By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 3, 2009
A week ago I ran a post about two young Army captains—Jim Gant and Michael Harrison—who served in the same valley in Konar province, Afghanistan. Their service was six years apart, yet the two were linked by their bonds with a tribal chief named Noorafzhal and by a gift of honor—a shotgun that Capt. Gant and his Special Forces ODA 316 had presented to the tribal elder in August 2003. Just three weeks ago, June 2009, Noorafzhal was still showing that gun off—this time to Capt. Harrison.
This is Counterinsurgency (COIN) at its best and something equally important—positive continuity. The following is from an e-mail Capt. Harrison sent me from Konar a few days ago:
There is definitely a direct carryover of goodwill and overt support for American forces from Maj. Gant and ODA 316. During our first shura (meeting) with the elders in Mangwal [Noorafzhal’s village], we discussed the importance of working together to better their country and village. They all agreed, bringing up their past relationship with “the bearded Americans.”
Tribesmen connect man-to-man. In Mangwal in 2003, Capt. Gant and his team loved to stay up till all hours with Noorafzhal–to whom they gave the honorific nickname, Sitting Bull–listening to his stories of how he and the other tribesmen fought the Russians in the 80s. (Note, in the photo, the sketch of the topography of an ambush.)
I feel [Capt. Harrison’s e-mail continues] that the way Maj. Gant and the rest of his unit dealt with Noorafzhal helped us establish ourselves and cut down on the time required to develop the trust and relationships that yield cooperation, accurate and timely intel and buy-in from the village elders.
This sounds like a success story and it is. But the point to take note of is how accidental it all was. Capt. Gant didn’t know Capt. Harrison. There was no planned or institutionalized contact between the two officers, no handover, no collaboration. A number of other units served in the valley between their deployments. It was just luck that two such tribally-savvy officers happened to work, in different eras, with the same elders and the same tribesmen.
“Sitting Bull” still carries enormous influence [reports Capt. Harrison]. Whenever he arrives at a shura, everyone shuts up and stands up. He is the first to speak on all issues. He “allows” the sub-governor [a non-tribal post of the Afghan government] to assert his power and is careful not to circumvent or marginalize the district leadership. But it is apparent that the respect and power is still there. He could definitely put armed men into the field if he wanted to.
Donald Vandergriff, a retired Army officer and military leadership maverick, asks:
What would have happened if Capt. Harrison and his unit had overlapped with Maj. Gant and his team? It would have made the good situation that Capt. Harrison describes even better. In today’s personnel system, people are seen as individual replacement parts. The system does not take into account the intangibles of unit cohesion, trust and competence. The only way we can successfully wage this war is through the building of professionalism and trust.
To that, I would add the building of ongoing and uninterrupted bonds with village and tribal leaders.
In his book The Sling and The Stone, Col. T.X. Hammes makes a related point:
The weakness of our current personnel system is that it is a hundred years old and grooms people to run organizations based on concepts from another century. Unfortunately, that is not the only weakness. The bureaucratic model itself is a major problem. In this model, “career development” requires frequent moves and a wide variety of duties. The idea is to ensure that every person has the broad range of skills necessary to function at the top of the organization. It focuses on creating generalists rather than experts … [The typical officer’s career pattern] consists of a series of short (one to three years) postings in a wide variety of jobs … They are, in effect, amateurs by profession. They never spend enough time in any one job to become an expert.
How many critical Afghan-to-American relationships are we destroying by failing to rotate or redeploy outstanding officers back into Areas of Operation (AOs) where they have successfully bonded with tribal leaders and elders? Officers like Jim Gant and Michael Harrison should be working together. Their tours should be overlapping or tag-teamed so that tribal leaders don’t have to reconnect with new faces each time around, but can deepen and broaden already-established bonds with men and warriors they know and trust.
I’m certain that addressing this situation is on Gen. McChrystal’s to-do list. I applaud it. And one further thought.
Maybe the clean-shaven look is overrated.