If even the simplest things in war are difficult, as Clausewitz claimed, counterinsurgency wars are also dirty, dark and dysfunctional. This is so partly because counterinsurgency wars are as much about politics as they are combat, the clarity of victory usually proves elusive. The other reason is that the few “rules” that govern warfare, rules followed even by the Wehrmacht on the battlefield, are routinely ignored by guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists who try to swim among the people as fish in the sea. That is if we assume the fish are piranhas engaged in a contest against sharks.
In such wars, there are usually men who heroically attempt to stem the tide, who fight the shadowy enemy in the field and their superiors at headquarters. Who try to tell the truth as they see it or win the war as they perceive it needs to be won. David Galula in Algeria, Bernard Fall, John Paul Vann and David Hackworth in Vietnam are famous examples. Former Special Forces Major Jim Gant is their equivalent in Afghanistan; once a rising star in the Army, a daring innovator, a reckless maverick in the eyes of some superiors and a friend of Pashtun tribes whose efforts on their behalf against the Taliban cost him his career.
I reviewed Gant’s story, American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson, two years ago at my home blog zenpundit.com and elsewhere online. The book, like Jim Gant himself and his approach to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, remains highly controversial in military circles and outside of it to this day. To be blunt, I am an admirer of Jim Gant; he did everything as a soldier that the U.S. Army asked of him as an officer and more at great personal cost and the Afghan tribesmen with whom he worked considered Gant to be one of them, part of the tribe. This is not to say Gant was without flaws or error – they were perhaps as significant as his strengths. But Jim Gant’s story is also America’s story; I can think of no better book at the human level to explain America’s rise and fall in Afghanistan than American Spartan.
– Mark Safranski
When I first posted that I had received a review copy of American Spartan from Callie, it stirred a vigorous debate in the comments section and also a flurry of email offline to me from various parties. Joseph Collins reviewed American Spartan for War on the Rocks, Don Vandergriff posted his review at LESC blog, Blackfive had theirs here, and there was an incisive one in the MSM by former Assistant Secretary of Defense and author Bing West, all of which stirred opinions in the various online forums to which I belong. Then there was the ABC Nightline special which featured Tyson and Gant as well as an appearance by former CIA Director, CENTCOM, Iraq and Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus:
Major Gant was also a topic here at ZP years ago when he released his widely read and sometimes fiercely debated paper “One Tribe at a Time“, at Steven Pressfield’s site, which launched all of the events chronicled by Tyson in American Spartan. To be candid, at the time and still today, I remain sympathetic to strategies that enlist “loyalist paramilitaries” to combat insurgencies and other adversarial irregular forces. It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered. With that background in mind, on to the book.
First, as a matter of literature and style, Ann Scott Tyson is a gifted writer who can weave a compelling story with dramatic flair. American Spartan is a page turner from start to finish. Having all the ingredients of a Hollywood action movie or bestselling novel, American Spartan would appeal to a wide audience, not simply readers with military experience or a wonkish interests in foreign and defense policy. Moreover, Tyson is well served by her long experience as a war correspondent. She gets the gritty texture of the theater of scenes and little details of Army outpost life right in a way that other civilian writers sitting at a remove, recycling war stories could not. American Spartan is compared to Sebastian Junger’s War for good reason. If you like a good story and that is reason enough for you to read a book, buy American Spartan; it will not fail to engage and entertain.
Secondly, we need to be frank regarding Tyson’s objectivity. It is clear-cut; she has none. American Spartan is not a work of journalism or a biography of Jim Gant, it is Tyson’s memoir and apologia. She was not an observer or an anthropologist among the Mohmand. Nor is she merely partisan scribe on Gant’s behalf. Tyson is a full-fledged participant in events – even battles -in her own right. Tyson pleads her own cause as well as Gant’s in American Spartan. This is an ancient rhetorical tradition that goes back to Xenophon and Julius Caesar and it is often a noble one, but to the reader, with this kind of genre, caveat emptor.
The substance of the book, Gant’s implementation of his “One Tribe at Time” strategy among the Pashtuns and his rise and fall with the hierarchy of the US Army is more complicated and begs for deeper examination. Readers with knowledge of Afghanistan, the Army, American policy or some combination of the three will find nearly as much to read between the lines of American Spartan as they will in the text itself. It is fascinating, really, and the moral implications are deeply disturbing.
To summarize, American Spartan lays out a tragic paradox. My impression is that the tribal engagement strategy Gant championed would never have been permitted to succeed, even had he been a Boy Scout in his personal conduct; and secondly, even if tribal engagement had been fully resourced and enthusiastically supported, Gant himself would have self-destructed regardless. A Greek tragedy in a khet partug.
