There’s been a lot said lately about the discrediting of COIN doctrine. We have two glaring examples of its failure right in front of us: Iraq is descending into sectarian chaos again, as the death tolls rapidly approach the darkest days of American involvement, and Afghanistan is a basket case. Of course, Afghanistan can be partly attributed to the brain-dead idiocy of announcing a cutoff date, thereby giving the enemy hope and setting a limit that they need only wait for. There are further reasons behind the disintegration of Iraq as well; the reasons for failure are legion. However, there has been one key blind spot in all of this going back for the entirety of the war in both theaters.
From the get-go, we were told that we had to “respect the local culture.” This took the form of endless classes on how not to look at the women, not to use your left hand, and never show the soles of your feet to anyone. It was all of the little courtesies you’d need to know if you were traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan as a tourist.
But in all of the superficialities, the core got lost. We were urged to be such nice guys that the fact that Western niceties don’t translate over got lost. The people urging us to “respect their culture” had no more real idea of what that culture entailed than your average annoying First World tourist.
In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman explains Middle Eastern politics in the language of what he called “The Hama Rules.” Hama was a city that Hafez al Assad massacred in 1982, ending the Muslim Brotherhood uprising there. The logic, Friedman explains, was the same Saddam used, and goes back thousands of years. “If you mess with me, I will kill you, I will kill your family, I will burn your tents, and scatter your flocks.”
It is an ancient way of looking at the world, and was by no means unique to the powerful there. A story gathered from Human Terrain Teams in Iraq went like this: Once upon a time, in the days of the black tents in the desert, there was a family made up of a young man, his elderly father, and their women and children. One day the young man discovered that one of their goats had been stolen. His father advised him to take revenge, but the young man wasn’t quite sure who had stolen it, so he did nothing. The next day, one of his sons was killed. The father urged him to revenge, but the son wasn’t sure who was guilty, so he did nothing. The third day, the enemy returned and killed his other sons, raped his daughters, and murdered his wife. When he came to his father, he found the old man in tears. The old man said, “This is all because you didn’t avenge the goat.” (H/T Blackfive)
This makes sense when you’re there, on the ground, seeing people living not much differently than they lived 2000 years ago. It probably doesn’t from a glass-and-steel office 7000 miles away, looking at video feeds and the modern skyline out the window. Several of us talked between missions in Iraq in ’05 that these people respect strength; the perception of weakness only draws their contempt.
Afghanistan, if anything, was worse. Afghanistan is even more rooted in the pre-industrial culture than Iraq. Most Pashtuns especially consider themselves a warrior people. If the Iraqis were willing to go with the strong horse, the Pashtuns take that to another level entirely. While higher headquarters was reading and re-reading Three Cups of Tea and chanting “You can’t kill your way out of an insurgency” like a mantra, a Pashtun was telling one of our operators, “You Americans don’t kill enough.” There is no respect for those who don’t kill their enemies, much less sit there and nod and smile while they know they are being lied to.
The people who make policy and strategy all too often think that because they walk the corridors of power and have long lists of degrees behind their names, they know what they’re doing. They dismiss the knowledge of the dirty guy on the ground because they believe they know better. The failure of the efforts in both theaters is as much thanks to their own willful ignorance as any other reason.