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Nov 30

Written by: Diana West
Wednesday, November 30, 2011 6:55 AM 

Photo by Paul Avallone


Since I can't quite get over the latest on Greg Mortenson, I went back to examining the disgraced author-guru's unrenounced, unrepudiated impact on US COIN strategy in Afghanistan, a large subject I've touched on before. In a nutshell, as written here:

Mortenson's unusual life as counselor to generals started back in September 2007, when then-Lt. Col. Christopher D. Kolenda "reached out" to him. Kolenda's wife had sent "Three Cups" to Kolenda in Afghanistan where, as the New York Times put it, "Kolenda knew well the instructions about building relationships with elders that were in the Army and Marine Corps' new counterinsurgency manual, which had been released in late 2006. But 'Three Cups of Tea' brought the lessons to life."

By the end of 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported, Mortenson was in the Pentagon for a private meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. By the summer of 2009, Mortenson had met with Mullen several times, Mortenson wrote on his blog, "to consult on new approaches to strategic policy in Afghanistan." And "in the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's command in Afghanistan" last year, the Times reported somewhat breathlessly, Mortenson was among those the general "reached out" to via email en route from Kabul to Washington. This, the Times wrote, showed the extent to which military leaders "have increasingly turned to Mortenson ... to help translate the theory of counterinsurgency into tribal realities on the ground."

Today, I found more evidence. Here, Three Cups of Tea appears on an official Army pre-deployment reading list (along with the works of master COINster David Kilcullen).

In Mortenson's October 2010 book Stones for Schools, he writes: "To my honor, Three Cups of Tea is now required reading for all officers enrolled in counterinsurgency courses at the Pentagon."

Is that still the case?

Granted, we must take the source with a grain of salt, but the proof may be in the briefing --  a Pentagon news briefing of November 23, 2010 via teleconference from Camp Mike Spann in Mazar -e-Sharif, Afghanistan. The briefer was Colonel Bill Burleson, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, and one year ago he was definitely was touting Three Cups of Tea as truth, if not also Truth.

No update since on whether Col. Burleson has in the meantime leafed  through Jon Krakauer's Three Cups of Deceit.

From the briefing:

Q     Missy Ryan from Reuters.  I have a somewhat related question, and forgive me if this has already been addressed, because I got here late.  But I know that General Petraeus issued revised counterinsurgency guidance when he arrived in Afghanistan, and I'm wondering if you can tell me anything about whether there have been practical changes in the outcomes that we're seeing in counterinsurgency and whether you on the ground are seeing any sort of visible progress in the producing of the goals that we're looking for in our counterinsurgency strategy.

COL. BURLESON:  You know, the updated guidance really added to the previous guidance or refined some areas that maybe were a little bit generalized.  But fundamentally, the -- what we do, you know, day- to-day basis and those fundamentals of counterinsurgency, I think, have really not changed.  They ring true -- they rang true earlier in the year.  They ring true now.  And I think, you know, it kind of goes with what I just talked about, is how do you connect the people to their government and their security forces?

Good question. But is that our business, let alone within mortal power?

Part of it is protecting the population.  The other part of it is, is understanding the culture here in this country, which, you know, I think is probably of tremendous importance for anybody preparing to come, is understanding the importance of relationships in this country.  I mean, a lot of people cite, you know, the book "Three Cups of Tea" as an example of Afghan culture and society, and truthfully, after having read it several times, I believe it.  

It is -- it is about establishment of relationships and having not just -- I don't think you should have cultural awareness:  you need to have cultural understanding.  It needs to be a level deeper than awareness, because it's so incredibly important in this country.  

And so when you do that -- and that's kind of part of -- part of his guidance, is to understand and -- understand the culture and how your actions affect both positively and negatively the perception with the population.  Because it's not just about eliminating the security threat, it is, again, about connecting the people to their government and to their security forces.

It could be that the hubris of COIN is even greater than its madness.

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