Who is the Wise General in Afghanistan?

In the first treatise written on the art of war sometime around 450 BC [1], Sun Tzu explained why “the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy,”

“Where the army is, prices are high; when prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted. When the peasantry will be afflicted with urgent exactions.”

The commentator, Chia Lin elaborated on Master Sun’s words by saying,

“Where troops are gathered, the price of every commodity goes up because everyone covets the extraordinary profits to be made.”

The militarization of development aid is a central pillar of General Petaeus’s counterinsurgency strategy to buy the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, ninety per cent of whom are spread out in remote rural areas. So it should not be surprising that the military is controlling the bulk of the billions of dollars in aid money flowing into (and being smuggled out of) Afghanistan.

In the very important CounterPunch report on 13 December, Patrick Cockburn, certainly one of the most informed observers of insurgencies in the Middle East and Central Asia, described how the militarization of development aid in Afghanistan is riven with corruption. Reliance on U.S. companies to manage high-cost showcase projects, for example, has produced tiered structures of subcontractors inside Afghanistan who skim off most of the aid money in administration frees, with very little reaching its intended purpose, which in any case, is usually irrelevant to the needs of impoverished locals, some of whom are living on the brink of starvation. The ubiquitous skimming operations are lubricated by the fact that many of these aid projects are in isolated areas, where progress cannot be effectively monitored for security reasons, and where the military has no idea of what the local people really need. Not surprisingly, effectiveness is measured by the time honored American political-military tradition of counting money spent — i.e., by measuring inputs rather than outputs, but this case, instead of tons of bombs dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the metric is tons of money spent to buy the heart and minds of people we are killing accidentally. That these people live in a xenophobic, clan-based, vendetta culture does not seem to have affected Petraeus’s strategic calculus.

Cockburn goes on to explain why the aid is feeding a culture of corruption is working to alienate the people and further destabilize Afghanistan.

In other words, the strategic effect of development aid is to strengthen the Taliban and prolong the insurgency, which under Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, has the happy consequence of increasing the demand for aid dollars even further. The money pumping operation explains, in part, the strategically inane infatuation with never-ending small wars by the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex, notwithstanding Sun Tzu’s admonition that, “what is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.” [2]

Thus, the American taxpayer is faced with an inwardly focused war mongering process which folds back on itself to amplify itself. In the Pentagon, we have a term of art for this kind of never-ending, self-referencing operation: the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy is a “self-licking ice cream cone.”

In context of the wisdom of Master Sun introduced above, Patrick’s description of General Petraeus’s self licking ice cream cone begs the question:

Who is the wise general?

General Petraeus whose counterinsurgency strategy is based on the theory that you can buy hearts and minds by pumping money or Mullah Omar whose insurgency strategy is to feed off that money flow?

Given the ongoing impoverishment of the middle class at home, the ramifications of Sun Tzu’s aphoristic words also apply to President Obama. He would be well advised to ponder Sun Tzu’s question in the upcoming Defense Review. But to do that, Mr. Obama must reach out beyond the groupthink mentality [3] of the closed circle strategic advisors that is feeding him the ice cream.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com


[1] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 74.

[2] Griffith translation, p. 76

[3] Irving Janis, Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos, Houghton Mifflin, 2nd edition, 1983



Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com