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?”
Jordan added:

“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.

The Incas
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.”

Afghanistan 2010
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:

  • Adjust to a historically-proven successful strategy of dealing with tribal warfare, with them against regular or irregular forces, namely the outstanding US example of providing major covert support to the Afghan tribes, resulting in the humiliating defeat of the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan in 1989;
  • Relieve the US military of its severe over-extension and fatigue and allow our regular forces to regroup as a major reserve at home. This will significantly reduce the US defense budget at a critical budgetary time and give our military a break from non-stop combat in the South-Central Asia for the past 9 years;
  • Radically reduce the cost of support for Afghanistan to keep al-Qaeda out of that area;
  • Eliminate most of the Afghan military, political, and budgetary pressures on the U.S. and its NATO allies;
  • Reduce Middle East tensions by eliminating our large military presence in another Muslim country;
  • Free up small groups of US/NATO covert action teams and Special Forces to support counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere; and satisfy the desire of the US public to reduce US military combat commitments abroad and thereby gain fuller public support for less costly and less visible irregular (covert or not) support for tribes and regular foreign forces to fight terrorism.  This should win an improvement in general American political support for this move from both left and right, although there will always be a small percentage who oppose any US role in combat.
  • 2 thoughts on “The Tribal Path : the winning solution may be classified.

    1. Your contact “Eric Jordan” is right insomuch that the war cannot be won kinetically and the key to success is to make better use of the tribes. Firstly because they can do the job more effectively and more cheaply than Western forces and secondly, because it will deny the Taliban the use of what they appreciate is a very valuable asset. The current strategy also has two others serious flaws – Karzai’s unpopular and corrupt government and an over expanded ethnically unrepresentative ANA. However as we make clear in our paper (The Tribal Path), understanding and winning over the tribes will be neither quick not easy.

      At present the West plans to subcontract tribal engagement by channeling funds through the Karzai regime, which has spectacularly failed to make headway in this arena due to endemic corruption within the regime. According to Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ Afghan government has managed to fall from 117th out of 180 nations in 2005 to 179th in 2009. As long as corruption remains a major feature of Karzai government administration trusting them with the funds for the vital task of drawing the tribes round to supporting the West’s strategy is, at best, premature. It has merit only after positive achievement in significant corruption reduction in government can be demonstrated tied to significant improvement between government and tribal engagement. The alternative approach, the one on the table now, is very much a horse before the cart approach.

      Ken Guest, ‘RAM’ Seeger and Lucy Morgan Edwards.

    2. I hate to say it, but the main reason Canada is inlveovd in the Afghanistan mission is political pressure by countries such as the UK and the US! Canada’s mission to date has cost in excess of $20 billion, unfortunately the government is run just like a business and until Canada has made a return on investment, over and above the $20 billion; this war will still be fought. Reading what ‘Berry Farmers’ nephew had told him above, he is somewhat right but it is my opinion that it will be the children of the children who are currently at school i.e. the next generation that make a difference! When troops enter certain regions of Afghanistan, like us; they asses the local feeling towards them by the children. If the children are throwing rocks and shouting obscenities, that isn’t because they dislike the troops; its because that is how they have been raised. That type of anger can take generations to disband. Take Britain and Germany, the war ended in 1945 but there is still somewhat of a hatred against the Germans by British people; thats just life. To ‘Party of One’ above, you are entitled to your opinion as is everyone else but the fact is, private companies play a key role in conflict and post conflict regions. My company in particular is directly inlveovd in the re-construction effort to make Afghanistan a better place. We are building schools and hospitals, damns and sub stations; hearts and minds. When the next generation of children look back through history, they will remember the Taliban for bringing war and devastation to their country; history will also teach them that it was us (Canadian’s) who helped stop them and made their country a better place to live; a country with running water, job prospects, education and a government that they need not be afraid of. The fact that it is reprehensible to you I would suggest is an act of ignorance on your part, I am sure if you spent some time researching the Afghanistan mission; you would realize that without the private sector; it would be impossible for the military to do their job. Likewise, without the military, it would be impossible for the private sector to do theirs. I am well aware of the risks inlveovd, I have lost many friends over the years. I have also survived a road-side-bomb that put me in hospital for 6 weeks with a fractured skull, shrapnel wounds, broken ribs and minor burns. I have also been stabbed, shot and survived a helicopter crash but I keep doing my job because that is what I am trained to do and I believe in what I am doing; which is making a difference!

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