Archive for the ‘US military and COIN’ Category

An Interview with Two Afghan Mayors

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

originally published in The Bulwark, 4/20/21

The mayors of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif explain what the American pullout means for Afghans.

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“We have been your laboratory to fight terrorism. But Afghanistan has changed tremendously in the last 20 years. The Taliban cannot expect to walk in and rule this country. People have moved on. This is one of the freest countries in the region in terms of freedom of speech and media. No force can govern Afghanistan without the consent of the people.”

That was Daoud Sultanzoy speaking. He’s been the mayor of Kabul since April 2020, and a friend for about 15 years. We were talking over WhatsApp, discussing the impact of President Biden’s decision to unconditionally remove all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.

The next day I spoke with another friend of long standing who is now mayor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Tawfiq Amini. And in general, both spoke of the time coming for Afghans to stand up for themselves.

What Americans may not fully appreciate is that, for Afghans, our withdrawal isn’t about us.

What follows are interviews with two of the most important politicians in Afghanistan.

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Olivier Knox on Biden’s Challenges, Boehner, and Trump
I met Daoud Sultanzoy, 65, in Kabul when he was a member of the Wolesi Jirga—the lower House of Parliament—around 2006, during one of the reporting trips I made to Afghanistan. He’s Kabul-born and raised, from an aristocratic Pashtun family who have historically been landholders in nearby Ghazni province.

While Pashtuns are generally the most conservative ethnic group in Afghanistan (and the group from which the Taliban draw their most fervent support) Daoud is a liberal. He’s a Kabul University-educated engineer and former United Airlines pilot nicknamed “Captain Daoud”—and also a former American citizen who lived for many years in California.

Brilliant and articulate, Sultanzoy was always good for a pithy quote and sparkling conversation at one of the many gatherings of Kabul’s international. After leaving parliament in 2010, he did a stint as a talk radio host. He also ran for president in 2014 and in so doing gave up his American citizenship. (“I could be living in Malibu. But a human being needs to be useful. Afghanistan is where I can be most useful,” he explained.)

The war continues—in 2020 about 1,900 Afghan civilians were killed by anti-government forces. There are 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan currently, plus about 7,000 NATO forces. Afghanistan is currently protected by the 350,000 members of the Afghan Army and Air Force and 125,000 local police.

Sultanzoy seems unworried about the dangers of his job and only when I asked directly about assassination attempts did he mention that a few months ago his security detail discovered a bomb in his car.

Ann Marlowe: Daoud, I don’t think many Americans know how you become a mayor in Afghanistan? And what’s the best estimate of the population of Kabul?

Daoud Sultanzoy: Afghan mayors are supposed to be elected, but along with the District Council system, mayoral elections have not yet been set up. The mayor of Kabul is appointed by the president and sits in the cabinet. The mayors of all the other cities are appointed by the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG).

I have no fixed term limit. It depends on the president. I have received a lot of support from the president and the two vice presidents.

The best estimate is that Kabul has a daytime population of about 6,000,000 people, of whom 1,000,000 commute into the center every day from the outskirts or other provinces. We have 8,500 municipal employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about the economic effect of the whittling away of the international community in Kabul? Is the aid money still there? Is there a sustainable economy?

Sultanzoy: Actually we are the only municipality that generates its own budget through fees. We do not depend on international aid, although we do receive some through the World Bank which comes with strings attached. It is not a significant part of our budget which is about 13 billion afghanis or $168 million at 77 afghanis per dollar.

There is a lot of economic activity here that has nothing to do with the foreign community and a lot of problems that are local problems. For example there are thousands of unregistered unlicensed pushcarts selling goods. This has been a big problem because it is not usually a question of one person owning one cart, it is a mafia of one person owning 800 or 1,000 carts which block the streets and pay no fees or taxes. [The cart operators pay fees to the mafia rather than the city.] We have registered 25,000 people who claimed to be owners of carts.

Marlowe: Is there still a huge problem in Kabul with informal housing settlements without water or electricity? As in other places in the developing world, people who live in these settlements do not have titles to their property which they have often paid significant amounts for . . .

Sultanzoy: Yes, this is a big problem, although we have made some progress since I took office. About 70 percent of the new construction in the last 20 years is unplanned and unregistered and because it is also untaxed we’re losing a lot of revenue. Depending on the size of the house, an average house would pay about 1,000 afghanis ($13) per year in taxes.

UN-Habitat undertook certain parts of this registration and there they have not produced good results. The government is not very happy about it. I’m not privy to what they have done because they took these projects before I became the mayor. One part was done in Kabul and it’s still not complete. What we are doing now is through the Afghan government. Land registration is done by the Ministry of Urban Development, unfortunately. I would have preferred it to have been done by the municipality.

I went head-to-head with warlords who have grabbed millions of square meters of land, including parkland and green space, and I received a lot of support from First Vice President Amanarullah Salah.

