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Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and "Gratitude Theory"

(The rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'" continues in:

Winning Hearts and Minds on An Airplane 

People Like Gifts...or Why I Like the 100th of the 442nd

Winning the War with Hescos and Red Bulls

The Greatest Ambassadors

Everyone Hates Everyone Else's Soldiers

Who Watches the Watchmen?

From the On V Future Archives: When Persia Put a Garrison in Wyoming (in 2048)

Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency

“The Economist” Likes Behavioural Research: Of iPods, Gratitude Theory and Modeling

From B Schools to COIN: Improving the U.S. Army's Brand Management

Wargaming or: Men Are Not Blocks of Wood

        Hearts, Minds and Gatorade Bottles Filled With Urine

Don't Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts

Is Toys for Tots...Communist?

The Republican Argument for Population-Centric COIN

In 2006, George Packer interviewed David Kilcullen in The New Yorker and wrote a very persuasive (persuasive because it went “academic viral”) paragraph about counter-insurgency:

Kilcullen doesn’t believe that an entirely “soft” counterinsurgency approach can work against such tactics. In his view, winning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you—as some American initiates to counterinsurgency whom I met in Iraq seemed to believe—but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion. Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”

I’ve seen this quote in at least one Small Wars Journal article, in Thomas Rid’s’ Understanding Counterinsurgency Warfare: Origins, Operations, Challenges, and in an article by Andrew Exum for The Daily Beast. It neatly summarized the reaction against the phrase “winning hearts and minds.” (In the coming weeks, I will unveil some more uses of the term.)

Like everything in the counter-insurgency debate, I believe we--the punditocracy, if you will--have (again) completely over-reacted. Instead of acknowledging what Kilcullen said--in an armed war you can’t simply buy off the population--many have over-reacted to say, “Exactly, you shouldn’t buy the population anything.” I have heard officers and soldiers say, ”I don’t care if they like me, so long as they do what I say.” I have heard soldiers repeat variations on this theme: we need to be feared and obeyed, not liked. Bing West has accused our military of becoming an “armed Peace Corps”.

So the “Act-Like-a-Jerk Theory of Counter-Insurgency” developed in response to the (never actually implemented) “Gratitude Theory of Counter-Insurgency”. Some pundits say that Afghans don’t like receiving gifts. A commenter on our blog once said that Afghans don’t care if you take care of their sick and wounded.

I understand the backlash. Some theorists and practitioners never liked moving out of their comfort zone of fighting, killing, death, destruction and “war is war”. Population-centric counter-insurgency requires a good deal of restraint on the part of the soldier; restraint is inherently risky.

Further, the Army is slow to adapt and then prone to over-adapt. In the pendulum of counter-insurgency, we often swing way too far in one direction. Some high profile officers did make it sound like counter-insurgency could be a bloodless form of warfare (it isn't).

Most importantly, the Army fails at cultural empathy, plagued by an inability to place oneself in another’s shoes. Many soldiers grew up in isolated conditions without a lot of contact with foreigners beyond Hispanic immigrants. As a result, I have heard soldiers legitimately say that they don’t understand how killing someone’s mother would turn them into an insurgent if the U.S. didn’t mean to. Sure, Afghans and Iraqis have different cultures, but they still have human emotions. They still believe in vengeance, rational or irrational.

Giving gifts alone cannot win the war in Afghanistan. The original counter-insurgency manual spells this out: to defeat an insurgency you need several lines of operation working concurrently. Fighting and security are one. Information operations is another. And reconstruction and governance are another pillar. We need to kill Taliban and Haqqani irreconcilables, but we cannot kill our way to victory. Supporting the government and rebuilding parts of the country--we destroyed--are necessary to winning a counter-insurgency. But some reconstruction and rebuilding aide does not make our military a giant peace corps attempting to buy gratitude in Afghanistan.

In the next few weeks, Eric C and I will be slinging some doses of reality back on the counter-insurgency debate. We’ll try to illuminate some really nonsensical positions on Iraqi and Afghan culture. We’ll talk about angry World War II British youths, barbarians at the gate, winning hearts and minds on an airplane, the most honored unit in U.S. military history and more.

We have three points:

1. We over-reacted against the fictional “Gratitude Theory.”

2. People are people with human emotions, even in occupied countries. A counter-insurgent must plan for those emotions.

3. Of human emotions, it is better for the population in a counter-insurgency to love the counter-insurgent than it is to hate the counter-insurgent.

“Winning Hearts and Minds” does not only mean a “coldly-calculated, emotionless, rational decision to support one side.” Humans--despite what the Chicago School of Economics says--have never acted 100% rationally. Ever. In a counter-insurgency, forgetting this fact, and underestimating the emotional power of violence, is silly.

four comments

Development and reconstruction are an important part to COIN. Sadly, Commanders have used CERP to win those hearts and minds in a manner that has created a sense of entitlement for elders and invalidated (or at least by-passed) many aspects of sub-national government.

Those same roads, wells, your bridge, schools, clinics…etc, could have been built, with the same money, but channeled through the Afghan gov (Rural Reconstruction & Development, National Area Based Development Program…etc) and built legitimate capacity (which is really way more important than the well/road/bridge).

But I’m looking forward to this series…


My main, lingering question: has population centric COIn ever been fully implemented? I would argue there has been push back the whole time…


I don’t think it has ever been fully implemented. Some places certainly tried – but it ended up equating to giving stuff to the ‘good’ guys and killing the ‘bad’ guys.

MG Fuller’s statements (which got him fired) sum up the attitude we’ve created:

“You can teach a man how to fish, or you can give them a fish,” Fuller said. “We’re giving them fish while they’re learning, and they want more fish! [They say,] ‘I like swordfish, how come you’re giving me cod?’ Guess what? Cod’s on the menu today.”

We’ve been giving them crap for ten years without really developing any capacity to maintain and build for themselves in the future.

My past year here has been more than illuminating on the subject.


How we have gone about reconstruction is a different issue than whether some reconstruction and building up government capacity is a good thing. That is partly what we are trying to get at with this series: just because you did something poorly doesn’t mean the entire endeavor is worthless. It’s like a football team with a bad passing game decides that they should never throw the ball. That doesn’t mean passing doesn’t work.

But so you know Jon, our larger point is on embracing cultural awareness. Too many people dismiss “giving gifts” and reconstruction by relying on faulty understandings of Afghans as human beings.

As to Eric C’s point about pop-centric COIN being implemented, I need to write a longer article about the fact that we never put enough people into Afghanistan. Iraq and Afghanistan have major demographic distinctions, and that is why security never really happened.