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Don't Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts

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

As I wrote on Monday, we have terrible brand management in Afghanistan.

Don’t believe me? Read “A Gathering Menace” in The American Scholar. Neil Shea describes the military platoon equivalent of “Popcopy” employees. While most platoons are probably better than this one, plenty are probably worse.

We cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan because, in marketing terms, killing civilians harms our brand. Killing isn’t the only way to lose the war though. Countless smaller actions--from throwing a pee bottle to burning a Koran--might seem minor, but taken together they tell Afghans, “Don’t trust Americans.”

Now, I’m no marketing expert (I just started business school), but I do have suggestions for improving the US Army’s brand in Afghanistan:


1. Learn the local language.

1a. If you can’t do that, at least hire competent interpreters.

2. Embed troops for longer amounts of time, returning them to the same area of operations.

2a. Actually support the Afghan Hands program. (Which doesn’t currently qualify officers for key developmental time. Allegedly the most important program in Afghanistan actually harmed officers’ careers. Think about that.)

3. If you destroy it, rebuild it. (See point 3a’s corollary.)

3a. Avoid destroying buildings. Strong governments don’t destroy their own buildings.

4. Live off the local population whenever possible.

5. Hire locals, not “third party nationals.”

6. Think, “If this would piss off Americans, could it piss off an Afghan too?”

6a. Or, “If a Chinese Colonel did this to my family, would I be happy about it?” 


1. Don’t burn copies of the Koran.

1a. Actually, don’t do anything with Korans without consulting an Islamic scholar.

1b. And whatever you do, don’t use them in interrogations.

2. Don’t torture. At all costs, even if “U.S. soldiers” aren’t doing the torturing.

3. Stop doing night raids on the wrong houses.

3a. Quit doing them period, if possible.

4. Stop supporting corrupt psuedo-dictators.

4a. Or his corrupt brothers.

5. Don’t kill children.

5a. Women too.

5b. Old men who cannot fight would help as well.

5c. Or mentally disabled kids.

5d. People gathering oil from a broken down truck.

5e. Massacres are out too.

6. Don’t throw pee bottles out of your MRAPs.

6a. Don’t litter either.

7. Don’t drive around cities so fast  that you run over little kids.

8. Don’t fire artillery shells into small towns.

9. Don’t pay warlords protection money through incompetent contracting.

9a. This means putting your best officers into difficult contracting jobs, not your worst.

10. And don’t curse out the locals. They’ll know you are cursing at them. And it won’t work.

three comments

On a more frustrating side of the coin—pun not intended—I can’t help but think of liberals who argue against pop-centric COIN and “nation building”, which allies them, ironically, against advice like this. They mean to argue against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in general, but by criticizing pop-centric COIN—the baby with the bathwater—they end up allying with the wrong side of war, encouraging drone strikes and night raids.

It’s like my dad always told me, once a war starts, you have to find the best way to end it. As a pacifist, this is what I believe, and why I support a population-centric approach to counter-insurgency.

Nice. I’d add a 4b. Don’t be surprised if Karzai says mean things about America to Afghans; they’re still his constituency, and they’ll be there long after America leaves.

Also, are you aware of this tumblr? You should be aware of this tumblr: http://bulletproofafghans.tumblr.com/

And Michael’s doing business school now? A shame. He seemed like such a nice guy…

Eric C:

The most ironic thing is the liberals who argue against nation building are on the same side as the devil, George Bush. He didn’t like nation building either.