Mar 25

Before Eric C and I started blogging, we didn’t realize how often we would be misread. I’m not talking about disagreements on points of debate; we expected those. No, I’m amazed how often people extrapolate wild positions based on one or two lines. In our N.Y. Times guest post “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, some readers assumed I wanted the U.S. Army to force its soldiers to follow Christianity. (I definitely don’t.) The greatest example ever came from our (hopefully ironically-titled) post, “Join the Taliban...the Americans Will Kill You Anyways” when one reader assumed we were recruiting for the Taliban. (We weren’t.)

It happened again in “A New On V Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!”. I had a bit of fun at Marcus Luttrell’s expense for thinking growing a beard--in Army parlance “relaxed grooming standards”--would help him blend in with the locals. (In his exact words, “look like an Afghan fighter”.) The primary point of the post was to show how patently false this argument is.   

What I didn’t mean to argue was that soldiers shouldn’t let their hair fall down to their backs. As many commenters pointed out, beards help build rapport with local populations that, like in Afghanistan, that respect facial hair. Since I’ve never been much for uniformity in dress code in the first place, I’m not opposed to relaxing grooming standards; I just don’t think operators should grow beards under the mistaken belief they help them “blend in”.

If you want to build rapport go ahead. But do it right. While growing a beard may help build rapport, it’s one of the least effective ways to do it. A beard on someone who doesn’t speak the language is worth less than someone with a clean-shaven face who speaks Pashtun, Dari, Arabic or Farsi. (Also, the rapport reason is definitely abused by the special operations community. Most special operations units have relaxed grooming standards even if they don’t partner with local units or work with the local population.)

Here are a few even more effective ways to build rapport:

1. Learn the language. I deployed with a Special Forces battalion to Iraq. They used more interpreters than a regular Army battalion. The SF teams also spoke virtually no Arabic. Despite the widespread myth that Special Forces soldiers are fluent in multiple languages, most Special Forces Groups have not maintained even base proficiency in their assigned languages. (This applies even more for Special Forces Groups not aligned with the CENTCOM AOR.)

2. Live with your embedded troops. Even before the spate of “Blue on Green” attacks, most deployed military units lived in separate compounds. When I was deployed, this meant that U.S. troops shared a base with Afghan troops, but we lived in separate, walled off areas. How can you really build rapport if you don’t sleep and live together? You can’t. A beard won’t bridge the gap.

3. Invite Afghans to lift weights with you. Most Special Forces troops pride themselves on their huge muscles. If you don’t believe me, well, google “Special Forces workout”. (Or worse, “Navy SEAL workout”.) Yet I never saw Afghan or Iraqi soldier in a U.S. gym. If you want to build rapport, train and live together. (I also advocated in the last post that U.S. forces should work on slimming down. Sure you might have a beard, but giant muscles say to Afghans, “Remember, we’re different.”)

4. Use local weapons. Wear local clothes and Afghan military uniforms. Again, train as you fight. So why don’t our Special Forces use AK-47s, RPGs and the other weapons used by the Afghanistan National Army? Or wear the exact same uniform? It's about rapport, right?

5. Don’t wear your fancy Oakley sunglasses. If you want to build rapport, why not look the locals in the eyes without your glasses? Not making eye contact is disrespectful. And it lessens the perceived financial gap between our soldiers and Afghans. (This goes for your backwards baseball cap too.)

6. Recruit older Americans to meet with older Afghans. One of the completely offensive ways Americans interact with village elders is by having 20 to 30 year-olds fresh out of college leading meetings/shuras/jirgas. This is a personal bit of hypocrisy, because I led these meetings as a 20-year-old fresh out of UCLA. Of course, this means completely overhauling the U.S. military recruitment system--as Rosa Brooks recommended here--but it might have helped the U.S. win our last two wars.

7. Recruit more ethnic soldiers. Specifically, Pakistani, Iranian and Indian immigrants. This would cause a security clearance nightmare, but that probably says more about our security system process (developed during the Cold War) than reality.

8. Most importantly, don’t do anything that antagonizes the locals. I mean, will a beard help our troops one iota if the Afghans can see your “infidel” patch at the same time? Also, don’t talk about how uncivilized Afghans are. Don’t call all the locals terrorists. Hell, follow all the guidance in this post too.

Interestingly, when our last post went up, numerous special forces soldiers endorsed growing a beard, but not one advocated the entire military adopting relaxed grooming standards. If anything, most special operators who chimed in claimed I was jealous. I’m not jealous; I want our military to adopt effective fighting methods to win its wars. If growing a beard is so effective, every soldier in Afghanistan--not just Special Forces troops--should grow one.

