Culinary Models Of Counterinsurgency

goatBy Spencer Ackerman

The Marines of Task Force Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province today undertook one of the largest Marine operations since Vietnam, designed to take territory away from the Taliban’s shadow government in the south and create an opening to extend the writ of the Kabul government. Here’s what Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the task force commander, instructed his Marines, according to Rajiv Chandrasekaran:

“Our success in this environment will be very much predicated on restraint,” he told a group of officers from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines on Sunday. “You’re going to drink lots of tea. You’re going to eat lots of goat. Get to know the people. That’s the reason why we’re here.”

That’s a pungent quote, but it’s also got some utility as an actual counterinsurgency metric. One of the things that struck me when I embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is how little local food I ate. When I met some friends for drinks in April 2007 after coming a month in Baghdad and Mosul, one of the first questions I got was about local Iraqi delicacies. Man, I said, I ate king crab legs with a plastic fork on a huge base around the Baghdad airport, courtesy of KBR. Or rather I tried, since you can’t eat king crab legs with a plastic fork.When I went unembedded in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2006, I got the real deal, a wonderful interplay of Persian, Arab, Turkish and other influences, at every meal. Lots of pickled beets. Lots of grilled lamb and fish. Something I’ve never had before or since — tender beef meatballs in a pomegranate and beet broth, almost like a Kurdish version of matzoh ball soup. At the fake Sheraton in Irbil, the second floor hotel features a Chinese restaurant, where  short-order Kurdish cooks interpret Chinese food through their own prism of anise. My chow fun tasted like the end of American hegemony.

You don’t get that on the FOBs, the big U.S. military bases. Instead, you get staples and reminders of home. Burgers. A cold-cut station at lunch. Wings. If it can come out of a freezer bag and deep-fried, you can eat it. I was in Afghanistan for the seventh anniversary of 9/11 and there was a smoked turkey dinner to commemorate the event. Out on the smaller bases, known as Combat Outposts or COPs, there’s grilled cheese and Campbell’s tomato soup. Gatorade is ubiquitous. And I don’t begrudge troops this for a second. If you were deployed halfway around the world in a combat situation for a year and even longer, familiar food is a real emotional comfort.

But there’s a reason that counterinsurgency mantras include Get Off The FOB and Don’t Commute To The Fight. The greater the distance — not just physically, but also culturally — from a populace, the fewer opportunities U.S. troops have to demonstrate to that populace that U.S. actions are in their interest. (That’s not to say that U.S. actions are in their interest, necessarily, but if they are, they’ve got to be demonstrated, and that can’t happen back on the FOB.) One universal trustbuilding measure is to eat and drink with a foreign population. Showing up and eating a foreigner’s food when offered is a clear gesture of respect.

The cavalry troop I embedded with in Paktia Province last year got that. Soldiers walked through a market in a village called Zormat buying fresh produce and meat so their first sergeant could prepare his family’s special pico de gallo. Not only did the market witness U.S. troops asking after their safety and their concerns, but the soldiers also spent money on their wares. Similarly, a Provincial Reconstruction Team I was with in Ninewa Province drove an hour out into the northern-Iraqi wilderness to enjoy a multi-course lunch of roasted chicken and lamb with representatives of a Shabak political party and hear their grievances with the nearby Kurds.

None of which is to say that going locavore is the key to reversing the downward spiral of the Afghanistan war. But if a reversal is possible at this point, lunch with the Pashtun tribesmen is an index of the prospect for such a reversal. Afghans need to be provided with reasons why they ought to bandwagon with the U.S. and its allies against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the only way to provide those reasons is to be among them. And if you’re among them, you’re going to get hungry, so eat that goat.

Photo by Flickr user Sandra Leidholdt.


6 responses to “Culinary Models Of Counterinsurgency

  1. This is one of the most insightful pieces I’ve ever seen in any food blog, on any topic. We remember Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means.” This is the US military doing politics and war at the same time, but politics leads. Hurrah. One can’t imagine this sort of understanding in, say, any village in Viet Nam, ever.

  2. I have long thought that eating a people’s food was a good first step to understanding those people, and an even better step to empathy. There’s something intimate and hind-brain about sharing food- and many cultures have some special place for the bond that comes from ‘breaking bread’ together. I would love to see eating the local food (and patronizing the local markets) become US policy in situations like Afghanistan and Iraq. Well,I’d love to see us butt out of Afghanistan and Iraq, but if we’re going to be there, cultivating that sense of connection and shared humanity seems like the best way to find out what the right thing to do it. Great post.

  3. Pierce R. Butler

    Nice picture, but totally irrelevant to the article. There may somewhere be a mountain goat left alive in Afghanistan, but the ones you’ll find for sale in the market are typically much smaller (and cuter) than the farm goats of the US & Europe.

    As for eating from the local markets, that sounds like a good idea in principle, which would be banned by official orders as soon as it becomes common enough that some local patriot figures out that a few foreign invaders can be safely body-bagged with a judicious use of poison. IIRC, the US Army fired its local cooks in Vietnam after some unpleasant episodes involving ground glass in mess halls.

  4. I dunno. In vietnam we were always keen to buy a local chicken or rice ball. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it seemed “nasty”, but the alternative (in 1970) was GI Food, and it was consistently nasty.

    The SOG spooks always told us grunts that they could smell us because of the food we ate. And they were careful not to eat anything but fish and rice and local food.

    The problem, which I’ve later found it latin america, is poverty. People have to eat appalling crap, and if they break out the good stuff for you out of a sense of hospitality, they’re going to eat even more poorly for months to make up for it. Watch out for the local splurge and make sure you contribute as much as you can to the meal…


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  6. pseudonymous in nc

    Until you checked the story, you’d imagine that Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson was a British man with a particular accent whose Sandhurst education included reference to goat-eating predecessors in the Hindu Kush.

    There’s certainly not the same FOBbit mentality in the British forces (or the same corporate concessions that the Americans have embraced), which is one of the less egregious aspects of colonialism.

    But mikey’s right: the flipside of having the locals break bread with you is the cost and effort on their part, and it has to be done judiciously to avoid people getting annoyed at the famine after the feast.

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