Wednesday, April 14, 2010

And here's where the buzzwords completely kill your effort

Canadian LTC J.J. Malevich, an exchange officer at the COIN Center at Ft. Leavenworth, wrote today about adapting counterinsurgency methods to differing social structures -- particularly with a view to Afghanistan. He asserts that our acceptance of "tribal elders" as a meaningful liaison between coalition forces, the Afghan government, and "the people" may be counterproductive to our efforts to do effective COIN.

In our construct, we are used to and take for granted a system of government that is “of the people, for the people, by the people.” We assume that everywhere we go we are dealing with the same construct. We also assume that all leadership that we deal with has its community’s best interest at heart.

In Afghanistan, in our efforts to reach out to the people, we are dealing with “village elders.” We assume that these older, white bearded men speak for their community’s and share our goal of a greater Afghanistan with freedom and liberty for all. Have we asked ourselves if this is true or have we just assumed that by some sort of custom or tradition we are dealing with some sort of representational government? I would question not our motives but our approach. I think we need to take some time to examine the “Elders” and determine whether they represent “population-centric” COIN or if they stand in the way of it.

I've got no problem at all with thoughtful study, and tactics and methods of operation should absolutely be adapted to local circumstances. But I fear that LTC Malevich's post is suggestive of a sort of misconceptualization of the mission, and of a confusion of means and ends. To wit:
By ensuring that all government affairs pass through them; the Elders can skim commission money for themselves, decide who will and who will not pay taxes and decide who works and who does not. In earlier eras, they decided who was drafted and who was not. This seems like an awful lot of power that is given to an unelected body. If I was going to compare it to our society I was say we are empowering rural elites, local power brokers and land owners. Where is the population-centric COIN we are supposed to be conducting? [emphasis mine]
To be frank, though hopefully not glib: who cares?

Population protection is a means to gain intelligence, isolate the insurgent, and make conditions inhospitable to his comfort and success. While building a claim to legitimacy is important for long-term governance, the counterinsurgent's primary goal is population control, not popular support.

And so if our methods appeal to what we may believe are "illegitimate" intermediaries but those folks are able to deliver the goods, to mobilize their "constituents" in the service of coalition objectives, then what difference does it make whether they're popularly elected or rule by force? Whether they're wildly popular or popularly resented? I would've thought one of the lasting lessons of the Sahwa in Iraq is that "the people are the prize" is more sententious wordsmithing than operational guidance; the real prize is the man or men who can deliver the people.

The rejoinder, of course, would be that this approach lacks long-term legitimacy and thus is bound to fail. But considering our timelines and objectives, isn't it more realistic to approach the problem this way than to imagine that we can remake Afghan social structure in a more "just" fashion over the next 18 months, even if we accept that our conception of justice is even meaningful here?

17 comments:

  1. And so if our methods appeal to what we may believe are "illegitimate" intermediaries but those folks are able to deliver the goods, to mobilize their "constituents" in the service of coalition objectives, then what difference does it make whether they're popularly elected or rule by force? Whether they're wildly popular or popularly resented?

    Because doing so will promptly create a new set of disgruntled and disempowered locals looking for outside allies to help them retake power. Their families will provide local recruits and intel to the insurgents, and our efforts will fail.

    Part of population protection has to be ensuring that we don't generate new enemies by making it seem like a win for us means a permanent loss for some locals. Surely the salient lesson of the Sahwa is to ensure that locals (power brokers and their constituents alike) believe their core interests* will be protected under the regime we're helping to construct.

    It's not about our conception of justice - it's theirs that's salient, and in this case I think Malevich is talking about making sure the new governance systems don't generate insecurity in other forms that will undermine our efforts.

    Also, as many have observed and written, the power of 'local power-brokers' in Afghanistan is much more contingent than in Iraq. The authority of Afghan elders (or whatever we're calling them) - their ability to deliver the people - depends on their ability to deliver to the people.**

    * To some extent a moving target and shaped in part by dynamics endogenous to the conflict, but not endlessly mutable.

    ** Although I've read some stuff that suggests that tribal authority in Iraq (esp. in Anbar) is also far more contingent than we generally assume.

