The Devil and Jim Gant

Review: ‘American Spartan’ by Ann Scott Tyson

Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant / AP
May 17, 2014

The indictment of Jim Gant, a major in the U.S. Army Special Forces until his reduction in rank and compulsory retirement as a captain in 2013, is as follows. While leading the American effort to mobilize Afghan tribes against the Taliban in the Konar valley during 2011 and 2012, he drank alcohol. He used prescription pain medication that was not, in fact, prescribed for him by a physician. He stored explosives in his room, rather than in an approved space. He kept inappropriate materials of a sexual nature in his room. He exchanged government funds, and his own personal money, with Afghans for goods and services in a series of transactions that were not approved by his chain of command. He provided the Afghan tribal militias he was training with U.S. government gasoline, again without authorization. He falsified numerous documents in support of these unapproved transactions.

Additionally—and notably—during his time living among the Konar tribes he also regularly cohabited with his now-wife, Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson, who participated in operations with the tribes and was granted access to classified information pursuant to those operations. Finally, to quote from a memo by a Brig. Gen. Christopher Haas and sent to Gant in April of 2012:

During your time in command, you purposely and repeatedly endangered the lives of your Soldiers. You taught, and ordered executed, [SIC] unconventional and unsafe ‘figure-8’ immediate actions in response to enemy contact. You painted inappropriate and unauthorized symbols on Government vehicles, painted the symbol on your vehicle a different color, then challenged the enemy to try and kill you without consideration to your Service Members’ lives or well being. [SIC] You sent ‘night letters’ to the enemy, further drawing dangerous attention to yourself and subordinates. These are the same Soldiers that you have the duty to properly train, mentor, lead, and most importantly, defend.

In March 2012, when the curtain finally descended on Major Gant’s operation in the Konar, his superiors sent a U.S. Army Special Forces team to seize his camp and to arrest him and his second-in-command. Yet Gant’s soldiers—young infantrymen from a regular battalion, earlier provided to Gant instead of the seasoned special operations team that he had been promised—wept openly. The Afghan tribesmen who maintained the position jointly with the soldiers warned the newly arrived team not to handcuff Maj. Gant. Things might get ugly. Shortly after his removal, several Konar tribes sent a deputation of dozens of elders to petition the provincial governor, Fazllulah Wahidi, to ask Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. Army to allow Gant to return to the valley.

With such an extensive list of charges against him, what had Jim Gant done to be so popular with his own soldiers, and with the Afghans among whom he lived?

He had won.

Having in 2009 literally written the book that proposed a new strategy for pulling the Afghan war out of its obvious crisis (he self-published it online, calling it One Tribe at a Time), Gant was within days ordered personally by Adm. Eric Olson, then commander of all American Special Operations forces, to return to Afghanistan for a fifth combat deployment in seven years and to lead the effort there to put his new strategy—a middle road between Afghan-government-focused counterinsurgency theory and more traditional methods of attrition that sought primarily to kill or capture large numbers of the enemy—into effect.

Such communication and individual tasking between one of the nation’s most senior military officers and a prior enlisted, tattooed, and blunt-spoken Army major was highly unusual, to say the least. At first, more junior generals rushed to email Gant and offer him their support for his exciting special mission. That phase lasted, uninterrupted, for about two weeks. Then a Special Forces staff officer in Kabul emailed to inform Gant that he would not be leading a tribal engagement team in Afghanistan, but would be placed in a staff job when he arrived in the country.

Gant’s odds of flourishing in a staff job were approximately zero. Before leaving the United States, he was already drinking too much, and abusing drugs to cope with the psychological and physical baggage he had accrued during four previous combat deployments. These tours had included a year serving as the American adviser to a group of Shiite death squads in Iraq that not long before his arrival in 2006 had been rechristened, so to speak, as the Iraqi National Police’s Quick Reaction Battalion.

Serving in this unenviable capacity, Gant earned the Silver Star for—after having been hit by an IED and pulled unconscious from a burning Humvee by his Iraqi troops—returning within days to the scene of the strike and telling the local al Qaeda affiliated tribes, through a megaphone standing on the roof of his Humvee, that he would be returning in a week’s time to fight them. To encourage the tribesmen to come out and fight on the appointed day, Gant described in detail various unprintable acts he planned to perform on their mothers—acts that he assessed the al Qaeda tribesmen’s fathers to be incapable of performing themselves.

Gant then returned as promised with a company of Iraqi policemen and, unsurprisingly, fought a multi-hour battle against the enemy. His vehicle was hit by two more IEDs. He saved the life of an Iraqi woman who was bleeding to death in the crossfire. When the fighting was over, his men were not attacked in that village again. Back at his base, he drank heavily and barely held his life together. To say that Jim Gant was a man who wrestled with demons does little justice to Jim Gant, and somewhat overestimates the capacity of the average demon.

Upon arriving at his staff job in Kabul (Adm. Olson lacked the authority to dictate Gant’s exact responsibilities in Afghanistan, and chose not to aggressively press the issue) he was constantly at odds with mid-level superiors, who disliked the way he would return from tours of the country assessing tribal engagement wearing a beard, and who were obviously envious of the tendency of senior officers like Gen. David Petraeus to seek him out for advice. When he spoke about his struggles with PTSD and alcoholism with other members of the staff, his boss accused Gant of being a "mentally unstable maverick" and threatened to send him home.

