The photo in Laura King’s Los Angeles Times article “‘Three cups of tea’ a byword for U.S. effort to win Afghan hearts and minds” shows why the war in Afghanistan is not going well for the United States.
As Ms. King so aptly explains, the phrase “three cups of tea” has been adapted from the Greg Mortenson best-seller of the same name by the American military as the basis of how to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign.
The concept is a good one: win the trust of the people and they’ll tell you who are the bad guys. In a country whose central government is known worldwide for corruption and incompetence, building local governments that can protect their own townspeople makes sense. “Counterinsurgency is easy,” said Col Dale Alford (USMC) at last year’s COIN Symposium at the National Press Club, “you want to make the locals choose us.” It worked with the Marines and Sunni’s in Ramadi and Anbar; it should work in Afghanistan.
But any plan is only as good as it’s implementation—and that bring us back to the photograph : two soldiers sitting at their desk in an office looking down at Afghans who are sitting far away from them on the floor. This is hardly how Gen James Mattis (USMC) and Gen David Petraeus (Army), co-authors of the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Manual, envisioned building relations with the locals.
Mattis knew how to deal with a wary population. “Take off your sunglasses,” he ordered his Marines back in 2003 Iraq, “and let them get to know you. Play soccer with the kids, and don’t worry if you lose. Shake a lot of hands and chat them up.” Sound, effective advice until Paul Bremer’s ill-planned CPA took charge and Iraq exploded with I.E.D.’s.
What the Army fails to understand is that it’s not how many cups of tea one drinks that’s important, but that the act of drinking tea or sharing a melon is how strangers sit down peacefully and begin to know one another. Afghanistan is an incredibly poor country; perhaps the 5th poorest in the world, and sharing food is the ultimate in hospitality. It’s also worth noting that relationships are not built in a day, neither here, or in Afghanistan. Similar to most dating rituals worldwide, it takes more than one cup of tea and more than one meeting, to build a relationship sufficiently deep to talk honestly about schooling, IED’s, and Taliban presence.
It’s fair to say that bureaucracy and counterinsurgency are incompatible. Living on a FOB and patrolling by vehicle ensures you meet no locals. Eating at the DFAC means you’re not eating with the locals, and it’s worth noting that ten months after President Obama ordered more troops into Afghanistan, the Army has yet to deploy their final thousands of troops. Air conditioned bunks, Wii in the MWR, fast-food joints, an MWR shop…while creature comforts are certainly attractive, creature comforts keep them tied to the FOB’s.
In comparison, the Marine forces in Helmand and Nimroz Provinces live in or in close proximity to the towns. They have limited internet access, very little a/c, and no Wii. In Musa Qual’ah, they live in the village center. In Marjah, they live on some ten different little patrol bases. In Nawa and Garmsir, considered the success stories of COIN in Afghanistan, they live in and around the towns. Relationships and trust are built by constant exposure to each other, and the Marines patrol 3x daily 7 days/ week. Ms. King goes on to quote the ranking elder of a village who mentioned that American soldiers visited him ‘last month’, and how he doubted that “an occasional visit by the American forces could keep the insurgents at bay.”
It’s been written that the Marines out-patrol the Army by a factor of perhaps 20-1, hot, tiring work in a country jaded by nine years of broken Western promises. Yet done properly, as Mortenson’s book and Marine efforts in Helmand Province evidence, personal relationships can bring two disparate cultures together for mutual success. With American assistance, they’ll build enough functioning local governments that will enable our troops to come home.
But then one needs to regularly be in the village talking to the elders in order to build that kind of relationship.
Andrew Lubin is an 11x embedded journalist who writes extensively on Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of the award-winning “Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Battery in Iraq”