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  2. Who cares? The non-elders in the community being "engaged" care. And, the history of the TB in the 90s suggests that they are expert in engaging and empowering the non-elders (viz. the crazy-eyed younguns who now run the TB in N. and S. Waziristan, assassinating elders). The elders are a spent force, and do not possess the necessary juice to control the community, in many of the areas we want. Every locality is different, so you have to check on things before you fling resources at one.

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  3. "This seems like an awful lot of power that is given to an unelected body. If I was going to compare it to our society I was say we are empowering rural elites, local power brokers and land owners."

    This article was weird. Even in acephelous societies like some African tribes, there are power brokers. The majority of real decision makers fall outside of the elected body.

    For instance, in the United States, some people pay close attention to what school they go to, join the Rotary club or unions, even choose their chruch based on getting the right social connections to gain favor and power in business deals. It's just the way it is.

    On the other hand, when the gov't, NGO, or the insurgency fails to protect the populace after a major disastor, the tribal leader will provide shelter, food, and medical supplies. I observed this first hand after Ramadon 2006. Sheik Adnon Al-Tamimi invited me over for the final feast. He showed me the 30 Shia families that he was caring for that had been displaced from the Diyala River Valley by the Islamic State of Iraq. I asked him why he did it. He told me it was his duty from his religion and his status. This care came out of money from his own pocket.

    Taking care of displaced persons is something that neither the US, Iraq, Afghan, or Pakistan gov'ts have proved very successful in executing.

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  4. Even in acephelous societies like some African tribes, there are power brokers

    Well of course in all societies that's true; the difference is that in an "acephelous" society (unlike Iraq) there are no office-holders or enduring figures. The positions can change over a tea gathering, depending on if someone says something stupid or if he failed to play his social role yesterday. This is not exactly a solid foundation for a whole strategy.

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  5. Good points Ian. Granted, "their" way may not be ideal to "our" plan or strategy, but that does not justify discarding the existing system for our own moral judgement on what another society needs much less wants.

    A more appropriate analogy, IMO, is that the decision to ignore or minimize the tribes in A'stan is like the CPA's decisions to 1. disband the military and 2. outlaw the Ba'ath Party in Iraq.

    But, I'm a believer in trying to work with the tide, not against it. Long-term societal changes, moving from tribes to local governance and transitioning from agragrian to industrial society, take time often measured in generations not months.

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  6. MikeF, what decision to ignore the tribes in A'stan? I haven't seen anything except a pro-tribe approach.

    And, I think that, IMO, the massive-mistake analogy is to assume that every village in Afghanistan has an "existing system" that resembles others even in the same valley. That's not to minimize or ignore local dynamics; it's to admit that the local approach has to be more tailored than emerging from our UFOs and saying "Take us to your elders."

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  7. I think that, IMO, the massive-mistake analogy is to assume that every village in Afghanistan has an "existing system" that resembles others even in the same valley.

    Or assumes that 'tribe' is the salient framework for political authority...or that authority isn't divided by issue-set across multiple leaders or groups of leaders.

    The instinct to understand political authority in Afghanistan through a single model seems like a pretty obvious mistake in light all that has been written and cited by social scientists on the subject over the last few years. Basing our local engagement strategies on such a uniform model seems like an even bigger one.

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  8. "That's not to minimize or ignore local dynamics; it's to admit that the local approach has to be more tailored than emerging from our UFOs and saying "Take us to your elders."

    Ian- Nice post. Are you by chance related to Schmedlap? The humor is similar. And, as MK and you both pointed out, no tribe is the same and has different power structures.

    "The elders are a spent force, and do not possess the necessary juice to control the community, in many of the areas we want."

    This is what I dealt with in Diyala and observed in Salinas, CA. Quite frankly, it was frustrating. In Diyala, the elders had lost power either through intimidation, assassination, or other factors. I called them mini-elders b/c they could not control their people. In Salinas, the older gang leaders were losing control b/c the younger generation was simply more prone to violence instead of following the traditional rules of respect to allow for business in the drug market.

    When the norms, values, and beliefs degrade significantly, sociologist use a term called anomie to describe the shifts. Some working groups are currently testing to see if this methodology can better help us to 1. understand these scenarios and 2. advise and assist in under these conditions.

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  9. MikeF, Schmedlap is not a relation, although I've seen the name around SWJ and Registan. Glad to hear people are thinking about anomie.