Marlowe: You became mayor right in the middle of the pandemic. What kind of impact has COVID-19 had in Kabul? From what I have heard and read, the situation has not been as catastrophic in Afghanistan as in the United States or other developed countries. There certainly isn’t testing going on, but I read that there are fewer than 3,000 deaths so far.

Do people take the pandemic seriously?

Sultanzoy: We prepared for many sick, but they did not materialize. We have a young population. For 40 days, during a lockdown, our municipality distributed 120,000,000 pieces of bread to 3.1 million households at a cost of $68.8 million.

Due to the economic situation, it is not possible for most people to wear masks. But they are aware of social distancing. As far as vaccinations, we have begun with the security forces here. We are waiting for supplies from ÇOVAX [which provides free vaccines to poor countries].

Marlowe: What kind of security situation did you inherit from your predecessor? My impression from talking to Afghan friends is that Kabul is more dangerous than it was the last time I was there in 2011. Is there anything you can do about this as mayor or is it outside your sphere?

Sultanzoy: I do not have control over the police in Kabul, even the traffic police. They report to the minister of the interior.

Marlowe: How well are the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) doing in your opinion? How well has the United States done at training the ANSF after spending $88 billion?

Sultanzoy: No meaningful territory has been lost by ANSF, although government forces have withdrawn from some places. There is a very small footprint of those who create insecurity.

Marlowe: What do you think Afghans are hoping for from Americans in the future?

Sultanzoy: We are hoping for more clarity about the civilian role of the United States after the military withdrawal. The United States has not mentioned what they will do beyond saying that financial support will continue, but this is very vague. When the international community is not clear about its intentions, insecurity grows.

This nation has to become a nation of the 21st century. We need education and healthcare—these are not western things, they are human things. America was not made from within alone. It was also made from Europe. Afghanistan should be supported as America was supported.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems?

Sultanzoy: This is a very complicated country both in terrain and people and the ways we interpret things are very different. We Afghans are not direct people. When Americans speak to us very directly we try to interpret what they’re “really” saying.

Marlowe: What are some of the other initiatives you’ve started since you took office?

Sultanzoy: Just three weeks ago we started a public bus system with five buses. We hope that by the middle of the year we will have more than 100 buses in service.

We are also trying to increase the number of women among municipal employees. There have been very few and we’re focusing on getting to 30 percent, but we have only added dozens so far out of our 8,500 employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about some depressing numbers the World Bank has published on education:

Education spending has declined over recent years, especially on basic education. Education’s share of the budget has declined from 17 percent in 1390 to just 12 percent in 1397. Real per capita spending on education has decreased by around 13 percent over the past five years.

Sultanzoy: Part of the reason for this is systematic corruption in the past in the Ministry of Education (including fictitious teachers). Also in some areas the schools are not functioning due to insecurity.

Marlowe: In the ongoing negotiations, do you trust the Taliban?

Sultanzoy: Trust should be built and trust is measured by deeds, so in generic terms I should say any two parties that want to negotiate they have to embark on a path that will build trust and that path in our case is to prevent war. In the 21st century people shouldn’t be shedding blood in order to resolve disputes.

If we want to have a future together we have to put our arms on the side and sit down like our forefathers have done and talk about our differences and iron it out. There’s nothing that cannot be ironed out.

Marlowe: So do you think that there is anything valuable that the Taliban can contribute to Afghanistan?

Sultanzoy: Of course, of course! No one party is the only perfect party to monopolize governing this country. Every group of people who live in this country have something to contribute and we have to listen to all of them and we have to bring them all to the same table and and give them the proportionate role. . . . Their precondition was for American troops to withdraw. I think they should also cut their ties with foreign interference, then there’s nothing that we cannot iron out.

Marlowe: In conclusion, where do you expect that Afghanistan will be in another 20 years? A lot of Americans are pessimistic but you seem more optimistic.

Sultanzoy: If we embark on a durable peace that is just and that is equitable and that will uphold certain principles for a country that needs to be embarking on a path of development—then Afghanistan will develop very quickly because the ingredients are there. The manpower, the capital, the appetite for business and for entrepreneurship in the country, natural resources, agriculture, water resources and the availability of tools not only nationally, but internationally, that can speed up development.

I first visited Mazar-i-Sharif in fall of 2002 when there were only a few blocks of shops with glass windows, no buildings taller than the venerated Blue Mosque, and no commercial Internet providers. I stayed at the home of two very kind people, now deceased: Naser Amini and his wife Maryam. They shared a “roushan fekr” attitude, which in Farsi means “enlightened thinking.” The family were ethnic Uzbek landowners originally from Maimana in Faryab province, but more recently they had fled the Taliban takeover of Kabul. I spent a lot of time with their five children who were then teens or young adults.

