31 March 2010

Two More Lessons from 'Three Cups of Tea'

This Red Bull Rising post is the third of three regarding Greg Mortenson's book, "Three Cups of Tea." Page-numbers, again, are from the 2006 Penguin trade-paperback edition.

Two more lessons I derived from reading Mortenson's book, which regards the power of building non-religious coeducational schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, regard observations about how we fight. In one case, I'm talking about "We, the American people" and our allies. In another, I'm talking about "We, the American military."

Bonus "Three Cups" Lesson No. 1:
The bad guys are in it for the long haul--are we?

Mortenson describes his despair at finding schools that teach Wahhabism--an extremist forms of Islam--sprouting up like weeds, potentially choking out his grassroots school-building efforts of his privately funded Central Asia Institute.
"Thinking about the Wahhabi strategy made my head spin," Mortenson says. "This wasn't just a few Arab sheikhs getting off Gulf Air flights with bags of cash. They were bringing the brightest madrassa students back to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for a decade of indoctrination, then encouraging them to take four wives when they came home and breed like rabbits."

Apo calling Wahhabi madressas beehives is exactly right. They're churning out generation after generations of brainwashed students and thinking twenty, forty, even sixty years ahead to a time when there armies of extremism will have the numbers to swarm over Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world." (p. 244-245)
Americans tend to the go for the quick-fix and the big payoff. We barely have enough institutional or collective memory to remember last year, much less last decade. We are very easily distracted from our long-term strategic objectives by shiny objects and populist squirrels. The people and the leaders we elect are talking about military, political, and economic commitments in terms of years. We should be talking decades. Rome wasn't built in a day, after all, and the Romans probably had more to work with.

Bonus "Three Cups" Lesson No. 2:
Beware the laptop Army.

In his book, Mortenson (a former Army medic) describes walking the halls of the Pentagon:
"What I remember most is that the people we passed didn't make eye contact," Mortenson says. "They walked quickly, most of them clutching laptops under there arms, speeding toward their next task like missles, like there wasn't time to look at me. And I remember thinking that this didn't have anything to do with the military I knew. This was a laptop army." (p. 293)

[W]alking toward a room where Mortenson was scheduled to brief top military planners, he wondered how the distance that he felt in the Pentagon affected the decisions make in the building. How would his feelings about the conduct the war change if everything he'd just seen, the boys who ahd lost there potato salesman father, the girls with the blowing-over blackboard, and all the wounded attempting to walk the streets of Kabul with the pieces of limbs the land mines and cluster-bombs had left them, were just numbers on a laptop screen? (p. 294)
It's a counterinsurgency (COIN) rule-of-thumb that you've got to get out of your uparmored Humvee, take off your sunglasses, and engage people face-to-face. You can't win hearts-and-minds through a windshield, any more than you can do so from a aircraft cockpit, or through a video-game back in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC).

Earlier this week, my buddies and I completed a very basic put-the-TOC-together classes and practical exercises. Our heads and eyes are still spinning, after attempting to wrap our heads around "Battle Command System of Systems," which includes computers and tents and generators and viewscreens. Our circus-like Big Top tents are like build-it-yourself spaceships: They're air-conditioned and heated, and the florescent lights erase the arc of the sun. If you didn't have to leave for the occasional latrine break, you might lose all sense of time and place.

And that's the danger I see for us as soldiers, and for our commanders. That we'll begin to think that having all these push-button video loops and data feeds actually means something more than the dirty reality on the ground. Rather than being replaced by tactical teleconferencing and virtual meetings, so-called "battlefield circulation" of commanders and command sergeants major is going to be key to mission success. My combat Engineer buddies have a saying: "Sometimes, you gotta get out of the Buffalo"--a reference to the heavily armored vehicles they use to hunt and clear Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).

I think I'm going to have to come up with a TOC-rat equivalent: "Sometimes, you gotta walk out of the TOC."

1 comment:

  1. Greg's was the first book that I read. I found it excellent, and was wondering the same things.

    I think by and large, that the statement by President Obama to pull out by July 2011, was populist politics. I don't think that he --or anyone has a real plan in place to be there for the long haul.

    The best articles I've read have been by Tim Lynch (BabaTim) of Free Range Int'l. He has the long range view in place, and also the frustration of seeing this "lap top" Army.

    And I might say, not only that, but this 8 -5 war. Anyway, yes, there is loads to be concerned about. I think COIN in many circles is greatly discounted. And yet, the way I see it ...winning the "heart and minds" or rather in my thought being the more convenient alternative is going to take time.

    I mean, be real. There are generations who have been schooled by madrassas. If all they've been taught is that we're evil, then we have a long haul before us. And it'll take patience, time, a few mistakes and unfortunately, the loss of lives.

    Let's put it this way: less laptop, more hands on learning, listening,and being there.


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