    I wonder what would happen if you said to your Salinas elders, "We'd like to empower you by placing highly-trained and well-equipped killers in your home to defend you, and give you the ability to call in air strikes in extreme circumstances, and deposit a large donation in your bank account."

    I suspect a lot of them would jump at the chance. And the community would lose respect for them even more. Cf. the position of Ahmad Wali Karzai--powerful, but hated almost universally.

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  10. Also, MikeF, can you please email the State Department and tell them that, yes, we too have some sociological features that we're witnessing in Afghanistan, and our perfect democratic gouvernmentalite/economy/legal system has not eradicated anomie yet. Thank you.

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  11. Ian, two quick points to add to your comments.

    1. I'm an economist by training so I rarely believe in handing money out whether it's called bribes, welfare, or civil affairs. While useful for short-term security, the long-term unintended consequences are damaging. On the other hand, I'm a big fan of micro-loans. Simply put, there has to be some incentive behind the money.

    2. I think groups like the HTS and PRTs were a good start, but I would like to see more inter-disciplinary working groups. Academia is so specialized (particularly in social sciences) that we often miss the forest by looking at the trees, but when you get a bunch of specialist together (anthro, sociologist, economist, geologist, historian, etc), some real innovative, creative ideas can be produced if the team works well together. Unfortunately, you have to get individuals that can leave ego at the door.

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  12. Gents -- Apologies for throwing this up and then running off without addressing anyone's points, but things have been busy over the last couple of days. This is a good discussion, and I hope to get to everything either today or over the weekend.

    First of all, I want to show how fair-minded I am and direct everyone's attention to a passage from Joe Klein's TIME piece on 1-12's operations in Senjaray, Zhari district. My thoughts (limited by space) to follow in the next comment.

    And so, Ellis went into Senjaray in December of 2009 with a real head of steam. He gathered the town elders for a series of shuras and told them about all the goodies that could be headed their way if they agreed to stand with him against the Taliban. By mid-January, he had a written document in English and Pashtu, signed by 12 local elders, promising cooperation and listing the various programs they would soon see. There was the school, of course, and a new medical clinic, and a renovation of the bazaar; there were new police stations, solar-powered wells, paved highways, bridges and irrigation canals.

    Actually, the elders — as opposed to the people of Senjaray — seemed more interested in the irrigation canals than anything else. In fact, the two most important leaders — the rather flaccid local warlord who was named Hajji Lala, and the police chief, whose 40 cops were dedicated to the protection of Hajji Lala — were interested in one specific canal. Unfortunately, it was not the canal Ellis wanted to refurbish on the poorer, north side of town. It was on the south side. "O.K., let's walk down there and check it out," Ellis said.

    "We can't walk," the local police chief told him. "We have to drive." And so they drove — 20 km west of Senjaray and then south. They were nowhere near town. "You might well ask, Why there?" Ellis says. Well, as it happened both Hajji Lala and the police chief owned farmland just south of the proposed canal. "But who was I to stand in the way of progress?" Ellis adds, dryly. "I could put hundreds of people to work, pay them 600 Afghans [$3] a day." It was the beginning of a partnership. Ellis wanted to prove he could produce. The project would begin the following week.

    See pictures of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

    See pictures of Afghanistan's dangerous Korengal Valley.

    But nobody showed up for work the following week. Ellis asked the elders what had happened. There was a problem, he was told. "We need to pay the workers ourselves," he was told. "We can't be seen having you pay the workers. The Taliban will cut our heads off." That seemed decidedly implausible. The Taliban were going to know where the money was coming from, no matter who put it in the workers' hands. "I know you are all honorable men," Ellis told the elders in a scene later reported by the Wall Street Journal. "But not everybody else is. The Canadians are not always honorable, and neither are we Americans." He proposed they set up a clandestine video camera to record the daily payments, but the elders didn't want that either.

    "It turned out, the situation was more complicated than I figured," Ellis says now. In fact, it wasn't a case of local corruption at all. Within days, intelligence collected from multiple sources revealed that several of the town elders had driven across the border to Quetta, in Pakistan, to clear the canal project with the Taliban leadership. "Apparently, they made a very convincing pitch," Ellis says, and his superiors later confirmed to me. "The canal project would enrich the area. It would be there when the Americans were gone. And the Taliban agreed: the project could go ahead, but they wanted 50% of the workers' pay."

