The U.S. is facing an uphill battle in the Middle East. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are turning into problems for the administration, including the onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria toward Baghdad and the growing Taliban insurgency. It seems that despite being involved in military operations in the area for more than a decade, the U.S. just does not know how to handle the wars from any angle.
But one man does.
Recently, The Daily Caller featured a story about former Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant and former Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson and their time spent among the tribes in eastern Afghanistan’s Konar province. Scott documents their time there in the new book “American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant.”
Gant fought the Taliban unconventionally by living with the tribes and essentially becoming one of them while Tyson documented the experience. He routinely wore traditional Afghan clothing and fought alongside the tribes in territory occupied heavily by Taliban and al-Qaida forces. It was because of this technique he was nicknamed “Lawrence of Afghanistan,” after T.E. Lawrence, who utilized similar strategies during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in 1916.
That was until some Special Forces higher-ups decided Gant’s technique was too unorthodox and shut his team down.
“Well, obviously it was a very difficult time,” Gant said in an interview with The Daily Caller. “It was very painful, mainly because I had put so much into what was going on there. I was deeply invested in the mission. I was deeply invested into my Afghan comrades and my American soldiers and it was a really, really painful thing to deal with.”
Gant was initially met with praise, including that of Gen. David Petraeus who has staunchly defended his techniques. His pamphlet on a strategy to winning the war titled “One Tribe at a Time” was hailed by many in the armed forces and he was given what he describes as a lot of resources and authority to conduct his mission of joining the tribes.
But as his first commanders moved on to different assignments or returned to the U.S., Gant faced criticism, red tape and personal differences from new bureaucrats.
“As time passed and these great commanders rode it out and went back to the states, I did get some people in there that were much more risk-averse and sprinkled throughout there, there were some people who I had some personal issues with and all that stuff just built up,” Gant said. “Slowly, over the course of time, mission creep settled in and it became a very, very difficult situation to deal with.”
They also had hang-ups with his character, including living with Tyson against military protocol, as well alcohol and prescription drug abuse caused by PTSD and an injury from an IED explosion. Eventually, Gant was taken out of combat, demoted to captain and forced to resign.
But that doesn’t mean he was ineffective. Petraeus and Adm. Eric Olson both praised his techniques and called him one of the most important tools to the military effort in the Middle East. Petraeus, who has been notoriously reclusive lately, gave his first public interview since his sex scandal at the CIA with ABC’s James Meek in defense of Gant.
Gant readily admits to his sordid past and knows he had to be punished. But he still has strong opinions about operations considering his brothers-in-arms are still on the front lines.
He said Special Forces has lost its way in a sense, focusing more on capture-and-kill missions as opposed to its original purpose: training and assisting indigenous forces. Gant said Special Forces needs to get back to its roots — advising, assisting, training and leading indigenous forces — to become a more effective force.
Gant thinks there should be a change of strategy in Afghanistan. The country is highly decentralized, and forming bonds with tribes is key to at least turning the tide of the war, he believes. A centralized government, and therefore a U.S. victory, is nearly impossible without support from the tribes, he said.
It’s because of these nuances in the country unfamiliar to most Americans that the U.S. has struggled in the nearly 13-year conflict.
“The Afghans have an incredibly long and proud history of fighting foreign occupation,” he said. “There is a fine line over there between … supporting and helping and occupying. It’s not a set number of troops, it’s not a set type of operation or mission. Very quickly, your presence can become a nuisance and a threat to them. When we go in and try to help, the less we do to disrupt their lives — and mainly what I’m talking about is fighting the rural Taliban, the Taliban that’s out there in the mountains and out there away from the cities where the insurgency is being fought — less is more.”
Throwing money at the problem is not a solution either, in Gant’s view. He recounted that during his time there, when he saw many schools and clinics open up — only remain empty or critically understaffed with next to no supplies. One clinic was built, he explained, without a single doctor inside a 100-mile radius.
Instead, Gant said the solution lies in what he’s said all along: smaller forces engaging locals.
“With assistance and guys on the ground that can do really good assessments to find out where these places are and have a much more focused development plan, those things become extremely important,” he said. “At the same time, just throwing money at it just doing these development type things is not gonna win any war. But it is extremely helpful at the right place at the right time with the right people.”
Working with the tribes effectively is one crucial aspect of the war most have neglected. Instead of simply giving them weapons or money, Gant feels a more hands-on approach both in terms of military and cultural melding is what will give the U.S. an advantage.
“(Working with the tribes) in and of itself would not win a war there,” he said, “but (working without them) would guarantee that we would lose it. We still need to advise and assist the Afghan government, and we need to reestablish, reenergize and be there with the tribal people to help them work out some of the issues that they have with one another.”
The Obama administration is aiming to take all U.S. forces out of the country by 2016, something Gant and Tyson said would be a mistake. Smaller forces would be more effective both in terms of strategy and resources.
“I’m talking about significantly smaller numbers because we do have to cut down the amount of resources there,” he said. “We have to continue to advise, assist, train and lead the Afghan national security forces, which includes building of these local security forces and also we need to maintain the strike capability that we’ve built over the years with some of their commando units. On top of that we need to be able to build really strong human networks that can help us do pinpoint targeting for counterterrorism operations that let us put pressure on both the Taliban and al-Qaida.”
Tyson, a veteran war correspondent for The Washington Post, agreed.
“Afghanistan is a highly decentralized country, and we remain only on the (military) bases,” she said. “We lack both visibility and the ability to sort of monitor and influence what is going on and have our finger on the pulse. Things are changing very quickly in Afghanistan. There’s a major Taliban offensive going on in the southern part of the country retaking some territory that the Marines fought very hard for. You have a volatile political situation and I think it would be very detrimental for us to pull out wholescale right now.”
Gant said he’s received a lot of support since his dismissal and the book’s publishing. Every one of the soldiers he fought with have shown him support, including Afghans and Iraqis he worked with. He receives dozens of emails and text message of support from civilians and current military personnel as well.
“Very few people have come out [against me], military people,” he said. “There have been some retired guys who have written some things here and there. As far as I know, there haven’t been any personnel on active duty that have made any public statements whatsoever. We just haven’t heard anything from them other than what was in the investigation and the official letter of reprimand and things like that.”
Despite everything that has happened to Gant — the public shame, the demotion, the letter of reprimand — he said he has few regrets.
“It’s like I’ve said all along: I understand completely why I was punished. I broke rules, and I should have been punished,” he said. “All that I have ever felt from the minute that happened to this day is that I would have liked to have been treated more honorably. That’s how I felt when it first happened and that’s how I feel now still.”