All Politics Is Tribal
Obama's Afghanistan strategy should team our soldiers with their militias.
Second, these teams of U.S. soldiers are small. As Gant puts it, the approach requires a lot of time—many months to gain a foothold, years to make the bonds stick—but not a lot of manpower.
If Obama is looking for a way to counter the Taliban and build Afghan security without sending all 40,000 troops that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has requested, this is one such way.
Third, the strategy makes military success less dependent on the political fortunes of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Counterinsurgency campaigns work through local authorities; if the authorities are seen as corrupt, the campaign can't succeed. Karzai has promised reforms, which may boost his legitimacy among the Afghan people. But it he doesn't follow through, or if his efforts have scant effect, it won't matter so much with Gant's strategy, because the key authorities are the tribal leaders, not the central government in Kabul.
Gant has no illusions about the difficulty of working with tribes. He spells out the risks of getting enmeshed in internecine feuds. Several times during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, our guerrilla allies called in U.S. air and artillery strikes on what they said were "Taliban targets" but in fact turned out to be gatherings of rival tribes.
An explicit and essential part of Gant's strategy is to draw the individual tribal teams into a network of tribes—first across the province, then the region, then the nation—tied in to the Kabul government through a web of mutual defenses and the supply of basic services. He's less clear on the mechanics of how this "bottom-up" approach to national unity takes hold, but he recognizes that without it the Taliban can gain advantage by playing the tribes off against one another.
Nor does he contend that the Taliban can be countered by a tribal strategy alone. The officers who have been circulating Gant's paper, and discussing it in closed-door meetings, don't think it can be anyway.
Two weeks ago, asked about the continuing internal discussions on the subject, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters that President Obama was asking how to "combine some of the best features of several of the options" that his advisers had put on the table.
Obama is likely to announce his decision—on a strategy and on how many, if any, more troops it will require—soon after Thanksgiving. A key question to ask, in examining this mix, is how prominently it features the tribes
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.