Since every American unit in Afghanistan partners with Afghan units, every unit should reap the benefits of relaxed grooming standards, not just the special forces. And they should all follow this guidance before they start growing those beads.

Mar 12

Eric C and I are NPR junkies. (He started it.) And one of my favorite shows is Intelligence Squared US. Host John Donvan throws down an Oxfordian challenge to two sets of debaters to argue topics ranging from banning college football to genetically engineered babies. I love it--especially compared to cable news coverage--because the panelists go very deep into topics I often don’t know much about.

That was not the case for their topic last fall, “Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators”.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t listened to the above episode and actually care about who wins and loses, don’t keep reading.)

When it comes to the Arab Spring, I have pretty strong feelings. That’s why we spent weeks discussing this topic in January. To be clear, I am wildly for the proposition; elected Islamists are better than dictators. Always. I believe that everyone around the world is entitled to democracy, not just America.

As I listened to the debate, I started to get worried. My side let the other side set the terms. The opponents then leveraged the politics of fear to their advantage. I kept yelling at the podcast, “No, you should have said this! Don’t concede that! Say that’s a lie!” Since they didn’t...

My side lost.

But my side didn’t just lose, they got trounced. They started off with more supporters (38% of the audience), but only ended up with 44%. The opponents went from 31% of the audience to a whopping 47% supporting their side. For Intelligence Squared, that’s a walloping.

Which really hurts because this topic is probably the neatest summation of the entire “Arab Spring” issue. I mean, you could say, “Arab Spring, good or bad?”, but phrased this way, it really captures the nuance of the various positions. Considered among other foreign policy topics--the rise of China, Russia’s ongoing stuff--- this is far and away the most important change going on in the world.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I hate losing political arguments. (If I haven’t said that before, well I do.) So today and Wednesday, I want to set the record straight. On Wednesday, I will critique the arguments my side made during the debate. But first, four key points explaining why elected Islamists are better than dictators that my side left out:

1. This is about the long game. As long as the U.S. pursues short-term interests (which means installing dictators) over the long term (advancing democratic ideals), it will always have fractured relationships. This was true in the Cold War, and it has been true since 9/11. Pursuing a short term strategy will always keep America in danger.

The best example is the CIA’s involvement in Iran. The elected Iranian government in the 1940s started nationalizing oil, so, with Western help, the Shah took over. Ever since, the Iranians have resented American meddling in their country (including Western support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war). In each case, the US favored actions that benefited us in the short term, but have kept the problems with Iran continuing.

2. Let’s drop the “isms” argument. The opponents, as I’ll describe on Wednesday, managed to connect Islamism to fascism and Hitler. Well played, though totally inaccurate. On its face, this motion scares Americans with the dangerous sounding, “Islamism” and its connection to terrorism. This is on its face absurd, and I would make that point much more clearly.

3. Elections trump dictators absolutely. If I were debating on Intelligence Squared, I would have told a story that personifies this for the audience. I would have emphasized what it was really like to live under a dictator, asking the audience to imagine themselves with relatives disappearing to secret prisons and living under the crushing hand of dictatorship. If the other side wants to use fear, then pound them back with tragedy and horror.

4. Emphasize the hypocrisy. The problem with American foreign policy is that, to pursue American interests--variously either pro-American business policies or protecting American lives--American foreign policy often asks other people to sacrifice their liberty. In essence, to keep Americans free, we ask that others live in tyranny. Otherwise, how could any American argue that dictators are good for the people of those countries? This hypocrisy is the primary criticism of American foreign policy around the globe, and the primary driver of hostility towards Americans.

More than anything else, supporting the “Arab Spring” is a moral issue. Any American who believes in freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--for all mankind as the Declaration of Independence clarifies--must support the Arab Spring. You cannot rail against tyranny in America while supporting tyranny abroad. Doing so is either the height of arrogance, hypocrisy, ignorance or all three.

Feb 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Point 1: America needs to repair its image in the Islamic world.
It’s not exactly enlightening to say that many--but not all--people in the Islamic world really, really hate America. They seem to burn our flags at the slightest provocation. One protester in Pakistan died from inhaling burning American flag smoke during the protests; how many flags does that even take?

