One Tribe At A Time

The “How” of Tribal Engagment

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 19, 2009

[The blog is “on the road” this week, so I’m going to re-run last week’s One Tribe At A Time post.  I actually wanted to do this anyway, just because it produced so many interesting comments and questions.  We’ll have the full free downloadable .pdf of Maj. Jim Gant’s One Tribe At A Time next Monday.  Thanks, friends, for your patience!  Now to business …]

What would it take in cash and gear to put one U.S. Tribal Engagement Team to work with one Afghan tribe in one village? Here is Special Forces Major Jim Gant’s start-up shopping list:

Three to twelve [U.S.] men, based on the environment

2 interpreters

2 SAT phones

2 SATCOM radios (piggyback frequency)

2 PRC-119s

2 ATVs

2 Pickup trucks

3 Generators

2 Computers with a biometrics kit

Plus initial infill logistics package for the tribe:

100 AK-47s

30,000 to 50,000 rounds of ammunition

Assorted medical supplies

A ‘Gift of Honor’ for the tribal chief

Last week, we discussed the concept of the Tribal Engagement Team–a “small team of highly-trained and motivated men” who would live with, train, supply and fight alongside a Tribal Security Force, to provide security for its home village and district. Maj. Gant related how his own Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) 316 had done just that in 2003 in Konar province–and that the effort, totally “home-grown” at the time, had succeeded beyond all expectation. The thesis of Maj. Gant’s paper is that such a strategy can work today throughout all Afghanistan.

Influence Without Authority.  Maj. Gant with tribal leader Malik Noorafzhal.

Influence Without Authority. Maj. Gant with tribal leader Malik Noorafzhal.

My team ODA 316 and I created a model for successful tribal engagement and all that it requires. The relationships we developed not only worked while we were there, they have stood the test of time and continue to this day. I could re-insert a Tribal Engagement Team in Mangwel tomorrow. Given the time and resources, I would go anywhere in the country and do this.

Maj. Gant acknowledges that some districts are more “accessible” than others and that even in friendly villages, risk would be high and the Tribal Engagement Teams would be vulnerable and exposed.

Each TET tribe will become a target and they will take casualties. There will be fighting. But the fighting will be U.S. soldiers alongside tribesmen against a common enemy. Isn’t that what we want?  There will [also] be push-back from assorted Afghan officials, power brokers, warlords, criminals. It will become a very personal fight. Once we commit to the tribe, the Pashtunwali code [honor, revenge, hospitality] comes into effect for the [U.S. teams] as well. In the end it will be the team’s ability to build a true bond with the tribe that is backed up by the warrior ethos: the ability and desire to fight and die alongside them when necessary.

What exactly would be each Tribal Engagement Team’s goals?

1. Establish and maintain rapport with the chosen tribe in the area. Advise and assist them in all matters.

2. Provide real security for the village. Not presence patrols, but 24/7 on-site security. A permanent presence that the tribes can rely on. “Advise, assist, train, equip and lead” a Tribal Security Force (TSF), an Arbakai.

3. Facilitate tactical civic action programs. Integration with the local Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) is crucial, along with the ability to use funds that units have at their disposal for “quick” money to help tribes who are facilitating the success of Coalition Forces and the Afghan government. Basic health care and services (water, power, irrigation), construction and repair of schools and clinics to improve the life of the tribe and employ the tribe as well. These programs would be worked through the local/district/provincial/national government when possible and be integrated into the U.S. battle space owner’s overall plan.

"ODA 316 built this well for Dr. Akhbar"

"ODA 316 built this well for Dr. Akhbar"

4. Employ an aggressive tactical PSYOP plan that ties into the overall strategic Information Operation campaign in the area. Tribes also can counter the extremely skillful Taliban propaganda.  The world has to see Afghan tribes and U.S. soldiers working, living, laughing, fighting and dying together.

