Archive for November, 2007

Anthropology Goes to War

Monday, November 26th, 2007

There are some things the Army needs in Afghanistan, but more academics are not at the top of the list.


At this point in the war on terror, even people who think David Galula is a trendy new chef are quick to point to the need for cultural understanding in successful counterinsurgency. Often, they are quicker still to beat up on our military for supposedly ignoring this. They are quite sure that if we just understood the Iraqis/Afghans/Shiites/Sunnis better, we would have made fewer mistakes. The military is ready to beat up on itself, too, although if you scan military journals, it seems to have spent much of the last few years retooling to fight small rather than large wars, and to emphasize counterinsurgency and nation-building rather than mere kinetics (aka killing).

We should learn the lessons of Vietnam and Algeria, we are earnestly told. Well, perhaps the most successful counterinsurgency operation ever mounted, David Galula’s in Algeria, doesn’t build the case for the overweening importance of cultural knowledge. The Algerians pacified thanks to Galula’s insights were French-speaking (some of the leaders of the FLN barely spoke Arabic). The French took back territory from the rebels not because Galula convinced them that he understood their culture, but because he convinced them that their interests were better served by affiliation with France. (A dozen pages of Galula are worth more than anything written by anyone mentioned in this article. His 1963 Pacification in Algeria, reissued by RAND last year, is a witty, snappy, pre-PC read.)

While self-criticism can be healthy, we shouldn’t lose sight of what actually works. I saw classic counterinsurgency doctrine working in Afghanistan during a two week embed in Khost and Laghman provinces this past July. In Khost, our soldiers were doing close to what Galula’s company did in 1956: moving off the big bases, into the countryside, and providing people there with an immediate promise of security and, for the first time, a taste of the rewards of having a government. We are much further along with the strategy of pushing out into rural areas in Khost–a province that shares a 150-mile border with Pakistan’s most lawless areas–than in Laghman, and not surprisingly, the numbers are much better there. (more…)