward the helping professional.

Gant’s story is a remarkable and courageous one that resonates with us for many of the same reasons that this kind of narrative historically has. But the fact that people are clinging to the operational solutions he offers is a testament to the fact that there are simply no good options in Afghanistan.