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The Greatest Ambassadors

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

When critics attack “gratitude theory”--the idea that you cannot simply buy enough things for Afghans or Iraqis so that they feel so grateful they stop fighting, a theory not advocated by any military academic--they often explain why: if you build a school, but at night the Taliban come in and threaten the population, then you have gained nothing.

I completely agree.

However, this doesn’t imply anything about the effects of reconstruction on irregular conflict. If anything, it reflects on the inability of a counter-insurgent to provide security. The same argument could be made for a counter-insurgent killing innocent locals. If you kill a man’s wife, sister or mother, then no amount of goodwill will convince him to lay down his arms. (We will have a post next month on how some theorists criticize reconstruction for not accomplishing things it was never supposed to or could accomplish.)

Counter-insurgency is complicated like that. However, just because it is complicated, or difficult, does not mean reconstruction is completely worthless. Today, I want to provide another example of a gift that helps a counter-insurgent win his war. I call that gift, “The Greatest Ambassador.”

(American politicians frequently refer to our soldiers as the greatest ambassadors of freedom. Most recently, Rick Perry said this in the Marcus Luttrell video. We will argue next week that soldiers are, inherently, the worst possible ambassadors in another country. Stay tuned.)

Of all gifts, one gift remains the most valuable and precious above all others, the gift of life.

I wrote about this almost two hundred posts ago in, “A Classic Counter-Insurgency Case Study”. Last May, 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley--probably my new favorite 60 Minutes anchor--covered this is in “Global Medical Relief’s Mission”. Each story is roughly the same: through the efforts of American medics, volunteers, doctors and non-profits, doctors save or heal an Afghan or Iraqi child from some horrific injury (preventing a child from being crippled doesn’t save a life per se, but the effect is the same).

These are great acts. Further, they help us win the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They help win hearts and minds. These actions alone cannot win the war. Far from it. Instead, these actions--saving a little girl in Kabul, saving a little boy in Iraq, giving out free Medical Aid in Kunar province--create ambassadors for America. The greatest ambassadors for America. Because half of any battle is ideological, and it is hard to demonize someone who saved your child’s life, or cured them from a crippling disability.

I saw this first hand in Afghanistan. When I interview for MBA programs in the next few months, running a Medical Engagement Civil Action Patrol--MEDCAP--in Pashad will be one of my favorite stories to tell. Fourth Platoon--partnered with a host of other Americans and Afghans, went to a town with no access to doctors and provided free medical services. It made the District Governor look responsive to the people of Pashad. That single event paved the way for a host of future meetings to solve security and reconstruction problems.

That MEDCAP alone wasn’t going to win the war, but it won a bunch of battles. As I said when I first started this series, we cannot win the war with good actions. (The same way winning one battle does not win the war.) However, good actions combined with security can win the war. The parents of surviving children are less likely to harbor insurgents at night. Sure, with enough persuasion, the Taliban can force themselves on innocent people. Counter-insurgency isn’t about one action, but the accumulation of many acts. Building up a responsive government is the entire goal--being kind and giving gifts, like medical aid, can help those ends.

In the complicated calculus of warfare, good actions can be nullified by other, more emotionally negative events. If the counter-insurgent--foreign forces and host nation--cannot secure the population during the night, then good actions will come to naught. If U.S. forces help ten children, but kill another ten, then the good actions are washed away by the deaths.

If, on the other hand, hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of Afghans had stories of American generosity, would that hurt our effort? Of course not. The more lives we can save--especially if could help rebuild their own health care system--the more Afghans will support the American side. If we combine smart reconstruction with effective security, and well-trained government and security forces, then we will win. As I said in the introduction, counter-insurgency requires multiple lines of effort.

Creating good will ambassadors by giving the greatest gift--medical aid or life--is a key line of effort

six comments


1. Well written. I don’t think anyone will “attack” the tactical approach to this. This is good stuff.

2. However, the issue is cost. This is not calculus. It is basic math. This scenario, the school itself, cost about $125k just to build. Currently, according to the Economist, Iraq is going to cost $4 Trillion.

3. We can’t afford this type of good will.

Totally agree with your second and third points. I believe “costs” thought expansively explain the problems with both Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, a “counter-terrorism approach” to Afghanistan bears a significant cost if done properly. That cost is to US soldiers in wounds and deaths. As I wrote before, the US to truly target insurgent leaders needs to start operating in smaller teams. Those teams would be more vulnerable. Basically, though the US has lost thousands of soldiers in these conflicts, compared to past multi-year wars, the losses have been exceedingly light. (Hundreds of thousands in WWII and WWI, tens of thousands in Vietnam and Korea).

Also, to truly provide security in Afghanistan—a rural and dispersed population—would require the monetary and human costs of massive deployments of more soldiers. Simply put, the problem with “gratitude theory” isn’t the reconstruction part, it is the security part (the idea that Taliban come in at night and threaten locals). The solution is armed soldiers (Afghan and American) protecting locals. That requires more men that we have. And less soldiers at major bases.

As you said, the issue is cost. Right now we aren’t spending enough to win, and eventually we will lose because of that.


The gratitude theory is great- but ten years of MEDCAPs, while helping many individuals, has greatly hindered building Afghan medical capacity.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t be done- and they are a powerful tool for establishing rapport, but they usually fall short of helping Afgans in the long run.

Why not give the gift of mentoring to the district’s ministry of public health representative and develope the capacity of the clinics already in existence? It is tough, frustrating and slow- but the people will be much less supportive of insurgents if they can meet their own needs.

Agree, but again we are talking about subtly different issues. Many theorists on COIN say all you need to do to win is kill more Taliban. Then they wipe their hands and say “problem solved.” I am just trying to say that reconstruction (the part of gratitude theory people don’t like) has some role.

I think your comment brings up some of the additional issues with how the US army has tried to conduct counter-insurgency. The first is a shortage of Civil Affairs officers who could truly build capacity, not just give out MEDCAPs. Civil Affairs was a reserve branch until when, 2008? Also, the hollowing out of the State Department/USAID has contributed to a lack of institutional knowledge in the US foreign affairs apparatus to rebuild societies period.

Second, the US Army policy of rotating units in and out every year, with most Brigade returning to different AOs, and units often failing to follow up on previous units successes, ensures that MEDCAPs and HA distros tend to be all that gets accomplished, not as part of a long term plan. I know the AfPak Hands program was designed to counter this, but it still seems like it is too slow in implementation, in my opinion.

So gratitude theory isn’t bad in and of itself, doing it poorly is bad. I’m just saying we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water, which is what I feel happened to “population-centric COIN” with the “gratitude theory label” (because again, which Army/Marine unit stopped killing Taliban during their deployment?)


Ok- we’re on the same page then. And Afpak Hands has turned into a fantastic opportunity…for roughly 10% of the folks in the program. A few of us managed to fall into roles where we actually build capacity (I lucked out, and it really is a CA job), but overall it is far too rank/Dari/Kabul heavy.

You might enjoy this: http://newburghconspiracy.com/2011/11/11..

Guess who M. Lewis is?

I am assuming you. But why M. Lewis? And does he realize the original A. Hamilton was the closest thing America had back then to a democrat?