The oldest son, Ahmad Tawfiq Amini, now 43 and known as Tawfiq, became the mayor of Mazar-i Sharif on March 2. Trained as a civil engineer, Amini is a burly, confident man with a sly sense of humor who looks like the contractor he was for many years. His wife is a teacher and he has supported his sisters’ efforts to graduate from university, and has sent his daughters to private school and university.

Mazar has always been a safer place than Kabul—the Taliban has little local backing in this multiethnic city, where Dari-speaking Tajiks are the single largest group and there are significant numbers of Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazaras. The last 20 years have brought many positive changes. The long-term provincial strongman, Atta Muhammed, has presided over a corrupt but efficient and business- friendly administration. Mazar is just 34 miles from the Uzbek border crossing of Termez, which is a source of abundant customs revenue. Now the population is around 1,000,000 and the city has tall buildings and an international airport—and most middle-class residents have smart phones with Internet access.

But the area also has more violence. For some years it has no longer been possible for government officials or foreigners to drive safely between Kabul and Mazar, something I probably did a dozen times in the past. While the Afghan government controls both cities, the Taliban has a presence in between.

Amini has also had a brush with danger since becoming mayor. On April 10, his oldest daughter called, telling me that the handcart mafia had burned his car.

Amini and I spoke on WhatsApp after I sent him questions—he reads and understands English better than he speaks it. As a result, this transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ann Marlowe: So how did you become mayor of Mazar?

Tawfiq Amini: I am not elected by people. It’s a different system: This job was announced on the government website for everyone to apply. I applied and I was selected for the interview; when I passed the interview I was asked to give a presentation. As an engineer, I had enough experience working in the city that I was able to explain about my plans for the future of this city. Luckily within 24 hours I confirmed that I got the job. My term is two years.

Marlowe: And your responsibilities as mayor?

Amini: As a mayor, my responsibility is to keep the infrastructure safe and clean, I also try to create job opportunities for people who do not have jobs. We have about 100 jobs reserved for poor people and these jobs pay 5,000 afghanis per month (about $64). My goals are to help people and hear their stories and their needs. There are poor people whose land was taken away from them illegally. I am helping them to get their land back and also working on reducing the corruption in the city.

Marlowe: Does the United States provide any financial support to the city?

Amini: Since I started working as mayor I have not received any help from the United States government.

Marlowe: How about NGOs?

Amini: UN-Habitat has been working here for about four years registering houses [establishing a land titling system that enables the collection of taxes]. Maybe 60 percent or 65 percent of houses are now registered. An average house maybe pays 1,500 afghanis ($19) a year in taxes.

Marlowe: What is the amount of the annual budget of Mazar city?

Amini: It is about 100,000,000 afghanis ($1.28 million) per year depending on how many taxes we get.The money comes from taxes (including customs duties).

Marlowe: Do you think it is better that the Americans go or that the Americans stay?

Amini: It is better to stay. The economic situation might be bad after they leave. But we Afghans have to stand up and build our country. I know America has been great support during the last 20 years, but now it’s time for all Afghan ethnic groups to come together to be united and fight for their rights and bring peace to their country, and take responsibility. I believe that Afghans are the only ones who can solve their problems.

I hope that Afghanistan does not fall back to the hands of the Taliban. People are already so tired of war, they are so thirsty for peace and stability.

Marlowe: Do you think there is a high chance of the Taliban taking over Mazar?

Amini: No, only about a 10 percent chance. The people in the city are not liking the Taliban. The Taliban are in the villages.

Marlowe: Are there any American or other foreign troops stationed near Mazar?

Amini: Yes, at Marmul camp in Mazar, near the airport. They do not come into the city.

Marlowe: What changes will happen in Mazar when the Americans leave?

Amini: Well the American troops have already decreased. I don’t think there will be a major change as we are aware that the Afghan National Army is getting ready to take responsibility for the security of the city and country. We are hoping and expecting that government will come up with a plan to keep the people safe.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems? Why could they not defeat the Taliban?

Amini: Great questions. Ann, what Americans did not understand about Afghans is the history and culture of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a complex history and also is a country where religion is a powerful social force. Americans did not understand the culture of Afghans, the values that they hold. If the country is profoundly rooted in tradition and religion, it’s hard to introduce the idea of democracy.

Also Afghanistan is a multiethnic and predominantly tribal country. Every tribe has its leader, and people listen to their leader more than the government. There are always conflicts between different tribes, which can be one reason why the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems because it is hard to understand the cultural concept of each ethnic group.

Also, lack of education: The literacy rate in Afghanistan is the lowest in the world. [Afghanistan, with an adult literacy rate of 43 percent, is one of the handful of least literate countries in the world according to the World Bank. The literacy rate is now about double what it was in 1980.] That puts the country in a different danger. Afghanistan is one country that depends on foreign aid, and America has played a significant role in helping Afghanistan.

About why could they not defeat the Taliban: Geographically Afghanistan is located in central Asia where some neighbors of Afghanistan are interfering with Afghan policy, such as Pakistan, Iran, and their relationship with them.

