Saturday, February 5, 2011

Primum non nocere

Up until about a year ago, I used to like to go to panel discussions and other such talks about Afghanistan. They were downers, but there was still a lot of hope. Not so much any more. They are usually so bloody depressing that I have a hard time sitting through them. How many panels do you need to attend to figure out that we haven't been doing things right and have no plans of doing so in the future? I had to tap out.

Until this week, but not because it was about Afghanistan in particular. On Thursday, USIP hosted a panel on the nexus of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration) and SSR (Security Sector Reform) in Afghanistan. SSR is a pet topic of mine recently and USIP's current program on the topic is just tops. The confluence of DDR and SSR is an interesting topic in the defense world - one that is underdeveloped yet growing (the best primer out there was by Sean McFate at NDU). It was a good panel and well moderated to keep on time and topic (if you're ever on a panel moderated by Bob Perito, stick to your alloted time or he'll make you stick to it).

The major takeaways from the panel is that we (the U.S., NATO and Afghanistan) have not done DDR or SSR well and it doesn't appear that we intend to change that any time soon. Specifically, DDR was not even mentioned in the Bonn Agreement and when it was begun, it focused exclusively on parties to the Bonn Agreement, not now-labeled Illegal Armed Groups in the south. The program's only useful output was the reduction of some heavy weapons from the country, although it seems that most of these were unserviceable anyway. Metrics were focused on outputs, such as weapons removed, instead of looking deeply at the program's objectives, which were essentially unmet. Another interesting tidbit from this talk was that the senior leaders of the militias landed in the government and many soldiers landed in some sort of government or government-sanctioned group, but lots of soldiers ended up with nothing to do and most of the middle leadership were essentially excluded from everything. Not a very effective DDR program.

There were more details of past and current DDR initiatives, which were fairly separated from SSR, and the video is up so you can catch it all if that's your thing. There is also a paper coming out in the next couple of months by one of the panelists, Caroline Hartzell, which I'm looking forward to reading. This event did raise a bigger question in my mind, which has been plaguing me on other topics. We've bollixed this up for years and we continue to bollix it up. Here is my question: if we're not doing it right and we plan to continue doing what doesn't work, should we be doing it all?

The title of this post is from the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. In this regard, war is always harmful to some people, but should nations undertake programs and actions that harm their own mission? Is it possible that doing nothing would be better? I'm not speaking of the Afghan War writ large, but the programs therein. Our DDR policies aren't helping our mission at all and is hindering it in many cases, so should we doing it still? Same, same with police training. Or opium eradication. They all seems like things we should do, but what we are doing is counterproductive to our goals. It strikes me that maybe a better course of action would be to do nothing. Obviously, analysis would have to be done (some might ask why we'd start doing that now...) on the likely effects of doing nothing, but in some cases it seems like the apt course of action.

Afghanistan is becoming a tragic and elongated episode of Yes, Minister, where the leadership is some sort of coterie of Sir Humphrey Applebys. "[W]e don't measure our success by results, but by activity. And the activity is considerable." This is not to say that program and mission leaders aren't doing their best to meet their objectives, but we're putting a greater premium on doing things - anything, really - because it makes it look like we're trying. That's just not good enough. This war is costing everyone too much in everything to keep going down this path. There doesn't appear to be anything that will change the fact that we're going to be there for some time to come. But we need to start looking at what we're doing, what we're spending time and money on, and stop undertaking activities that hinder our ability to attain some modicum of success (however ill-defined that is). We need to start ensuring that we're first doing no harm.


  1. It's not the military's fault. They cannot go across the Durand line and dismantle the terrorist hubs.

    And the United States thinks it can effect some sort of weird Marshall plan - military from the right, civilian from the left - in Pakistan via things like the utterly bizare "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009"

    The best thing to do would be to slow transition to FID, or whatever it's supposedly called, and decrease the amount of aid monies to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    None of this will happen. That is because when you have so many think tanks, and so many agencies, and so many staffers, and so many politicians, everyone wants to "solve" things.

    I'm sorry but that is why the phrase "self-licking ice cream cone" exists.

    All of DC seems to be one and by that I am not putting down the likes of you or the other Ink Spotters whom I admire despite my occasionally cranky comments.

    It's built in to the process. 60 years of bilateral relationships and arms procurement and aid agencies mean that a lot of dreck is built into the system.

    The military seems to be focusing on ANSF because we have little to no leverage over Karzai and governance, and we have no leverage across the border.

    Worse still, our foreign policy community can't seem to figure out how you deal with a society that purposefully radicalizes its own people in order to keep the aid spigot open. It is very easy to make a fool out of bright young things with good credentials. Even old not so bright things with good DC credentials.

    Sorry, but there it is.

    I've basically given up, except, it seems wrong to stop paying attention when I've done so faithfully these past years.

    And, yes, I have online work to do and I am procrastining. Make me stop, please.

  2. Correction to above: The Act I mention is civilian and meant to supply NGOs but this is easily corrupted, cannot be variefied, and the state therein is very sophisticated at internal information operations directed at its own people.

    To be honest, it weird me out to use humanitarian aid as a way to manipulate other people.

    It taints the humanitarian aid and most of the time our objectives are not met because they are based on wishful thinking social science and not on a good historical understanding of motivations.

    Now I'm done.

  3. The use of aid to manipulate populations is, generally speaking, the purpose of aid isn't it? The U.S. partakes in some altruistic humanitarian aid (PEPFAR being the most useful of these), but it's hard to support such expenditures (even if they're such a small percentage of total and discretionary spending) without some benefit to the U.S. But it does taint its use and is rarely founded in true needs analysis. This is, however, a topic for which I am woefully unable to speak to with any real credentials.

    Activity is not an end state and we need to stop treating it as such. You're correct that there is a crowded kitchen of people who just want to fix things. Activity isn't fixing, though.

    Of course, blogging is activity that doesn't fix much, so maybe there's some hypocrisy in this?? Madhu, you are my favorite internet existentialist. Please don't give up!

  4. True on the aid. Better aid than war, better trade than aid? I don't know, really.

    Except, who is it?, William Easterly or someone that talks about small aid projects with a clear goal versus larger projects meant to change entire societies and so forth.

    ("just asking that aid benefit the poor")

    You educate people through your blogging. That is never activity for activities' sake.

    And, of course, I'm all talk. What the heck to I really know?

    We shall see. We shall see. I think light bulbs are beginning to dawn but we are too far into this process.

    I mentioned at Registan that I thought "Irreversible Transition" was really a way to lock people in long term more than anything else.

    I am not so much an existentialist as a once dreamy eyed young faculty member of an elite institution that had the scales fall from her eyes.

    Our elite are not gods but men and women with feet of clay.

    I don't honestly think I've recovered. Perhaps you went through a bit of that at West Point.

    It's hard when your dreams meet reality, isn't it?

    Okay, now I'm really going or tomorrow is going to be awful.


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