Small Wars Journal

Building Professional and Personal Relationships in COIN Environments

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Building Professional and Personal Relationships in Counterinsurgency Environments

by Colonel Gary Anderson

Download the full article: Building Professional and Personal Relationships in Counterinsurgency Environments

A recent Washington Post article describes a meeting between a U.S. Army Captain and an Afghan village elder in Afghanistan that failed badly. The meeting could have been in Iraq, Lebanon, or Somalia. The result was largely predetermined before the first words were spoken. The Afghan elder asks the Captain why he is coming to speak at that time having not attended any of the local Shura (elders' meetings) in months. The captain replies that the meetings are useless, and that they only talk about goats. Not surprisingly, the meeting goes badly from there. This experience is depressingly familiar to many who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. After nearly a decade of war in traditional Muslim societies, many of our soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers simply cannot develop the long term professional relationships of mutual confidence .In these societies all professional relationships are also personal as well, and that does require building an atmosphere of mutual confidence.

I use the tem mutual confidence, because trust is too strong a word to use in defining many of these relationships. Mutual confidence calls for mutual respect and a two way expectation of promises kept. Real trust is a much more special thing, and most often takes longer to build than the usual seven to twelve month in-country tour. Too many Americans take the byzantine patterns of relationships in traditional Muslim societies personally. We are not in these counterinsurgency situations to gratify our personal egos.

Every culture and region is slightly different; Iraq is not Afghanistan and Lebanon is different than both. After a quarter of a century dealing off and on with Muslim societies built on largely tribal cultures, I've probably made every mistake in the book, but I've found some things that I think hold true across the board.

Download the full article: Building Professional and Personal Relationships in Counterinsurgency Environments

The author, a retired Marine Corps colonel, recently finished a tour with the State Department as the Senior Governance Advisor with an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.

About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.



Thu, 05/13/2010 - 10:21pm


Hope all is well.

I spoke yesterday on COIN and tribal engagement in Afghanistan. I had to leave to take some leave, SRC and then deploy.

I will write from downrange every so often and let you know how it is going.



I called in today for the COIN symposium panel discussion and was wondering where you guys were as I saw your names on the agenda. - Dave D.


Thu, 05/13/2010 - 8:48pm


My point was simple.

I could not have built the relationships I did, nor been as successful as I was doing "Key Leader Engagments" once or twice a week. I spent all of my TIME with my counter-parts. It was not a statement intended to point out faults with timelines, national policy, strategic decisions, campaigns plans, or anything else.

Like I have always said, I am a tactical combat leader. Period.

Wish you had been at the COIN Symposium yesterday.

It would have been nice to have debated this with you face to face.

Take care and good luck.


Jim Gant

gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 05/13/2010 - 8:15pm

Why do we need to take such maximalist military measures suggested by phrases like "consistency, continuity and commitment" when the President's stated political objectives for the US military in Afghanistan are actually quite limited?

Strategy demands otherwise thinking but we continue to burry ourselves in the tactics and methods of nation building.


Thu, 05/13/2010 - 6:07pm

Excellant article.

My limited experience in Afghanistan with "Sitting Bull" and Col Dhafer (the Iraqi National Police Quick Reaction Force Battalion Commander who I fought with for 15 months in Iraq in 06-07) was this: the personal relationship made the profesional relationship stronger and vice-versa. It has a vey powerful synergistic effect. In both cases, the relationship was cemented by not only the threat of extreme violence against our common "enemy" but the the willingness to carry this threat out - daily.


Once again, great article.

"Consistency, Continuity and Commitment" that is what we owe our host-nation parteners.


Jim Gant

This article flows well with the recent writings of Nate Springer and Jim Gant. I would only add that developing the personal and professional relationships are a dual-pronged approach. The former should assist with the latter.

Done successfully, the conditions are set to 'manage ones environment as suggested by William McAllister.