I had a phone call from a long- retired senior CIA operative in the Middle East (station chief in three continents, commanded major covert paramilitary operations, and managed Near-East desk at Langley). He prefers to go these days by the pseudonym Eric Jordan, so that’s what I’ll call him. Jordan was boiling with a kind of frustrated anger.
“It makes me so damn angry to see those constant pictures of young soldiers working through all those damn fields of Afghanistan being blown up by IEDs left and right. I’m angered that this generation hasn’t learned any of the basics of how to fight with tribes.”
Jordan’s contention that flooding in tens of thousands of conventional troops into the fray in southern Afghanistan is a “wholly inappropriate” response to the current crisis. “Let the tribes fight the tribes. It’s the only system that has historically worked all over the world.”
If nothing else, Jordan suggest the US is failing to pick up any of the lessons of “the monumental exercise of CIA covert support to drive the Soviet Union superpower forces into an ignominious defeat without the use of any US military ‘boots on the ground’”; nor even Lawrence of Arabia’s stirring of Arabian tribes, not to mention the marshalling of irregular revolutionary forces in the American war of independence (I was less convinced on his latter point; my family fought on the other side!). His remarks came as a series of influential voices point out that we’re not getting it quite right.
As CNN’s Zakaria has pointed out: “Obama says the mission in Afghanistan is the defeat of Al Qaeda. The CIA director says that there are at most 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. This means that the US will spend $1 billion to fight each remaining Al-Qaeda member there this year alone. Do we need to be fighting such a MAJOR war there for so few Al Qaeda?”
“How can, he asked, the current US and NATO generals believe that putting “boots on the ground” – the boots of young inexperienced soldiers – generally unfamiliar with such irregular combat is a good strategy?”
Jordan followed up his call with an email in which he wrote: “I vacillate between anger and sadness as I watch TV, seeing young NATO troops being sent out on foot or in vulnerable vehicles on dirt tracks in the Afghan countryside to be killed – easily – by IEDs or snipers. OK, that could happen in the towns or cities also, but let the Afghan fighters do the countryside and mountain tracks, with a few grizzled covert veterans who know best how to protect themselves and their men while providing some modern support to the cooperating tribal fighters.“
“These tactics and strategy should lead to eventual tribal settlements among the Afghans that leaves the “good guys” (NATO’s side) in charge in this ancient nation with NATO troops gone, but with some covert support to keep the “good guys” fully equipped and funded. After all, although there is no such thing as “unconditional surrender” in this part of the world, and al-Qaeda no longer has their main base there.”
Talking earlier, Eric had his own memories of tribal warfare in Yemen in the 1960s. In those days, while the British and French were covertly working with tribes in the hills, when two American USAID officers were imprisoned, the Pentagon’s knee-jerk response was to propose at a Washington meeting a parachute-drop of a Green Beret team to raid the prison to free the two Americans. The operation was killed when Eric, asked to comment on the plan, told the mulit-agency gathering that the bright young Colonel and all his men would likely return in body bags. Eric suggested there was indeed a much simpler solution – parachute a smaller team to the nearby desert camp of a notorious tribal chieftain and get his men, with gold coins and a few of the latest automatic weapons to win their attention, to perform the mission on America’s behalf.
Eric also pointed out that recent archaeological evidence showed most of the Incas were killed by other Peruvian tribes, not by Francisco Pizarro’s invading Spanish. (Most Incas were eliminated with big stones and clubs, not with swords or spears). “So the Spanish had worked out tribal warfare strategy and tactics hundreds of years ago.”
In Afghanistan, Eric suggests, it is “criminal” for young NATO soldiers to be told to patrol through fields and villages arranged perfectly for deadly ambushes among a population that will never learn to a) like them, or even b) tolerate them.
The problem is the total failure to cultivate the continuing covert capability to handle and manage this kind of irregular combat, least of which is learning the relevant languages.
In the early 20th Century, British political officers working the north-west Frontier came to their jobs with generations of experience. Now, as an intelligence reports to the Washington Times, “commanders still have not found the key to shifting the loyalties of Pashtun tribal leaders away from the rigidly Islamic Taliban and toward the democratic government of President Hamid Karzai.
“We’re fighting a cultural battle we have yet to come to grips with,” the official said. “We don’t get the Pashtun mindset. We can’t figure out how to work through the system of corruption.”
In other words, this stuff is hard ::: all the more reason to mean it is primarily a job for a small group of elite operators – committed to very long term engagement with this problem.
Special Force experiments.
Of course, as many have reported, many experiments are underway in engagement with tribal forces, not least of which experiments with Green Berets with the Local Defence Initiative.
Among the most powerful arguments for this approach are contained in Major Jim Gant’s “One Tribe at a Time Paper” and an essay called The Tribal Path by a group of former Royal Marines, including some members of the UK’s Special Boat Squadron.
The danger is that doing these wrong is worse than doing nothing – for instance arming local tribes works only if the resulting militia can be made to represent the entire community, not a local warlord whose domineering is precisely the reason so many support the Taliban (as I reported in my film from Kandahar) . In other words, there has to be a micro political process, dealing with tribal differences, that goes ahead of any kind of military work.
Jordan summarises his approach as follows: