A critique of intervening half-education, in reply to Major Jim Gant’s much-read blog and paper ‘One Tribe at a Time’. By Prof. Michael Daxner (*)
Important notice for the readers: it is unusual for blogs to annotate them with references from scientific literature. However, I will use some special terms that may raise your interest and require further reading.
Major Jim Gant’s blog One Tribe at a Time (Gant 2009, see here) drastically supports some basic assumptions on societies of intervention (term is explained in Bonacker at al. 2010). We can learn a lot about such societies in the text. It is a report by a highly decorated US officer who served in 2003-4 and again in 2009 as commander of Operation Detachment Alpha 316 (ODA 613) (Special Forces) in Afghanistan, in the provinces of Helmand and Kunar – places of heavy fighting. The report’s frame is set rather concretely as a section of the story of ODA 613 (p. 4) and its commander; it is a narration of their relationship with the tribe of Malik Noorafzal (Gant sometimes also writes Noorafzhal and calls him ‘Sitting Bull’…) in Kunar: ‘My unit and I became family members…’. (I am not sure whether Gant means a tribe or a clan or a family, which would indeed make some difference for the interpretation).
However, the story is not as clear at it seems: it is set into a military context that is not described in detail out of respect for the tribesmen – as the author says -, in order to not expose them to any risk (p. 15). This motif would be honourable if it were not lacking credibility, as Gant exposes the families in a rather explicit way:
I was invited inside the inner rooms of compounds in Mangwel on two occasions. Both times I was presented with gifts from the wives of two separate village elders. Neither time was even my interpreter allowed to go inside. Both times the wife was uncovered and personally handed me the gifts to give to my own wife and daughter. (p. 24).
If such details and other intimate observations would get known to insurgents, the tribesmen could be at high risk. I also do not believe this version of the story. In the history of colonial and adventure literature, the acquaintance of the hero or narrator with the intimate details of his indigenous counterparts is an established pattern. Gant speaks Pashto. He must have received some ethnological or cultural training but obviously no deeper insights into anthropological and sociological basics; there is a debate about the dilemmas of embedded anthropology (Barcott, Katz etc.).
ODA 613’s assignment was to ‘kill and capture Anti-coalition members’. This is clear enough; obviously Gant’s task was to arm and assist local groups and villages in their battle with insurgents. Arming local militias beside national security forces has been a highly disputed policy. What we learn from the text is that in exchange for the tribe’s support of the ODA’s operations Gant would assist them in their quarrels with other tribes and families.
For research, Gant’s narration does not bring relevant news. But the text is significant for two other aspects. Gant has a normative view on societies of intervention, he asks for their establishment, where research simply empirically identifies them. The society of intervention thus becomes a status to be desired and envisaged instead being regarded as a probable result of the intervention and its subsequent conflicts.
The other aspect is that his blog does not speak to the researchers or the Afghans but to a virtual constituency in the US, justifying a specific self-perception of soldiers who are warriors and benefactors at the same time.
Gant sees himself as a warrior with a child in his arms. The members of his unit are described as development aides, comrades at games and confidents to the villagers. He is using photography as an auxiliary tool supporting this intention (cf. Bourdieu 1960, Simnacher 2009). Gant wants us to see himself and the unit not simply as soldiers, but frequently he claims the title warriors; this is not trivial, because the Warrior is, other than the Fighter or Soldier, a person with a mission directed to the outside and/or with a stable habitus. Joffe (2009) sees Americans as Warriors, contrary to Europeans, because these do not have such enthusiasm to fight for the freedom of other people.
The original scene (‘Urszene’ in psychoanalysis) of Gant was when he explained 9/11 on his laptop to a tribal chief. This should justify the presence and operations of foreign troops and distinguish the superior cause (war on terror, war against the Taleban) from normal conflicts such as quarrel about pastures and land (p. 16). The basic pattern is: we help you against all your adversaries who did injustice to you, and against the Taleban; and you help us fight the Taleban. It is interesting that the Taleban were declared the common enemy in a civil war ‘Tribalism vs. Talebanism’ (p. 30). The victims of Taleban were counted and characterized but we do not learn anything about the Taleban’s aims and means. The author never explains how Taleban manage to separate from their Pashto community.
Gant’s discursive procedure is not entirely new. He is more elaborate than pure products of propaganda such as Roberts 2008 (‘Villages on the Moon’) and the like. Let’s have a look at some characteristics of the author Gant:
(1) He knows the Afghans better than they themselves. He ‘knows’ quite a lot about tribes, Pashtunwali, traditions and attitudes, without understanding much of the context and without having a frame for this knowledge either based on studies or on his systemised experience. Thus, his knowledge remains arbitrary and singular. Some of the references he quotes do not add to the knowledge. I had a similar experience with a Kunar PRT-commander in 2006. Gant could use an ethnographer’s view on his local partners. Instead, he interprets their attitudes as useful for his mission; he ascribes the positive perception to the tribe’s habitus. He does never suspect that they could behave tactically or that for him there appear similarities that are just imagined because he cannot translate local codes and rules. There is a contradiction. If he knows that tribesmen can be nice in the morning and may kill their guest in the evening because of a mistake he might have made, then it is strange that he does not think this can also occur to him and his comrades. Considering the meaning of the term in the US, Gant’s frequent usage of the word love is significant, when he refers to the behaviour of the local people towards him and his unit. As a Freudian association I’d assume he wants to be loved as a reward for his mindset and in the hope that the villagers will concur with the presence of foreign troops and their actions by loving them.
(2) He knows the Afghans better than himself and his unit. He does never discuss his assignment to fight and kill; he never puts in question those he describes as a particular tribe different and distinguished from other tribes. This is important. The assumption that foreign troops appear to be strange or alien ‘tribes’ was a metaphor at the beginning of our research on the anthropology of intervention (Daxner 2005). Gant does never give a hint if ‘his’ tribe had any such perceptions. Therefore decoding his charismatic partner ‘Sitting Bull’(!) is impossible. If we could detect tribal equivalents in the communication among the two groups – interveners and the intervened – we could learn about the mutual rules for recognition and conflict resolution. Perhaps this could be seen as intendedly communitarian. Gant assumes that he and the tribal peers share the same values and act accordingly. But Gant uses his ideas on the Afghans to produce expectations but gets back only behaviour that he can interpret. He produces his own reality. He avoids the difficult and tiresome way to translate what he perceives.
(3) Gant also provides quite a few recommendations. There is nothing wrong with this since most of his advice is directly derived from mainstream doctrines. The problem is that his ideas are suggesting a strong proof by empirical evidence. Instead, many ideas are just plausible, e.g. the criticism that ISAF failed to build garrisons in order to protect liberated villages. Less plausible are his arguments about arming local (tribal) militias, because in this case he is directly mingling with top strategy issues – which are not his business. The effect is a privatization of opinion, opposite to the intention of the blog.
Gant’s blog is part of a narcissistic self-representation and certainly not directed at the local people. As part of the American homeland discourse, it has a legitimizing role:
(1) The military deployment of ODA 613 – or Special Forces in general – is justified. Both the warrior-ideal and the hearts&minds approach are being served.
(2) What looks like an equal position of interveners and the intervened, is just a non-subtle subordination of the local actors under an imaginaryleader’s role.
(3) One singular distinguished commander stands metonymically (representing all US troops) for the soldiers in combat; thus he justifies his very clandestine critique of his superiors who do not meet his superior wisdom from experience.
In a way, the blog echoes earlier self-representation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (cf. LVA 2007). Only recently, the political and military leaders have understood that their impact on the homeland discourse is critical for their missions. The transport of experience from the warzone into the homes of people is more than reporting from a battlefield: it is establishing a moral and political mode of identification – or rejection – of a policy that is by no means self-explanatory (and was even less in Bush’s days of the War on Terror).
After so much critical reviewing, one may ask if there was no positive judgment on Gant’s blog. Let me try.
One may consider the text as the description of a brave and loyal part of a hearts&minds campaign in order to win the trust of the Afghans. Frankly speaking, it is not about Afghans, but certain Pashtuns in the border region of a heavily embattled area. But then, isn’t Gant a forerunner of McChrystal’s new strategy? For this kind of interpretation speaks a lot, especially the successful(?) merger to a society of intervention of an American military unit and a local group. Against this interpretation speak the diverse other assignments of ODA 613 in neighbouring villages and areas (‘kill and capture’) where Gant’s preferred model of society emerges in a different form. Gant himself does not see sustainability in the positive relation between the two groups. From the theory of societies of intervention, this is normal: such society does not rely so much on mindsets and common values or even trust but on functional structuring. The structures are a consequence from the intervention. This is an important detail for analysis.
What Gant seems to having achieved, is no condition for a well-working society of intervention but can be an effect from optimal structuring, given only minimal interference by contingent factors and events. Such societycan contain some common values but it does need to.
All this is not as normal as it seems. Gant asks for a society of intervention on the level of tribes because he does not give any chance to the state as the comprehensive structure for all ethnic groups, tribes, clans and other social entities. (Gant is right when he reflects the low esteem in which the tribal people hold the ‘country’ but he is wrong with regard to the notion of the ‘Afghan state’.) His ideas perceive tribalism as post-colonial and post-romanticist (and, even with best intentions, one cannot read a notion of political federalism or decentralization from his text). Even those Taleban who do not just want to destabilize the society aim at a ‘state’, i.e. a caliphate or an emirate.
The other problem for a fair assessment is Gant’s attitude to dominate the discourse in an apodictic way. This takes away from the reader the possibility to understand the local actors at all. We learn about the Kunar clans or tribes just through the eyes of a hobby ethnologist in arms.
Gant’s blog is a disservice to anthropology and ‘embedded’ understanding of the actors in the field. More dangerously, it produces a rather risky image of military and civilians in their attempt to attain freedom.
(*) Michael Daxner is professor of Sociology and President emeritus of the University of Oldenburg (Germany), senior fellow at Freie Universität Berlin and at Berghof Institute for Conflict Research in Berlin. He regularly travels to Afghanistan since 2003, worked there as an advisor for the Minister of Higher Education and did continuous research on the ground. Prof. Daxner was born in Vienna.
Barcott, R. (2008): Anthropology in Conflict. An Exchange. Survival 50 (3).
Bonacker, T., Daxner, M, Free, J., Zürcher, C. (2010): Interventionskultur. Wiesbaden (VS).
Bourdieu, P. (1960): In Algerien. Ed. by: Franz Schulthess und Gerhard Frisinghelli. Camera Austria, Graz 2003.
Daxner, M. (2005): Ohne Alternative? Mein Bericht vom Planeten Kosovo. Oldenburg (BIS).
Daxner, M. (2007): Was festzustellen und was aufzuschreiben ist: Reflexionen über Afghanistan im November 2006. KRR 52, April 2007.
Joffe, J. (2009): The Default Power. Foreign Affairs 88/5.
Roberts, M.E. (2008): Villages on the Moon. PublishAmerica (Baltimore).
Simnacher, M. (2009): A Critical Review of Pierre Bourdieu’s approach to Photo Analysis, BA (Berlin).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020