Small Wars Journal

Approaches to Effective Service in Afghanistan

Mon, 10/08/2012 - 5:30am

Author's Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government. The author wishes to thank Helena Malikyar, Ludwig Adamec, Paul Fishtein, Roy Herrmann, John Lister and Imre Lipping for their comments and suggestions. The author is not the same person as the author with the same name of the article, “Reforming the Village War: The Afghanistan Conflict,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2011, pp. 17-30.

My direct involvement with Afghanistan spanning more than 35 years informs the following. For two years in the mid-1970s I conducted ethnographic field research in a remote Hindu Kush mountain valley. I subsequently returned as a diplomat during the Soviet occupation and most recently as a participant in our intervention both in the hinterlands and in Kabul. These considerations which I have formed over that time shape my approach to Afghanistan particularly with respect to our current efforts. Much of what is offered here can be applied equally to approaching any other foreign society. Nothing about Afghans makes them more (or less) perplexing or inscrutable than any other people, ourselves included. The challenges we face in comprehending Afghanistan rest with us, not the Afghans. My intent here is not to offer a specific right knowledge set. Rather, my aim is to highlight what I have found to be some  important topics that are distorted by flawed assumptions and misunderstandings or are not being given adequate attention. Persons seeking to play a constructive role in Afghanistan, even at this late stage in our exertions there, may find these approaches useful.

Behold the experts: Many dedicated researchers have spent decades learning and teaching about Afghanistan. Few are working for the U.S. Government. These committed specialists produce outstanding, informative material, much of it in obscure journals and publications that takes digging to locate. Three knowledge resources merit special recognition: the “Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography” is a unique reference thoughtfully organized that catalogs much of this material; the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) offers peer-reviewed studies based on some of the best current field research on Afghanistan and also its indispensable “A to Z Guide to Afghanistan Assistance;” and the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN)  supplies well-informed, grounded analyses and assessments of breaking events.

Beware the “experts”: Conflicts and crises in distant lands understandably prompt our civilian and military officials to seek detailed information to further their missions. They often contract this out to companies and persons adept at winning contracts and skilled at supplying material in familiar and digestible formats. These camp followers flock to troubled lands while taking great pains to repackage themselves as experts on the region. Much of their product is shallow and formulaic when it is not simply wrong. Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored if only because those who commission this stuff mistake it for serious research and analysis and apply it in their planning. When evaluating information on Afghanistan, scrutinize the credentials of the authors, mindful that credential inflation, distortion and outright deception are common. Look for work done by persons and organizations that have dedicated years, not months, to the region, and which document their sources and research methods including actual time spent in the field, not just on bases or in Kabul.

Expatriates too: The list of victims of purported expatriate expertise is long: recall the unfortunate Maximilian in Mexico, hijacked by supposed experts of the diaspora. Nor should we forget how we allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by those Iraqi expatriates guaranteeing a cakewalk to Baghdad and beyond. It stands to reason then that Afghan nationals or persons originally from Afghanistan may not know or understand their country any better than someone from our own country can be relied on to provide cogent analysis of our society. Individuals with Afghan roots may have biases, jaundiced understandings and bitter experiences that shape the lens through which they view and interpret Afghanistan. Financial and political interests can similarly color their perceptions. Expertise is not a birthright.

Urban Afghans can be unreliable guides to rural life: Be careful in relying on the characterizations and assessments of urban Afghans about the Afghan countryside. Many city-dwelling Afghans look down on rural Afghans, seeing them as ignorant, backward, stubborn in their refusal to better themselves and thus to blame for their misery and poverty. Afghans who themselves grew up in the countryside and then moved to the city can be among the harshest and most unsympathetic critics of their rural kin.

Words can be tricky to translate, concepts even trickier: Trained interpreters struggle to convey nuance and complexity from one language to another. Unless a foreigner has immersed himself among Dari or Pashtu speakers and endured the frustrations of exchanging thoughts back and forth, it is unlikely that he will recognize the delicacy and subtlety involved. It is not only a matter of finding comparable words but also trying to communicate complex, idiomatic shadings and meanings of the words.

No matter how conscientious and professional they are, native interpreters have opinions and attitudes regarding the material discussed. Those opinions and attitudes may color their translations and can affect the way that Afghans perceive you and how you perceive them. Working with interpreters demands an active and continued dialog with them in order to address the inherent difficulties communicating in another language and devising procedures to illuminate and bridge gaps in language and comprehension.

Our thinking about Afghans and their identity misleads us: Outsiders tend to identify Afghans through their supposed membership in a specific ‘tribe,’ ‘village,’ or ‘ethnic group,’ convinced that these are the enduring and essential bases for indigenous identity. When asked about their identity, especially by foreigners, Afghans may respond by mentioning affiliations in line with what they think the foreigners expect to hear. The foreigners then take these identities for granted without investigating whether these identities are important for (or even used by) the Afghans themselves.

