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A Classic Counter-Insurgency Case Study

Reader Joel forwarded me this article by C.J. Chivers in the NY Times. In short, a pit viper bit an Afghan boy on the face in Helmand province. The boy’s father brought him to the nearest Marine COP hoping the US could save his life. After fighting with higher headquarters, a helicopter picked up the boy and moved him to Kandahar, where it looks like he will survive.

Joel then asked this question: “To what extent does this actually, ‘win hearts and minds?’ Can anyone confirm whether or not the village this boy is from has become more accepting of US forces?”

Counter-insurgency is a war of inches and degrees. This individual incident won't win the war, the survival of this one boy will only change how his father feels about the US. Then again, maybe it won’t. It probably won't even affect his entire village. The bigger question is whether the policy of evacuating seriously wounded Afghans will eventually win over the population.

Because in the short term the effects of one single mission are hard to identify. I wrote about this when I described two Medical Civil Action Patrols (MEDCAP) my company conducted in Konar province. One succeeded wildly; the other failed miserably. Trying to figure out why was a next to impossible task. Again, victories in counter-insurgency show up over time, not single moments. It's like some sort of militaristic Chinese proverb: to fell the counter-insurgency tree, one must use many swings. By swings we mean MEDCAPs.

This isn't to say we have no way of knowing if we are winning. Our Human Intelligence Collection Teams can determine the “atmospherics” of local populations through polling. Most maneuver commanders tend not to employ them in this capacity, instead they try to target the bad guys. Modern polling can accomplish wonders. Determining if villages love us or hate us isn't as hard as we make it out to be.

Even though the Army screws up metrics all the time, there are ways of measuring progress. Having the level of violence plummet in Iraq showed progress. Having elections in Iraq showed progress. Training more Afghan police will show progress. Measuring success is possible--even seeing how many hearts and minds we have won--if we use the right metrics.

The core of Joel's question is whether we can win Afghan's hearts. Frankly, I don't see how this action couldn't help but convince one father, and possible mother, to support the US. Do drowning victims hate life guards? Do students hate organizations that gave them scholarships? Do cancer survivors hate their doctors?

The answer is no. Saving a boy's life will buy the US at least some goodwill. No one hates the person who saved their life, whereas denying the ability to save a life will almost certainly engender hatred. They see our money, wealth and health care, the natural reaction is to be upset if we don't share it. This goes for curing someone's club foot, or saving a little girl's eye sight. In the long term, building a sustainable Afghan medical capacity will bring us generations of good will; in the mean time, we should do what we can.

One MEDEDVAC won't win the war in Afghanistan, but thousands might. Some Afghans might still hate Americans despite billions in aid, but in the long term I believe they will come around.

three comments

If anyone could come up with a better COIN Chinese proverb, man there has to be one but we couldn’t think of it. Like the last cut consist of the previous one hundred or something…


A thousand mile journey begins with a single step.


Yeah we had that one, but we wanted something more about repeated action, but the point still stands.