April 22, 2011

Insurgents, Counterinsurgents, and the Provision of Social Services

This week's revelations about Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute have ignited a lively debate over the influence Mortenson did or did not have over U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and operations. I made the case, in the Daily Beast, that the influence Mortenson had on operations in Afghanistan should not be overstated and that what influence he did have remains largely positive.

But two keen observers of the U.S. military, Yochi Dreazen and Greg Jaffe, former colleagues at the Wall Street Journal and now at the National Journal and Washington Post respectively, imply that L'Affair Mortenson is a huge black eye for the U.S. military and that Mortenson's writings did, in fact, have a big impact on U.S. strategy and operations.

Gulliver at Ink Spots has a typically great post on Greg's curious choice of choosing a paean to Mortenson written by two officers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division -- widely regarded since this damning Sean Naylor report as about the least Three-Cups-of-Tea-ing-est unit in Afghanistan -- to illustrate how the U.S. Army had bought into a version of counterinsurgency all about being nice to people so you don't have to shoot them. (Some soldiers in this unit apparently did not get the memo.)

But Carl Prine, long a skeptic of both Mortenson as well as the happy-happy feel-good school of counterinsurgency, wrote the post that had me thinking the most about this.  Carl gets his usual 0/10 score for collegiality ("the bloviating New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and his vaguely
retarded cubicle mate Nicholas D. Kristof," etc.) but a solid 10/10 for pointing toward a little known RAND publication from the Vietnam Era that arguably explains what the U.S. military is doing in Afghanistan better than anything in Mortenson's fables.

The Leites & Wolf study Carl mentions very much anticipated the later work of Stathis Kalyvas
and falls into what I would call the "control" school of counterinsurgency. Carl, a careful student of counterinsurgency theory and a veteran himself, understands what Iraq and Afghanistan has taught a lot of us and especially many officers in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps: gratitude theory is bulls***.

The idea that you can build schools, pave roads, provide electricity and thereby earn the loyalty of the population does not stand up to reality. Smarter scholars than me (.pdf) have demonstrated that most aid and development projects had no effect whatsoever on levels of violence in Iraq in 2007, and other scholars have claimed aid and development money in Afghanistan has actually worsened the conflict.

Where U.S. and allied officers, diplomats, and development specialists persist in thinking they can earn collaboration through the provision of services, counterinsurgency operations are fated for heartbreak. Winning "hearts and minds" does not mean what it is widely assumed to mean but rather what it actually says in FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency

“Hearts” means persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success. “Minds” means convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless. Note that neither concerns whether people like Soldiers and Marines. Calculated self-interest, not emotion, is what counts.

Hearts and minds is about power and control. And if you actually study the way the U.S. military went about its counterinsurgency operations in Iraq in 2007 and continues to go about them in Afghanistan, it's less about doing good works and more about both killing the enemy and establishing control measures over the population. This kind of counterinsurgency is not as fun to talk about with non-governmental organizations or aid workers (Mike Miklaucic being an exception), but it works better than the softer, kinder alternatives.

For those who have been regularly reading this blog and noting the way my own thoughts have evolved since 2007, none of this will be new. For those who bought into counterinsurgency thinking it was any less brutal than conventional war, though, this might come as a rude awakening.


I have to add one more thing, which is really important: just because the counterinsurgent does not derive much of a benefit from providing social services does not mean the insurgent does not either. I spent about two years studying the way in which Hizballah used non-kinetic means (such as information operations, and the provision of essential services to a constituency) to affect battlefield outcomes in the 1990s and in 2006, and Eli Berman has written a great book
that makes a strong case that insurgent organizations that provide social services actually fight better at the tactical level. As with counterinsurgency theory, it all comes back to economics: by providing social services to a constituency, you raise the defection constraints on fighters: if fighters are dependent on an organization to provide for their families, they are less likely to cut and run when they are in a support-by-fire position.


One more important thing to note: I am not trying to argue that U.S. or allied military units should never provide services to a population or rely on non-kinetic means. Not at all. Counterinsurgency is very much a kind of anti-war: the enemy is the conflict itself, because what a counterinsurgent is trying to do is provide space for a political process to play itself out. That means addressing drivers of conflict. Some of these "drivers of conflict" may have to be shot and killed. Some, though, you might not be able to address through 5.56mm ball and 7.62mm 4x1. But the counterinsurgent should not feel a need to address every grievance out there.

Example: the population doesn't have a school. Now ask yourself: is the absence of a school driving the conflict? If no, then who cares? If yes ... build a damn school. (And please, don't wait for CAI to do it for you!)