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Counterinsurgency Is a Mental Illness

Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 21st, 2009

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

The insistence of a powerful group of policymakers and military commanders on the use of counterinsurgency strategy subverted U.S. humanitarian efforts in service of a corrupt system of violence, according to an op-ed from Feinstein International Center’s Andrew Wilder. The piece summarizes recent research conducted by him and his colleagues on the effect of aid spending in Afghanistan. Wilder concludes that no evidence exists that our “humanitarian spending” is endearing us to Afghan hearts and minds.

From the op-ed on [h/t Steve Hynd]:

Instead of winning hearts and minds, Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative. And instead of contributing to stability, in many cases aid is contributing to conflict and instability. For example, we heard many reports of the Taliban being paid by donor-funded contractors to provide security (or not to create insecurity), especially for their road-building projects. In an ethnically and tribally divided society like Afghanistan, aid can also easily generate jealousy and ill will by inadvertently helping to consolidate the power of some tribes or factions at the expense of others – often pushing rival groups into the arms of the Taliban.

The most destabilizing effect of aid, however, is its role in fueling massive corruption, which in turn is eroding the legitimacy of the government. Our research suggests that we have failed to win Afghan hearts and minds not because we have spent too little money, but because we have spent too much too quickly, often in insecure environments with extremely limited implementation and oversight capacity.

Significantly, the main cause of insecurity identified by most Afghans we interviewed was not poverty, or a lack of reconstruction, or even the Taliban, but their highly corrupt and ineffective government

…[F]oreign aid should focus on promoting humanitarian and development objectives, where there is evidence of positive impact, rather than on promoting counterinsurgency objectives, where there is not.

In other words, we should help people for their own sake. Who would have thought?

From top to bottom, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan commits the fundamental sin of domination: the valuation of people as means instead of as ends. Counterinsurgency values the well-being of a population only insofar as that population supports our local ally, who in turn is only valuable insofar is (s)he supports our goals in the region. People do not have intrinsic value. Their relationship to the government or to the insurgency renders them an asset or a liability, and nothing more. COIN is not a strategy–it’s sociopathy. (The COIN manual uses a fantastic euphemism on page xxxix for its sociopathy: “Counterinsurgency favors peace over justice.” What they mean is that the well-being and/or grievance of a population suffering under the boot of our allied government does not matter to the counterinsurgent nearly as much as the stability of a government helping us get what we want.)  It should not surprise us that when people discover that they are a target of sociopathic manipulation posing as humanitarian aid, they get angry.

Afghan hearts and minds don’t need to change–ours do.

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