A special forces commander made legendary by his unorthodox but effective strategy was forced to retire because of an affair with a Washington Post reporter, ABC reports.
Jim Gant, a Green Beret major, was quietly relieved in March 2012 after 22 months in combat. He was charged with living in a “self-created fantasy world” full of alcohol, prescription drugs and a sexual affair with former Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson — all deep inside Taliban and al-Qaida territory.
But Gant and Tyson tell a different story in their book “American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission And The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant.”
Gant was praised by Gen. David Petraeus for his ability to convert tribal villages to the American side of operations in Afghanistan.
“He clearly had grit. He had guts. He had intelligence,” Petraeus told ABC News. “He is one to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, even recognizing how things ended for him. Folks make mistakes, obviously.”
Instead of the usual capture-and-kill method of taking tribal lands, Gant “went native,” growing shaggy hair and a long beard while wearing Afghan clothes to blend with the local Pashtun tribes. In 2009, he wrote a pamphlet titled “One Tribe At A Time,” which argued instead of simply fighting and controlling land, soldiers needed to immerse themselves in the villages as a sort of “American tribesman.” (Related: US Military Flushes $3 Million Down The Drain)
This put Gant outside of the framework of military operations in the area. But instead of being reprimanded, Petraeus and Navy SEAL Adm. Eric Olson considered him one of the few who understood the nuances of the conflict.
However, he wasn’t without his vices. He fell in love with Tyson, who is a staunch defender of his tactics. They lived together in Mangwel, a village in the Kunar province on the Afghanistan border, and insurgent stronghold. Gant was recently divorced from his wife while Tyson was two years separated from her husband in Maryland. They had six children between them, Gant with two teenagers and Tyson with four college-aged.
The tribal chief of the area, Malik Noor Afzhal, also known as Sitting Bull to American forces, considered him family. Sitting Bull and Gant fought together in 2003.
Despite the victory, Gant was not impressed with the momentum U.S. troops were making when he arrived at the village in 2011.
“I am living in a qalat back in Mangwel, with my tribe in the Konar,” Gant emailed a journalist, who later joined ABC News. “I am trying to win. Not sure everyone is.”
For instance, instead of sending in specialized troops, a group of underprepared, barely trained soldiers from Kansas showed up as support. Gant trained them and encouraged them, against military regulation, to adopt local tribal clothing and grow long beards and hair in solidarity with the people of Mangwel.
“It wasn’t about our weapons or our body armor… it was gonna be about how we treated them. And it worked. It worked in a big way,” he told ABC News.
He made the Taliban fear him, often riding on the hood of his Humvee, and painted Spartan lambdas on the side of vehicles in direct defiance of the insurgents. Meanwhile, Tyson documented the whole ordeal. (Related: Taliban Cuts Off Index Fingers Of Afghan Voters)
“Tell everyone you come into contact with, ‘I did not come here to fight. I came here to help the people,'” Gant told tribal police in a 2012 video. “But if someone wants to fucking fight, they know where I am.”
He intimidated the Taliban and earned the respect of the tribes. Petraeus sang his praises and often took visiting American policymakers to the area to show Gants success. Gant always greeted them in tribal attire. Petraeus awarded Gant a Joint Service Commendation Medal, which he immediately gave to Sitting Bull.
“Without you, there is no me,” he told the chief.
He was so effective that he was considered a top threat by al-Qaida and targeted for assassination by Osama bin Laden. A copy of his “One Tribe At A Time” was found in the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was killed. (Related: Crocker: ISIS ‘More Formidable Force Than Osama Bin Laden’s Group That Brought Us 9/11’)
The tribes also welcomed Tyson, who at this point was considered Gant’s “wife.” Even the soldiers serving with him didn’t mind his cohabitation in the war zone, and saw the two as an effective team.
But his special forces “brethren” saw something else. They thought he had gone too native, and instead of the “Lawrence of Afghanistan” moniker Gant wore with pride, they dubbed him a real life incarnate of Col. Kurtz — the off-the-grid psychopath who went native in the film “Apocalypse Now.”
His downfall began at the hands of Army 1st Lt. Thomas Roberts, who saw his immersion as biting his thumb at proper military regulation. He resented that Tyson was there in hiding from military higher ups. He felt Gant’s habit of showing “Lawrence of Arabia” and reading “One Tribe At A Time” was a lowly form of indoctrination.
On March 11, 2012, Roberts filed a statement against Gant accusing him of “immoral and illegal activities,” including living with Tyson and drug and alcohol use. Gant admits he used painkillers to cope with the pain from being blown up by an IED on one of his Humvee hood rides and because of his age, then 44. He also admitted to using alcohol to cope with PTSD from serving nearly 50 months in a combat zone, culminating in an incident where he sleep-walked into a team house and put an unloaded AK-47 in his mouth before pulling the trigger.
“I was drinking alcohol, I was taking sleeping medication. I was taking pain medication,” Gant told ABC News. “I admitted to that. And they came in. They came in and got me out of there.”
Officials came in unannounced and tossed the camp, finding empty liquor bottles. This, after Gant beat the Taliban in five battles leading up to the visit. He was threatened with a court martial and forced to shave under military standards.
“I would have rather been in the hands of the Taliban at that point,” he said. “It was crushing. It was absolutely crushing.”
The Afghans in the province were furious and drove to Asabadad, where he was being held, to protest. He was brought to Fort Bragg, N.C., stripped of his Green Beret status and demoted to captain.
“While fully acknowledging your record of honorable and valorous service to the regiment, our Army and our country, the simple truth is that your subsequent conduct was inexcusable and brought disrepute and shame to the Special Forces Regiment and Army Special Operations,” said a letter of reprimand signed by Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. “In short, your actions disgraced you as an officer and seriously compromised your character as a gentleman.”
Gant feels the sting to this day. He knows he’s not innocent, but not guilty in the traditional sense. His PTSD affects him greatly as he watches areas fall to Taliban and al-Qaida, with even the slightest bang setting him off. He holds some disdain against the U.S. pulling out of a war he fought so hard to win. Petraeus has defended him to this day. (Related: As America Leaves Afghanistan, Special Ops Generals Reveal What’s Next)
Other special forces commanders feel the same way. “I have no problem with anything he was doing out there,” a senior special forces officer told ABC News. “Having his girlfriend out there was a grey area. But we live in grey areas.”
He and Tyson returned to Mangwel last fall and were heartily welcomed by the locals.
“My heart just wanted to burst,” he said. “I was so happy to see them again. They’re my family, my family.”