The problem is that many Americans don’t care. Some Americans hate Muslims as much as some Muslims hate Americans, regularly referring to them as primitives, barbarians or savages (post coming on that). They put infidel stickers on their F-150’s and think that rebuilding relationships with nations we’ve alienated constitutes “apologizing” for America. And too many moderate Americans, hit hard by the financial crisis, feel like our country has bigger issues to deal with before we get to the business of fixing how the rest of the world feels about us.

We can’t control how other nations feel about America. But we can care how they feel about us and try to repair the relationship. I'd suggest that if one small, inconsequential internet video can spark protests in dozens of countries, we have a serious image problem around the world.

Point 2: For example, foreigners hate American support for dictatorships.

In December, This American Life ran a show titled “This Week”, covering stories that happened just that week. One of those stories was how Egyptian President Morsi faced protests after firing all of the country’s judges. What caught me was that the reporter talked to an author who opposed religious rule. Who did he blame for the power grab?

“In my view, the biggest betrayal that has taken place against the Egyptian people is the absolute support that the American administration has given to the Muslim Brotherhood. America is ignoring the violence that is conducted against the Egyptian people. America is completely silent and has voiced that its relationship with Egypt is strategic.”

Then she spoke with a “a religious man, young, 28 years old”. A young man from the completely opposite side of the political spectrum. Who did he blame?

“This is what the US wants; this is what Israel wants-- a regime which appears to be democratic to the people, but actually it is this defense national council which will be doing all the work...For sure President Morsi wants the interests of Egypt. However, he sees the implementation of this interest, or finding the interest, from a very narrow perspective that the United States has set for him. We do not want him to see that perspective through the United States' perspective.”

In short, don’t dictatorships, because it alienates people of all political persuasions, not just the religious fanatics.

Point 3: But not everyone hates us.

Among all the bad news, the good news was that, after Benghazi, counter-protests formed to support peace and oppose violence. This is a good sign. As I wrote above, many, but not all, people hate us in the Middle East. We should focus on building support from the people who don’t hate us.

And you know what? Some liberal Muslims support free speech too.

Point 4:  What happened in Benghazi? We don’t know!    

When we wrote our review of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, the comment thread had an interesting reaction, coming down to a debate over what Obama knew, and when, and how he reacted to the attack on the consulate. My reaction at the time was simple:

“In general, I like to wait a few months for the larger, longer reports to come out. With the Osama raid, for example, a lot of the early information was dead wrong. We’ve written about this before, somewhere. It’s why we avoid breaking news stories on the blog.”

How long do you wait to discuss sensitive issues and current events?

On Violence is firmly in the wait and see camp. Hell, we write “the most intriguing event of the year” to discuss big issues we didn’t discuss before. We prefer to wait for the longer responses like the long form documentaries on PBS’s Frontline or articles in the New Yorker. The Obama administration’s main problem, in the beginning, was sending people out to talk about it; when Susan Rice did, she lost the entire forward momentum of her political career, because she spoke too soon.

Dec 17

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Arguing for the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney argued, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

President Ronald Reagan would have disagreed. As he put it:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

We’re writing “Our Communist Military” to point out contradictions and logical incongruities that don’t make sense under close scrutiny. By uttering the above aphorism, Reagan (unintentionally) made the point that our military shouldn’t invade other countries. It also shouldn’t help people.

The military is, after all, one of the only departments of the government that actually shows up and says, “Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." As conservative milbloggers put it in their joint “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statement, “No other organization has...rescued more people from natural disasters”. I mean, how many other departments in the government can even rescue people from natural disasters? FEMA? (I originally wrote this pre-Hurricane Sandy. More on that disaster tomorrow.)

This incongruity can be represented by the follow logic chain:

A. Conservatives hate the government.

B. The military is part of that government.


C. Conservatives hate the military?

Did Reagan hate the military? No, he campaigned for increased defense spending, and when he was elected, he did just that. Do conservatives hate our military? No, they don’t. I opened my post “The Best Trained, Most Professional Military...Just Lost Two Wars?” with three over-the-top pieces of praise for the US military; each quote praised the military as the greatest institution for good that has ever existed. Two of those quotes came from conservatives.

The problem is imprecise language. Reagan probably meant to say, “The fourteen most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from a non-military branch of the government, and I'm here to help," but that kind of ruins the punchline.

Milbloggers have the same problem. Not to poke the bear again, but the same day that the writers over at This Ain’t Hell (who are fine people despite our ideological differences) went nuts over our post, “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs”, Jonn Lilyea posted an article titled, “I’m shocked to discover that the government is incompetent”. Did he mean to write, “I’m shocked to discover that the (non-military part of the) government is incompetent” or does he really think the military is incompetent?

