Foreigners in a Foreign Land: Complexity and Reductionist Staff Approaches in Stability Operations
In a world of over seven billion people, the human domain and civil concerns on the battlefield are not distracters to be ignored or sidestepped by the military; they are dominant battlefield features that define campaign success or failure. Future complex operations will require a “new breed” of warrior, but this must go beyond images of squad leaders talking to vendors in the bazaar, or platoon leaders organizing neighborhood councils. These operations will require integrating deeper and more accurate understandings of society into military decision-making processes. This in turn requires a new breed of staff officer.
Collecting, analyzing, and applying local knowledge was one of the largest challenges facing coalition forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and stability operations in general. This paper seeks to present three points related to these challenges.
- First, staffs must have a deeper appreciation for and ability to operate within the humanized land domain and its inherent complexity. This requires staffs to have some degree of sustainable regional training and specialization.
- Second, without this, staff processes are more likely to amplify skewed information by reductionist approaches that selectively utilize decontextualized and irrelevant paradigms and data.
- Third, the reliance on faulty information, albeit institutionally processed and approved, can undermine working relationships with other U.S. agencies and coalition partners.
In this regard, all discussions of the Land Domain should be understood to actually be a “humanized land domain.” The U.S. Army has partially come to grips with this notion by characterizing stability as being on par and concurrent with the traditional missions of offense and defense. The military, though, is still largely uncomfortable with how to conduct stability operations, and continues to subordinate them within a framework of lethal action. Part of this has to do with limited institutional expertise, but it is also that stability operations themselves are inherently non-military, not just because they involve less shooting, but because they are hard to measure and clear definitions of success are elusive. The essence of what is commonly referred to as the Powell Doctrine is overwhelming force coupled with clear criteria for success and withdrawal. Stability activities allow for neither. Planning to take control of a terrain feature or defeat a military force is different from attempting to manipulate social systems, which in turn must be predicated on an understanding these systems.
In these complex settings, the U.S. military often creates and operates off of dubious “facts.” This is despite a recognition that we operate in VUCA environments: environment that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Indeed the operational approach is supposed to account for this by constantly questioning assumptions and adjusting course so as to avoid marches of folly. But without requisite knowledge and timely, reliable feedback mechanisms, the ability of a staff to advise a commander is a challenge, and course adjustments themselves may not be grounded in reality. This can result in stability operation equivalents of trench warfare, characterized by the seizure of meaningless pieces of terrain in the form of inappropriate development projects, or the establishment of local institutions based on Western models that do not necessarily resonate with non-Western populations.
Military planning formats for stability activities do not vary significantly from planning for more traditional combat operations: plans in stability operations are a model that becomes a socially constructed reality that prescribes action. This affords synchronization through navigating a critical path of achievable Decisive Points (DPs) and Critical Events (CEs). These points represent a series of hypotheses within a theoretical framework that the military refers to as a plan. The hypotheses are tested in the form of operations, and the research findings are presented in situation reports (SITREPs) and after action reports (AARs). Achieving and evaluating decisive points in stability operations, though, requires measurement, and measurement requires method. Method requires selecting and evaluating indicators that are captured in a consistent manner over space and time. Here the methodological ground starts getting squishy.
There is an inherent contradiction in attempting to measure what the military characterizes as ambiguous and uncertain. The military’s focus on metrics is good to a certain extent: it lends insight into complex events, suggests action plans, and justifies resource expenditures. Measurements, though, may do more harm than good if the measurements selectively justify a particular course of action or reflect institutionally constructed facts that are products of faulty deductive paradigms. Body counts in Vietnam did not reflect U.S. success any more than the number of wells dug in East Africa, or the number of town councils established in Iraq. Misusing indicators may provide false conclusions: an increase or decrease in violence, for example, does not necessarily reflect intentions or capability of insurgents and should not automatically be used as an indicator of our own success or failure. On the contrary, it might reflect the dominance of insurgents and the hesitancy of the local population or government forces to counter them.
Human expertise and field research can offset faulty paradigms and incomplete data sets. However, they must be matched by staff processes that can contextualize and account for multidimensional, situational, and dynamic information drawn from multiple sources with different interests, affinities, and standards for reporting. Moreover, faulty or skewed information is amplified if the information is converted into complex briefing slides. It is not so much that these presentations are bad in themselves; it is that they are often used to mask superficial understandings and sparse information. However, once something is published or “hung” on a computer network portal, the information is given institutional significance and is reproduced in multiple forms and handed off to succeeding units. Briefing slides, therefore, especially those that are approved by a commanding general, become official positions that promote a command-driven groupthink, even if their content consists of overly general “bullet comments” or “quad charts.” Commanders and staff who have training and experience in particular regions can reduce this tendency.
Functional specialists, particularly in fields such as information operations, intelligence, and civil affairs, will be less effective if they have not spent years focusing on a single region, similar to what is done with Army Special Forces. Efforts to incorporate specialists, such as human terrain teams, Af-Pak Hands, and interagency partners, are positive steps. However, they also create an increased burden on commanders and staff to utilize or interact with them appropriately. This requires that regional understanding goes beyond a limited number of specialists in subordinate and supporting roles. In this regard, the introduction of regionally aligned forces is an important start point. Regional specialization in the military, though, must go beyond single random assignments in a regionally aligned brigade, component command, or combatant command. Rather, regionally specialized soldiers need to serve in a series of vertically aligned assignments, each focusing on the same region and being accompanied by civilian and military education. Ultimately this may create commanders and staff officers who do not enter into a conflict without ever having been in the region before, but rather who have a foundation in understanding and applying relevant information from a broad range of sources.
