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The Republican Argument for Population-Centric COIN

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

When we first brought up “Gratitude Theory”, I had a basic question, “Does giving people things change their behavior?”

According to many military theorists, not one bit. Since General Petraeus popularized this theory, a number of officers, academics and bloggers have pushed back. To summarize their thoughts, “We shouldn’t just give things to Afghans or Iraqis, and it certainly won’t win over their respect!” Take this misinterpretation of population-centric counter-insurgency from Slate:

“When people hear about the U.S. military doing development work in Afghanistan, they think about ‘winning hearts and minds’ through humanitarian aid or building schools. The idea is that if Americans do nice things for Afghans, they will be so grateful they will begin to support the counterinsurgency.”

Author Bing West--who regularly opines on this topic in conservative outlets--hates this philosophy because he knows it won’t work. He wrote an article titled, “We Were Too Nice To Win in Afghanistan”. As The New York Times described his book The Wrong War:

“He flatly says that the counterinsurgency strategy behind the war — trying to win over the Afghans by protecting them from the Taliban and building roads, schools and civil institutions — is a failure...In Mr. West’s view, 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.”

An Australian Brigadier General sums it all up much more simply, “more killing, less good deeds”.

As all the above examples make clear, giving things to people doesn’t work. It’s a strategy doomed to fail...unless you’re president, in which case, it works fantastically.

Why did Mitt Romney lose last November?

Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.”   

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what...there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…”

“It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

“In a conference call with fund-raisers and donors to his campaign, Mr. Romney said Wednesday afternoon that the president had followed the “old playbook” of using targeted initiatives to woo specific interest groups — ‘especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people’.”

To sum up: Iraqis and Afghans don’t care about free things, but dumb American voters? They don’t stand a chance. The irony is many “COINtras” are Republicans who think that “giving people things” didn’t work in Afghanistan, but then argued that they lost the election because the President gave away too much stuff. Can giving things away, from building schools to providing free health care, change public opinion?


FM 23-4, the counter-insurgency manual written by General Petraeus, understood this, and therefore advocated that soldiers should provide security for locals while doing reconstruction. (Reconstruction without security, the manual says, won’t work. It also reiterates the need for both offensive operations and security operations, which are vital to defeating an insurgency.)

Kill-centric advocates don’t just under-value reconstruction, they loathe it. COINtras want a simple war that only involves killing an enemy in a uniform. Counter-insurgencies against the U.S. military don’t have that simplicity. They do feature people, and all things being equal, people do like getting things...which is a pretty good argument for doing reconstruction in war torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq.

ten comments

I half-expect an over-reaction, but this article is just another example of domestic politics/values not meshing with foreign affairs/politics.

also, I’m not sure I agree with the examples the Romney campaign provided, as much as people were scared about how massive cuts in government would affect them. Seniors and medicare for example.

In fairness, cointras don’t think that giving things away makes population-centric counter-insurgency a poor strategy. They believe the U.S. army doesn’t “kill enough bad guys”. Either way, COINtras still think that giving away things can’t change public opinion even though the domestic election shows that it definitely can.

COINtras want a simple war that only involves killing an enemy in a uniform.”
The “in a uniform” thing is a strawman.

The problems in Afghanistan were much bigger than this.

It was a contest between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Bribing local factions is difficult, and bribing rarely works on a grand scale. You need to be selective with it – and you need to evaluate who was bribed effectively and who wasn’t in order to avoid bribing for no service.

The problems were numerous enough to fill an entire book, and the most fundamental problem was that the whole affair in Afghanistan 2003-today was some kind of uninspiring temporary luxury while for them it was about their lasting fundamental interests.

Bing West has proven himself to be a fairly xenophobic individual who does not understand what’s happening in Afghanistan. I don’t know anything about him other than what he’s written on the country, but his uni-dimensional approach to conflict works at a certain phase in the conflict. However, once kinetic operations transition to stability and support operations, this “must kill all the things” approach fails, and miserably.

The issue is not with COIN, it was with mission creep and dilution: circa 2003 there were no decisions made about the course of the conflict in Afghanistan. We should have started planning for 2014 then…instead there is the (fairly accurate) perception that ISAF (particularly the US) is rushing for the exits, something I’ve referred to on more than one occasion a “Operation Ready or Not,” and it’s frustrating to see.

Giving things away isn’t what killed COIN: it was the lack of planning for what came next. If I build you a school, will there be teachers and supplies for that school? Can the Afghan Ministry of Education absorb and support that school? The answer in many cases has been “no,” so what happens to that school? It’s now a goat barn, and the villagers point to it as yet another example of how the foreigners and the government in Kabul don’t care about them. If you can’t keep a school running, why should I trust you to keep my family safe from harm?