Marlowe: What does Afghanistan need for the future?

Amini: I have seven children—five daughters and two sons, and I am very proud of them. My oldest daughter is studying medicine. My son is studying engineering.

This is what my country needs: more young people to study and help their country.

We Should Be Paying More Attention to Somalia…so should Rep. Omar

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Originally published in The Bulwark, March 22 2019:

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If you care about Somalia, this isn’t a good time. The local al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, remains active and effective, despite or perhaps because of a dramatic spike in U.S. airstrikes ordered by President Trump under loosened rules of engagement in March 2017.

In the first two months of 2019, United States Africa Command killed 225 people in 24 airstrikes targeting al-Shabab, the New York Times reported earlier this month. The air war seems to have substituted for a joined-up approach that might have a chance at stabilizing Somalia.

Stephen Schwartz, United States ambassador to Somalia from 2016 to 2017, told the New York Times, “It could be there is some well-thought-out strategy behind all of this, but I really doubt it.” Until December, the United States hadn’t had a resident ambassador in Somalia since 1991; it was simply too dangerous.

The U.S. and other Western powers are trying to help the federal government bring order to the country, but to little effect. In July, the European Parliament noted that “state actors” as well as non-state actors were responsible for human rights abuses in Somalia and that there have been extrajudicial executions, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions and abductions; whereas according to the UN Human Rights Office, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) of Somalia routinely violates international human rights law; whereas it often operates in an extrajudicial manner and its powers are too broad;

The Parliament also stated, “according to Transparency International, Somalia is the most corrupt country in the world.”

Somalia needs some friends in Congress. Where is someone who can suggest something more creative than airstrikes, someone who can call the Trump administration policy to account? What about Ilhan Omar, the outspoken freshman representative from Minneapolis who was born in Somalia and elected with the help of Minneapolis’ large Somali population? (Around 74,000 Somalis have moved to or been resettled in Minnesota in the last couple of decades.) As a new member of the 47-member House Foreign Affairs Committee she might have some influence.

Yet Rep. Omar has tweeted a grand total of one time about Somalia since taking her seat, in the context of the firestorm over her attacks on Israel, claiming she would not hesitate to criticize any government, including Somalia’s or our own. But Rep Omar has not criticized Somalia’s government that I can find, nor engaged with U.S. policy there. In fact, she’s tweeted about Somalia just 15 times since January 2014 and most of these mentions were very superficial.

Ilhan Omar is ignoring her chance to be a much-needed voice for Somalia, and especially for Somalia’s women, 98 percent of whom experience FGM , according to UNICEF estimates. Instead, she’s expended much political capital posturing on Israel, which has earned her considerable backlash and led, in a meandering fashion, to a House resolution condeming anti-Semitism and other bigotry.

This is especially odd because a close ally of Donald Trump has been a major player in Somalia, someone a Democrat should relish attacking; someone many Republicans regard as unhinged, unwise, and remorseless: Erik Prince, brother of Education SecretaryBetsy DeVos and self-proclaimed Trumpworld insider, close associate of Steve Bannon and George Nader, using Chinese and Emirati funds to create companies in Somalia.

In fact, in June 2017, three months after Trump approved looser rules on airstrikes, Prince’s Frontier Services Group (FSG), announced a contract to provide “logistics, aviation and security services” for a development project in a new state in Somalia, the South West State.

Robert Young Pelton – who conducted Prince’s first major interview in 2004 for his book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, points out that Prince is a Chinese proxy as well as a UAE proxy in the Horn of Africa. A Chinese state entity, CITIC, has a 20 percent stake in Prince’s Frontier Services Group.

In a recent Al Jazeera TV Head to Head interview with a notably hostile Mehdi Hasan, Prince made his extensive involvement in Somalia clear, saying that he was at the January 2017 Seychelles meeting with UAE and Russian nationals that Special Counsel Mueller is investigating, to talk about “Somalia and some of the other problem areas we’d helped with”. (That happens near the 34-minute mark.) . To an American, the Seychelles may seem like the middle of nowhere, but they are little more than 800 miles from Mogadishu. (My own take on Prince in the Seychelles is here.)

Prince’s influence in Somalia stems from his UAE backing; when Blackwater came under legal pressure in the years following its 2007 massacre of Iraqi civilians, Prince re-located to the UAE, where he still maintains a home. And the UAE has exerted its influence in what it perceives as its backyard.

One Somali-American expert says, “UAE training of elements of the Somalia National Army – including units trained by Prince – has been counterproductive because these units have been perceived as loyal to the foreign backers who finance them. They have been a magnet for attacks not only by al Shabab but by clan militia. These units have different uniforms and have better equipment. Sometimes they have gotten into exchanges of fire with regular units and civilian casualties have resulted.”

Pelton also noted Prince’s failed projects in Somalia: “When he left the U.S. in 2010, Prince attempted to set up a still-born presidential guard in Mogadishu and a failed anti piracy police force in Puntland.” Puntland is a semi-autonomous state that has tried unsuccessfully to win recognition as an autonomous state.

