Community Organizing in Afghanistan

Major Jim Gant, U.S. Army Special Forces, released an essay entitled "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan." It is based on his time living, working, and fighting with the tribes in Afghanistan, and it represents the most comprehensive strategic analysis I have seen to date. It is tragic that Major Gant is not advising the Obama administration.  While the treatise may not have all the answers to what we face in Afghanistan, it clearly defines the main obstacles to success that most Americans, including our administration, fail to see.

While many Americans may live paycheck to paycheck, few of us have any concept of what it would be like to scratch out a living in the high desert terrain in Afghanistan. We worry about holding onto enough money for that Big Mac while Christmas shopping and hope that traffic cop won't give us a ticket for illegally parking. The overwhelming majority of Afghanis worry about harvesting that next meal while knowing that government security forces won't be around to keep real evil out of their village that night.

The problem is that both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought national Afghani solutions in a country that has had little or no national cohesion. Tribal communities are fiercely independent because they have always had to be to survive. With no historically reliable centralized government, true national unity is little more that a pipedream mired by corruption and an overwhelming lack of trust. It results in enormous resistance to any centralized authority, be it Alexander the Great, Soviet Russia, the Taliban, or even the ever-benevolent United States. Tribal communities have been forced to rely on themselves for their most basic of needs, from preventing attacks by rival tribes to recovering from natural disasters. As Americans, it is foolish for us to rely on a centralized Afghani government to solve national problems when that centralized government has never had any influence outside the city limits of Kabul. This is not Western civilization, where you could hold the countryside by holding the major population centers.  

To win in Afghanistan, we need to win in the countryside. The only way we can do this is by organizing, training, and equipping these tribal communities to provide for their own security at the local, not national, level. We need to gain their trust (a monumental but achievable task) by entering into partnerships with local tribes to win this support. We need to community organize at the tribal level, but not for better wages or health care. To do this, we really don't need to look far beyond their most basic requirements, which are pretty close to the beginning of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: #2 is "safety and security." Building schools is useful, but it is well down on the list of needs, and thus meaningless if no one feels secure or safe enough to attend those schools. Until the tribal communities can be organized to protect themselves from rival tribes or al-Qaeda, who routinely raid villages for impressionable teenage boys to swell their ranks, there will be no peace in Afghanistan. 

Following Major Gant's advice may take a few more years, but in the long run, it's the best I've heard to achieve long-term strategic success in one of the world's poorest and most rural countries. Afghanistan is not America, and to believe American solutions will work here demonstrates shortsightedness and naiveté. By continuing to rely on the centralized Afghani government, the president is implementing the failed policies of the Bush administration. This is surprising because few know better than the president the power of community organizing and what individual people can do. 

And by identifying July 2011 as a pullout date from Afghanistan at West Point, the president has demonstrated his naiveté as commander in chief, who should know that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The president has instead made a choice to send a signal to not just Al Qaeda, who will lie in wait, but also to the Afghani tribal communities, who now know that on August 1st, 2011, brutal retaliation awaits any community that now cooperates with multinational security forces. That's not far off for a culture that thinks in terms of centuries.
Major Jim Gant, U.S. Army Special Forces, released an essay entitled "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan." It is based on his time living, working, and fighting with the tribes in Afghanistan, and it represents the most comprehensive strategic analysis I have seen to date. It is tragic that Major Gant is not advising the Obama administration.  While the treatise may not have all the answers to what we face in Afghanistan, it clearly defines the main obstacles to success that most Americans, including our administration, fail to see.

While many Americans may live paycheck to paycheck, few of us have any concept of what it would be like to scratch out a living in the high desert terrain in Afghanistan. We worry about holding onto enough money for that Big Mac while Christmas shopping and hope that traffic cop won't give us a ticket for illegally parking. The overwhelming majority of Afghanis worry about harvesting that next meal while knowing that government security forces won't be around to keep real evil out of their village that night.

The problem is that both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought national Afghani solutions in a country that has had little or no national cohesion. Tribal communities are fiercely independent because they have always had to be to survive. With no historically reliable centralized government, true national unity is little more that a pipedream mired by corruption and an overwhelming lack of trust. It results in enormous resistance to any centralized authority, be it Alexander the Great, Soviet Russia, the Taliban, or even the ever-benevolent United States. Tribal communities have been forced to rely on themselves for their most basic of needs, from preventing attacks by rival tribes to recovering from natural disasters. As Americans, it is foolish for us to rely on a centralized Afghani government to solve national problems when that centralized government has never had any influence outside the city limits of Kabul. This is not Western civilization, where you could hold the countryside by holding the major population centers.  

To win in Afghanistan, we need to win in the countryside. The only way we can do this is by organizing, training, and equipping these tribal communities to provide for their own security at the local, not national, level. We need to gain their trust (a monumental but achievable task) by entering into partnerships with local tribes to win this support. We need to community organize at the tribal level, but not for better wages or health care. To do this, we really don't need to look far beyond their most basic requirements, which are pretty close to the beginning of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: #2 is "safety and security." Building schools is useful, but it is well down on the list of needs, and thus meaningless if no one feels secure or safe enough to attend those schools. Until the tribal communities can be organized to protect themselves from rival tribes or al-Qaeda, who routinely raid villages for impressionable teenage boys to swell their ranks, there will be no peace in Afghanistan. 

Following Major Gant's advice may take a few more years, but in the long run, it's the best I've heard to achieve long-term strategic success in one of the world's poorest and most rural countries. Afghanistan is not America, and to believe American solutions will work here demonstrates shortsightedness and naiveté. By continuing to rely on the centralized Afghani government, the president is implementing the failed policies of the Bush administration. This is surprising because few know better than the president the power of community organizing and what individual people can do. 

And by identifying July 2011 as a pullout date from Afghanistan at West Point, the president has demonstrated his naiveté as commander in chief, who should know that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The president has instead made a choice to send a signal to not just Al Qaeda, who will lie in wait, but also to the Afghani tribal communities, who now know that on August 1st, 2011, brutal retaliation awaits any community that now cooperates with multinational security forces. That's not far off for a culture that thinks in terms of centuries.