Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why drive if you don’t know where you’re going? Or Rudderless in Afghanistan

I have had a nagging feeling that the Af-Pak War as dubbed by correspondent Michael Yon ( is a quicksand pit. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink. My sensitivity to the Af-Pak situation was heighted by my recent experience at DINFOS and by watching the PBS documentary Frontline on the evening of 13 October 2009 (
President Obama and his advisors are still pondering the strategy for Afghanistan. With apologies to Tommy Turtle who pondered why he could not run (he could not run because HE WAS A TURTLE!), there are a few things that are evident about this conflict:

1. A national government in Afghanistan is a-historic. This means it goes against the country’s history. The country is a collection of disparate tribes who sometimes ban together for their common good.
2. There way of life is alien to the American norm due to a mosaic of corruption, poverty, illiteracy, poppy cultivation, corruption and the less than second class citizen status of women.
3. “Success” in Afghanistan is more than a military effort it will require the national resole, political and public support and significant resources.
4. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is a NATO force; the reality is that it is very much a US Force.
5. The Taliban are not a homogenous, hierarchal enemy but a collection of clans, tribes and families with resolve, cunning, adaptability who have time on their side.

The lack of a strategy means PSYOP is ‘on hold’. Any positive momentum that has been achieved thus far is likely to be lost with the exception of much localized situations where the efforts have been focused on gaining and maintaining positive relationships rather than delivering an array of messages.

In my view the approach is to work backwards, think bottom up rather than top down. If the goal is to truly change the lives of the Afghan people, then specific tribal and matching geographic areas must be mapped out.

Next develop a desired end state for each area and formulate the plan and resources needed to get there. Each area would be considered a separate ‘project’ and served by a different project team. The team would include age appropriate representatives to work with the tribal elders and resources with knowledgeable and capable interpreters.

The team would then take the vision of the end state and adjust it for reality. We do not want to be in the drastic makeover business. Michael Yon describes Afghanistan as lunar and having been to the Craters of the Moon State Park ( I can tell you that means remote, desolate and primitive.
Our goal therefore is to look at each area and decide what the appropriate and reasonable goals are and identify the resources needed to achieve them. Examples might include reorienting local agriculture from poppy growing to something else by being cognizant of the seasons, the need for farmers to have year round income, the ability to market what is grown, etc. Other examples might include other forms of agricultural assistance.

Local projects would run parallel to a few, well chosen national programs such as training the Army and Police, establishing a functional justice system and upgrading the educational system.
But – no progress can be made until a strategy is set and I urge the President to remember that “Lite” is never as good as the real thing.


Anonymous said...

I'm an anthropology grad. student and a reserve psychological operator. I'm currently carrying out a study in a low income area of Dallas for the city government, and I'm doing almost exactly what you're proposing for Afghanistan. I'm doing a social and informational network analysis of the area to parse out the actual "communities" that make up the area. To people outside the area is is simply west Dallas, a poor ghetto area. But, it is actually very heterogeneous and there are depts. in city hall that want a qualitative, bottom-up understanding of the area so they can carry out a more effective form of development using the stimulus money, so that people's communities are actually improved in a way that people can stay there, rather than be forced out with rising property values -i.e., just moving the problem from one place to another.
My area in Dallas is only a few square miles though, and there is already a fairly modern infrastructure in relation to anything in Afghanistan, and this is still a very large task on my part. So, I cannot even image the kind of man power that doing something like that in Afghanistan would take.
The question really isn't "can we do it," but rather, do we want to invest in that kind of time, money, and danger for what is dubious security risk for the U.S. at best.

Lawrence Dietz said...

Thanks for the comment. My unstated thought was to pick key areas, not all areas. Use the key areas as a way to show 'good examples'. The ultimate goal is to influence popular opinion in Afghanistan to force the changes in other areas. I agree it makes neither logical nor financial sense to employ this approach for the entire country.

Anonymous said...

I think that that would be wise, so concentrate on areas we'd be most successful first and promote these areas as examples of what could be to others.
When I graduate, maybe I'll join the HTS and do just that.