Field researchers with the language skills, experience and commitment to empirical study have found that the labels that outsiders use to identify Afghan groups and categories are misleading. They cite evidence that Afghans, like people everywhere manage their identities in ways that they change depending on the situation they find themselves in. Afghans emphasize commonalities and unity when it is in their interest to do so or they highlight differences and boundaries when that is their goal. The static depictions of Afghan identities on maps of ethnicity, tribe or even villages impose a rigid, often misleading and simplistic picture that misses the essence of Afghan social and political life: a person’s identity is a managed attribute that is varied and contingent, not fixed and immutable.

Afghans don’t organize into groups without a good reason: We cannot assume that Afghans who live near one another constitute a community where the members cooperate and share anything beyond their proximity. Neighbors may cooperate or they may be bitter and hateful rivals who avoid every opportunity for joint effort or even casual interactions. Competition tied to eking out a living in a harsh environment with limited resources can feed animosity among neighbors, even those who are close relatives. We cannot take for granted that physical proximity equates with social and political unity. While cooperation and joint endeavors may yield benefits, costs and compromises are inevitably involved and may be seen as significant enough to forestall cooperation.

In rural Afghanistan, no unit smaller than the government’s administrative district (woluswali) has any legal status. Afghans and foreigners alike refer to rural clustered populations as ‘villages.’ So, too, does the Afghan government although there are no standard, consistent criteria for defining what is and is not a village and what are the rights and responsibilities for such a unit. In the face of this lack of clarity, determining which local people will jointly deliberate, decide and cooperate for a particular matter rests on criteria that change from situation to situation. Because a group acts jointly for one or several issues does not mean that it will always act in harmony. It is an empirical question to determine whether and how a population organizes itself, for what purposes and how that organization manifests itself. We cannot direct a population of people to act jointly because it suits our purposes or makes sense to us that they should do so. (Outsiders often face added barriers to learning the nature of cooperation and conflict in rural settings since the residents, who agree on little else may consider such information as inappropriate to share with outsiders.)

Shuras are not a tradition for Afghans: Foreigners love the idea of shuras. We assume Afghan communities have traditionally relied on these councils usually comprised of elders to represent and lead them. For us, finding a group of Afghans who appear empowered to speak for and decide on behalf of a larger group is attractive, because such representative arrangements are the way that we operate. We are also drawn to shuras out of our wish to avoid imposing alien structures on the Afghans. But 35 years ago Afghans seldom used the word ‘shura’ or formed such representative councils in their communities. In Afghanistan, shura is a term that came into common use during the anti-Soviet Jihad in the 1980s in part due to its Islamic religious connotations – it is the means by which a Muslim leader should consult with his advisors or the people before he makes a decision – and also because foreign donors viewed councils (shuras) as a expedient way to deal with communities or other groups that could circumvent or counter powerful local elites, typically leaders of armed groups who claimed for themselves the right to speak for the group.

Compared to our enthusiasm for shuras and our mistaken assumption that they are traditional, many Afghans see today’s representative shuras as an alien imposition and even destructive. For many Afghans a guiding principle is that all men affected by a matter are entitled to participate directly in the process through which the matter is discussed, agreement reached and a decision taken. That a council consisting of a number of representatives could be empowered to deliberate and decide for the entire community without the opportunity for all interested community members to participate is seen as humiliating and at odds with community spirit. Americans may be able to appreciate Afghan antipathy to the donor-endorsed representative councils at various levels by reflecting on the dogged determination of many New England communities to preserve their general town meeting deliberations as a cherished form of direct participatory democracy.

Despite their downsides, members of representative shuras are often eager to assume the role, particularly if they sense a chance to insert themselves between their community and the rich, powerful outsiders. This role may bring members material benefits and strengthen their authority and control over others, even if the process itself is alien and destabilizing.

Recognize the importance of consensus and the threat from arrangements that produce winners and losers: In Afghan society where one’s autonomy and freedom of action are highly valued, instances of one person or group winning and another losing can make it difficult for people to cooperate and act jointly. Circumstances where actions and decisions are based on consensus and where nobody formally prevails over anyone else allow Afghans to maintain their sense of self-respect and honor. Personal dignity is paramount for them. While many Afghans appreciate the potential virtues of formal elections, the elections that have been held have been winner-take-all contests. These can be destabilizing, especially when the other institutions associated with representational democracy that serve to check the power of the victors are not in place.

Whatever means Afghans use for their collective deliberations and decision-making, whether through representative arrangements, direct participation, or even the secret ballot, they are susceptible to being manipulated by the powerful. Consensual deliberation and decision-making through direct participation cannot keep the powerful from wielding undue control. When outsiders press for or show a preference for a specific deliberative process in line with what they see as proper and more democratic, the outsiders become accountable for the outcome and consequences. Allowing the locals to follow their own procedures for deliberation and decision-making, flawed as they may appear to us, removes us from responsibility to redress or control resulting abuses and excesses. It puts the responsibility on the people themselves to deal with the consequences of their own decisions rather than depending on outsiders to do so.

