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