The New York Times published a scathing account of the Puntland effort in October 2012. Prince’s shell company, Sterling Corporate Services was criticized by the United Nations as a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the UN arms embargo on Somalia. After incidents involving beatings of trainees and a death, Sterling pulled out suddenly when one of its trainers was shot dead by a trainee:

with the antipiracy army now abandoned by its sponsors, the hundreds of half-trained and well-armed members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force have been left to fend for themselves at a desert camp carved out of the sand, perhaps to join up with the pirates or Qaeda-linked militants or to sell themselves to the highest bidder in Somalia’s clan wars — yet another dangerous element in the Somali mix.

So why isn’t Rep. Omar trying to do something to help Somalia? Why her silence on Prince?

Perhaps Rep. Omar is biding her time, planning on using her perch in the Foreign Affairs Committee to contribute to the dialogue on Somalia once she has more seniority (but Omar’s tweets on Israel don’t suggest that she is the patient type.) It should be noted that Omar hasn’t ignored the Horn of Africa completely; she was part of a recent House delegation to Eritrea, a nasty pariah state that has lately made peace with Ethiopia. Omar’s office declined to comment for this article.

What is Omar’s family’s history and how does it fit in the complex fabric of Somalia politics? On her father’s side, she is a member of the large, powerful Majerteen clan, which has a power base in Puntland. However, being Majerteen need not mean much given that Omar grew up in Mogadishu and left Somalia at the age of 8.

But there are hints of Omar’s loyalties. In March 2013, as a private citizen, Omar supported the creation of Jubbaland, a new state in Somalia bordering Kenya:

“Kismayo (the capital of Jubbaland) offered refuge for me as a child running from war in the capital Mogadishu, and it has since been a place of unimagined violence. I was excited to celebrate its liberation and look forward to one day returning there as peace prevails. To my relatives still residing in Kismayo, I would like to congratulate them and urge them to not lose sight of this amazing opportunity to secure peace and prosperity.”

Others take a less benign view of Jubbaland, pointing out that it is a Kenyan puppet state set up to control the port of Kismayo, where Kenyan smugglers operate. With this in mind, consider what Omar told Minneapolis Citypages in 2016 about her family’s fleeing Somalia in 1991: “My family chose to go to Kenya because my grandfather had contacts there.”Citypages reported,“Omar’s paternal grandfather Somalia’s National Marine Transport director. Abukar oversaw the string of lighthouses along the Arabian Sea coastline.”

So, by her own account Omar’s family had some pull in Kenya, and she might well feel grateful to Kenya and its satellite state, Jubbaland, for taking in her family as refugees.

Perhaps Omar doesn’t want to raise the specter of her own potential dual allegiances, given that she has made so much noise about AIPAC and Jewish American politicians. But given her general lack of reticence to speak up despite her newcomer status, and given that she could be advocating for policies that would benefit both the United States and her home country, her silence is curious.

Ann Marlowe
Ann Marlowe is a writer and businesswoman in New York. She tweets at @annmarlowe.

The Counterinsurgent (review of Max Boot’s biography of Edward Lansdale)

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

originally published in The Weekly Standard, Jan 15 2018 (

The mixed legacy of Edward Lansdale.
1:55 PM, JAN 07, 2018 | By ANN MARLOWE

“You dirty son of a bitch.  .  . somebody’s got to beat you up and I hereby appoint myself.” Thus Edward Lansdale recalled addressing the CIA station chief in Saigon in the mid-1950s, when Lansdale was a CIA operative under cover of assistant air attaché at the American embassy. Whether or not his memory was exact—he recounted this anecdote in an interview three decades after the fact—the gist of the story is certainly correct: Lansdale was far from a natural fit in bureaucracies. He thrived only in informal settings, a trait that shaped his career and led to his contribution to American military history: as a pioneering practitioner of what are now known as counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques.

Born in 1908 to an automotive executive and his homemaker wife, Edward G. Lansdale spent his childhood in Detroit, then in Westchester County, then Los Angeles. He was a mediocre student—although he did well enough in high school to get into UCLA in 1927, majoring in English. The campus had only opened eight years earlier, so the friendly, talkative Lansdale had a chance to help start new institutions, including a satirical magazine, a fraternity chapter, and an ROTC unit. His grades were so bad that he couldn’t graduate after four years, so he quit school and moved to New York, hoping to make it as a writer or cartoonist.