Actions, not words count: When Afghans say that they have agreed to take an action, it does not mean the action will be taken. Many reasons account for this. Most important is the way that Afghans make collective decisions. In many cases, even if a decision is reached at a meeting, action will not be taken if all individuals and interests that are affected by the matter have not been consulted. If, for example, prominent men are absent from the meeting where a decision is taken, then the decision typically will not be implemented until the absent individuals have been consulted and given their agreement.

Commitments and agreements become real in action, not words. Criticisms of the decision-making process and the lack of follow-through should not be made unless the detailed history, personalities and values figuring into them are known. Because we are seldom in a position to have such knowledge, we should be cautious in criticizing or pressing Afghans to deliberate, decide and then act in line with our wishes or expectations.

Reliance on a local population to vet individuals is a fool’s errand: In Afghan communities a person is not just an individual but a member of an extended family and social networks where he has varied roles and responsibilities. To press a local population to make a determination about whether a person is or is not qualified for something has broad consequences that may reverberate far beyond the matter being considered. First is the question of the legitimacy of a particular group to make the determination; second, if a person is deemed unqualified, it disadvantages his entire family and social networks and risks creating a serious rift within that population.

Given these considerations, it often is not appropriate to ask that local populations make such explicit decisions. A request to do so can erode whatever potential for unity exists within a population. And should the people be pressed to do so, they may not make the determination in line with the specified, desired criteria but may base it on other considerations more relevant to them. Recognizing this, when it is deemed necessary to screen individuals, outsiders must consider the strains and harm that such requests can have on a local population and should weigh whether an alternate procedure can be found that does not depend on the local population to vet individuals.

Steer clear of disputes: Conflicts and disputes among Afghans inevitably involve parties whose relationships with one another we, as outsiders, have no way of appreciating in terms of their complexity and history. Whatever we may be told about a dispute, it inevitably involves much more than we are told and that we can understand or evaluate. As outsiders we cannot be involved without becoming entangled in ways that make us a party regardless of our intentions and motives. We should avoid even offering to broker what may seem to be a fair deal. Our only prudent course is to stand aside, refrain from commenting on the dispute except to offer anodyne platitudes about the value of peace and unity. Even being a passive observer to discussions about a dispute can distort and make the situation more complicated. Regardless how trivial they may appear to us, disputes among Afghans are often serious, consequential matters which we should treat with respect and the utmost caution.

Don’t overestimate the destruction: Afghans have survived more than three decades of conflict involving modern weaponry. This attests to their and their society’s resilience, flexibility and adaptability. While much has changed for Afghans over this period, much has remained constant. Avoid assumptions about how much damage has been done to their social, political and cultural fabric. Afghans have ideas and expectations about how their society should be organized that have evolved and endured over generations. That does not mean that they only want to preserve or recreate their past, but it also does not mean that they need to be shown how to organize themselves or told why they should do so.

Because it isn’t bricks and mortar doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist: We tend to equate capacity with structures and institutions. If something doesn’t have an address and a physical presence, then it doesn’t exist. Much about social and political life in Afghanistan exists in people’s understanding and knowledge, not in documents and in formal institutions. We cannot assume that if there is no formal institution it has either been destroyed or that Afghans have nothing to adequately address the purpose and function of such an institution.

For example, for decades Afghans have had their own means to deal with their successive governments. These are familiar and appropriate to them – yet we often act as if Afghanistan in 2001 was a blank slate in need of new ways of doing things. As a result, we ignore and risk destroying informal local governance arrangements that are adequate for the people to connect themselves and their communities to their government. Our misperceptions in this regard have been evident in our zeal to push the formation of new representative bodies (shuras) such as the district development assemblies, the district-level councils set up under the (now defunct) Afghan Social Outreach Program, and the National Solidarity Program’s community development councils. These imposed arrangements are driven by agendas that are not those of the Afghans themselves. They depend on outsiders to guide member selection and their deliberations and our dollars are what induces these councils to meet and act. When the dollars dry up, these councils disband. Our eagerness to set up such bodies with characteristics that fit our agendas but are alien to Afghans can obliterate indigenous arrangements that may be sub-optimal from our perspective but are familiar to the Afghans who see them as good enough.

Be wary of ‘root cause’ seekers: Our planning methods and approaches aimed at finding the root cause or causes of something – such as the insurgency or corruption – as a first step to tackling a problem fail because they do not reflect the nature of causality in human situations. The social sciences treat human societies as complex, dynamic systems where causality is not meaningfully depicted in linear models with one or a few factors that can be isolated and dealt with. If social problems in our society cannot be fit into reductionist approaches based on detecting root causes and then addressing them, why should we expect that we can do so in Afghanistan where our knowledge and experience are so limited? Simplistic approaches to understanding human behavior yield simplistic, misbegotten schemes aimed at solving them.

