Let’s Get Out Of This Quagmire

In Sunday’s NYT David Brooks describes the thinking of counterinsurgency expert Andrew Krepinevich on how to win in Iraq:

Krepinevich calls the approach the oil-spot strategy. The core insight is that you can’t win a war like this by going off on search and destroy missions trying to kill insurgents. There are always more enemy fighters waiting. You end up going back to the same towns again and again, because the insurgents just pop up after you’ve left and kill anybody who helped you. You alienate civilians, who are the key to success, with your heavy-handed raids.

Instead of trying to kill insurgents, Krepinevich argues, it’s more important to protect civilians. You set up safe havens where you can establish good security. Because you don’t have enough manpower to do this everywhere at once, you select a few key cities and take control. Then you slowly expand the size of your safe havens, like an oil spot spreading across the pavement.

Once you’ve secured a town or city, you throw in all the economic and political resources you have to make that place grow. The locals see the benefits of working with you. Your own troops and the folks back home watching on TV can see concrete signs of progress in these newly regenerated neighborhoods. You mix your troops in with indigenous security forces, and through intimate contact with the locals you begin to even out the intelligence advantage that otherwise goes to the insurgents.

Isn’t this basically the same strategy that education reformers should pursue in the cities? Instead of just supporting often isolated politicians who are constantly under attack or fighting hopeless guerilla warfare inside bureaucracies, establishing some oil spots in big cities, winning victories, and establishing some proof points (and in the process expanding opportunities for disadvantaged kids) seems like a more promising strategy. Opening new schools would certainly be part of such an effort but also leveraging successful initiatives like Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, New Leaders for New Schools, the Broad Residents, etc…to drive broader change and win hearts and minds.

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