It was not a great moment to find such work—the Depression was on—but Lansdale did manage to find a wife, Helen Batcheller, a pretty and reserved woman seven years his senior. Giving up on New York, the couple moved to California in 1935, where Lansdale got a start in advertising when one of his brothers offered him a job. The nascent advertising industry proved a good fit for Lansdale’s strategic intelligence, excellent writing skills, and personal brashness, but after Pearl Harbor, he burned to join the military. His efforts to enlist in the Army were rebuffed because of a minor medical condition, but a few months later he found a route to wartime service: in the Office of Strategic Services, a newly created intelligence agency. It was the perfect situation for a smart, charming, creative, untamed individual like Lansdale. Based in San Francisco and New York, he gathered intelligence and recruited agents, and was good enough at the work to earn promotions and to remain after the war’s end at OSS and its successor entities: the Office of Policy Coordination, a highly secret, fast-growing group created in 1948 and tasked with acting on intelligence analysis, and the Central Intelligence Agency, which soon absorbed OPC. (From 1947 until 1963, Lansdale was officially in the Air Force, working on assignment at these intel agencies.)

Lansdale’s historical importance is due to his successful-for-a-while counterinsurgency practices and to his accomplishments as a sherpa (or puppet master, depending on one’s view) to Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines and Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam. Both were doomed figures. The engaging Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash in March 1957 and a few years later Ferdinand Marcos began his two decades of kleptocratic rule in the Philippines. The more-problematic Diem was assassinated with tacit American approval in 1963, and of course South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975. The question for historians is whether things might have turned out differently in either case.

Max Boot, the military historian, policy expert, and opinion journalist, is a prominent supporter of COIN strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, so Lansdale is a natural subject for him. The Road Not Taken, Boot’s thumping new biography of Lansdale, will appeal to anyone interested in the debates over the effectiveness of COIN.

For most readers, though, the question will be whether they should crack open a big new book—600 pages, plus notes—about a marginal figure when there already exists a well-written 1988 biography. Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American by the late Cecil B. Currey, an Army reserve chaplain, weighs in at a comparatively slender 350 pages. Currey had the advantage of interviewing Lansdale in person in 1984—the quotation at the beginning of this review comes from one of Currey’s interviews—as well as other individuals who are now long dead. (His book boasts an introduction by former CIA director William Colby.)

Both biographers mainly rely on the same sources—and Lansdale’s was a well-documented life. (While working on a research project at the Hoover Institution, I myself read boxes of Lansdale’s letters and dispatches from the Philippines.) Boot emphasizes that, unlike Currey, he has had access to Lansdale’s letters both to his wife and to Pat Kelly, Lansdale’s longtime Filipina mistress. Indeed, Boot is the only person besides Lansdale to have read both sets of letters.

This is a fair point, since Lansdale’s long relationship with the smart, brave, and spirited Kelly was a huge and defining part of his personal life. Their affair began in 1946, and Lansdale tried to get his wife to agree to a divorce, but the proper, Christian Science-devoted Helen refused, and the marriage lasted until her death in 1972. Soon after Helen died, Lansdale and Kelly, who had often gone years without seeing each other, were married. By drawing on the lovers’ correspondence, Boot’s book gives us a much fuller picture of Lansdale the man. Yet it’s still an open question whether Lansdale’s letters to Kelly add much to our understanding of his professional life and his contributions to counterinsurgency theory and practice. I was struck by how much his letters home to his wife and family were written with an eye to a larger readership, more like blog posts than personal letters. Even writing to Kelly, once past the obligatory mild sexual innuendos, Lansdale was relentlessly on message about the Philippine situation. Perhaps the biggest divergence between the public and private Lansdale papers is in his occasional candor in the latter about how bad the situation in South Vietnam really was.

* *

Half adman, half spook; an accomplished writer who never finished college; an Air Force major general who never fought a battle—what is it that made Lansdale a “counterinsurgent par excellence,” as Boot calls him, whose “practices could be emulated by contemporary advisers in countries ranging from Mali to Mexico”? If we are to draw lessons for today’s counterinsurgency efforts from Lansdale’s record, it is worth looking closely at just how replicable his practices are.

Col. Lansdale and Philippine defense minister Ramon Magsaysay in October 1952, on an inspection of the Philippine countryside. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
Boot ably takes us through Lansdale’s career in the Philippines. His first stint, from roughly 1945 to 1948, was spent composing reports based on his observations of the country and then working as a public affairs officer. During his second stint, from 1950 to 1954, he was personal adviser to Philippine defense secretary Ramon Magsaysay. Drawing on Lansdale’s creativity and adman’s insight into what moves people, as well as Magsaysay’s credentials as a patriot and man of the people, the inseparable pair began to experiment with what we would now call “population-centric” counterinsurgency techniques to use against the Communist Huk rebellion then underway. They arranged food deliveries for farmers that the Huks exploited; they had soldiers hand out candy to children; they promised land to defecting guerrillas. They engaged in psychological warfare, manipulating superstitions and suspicions. These techniques, combined with more conventional military measures, destroyed the insurgency. Lansdale then strove in a thousand ways to have Magsaysay elected president in 1953, which he was. There followed a period of reasonably good government, sadly short lived.