Because you can’t talk about the federal government without talking about the military. The military represents 20% of the government’s budget, over 50% of its non-discretionary spending, and 36% of its workers. You can’t cut it out of the “government incompetence pie” without taking away a lot of pie.

I could spend all day writing about this inconsistency. Instead, Michael C brought up a point while I was editing this post that made me rethink the whole thing. “Maybe,” he told me, “Some conservatives would say, ‘Yeah, but we don’t want a military that’s effective at helping people. We want other countries to fear us and think we’re going to kill them.’”

Looking at Reagan’s quote this way, it’s much scarier. Even creepy. Reagan didn’t say anything about competence, just the ability to inspire fear. Our military terrifies the civilians of every other nation when they invade. They fear for their lives. And fear inevitably creates insurgencies. And insurgencies kill soldiers.

That means the government can be good at one thing: scaring people. So the government can do something right...but I feel like I am trapped on Mobius strip of let’s end this thing now and sum up with, according to Ronald Reagan’s logic, taken at face value, we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

Dec 11

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here. To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Like TV shows, people in real life can jump the shark. General Petraeus jumped the shark when he took over command of Afghanistan. Brett Favre jumped the shark when he joined the Vikings. Today, we have to ask ourselves, are we jumping the shark? Because we’re about to argue that the universally beloved Toys for Tots charity is...


Last year, we were knee deep debating what Michael C dubbed “gratitude theory”--the idea that if you just give people things they will start to love you--when we realized that one of the best examples of “gratitude theory” in action is the Marine Corps Reserve’s charity Toys for Tots. Luckily for us, by waiting a year, we can also connect it to “Our Communist Military”.

Unfortunately, this probably-not-actually-evil charity drastically conflicts with the conservative military ethos. If troops don’t believe giving gifts does any good in Afghanistan, why give kids presents in America? What good will it do? And is there anything more liberal than a government organization redistributing toys from the rich to the poor? We’ll answer those questions, then conclude with the real problem behind Toys for Tots.

Gratitude Theory

The basic irony of Toys for Tots is that it something to someone. This isn’t altogether insightful, unless you’ve been following the debate over counter-insurgency. In short, opponents of population-centric COIN argue that simply giving people things--reconstructing infrastructure, giving medicine and aid, for example--won’t win the loyalty of foreign civilians. In a civil war, the thinking goes, only violence can make people fear you; they will never love you. (If you want specific examples, check out this series.)

Critics--like former Marine officer Bing West--have said it best, “counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its ‘core competency’ — violence.”

Unless we’re in America, in which case, the Marines Corps Reserves runs one of the largest, most visible charities in the country. Either giving people things is good or it isn’t, but you can’t hate on the Peace Corp in Afghanistan then give away toys for free when you return to America.

This contradiction exposes what marines and soldiers really dislike: irregular warfare. Soldiers and marines long for a simpler time when each side wore uniforms; when wars were won by maneuver. Those wars are long gone, but Cointras don’t realize that yet.

Our Communist Military

Of course, conservatives don’t hate charity. In fact, they give to charity more than liberals! (Actually, they don’t.)

But they do think that giving "stuff" away makes people lazy. Here’s the Republican standard bearer for 2012, Mitt Romney, describing his distaste for “takers”:

“Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget, nothing is really free.”   

Well, what the hell is giving away free toys?

There’s an inherent contradiction here that I don’t think the conservative movement--as opaque, unwieldy and uncontained by one word as it can be--has addressed: how does a belief that government handouts makes people lazy square with charitable giving?

You can’t say 47% of the country just wants free stuff, you can’t call half of the country moochers and takers, and then support a charity that just gives away “stuff” (in this case, toys). You can’t write one blog post bemoaning the state of unemployment insurance, and then in later blog post write about Toys for Tots without criticizing it.
Giving free toys to poor people is definitionally redistributionist. And if you’re counter-argument is, “Well, Toys for Tots is a charity, not some corrupt government program,” you’d be wrong. It’s a non-profit run by the United Marines Corps Reserves. Technically, it’s a part of the federal government redistributing toys to “moochers and takers”.

Tell those kids who are getting all those handouts, er, toys, to tell their mooching parents to go get a job.

Symptom, Not the Disease

We do have an original critique for Toys for Tots, and any charity giving out toys to needy children: it addresses a symptom, not the disease. It doesn’t solve the problem.

