Casting about in late 2001 for someone or something to replace the vanquished Taliban, President George W. Bush helped select Hamid Karzai, an Afghan exile, as the nation's new, moderate, pro-West leader. Bush introduced him to his new partner nation at the State of the Union
address in January 2002, pledged U.S. support in rebuilding Afghanistan as a modern state with a strong central government in Kabul in control.
Eight years later, a furious argument is raging within the U.S. military establishment about whether that idea still makes sense, or is slowly dragging America down to defeat.
Building a strong central government seemed like the best available idea, given the chaos of the Taliban regime's collapse, and Afghanistan's long, tortured history of weak governments and bloody conflicts among a shifting complex of tribal and clan leaders jealous of any "national'' structure.
But now, a rising chorus of mid-career U.S. military officers with years of combat experience in Afghanistan say the current war-fighting strategy -- based on making tribal and clan leaders subservient to a central government -- is doomed to fail. Far better, they say, to work with tribes and clans, in essence building trust and security from the ground up rather than the top down.
There is no sign that the military command or the White House is willing to consider abandoning what has been the central U.S. strategy through eight years of bloody war, and more recent demonstrations of widespread corruption
in Karzai's government
. That idea remains central, according to administration officials: the United States holds to the singular goal of creating the first powerful central government in Afghan history, striving to prop it up and strengthen it to the point where American forces -- now numbering some 74,000 -- can go home.
The result seems to be a widening gulf between official U.S. strategy, and the field experience of officers with broad experience on the ground in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has acknowledged
that Afghan society "is rooted in tribal structures and ethnic identities.'' But he insists that "Afghans do have a sense of national identity.'' And in his West Point speech
, the president reiterated his intention to "strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government'' with the 34,000 troop reinforcements now flowing into Afghanistan.
A rejoinder from the field came from Army Maj. Jim Gant, who led a Special Forces team in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 (and subsequently won a Silver Star for combat valor in Iraq in 2006-2007). In a paper
widely shared with journalists, Afghan experts and the military, Gant argued that Afghanistan's tribes should be the focus of U.S. counterinsurgency actions.
"Afghan tribes always have and always will resist any type of foreign intervention in their affairs,'' Jim Gant wrote. "This includes a central government in Kabul, which to them is a million miles away from their problems, a million miles away from their security.
"A strategy in which the central government is the centerpiece of our counterinsurgency plan is destined to fail,'' Gant added. "It disenfranchises the very fabric of Afghan society. . . . By supporting and giving some power back to the tribes, we can make positive progress in the region once again.''
Rather than massing U.S. and other foreign troops in the country, Gant argued, the United States should deploy many small teams of soldiers to live and fight alongside the tribes, on what he described as a lonely and perilous mission. "American soldiers would die. Some of them alone, with no support. Some may simply disappear. Everyone has to understand that from the outset.''
The joint U.S. and NATO military command in Kabul has made sporadic efforts to connect with tribes in the fight against the Taliban, in some cases paying handsomely
to secure the tribes' cooperation. But its approach is to enlist the tribes to support the central government.
I spoke with Jim Gant at length last fall when his paper was published. He was despondent: rather than embracing his ideas on Afghanistan and forming up the small tribal engagement teams he had proposed, the Army was sending him to a staff job in Iraq.
But his paper ignited interest inside the military, catching the eye, among others, of Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees all military operations across Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In short order Gant's deployment orders were canceled, and he was sent instead to Afghanistan to see about implementing some of his ideas. Shortly thereafter, he appeared in an admiring portrait in the Washington Post
, which called Gant "The Green Beret Who Could Save Afghanistan.''
"We must work first and forever with the tribes,'' Gant insisted, "for they are the most important military, political and cultural unit in that country. The tribes are self-contained fighting units who will fight to the death for their tribal family's honor and respect. Their intelligence and battlefield assessments are infallible. Their loyalty to family and friends is beyond question.''
His proposals for tribe-based security operations are alluring, especially since the current strategy has brought neither victory nor even progress, but the continued spread of Taliban influence. "We have killed thousands and thousands of the 'enemy' in Afghanistan and it clearly has not brought us any closer to our objectives there,'' Gant declared. "We could kill thousands more and still not be any closer five years from now.''
Despite the high-level interest in his ideas, there has been no visible change in U.S. strategy. It may be difficult, some suggest, for the United States to back away, even quietly, from its strategy of consolidating Afghanistan's political and economic power in Kabul.
But within the officer corps there seems considerable interest in such a shift. There, Gant's arguments find sympathy but hardly a consensus among his peers. Even among these experienced counterinsurgency experts, there is clearly interest in shifting away from a Kabul-centric strategy. The question is, to what? Should the United States be working to strengthen tribal leaders or building strong, self-governing villages and networks of villages to oppose the Taliban insurgents? How much to rely on traditional warlords? What about focusing more on building strong local, district and provincial governments?
"I strongly disagree with Maj. Gant's ideas on how to go about empowering the tribal system in Afghanistan,'' Maj. Nate Springer wrote for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center.
The "delicate minefield'' of tribes, sub-tribes and clans related to different tribes is simply too complex to manage, wrote Springer, chief of operations for the counterinsurgency center. He urged that military operations instead be centered on "something more concrete, the village level."
Another officer questioned whether Americans are smart enough to manage the tribes. "Relying on a tribal solution is a very risky and, so far, we have botched that up at almost every opportunity since the early days of this campaign . . . by backing the wrong people,'' wrote Maj. Nick Maroukis, who has 50 months of experience in Afghanistan. He said warlords have gotten "suitcases of cash to do things for us or not to do things to us . . . making these 'commanders' far more influential than they ever could be without us. And we are still turning our eyes as they commit their excesses and narco-trade.''
Gant's proposals reminded a different officer of the film "The Man Who Would Be King,''
starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. "The movie was a great adventure which stirred the imagination, but in the end it was just a fantasy, as is the idea that we can hand everything over to the tribes, call it a day and declare victory,'' wrote Lt. Col. Malevich, director of counterinsurgency at the center.
Maj. Rob McChrystal, another Afghan veteran, agreed that the social structure of Afghanistan is "complex, fractured and somewhat unpredictable.'' Best thing for soldiers to do, he suggested, is to work with the Afghan army and police to create as secure an environment as possible and let the Afghans sort out whether or not they want a strong central government.
"Not sure we can fix the social fabric,'' he wrote." They've got to do that for themselves.''