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Loving, Hating, and the War in Afghanistan

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

I mentioned in our first round on “gratitude theory” that I absolutely despise the phrase, “I don’t care if they like me as long as they respect me”. Plenty of people disagree with me though. Take, for example, this comment:

“Essentially, they're [On Violence] working to show that the "I don't care if the population likes me, as long as they do what I require" attitude is flawed. (It's not, at least not when it's a third-party counterinsurgent who holds it.)”

That’s just one example. This unsourced article on West Point’s website writes that “popularity or likeability among the population is NOT a consideration [in an insurgency]”. It then advises that, “being ‘liked’ is insignificant.”


Saying “likeability” is insignificant ignores the basic role of emotion in warfare, which I discussed back in December. Saying, “I don’t care if they like me” does not mean, “I don’t care if they hate me”. It is wildly significant if the population hates you. While you can lose an insurgency even if the population likes you, you can’t win an insurgency if the population hates you.

Think of the Russians in Afghanistan. By all regards, they tried to cow the Afghan rural populations into submission through carpet bombings and excessive force. The Russian Army did not care if the rural population liked or hated them, only if they feared them. As a result, they lost Afghanistan. (And I know, U.S. provided Stinger missiles and generally poor strategy also helped.) Conducting operations simply to inspire fear--another emotion ever present in war--also engenders hatred.

Hatred motivates insurgents and terrorists the world over. Hatred of the U.S. and Shia Islam drives Al Qaeda as much as their own love of Sunni Islam. Insurgents, from Iraq to Somalia to Afghanistan, absolutely hate foreign invaders, as we wrote about in “Everyone Hates Everyone Else’s Soldiers”. This has been true since the dawn of time. Hatred can motivate a household to store weapons. Or motivate a child to spy on U.S. forces. Or motivate a teenager to blow himself up in a suicide vest.

So while a counter-insurgent “doesn’t care if people like him”, he still must acknowledge the emotions of the population. It matters if the population loves, hates or fears the government...or the insurgents. Saying you “don’t care” is admitting you don’t care about a significant form of intelligence about the battlefield; you might as well say, “I don’t care if we win or lose here.”

Since we should use emotion to our own advantage in warfare, here are my tips to improve the use of emotion in counter-insurgencies:

1. Think about the emotional response of the population during planning. Specifically, I’m writing about kill/capture raids. Rationally, they could discourage an insurgent from fighting. Raids that detain the wrong person, or kill women and children, emotionally turn the population against the government. (Same with drone strikes.)

2. Security defeats fear, and creates confidence. Most criticisms of the fictional “gratitude theory” say, “It doesn’t matter if you buy people things if the Taliban comes at night to threaten the population.” In other words, a fearful population won’t support the government. The best solution isn’t reconstruction, it is more security. (Which means more troops, but that is a different issue.)

3. Care about your personal relationships. It is so much easier to do business with someone who likes you as opposed to hates you. So maybe I don’t care if the “population” (most of whom I never interacted with) “like” me, but I better have a good relationship with my interpreters, my government counterparts, and my Afghan Army partners. Those good relationships can filter down to the population at large.

4. Collect emotional intelligence. To be honest, eventually the Army’s human intelligence folks got good at conducting “atmospherics”. Unfortunately, the units with the most human intelligence collectors lived the furthest from the battlefield (isolated at Division and Corps headquarters). Battalion and Company commanders should work with their human intelligence and line platoons to measure the emotions of the population they work with. And the Army in general should push as many human intelligence folks to the lowest levels possible.

The big P, General Petraeus, lived these ideas. I don’t recall a lot of articles about General Petraeus in Iraq describing him as brow-beating people into working with him. In fact, he was/is famous for getting people to like and respect him, then getting work done. At the CIA, he reinvigorated the Open Source center to focus on global atmospherics.

I showed before Thanksgiving that people really do care if they are liked. They do, at least, among their countrymen. Every insurgency ever attempted started with two twin pillars: ideology and leadership. Leaders and ideologies rely on emotions to influence their followers. Love, hatred, respect, fear and gratitude are all emotions that can influence the population. We forget this at our own peril.