A legendary Special Forces commander was quietly forced to leave the U.S. Army after he admitted to a love affair with a Washington Post war correspondent, who quit her job to secretly live with him for almost a year in one of the most dangerous combat outposts in Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command never publicly disclosed that highly-decorated Green Beret Major Jim Gant was relieved of command at the end of a harrowing 22 months in combat in March 2012.
His commanders charged in confidential files that he had "indulged in a self-created fantasy world" of booze, pain pills and sex in a tribal village deep in Taliban and al Qaeda country with his "wife," journalist Ann Scott Tyson.
“We did fall in love, I would say over the course of about a week,” Tyson told ABC News in an interview, recalling that Gant asked her to marry him within a few days of meeting each other in 2010. She laughed him off at first, but eventually he won her over.
By the time he was yanked out of Afghanistan two years later because of his relationship with Tyson, Gant also had won over three Pashtun tribes with substantial influence throughout Kunar province. Top commanders had tasked him with turning the tide of a conflict America was losing, and in his corner of the war, Gant was winning.
Despite being stripped of his Special Forces honors, busted down to captain and forced to retire in a case hushed up by the Army for two years, Gant said everything he achieved in waging an unconventional fight against the Taliban -- which Tyson says she helped him to do -- was worth the punishment and professional blows.
“We both knew that there was a lot of risk in doing what we did. And I would do it again,” Gant told ABC News this month in his first television interview. “It was extremely unconventional, yes, to say the least.”
As to the wrongdoing he has since admitted to, he said the results he got were proof that breaking the rules worked.
“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 said.
But it was a long, hard fall for a visionary still called “Lawrence of Afghanistan” by two of the war’s now retired top commanders, Army Gen. David Petraeus and Navy SEAL Adm. Eric Olson, in honor of the British officer T.E. Lawrence who led the Arab Revolt a century ago. Gant, who idolizes Lawrence, said he's honored by the comparison.
Ann Scott Tyson and Jim Gant, who married last year, have come forward to tell their tale in her new book, "American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission And The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant.”
One Tribe At a Time
Four years ago, some influential, high-level military officers believed that Gant held the key to winning the war in Afghanistan, but as the book lays out in excruciating detail, his heroism and vision were all but forgotten by the commanders who once praised him, save for Olsen and Petraeus.
“He clearly had grit. He had guts. He had intelligence,” Petraeus, who became the Afghan war’s commander in 2010, told ABC News in a rare on-camera interview. “He is one to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, even recognizing how things ended for him. Folks make mistakes, obviously.”
Few others have defended Gant's war record.
Amid his 50 months of credited time in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan –- an unusual duration –- Gant received the Silver Star Medal in Iraq. It is the third-highest award for valor and has only been given to 703 others since 2001, often posthumously.
Both Gant and Tyson, one of America’s most experienced war correspondents, were in troubled marriages when they decided to live out their battlefield romance for nine months in a hotly contested Afghan mountain range along the bucolic Kunar River. They now enjoy a considerably calmer life in her hometown Seattle, where Gant still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder as he watches both his former warzones collapsing into chaos.
He still suffers from combat injuries, the effects of the physical beating his body withstood over 20 years of special operations, traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and the PTSD that makes him flinch noticeably at the sound of any bang.
Gant's shaggy hair, long and bristly grey beard and blue jeans seamlessly blend into the city's laid back coffee and music culture, hardly betraying his incredible role as an operator so bold and imaginative in waging counterinsurgency for Petraeus that Tyson's book claims he was targeted for death by Osama bin Laden.
A seasoned ground commander once put on alert in 2004 to kill the al Qaeda leader when there was a suspected sighting, Gant wrote a startlingly blunt 45-page pamphlet, “One Tribe At A time” in 2009. He declared the U.S. was “losing the war in Afghanistan" and could only succeed there by earning the loyalty of the country’s Pashtun tribes -– which meant troops had to go native.
“All the Taliban has to do is not lose,” Gant wrote, accurately predicting the inevitability of U.S. public support for the war cratering with a hasty military withdrawal to follow. He proposed "tribal engagement teams" who would live inside villages and allowed to be "American tribesmen."
Rather than hammer Gant for his impertinence, Petraeus, Olson and other top commanders were so impressed that they changed Gant’s orders to return to Iraq and brought him back to Afghanistan in 2010 to help supervise “village stability operations.” As Gant had urged, small teams of operators would leverage the tribal honor code, Pashtunwali, by living with, eating with, fighting with and even dying with tribesmen willing to take on the insurgents.
Olson said he considered Gant one of the few in special operations who understood that progress required more than just kill/capture missions and viewed him as an antidote to an unconventional war that had taken the wrong direction with a surge of conventional troops.
