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by Grant Martin
Download the Full Article: A Tale of Two Design Efforts
Trying to be a "good neighbor" to the Afghans
One Friday morning not too long ago I sat facing a row of ISAF officers assigned to one of their many information offices. Maybe Strategic Communications (STRATCOM), I wondered. No, I thought, the new director of STRATCOM had changed their name, but to what I could not remember. Maybe they were from the Public Affairs office. On my side of the table a jumbled mix of staff officers from other sections of ISAF talked in low voices waiting for the lead planner to begin the meeting. A brand-new School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) graduate walked in and sat down confidently, his assistant clicking on the ubiquitous power point title slide that begins every gathering in the U.S. Armed Forces today from Washington, D.C. to Kabul, Afghanistan.
"Okay, everybody, we've got a directive from the Chief of Staff to come up with ideas on how to meet the commander's comment on being a better neighbor in Afghanistan," he began. "We will use a Design-like framework to first look at our environment, state the problem, and then come up with some solutions," he continued, describing SAMS's process of conducting "Design", the U.S. Army's doctrinal take on dealing with complexity.
We then spent the next hour wrestling with what the commander had really meant when he had reportedly said during a meeting that the Coalition needed to be 'better neighbors'. The Public Affairs-types started off dominating the discussion through their higher-ranking representative, a colonel, and her greater number of section representatives. She insisted that the commander had meant that we needed to stop bombing and doing night raids. Although this was something President Karzai seemed to never stop saying, the position seemed a little outdated. Any more efforts along those lines, I thought, would have meant sending all our weapons home in boxes and canceling all air support.
Instead, the alternative (voiced by everyone else in the room) was that the statement had been made in the context of how not to be an "Ugly American". Bombarding ministers' offices with multiple and uncoordinated visits from different NATO commands, driving with our electronic jammers on where there was no associated threat, and wearing body armor at all times and driving in fast-moving convoys of up-armored vehicles were all examples given that had been brought up multiple times recently by various Afghan leaders as being problems.
In the end trying to avoid the "Ugly American" won out. The Public Affairs colonel and most of her staff did not return after the first day and the group ran smoothly through the SAMS-approved process of environment-problem-solution identification to arrive at several recommendations for the Chief of Staff: mandate that visitors to Afghan ministries from NATO coordinate through one appointed office and require all units to empower subordinates to use their own judgment as to the Force Protection measures needed in their daily activities. This meant that we could end the requirement that everyone wear body armor or even uniforms at all times (especially when the Afghans weren't), do away with the requirement for large convoys of up-armored vehicles in areas where the threat from IEDs were not high, and require that jammers only be used in areas that had an associated threat (jammers interfere with cell phone usage). We concluded by also recommending that leaders stop micromanaging their soldiers' activities: that it shouldn't take the Chief of Staff of a three or four-star command to approve colonels (or others) going to dinner with their Afghan counterparts. Although many of these subjects seemed to only apply to Kabul, this was what many felt the commander's comments were aimed at: ministerial interaction and travel within relatively safe areas like Kabul.
The result of our work was a memorandum to the NATO commands signed by the Chief of Staff recommending all of our "solutions". What that meant was that it effectively changed nothing. Memos signed by the Chief of Staff were usually not even read much less acted upon. And, since they were only "recommendations", there were no repercussions for those leaders or units who ignored them, which everyone did.
I should have been frustrated and discouraged, but at that point in time I just smiled to myself. By then I had started my tenth month in Afghanistan and had recently gotten involved with a colonel and a lieutenant who were also very frustrated with the bureaucracy within the Coalition they had found in their attempts to carry out COMISAF's direct orders. Was it just the natural barriers to change that every established organization finds itself in? How could the Army's new "Design" efforts possibly overcome these obstacles, if they even could? Ten months prior I had been energized to give Design a try. The following anecdotes are my attempt to capture my experiences with respect to Design implementation in Afghanistan in 2010 and offer a few recommendations on how to change how we teach and practice Design.
I will attempt to do this by first describing the main two Design efforts I participated in while in Afghanistan: one at the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) and the other at the NATO Training Mission- Afghanistan (NTM-A). Along the way I'll offer some insights into why I think our efforts ultimately failed. In addition I hope to inform the wider Armed Forces community as well as those studying and teaching Design in our Armed Forces colleges about a few of the early efforts to apply Design in theater. Lastly, I would like to share some thoughts on possible ways to improve upon what we did as well as the concept itself. My intention is not to denigrate commands or commanders, and therefore I will be as general as possible in order to focus on the most important takeaways.
Download the Full Article: A Tale of Two Design Efforts
Major Grant Martin is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer. He recently returned from Afghanistan where he worked as a planner in the CJ5 at NTM-A/CSTC-A. He is currently assigned to the U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School (Airborne). The comments in this article are the author's own and do not constitute the position of NTM-A/CSTC-A, ISAF, the U.S. Army, DoD, or USAJFKSWCS(A).