To (ab)use an over-wrought parable, it gives a fish (toy) instead of teaching one how to fish (addressing that child’s parent’s poverty). As a result, giving away toys makes people feel good about giving, but it doesn’t address the actual issue. I have always wondered about the reaction of the kids getting free toys. “Oh sweet, I live in a car with my parents in the Walmart parking lot, but I got a Rubik’s cube. Thank you, Marine Corps!”

We’re not against giving children toys per se. And since one of our family friends throws a party every year where we have to bring a toy, we’ll end up doing it again this year. It’s just not the most effective form of charity.

We think conservatives would agree.

Dec 03

(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)

In Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell (and technically Patrick Robinson) describe the Navy SEAL’s strategy for blending in with the locals in Afghanistan, “Each of us had grown a beard in order to look more like Afghan fighters."

Marcus Luttrell isn’t alone. Many special operators, intelligence spooks and soldiers (American, British and Canadian) deployed to Afghanistan think they can pull off this subtle camouflage technique. By simply growing a beard and wearing a scarf, a clean cut American instantly transforms into an Afghan, indistinguishable in a crowd.

Don’t believe me? To prove the point, we’ve created a game. In the following photos, see if you can pick out the special operators (both Special Forces and SEALs) hidden among the local Afghans:




Okay, you are probably tossing your hands up in the air right now, cursing my name, “Michael, how on earth am I supposed to pick out the special operators in those photos? They all look such like Afghans!”

I know, it’s tough. I mean, a six foot five white guy with gigantic arms and chest, desert patterned BDUs, an American M4 with a high tech scope, brand new American boots, Oakley glasses and body armor who grows a beard and wraps a scarf around his neck looks exactly like an Afghan. Invisible!

In defense of Marcus Luttrell, he didn’t invent this nonsensical form of “blending in”. Most of our special operators, the elite of the elite, believe that growing a beard helps you blend in with the population. It turns out that wearing the local clothes (not cool), learning the local language (really hard), using a foreign weapon (controversial, possibly illegal) or not weight lifting for a few months (heresy!) are the best ways to help an American blend in.

That and recruiting people of ethnic backgrounds. (Take a look at our special operations community to see how well that effort is going.)

So what if special operators grew beards? Even if it didn’t help the war effort, it’s not like it hurt it either. Well, maybe not. I worked with a contractor in Iraq who knew his intelligence shit. He did real good intel. (A bunch of us were watchin The Wire at the time. So The Wire people called each other “real police” as a compliment. He was real intel.)

He spoke Arabic. He had previously been a human intelligence collector with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked him jokingly one day if he had grown out his beard to “blend in”. He laughed. He said that he’d asked his contacts (read: local Afghans) what they thought about beards. It turns out in Afghanistan, they don’t expect Americans to wear beards. They also don’t expect most white people to wear beards. In Afghanistan, they believed white people who grew beards were “Jewish”. So to “blend in”, American special operators made themselves look more Jewish to local Afghans.

I don’t know if this is 100% true, or even a widespread belief across Afghanistan, but it really makes you think about growing a beard in Afghanistan, doesn’t it? Do Muslims love Jewish people and Israel? Well, if the special operators of the world don’t know the answer to that...then we are in trouble.

If we lose in Afghanistan--and I now believe we will--the military should look at itself for the reasons why. That includes the “special” people too. Unfortunately, I don’t think the special operators will blame themselves. But I do. I mean, these guys ran around Islamic countries for years looking like this, and honestly believed a beard and a scarf helped them “blend in” when any American (and every Afghan) knew exactly who they were.

So why did they do it? The answer or non-answer to that question is why we lost in Afghanistan.

Oct 17

On Monday, I laid out my template for assigning blame in a historical context. Regarding America’s most recent foreign policy debacle, the Iraq war, I nominated the usual suspects: President Bush, VP Cheney, the entire Secretary of Defense’s office, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. This ThinkProgress article does a pretty good job of summarizing the popular narrative of who to blame for Iraq, politicians.
The military as a whole embraces this thinking too. (That is, if they aren’t defending Iraq as successful in the first place, which Eric C and I stipulated yesterday that it was not. Because it wasn’t.) Military supporters--including former generals, academics and milblogs--love to blame politicians for “Mess O’patamia”. And lots of politicians too. So if it isn’t Cheney and Rumsfeld, it is “the politicians back in Washington who...”

Tie our hands with restrictive ROE!” or...

Force our men and women to do costly state-building which isn’t our mission!” or...
“Don’t know how to do strategy. Strategy is dead!

Notice who escapes blame? The generals.

