Journal: Vietnam and Laos and Afghanistan

Intelligence (Government/Secret), Military, Strategy

Thomas Leo Briggs

One Tribe at a Time

Can the U.S. military devise a successful strategy to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan?  It already has the outline of a potentially successful strategy, just read Major Jim Gant’s “One Tribe at a Time (A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan)”, previously posted here, Reference: One Tribe at a Time by Maj Jim Gant along with Reference: One Tribe at a Time by Steven Pressfield.

The details of how to implement a tribal strategy and work with the Afghan tribes are unique to that country, but the overall strategy of working with tribes is not new at all.

Where has it been done?  Maj. Gant mentions what Army Special Forces did with the mountain tribes of Vietnam (known by the French term “montagnards”).  Another even more appropriate example is what the CIA’s Bill Lair did with the Hmong of northern Laos and what other CIA officers did with the Ta’oi and other Lao Theung tribes of southern Laos.

There were no American fighting units in Laos at all.  The only American military assigned to Laos were the handful of U.S. Air Force forward air controllers, known as Ravens, but they coordinated a very powerful force multiplier, the close air support of Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft assigned to work for Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).  The tribal strategy in northern Laos was a very few CIA officers working with entirely Lao tribal surrogates. These tribal surrogates fought on our side and helped implement the strategy of keeping the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) occupied in Laos and away from South Vietnam. They also defended the ancient invasion corridor leading from Hanoi to the Lao capital and on into Thailand.

In “One Tribe at a Time”, Maj. Gant suggests several problems and challenges to making his strategy work in Afghanistan.  He lists six issues among which are the need to streamline the use of money, the need to “go native”, and a change in the rules of engagement.  I’m not an expert on Vietnam and what went on there, but I understand that during the Vietnam War there was a successful working relationship between MACV and CIA and the Army’s Special Forces and the CIA.  CIA provided intelligence, equipment and money to the joint Army SF/CIA operations and they were better for it.  In Laos, the CIA worked with tribes to form up to regiment sized fighting units as well as small teams of intelligence collectors and action commandos.  There are lessons to be learned and applied to Afghanistan.  These lessons should not be ignored but should be gleaned for anything that might contribute to an Afghanistan tribal strategy.

One of the lessons from Laos is that small teams consisting entirely of indigenous tribal members can successfully operate in NVA held territory to capture twelve NVA soldiers and induce the defection of another five NVA soldiers and deliver them to Lao authorities for debriefing.  If the tribes of Afghanistan will work with US Special Forces teams there is every reason to believe they can find Taliban or Al Qaeda members and target them for capture.  The lesson of Laos is that the American special forces soldiers do not have to go out into enemy territory with the tribal soldiers.  The tribesmen can be taught what to do and what to look for and then can work to find and capture Al Qaeda or Taliban personnel and bring them in for debriefing.  The SF and CIA can work together, each providing what it does best, to guide and support the tribal intelligence collection and capture teams.  If simple, mostly illiterate Lao tribal soldiers can penetrate NVA territory and capture their soldiers, Afghans can do it, too.

One hopes that in the classified deliberations of our Afghanistan planners they understand the lessons learned from CIA unilateral tribal operations in Laos and the CIA/Army relationship in Vietnam.

The Bill Lair story describing his work with the Hmong tribe in northern Laos, is detailed in Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos by Roger Warner.

The story of CIA’s work with the mountain tribes and lowland Lao of southern Laos is not so well known but can be found in Kenneth Conboy’s 1995 book, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos and in my own recently published book, Cash on Delivery:  CIA Special Operations During the Secret War in Laos.

Reading that Maj. Gant has been assigned to Iraq instead of Afghanistan makes one wonder if the Army understands how important his tribal strategy is and that there are very few officers in the Army who are experienced and knowledgeable enough to carry out the strategy successfully.

See also:

Review: Jawbreaker–The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander (Hardcover)

Review: First In–An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan

Review: Horse Soldiers–The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan

Review: Charlie Wilson’s War–The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History

Review: Ghost Wars–The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Paperback)