Gant has frequently been compared to the legendary Lawrence of Arabia and the fictional Colonel Kurtz. Interestingly, both of those figures died early and untimely deaths, having long outlived their usefulness for their respective armies. Major Gant is, fortunately, very much alive today which may be the only good outcome associated with his fall from grace. Given his predisposition for assuming heroic risks, taking battle to the enemy, chance hazards of war and Gant’s own struggle with PTSD, alcoholism and pills chronicled by Tyson, the bitter vendetta of Gant’s immediate superiors ironically may have kept him from also becoming Afghanistan’s John Paul Vann or Bernard Fall. Gant is not a Colonel Kurtz. That charge would be a slander; nor is he really T.E. Lawrence either, though that is a much better comparison. Gant had more bite to Lawrence’s bark and that was at least part of the equation in Gant’s success. The al-Saud and al-Rashid tribes and Turkish pashas did not fear Lawrence the same way Taliban commanders and rival Pashtun subtribes personally feared Jim Gant, whom one of his fiercest anthropologist critics called “very scary”. It was not only tea and beards, nor could it be.
Gant was the best qualified SF officer to go on the mission he was assigned, to win over Pashtun tribal support against the Taliban, but was in no condition to do so in the aftermath of his firefight-heavy deployment in Iraq. Gant went to Afghanistan anyway, despite jealous Kabul based colonel-bureaucrats warning him and his mission off as unwanted. This is a brutal and seldom fully appreciated aspect of our recent wars. In Vietnam, two combat tours were considered heavy-duty and three or more tours could have you marked as a “combat bum”. Today three combat tours are not unusual and I have met men with five and seven. This burden is distributed with great inequality among uniformed personnel and even more so among society at large. To this burden is added an incredible degree of micromanagement of fighting units by the chain of command, particularly in Afghanistan. In this respect at least, Gant proved the exception to the rule: he defiantly operated largely free of oversight or constraint.
The behavior of the US Army hierarchy toward Jim Gant and his mission as chronicled by Tyson in American Spartan could only be characterized as schizophrenic. Gant enjoyed tremendously intimidating “top cover” support for most of his time in Afghanistan – Admiral Eric Olson, head of SOCOM, General David Petraeus, head of CENTCOM (later ISAF commander), General Stanley McChrystal, ISAF commander, Lt. General John Mulholland (who would later cashier Gant), head of Army Special Operations Command, Brigadier General Michael Repass, the commander of Army Special Forces, several key members of Congress and the powerful Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. As a result, Gant enjoyed tremendous autonomy in his operations in Mohmand territory, both with the tribe and how and where he chose to engage the Taliban. There was a distinct lack of curiosity, a studied looking away of Gant jettisoning counterproductive ROE, refusing micromanagement by radio during firefights or even what could only be called the batshit crazy decision to have Tyson live with him as his camp “wife” in Malik Noor Afzhal’s village. That Tyson was useful to Gant in dealing with Mohmand families and winning the trust of the tribe is true but her presence was also a mad risk and so flagrant a violation of the rules that Gant was essentially daring a termination of his mission and likely his career. Despite her presence being well known – the Taliban openly spoke of Tyson’s presence on their radio – these things were ignored because Gant was producing the political results he promised the top brass without losing a man to the enemy.
Not that this success made Gant popular with his immediate superiors or staff officers at ISAF headquarters. By contrast they termed him “an alcoholic, womanizing, mentally unstable, maverick”. But smarting from being publicly overruled on tribal strategy by General Petraeus, having failed at sidelining Gant into a desk job and then thwarted in an attempt to divert Gant to a different district, Gant’s nominal superiors in Afghanistan were too afraid to try to openly derail his high profile operation a fourth time. So they retreated to a campaign of petty bureaucratic harassment and non-support of Gant’s mission. Needing an experienced SF team of AfPak hands, his superiors assigned Gant soldiers from conventional units, transfers from noncombatant positions, green recruits straight from boot camp and those who had washed out elsewhere. They issued lengthy, niggling, punitive, regulations prescribing the precise grooming and length of beards worn in the field and the placement of patches. They slow-rolled supplies and later squeezed money and ammunition and eventually succeeded in removing Gant from the Army, partly on Mickey Mouse violations but mainly because of his cohabitation with Tyson. In short, the Army bureaucracy demonstrated with Gant’s mission all of the utter lack of urgency regarding the war, blind obstinacy, misplaced priorities, selective ethics, politicized incompetence and manipulative self-regard that has helped the US maintain its glide path to defeat in Afghanistan.
Gant, however, made their task easy once his superiors felt safe to pull that trigger.
