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Building Bridges

By Chad Clark

The author and Malik Noorafzhal in Konar Province, Afghanistan


It is a widely acknowledged truth in the civil affairs (CA) profession and in stability operations that one slip-up can undo a lot of progress. U.S. military forces further have the tendency to complicate things by taking a very complex and nuanced approach rather than acting upon what is most obvious. Often, CA planners establish benchmark conditions too difficult to understand or measure in practice, as they are often rooted in calculating geographic battlespace won. In his article, "One Tribe at a Time,"[1] Jim Gant proposes a simplified approach by shifting the perspective from looking at a raw geographic battlespace to overlaying it with tribal makeup and fixing the lines of operation across that domain. The advantage of this perspective, according to Gant, is that it enables coalition forces to have a shared understanding across tactical, operational, and strategic objectives that resonate within Afghan social constructs. This shared understanding enables action at the tactical level within the strategic guidance, hence a metaphorical “bridge” across that river of internal confusion that so often rears its ugly head. The concept of building a bridge can guide civil affairs personnel in envisioning priorities and benchmarks, and unifying team members and stakeholders, in order to arrive at the ultimate goal: stability. These bridges enable actionable understanding across unified action partners, to include the host nation, instead of the litany of local and superfluous “projects” that became the hallmark of CA operations in Afghanistan.

To be effective, the CA practitioner must consider the terrain and conditions on which a bridge is to be built. It makes good sense that bridges can be built faster if they are built from both sides. While coalition forces are there contributing to security, governance, enabling economic trade, and repairing infrastructure, the local nationals need to visualize their long-term benefit if mutual cooperation and participation is to be achieved. To convince local national partners the bridge is worth building requires creating coherent priorities with them, and recognizing their contribution towards those priorities.

Unfortunately, the frequent rotation of coalition forces, often with little or poor continuity from one unit to the next, has done little to encourage Afghan partners to trust that the priorities remain the same. CA and their partners cannot only have credible short term and long-term goals, those goals must be durable with measurable benchmarks, able to withstand time and multiple troop rotations. Each team should recognize that the team before it was not incompetent, and the team following will not be either. If each mission has clear priorities and relevant lines of effort, it will not be hard to persuade follow-on teams to pick up the ball and continue moving down field. If each team constantly adjusts mission objectives, each following team will have to rebuild the foundation. Cooperation and communication will fortify progress throughout rotations.

"We think you should be able to show your pride without looking like a day one boot with the current trend of skulls, flags and often politically charged “patriot” fashion."

- The War Department

Instead of projecting onto local nationals what coalition forces “think” is the best way forward, it is imperative that local leaders be included in the development of that vision. It is the role of CA forces to create this understanding and weave it into the battlespace commander’s intent at all echelons. However, it is just as critical for coalition leadership to agree to the priorities as it is for the host nation tribes. By way of example, Anne Tyson[3] describes a time when Gant was implementing his “One Tribe at a Time” approach in Konar province. According to Tyson’s account, Gant found that his biggest challenge was not the Afghan population, but opposition from his own chain of command. He found that without this internal bridge, it was as if he and the commander of ISAF were standing on opposite sides of a large valley waving to one another.

With a coherent approach, unity among partners, and patience, U.S. military forces will be able to build that bridge from chaos to a semblance of order. Without these bridges, the military will set the conditions for its adversaries to co-opt its best efforts and use them against its intended goals.

[2] The late Malik Noorafzhal was a village elder that figured prominently in Jim Gant’s article. During a 2009-2010 deployment to Konar Province, this author worked with Malik, who was very proud of the shotgun given to him by ODA-316.

[3] Anne Tyson, American Spartan : the promise, the mission, and the betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant (2014). William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

About the Author:

Master Sergeant Chad Clark is an Active Guard and Reserve Civil Affairs Specialist in the Army Reserve. He is currently a MLC Facilitator at Ft. Knox, KY.

The views expressed are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Sam Smith
Sam Smith
19. Feb. 2023

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