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  13. I think this excerpt is an example of exactly the sort of thing that LTC Malevich was talking about: how an unexamined focus on "tribal elders" can result in the waste of resources and effort by directing operations at useless objectives; that is, by conducting operations whose effects are too narrowly focused, and which don't result in the endstates we desire.

    Let me state categorically that I recognize this risk, and I think LTC Malevich is correct in stating that we have to be aware and mindful of it.

    Having said that, I think Ian raises some important points about understanding the way that power relationships and social structure impact what I'd call our efforts to operationalize intelligence about the human terrain. Whether the elders' influence and leadership is democratic or not is far less important than knowing whether it's effective. Can the guys to whom we're directing resources (and by extension, holding responsible) really effect the end-states that we're working toward?

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  14. I completely agree--I'm agnostic as to whether we need to worry about what form of social organization ends up in place in AF after we leave. Effectiveness is the key. That said, the argument can be made (I believe Major Gant has made it) that Pashtun village organization, i.e. elders running the show, is some kind of primordial democracy that resembles nothing so much as a Greek polis. That to me is laughable.

    I also don't believe that continuing to alienate the kasharan (the Pashto word for juniors--either individuals or junior tribal branches) by favoring the masharan (elders or elder tribal branches) will ever be effective where it might be, in the east. In the south, tribes are completely irrelevant and, as the article shows, have to ask permission from someone to do anything.

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  15. And now, to take prior comments in order...

    MK -- Because doing so will promptly create a new set of disgruntled and disempowered locals looking for outside allies to help them retake power. Their families will provide local recruits and intel to the insurgents, and our efforts will fail.

    While acknowledging that what you’ve written is probably correct, I think you’ve highlighted one of the major limitations of the way a lot of people conceive counterinsurgency operations. I’ve been one of the people who says “no, come on, Nagl didn’t really mean that thing about REMAKING ENTIRE SOCIETIES,” but I’m starting to wonder. The fact of the matter is that it’s simply ludicrous to imagine that we can completely re-engineer the power dynamics of an entire society, locality by locality, until we’ve pacified an entire polity through democratization and the creation of a just social and governmental structure. We can’t even do that in America, as Ian and Mike’s comments about Salinas have underlined! Our objective must be to do what we can not to work counter to long-term, just, legitimate social structure, but I don’t think we can let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    We can talk all we want about working within Afghans’ conception of justice, and protecting core interests under a newly-constructed regime, and so on, and I’m not going to disagree with you on this. But I think you can sort of extrapolate this thinking to the macro level and you have a real problem, which is that the only way to secure America is to ensure justice around the globe. I think we need to stay focused on the more realistic goal, which is securing America by making sure we have people everywhere who can be held responsible for the conduct of their constituencies.

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  16. Going out of order to Ian's most recent:

    That said, the argument can be made (I believe Major Gant has made it) that Pashtun village organization, i.e. elders running the show, is some kind of primordial democracy that resembles nothing so much as a Greek polis. That to me is laughable.

    Agree. I think that this is/was probably far more true with the Anbar tribes than in Afghanistan, and maybe that's throwing people off. It's pretty consistently stated that leadership in the Anbari tribal system was about an ability to bring home the bacon, whereas the whitebeards in Afghanistan often will not have demonstrated any similar capability.

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  17. Actually, I'm going to forget about the taking-comments-in-order thing because as I reread, I recognize that there's not a whole lot of disagreement here. The thread has actually taken a different course than what I intended, but it's turned out great.

    The point of my initial post was to say that I think it's easy for us to fall into the trap of imagining that "operationalizing popular support" is about getting everyone on our side in some kind of a moral, democratic sense. That consensus is the objective rather than control (or even more poignantly, that control follows consensus rather than the opposite). I'm just very, very suspicious about approaches that emphasize legitimacy as the primary objective, because they tend to be based on the belief that COIN, rather than being a governing contest, is a making-people-like-us contest. Because the USG isn't even particularly good at the making-people-like-us line of effort ON ITS OWN TERRITORY, but it is generally pretty good at the governing part (particularly importantly, for this example, in the defending-from-outside-aggression lane).

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