Learning Afghan Counterinsurgency, by Louis Dupree

by Joshua Foust on 1/9/2009 · 8 comments

In his seminal 1970 work Afghanistan (review here), Louis Dupree noted a phenomenon about village life that we would do well to consider when thinking about all those COIN buzzwords like “engagement,” “connecting the people to the government,” and so on. He calls it the “mud curtain,” and it is very much an issue to deal with today:

Sustained relations with the outside world have seldom been pleasant, for outsiders usually come to extract from, not bring anything into, the village… The process, therefore, has generally been one way, away from the village. As a consequence, most villagers simply cannot believe that central governments, provincial governments, or individual local or foreign technicians want to introduce permanent reforms. Previous attempts have generally been of short duration and abortive, for once the “modernization” teams leave, the villagers patch up the breaks in the “mud curtain” and revert to their old, group-reinforcing patters… Local and foreign experts cannot really be blamed for being duped by villagers who, over many generations, have developed excellent defensive mechanisms to protect themselves from the outside world. For example, villagers willingly accept any and all suggestions for technological change, because they realize that the sooner they accept, the sooner the “developers” will leave…

In addition, an outsider seldom meets the true power elite of a village unless he remains for an extended period. When outsiders approach, the village leaders disappear behind mud walls, and the first line of defense (second line of power) come forward to greet the strangers with formalized hospitality, which surprisingly enough also serves as a defensive technique…. the formalized hospitality of the villager can quickly develop into hostility unless the outsider becomes a functioning member of the society…

All development programs are essentially attempts to create a nation-state. If we institutionally define a nation-state as having a set of reciprocal economic, military, and even social (integration, social security, Medicare, etc.) rights and obligations, it becomes obvious that a modern nation-state is as much a state of mind as a geographic entity… A major key to development, then, is involvement.

Dupree goes on to distinguish between a western, “outward-looking society,” in which one is born into a set of questions, and Afghanistan, an “inward-looking society,” where one is born into a set of answers. Such a fundamental difference in how one thinks can lead to westerners making fatal errors and leaps of assumption. By acknowledging this critcal gap, and more specifically by involving the 5% Afghan elites who understand both mindsets, Dupree argues that you actually can develop rural communities. But it takes a lot of time, effort, and money—all things we don’t yet seem willing to invest smartly.

It’s also worth remembering that this wisdom about Afghanistan is nearly 40 years old. There isn’t any secret to these ideas, in other words—so keep that in mind when our vaunted counterinsurgency experts talk about how to win. It’s great to talk about it in theoretical terms, or what a semester at the COIN academy and a few week-long tours of Kabul tell you, but real experts have been talking this from the beginning.

See Louis Dupree (1970) Afghanistan, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 250-252 for a more complete analysis in Dupree’s own words.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 8 comments }

Ian January 9, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Dupree goes on to distinguish between a western, “outward-looking society,” in which one is born into a set of questions, and Afghanistan, an “inward-looking society,” where one is born into a set of answers. Such a fundamental difference in how one thinks can lead to westerners making fatal errors and leaps of assumption. By acknowledging this critcal gap, and more specifically by involving the 5% Afghan elites who understand both mindsets, Dupree argues that you actually can develop rural communities. But it takes a lot of time, effort, and money—all things we don’t yet seem willing to invest smartly.

This part of Dupree I find extremely problematic; obviously westerners themselves are born into SOME answers, too, and Afghans into SOME questions. There are not two mindsets in the world, sorry. To say so is to engage in the most reductionist orientalism.

Joshua Foust January 9, 2009 at 7:41 pm

I don’t think you can really accuse Dupree of being reductionist. He was speaking in generalities, and using those terms to distinguish Afghan and Western mindsets, which is a fair point to make. Obviously it’s not perfect, but it does get at the different assumptions we each operate under.

Ian January 9, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Fine, let him speak in generalities, but those terms are not at all useful. It really smacks of “they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” by their westernized elites.

Christian January 9, 2009 at 9:50 pm

1970? 1st edition was 1973 methinks.

Huge, massive mistake you amateur. 😉 We should start an online feud or something.

Ian January 9, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Oh snap

Christian January 9, 2009 at 10:04 pm

This same passage was commented on at Afghanistanica:

The questions that this passage raises are:

1. What has changed in the way of village attitudes with the passage of over 30 years (i.e., changes in communication and media) and many years of war (i.e., spending time in a foreign refugee camp)?

2. How has the change in the market system in (some of) Afghanistan’s rural areas affected village attitudes?

3. What differences are there between villagers of different ethnicities?

4. Do more economically successful villagers have different attitudes?

5. What differences can be seen between villagers who live near urban areas and/or major transportation routes and those isolated villagers?

6. Are the new breed of outsiders viewed differently?

7. Are Afghan villagers more desperate than they were when this passage was written (and therefor more open to outside “assistance”)?

8. Do villagers who are from a group favoured by the government hold different views?

9. Are any of these views just plain incorrect?

10. Despite spending half his time outside of Kabul, are Dupree’s views too heavily influenced by educated urban Afghans?

11. What do dissenters have to say about the above excerpt?

12. Etc…

For some this passage may answer questions. While it does the same for me, it also raises the above questions (in addition to those questions I can’t think of at the moment). Works as old as Dupree’s usually have a long list of detractors.

Me again: This sort of thing could be endlessly debated by anthropologists and the people that study state-society relations (i.e., Joel Migdal type stuff).

Ian January 9, 2009 at 10:29 pm

I would also quote Afghanistanica’s quite apt observation that “Dupree’s book is a general introduction to Afghanistan, not a guide to development work in that country.”

To clarify, my comment above was in admiration of the most brutal application of a Worldcat entry I’ve ever seen.

Joshua Foust January 9, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Christian, let us begin a feud!

But look guys, my point is not that Dupree is infallible, or god, or whatever. My point in this is that people have been talking about this for literally decades, and it makes no sense for the thinking class to drop everything when others who really haven’t dived into the literature begin talking about how to “save” the country from itself.

Rather than an in-depth discussion of actual Afghan power relationships (I tend to make a very clear distinction between pre-Soviet and post-Najibullah Afghanistan), this is just meant to highlight the thinking that is out there. I don’t think Dupree is “all that” on state-society relationships (I also enjoy Alexander Wendt and George Thomas on this front). But the point is, even his conception—in a widely available, introductory overview-type book—contains much more sophistication than what comes out of the DOD these days.

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