"He did go native to a degree, but that's what you needed them to do... You go native so that the natives feel that you respect them and are comfortable with them and trust them, above all," Petraeus, who led U.S. Central Command and was Afghanistan's war commander from 2010-2011, told ABC News in a rare interview last May.
The war began that way after the 9/11 attacks, with Special Forces leveraging tribal relationships through face-to-face engagement. Many Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group rode into Afghanistan in late 2001 on horseback and full traditional attire. Then, their commanders encouraged them to grow long beards. The Pashtun have little respect for a man without whiskers, and Green Berets expert in counterinsurgency leveraged their diplomatic skills that the regiment had made its bones on in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere decades ago.
"You could move further, you could move faster, you could run farther," Gant said, describing the tactical advantage to adopting lightweight tribal dress. "You could take cover more quickly. You could carry more ammunition, you could carry more water. It was just an absolute no brainer."
But by 2003, traditional clothing was mostly absent from special operations teams, who wore camouflage uniforms and body armor and lived on isolated bases. Special Forces 5th Group operators who spoke Arabic were mostly fighting in Iraq by then, while Spanish-speaking 7th Group operators steeped in Latin American culture joined with 3rd Group's Africa specialists in taking over Afghan operations.
Bushy beards remained ever-present for years among the operators fighting in Afghanistan, but were commonly accessorized with Oakley wraparound sunglasses and khaki baseball caps embroidered with a skull and team number -- what some more traditional-minded officers groaned had become "the cool guy look."
"You have a beard but you're still dressed like RoboCop and you just look like a Martian to the tribal villagers," said Mann, a retired Green Beret officer with combat deployments in Afghanistan, who is well known in the special operations community.
Living in villages also fell by the wayside for almost a decade as top war commanders publicly emphasized withdrawing troops even as they escalated a largely intelligence-driven and special ops-fought war. Commanders urged teams to engage in mostly "scalps on the barn targeting," Mann said, referring to killing and capturing enemy leadership.
Thousands of Taliban riflemen were killed but more kept coming. One senior Green Beret officer told a reporter in 2010 that 4,000 Taliban fighters had been killed over the previous two years along the highway west of Kandahar City, and yet, "I wouldn't send you down that road today, because it's not safe."
By 2009, with Petraeus at U.S. Central Command overseeing both the drawdown in Iraq and coming troop surge in Afghanistan, it became obvious the U.S. was struggling to defeat a Taliban force he later told ABC News was clearly "on the march."
It was then that Gant, a Silver Star Medal recipient unknown outside of Special Forces, proposed a new tribal engagement strategy in his public pamphlet "One Tribe At A Time," which bluntly stated that while the U.S. was "losing the war," it could use the tribes to help turn the tide -- ideas which impressed Petraeus, though he added, "I could see that for myself." Petraeus ordered Gant back to Afghanistan in July 2010.