The lessons about ourselves we can learn from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part two)

Summary:   The Three Cups of Tea fable is symptomatic of a deeper flaw in the way we conduct foreign policy.  To believe in fairies makes for a fun children’s story, but wars require tight grip on an often harsh reality.  We’ve made this mistake in the past and will gain — unless we learn and reform. Part two of two; see part one here.

“Greg Mortenson did not go to the Pentagon to con them.  The Pentagon went to him like a sinner to Elmer Gantry.”
— Paul Avallone (Special Forces, retired; in Nangarhar, Afghanistan 2002-2003, as a photo-journalist in 2006 and 2008), email to Diana West posted here.  Also see his essay “Flirting with Afghanistan – Dispatches from the frontline“, August 2008.


  1. This serious problem has been obvious since the start of the Af-pak war
  2. Our experts push back, defending the myth from the harsh facts
  3. A look by Gian Gentile at the bottom line
  4. For more information

(1)  This serious problem has been obvious since the start of the Af-pak war

Our preference for myth over fact — structural ignorance  — has deep roots in DoD, going back to the Vietnam War.  Experts making predictions that proved false were promoted; those who were accurate (e.g., State’s INR; see this article at the National Security Archive) were ignored.  Here are two excepts describing this breakdown in our OODA loop.

(a)  The following is an excerpt from Why do we lose 4th generation wars?  It was sad to write this in January 2007; it’s even sadder to see how little we have learned in the four years since then.

This pitiful little vignette {is} an excerpt from “Knowing the Enemy“, George Packer, The New Yorker, 12 December 2006:

In 2004, when {Montgomery} McFate had a fellowship at the Office of Naval Research, she got a call from a science adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had been contacted by battalion commanders with the 4th Infantry Division in a violent sector of the Sunni Triangle, in Iraq. “We’re having a really hard time out here–we have no idea how this society works,” the commanders said. “Could you help us?” The science adviser replied that he was a mathematical physicist, and turned for help to one of the few anthropologists he could find in the Defense Department.

Among the thousands of support people in DoD, a battalion commander found nobody better to help understand Iraq than a mathematical physicist. A science adviser to the Joint Chiefs found no better expert on the Middle East than an anthropologist with no specific expertise in that area.

… For another example let us look at the most widely circulated of David Kilcullen’s major articles about counterinsurgency: “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level CounterinsurgencyMilitary Review, May – June 2006.   Explicitly written for a Coalition company commander just warned for deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan …  Article #1 – Know your turf:

“Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.”

It is easy to read this as important but banal. Centurions posted to remote Roman provinces were probably told to “know your turf.” This ignores the depth of Kilcullen’s insight.  Kilcullen here describes the “home court advantage.” It is a powerful advantage in 4GW, perhaps one reason for the consistent victory of locals over foreigners.

… Unfortunately, in the Middle East our opponents have this advantage — not us. The world expert on “your” district already lives there and probably was born there.  US company commanders on six to twelve month rotations cannot develop anything comparable to the locals’ knowledge about their home, especially in so foreign a culture. It might be difficult for some of them to do so quickly in Watts or Harlem.

However, as so often with the US military, we hope deus ex machina will save us.  Also from Packer’s New Yorker article:

… .a “ruggedized” laptop computer, loaded with data from social-science research conducted in Iraq-such as, McFate said, “an analysis of the 88 tribes and subtribes in a particular province.” Now the project is recruiting social scientists around the country to join five-person “human terrain” teams that would go to Iraq and Afghanistan with combat brigades and serve as cultural advisers on 6-to-9-month tours.

Since there are so few Arabic-speaking, Iraq-expert social scientists in the US (even fewer for Afghanistan), these laptops’ data will come from the locals. That is, our maps of the social terrain will be that of various partisans in the Iraq civil war. (There are no neutrals in a civil war.)  A high-tech way of making their enemies into our enemies.

Also, this illustrates our confusion between “data” and “knowledge.” Even if the data is correct, most of our company commanders will lack the contextual understanding – the wider view of Iraq or Afghanistan society – needed to successfully apply it.

(b)  Recommended reading about this:  “Flying blind: US foreign policy’s lack of expertise“, Manan Ahmed (historian of Pakistan at Freie Universitat Berlin), The National, 4 March 2011 — Excerpt:

Even a cursory examination of the archive dealing with the American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates that there has been no related growth in specific scholarly knowledge about those sites of conflict. The knowledge of Arabic, Urdu or Pashto remains at extremely low levels in official corridors. There is, one can surmise simply from reading the back and forth sway of military and political policy in Afghanistan, very little advancement in understanding of either the text or context of that nation.