Lansdale in 1953, on his first trip to Vietnam. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
Meanwhile, in 1953, while still working in the Philippines, Lansdale made his first trip to Vietnam. He moved there in June 1954, staying through 1956, with shorter postings ending in 1968. Lansdale brought with him a successful template from the defeat of the Huks. The only problem was each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way.

In Vietnam, Henry Kissinger wrote in 1965, Lansdale seemed to rely too much on Philippine precedents “no longer fully relevant”:

The Philippine Insurrection has as many points of difference from the Vietnamese civil war as similarities to it. In the Philippines the insurrection had never reached the scale of the war in Vietnam. There was no foreign base for the guerrillas. The indigenous government was much stronger. There was a tradition of working with Americans. The situation in Vietnam is much more complex, much less susceptible to bravura, individual efforts.

If Kissinger was right—and military historians have been arguing similar questions almost since the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict began—then the subtitle of Boot’s book, Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, is a misapprehension. Maybe there was no American tragedy in Vietnam. Not every error is a tragedy. Maybe Lansdale could have done nothing to stop the Communist takeover.

Boot’s observations certainly turn more critical as the book progresses, and by the time his narrative reaches the fall of Saigon, his belief in the Lansdale magic wanes:

Would the course of the conflict have been different if Lansdale’s advice had been heeded? There is, of course, no way to know. .  .  . South Vietnam might not have survived even if Lansdale had enjoyed more success in implementing his agenda; North Vietnam would have been a tough and determined adversary under any circumstances, with more will to win than the United States had.

And, Boot adds, Lansdale was “downright delusional” to suggest that a proper American psychological-operations campaign against Hanoi could have led to the overthrow of the North Vietnamese politburo.

Boot gives short shrift to the most successful U.S. counterinsurgency program, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), which is understandable given that it started in May 1967 and Lansdale left Vietnam for the last time in June 1968. But CORDS, which aimed at engaging the rural population through improved security and state institutions so that it would support the government of South Vietnam, is Exhibit A for those historians who maintain that the United States tried counterinsurgency tactics and still came up short.

Boot’s decision to largely leave aside the extensive scholarly debate about whether and how the United States could have won in Vietnam is an odd omission for a writer on military doctrine, especially one making the case that we should today be doing more to emulate the actions of his subject. Could a COIN-centric strategy have worked in Vietnam? There is a current in recent scholarship, exemplified by Dale Andradé’s influential 2008 article “Westmoreland Was Right,” that argues that a concerted COIN campaign would not have succeeded:

The strategy conducted by the North Vietnamese was arguably like no other in history. It was the epitome of insurgencies: a combination of large main force units, a well-entrenched guerrilla movement with deep roots in the South Vietnamese countryside, and the support of two powerful sponsors—China and the Soviet Union. All of this, combined with the ability to attack South Vietnam over and over again, with no threat of a serious retaliation, was an unprecedented advantage. To simply argue that the U.S. military ignored pacification does not begin to address the problem of countering such a threat.

As Andradé goes on to note, each of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam commanders was “caught on the horns of the same dilemma”: Gen. William Westmoreland “concentrated on the main forces and failed to prevent a guerrilla offensive in 1968,” and Gen. Creighton Abrams “placed great emphasis on pacification and failed to prevent a conventional buildup in 1972.” Neither commander, Andradé writes, “had the resources or the opportunity to handle both threats simultaneously.”

Lansdale himself grew dubious about whether American efforts could succeed in Vietnam. Boot quotes a letter Lansdale sent his wife in October 1965:

I’m scared to tell everyone how really bad it is. .  .  . What has happened here is that after 20 years of war almost all the tensile strength has gone out of the social fabric. Military operations just make it limper. The village folks just don’t seem to give a damn about anything except to please be left alone.

This insightful remark, from one of the leading lights of COIN, acknowledges that COIN is limited by human and social nature—by the receptiveness of the population.

Lansdale on a visit to the remote Vietnamese village of Binh Hung in early 1961. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
And of course counterinsurgency strategy is also limited in the other direction: by the abilities of the people attempting it. Nothing Boot says about Lansdale contradicts the criticism that COIN can only work so long as charismatic leaders practice it, and that it doesn’t work when mediocre leaders do. Here is Boot:

How different history might have been if Lansdale or a Lansdale-like figure had remained close enough to Diem to exercise a benign influence and offset the paranoid counsel of his brother.

Saying that Lansdale had a unique ability to get along with Diem and that had Diem stayed in power he could have saved Vietnam is not the same thing as saying that Lansdale’s or anyone’s practice of COIN would have saved Vietnam from Communist takeover. And if Lansdale was the only person who could manage Diem, I’d conclude not that Vietnam would have been better if President Kennedy had assigned Lansdale the job of resident Diem wrangler, which seems to be Boot’s position, but that Vietnam needed someone other than Diem.

