war on the rocks

Judging Jim Gant: Violence and Legitimacy in Afghanistan

July 3, 2014

Several months ago — before the Bergdahl drama and Iraq’s abrupt meltdown — former Army Major Jim Gant received a brief flurry of attention due to the release of his biography American Spartan, authored by Ann Scott Tyson, which chronicles Gant’s turbulent career in Special Forces. It documents his dramatic rise to fame since 2009, when his strategy for Afghanistan, as described in a paper titled “One Tribe at a Time,” went viral among senior military leaders, subsequently becoming the basis for Village Stability Operations. It also details his precipitous fall from grace that followed from his alleged recklessness, substance abuse, and countless other infractions. Suffice it to say Gant is a polarizing figure who has both supporters and critics among those acquainted with his exploits.

But there are also more serious allegations; namely, that he perpetrated war crimes in Afghanistan, or at least supported their commission. In a 2010 blog post titled “Petraeus and McChrystal Drink Major Gant’s Snake Oil,” Central Asia specialist Christian Bleuer accused Gant of engaging in ethnic cleansing based on the following excerpt from “One Tribe at a Time:”

The highland people had taken and were using some land that belonged to the lowland people. The Malik told me the land had been given to his tribe by the ‘King Of Afghanistan’ many, many years ago and that he would show me the papers.[…] I made the decision to support him. ‘Malik, I am with you. My men and I will go with you and speak with the highlanders again. If they do not turn the land back over to you, we will fight with you against them.’[…] Without going into further detail…the dispute with the highlanders was resolved.

Additionally, on April 10 Adam Elkus, a War on the Rocks contributor, tweeted that “…it’s easy to judge. Particularly given that Gant facilitated ethnic cleansing.” Elkus is correct that it is easy to judge Jim Gant for his alleged crime. It is more productive, however, to attempt to understand the logic underpinning the act in question, and to assess its broader implications for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Gant’s actions, though reprehensible, derive from a theory of victory more consistent with Afghanistan’s political reality than that offered by the prevailing counterinsurgency (COIN) wisdom of the time. Given Afghanistan’s “kaleidoscopic” political landscape and its relative lack of preexisting political institutions, we should look not to mature Western political orders for models of political consolidation, but to the prerequisite process of state formation. This process is fundamentally illiberal and necessarily involves coercion and the domination of certain actors or coalitions over others. The upshot is that effecting a favorable outcome in Afghanistan, defined by a stable and self-regulating end state, may well demand a degree of complicity in immoral and/or illegal acts. This is not to say that the United States and its allies should engage in such acts. But we must adjust our expectations regarding the potential for self-restrained COIN and Foreign Internal Defense to deliver desired outcomes on acceptable terms, and perhaps should refrain from making categorical judgments about Gant.

The orthodox COIN wisdom of the past decade — that of FM 3-24 and David Kilcullen’s “28 Articles” — holds that securing a “durable peace” in COIN is ultimately a matter of establishing effective governance by a legitimate government. Legitimacy, which is billed as the key political variable, is defined by FM 3-24 as the acceptance of an authority by a society. While military force is necessary for eliminating and coercing insurgents, creating legitimacy requires the pursuit of non-military lines of effort, including the provision of essential services and economic and infrastructure development. Therefore, COIN is not warfare in the traditional sense, but is instead a competition for the hearts, minds, and acquiescence of the population.

Although U.S. doctrine explicitly states that legitimacy is a subjective and culturally determined concept, it nonetheless implicitly looks to mature Western political orders as a universal template for political end state. FM 3-24 contends that establishing rule of law — defined as “…government’s respect for impersonal legal rules ideally adopted through a credible democratic process…” — is the key factor in assuring legitimacy. Furthermore, the presence of legitimacy is indicated by (1) the selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority; and (2) a high level of popular participation in and support for political processes. U.S. COIN doctrine thus draws a conceptual link between liberal democracy and legitimacy.

The posited relationship between liberal democracy and legitimacy has engendered a kind of sequential “social contract” approach to political consolidation wherein the coalition-supported central government provides goods and services to the population in exchange for its loyalty and compliance. According to this approach, the machinery of “good governance” is “unpacked” and transitioned to host-nation control in a given area after it has been cleared of insurgent presence and influence. At the national level, this approach ultimately seeks to erect, and concentrate power into, a set of politically neutral institutions that regulate political competition according to a set of agreed-upon rules.