5. Report “Ground Truth” continuously. This activity will tie the tribe in with all the other levels of the government system. It would also be the process by which the tribe’s concerns would be fed directly to the Coalition Forces military apparatus. This would act as a check and balance for what is actually happening on the ground and what the GIRoA (Gov’t of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) may say is happening. “Ground Truth” provides feedback to headquarters level units in charge of the area ANA and ANP. They would then find solutions for everyday problems and political problems as well.

TET solutions should always be answers to local problems, yet always with an eye to integration with regional and national government representatives. It will also be imperative for TETs to watch for scenarios where local, district, provincial and national government forces can be successful. In other words, cooperate and help set the government up for success.

In return, the TSFs (Arbakais) and tribal members would provide security, intelligence and early warning of insurgent attacks to the U.S. teams, who would then pass this on to higher commands.

A properly executed Tribal Engagement strategy can be so effective that the Taliban feel threatened by our very presence, without us even firing a shot.


I asked Maj. Gant if there was an historical precedent for this? Has any Western force ever pulled off something like this before?

One of the main areas under contention today is in Southeast Afghanistan near Khas Khonar, Asadabad and the Pesch Valley areas. This is exactly where our team served. This same area was one of the British Empire’s most challenging territories. How did the English deal with it?

“From the 1890s to 1947, British control relied heavily on a small number of highly trained British officers. These frontier officers were highly educated, committed, conscientious, and hard working. Many had studied law and the history of the area and spoke some of the local languages. They had a deep sense of duty and a strong national identity. All required a depth of administrative competence and judgment to successfully wield the extensive powers at their disposal. They contributed significantly to the province’s security and stability. These men were particularly valuable in navigating the intricacies of tribal politics.” (To Create a Stable Afghanistan, Roe, p. 20, Military Review, Nov-Dec 2005)

Can Americans do this? Is our U.S. “high-and-tight” military mind-set capable of finding, training, funding and granting sufficient latitude and autonomy to such Tribal Engagement Teams?

The key to a successful tribal engagement strategy is the ability to identify individual officers and enlisted men who have a special gift for cross-cultural competency and building rapport—that is, they must become educated in the ways of the tribes and build strong relationships with them based on mutual trust and objectives. These men must like to fight and spend countless months, even years living in harsh circumstances. They will have to fully comprehend tribal concepts of honor, loyalty and revenge—the Pashtunwali code. Initially, they will have very little physical security other than the AK-47 they carry, their planning skills and the tribal fighters they live with.

A late-night meeting with Malik Noorafzhal and other elders

A late-night meeting with Malik Noorafzhal and other elders

The situation will vary with each tribe, but it will always be complex and difficult.  Each will present its unique spider web of loyalties and subtle agendas that a TET must deal with smartly and brutally when necessary. At the same time these men must be alert to detect and mediate local rivalries, sometimes within the tribe they are advising. They will have to be subjective on one issue and objective with another.


The American public is not known for being patient, particularly with a strategy that seems so innovative and unfamiliar. I asked Maj. Gant what he would say to this.

When a Chinese bamboo tree is planted, the grower must water and nurture it. The first year, it does not grow more than one inch above the ground. During the second year, after more watering and fertilizing, the tree does not grow any more than it did during year one. The Chinese bamboo tree is still no more than one inch high after four years. Nothing tangible can be seen by any outsider. But, on the fifth year the tree often grows more than eighty feet. Of course, the first four years the tree was growing its roots, deep into the ground. It is the roots that enable the tree to grow so much in year five.

Bottom line: A Tribal Engagement Strategy will have to be given time to do its work. But in the end, the result will be far-reaching and strategic in nature—a strong presence, firmly rooted, great in stature.

[We’re hoping to have a free downloadable .pdf of the full text of One Tribe At A Time by next Monday. We’ll set it up in this space if the schedule holds.  Maj. Gant is at Fort Bliss, TX right now, preparing to deploy to Iraq. He’ll be glad to respond to questions or comments, contingent of course upon time demands. Thanks to all for your terrific input and support!]

Posted in Afghanistan, Agora, One Tribe At A Time

Comments are closed.