By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 9, 2009
[This week has been a rough one for our troops in Afghanistan--and a contentions one among policymakers here in the States. I'm going to interrupt our ongoing interview with tribal chief Ajmal Khan Zazai to post this open letter. The same note was sent by e-mail two days ago to the parties below.]
TO: Gen. James Jones, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal
FROM: Steven Pressfield
SUBJ: An opportunity in Afghanistan
Dear Gen. Jones,
I’m the author of Gates of Fire. I read in a newspaper interview a few years ago that Gates is your favorite book–and you and I have corresponded briefly by e-mail in the past. I cite this connection in the hope that it will give me enough credibility in your eyes that you’ll keep reading this note.
I want to draw your attention to a situation in a valley in Afghanistan that may afford an opportunity for real progress in the Afghan campaign. Please bear with me for a little background.
A pro-American Tribal Chief
For some months I’ve been writing a blog called “It’s the Tribes, Stupid.” Its address is http://blog.stevenpressfield.com. The thesis of the blog is aligned very much with Gen. Petraeus’ and Gen. McChrystal’s COIN strategy of “protect the people.” Recently I’ve been running a series on the blog–a multi-part interview with an Afghan tribal chief, Ajmal Khan Zazai of Paktia province. Chief Zazai holds the paramountcy of eleven tribes in the Zazi valley. He’s an extraordinary man. He and his father fought the Soviets in the 80s and the Taliban after that. Chief Zazai’s father was assassinated under orders from Mullah Omar; the chief himself has survived two attempts on his life.
Chief Zazai was educated in Canada; he’s an excellent English speaker and holds Canadian citizenship. He has been a champion for his people for decades; in fact right now he is in London meeting with Sir David Richards to try to further his country’s cause.
A grass roots anti-insurgent force
This past summer Chief Zazai formed a Tribal Police Force of 85 men. This is purely a grass roots effort, intended to protect the people of the valley and founded by the chief under his own initiative. He has been in contact with the 10th Mountain Division, whose Area of Operation is the Zazi valley; in fact elements of the division helped provide security this past July for the tribal council at which the TPF was organized. The chief’s earnest hope is to ally with U.S. forces, to share intelligence and to work together to “protect the people”–i.e., his eleven tribes–in the valley.
Three weeks ago, the Tribal Police Force was attacked with an IED. The enemy (no one knows who) struck at a mosque where the unit was dining at the end of Ramadan. Just a couple of days ago, a second attack occurred on a road in the valley. So far, luck has held. No one has been seriously hurt.
If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then Chief Zazai and his tribal police are America’s friend. But they are in danger.
Thank God somehow the main bomb in the mosque did not go off [Chief Zazai wrote to me], if that had gone off, it could have killed as many as 30 to 40 people easily. The reason the insurgents planted this bomb is that they are aware we are siding with the US, just imagine if this bomb had gone off and killed this many people, do you really think I could have been in the position to form another such group? No, never.
A chance for COIN to work
Here’s what I’d like to put before you, Gen. Jones:
If you or Admiral Mullen or Gen. Petraeus or Gen. McChrystal could assign one aggressive young officer to look into this situation (and grant that officer access to you), I believe a real breakthrough could be made that might serve as a model for U.S.-Afghan cooperation.
We need some on-site person to bridge the gap between 10th Mountain Division commanders and Chief Zazai’s tribal police. As it stands right now, chain-of-command bureaucracy is deadly. If no action is taken, this opportunity will fizzle. This is a classic situation of How To Lose A War, if “business as usual” is allowed to prevail. We need a man on the spot. Somebody who can assess the situation and move for action up the food chain. Here’s a note from Chief Zazai yesterday:
I spoke to Wayne (Borders, the 10th Mountain Division commander in Ali Khell in the Zazi valley). There is not much he can do to help really, what I need is more resources, more support … Wayne is a great guy, he already expresses his total support and is 100% dedicated to help in any way he can, what he can do really is put some good words for the Programme to his superiors and I believe he has done so already.
The relationship is there, it’s building, what really is missing is lack of logistical support for my Tribal Police Force programme. With proper funding I will be able to have proper Intel teams and my night Working team who will look after these [bad] guys who have taken safe refuge in my Valley!
More than just one valley
I would not put this before you, Gen. Jones, if I didn’t think this particular situation bore enormous potential for expansion beyond just this one valley. When the eleven Zazi tribes met this summer,
… the Tribes were excited to take part in the gathering and this was seen widely throughout Afghanistan by many other tribes on Shamshad TV which broadcasted the event for 3 days and a momentum is now circulating around Afghanistan for a tribal united front which could find a way forward. My team in Kabul and Zazi have been contacted by many Tribal chiefs throughout Afghanistan who wish to join our efforts for uniting all the Afghan Tribes.
Chief Zazai’s father, before he was murdered, worked for years to unite the Afghan tribes–not only the Pashtuns, but the Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others. Now Chief Zazai himself is championing this cause.
Yes, this is only one man and only one valley. But the opportunity is real and so is the peril. If the next IED attack succeeds, this bottom-up effort could be snuffed out before it even gets going.
At a time when the U.S. Afghan mission is under tremendous pressure politically at home and under attack in the world press, here in Ali Khell in the Zazi Valley is a chance to “protect the people”; to ally with a passionate, articulate, pro-American Afghan patriot; and to link with a true grass roots movement that is on our side and only wants to help and work with us.
I can put you, or any officer you designate, in touch with Chief Zazai. Just respond in the Comments box below or write me at steve [at] stevenpressfield [dot] com.
Chief Zazai and I have been invited to speak in January at Marine Corps University; we will be at other venues and media outlets in Washington D.C. as well. But that is a long way away.
I salute you, Gen. Jones, and Adm. Mullen and Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal on giving your all to an incredibly daunting and complex task–one that has frustrated no less illustrious a personage than Alexander the Great (not to mention Cyrus the Great, Genghis Khan, Akbar the Great and the Brits and Russians) in the past.
Please consider what I have put before you here. Just one bright, assertive young officer could make an enormous difference if he were given latitude to act and direct access to you. Thanks and all my best …