Scrutinize local explanations: It is important to ask “why?” in order to learn the explanations that the people have for events and situations. But it is also critical to recognize that while the people may accept such explanations as adequate, we must consider other factors that affect behavior and circumstances about which the people may be unaware. It is common, for example, to hear Afghans put blame for their hardships on outsiders, whether it be Pakistanis, ISAF troops or Afghans who are different from them. Usually the reasons are more complicated. Similarly, when a person behaves badly, Afghans often blame this on the person’s character flaws or perhaps his lack of piety. While one’s character may be a factor, typically many considerations and conditions figure in shaping one’s attitudes and behavior. Local explanations offered for complicated situations are no more sufficient by themselves than the local explanations offered for comparable actions in our society.

Scrutinize our explanations: As outsiders, we, too, must subject to resolute scrutiny the explanations we derive for Afghan behavior and the factors that shape their actions. If we think about ourselves, we can appreciate how challenging it is to find satisfactory, straightforward explanations for our behavior. Our experts and common citizens debate endlessly the explanations and reasons for just about everything in our society. We have no reason to expect that Afghans and Afghan society to be more transparent, comprehensible or amenable to simple, direct explanations than ourselves and our own society.

Triangulate on the truth: There are no short-cuts to understanding reality whether it be Afghan or our own. We must talk to many different people and collect different perspectives. We cannot rely on the bright, articulate individual who speaks English and offers explanations that supply what strike us as adequate answers to our questions. We must press on and ask others the same questions, and then rephrase them to see whether and how the responses change and we should also alter the setting in which the questions are asked. Different answers cannot just be written off as wrong. Instead, the reasons they differ must be explored and they must be examined to see whether they are, in fact, different.

It’s ok to not know: Whether for Afghanistan or elsewhere, we must constantly remind ourselves that our quest to understand phenomena has no end. Humility, together with a resolute commitment to continue to deepen our exposure to information and knowledge need not paralyze us as long as we accept that our knowledge and expertise can never be anything but limited and imperfect. They are always subject to being expanded, refined, and even created anew. What we think that we know and understand with a high confidence today may strike us as nonsense tomorrow, not because it has changed, but because we have. We must stand prepared to adjust, to admit our limitations, and to change or even abandon efforts we find to be ill-informed or misguided. 

About the Author(s)

David J. Katz is a career Foreign Service Officer currently serving as State Department Advisor to the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His involvement with Afghanistan dates from the mid-1970s when he conducted field research for his PhD dissertation (Anthropology, UCLA 1982) in what is now Nuristan Province. The most recent of his six State Department assignments dealing directly with Afghanistan and Pakistan was serving as Deputy Director, Force Reintegration Cell at ISAF HQ, Kabul, from December 2009 to June 2011. 



Wed, 10/31/2012 - 10:54am

A good article and a key point...

"Many city-dwelling Afghans look down on rural Afghans, seeing them as ignorant, backward, stubborn in their refusal to better themselves and thus to blame for their misery and poverty."

This is a powerful statement. It even applies or has in some families until this day in America. But it misses a key point... Does that rural Afghan THINK, he is living in misery and poverty??? I will bet you at times he might, might think like that. He certainly would like to have more than he does... But is he really unhappy?

The point is, if the rural Afghan dosn't think he is misrable and poor, weither he is or not, he isn't going to buy much of what we are selling with COIN.

G Martin

Tue, 10/16/2012 - 12:39pm

This was a great article- and points out very clearly what is wrong with many of the things we still do today. The bottom line takeaway for me is that IF we had set up a learning capability within Afghanistan- even as recent as 2010- things would be a lot different IMO than they are today. Unfortunately we are tied to paradigms that we are not allowed to even suggest they could be wrong- much less set in place the assessments tools to prove they are wrong.

Bob- I think your reading on Mr. Katz's take on complexity is off.

<em>There are a couple schools of thought on complex adaptive systems. Some take the position that Mr. Katz takes and that you echo: in essence, “Too hard to figure out, so don't try."</em>

I looked to find where he said don't try- but instead found this:

<em>Be wary of ‘root cause’ seekers: Our planning methods and approaches aimed at finding the root cause or causes of something – such as the insurgency or corruption – as a first step to tackling a problem fail because they do not reflect the nature of causality in human situations. The social sciences treat human societies as complex, dynamic systems where causality is not meaningfully depicted in linear models with one or a few factors that can be isolated and dealt with. If social problems in our society cannot be fit into reductionist approaches based on detecting root causes and then addressing them, why should we expect that we can do so in Afghanistan where our knowledge and experience are so limited? Simplistic approaches to understanding human behavior yield simplistic, misbegotten schemes aimed at solving them.</em>

My take on your objection to his statement is that it runs counter to your ideas on human behavior and universal rules. That is fine that you strongly believe those things- but I wish they were submitted as assumptions as opposed to unassailable facts.

