December 04, 2009


I still don't know what I think is the right move in Afghanistan. I still see an enormous difference in potential between Iraq and Afghanistan, and moves I thought were a good idea in Iraq don't always seem so good in Afghanistan. I personally think that counter-terrorism seems to fit Afghanistan more than COIN does, but I don't know my hat from a hole in the ground, so my opinion doesn't really count for anything.

But I can't help but keep thinking about firebombing Dresden vs vaccinating goats. It's such a different tactic. And I fear that we're starting to mistake the hearts-and-minds missions as being the end, not the means.

I wrote earlier this year about my husband's career field:

There are people even within Civil Affairs who think that their tasks are the end-goal. There are people who think that how many goats they vaccinated and how many school supplies they dropped off are their accomplishments. My husband, however, always takes a long-term, big-picture view of the world. The goal is not vaccinated goats but whether helping that goatherd made Special Forces' job easier and thus helped advance the cause of defeating our enemies. The healthy goats are the means, not the end.

It's a fascinating way to look at his job, and sadly it takes a confident person to accept that role. Civil Affairs as a branch doesn't want to see itself as just a tool for Special Forces. Some in the branch look askance at my husband when his briefings show the Civil Affairs work as Phase 2 and what SF built out of their work as Phase 3. They want to feel like their role is important. It certainly is, but only if it helps get us closer to the bad guy.

Happy, healthy goats in Afghanistan shouldn't be our goal; winning should.

The reason we are in this war is to stop terrorists from killing Americans. The point is to prevent another 9/11, to cut off the funding for and state-sponsorship of terrorism, and to kill as many al Qaeda and terrorists as possible. We vaccinate the goats because hopefully that will help nice Afghans and Iraqis point out where the bad guys are, or take up arms and help us fight them. We don’t vaccinate the goats because we want to do charity work for them.

Don’t get me wrong, plenty of soldiers have a vested interest in the people they’ve been working with for years now.  Most Americans are compassionate people who want third-worlders to have a better life than they do now; that's why American citizens pull money out of their own pockets and mail school supplies and sneakers overseas.  On a personal level, we all want Afghan girls to go to school and Iraqi businesses to be successful. 

But that’s not the military goal.  We have to remember that that is a means to an end: a better educated and more economically sound populace should lead to less people joining al Qaeda out of desperation, or becoming a suicide bomber for the money.  I want Iraqis and Afghans to flourish, but I have an ulterior motive for that desire. I am not just blindly altruistic in my support for these missions and programs.  They have to advance the cause of the US military, otherwise they're missing the point.

So when I read this interview with author Greg Mortenson this morning, I got my feathers all ruffled:

I guess Gen. Petraeus could sum it up better than me, but he sent me an e-mail last year and he had read "Three Cups of Tea," and he said there were three lessons from the book that he wanted to impart to his troops. No. 1, he said, we need to listen more; No. 2, we need to have respect, meaning we are there to serve the good people of Afghanistan; and No. 3, we need to build relationships. "Three Cups of Tea" now is mandatory reading for all senior U.S military commanders, and all special forces deploying to Afghanistan are required to read it.  [emphasis mine]

And I see that right there as an epic FAIL.

My husband is not there to "serve" the people of Afghanistan.  He is there to creatively find ways to do compassionate missions, with the end goal always tucked away in the back of his mind that it only makes sense to run the mission if it will somehow benefit the American military agenda.  If he wanted to build schools for needy people, he could've just joined Habitat For Humanity.

The Mortenson advice is all well and good if you are an NGO or just an kindhearted fella who wants to open schools in Afghanistan.  His goal is to help those people; he "serves" them.  The military doesn't; the military serves the interests of the United States.  The American military is not one big money tree that Afghans can keep coming to to get "served."  Or at least it shouldn't be.  But every soldier working in Iraq and Afghanistan has a horror story of following Mortenson's Rule #1 and asking the local people what they need...and then getting an earful of upgrades.  "We need power restored to the entire remote village."  Well, have you ever had power before?  Did you have power back when Saddam ran the country?  No?  Then how, pray tell, do you expect us to "restore" it?  My husband visited a school last year and asked them what they could use; they gave him plans for a state-of-the-art kitchen they wanted installed in the cafeteria.  Scale it back a bit, folks; Uncle Sugar isn't going to turn your hot plate into Paula Deen's kitchen.  Especially not if it's not going to get us anything in return.  I want to be assured of quid pro quo before we vaccinate anybody's goats, or at least have a pretty good idea that we'll get something for our effort.

The US military is not one big charity organization trying to fix Afghanistan.  Let the Gates Foundation do stuff like that.  Our missions need to have purpose and need to be grounded in some sense of how this helps the overall goals of our fighting force: If I vaccinate this goat or build this school, will ol' Farzad in the village let us know is he hears rumors of the next planned attack?  If not, then Farzad can find his own damn vaccination.

We are not there to "serve" him.


Related thoughts from Ralph Peters on TV.  Clip here.  Relevant quote:

In 2001, we didn't go to Afghanistan to turn it into Disneyworld.  We didn't go there to buy retirement homes.  We went there to kill al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harboring them.  Mission accomplished by late spring of 2002.  Imperfect?  Hey, the world's an imperfect place.  But...we stayed, because we convinced ourselves that -- although we still haven't rebuilt the Twin Towers -- that we were going to build a modern, wonderful Afghanistan.  Ain't gonna happen, ain't worth the effort, even if it worked we get nothing out of it.  Judge, the purpose in 2001 was right: kill al Qaeda wherever they are.

Posted by: Sarah at 01:16 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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1 I think this article deserves wider circulation. Come on, bloggers. Link away!

It also deserves an entire article in response. I don't have the time to write it right now, so I'll just quote Ruth:

Remember, well at least I am old enough to, the Marshall Plan?  We made sure we won and then we sent the money. Seems like a good way to do it to me.

In short, giving comes second. We should pay Afghans after they pay us with info. No freebies.

Posted by: Amritas at December 04, 2009 03:50 PM (+nV09)

2 Along the lines that Amritas said. Someone needs to remind the military higerups that the military is the "War" department not the Peace Corp. If the Civil Affairs group wants to be the end all, then they need to send idealistic young liberals to do the work instead of warriors that want to get the mission done and go home.

Posted by: SciFiJim at December 05, 2009 09:59 AM (oyiPt)

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