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04.18.11

Greg Mortenson's Lasting Lessons on Afghanistan

Whether Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea turns out to be fact or fiction, we shouldn’t discard his approach toward engaging with the population in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nor should we exaggerate his importance on U.S. policy, says Andrew Exum.

In the debates over the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s books and the activities of his not-for-profit institute, we should take care not to overstate his influence on U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine or the strategy in Afghanistan. We also should take care, if the Three Cups of Tea writer’s words prove fabricated, not to toss out the baby with the bathwater.

I met Mortenson once, in Kabul, while serving on a team assembled by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to help design a campaign to salvage a war that, in the summer of 2009, we were very much losing. Mortenson and I met to discuss his work, and we both had, as I recall, a single bottle of water apiece. (No cups of tea, alas.) Mortenson was one of more than a hundred people I met with in the summer of 2009, and I do not recall his opinions on what the United States and its NATO allies should be doing having much of an effect on our initial assessment.

Critics of the current strategy in Afghanistan have claimed that U.S. soldiers and Marines are, in the words of Bing West, “a gigantic Peace Corps” and are too busy building schools and paving roads to do what people like West think they should be doing—killing Taliban. These critics claim the influence of people like Greg Mortenson has exacerbated this trend.

There is something to be said for this criticism, and West is no naïf, having fought in Vietnam and traveled all over Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. In conversations with many military officers in eastern and southern Afghanistan, as well as with journalists like West and C.J. Chivers of The New York Times who have spent countless weeks patrolling with soldiers and Marines, there does appear to be some genuine confusion about the meaning of the phrase “hearts and minds.”

Winning hearts and minds is not about what the Australian counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen would call “gratitude theory”—the idea that if we do enough good works in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, we will not have to kill anyone because the population will side with us against the enemy. Nothing in the human experience of civil wars and insurgencies supports this theory.

Populations, in civil wars, make cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest. If forced to choose sides in a civil war—and they will resist making that choice for as long as possible, for understandable reasons—they will side with the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win.

Let’s not pretend men who spent the best years of their youth in places like Anbar province would not have learned Mortenson’s lessons anyway.

Thankfully, most U.S. and allied military units understand this and have been busy not building schools but killing Taliban and training Afghan security forces that, we hope, will soon take the place of U.S. and allied forces. Accounts like those of Rajiv Chandrasekaran in last Sunday’s Washington Post, as well as, ironically, Bing West in The Wall Street Journal, describe the grit and heroism with which U.S. soldiers and Marines in particular have taken the fight to the Taliban over the past year.

It is true that prominent U.S. officers, such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, have embraced Mortenson’s approach toward engaging with the population in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this is surely common sense, and the importance of sitting down with local elders, drinking endless rounds of tea, and listening to grievances that might be drivers of conflict is something a generation of commissioned and non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps has learned easily enough through nine years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To the degree that Mortenson’s writings have convinced officers and soldiers to be patient and listen to the people they aim to protect, I applaud the words of the author—whether they turn out to be fact or fiction. But let’s not pretend men who spent the best years of their youth in places like Anbar province and the Arghandab River Valley would not have learned these lessons anyway, and let’s not throw these lessons out if Mortenson proves to be an unreliable narrator.

Andrew Exum is is the author of the memoir This Man’s Army and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army in 2002 and 2004.