<em>The other school is that even within the most complex and adaptive of systems there are constants and rules that provide a start point for framing the variable unique to every situation. Einstein looked for and described such "simple" constants as a basis for understanding the universe we live within.</em>

I think there are many more schools of thought on how to deal with complexity than just these two, but- regardless, I would be wary personally of describing Einstein's constants as "simple"- many are beyond the intellect of most people I know. Maybe you are more steeped in science than I am, but attempting to imagine the concept of the curvature of space is very difficult for me.

<em>"Complexity" is the great cop out of the modern age. It is, IMO, a mixture of arrogance and victim mentality all in one. To me it rings of "I don't understand something so it must be beyond understanding." Rubbish.</em>

The study of complex systems is one that is deep and cuts across many disciplines. Although I am about as far away from an expert in complexity theory as you can get, I still see possible application in the concepts. Just because it is a relatively young concept- especially when applied to warfare- doesn't IMO mean we should label it as rubbish and ignore it.

<em>The world today is no more complex than the world of 100 years ago</em>

Is this statement provable? Can you reference it? There have been references to why it is more complex- such as the exponential growth in SKUs in the world in the past few decades and other measures- most of the ones I've seen were captured in Eric Beinhocker's book The Origen of Wealth. Although it is theory- it is based on some definitive facts- such as the one I mentioned. I can't imagine that the world is the same as it was when Homo Habilis was around.

<em>Every society is unique in their culture and beliefs, yet human nature is incredibly universal across societies and over time.</em>

Is there a reference for this statement? Although I agree, like fire, that humans need some constant things like oxygen- I don't think we can glean that reductionist fact to mean anything much beyond a simple logic tied directly to the need for oxygen.

<em> I reject the notion that the only way to approach each conflict is with the strategic equivalent of "recon by fire." That is what we have been doing, and it doesn't work.</em>

I would disagree that we've been doing recon by fire. If we were doing that I think that would imply we would react to the effects of our fire. Instead, IMO, we keep reconning the same areas with the same fire, but only interpreting the effects based on our current paradigms- unwilling to admit our view of reality could be wrong. If we had a learning capability- then maybe our recon would work...


Sat, 10/13/2012 - 10:20am

In reply to by Bill M.

BillM, and it was not just a CBS reporter but a female CBS reporter on top of all else that is teaching the men what to do.

Bill M.

Sat, 10/13/2012 - 3:12am

In reply to by slapout9

Good find, Laura apparently understands the nature of the conflict better than our population centric COIN Kool-aid drinkers. Perhaps she implied this, but the one beef I have with her argument to stay longer is that staying longer pursuing the same approach will accomplish little beyond wasting billions and sacrificing our youth to no end. She correctly points out that elements in Pakistan are the real threat to Afghanistan and our presence in Afghanistan, yet we have been and continue to pay these enemies billions of dollars and have been conducting key leader engagements with them for over 10 years to "strengthen our relationship." I think it is time to explore other strategies beyond "it takes a village" approach. Either change course or downsize. Why continue getting our men killed trying to implement a politically correct COIN doctrine against a threat that as Laura points out doesn't consider themselves to be insurgents?

I loved her point on Libya. She said the FBI investigation was a joke and instead we should have employed our best clandestine warriors to track down and kill the terrorists who were responsible for the attack.

The Israelis have long realized that terrorism is not something that will be defeated, so instead of wasting billions trying to address underlying causes with economic develop, promoting democracy, etc. they focus their efforts on the adversary that is trying to kill their people. Employing clandestine warriors to track down and kill the terrorists is the only sustainable strategy that will produce tangible results.

I'm just shocked that this view came a CBS reporter, an organization long known to promote politically correct idealism.


Fri, 10/12/2012 - 3:57pm

Not sure where to put this but it goes with the idea of thinking about Afghanistan in a different light.....the whole War on Terror in a different light. Worth the 15 minutes or so.

Link to Reporter Laura Logan award ceremony on what is going on in Afghanistan and what we should be doing and more important on how we should be Thinking differently about this war.

H/T to Zenpundit for posting this!

trauma mama

Wed, 10/10/2012 - 12:56am

Good read. Having spent approx 3 yrs in Afghanistan, both rural and Kabul, there is much to be learned in this article. Don't agree with all points, but thought-provoking reading.

Bill M.

Wed, 10/10/2012 - 1:48am

In reply to by slapout9

WILCO on scrapping physics analogies and trying to make the human world conform to them. I suspect some may have used complexity theory as an excuse, but I suggest that recognizing complexity is reality means we need to move beyond lip service when it comes to be a learning organization.

You're right that our enemies don't have much trouble figuring us out. Unfortunately we're pretty predictable, it is almost as though we take the same route day after day at the strategic and operational levels, so of course a savvy enemy can determine how to effectively ambush us.

We're not well suited to do unconventional warfare due to our dysfunctional interagency process and Congress. I admire our value system and the value we place on human life, but as you point out if something is truly in our national interest and worth going to war over, then the gloves need to come off to the extent necessary to effect victory. We only fool ourselves when we believe we can wage war humanely. When we try it we simply prolong the suffering of the people involved.