As Thomas Ricks (who is one of the few pundits and historians who has blamed the generals for iraq, particularly in Fiasco) wrote in his recent Harvard Business Review article, the U.S. used to hold officers, particularly generals, accountable, especially in World War II. Back then, General Eisenhower went from a “regimental executive officer to a five star general in about four years” and “of the 165 men who commanded combat divisions, 16 were relieved” of command. The utter definition of accountability.

That accountability has disappeared.

So when it comes to Iraq, few people blame the flag officers of the uniformed military, who could arguably shoulder the majority of the blame. As a body, they completely failed to understand the lessons of the Vietnam war. They failed to even fathom that urban combat would dominate the contemporary battlefield. They failed to prepare soldiers in language training.

They failed over time too. In the 1990s, they failed to develop and train the Army and Marine Corps to fight irregular wars. They failed to develop a coherent plan to invade Iraq. They failed to properly advise the president of the United States. They then failed to understand the counter-insurgency environment they found themselves in.

Instead, the generals prepared and tried to fight the war they wanted to win.

By blaming politicians for the strategy, generals and admirals have managed to avoid the fact that they failed to prepare the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps for the post-Cold War war. It’s like a coach who fails to recruit, practice well and motivate his team, then blames the losses on the athletic director for tough scheduling. The coach still deserves the blame.

Way back, I wrote that the Army needs a “post-9/11 AAR” (so did Andrew Bacevich). Do we really trust the generals with it? They failed to understand that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a detrimental policy, not a beneficial one. They failed to forecast that the Pentagon’s retirement system would bankrupt the services. They have failed on weapon system after weapon system. They failed on understanding the nature of war and warfare after the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

When it comes to assigning accountability and blame for the post-9/11 wars, we must remember the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. They deserve some of the blame. (I would argue a lion’s share of it.) Will they ever get it?

I doubt it.

(Final point: Some people have criticized the general's conduct of the war, including Thomas Ricks, as we wrote above, and most notably Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in an Armed Forces Journal article, "A Failure of Generalship". However, Yingling is notable for being one of the few voices assigning blame to this large group of people.)

Oct 10

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)

As I wrote on Monday, we have terrible brand management in Afghanistan.

Don’t believe me? Read “A Gathering Menace” in The American Scholar. Neil Shea describes the military platoon equivalent of “Popcopy” employees. While most platoons are probably better than this one, plenty are probably worse.

We cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan because, in marketing terms, killing civilians harms our brand. Killing isn’t the only way to lose the war though. Countless smaller actions--from throwing a pee bottle to burning a Koran--might seem minor, but taken together they tell Afghans, “Don’t trust Americans.”

Now, I’m no marketing expert (I just started business school), but I do have suggestions for improving the US Army’s brand in Afghanistan:


1. Learn the local language.

1a. If you can’t do that, at least hire competent interpreters.

2. Embed troops for longer amounts of time, returning them to the same area of operations.

2a. Actually support the Afghan Hands program. (Which doesn’t currently qualify officers for key developmental time. Allegedly the most important program in Afghanistan actually harmed officers’ careers. Think about that.)

3. If you destroy it, rebuild it. (See point 3a’s corollary.)

3a. Avoid destroying buildings. Strong governments don’t destroy their own buildings.

4. Live off the local population whenever possible.

5. Hire locals, not “third party nationals.”

6. Think, “If this would piss off Americans, could it piss off an Afghan too?”

6a. Or, “If a Chinese Colonel did this to my family, would I be happy about it?” 


1. Don’t burn copies of the Koran.

1a. Actually, don’t do anything with Korans without consulting an Islamic scholar.

1b. And whatever you do, don’t use them in interrogations.

2. Don’t torture. At all costs, even if “U.S. soldiers” aren’t doing the torturing.

3. Stop doing night raids on the wrong houses.

3a. Quit doing them period, if possible.

4. Stop supporting corrupt psuedo-dictators.

4a. Or his corrupt brothers.

5. Don’t kill children.

5a. Women too.

5b. Old men who cannot fight would help as well.

5c. Or mentally disabled kids.

5d. People gathering oil from a broken down truck.

5e. Massacres are out too.

6. Don’t throw pee bottles out of your MRAPs.

6a. Don’t litter either.

7. Don’t drive around cities so fast  that you run over little kids.

8. Don’t fire artillery shells into small towns.

9. Don’t pay warlords protection money through incompetent contracting.

9a. This means putting your best officers into difficult contracting jobs, not your worst.

10. And don’t curse out the locals. They’ll know you are cursing at them. And it won’t work.