The South Asia Channel

The Odyssey of Jim Gant: An Insurgent within the U.S. Military

Ann Scott Tyson, American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission, and The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant (New York: William Morrow, 2013).

In 2003, U.S. Special Forces soldier Jim Gant's love affair with Konar province, Afghanistan, began -- and it was the same place, nine years later and after several other deployments that another love affair helped end his career.

By late 2012, Maj. Gant, having completed at least four additional combat tours to Afghanistan and Iraq, and after receiving the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with "V" for valor, as well as several Purple Hearts, was stripped of his Green Beret, demoted in rank to Captain, after having been selected for lieutenant colonel, and forcibly retired from the U.S. Army. Various accusations of personal impropriety and unorthodox leadership swirled around him as he departed Afghanistan and, later that year, the U.S. military. In retrospect, and from the comfortable perspective of living in the United States, it is easy to judge and even to dismiss Gant and his actions as the behavior of one rogue officer, but it is far more difficult to understand him -- and we should.

In Ann Scott Tyson's masterfully written and moving account of Gant, his times, and the life they would eventually share as husband and wife, American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission, and The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant, we gain a new perspective on the man. He is recognized as a superb leader of men in combat, adopting innovative tactics to fight America's wars of counterinsurgency, and his subsequent intellectual leadership helped set a new strategic direction for the conflict in Afghanistan. In 2009, Gant released a monograph titled "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan" which argued for a new approach to fighting the war -- that U.S. soldiers needed to embed with Afghan tribal communities to enlist them in their own defense, developing indigenous security forces that would fight the Taliban on their own terms. The strategy would mobilize the community by empowering village elders, as well as village democracy, and recruit local protective forces, reducing the need for large numbers of U.S. soldiers. While some reviews of his ideas argued that Afghanistan's tribes were too weak to shoulder the burden of security and that such an approach would simply bring back militias, his intellectual "shock and awe" had served its purpose of inspiring a conversation about how the United States fought in Afghanistan.

His piece gained the attention of Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, and Adm. Eric Olson, then commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, as well as decision-makers at the Pentagon, the White House, and in the U.S. Congress. In some respects, his ideas were not entirely new: U.S. Army Capt. Travis Patriquin's 2006 presentation "How to Win the War in Al Anbar" had already introduced the concept of working with tribes. Work by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in Al Anbar province, Iraq had also popularized the concept of working alongside local tribesmen. But Gant's monograph helped the special operations community, and in particular the U.S. Army's Special Forces members, regain their heritage of building indigenous forces to combat insurgencies instead of simply conducting direct action raids and clearing operations.

Much like the military community he came from, Gant's unorthodox approach of independently releasing a monograph on the war was bold and innovative. But he gained detractors who, many years later, would mount "insider attacks" against him and his career. The seeds of Gant's greatness and downfall were planted in Konar province, but his wisdom about war, the failings of U.S. military leadership, and the value of forging a brotherhood with Iraqis and Afghans were learned over nearly a decade of combat.

It is difficult to imagine in 2014 that there was a time when the U.S. military and its political leadership wanted to win in Afghanistan. When Gant first arrived in Konar province in 2003, it was a heady time for Special Operations Forces. The men grew beards, swam in the country's rivers, ate Afghan food, fought the Taliban, conducted raids against the enemy, and partnered with warlords to chase down al Qaeda. Regulations were loose, standard operating procedures were largely non-existent, and a spirit of improvisation existed because the mission was simple: kill or capture members of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

While Gant led his Special Forces team, Operational Detachment Alpha 316, he fell in love with Konar and its people, adopting their Pashtun warrior ethos of Pashtunwali as his own, and expanding his internalized Spartan ethos of honor, courage, and fidelity. Gant forged a relationship in Konar with a village elder named Noor Afzhal, who was a senior malik (leader) of the Mohmand tribe, which straddled the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. This relationship, so beautifully written about by Tyson, began the process of expanding Gant's views about war. Afzhal taught him about the ways of the Pashtun people, about their concepts of honor, warfare, peace, and tribal diplomacy. In this relationship, Gant began to see the Afghan people not as targets, intelligence sources, or pawns to be moved on the chessboard of counter-insurgency, but as simply people -- it would be the key to his success and contribute to his downfall.

Gant's tour to Iraq in 2007, where he served as an embedded mentor to a predominantly Shiite police battalion during the violent days of implementing the surge strategy in Baghdad served as a turning point for him. Much like his tours in Afghanistan, Gant learned in Iraq that military regulations designed for conventional warfare inhibited mission success in an insurgency environment and could even contribute to casualties. The spirit of improvisation, focused on mission success, he had honed in Afghanistan was re-affirmed for him once more.