In America’s imperial theatre, Stewart and Mortenson exemplify a singular notion of “expert”. We can build, based on the profiles of other specimens – Robert D Kaplan, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan – a picture of what the ideal type looks like from the official point of view. Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.

… Yet these pundits are only part of the story. The more troubling aspect is the change from human expertise to technical knowledge. The Washington Post noted recently that the US Air Force is rolling out a satellite-based observation technology called “Gorgon Stare”. A triumphalist quote described the programme thus: “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.”

This “everything” dominates most tech-based strategies which are regularly puffed in the media. Some mention databases of tribal affiliations and sympathies down to each inhabitant of a given street, neighbourhood, city and district. This database is then placed at the fingertips of US military personnel via their hand-held electronic devices, letting them bring up the dossier on each Afghan they encounter.

… The appeal of the drone’s eye is precisely that it does not see everything, because it carries no understanding of the things it records. The experts who are required to imagine Afghanistan or Pakistan traverse those spaces in a manner similar to the drones, on their own preprogrammed missions where every little thing becomes a target on which to pin their policies.

(2)  Our experts push back, defending their myths from the harsh facts

Our geopolitical experts (as a class) will work to see that we learn nothing, as in this article by Thomas Ricks (journalist; Wikipedia) at Foreign Policy, 20 April 2011):

Bottom line: I suspect that people who think the U.S. counterinsurgency approach rises and falls on Mortenson’s rep likely have never seen or understood how counterinsurgency is supposed to work. (For the curious, here is a good example of a counterinsurgency effort succeeding.) Did credible charges that Stephen Ambrose made stuff up about Eisenhower invalidate that general’s role in the allied victory in World War II?

Total nonsense.  Eisenhower’s reputation preceded Ambrose’s books.  More importantly, Mortenson’s books were influential guides used by US forces in Afghanistan.  The Ambrose scandal concerned popular histories written four decades after the war.

Here’s another example of missing the point while rushing to defend the war from the latest unpleasant facts:  “Stranger than fiction – What we’re really losing with Greg Mortenson’s fall“, Joshua Foust, PBS website, 18 April 2011 — Note this is on PBS; the entire establishment loves the war.

(3)  A look by Gian Gentile at the bottom line

Gian Gentile (Colonel, US Army, Wikipedia), excerpt from comment at the Small Wars Journal:

To be sure Mortenson’s book has not become army doctrine, but as a symbol of the hearts and minds approach he has become very influential in the American Army. Many Brigade and battalion commanders have had him talk to their units prior to deployments, his book has come to be on many, many commander reading lists, he has been featured in many newspaper articles …

The Irony of this story is that Mortenson’s book contains lies about what he actually did — yet his book has come to be embraced by the coin community — and American counterinsurgency itself is one big myth. The myth is that it works, it does not.

So now what to do in Afghanistan? As Rajiv’s {Washington Post} article makes clear we can establish a semblance of control through raw military power in certain areas but for what? What is any of this getting us strategically? Like Iraq it is a waste, yet we continue to be mesmerized by articles of promise and hope of a bit more progress so that someday in the far future it will all lead to something.

And in the end Coin campaigns are very much like Mortenson’s book since they have been described as wars of perceptions. And really all that Mortenson did was write a little white lie that created the perception of things that he supposedly did in Afghanistan.

(4)  For more information

(a)  Other articles about the 3 cups of tea affair:

  1. Questions over Greg Mortenson’s stories“, 60 Minutes, CBS, 15 April 2011 — “He has written inspiring best sellers, including “Three Cups of Tea,” but are the stories all true?”
  2. Three-cup Monte“, Carl Prine (USMC, retired; now an investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Line of Departure, 17 April 2011
  3. Three Cups of Deceit – How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way“, by Jon Krakauer, By-liner, undated — Pay per view only

(b)  Articles about the schools Mortenson attempted to replace:  the madrasas (I strongly recommend reading these!):

  1. Inside Jihad U. – The Education of a Holy Warrior“, Jeffrey Goldberg (writer), New York Times Magazine, 25 June 2000 — “In a Pakistani religious school called the Haqqania madrasa, Osama bin Laden is a hero, the Taliban’s leaders are famous alums and the next generation of mujahedeen is being militantly groomed.”
  2. Inside the Madrasas“, William Dalrymple, New York Review of Books, 1 December 2005

(c)  Click here to see articles about the issues created when anthropologists go to war (and the Revolt of the Anthropologists).

(d)  Other posts describing misinformation about Afghanistan and the war:

  1. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  2. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  3. DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken, 8 October 2009
  4. A clear view of our Afghanistan War strategy (unfortunately, it’s mad), 16 April 2010
  5. A powerful story from Afghanistan, an illustration of our un-strategy at work, 18 April 2010
  6. Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”, 5 October 2010

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