I’m not going to comment on the link between COIN and US politics because US political commentary always degenerates into emotionally unhelpful finger pointing, particularly when it involves interjects from a damned foreigner. But the debate of appropriate weighting of ‘hearts and minds’ and killing in COIN in general and Afghanistan in specific is something I’ve given a fair amount of thought to.

First, simply killing people without political and development engagement doesn’t produce positive lasting results either. Just look at Yemen.

Second, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what winning ‘hearts and minds’ really means. I think the term itself is terrible, as it implies doing something to get liked. I firmly believe we should scrap the term and replace it with ‘finding common interests.’ That would help focus the ‘build’ phase of operations on something more substantive than handing out soccer balls.

Finally, concurrent provision of security is vital, and the hard fact is that providing security involves killing people (in addition to arresting, trying and incarcerating people). The general counter-insurgent problem has been in killing the wrong people (written off as regrettable incidents) and not killing enough of the right people. Think how often we learn of an incident along these lines: after security forces left the region nefarious actors emerged from the shadows and killed the local political leadership/ cut off the arms of children vaccinated against disease x/ stopped girls going to school/ reinstated a repressive form of government . . . The very fact that this happens indicates a failure in security operations. Who are those nefarious actors? THEY are the figures who should be targeted if one is serious about providing lasting security, but we miss them because we’re clumsy and do a feeble job of integrating intelligence and action functions. I’m not a fan of the SOF-fetish of the past decade, but they’ve figured out how to meld intelligence collection, analysis and action far better than western conventional forces.

F- Good points, and I understand the desire to avoid US domestic politics. And I agree with most of your description, particularly “winning hearts and minds”, which is why I eschew using that terminology in most of our posts.

You guys overstate you point about giving things working and using politics in the US as an example. The US is not Afghanistan. In the US you give away freebies and you expect a vote in return. That is an easy deal to make.

In a country like Afghanistan, you give away freebies and you expect the people to go on patrol with you or give information the giving of which might get them killed or to stand against the throat cutters when you aren’t there to back them up. That is not such an easy deal to make. Giving like that won’t work unless there is a certain minimal level of security. We have that here, they don’t there.

Gary Owen: You should read more about and by Mr. West. Start with The Village and go from there. He is about the most perceptive observer and wise commentator about small war there is, no matter the country it is fought in.

Carl: Perceptive does not equal infallible. The Village is an interesting study of the Combined Action Program (though few people who cite it also point out that the Marines in question took more than 50% casualties). The March Up was a terrific immediate study of the USMC in conventional combat. But some of his comments are a little off, and some are flat out wrong – just like everyone (even the greats – http://xkcd.com/1206/ (!))

But I agree that the link between strategy in Afghanistan and US politics is tenuous.


On West it is a matter of opinion of course, but since I gather that you’ve been there and done that your opinion has more weight than mine. One thing though is I have read a very few of his newspaper opinion pieces but almost all of his books and long magazine articles. The book and long articles allow for a much more detailed explication of ideas and in those pieces I can find very little to fault.

The Binh Nghia CAP did suffer great casualties, but they won their village. I wonder if losses can be avoided to the extent we wish possible nowadays and still win those kind of local fights.

And the day would not be complete without me riding my hobby horse, that being, all of this was for naught as long as we allowed the the Pak Army/ISI to do what it did. You can’t win any kind of war no matter how you fight it if you don’t recognize and confront the primary enemy.

carl – I disagree that my having gone anywhere or having done anything gives my opinion more weight than yours (unless looking for dining recommendations). My background is history, and I weigh analysis with a combination of expertise and separation from the events studied. To use a different example, Niall Ferguson is an excellent economic historian; he is a middling general historian; he is a useless current-events and speculative political commentator. Similarly, West is strongest when he focuses on the tactical-level of events that have already transpired, and weakens as he shifts to issues of strategy, politics and prediction.

As for your hobby horse, I have no love for any of Pakistan’s institutions (nor do I have any solutions for what I consider to be fundamentally flawed concepts of strategic depth, the state as Islam, and the security apparatus as a shadow government), but as much as they are a problem in Afghanistan the Pakistan Army in general and the ISI in particular are also too often used as convenient scapegoats. In the south, ‘ISI’ was (and likely still is) the automatic response given, and too often unquestioningly accepted, to questions about security incidents. There are a lot of other factors, but NATO often clouded its intelligence work by attributing acts to the ISI that in reality looked an awful lot like smuggling turf wars.