Tue, 10/09/2012 - 5:07pm

In reply to by Bill M.

BillM, I understand what you are saying and I agree with you for the most part except that what we did in Afghanistan would be better described as Engineering (EB))and IMO that is not systems analysis. You brought up a good point about descriptive(systems analysis) vs. prescriptive(systems design). We should probably just scrap the whole scientific/physics analogies they don't add anything except confusion. But I agree with RC Jones about the "complexity syndrome" excuse. Look at our enemies they don't have any problems figuring out how to hurt us (USA).

We have to many rules and conflicting models for Guerrrila Warfare. We need to go back to all is fair in love and war. If it dosen't fit into our vital national interest catagory then we need to learn to saty out of it.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 10/09/2012 - 7:41am

In reply to by Bill M.


I never think of us as being on opposite ends of the argument, but rather as being shoulder to shoulder in a shared foxhole covering our respective sectors of fire against some fairly overwhelming opposition. I never worry about your sector, I know it is well covered. (Besides, with Ken White as our sqaud leader we know he'll keep us supported when we're on target, and smack us on the back of the helmet when we start to drift.)

As to "complexity," I know it is a real phenomenon, but I grow weary of the posture that think-tankers and academics tend to take on the topic: "too hard, human brain can't process, no root causes, etc." To which I always respond: "I do strategy for USSOCOM. 'It's too hard' is not an option for us."



Bill M.

Mon, 10/08/2012 - 7:29pm

In reply to by slapout9

The 28 articles that Kilkullen wrote prescribed, the points in this article describe a reality in Afghanistan that we didn't see or refused to see. We approached Afghanistan with a systems approach and it failed us. We focused on governance, economics, etc. each are systems, systems that touch elements of the conflict, but miss great swaths of it. Systems theory only works if you describe the system correctly in the first place, so I would argue that gaining understanding is the critical step. Isn't it the boy scouts who state, think then act?

This is for you and Bob. Complexity theory is not a cop out or arrogance, actually those who reject complexity and claim their model of the world explains it perfectly are the ones who practice a dangerous form of arrogance. As the author stated, watch out here come the experts. Effects Based Operations was the greatest form of arrogance that every graced ranks, it radicalized our thinking by making us believe that we do X then Y will result.

You have to start with a model (or system), hopefully after informed study, but after you build it you have to constantly test the logic and see if it still works. The conflict won't be static, the new actors will come and go, motivations will sometimes shift, and if our plan based on false assumptions or a faulty system model doesn't adapt then we fail to learn and likely will lose, or at least achieve far less than envisioned. It is my understanding of operational design it is all about systems thinking. However it is not a magical process anymore than MDMP is, if you do either process based on false assumptions the processes will fail.

Where Bob and I find common ground is that doctrine is not a template that can be blindly applied to different insurgencies globally. Our clear-hold-build approach has failed in the two nations tried it in, so I would argue it is a doctrine looking for a success. Successes have generally been based on a combination of security force operations that convince the insurgents that a military option is not possible, government reforms that take the wind out of their sails, and negotiations with the insurgents.

I also strongly agree with Bob that the world has always been complex, and I'm not advocating it is more complex now, although the theory claims complexity always increases, so perhaps in some regards it is. In the U.S. case I think an argument can be made that our bureaucracy has evolved and become more complex and harder to work with (interagency is still something we desire, we're far from achieving it).

If you want to read a good book that describes complexity (although not refered to as complexity) read "In the Ruins of Empire", by Ron Spector. It is a history of the Allies actions in East Asia after Japan surrendered. It details the actions of USSR, U.S., British, French, Dutch and others who were completely compared for Japan's surrender and our understandably clumsy approach to dealing massive "irregular warfare" breaking out throughout the region as forces of nationalism (never united) broke out throughout the region. Very relevant read for SWJ brothers. I think it points out the importance of having a wider scale Afghan hands type program before we have a conflict, but like Mr. Katz points out we need people that act interact with the urban and rural populaces without using an interpreter so they have a better chance of gaining an unbias "understanding".

Sometimes I think Bob believes we're opposite ends of the argument, but that isn't entirely correct. I do disagree that simplistic models don't replicate reality and that none of us can project 20th and 30th order effects. Even with a good understanding of the environment we'll make mistakes due to unforseen reactions to our intervention, but at least we'll reduce the blantantly stupid ones.