Petraeus became Gant’s biggest supporter when he unexpectedly took command in Kabul in July 2010.
“There was no question that the Taliban was on the march,” Petraeus said. His solution was to send thinly-stretched Special Operations forces into villages, “thickened” by conventional U.S. Army infantry squads, in order to win the loyalty of Pashtun and wreck the Taliban momentum. Gant was superb at “going native,” Petraeus said.
Gant also fell hard for a reporter at the Washington Post who took up his case for tribal engagement. Each was in a marriage on the ropes and each had four kids.
“I used to tell her, ‘just jump.’ You know, just, ‘Come on, just jump.’ And she did. And so did I. So here we are,” Gant said.
Going Native: 'I Am Trying to Win. Not Sure Everyone Is'
Once back in Afghanistan, Gant returned to Kunar province along the Pakistan border, an al Qaeda and Taliban haven that was the scene of the Navy SEALs’ 2005 disaster portrayed in the hit film “Lone Survivor,” as well as the location of the 2010 documentary “Restrepo,” by war correspondent Sebastian Junger and the late photographer Tim Hetherington. In 2003, Gant’s Green Beret team ODA 316 had fought with the Mohmand tribe in Mangwel village and he was still regarded as family by the tribal chief, Malik Noor Afzhal, nicknamed Sitting Bull.
But Gant was still skeptical of America's resolve in halting the enemy’s momentum when he arrived at Sitting Bull’s doorstep in early 2011.
"I am living in a qalat back in Mangwel, with my tribe in the Konar,” Gant emailed a journalist, who later joined ABC News. “I am trying to win. Not sure everyone is."
For one thing, instead of handpicked special operators, Gant got a dozen infantrymen from a Kansas unit who were untested and in some cases barely knew how to use their weapons.
“I was absolutely shocked at how unprepared they were for the mission. But they had heart,” Gant said.
He trained them literally overnight and they soon grew full beards and adopted tribal appearance, voluntarily shedding uniforms and body armor for shalwar kameez clothing, pokol caps and scarves. They had to show Sitting Bull’s tribe that they did not fear being killed by their Afghan friends, Gant argued. Their Afghan clothing, therefore, was their protection.
“It wasn't about our weapons or our body armor... it was gonna be about how we treated them. And it worked. It worked in a big way,” he said.
But Gant painted Spartan lambdas on his humvee guntrucks to let Taliban observers know they were his, which helped him avoid ambushes by intimidated insurgents, he says. Commanders later accused him of destroying government property with the spay-painted symbols.
He didn’t fear a fight, taunting the enemy into attacking and often riding on the hood of his Humvee to use his uncanny ability at spotting and defusing roadside bombs -- though one finally hit him in early 2012, launching him from the hood of his vehicle. Gant reported the incident but refused to be medevaced. On another occasion, Tyson was in a guntruck hit by an IED but no one was injured.
“Tell everyone you come into contact with, I did not come here to fight. I came here to help the people,” Gant told dozens of tribal police in one 2012 video Tyson shot. “But if someone wants to f***in’ fight, they know where I am.”
Gant said his challenge intimidated the Taliban and impressed the tribes, whose honor code demands violence for violence.
“You cannot let violence go unanswered and you have to be prepared to be more violent than they are,” Gant said. Otherwise, he said, “they’ll kill you.”
When the Taliban did attack, villagers helped the Americans fight back ferociously -- and Tyson videotaped much of it with her steady hand.
“I’ll never forget the courage to fight alongside the Americans, side by side. That was what we needed to win in Afghanistan,” she said.
In 2011, Petraeus visited Mangwel, which by then had been dubbed the “petting zoo” by Special Forces commanders because so many VIPs such as Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Joseph Lieberman and Carl Levin and the leadership of U.S. Special Operations wanted to see Gant’s success up close. Gant and his men greeted visitors in full tribal attire.
“[Gant] did go native. You go native so that the natives feel that you respect them and are comfortable with them and trust them, above all. And he really was adopted as a son by Sitting Bull... there was no question about the relationship between these two individuals. And that's what you want,” Petraeus said.
Petraeus decorated Gant with a Joint Service Commendation Medal -- which Gant pinned on Sitting Bull the next day, telling his friend, "Without you, there is no me."
"Jim had become more Pashtun than the Pashtuns," Tyson wrote in her book.
Tyson too dressed in tribal clothing made for her by local seamstresses. To show the tribe how much he trusted them, the American couple took walks together into Mangwel, where Tyson became friendly with the tribe’s women and children, invited into private areas where men did not go. Sitting Bull treated Tyson like a daughter, she wrote.
Gant taught Tyson how to fire all of the weapons used by Special Forces and kept a spare pistol in his guntruck in case null