Gant's close friendship with the Iraqi battalion -- he ate with them, slept alongside them, and fought with them -- was fundamentally validated in 2007 when an improvised explosive device flipped his Humvee and he was knocked out, awaiting certain death as the vehicle burned out of control. It was at this point that his Iraqi comrades rescued him, saving his life because they saw him as a brother, because he trusted them and treated them like equals. Out of this crucible of combat, Gant became a changed man. He had gained a healthy disrespect for many of the U.S. military's bureaucratic ways (risk averse, too-focused on career protection, and too unresponsive to the unique challenges of counter-insurgency warfare); he had learned the value of forging strong ties with indigenous forces, and that combat was his life.

When Gant arrived back in Konar province in 2010 for what would be an almost two-year tour, he was uniquely qualified to carry out the task of building local tribal forces to fight the Taliban. He knew the province and its people like no other, he was armed with the concepts of war and counterinsurgency that had been battle-tested, and he had an emotional commitment to the place because it was where he had become a man. But as Gant arrived at the Khas Kunar district, he was a wiser man but a damaged one.

Unrelenting combat tours had slowly but inevitably altered his life. His deployed life became his home life and his life in the states became a distant memory. He became reacquainted with Afzhal, his new father figure; his tribe, the Mohmands, his new family; and their village of Mangwel, which became his new home. Gant began to trust the Afghans more than his military chain of command because they had not let him down and seemed to understand him more. As his marriage broke up, Gant met Tyson, a recently divorced reporter who had covered the wars for several years, and their professional relationship became personal with Gant eventually asking her to marry him in the village.

Gant's previous tours had also injured him on a personal level. The unrelenting combat of Baghdad in 2007, with its ethical wilderness of bad and worse choices, had altered his moral framework. He began to suffer from combat stress, indulged in drug and alcohol abuse, and saw his personal life fracture. As Gant shed his former self he adopted his Afghan persona, finding in the code of Pashtunwali and the Spartans -- a new ethical manner of living his life, fighting the Taliban, and loving the woman who would become his wife.

Gant's unorthodox fighting style used the Taliban's structure and strategy against it by harnessing the power of the tribes to fight the insurgent movement. He practiced tribal diplomacy, bringing tribes over to the government, he challenged the honor of the Taliban by shaming them to fight, and he lived like the villagers in a simple qalat, or Afghan home. He pushed his men to fight for the tribe, to think like the tribe, and to see the valleys of Konar as their own. He pushed the envelope of military thinking, even that of the Special Forces community, but he got results.

However, much like his hero Achilles, Gant's innovative approach to fighting became his heel, and a first-tour soldier reported Gant to his chain of command for his unconventional ways. It is true that Gant drank alcohol in Afghanistan, although it was never proven that he had been drunk, and it is a fact that Tyson lived with him for long stretches of time -- a very unorthodox arrangement. Other allegations of drug abuse (illegal and prescription) and misspending of unit funds have not been borne out by the evidence. The key charge that Gant unnecessarily put his men in harms way may be judged by conventional standards to be true, but the results, both in terms of the hundreds of villagers who joined the Afghan Local Police program as well as the lack of casualties by his men, put the charge in a different light. At another time and place, Gant would likely have survived such indiscretions, but by 2012, the U.S. military had become obsessed with ferreting out moral and ethical improprieties, real and imagined. The fact that Gant's "lapses" took place during the time when U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghans in Panjwayi, Kandahar province, on March 11, 2012, following a night of drinking, proved too much for the leadership of the Special Forces community.

Gant's strengths were his sympathetic understanding of the Iraqi and Afghan people, his warrior ethos, and his determination to prevail against our nation's enemies. While some members of the U.S. military were more focused on force protection, career enhancement, and the optics of leadership, Gant was focused on the substance of accomplishing America's mission. This determination changed him profoundly, as the costs of combat became too much even for a warrior such as him to shoulder, but when compounded by the lackadaisical oversight of his mental wellbeing by his chain-of-command over many years, it became crushing.

Tyson's superbly rendered account of how Gant was done and undone by war, eventually becoming a high-value target within his own military community, in American Spartan is a must read and will stand the test of time. Gant had a simple faith in his country, its military leaders, and the mission that became his calling. It is too bad his military colleagues did not have the same faith in him.

Dr. Daniel R. Green is a Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Department of State (2005-2006) and the U.S. Navy (2009-2010, 2012), and in Iraq (2007) with the U.S. Navy. He is the author of The Valley's Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Taliban. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the U.S. military or the U.S. Department of State.

Author photo/ Ann Scott Tyson