There is an amazing paper out by a Special Forces officer MAJ Jim Gant about how to win in Afghanistan which Grim references in the post below. It comes from his team's personal experiences and it is absolutely spot on. All of his ideas are well-grounded in reality and all of his strategic concepts reflect the best possible solutions to an incredibly difficult problem. I only wish there was a chance in hell they would be adopted. You can read his paper here and I highly recommend it.
Beyond the strategy itself, what has to happen for a Tribal Engagement Strategy (TES) to work?
1. A strategy of tribal engagement will require a complete paradigm shift at the highest levels of our military organization—and the ability to push these changes down to group/brigade and battalion commanders. I believe Secretary Gates, Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal are flexible and forceful enough to embrace a strategy of this type. My fear is that the farther down the “food-chain” it travels, the more it might be resisted by ground commanders. What specific tactical changes need to happen?
• Command and Control of the Tribal Engagement Teams (TET) would have to be streamlined dramatically. “One radio call could get an answer.”
• The CONOP approval process (used to get mis- sions approved from higher headquarters) has to be streamlined. Some missions might have to be con- ducted with no approval, due to the time-sensitive nature of the opportunity. The TETs would need special “trust and approval.”
• The risk-averse nature of our current method of operating would have to change. American soldiers would die. Some of them alone, with no support. Some may simply disappear. Everyone has to understand that from the outset.
• TETs must be allowed to be on their own, grow beards, wear local garb, and interact with the tribes- they must be able to do so. The teams will always fight alongside Tribal Security Forces (TSFs), and no missions will be conducted unilaterally. There will always be an Afghan face on any mission.
I think many of the suggestions will be familiar and the overall concept is population-centric COIN done by small units deeply embedded with the locals. The reason I say it will never be adopted is that he proposes that we organize the COIN forces on what is essentially an A team model. The reasoning behind this is solid as a rock, but the mind set it would take is alien to the military as a whole and simply will not be done. It requires huge freedom of operation for small units that would consist of junior officers and enlisted personnel and while there are some who could handle that level of responsibility there are not enough to actually man these units.
Of the teams I was on, I can only remember one time when we had all twelve slots filled. We were always short several positions because there simply were not enough qualified people to staff them. The Tribal Engagement Teams MAJ Gant envisions would not require all of the specialized skills needed on an A team, but they would need many of them. They would also need maturity and accountability at levels not usually found. Our military is a very rigid hierarchical system specifically because that engenders the type of discipline required to keep the troops operating in the way they have to. It's not that they are incapable of operating independently, but there are enough people in every unit who couldn't that any other system would be chaos.
An SF team is the exact opposite, it is nominally hierarchical i.e. you have a Junior Weapons and a Senior Weapons guy and the other specialties as well (Commo, Engineer, Medic), but it was never a guarantee that the Senior Weapons would be in charge of a range for instance. If the Junior guy had more expertise on a particular system, say mortars for instance, then he would run things. I have told the story before that the first team room I walked into had a sign over the Captain's desk that said "Shut up sir, we'll throw you a pen if we need you to sign something". That was to remind him that the combined wisdom and experience of his ten NCOs and Warrant Officer dwarfed his, and that while his title was Detachment Commander, the Team Sergeant ran the team. And this was a Captain who had already been a Company Commander and led 200+ men.
That level of individual freedom and meritocratic tasking is nearly opposite of how the rest of the military operates. There is no way to convince enough of the folks who run things that turning huge numbers of infantry and other troops into de facto special operators is either possible or a good idea. I think it could be done with a high enough level of buy in. You could take a couple of SF guys and team them with infantry and psy ops and civil affairs and other specialties and use them in the way MAJ Gant envisions, and there is a decent possibility it would work. The problem is that the idea of hundreds of semi-pro A teams running wild and unsupervised in the hinterlands of Afghanistan would keep every General at the Pentagon awake at night having Apocalypse Now flashbacks.
The one thing that could come of MAJ Gant's proposal, and it would be a good thing if it did, is for a tighter working relationship between Special Forces and the conventional units conducting COIN operations. Even to the extent of assigning team guys to staff positions with the conventional units. Now I know the heads of many of my brethren just exploded and I may be banned from the Green Beret club, but it would help the mission and sometimes you gotta take one for the team. Anyhow I commend MAJ Gant and the guys on his team for their service and their suggestions and we can hope that as many of them as possible make it into operational doctrine.