Mon, 10/08/2012 - 6:11pm

I thought this was a very good article (the new 28 steps so to speak) and very good responses by both BillM and RC Jones. So here I go again with the idea of systems thinking as being the way out of this mess but the basic idea(s) have been perverted. Chaos theory or Complexity theory DOES NOT mean it can not be understood but it is often portrayed that way. What is does mean is that instead of looking for straight line cause and effect you will have to look for patterns and they will be repeating patterns once they are found. This article has detected the patterns. But just because the patterns have been detected does not mean that there are not going to be endless adaptations of these patterns. Fractal Analysis is probably the best physics analogy. It is a very simple repeating pattern but it can lead to almost limitless combinations.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 10/13/2012 - 5:54am

In reply to by Scott Kinner

As you describe, every fire is unique. Yet every fire is also controlled by the same principles of nature. Heat goes up. Flame requires both fuel and oxygen. Etc. It provides a start point foundation to frame your solution upon. Principles exist for populace-based conflicts as well, and they are contained in the universal aspects of human nature as revealed in countless drama between those who govern and those who are governed around the world and throughout time. This is the essence of strategy. Knowing your particular culture, facts, history, etc? That is the essence of tactics. One needs both.

Our challenge is that we rely on doctrine rather than strategy, and our doectrine is largely based upon missions and conditions that no longer exist, and is also very tactical in nature. That kind of doctrine leads to defeat rather than victory. That kind of doctrine is why we start every new war fighting the last war. As a doctrine writer I challenge you to recognize the dangers of basing doctrine too heavily on the tactics of the day, and instead to seek to ensure that your doctrine is as flexible as possible in terms of tactics, and that it rests frimly upon a foundation of strategic understanding.

Good luck! (This is not easy, and there is huge pressure to just shut up and color inside the lines. Ultimately one often must do just that, but one must never stop thinking outside those lines).

Scott Kinner

Fri, 10/12/2012 - 8:23am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Bob - thank you so very much for your comment! While entropy exists, so does order. The practice of science is possible only because there is a comprehensible, ordered universe - even if we don't see it at first glance. It is dogma, and there are singularities, but like all dogma, it should be challenged and looked at, but it is still a belief that is necessary if we are to move forward.

Which goes to your point, and why I appreciated your comment. At some point we must move forward. There is so much hand wringing over assumptions and understanding and systems and wicked problems, etc. Do we know ourselves? What is the "plausibility structure" in which our culture exists? What are our biases? And it's great to have those discussions and be aware of the issues.

But if you are charged with solving a problem, eventually action is required. You must create a plan, make a decision, and step forward - which leads to the great truism that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. But having the ability to deal with that uncertainty, grapple with it, work through it with all the tragedy and inefficiency that such wrestling entails, is what separates great problem solvers - warriors - from the also rans.

In the end, it truly is a matter of will. Because assumptions won't be right, other people, to include your own side, have independent wills that they will exercise, but do you press forward - do you continue to seek a solution to the problem(s)? And perversely, do you have the superiority of will to recognize when the problem is no longer worth solving and choose to save and marshal your resources elsewhere?

Now that I write develop and write doctrine for the Marine Corps GCE, I meet my bias for action by being a volunteer firefighter. And this recent event is illustrative.

We responded as a mutual assist company to a neighboring fire department who was fighting a trailer home fire with numerous outbuildings...and junk. It was surrounded by grassland and we are in the highest fire danger rating possible. The responding company had not made some good tactical decisions about their water usage and had been driven to use a lot of foam which made everything hard to see. The power company refused to turn off the power to the transmission lines that were running right over the property - even as they blackened and burned giving us only a narrow window to put water on the structure. Some of the outbuildings caught fire and were full of thousands of rounds of ammunition which began to cook-off. We began to advance on the fire and promptly fell waist deep into some sort of wading pool that was buried in the foam. They brought in a front-end loader to try and expose the fire (remember the power lines) but all it did was pull the walls down, burying the fire under the collapsing roof and assorted debris. Advancing into debris, a number of firefighters immediately fell through the sub-floor.

But with the wind and the fire danger rating, walking away from this thing and letting it burn was not an option. So error after error. Mistake after mistake. Unforeseen consequence after unforeseen consequence we kept trying to solve the problem.

Which brings me full circle - thanks for pointing all of that out. Problem solving is an ugly business and there is a reason why was is supposed to be so abhorrent - because you are problem solving with people's lives.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 10/08/2012 - 5:54pm


I like this piece as well, and shared it out to several people this morning in fact. Not for Mr. Katz's insights on insurgency, but rather for his insights on Afghanistan.

There are a couple schools of thought on complex adaptive systems. Some take the position that Mr. Katz takes and that you echo: in essence, “Too hard to figure out, so don't try." The other school is that even within the most complex and adaptive of systems there are constants and rules that provide a start point for framing the variable unique to every situation. Einstein looked for and described such "simple" constants as a basis for understanding the universe we live within. Clausewitz pursued a similar effort in the study of war. This is not to be confused with simplistic tactical formulas found in doctrine, such as "clear-hold-build" from Iraq; or the belief that "effective governance" is somehow a cure or cause of insurgency as derived from the lessons of colonial control.

