WASHINGTON — -- When the U.S. military relieved Special Forces legend Jim Gant from command in March 2012, he saw it as the final blow in a clash within his own chain of command over his public push for American special operators to “go native” with Afghan tribes -- to dress like, live like and, if necessary, die like the locals.
Gant was removed after he was accused of -- and admitted to -- violating a ban on drinking alcohol and for using prescription painkillers, as well as giving out fuel to tribal police. Most controversially, he also admitted to living with his war correspondent lover Ann Scott Tyson in craggy Kunar province on the front lines for nearly a year.
But to the 44-year-old Green Beret, the potential court-martial he narrowly avoided really was rooted in his aggressiveness in embracing and promoting a controversial strategy. Gant had himself “gone native,” growing so close to the Pashtun villagers he lived alongside that the Mohmand tribe made him a "malik," a tribal leader.
"At that particular time, there were some people in my chain of command who were absolutely looking for something to get me off the battlefield," Gant claimed in an ABC News interview, which airs on “Nightline” Friday.
Gant's commanders throughout his 22 straight months in combat all declined to comment on his case or did not respond to requests for comment. U.S. Army Special Operations said in statement last week that the command "stands behind" an investigation of Gant by a task force in Afghanistan in 2012.
In a letter of reprimand, Gant was scolded for the drugs, alcohol and the affair, which the Army said allowed his paramour “unauthorized access to classified information” and put his men and his Afghan partners at “extreme and unnecessary risk.”
“In short, your actions disgraced you as an officer and seriously compromised your character as a gentlemen,” said the reprimand letter, signed by Lt. Gen. John Mulholland. “Such incredibly poor judgment, actions and lack of moral character will not and cannot be tolerated.”
Dozens of highly experienced military sources, however, said Gant was right when he said the Army had failed to fully embraced the concept of living with the tribes in “village stability operations,” a strategy with roots in the Vietnam War that has historically been a specialty of U.S. Army Special Forces. Some believe Gant's success at fighting the Taliban with such a controversial strategy was a factor in the military's decision to force him out.
"What happened to Jim Gant was symptomatic of a larger problem," Scott Mann, one of the principal architects of village stability operations, told ABC News this week.
The emphasis by many special operations commanders on direct-action -- kill or capture missions -- against Taliban, al Qaeda and others in Afghanistan throughout the war, frustrated other commanders, who believed that winning the tribes' loyalty was the only way to exit the war successfully. Gant's closeness to the Mohmand tribe in Kunar was precisely what one of his commanders, Gen. David Petraeus, wanted in order to leverage thousands of warriors under tribal chief Noor Afzhal against the Taliban.
"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.
Several counterinsurgency experts also were urging U.S. commanders to flip the Pashtun tribal honor code, Pashtunwali, into an advantage against the Taliban through more direct tribal interaction by operators. Gen. Stanley McChrystal began to experiment with the concept before losing his job as war boss to Petraeus.
"Many initiatives should've been employed in Afghanistan years earlier, such as village stability operations," said one senior officer who served with Gant.
By early 2011, Gant was finally set up with his mixed team of Special Forces and mechanized infantry troopers inside the village of Mangwel to earn and maintain the trust, protection and loyalty of the Mohmand tribe's "malik,” or chief, whom Gant nicknamed Sitting Bull. Special Forces were spread so thin between kill/capture teams, in addition to 30 village stability sites, that Gant unexpectedly got inexperienced infantrymen instead of combat-hardened special operators for his team.
“I was absolutely shocked at how unprepared they were for the mission. But they had heart,” Gant says now, with pride.
While Petraeus and his U.S. Special Operations Command counterpart, Navy SEAL Adm. Eric Olson, wanted Gant and his men to go native in hopes it would be so successful that it spread far and wide, Gant said many in his special operations chain of command were unhappy.Even as they grudgingly embraced village stability operations, an order was issued in late 2010 for all other operators to shave off the beards that had become so ubiquitous to the Afghan war because they looked, as one senior Special Forces officer put it in 2010 “unprofessional.”
"Now we look no different than the Brits or Russians before us," a newly-shaven senior Special Forces team leader said in a news report then, referring to previous occupying forces in Afghanistan. The soldier also irked top commanders by adding that even the former war commander McChrystal "should have grown a beard" out of respect to Karzai.
Tyson writes in her book "American Spartan" that her now-husband and his men were hamstrung in 2011 by the command's orders for even those involved in village stability operations to keep their beards trimmed short and to stitch subdued American flag patches to the sleeves of their tribal shirts.
Two incidents in early 2012 showed how both the failure of the U.S. military to understand Afghanistan's tribal culture caused violence and how some operators' understanding of it may have prevented bloodshed.
When U.S. troops mistakenly burned holy Qurans at Bagram prison, there was a sudden spate of "green on blue incidents" in which Afghan troops gunned down American counterparts and riots swept Afghanistan. Gant violated a country-wide U.S. order to lock down his outpost and met with the local Safi tribal leader at his house. Mann called the lockdown "a reflection of our lack of understanding of an honor-based society."
Days later, when Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales snuck out of a base in Kandahar to slaughter and burn 17 Afghan civilians in a nearby village, quick thinking by U.S. commandos from the village stability team Bales was assigned to averted revenge violence.
"The team was very quick to approach the elders and make a public apology and a salatia honor payment. In a restorative society, blood money is expected," Mann said. "The team lived there. They were guests in that community."
But in 2012, as the Taliban ramped up attacks against his small outpost, Gant was pulled from Afghanistan to face allegations against him, as reported to military brass by a young first lieutenant. The village stability program ceased to exist by early last year, as American special operators were replaced by Afghan Local Police, an essentially deputized tribal police force. Petraeus and Olsen, both high-level supporters of the village stability program, had both left the military.
Though his relationship with Tyson was unique, several current and former special operations members told ABC News recently that painkillers and alcohol were ubiquitous on the front lines and Gant was hardly the only one guilty of those infractions.
"What matters to our commanders is conformity. Thinking outside the box puts a bull's eye on you. Gant was a non-conformist," said a frustrated former senior commander in the Army's elite counterterrorism unit, Delta Force, who supported the tribal initiative.