A similar example of the dependence of counterinsurgency techniques on the all-too-rare alignment of practitioner and population can be found in the story of perhaps the most brilliant COIN theorist of them all, Lansdale’s French contemporary David Galula. He concludes his beautifully written military memoir Pacification in Algeria by casually informing us that his two successors in company command were promptly shot dead by the “pacified” villagers of the Kabylie. (His immediate predecessor met the same end.) Not much of a success if you only make your area of operations safe for yourself.

* *

Lansdale’s career was essentially over when he left Vietnam for the last time in June 1968 at the age of 60. As Boot makes clear, this was due to his personality: “In his attempts to influence American leaders, Lansdale lacked the deft touch he displayed in dealing with foreign leaders.”

Lansdale could be inspiring; men who worked for him tended to want to continue to work for him for decades. “I’ve met a handful of people in my life who have this particular genius for dealing with human beings in ways that make them feel dignified,” Walt Rostow said of him. Kissinger called Lansdale “a man of extraordinary gifts” and “an artist in dealing with Asians.”

Yet Lansdale stumbled again and again with the American ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CIA honchos, and—to a lesser extent—military commanders he had to work with in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Washington. Frustratingly, his good ideas were often overlooked because of his underlying resentment of having to operate in formal, structured, hierarchical organizations. Boot comments perceptively that Lansdale “viewed the bureaucracy as an enemy and, by so doing, turned it into one.”

My hunch is that Lansdale was not threatened by the two leaders who adored him, Magsaysay and Diem, because both had elements of the underdog about them—but he constantly found himself fighting with other Americans for alpha-male status. Rather than my hunch, I would prefer to have Boot’s thoughts on this matter, and in a book this length a few pages of psychologizing would have been perfectly in order, but none are to be found.

* *

Throughout The Road Not Taken, Boot briefly mentions memorable cultural and political events contemporaneous with the stories he’s telling. But he shies away from exploring the broader cultural context for Lansdale’s ideas about counterinsurgency.

Boot does note that advertising—the field in which Lansdale worked through the late 1930s—was where he learned “many of the skills that he would later employ as a CIA operative.” Sure, persuading American housewives to buy a certain brand of soap powder is in some ways similar to persuading Southeast Asian villagers to support a certain political party; a catchy jingle might help in either case. But Boot’s book could have used some discussion of the emerging business of advertising and the theories that Lansdale would have been exposed to as a young adman and exactly how they might have shaped not only Lansdale’s but other American military men’s ideas in the 1950s.

Currey is only a little better than Boot on this, quoting Lansdale in 1950 when he was teaching psychological warfare at the Pentagon to Philippine Army officers training in the United States. “All you have to figure out,” Lansdale said, “is what you want the enemy to do and then use psychological means to get them to do it.” No 18th-century commander could have said such a thing, but neither biographer gives us the context to really understand the importance of psychology to changes in strategic thought.

As for military doctrine, the growing cultural relativism of the fifties and sixties surely has a great deal to do with the Kennedy administration’s openness to COIN. In 1957, soon after Lansdale finished his first stint in Vietnam, Marcel Duchamp wrote: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” The same tide that raised the boat of Duchamp raised that of counterinsurgency theory. COIN is also largely about perceptions; it’s the Vietnamese villager’s perception that counts.

Such ideas were in increasingly wide circulation during the Vietnam era. Edward L. Katzenbach, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, wrote in 1962, “Although Mao never states it quite this way .  .  . his fundamental belief is that only those who will admit defeat can be defeated. .  .  . Or, conversely, when the populace admits defeat, the forces in the field might just as well surrender or withdraw.” Marine lieutenant general Victor Krulak, who ran one of the few successful small-unit counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam, echoed that sentiment: “The battlefield is in the minds of 16 or 17 million people.”

This perspectivalism is invaluable in small doses; it can aid critical thinking and can helpfully remind strategists of the importance of seeing events from others’ eyes. But if it dominates strategic thinking it can lead to disaster. In a brilliant, widely debated 2009 article, “A Strategy of Tactics,” whose title became a shorthand for the American problem in Afghanistan, military historian Gian Gentile argued:

In the American Army’s new way of war, tactics—that is, the carrying out of the “way”—have utterly eclipsed strategy. .  .  . Because the United States has “principilized” population-centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.

Perhaps Boot decided his own views were sufficiently well known, with many articles and a book on counterinsurgency already under his belt, and so chose to leave them on the margins. But The Road Not Taken—an interesting book, written in prose that’s clear and well crafted—would have been much richer if Boot had engaged in this debate over the limitations of COIN.

It may sound odd to speak of so large a biography as halfhearted, but there it is: Boot seems charmed by but ultimately ambivalent about his subject. On Lansdale’s professional life, Boot is too narrowly focused on the task at hand, marshaling all the facts, to explore the intellectual and cultural context of his subject’s ideas. And for all the quoting from Lansdale’s letters, his personality still seems somehow elusive. But perhaps this is how Lansdale, both achingly sincere and a professional dissembler who always had an eye on posterity, would have wanted it.