March 28

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine grunt, is the author of the classic about advisers in Vietnam, “The Village,” and five books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wearing jeans, a jacket and a baseball cap, the full-bearded man looked at the apprehensive young soldiers fresh from Kansas. In a few hours, he would lead them into an Afghan village where they would live and fight for a year. He wanted to motivate them.

“Who am I? I am a warrior,” Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant said by way of introduction. “If you want to kill, you must be willing to die. I am willing to do both. . . .

“I love my men as I love my own children. . . . What you are going to do is not okay. It’s not fun, it’s not safe, it’s highly stressful. I do not expect all of you to make it home.”

Welcome to “American Spartan,” the “Catch-22” of the Afghanistan war, a mixture of romanticism, fantasy and hard-core dedication. Gant is a real-life character. The author, Ann Scott Tyson, a former Washington Post reporter, is his wife. She has woven together four tales: an over-the-top adventure, a delusional military strategy, a love story and a failure of organizational leadership.


“American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant” by Ann Scott Tyson. (William Morrow)

First, the sheer adventure. Gant is a mountain man, circa 1840. He is Jeremiah Johnson, living in the wrong century. Despite his heavy drinking, volcanic mood swings and numerous wounds, he survived more than 40 months of combat. In 2003 and again in 2011, he and a dozen Special Forces soldiers lived in a mountain village in eastern Afghanistan, adjacent to the Pakistan border. When I visited that village, both the elders and the soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 32nd Infantry told tales about Gant’s exploits. He captured one insurgent after a two-day chase. Another time, he drove into the center of the deadly Korengal Valley and fought his way out.

Adopted by a Pashtun tribe, Gant’s team, called the Spartans, set up an intelligence net, with drop points for agents to hide letters for team members. The tribesmen led the Spartans into the mountains, pointing out paths the Taliban fighters used and hamlets that sheltered them. In a dozen clandestine operations, not once was a hide site compromised. Inside the village, the Spartans played volleyball, provided medical supplies and wrote to their families to collect enough money to build a girls’ school. Reacting immediately to tip-offs, they kept the Taliban off balance and prevented al-Qaeda terrorists from returning to a 10-mile swath of eastern Afghanistan. A remarkable small-unit accomplishment, but tiny compared with the 1,500-mile border along the Pakistani sanctuary.

Second, the delusional strategy. Gant’s deep affection for Pashtun tribal ways came to the attention of the top command. Four-star Gens.Stanley McChrystal in 2009, David Petraeus in 2010 and John Allen in 2011 fervently believed that nation-building was a military objective, despite President Obama’s disbelief in the mission and the treachery of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. So the generals tapped Gant in 2011 to demonstrate that Special Forces teams could train tribesmen to defend their villages.

When Gant succeeded in one village, Petraeus asked him how to connect such village militias to the serpentine government in Kabul. Gant responded, “It cannot be done.” Our best and brightest generals were pursuing an impossible strategy, having taken the wrong lesson from Iraq. There, seeking protection against both Sunni Islamists and the Shiite government in Baghdad, in 2006-2007 the Sunni tribes came over to the American side.

In Afghanistan, however, the 10 million members of the Pashtun tribes never came over to the American side. In Iraq, one religious sect fought the other; in Afghanistan, it was one sub-tribe against another. Gant’s village rejected the Taliban. But 10 miles up the road, the villagers of Ganjgal, loyal to the Taliban, ambushed Afghan soldiers in a battle that resulted in two Medals of Honor. Our generals dispersed a few hundred platoons and teams like Gant’s among 5,000 villages in 400 districts, hoping to knit together fractious Pashtun tribes from the bottom up. The arithmetic did not add up. There were too few American units. In any case, Karzai was sabotaging the effort, preferring to rule by cronyism.

Third, the love story. Gant took his private war to a legendary level. After he and reporter Ann Scott Tyson fell in love, she sneaked into the Pashtun village to live with him and his team. Don’t try to count how many journalism and military rules the two of them broke. By way of partial redemption, Tyson has a sharp and sentimental eye. Read this book to savor the rich, candid details of love between a man and a woman, between Afghan and American comrades in battle, and between two cultures. Her incisive description of Pashtun ways explains why generals such as Petraeus believed that our military could build a nation.

For a year, Tyson lived in the village, her presence known by word of mouth to the Taliban, to many American soldiers and to thousands of Pashtuns. Obviously, our intelligence system is not designed to track tribal dynamics at the district level. Thus we cannot predict the multitude of accommodations among Afghan soldiers, the Taliban and the tribes that will occur once we depart.

Fourth, the failure of organizational leadership. The higher command had no inkling of Tyson’s presence and Gant’s unorthodox methods. Tyson depicts the colonels above Gant as paper-shufflers who never stayed overnight in the village. Gant’s men were devoted to him, the enemy was fearful, and the Pashtun community was obedient. Our generals compared him to Lawrence of Arabia, the ascetic English officer who fought alongside Saudi tribesmen.

But by bringing Tyson into the village, he ran terrible risks for his team. Had she been pinned down in a firefight, every soldier would have rushed forward to save her. Gant was not betrayed, as the book’s subtitle suggests; he went too far.

Eventually, the high command terminated Gant’s career and those of two other superb Special Forces officers who agreed with his values: Matt Golsteyn and Dan McKone. We Americans admire our Green Berets because men like Gant, Golsteyn and McKone live among the tribes and challenge our Islamist enemies to do battle over basic ideals. Their seniors should mentor them and direct their enthusiastic efforts. Regrettably, the Special Forces command did not address the lack of leadership by the colonels who failed to guide junior leaders such as Gant and his comrades.

Army and Marine grunts tried; they toiled without complaint at their Sisyphean task. They fought and died for the Afghans, but they couldn’t substitute for the lack of Afghan leadership. At one point, Gant told his team: “We will never win in Afghanistan. . . . It gives us a place to go and be warriors.”

Many — probably most — of our grunts hold that view; they are our guardians, regardless of the folly of the mission. They fight because they are warriors, not because naive generals believe that American soldiers can persuade Afghan tribes to fight for a punk government.

One general wrote that Gant lived in “a fantasy world.” That is true. But the generals placed him there without providing mature leadership to guide him. The combination of the warrior spirit and a fabulist strategy created this tale of daffy devotion. According to his wife, “Jim had become more Pashtun than the Pashtuns.” He tried to be the leader the Pashtuns didn’t have.

Our overall strategy failed because we lacked sufficient control over the feckless Afghan leaders we placed in power. It’s a wonder the exuberant Gant didn’t lead a coup attempt against Karzai. Fortunately, his excessive risk-taking and unbridled devotion did not end in tragedy.

“Catch-22” was a satirical novel, sprinkled with gritty vignettes of real combat during World War II. “American Spartan” is the real-life story of living a fantasy, sprinkled with allusions to an impossibly ambitious strategy.

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine grunt, is the author of the classic about advisers in Vietnam, “The Village,” and five books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMERICAN SPARTAN

The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant

By Ann Scott Tyson

Morrow. 376 pp. $27.99