Leadership: The Wisdom of General Crook

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November25, 2006: For the next few months, Afghan and NATO troops will be out in the snow and bad weather, raiding villages where Taliban are hunkered down for the Winter. For U.S. troops, this is a 19th century tactic, pioneered by American general George Crook, to defeat the hostile tribes on the Great Plains. For the last four years, many American commanders have been trying to emulate Crook in other ways as well.

During the height of the Indian Wars in the American west, one of the most successful American commanders was general George Crook. He was an original thinker who used a combination of imagination and diplomacy to bring the wars to an end with a minimum of bloodshed. Crook's job was to pacify the tribes that still raided (as a form of sport or retribution for slights real or imagined) Indians and non-Indians alike.  Crook also had to  move tribes to reservations, or force them back there. But the main task of general Crook's troops was to keep the peace on a still turbulent frontier. Faced with the possibility of operating in Afghanistan, a rugged area populated by less well equipped, but more rugged and robust locals, it's a good idea to look back at how general Crook handled a similar situation.

First, general Crook saw diplomacy as his primary weapon. The Indians knew he had a more powerful military force, but they also knew Crook could be trusted. Crook used this trust, and his negotiating skills, to carry out American policies that he often didn't agree with. But Crook was also eager to avoid violence as much as possible. He was not a bloody minded soldier, and  he realized that a reputation for senseless violence would make many of the tribes resist more stoutly and refuse to negotiate. Crook would recognize a similar situation in Afghanistan today. There is more to lose and little to gain by using a lot of fire power. You have to convince the Afghans that you do have the firepower, and can use it, but will only do so when there really is no other choice. 

Using Indians to fight Indians was another technique Crook used a lot. First, he hired a lot of Indians as scouts. This made a lot of sense, as many of his troops were from back east and didn't know the local terrain, languages and customs. Crook saw to it that the scouts were treated well, for the scouts were usually recruited from weaker tribes that had a beef with the stronger tribes. The smaller tribes were usually easier to negotiate deals with. The larger tribes would often fight and Crook needed the scouts, and Indian allies (who sometimes fought for him). Same situation in Afghanistan.

Many of the Afghan tribes and ethnic groups (Pushtuns versus everyone else) don't like each other very much. The government has gotten a number of tribes to become friendly, and some of those that now support the Taliban do it either because of existing disagreements with the government, or other tribes, or because the Taliban are successful in using terror. 

Crook also showed a lot of innovation on the battlefield. While "asymmetric" warfare is a hot item today, it was a common tool for general Crook. Asymmetric means using weapons and techniques that the enemy cannot easily deal with. For the Afghans, this means knowing the terrain better and being more capable of moving across the hills and mountains. Crook had the same problem, in that the tribes knew their backyard better and their grass fed ponies could move faster than his cavalry (which depended on supplies of grain to feed his larger horses.) But Crook also realized that in the Winter the Indians had to settle in to survive the bad weather, and their ponies were forced to survive as best they could (and many didn't). Crook could move around in the Winter, by using many horses to carry supplies. While Crook's force was small and tied to their supplies, the Indians could hardly move at all, and usually succumbed to Crook's offer of bullets or bread. Protecting their families was always a top priority for the Indians and Crook would also, during Summer campaigns, strive to capture the women and children of a rebellious tribe. This improved his negotiating position immensely. 

One can only speculate what general Crook would do in Afghanistan today, but he would likely  cut deals with Afghans willing to deal. And there are always some Afghans willing to deal. Crook would look at the forces available to him and try to use his advantages (reconnaissance and air transport.) To succeed in Afghanistan, think like Crook.