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Going Native: Why bin Laden Wanted Major Jim Gant Dead

A story about Green Beret Major Jim Gant's fall from grace in Afghanistan.

“Indian country” means different things depending on who is saying it, and to whom it is being said.

It’s a legal term for trust lands, tribal lands and allotments still held by the allottees.

In this publication, it refers to those areas in the U.S., Canada and Mexico where indigenous communities reside or have significant impact on politics and popular culture.

“Indian country” is also a Wild West meme that travels with U.S. soldiers when the United States goes to war. It carries a great load of cultural baggage for GIs when it is used to define enemy-held territory. (Friendly outposts are “reservations.”) American Indian GIs are often nonplussed by how this plays out, and it stepped over a line into public insult when Osama bin Laden got code-named “Geronimo” in the military operation that tracked him down.

The story of Green Beret Major Jim Gant, nicknamed “Lawrence of Afghanistan,” after T.E. Lawrence, is chock-full of jargon from the Wild West, not the least of which is the ending of Gant’s Army career for being “off the reservation.” The Army has had little to say about Gant, but his story surfaced recently in reporting by ABC News and by publication of a book by his wife, Ann Scott Tyson: American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission And The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant.

Tyson’s credibility in this matter is strengthened by her record as an experienced war correspondent who covered combat for over a decade and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; she was working for The Washington Post when she first encountered Gant. Tyson’s credibility is diminished by the fact that her affair with Gant was the incident that finally got him chucked off the battlefield, if it’s fair to call living with him for nine months in a combat zone an “incident.”

The ABC reporting on Gant’s rise and fall seems well-sourced, with on-the-record comments from both sides, so the story does not hinge on his wife’s credibility. It’s also significant that Gant does not deny that he broke a lot of Army regulations. His defense is that he got results.

Gant spent 50 months in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan and received a Silver Star. In 2009, he wrote a pamphlet titled One Tribe at a Time, in which he stated that the U.S. was losing the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, and the only way to turn it around would be to earn the loyalty of Pashtun tribal leaders. He advocated what he called “tribal engagement teams” of American GIs who would live as Pashtuns, trading body armor for shalwar kameez clothing, and helmets for pakol caps.

The danger was obvious, but the risk was necessary, he argued, because all the Taliban had to do, Gant observed, “is not lose.” They believed the Americans, like the Soviets and the British and the Mughals before them, would get tired and go home.

Gant and his men were assigned to Kunar Province, site of the disastrous SEAL patrol portrayed in the film Lone Survivor. He took up residence in a Pashtun village, dressed Pashtun, ate Pashtun food and became regarded as family by the tribal chief, Malik Noor Afzhal, who the Americans nicknamed “Sitting Bull.”

The Taliban attacked the village and were beaten back in a ferocious firefight. This was caught on video by Tyson, who had quit the Washington Post, left her husband and come to share a qalat with Gant. Sitting Bull, she wrote, treated her like a daughter.

Over time, the village became so pacified that Army officers referred to it as “the petting zoo,” the place they could take political VIPs to mix with the locals. When Gant was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal, he passed it on to Sitting Bull.

But, over time, the wear and tear got to Gant, who was afraid to take leave because he worried that his gains in the village would be rolled back. He admits to drinking while off-duty. The Army accused him of drinking on-duty, but in terms of the rules, that was a distinction without a difference. When they found out about his girlfriend, he was a goner.

The Army came down on him hard, including a charge that he “defaced government property” when he spray-painted Spartan lambdas on his Humvees so the Taliban would know he was there if they wanted to fight and his allies would know he was not afraid to fight.

By locating his unit in a village qalat, Gant had by Pashtun custom put himself and his wife under the protection of Sitting Bull, a protection the Pashtuns understand as a sacred duty.

Gant told ABC News that he did indeed break lots of rules, but went on, "I never left the battlefield defeated. I never lost a man. Well over 20 awards for valor for the men that I fought alongside. We went after 'em every single day. I brought all my men home. That's it." 

Gant’s detractors told ABC that he had “gone native” and led his men “off the reservation.” They compared him to Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and claimed that he inhabited a fantasy world—his methods had become unsound.

Gant escaped court martial, but lost his green beret and was busted to captain after having been on the promotion list for Lieutenant Colonel. The letter of reprimand that ended his career said:

While fully acknowledging your record of honorable and valorous service to the Regiment, our Army and our country, the simple truth is that your subsequent conduct was inexcusable and brought disrepute and shame to the Special Forces Regiment and Army Special Operations. In short, your actions disgraced you as an officer and seriously compromised your character as a gentleman.

If his superiors saw him as a Col. Kurtz, Gant saw himself as T.E. Lawrence. If Gant was correct, he will perhaps be spared the humiliation Lawrence suffered when the British government reneged on the promises Lawrence made to induce his Arab brothers-in-arms to fight the Ottoman Turks.

The Pashtuns, if they knew the cultural reference, would probably see Gant as Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves. How they may suffer for protecting Major Gant will be seen next year, when the United States completes the withdrawal he predicted.

An ironic coda to the story was, according to Tyson’s military sources, found among the documents SEAL Team Six carried off from Osama bin Laden’s hidey-hole after they killed him. She claims the SEALs found a copy of Gant’s pamphlet on how to fight the Taliban as a Pashtun and a copy of bin Laden’s order to kill Gant. The Army has no comment, because the materials seized in that raid are still classified.

Jim Gant now tries to adjust to civilian life in Seattle as the U.S. finally withdraws from the longest war in its history, leaving the Pashtun tribal lands, like most of Afghanistan, still “Indian country.”