In between Gant’s arrival and his departure from Afghanistan, Gant demonstrated that he was a remarkably talented SF officer, gifted at recruiting and training indigenous forces and adept in harmonizing tribal politics to a convergence of interests with ISAF security goals. Gant expanded his earlier rapport with “Sitting Bull” Malik Noor Afzhal, integrating his unit with Noor’s Mohmand villagers and himself with the tribe, eventually becoming a malik himself and virtual son of Noor Afzhal. Gant’s methods, leadership based on personal example and building trust cemented by careful adherence to local conceptions and customs of honor, paid dividends. Taliban influence in the area receded and neighboring district subtribes, once determinedly hostile, began to waver and send feelers to Gant. However, these methods required working with tribes from a posture of respect, adjusting to the ways of Afghans rather than trying to adjust the tribesmen to the ways of America, living with them, eating their food, listening to their advice. If Gant resembles T.E. Lawrence in anything, it is here; with the Mohmand, Gant walked their walk and the Mohmand responded.
Until Gant’s downfall at the hands of a malcontented subordinate, vengeful superiors and his own personal foibles, he was doing exactly what special forces were created to do – connecting the tactical to the strategic by enabling indigenous troops to become real force multipliers. This is also inevitably a political act in the local context. As villagers become armed and trained they become empowered to defend their own interests. That changes the power calculus not only against the Taliban insurgents, but also against wealthy bigwigs, criminal gangs, corrupt provincial authorities and the central government itself. That threat was why Karzai had so little tolerance and even less enthusiasm for “arm the tribes” American schemes and why a national expansion of Gant’s “One tribe at a time” template was unlikely to happen. It was politically impossible in Afghanistan, as Gant himself conceded to General Petraeus. Arguably, it may have also irked the chain of command to have some “cowboy” Major free-lancing thousands of tribal fighters from his qalat in rural Afghanistan, accountable to no one, while they sat at desks in converted shipping containers designing power point briefs and attending to paperwork. Hence their accusations that Gant had “gone native” and had become a Colonel Kurtz-like mad warlord of Chowkay. Gant was subsequently broken in rank, his special forces tab was revoked and was retired as a captain.
The story of Major Jim Gant, placed into historical context, should give us pause for several reasons:
First, is the repeated difficulty of the American military in the modern era to effectively fight counterinsurgency wars.
One element in our failure may be the historic intolerance of a swollen military bureaucracy for the inherently political demands of unconventional and counterinsurgency missions that require greater flexibility and autonomy of judgement on the part of NCO’s, junior and field grade officers than standard procedures and regulations normally permit. Repeatedly, COIN wars tend to yield up “mavericks” like Gant whose successes in the field are conducted by methods at odds from the expectations of micromanagers running headquarters. Or whose local successes result in an overselling of possibilities at the policy level to scale these efforts up to an unsustainable degree. It may also be that the sizable expansion of special forces and special operations forces in size since 9/11 have also resulted in an importation of greater bureaucracy into the way that even these relatively nimble, elite units conduct their missions. I’m not certain, but when it takes the concerted intervention of a constellation of three and four star generals, including theater and combatant commanders to force something as simple as the deployment of one single SF officer and a small unit to work with tribesmen, something is seriously wrong.
Secondly, the shifting of costs in our recent wars has become troublesome at a moral level.
Seldom in American history have so few bore so much on behalf of so many who did so little in wartime. Major Gant’s flaws and mistakes are his own but it is difficult to argue that a tempo of overdeployment to “hard combat” that is burning out and breaking down the SF/SOF community was likely to improve his or anyone’s performance as a soldier and commander. The AVF was not designed to fight a decade of war without calling up all of the reserves and/or returning to conscription but that is how we have prosecuted our wars, including temporary gimmicks like stop-loss orders and lowered recruitment standards to patch over the manpower deficit. As a result, the cost of doing the real work of fighting fell on far too few with the unsurprising rise in PTSD, broken marriages and suicide among veterans while absolutely nothing has been asked of society at large. Nor have we done right by those who have helped us. By that I do not mean the corrupt and incompetent Karzai and Maliki regimes, but of the ordinary Iraqis and Afghans who stuck out their necks to fight with Americans against the enemy as interpreters, allied units or tribal irregulars. As a seventy-year historical pattern, the USG and military bureaucracy always abandons our real friends to the enemy, denying them visas, money or even ammunition even while continuing to lavish aid dollars on treacherous thieves like Hamid Karzai. When we leave and the day of reckoning comes for those who helped us, we look away and accept no responsibility.
American Spartan is not a book; it is a mirror held up to America’s war effort at the granular level.