"Complexity" is the great cop out of the modern age. It is, IMO, a mixture of arrogance and victim mentality all in one. To me it rings of "I don't understand something so it must be beyond understanding." Rubbish. There is a big difference between simple and simplistic; and between tactics and strategy. Yet too often we kluge these things together with tragic results. Insurgency is no more complex than war; it is just very different and far less understood. The bias of government to embrace their role in war and to reject their role in insurgency is a major reason for that cognitive disconnect, IMO. The world today is no more complex than the world of 100 years ago; it just changes far more rapidly so we never get a chance to get comfortable with what is important and what is just noise.

I wholly agree with the author that fixation on corruption or economics as causes or cures is simplistic, and that tactical programs assessed by tactical metrics to address such symptoms often delude us of progress being made, while strategic metrics of the effects of our efforts are moved in the wrong direction due to the very nature of our actions. “Simplistic” approaches can be pure silliness, but “Simple” approaches can be pure genius. Good leaders can recognize the difference between the two. Our current doctrine, however, does not make such distinctions and leans toward the simplistic and is blinded by the idea that all insurgency is simply an “irregular” form of war and warfare. Some is, to be sure, but most is not. The nature of the relationships between the parties is totally different, as is the purpose for action. We assess these things by the similarities of their form rather than by the uniqueness of their nature, and it hinders our understanding.

Every society is unique in their culture and beliefs, yet human nature is incredibly universal across societies and over time. Every conflict is unique as well, and yet likewise, fundamental dynamics are at play; be it Clausewitz's concept of a trinity as an essence of warfare between states or systems of governance, or my own work at seeking to find similar touchstones for building an understanding of conflict within a state or system of governance.

I know we agree to disagree on this, but I reject the notion that the only way to approach each conflict is with the strategic equivalent of "recon by fire." That is what we have been doing, and it doesn't work.

As Einstein noted: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” There is an order in the complexity around us that defies reason, yet it is there. Nature is defined by rules written by hands far larger than our own, and human nature is not exempted from that reality. For all of our free will, and ability to create chaos and violence with creative genius - when one steps back and looks at what appears random and unique up close one sees that it has all occurred within a framework that is quite regular and orderly.

So yes, I like this article for its keen insights on Afghanistan, but I would love to spend an hour or two with the author talking about insurgency. I think we would both learn a thing or two.



If war is the pursuit of politics or policy by other means (say, for example, in the case of a great power and its allies who, in the last century, won both World War II and the Cold War), then this would seem to argue for our looking, re: "root causes,"

a. More towards the ideas, politics and policy of this great power and its allies and

b. Only towards a much less powerful "enemy" in terms of how it/they might tend to stand in the way of (1) where these much more powerful forces want to go and (2) how they wish to get there.

Once one understands (1) where the great power and its allies want to go and (2) how they wish to get there, only then, I believe, can one understand how such hugely broad and all-encompassing "root cause" theories might have been contrived.

For example: If the United States and its allies wished to:

a. Use the opportunities (or, in their view, the evidence) presented to them by instances of terrorism, insurgency, genocide, humanitarian crises, inadequate response to natural disaster, etc., to

b. Transform outlier states and societies more along modern western lines,

Then this might lead the United States and its allies to suggest that the common "root cause" for all these such difficulties (terrorism, insurgency, genocide, humanitarian crises, etc.) -- REGARDLESS OF IN WHAT CONTEXT AND/OR WHERE THESE DIFFICULTIES MIGHT OCCUR -- was that these non-modern/less-modern states and societies were not adequately ordered, organized, oriented and configured along modern western lines.

Thus, in looking at contemporary "root causes," I think we must do this by looking at this idea more in terms of great power politics/policy/agenda (aka: "knowing oneself"). Knowing one's enemy? To be understood more in this context also.

Much thanks to Mr. Katz publishing this excellent article albeit 10 years too late, but then again 10 years ago we thought we had all the answers and I suspect any counterview would have been rejected. Many, if not most, of our assumptions were based on a PowerPoint level of depth of their history and the urban legends that this promoted throughout the ranks.

Our planning process is largely based on assumptions, and if you get the assumptions wrong the plan is invalid and needs to revised accordingly, but we weren't receptive to challenging our assumptions, so we clung to a faulty plan to the point where we lost much credibility with not only the Afghans, but the American people. Gaining understanding of the situation is essential to success in irregular warfare. I suspect we will continue to fail when we create alternative realities that fit our view of the world. Plans must address the world as it really is period.

Mr. Katz's paragraph, "Be wary of ‘root cause’ seekers" is worth printing out and posting next to every planners workspace. It is time we drop the myth of poor governance and economic issues as "root" causes. We have a culture in the military that desires to dismiss the scientific reality of complexity and replace it with a non-scientific center of gravity view and simplistic models that describe insurgencies and conflict globally. Why? I suspect it is due to having a military that can't think or operate independently of doctrine, which may reflect as serious defect in our professional education.

What is more alarming is our desire globalize our COIN doctrine by training our partners in "best practices" based on our lessons learnt in Afghanstan and Iraq. I remain suspect that we learned anything at all and are at risk of pushing an ineffective doctrine globally.