While superficially plausible, both the preferred end state and prescribed approach are incongruent with Afghanistan’s political reality. There are at least two major structural barriers that have prevented institutions from taking root. First, the outstanding social feature of Afghanistan is its myriad of local, tribal, and ethnic divisions. Loyalty in Afghanistan is strongest among those who share family ties, and next strongest at the village level, among a tribe, then ethnic group, and so on. There is little in the way of perceived commonality to serve as the basis for political unity. Second, no state monopoly of large-scale violence exists. Consequently, Afghan politics is characterized by a complex web of often-violent political competition, within which the Taliban insurgency is but one strand. Simply stated, Afghanistan is at a more elementary stage of political development than required for the prescribed approach to effectively produce the desired end state.

Therefore, it is more appropriate to approach political consolidation from a perspective based on the process of state formation. Liberal democracies do not emerge into the world fully formed. Rather, states adopt and institutionalize the key attributes of democracy — free elections, civil and political liberties, and the rule of law — only after undergoing the prerequisite processes of state formation and state consolidation. Those that do not meet the necessary preconditions before attempting to democratize are especially prone to civil and international war, violent revolution, and ethnic and sectarian bloodshed. Hence, it is the proper sequencing of “state formation-state consolidation-democratization,” more than “clear-hold-build” that COIN practitioners must be cognizant of.

Different “rules of the game” apply to state formation than to later stages of political development (e.g., maintaining consolidated democracy). We tend to consider coercion and terror to be the province of so-called “rogue actors,” such as criminals and violent extremists. But state formation is a fundamentally illiberal process in which violence and coercion play a central role. It is during this stage when the monopoly of large-scale violence is established through the accumulation of the means of coercion and elite bargaining. The process of state formation is less about legitimacy and more about “divide and rule,” political signaling, intelligence, and political policing (i.e., selective repression) of the population. State formation is thus violent and partial, and is at odds with the notions of inclusion and pluralism that are central to the COIN conceptualization of legitimacy.

The immediate outcome of state formation tends not to bear any resemblance to liberal democracy. Instead, the process of state formation typically produces what Douglass North calls a “limited access order,” which addresses the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition of ruling elites. Unlike in liberal democracies, the privileges that accompany political consolidation in a limited access order accrue only to members of the dominant coalition. Additionally, power in limited access orders centers around actors rather than institutions.

What this means for the U.S.-led intervention into Afghan politics — what Gant understood intuitively — is that achieving a durable peace in Afghanistan would not be a matter of blanket population protection as COIN wisdom suggests, but would instead involve choosing winners and losers among the plethora of host-nation actors. It would require the U.S.-led coalition to support certain actors to the detriment of others. In certain cases, designated “losers” may even need to be physically eliminated or coerced into subservience. Given the complexity of Afghanistan’s political mosaic, the scheme of political selection would not align neatly with the cleavage between those affiliated with the insurgency and those who oppose it. Rather, selection would occur against a backdrop of multiple shifting lines of conflict and collusion. Assuming that a stable end state is even possible, historical experience suggests it would likely emerge as a variegated authoritarian patchwork, or what Thomas Barfield calls a “Swiss Cheese” polity.

It goes without saying that it would be both unrealistic and immoral to recommend that such a COIN approach be incorporated into U.S. and allied Afghanistan strategy. The value of the Gant case is that it forces us to confront the unfortunate possibility that for the United States and its allies, there may be no overlap between the solution space and the locus of morally and legally permissible courses of action. The U.S.-led coalition wishes to simultaneously be a political actor and be politically neutral. But political power in the context of state formation cannot be exerted according to neutral legal rules because power is “decision” by nature. A result of this disjuncture between desire and reality is that the competing logics of consequence and propriety often place incompatible demands on the counterinsurgent. Much of Gant’s other conduct — the recklessness, substance abuse, and fraternization — is inexcusable. However, if we insist on placing troops in a dilemma that pits the mission against morality, then we are to a certain extent, culpable when mission-minded operators like Gant pursue victory in ways that offend our moral sensibilities.


Isaac W. Baruffi is an Army Special Forces noncommissioned officer with combat experience in CENTCOM and PACOM theaters of operations. He holds a BS in Foreign Service and an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University.  Follow him on twitter: @MiddlingSwrdsmn.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army