I enjoy Kip’s writing a lot, but is he seriously reviewing Three Cups of Tea from a counterinsurgent’s perspective, and bouncing it off Kilcullen and FM 3-24? My God, I think he is. Talk about a gimmick.
Kip misses the point, and this is one of those fundamentals I intend to explore more fully in the near future. There is a huuuuuuuge difference between exploitation and empowerment. The first is manipulating people to achieve some end—the social engineering aspect of COIN that I think remains its fatal conceit. The second I see as helping people for their own sake. Mortenson was helping the Balti for years before he realized there was a broader context for his work because helping them was the right thing to do.
More importantly, helping people for their own sake makes literally everyone better off. The key to Mortenson’s work is that he didn’t build Western-style schools, or try, Ann Marlowe-like, to impose Western values on the locals simply because we spend a lot of money. Kip notices that he involved the locals in construction, but barely takes it to where it needs to be: when some bigwig at the Pentagon offered Mortenson millions of dollars to build schools in the region, he rejected it because it would make him suspect in their eyes. Oh, and it wasn’t idealistic NGO workers staffing those schools, either—it was locals. They did everything, he just provided the materials.
Drawing these lessons into a COIN context, one is left with the unsettling realization that, unless you’ve done the hard work Mortenson has to ingratiate yourself into their community—by spending years and years embedded with them, building enough trust so that it flows both ways and all can have faith in the outcome—nothing will happen, at least nothing good. One of the mainstays of stories about counterinsurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they like seeing some Iraqis and Afghans pick up some share of the work, but no one yet trusts them to keep at it. That lack of trust—on our part, mind you—is not so subtle and hidden that they can’t see it.
Our would-be subjects are not idiots, and they know when they’re being used. As long as we look at them as objects for exploitation, rather than as people who just need some help, we will come up short every time.
This is part of a series examining the fundamentals of conflict around the Durand Line.