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Greg Mortenson Killed Counter-Insurgency?

(This week On Violence is discussing its “Most Thought Provoking Event of the First Six Months of 2011”, the event that probably isn’t the most important, but intrigues us the most. For this half year, that is the investigative reporting on Greg Mortenson by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer.)

On Monday, I made a single claim about Greg Mortenson: he wasn’t/isn’t an “ugly American” in the sense of the book The Ugly American by Lederer and Burdick. With the Kroft and Krakauer reporting, that’s now basically a fact. From that fact, though, many bloggers and reporters asked an even bolder question:

Are counter-insurgency and population-centric counter-insurgency dead?

The thinking behind this question went something like this: Mortenson started to get really popular around the time FM 3-24 was published. Mortenson’s books were on many U.S. Army reading lists. If anything captures the idea of “winning hearts and minds” it’s Three Cups of Tea. Hell, in Afghanistan drinking tea almost became a doctrinal task. If Mortenson’s approach is discredited, doesn’t that discredit the entire enterprise?

Probably not. “Counter-insurgency” was having public relations issues well before Mortenson; for example the Small Wars Journal and Kings of War blog both put up posts about counter-insurgency and its discontents. Beyond counter-insurgency’s intellectual problems, trying to take apart a military theory/strategy/tactics/type of warfare because of the actions of one man is a fraught enterprise.

Can one practitioner exaggerating his role destroy an entire theory? American military history is filled with examples of incompetent generals, does that mean that maneuver or attrition theories of war are now wrong? The Libyan air campaign isn’t really working, can we now give up on strategic air power?

A more apt example could be fishermen. They routinely exaggerate the size of their catches, that doesn’t mean that their approach or, fishing in general, is dead.

Even worse, it’s hard to see how Mortenson killed counter-insurgency when the problems aren’t really with his tactics, but the strategy of America in Afghanistan. Critics, like Col. Gian Gentile or Bing West, mainly abhor the strategic uses of counter-insurgency which, in their minds, veer suspiciously close to nation building. The strategic “decision” to rebuild Afghanistan was never really a decision, just the result of years of holding the course. If the “decision” to embark on counter-insurgency was made by President Obama in the winter of 2009, then what were our soldiers doing there for the previous seven years?

The debate around counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and war fighting in general has suffered from a vagueness in terms. Strictly speaking, a counter-insurgency is the combined efforts by a government and its partners to stop an insurgency. This can range from the Russian scorched earth approach in Afghanistan to the destruction of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankans to the British in North Ireland to the Americans in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Counter-insurgency is a type of warfare, and Mortenson can’t stop that. (This is probably more a knock on journalists than it is on military theorists or bloggers, who typically understand that distinction.)

Here is what Mortenson did do: he caused severe damage to what could be called the “soft power” school of international diplomacy.

By discrediting Mortenson, unfortunately, a lot of development and philanthropic work took a hit. As a result, American rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan took a hit as well. Does that mean we should stop the charity, or that all efforts are a waste of time? Not at all.

Mortenson, ultimately, is an anecdote. He was one person who didn’t live up to the hype. His actions don’t answer whether soft power works in diplomacy or or whether population-centric counter-insurgency works in war. All his example shows is the difficulty in trusting one man with millions of dollars. But I think we knew that before Mortenson was discredited.

five comments

My thought is that no one would say that war criminals, who often use total war, or war is war justifications, discount that philosophy. I don’t see why Mortenson would.

Awesome! One less thing to worry about.

But seriously, it is sad what the exploitation of children for the sake of sell books has done to rebuilding efforts.

In a larger sense, I’m not worried about Afghanistan or Iraq. I’m not even super worried about government aid programs (which should be bigger). I’m worried that Americans will stop helping people around the world in general. And I don’t understand why this could possibly be a good thing.

Michael, I think you’re referring to compassion resentment. It happened after 9/11 when it was revealed that charity organizations that were supposed to be raising money for the families of those who died were either bogus or using the majority of the funds for administrative expenses. It also happens when one major disaster happen in close succession with another. Like Haiti’s earthquake, the gulf coast oil spill, and then Japan. People tend to feel overloaded. Further, other charities tend to take a temporary hit for disaster charities.