In post-World War II Austria, as American and Soviet occupation forces fought for “hearts and minds,” one shrewd U.S. intelligence analyst figured out how to get what he needed — with benefits.
He befriended one of Vienna’s best-known opera stars, someone who knew everyone and everything. In exchange for a few sausages from the government mess, the singer was happy to pass along the very best of rumors — and front-row tickets to boot.
Most folks credit the 1947 Marshall Plan with rebuilding Western Europe. But the United States provided something more critical than money. The bedrock upon which the Europeans rebuilt was the security and stability provided by U.S. occupation forces. And the ingenuity of GIs — of soldiers interacting with civilians in the wake of the war — played a vital and largely unrecognized role in providing that bedrock.
Unfortunately, America has a long tradition of forgetting what works best in dealing with counterinsurgencies and postwar turmoil. It’s not a government team of bumbling bureaucrats that gets the job done. It’s GI ingenuity — brought to bear even amid the shooting, starvation and chaos — that figures out inventive ways to skin the security-and-stability cat.
That’s what happened in Iraq, and that’s exactly what is going on in Afghanistan now — at least in those places in Afghanistan where things are going well.
The best example of that may be Helmand province. When U.S. Marines pushed into the Helmand River Valley in 2009, they found themselves in a Taliban Disneyland. Taliban leaders would “winter” in Quetta, Pakistan, then return in the spring to plant their new poppy crops. The heroin produced from the poppies would then pay for the weapons and the locals they hired to fight the Americans.
As the Marines scoured the countryside for Taliban leaders, they also did as much as they could to get the people of Helmand on their side. They put into practice something Carl Schramm, an economist at the Kauffman Foundation, dubs “expeditionary economics.” Schramm argues that the quickest path to stabilization is to focus on creating the markets that yield the most rapid growth in revenue and employment. The Marines focused on giving the locals attractive alternatives to being dollar-a-day Taliban warriors or peons for drug lords.
In doing so, our troops forged some inventive partnerships. One group they latched on to is Spirit for America. This not-for-profit, American-based organization has a simple mission: get U.S. troops whatever they need to help the locals.
What results is a cascade of essentials, from school supplies to midwife supplies, from mechanics’ tools and sewing machines to water barrels. Thanks to this civilian-military teamwork, schools, bazaars and businesses now thrive where there once were Taliban and al-Qaida.
Spirit for America pursues its mission with “zero” government funds. Yet their partnership with the Marines in Helmand is helping win Afghanistan, one village at a time. It’s the kind of problem solving that has always enabled America to win wars — and to win peace.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.