Attempts by Petraeus to Turn Soldiers Into Boy Scouts Disingenuous at Best

Be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. That’s the Boy Scout Law. Add be a good guest, stamp out corruption, walk rather than drive, improve governance, and fight the bad guys, and you will have the new code of conduct for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

All together, there are twenty-four precepts in the counterinsurgency guidelines that General Petraeus issued to the troops on August 1. In addition to the ones mentioned above, they include securing the population, acting as a team, partnering with the Afghan Army, and doling out dollars carefully.

In theory, there is something new about these guidelines, which claim to take the general principles of the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual and apply them to the specific situation in Afghanistan. In actuality, the word Afghan has merely replaced the more generic “host-nation,” which, between 2006 and 2008, was almost always understood as Iraq. Like President Obama, Petraeus is toeing the line on Afghanistan. On the one hand, he is staunchly defending the current strategy against a growing number of critics who say we are losing the war. On the other hand, as the most recent code of conduct exemplifies, he is churning out new directives on the operational end of things to ensure his soldiers and everyone else that he is doing something to turn the tide of a failing war.

It is unlikely that this latest set of directives will do anything to improve the situation in Afghanistan. What they do instead is reveal just how disconnected and unrealistic the counterinsurgency strategy there really is. In terms of personal conduct, Petraeus is asking soldiers to behave themselves nobly, as some but probably not most soldiers naturally would. Let’s face it. Most people don’t join the army because they want to be good guests in a foreign country and drink tea with their enemies. The rank-and-file’s recent backlash against courageous restraint is just the most complicated and pressing example of the clash between the character that counterinsurgency demands and the character that defines conventional military culture.

On top of that, the new directives ask soldiers to advance wildly ambitious structural reforms that even the most experienced of statesmen have not been able to achieve in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Warning against putting money in the wrong hands, the code of conduct reminds soldiers, “We are who we fund.” I suppose that makes us both the Pakistani government to which we just promised another five hundred million dollars and the Iraqi government officials who pocketed the nine billion dollars we gave them from oil revenue we controlled during the occupation.

I’m not so sure the higher-ups are in a position to give the rank-and-file any advice on this one. Reading over the twenty-four guidelines is like reading the to-do list of Beaver Cleaver who also just happens to be Superman who also just happens to have a passion for fighting corruption and implementing good governance. The problem here is not just that counterinsurgency expects too much from soldiers. It’s that it expects too much from anyone involved in counterinsurgency—civil or military, American or Afghani. Whether practiced by a soldier or a state official, by a native or a foreigner, no individual code of conduct is going to bring about the huge changes in society that are necessary for counterinsurgency to be effective. This latest set of directives just underscores the absurd chasm between America’s enormously ambitious goals in Afghanistan and the embarrassingly simplistic and hokey conception of how to achieve them.

When I was in the Girl Scouts, they used to tell us to “always leave a place cleaner than you found it.” No matter how many codes of conduct Petraeus writes, when the US finally withdraws, Afghanistan will probably be even dirtier than before.