Instead he was sent to Konar where he stayed for 14 months. Gant and the officers who arranged the reassignment saw it as a kindness to him, despite his already limited reserves of coping mechanisms and the personal toll that another year of combat was bound to take. Tyson—whose fascinating book reads like an extended Washington Post feature that, refreshingly, has unburdened itself of all pretenses toward objectivity—reports, through personal observation and wide sourcing, the remarkable events that followed.

Gant believed the Taliban would never be defeated by the corrupt and criminal Afghan government but could be successfully resisted—or co-opted—by the Pashtun tribes. He made contact with a powerful Mohmand tribal elder he had met and formed a close relationship with in 2003 named Noor Afzhal. (Students of the Northwest Frontier will note that the Mohmands were the same tribe that Winston Churchill had fought while participating in a punitive expedition in 1897.) Offering his personal loyalty, as well as military training, victory, and—implicitly—wealth for the Mohmands, Gant’s soldiers and Afzhal mobilized hundreds of men from the valley tribes north of Jalalabad.

Euphemistically known as the ‘Afghan Local Police’—the name was perhaps the only thing about them that reflected any authority derived from the state, rather than from their tribal prerogatives and American backing—these militias defended their villages and tributary valleys from Pakistan-based Taliban fighters. In many cases, they were former ‘Taliban’ in one sense or another: the term gets difficult to define in a place as profoundly anti-government as the Konar. Gant himself was frequently referred to, approvingly, as ‘Taliban’ by the locals.

This strategy stood in obvious tension with NATO efforts to strengthen the Karzai regime. Petraeus, with whom Gant was in regular touch and who visited Gant’s position in the Konar to award him another medal, was bullish about the ultimate ability of the Afghan government to work with the tribes and establish authority. Having the support of Petraeus and other officers, Gant’s program expanded, with an ambitious outreach to the Mashwani and even to the famously anti-government and anti-American Safi, and with nascent plans to mobilize elements of the Taliban to fight each other across the border in Pakistan. Though much smaller in scale, the parallels with Iraq’s Anbar Awakening were obvious: The Mohmand areas of the Konar in late 2011 were what winning might have looked like in eastern Afghanistan.

However, with Petraeus’ departure from Afghanistan, along with that of several other officers sympathetic to Gant’s project, support began to wane. Gant’s relationship with his proximate superiors grew antagonistic. One of them, a Special Forces colonel named Mark Schwartz who was now in charge of all operations like Gant’s, appeared to work openly against Gant’s well-being, motivated by a sense that Gant was out of control, that he held men like Schwartz in contempt (Schwartz likely had a point here) and that he was a prima donna taking the credit for successes that were the consequences not of charismatic leadership in the field but of the larger efforts of the Army’s Special Forces Command in Afghanistan. Ann Tyson provides substantial evidence of extraordinary pettiness toward Gant personally, combined with near-total indifference to the success of his mission in Konar. Remarkably, she gets a former member of Schwartz’s staff to say on-the-record that, with respect to Gant, Schwartz "want[ed] him to fail."

After spending all of 2011 living with only a handful of other Americans in a small Afghan village engaged in regular and often fierce combat with the Taliban, Gant’s near-total disregard for Army regulations he felt were irrelevant or, in many cases, (as with the prohibition on distributing fuel) counterproductive to his mission gave his enemies in the military bureaucracy their opening. Reading of his drinking and abuse of painkillers, one is tempted to channel Lincoln’s response to being told that his favorite general, Ulysses Grant, was a drunk, and ask for the names of Gant’s liquor and opiate of choice so that adequate provisions might be ensured.

This understates the seriousness of Gant’s personal crisis. By some officers, Gant was used for as long as he could win and stay out of trouble, and abandoned soon after he ran afoul of his mid-level superiors, with no consideration taken for the personal toll of constant exposure to combat and isolation from civilization took on him—despite the fact that he had spoken openly about his personal problems. Other officers resented him from the start. When he was arrested in March of 2012, he was briefly and fantastically suspected of secretly organizing anti-American actions in the Konar like a 21st century Col. Kurtz. This was pure fantasy, directed at a man who had spent over a year performing for his country one of the most difficult missions ever asked of an American officer—and succeeding in it. What was not fantasy was that, after Gant’s removal from the Konar, much of the Afghan Local Police initiative with the Safis and the Mohmands deteriorated.

There is a revealing moment in Tyson’s account of the aftermath of the events in the Konar. She quotes an Army prosecutor asking a Board of Inquiry, "How can we retain such officers when we are trying to teach them [the Afghans] the rule of law?" The smugness and self-satisfaction and borderline delusion of this question sum up a great deal of the military’s difficulties in securing alliances among the tribes in Afghanistan—tribes that do not care one bit about the "rule of law"—and serve as a fine illustration of the military bureaucracy’s failure to appreciate the costs, personal and otherwise, of winning the sort of war being fought there. One suspects that this is because many of these officers do not really care about winning. The promotions come either way.

American Spartan is one of the most remarkable books yet to emerge from the last decade of war. It can be read as a virtual catalogue of what military men sometimes antiseptically refer to as ‘failures of leadership.’ Not one of these failures belongs to Jim Gant.