Sources and Limitations of Information
In Afghanistan, in addition to intelligence sources and battlespace owners, there existed a network of trained human terrain specialists, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), District Support Teams (DSTs), Special Operations District and Provincial Augmentation Teams (PATs and DATs), and Civil Affairs teams. Other sources included debriefing Afghan military units. Although these entities are in an advantageous position to collect information, this collection must also be accompanied by consistent command focus. This can require difficult choices, given that interactions with local populations are de facto combat operations that draw on resources, while not necessarily generating readily recognizable results.
For example, it may require a convoy of ten armored vehicles with air support to drive to a village to conduct an hour’s worth of interviews. Lives may be lost for no tangible benefit, as the interviews themselves may yield little information. Rather than any form of meaningful information collection, interactions in tactical settings can often be more theatrical public discourse than insightful encounters that gradually build reasonable models of reality. For instance, interviews with an almost randomly selected old man may be reported as “viewpoints of village elders”, and information collected under the watchful eyes of armed soldiers or Taliban sympathizers is of questionable reliability. However, the alternative of not interacting with local populations in meaningful exchanges of information is more detrimental and forces a reliance on even more limited sources of information.
This cautionary note applies to Key Leader Engagements (KLEs) as well. KLEs in Iraq and Afghanistan merited their own acronym and entire staff sections dedicated to outlining networks of influence and what effects “engagement” with them could hope to achieve, like the impact that artillery would have on an enemy armored formation. KLEs became the military equivalent of key informant interviews, which are methodologically risky, especially when done through translators and if not nested into multiple other methods.[i] KLEs often had great influence over command and staff actions, even though, again, they were essentially theatrical performances repeated with continuous new casts of ISAF leadership. In the words of one HTT member in Afghanistan, “we’ve coached them on the appropriate answers and they tell us what we want to hear.”[ii]
Higher staffs, though, are heavily reliant on these reports, which in turn are often utilized in rigid and faulty deductive approaches. Despite the lack of alternatives and the collective staff desperation for data, such reports must be kept in perspective. As such, “facts” in VUCA settings must be accepted as “much less linear, much more impressionistic and mosaic, difficult to measure.”[iii] Surveys and “atmospherics” can compound the problem, since quantifiable survey data is attractive due to its simplicity and the opportunity to outsource it to nonmilitary parties. Survey data, however, is questionable even under ideal circumstances (with large population data groups and baselines of normalcy). In nonpermissive environments, the veracity of survey data is undermined by any number of factors, to include fear of reprisals, limited access to population groups, approaches that do not incorporate local nuance, and surveys that are falsified, either out of convenience or at the behest of a local powerbroker seeking to benefit from conveyance of misleading information. Atmospheric reports that draw conclusions based on detached conversations can be so misleading as to be dangerous, since they do not necessarily account for context or reflect broad popular sentiment.
The reality is that it is difficult to reduce complex and dynamic human interactions into concise reports and measurable facts that can be grasped and utilized in staff settings. The categorization of social structures needs to accommodate shifting ethnicity, kinship, and multiple overlapping and contextual identities.[iv] Otherwise, networks of influence can be constructed based on questionable linkages. Tribes, for instance, can take on disproportionate significance in military settings because they are easily identifiable and quantifiable. However, much of the insight on tribes and their contemporary role comes second-hand and from historical sources that do not account for how varying cross-sections of a population may characterize their own tribal membership, and view appropriate and inappropriate roles for tribal leaders. All social institutions change and this dynamism is cyclically accelerated by conflict and economic stress, meaning that cognitive frameworks and running estimates must be constantly updated.[v]
In some cases in Afghanistan, for example, economic incentives, political alliances, or narco-trafficking have rendered tribal relationships less relevant. Conversely, there are instances where loyalty to the Afghan government or to the Taliban was based almost exclusively on kinship and tribal identity. In Iraq, tribal linkages and religious affiliation were often given disproportionate weight in the immediate post-invasion timeframe. Yet later, tribes gained more prominence, with individuals seeking tribal affiliation as a means of protection in the midst of social collapse.[vi] Likewise, as religious differences became accentuated, Iraqis had to adopt a stronger sectarian religious identity. In many African countries, there may be a tense relationship between civil authorities and tribal leaders. As such, inappropriate empowerment of local tribal leaders by unknowing members of the U.S. Military may decrease stability through the exacerbation of localized power struggles.
Western cultural prisms may also cause information to be misinterpreted. Information Operations, for example, might include a commander-approved messaging campaign that highlights how terrible the Taliban are for bombing a mosque and killing senior Afghan political and security officials who were in attendance. To many Americans, this is a logical approach to engender popular outrage against the Taliban and thus isolate them from the populations using a “war of words.”[vii] To many Afghans, though, the same messaging might demonstrate that the Taliban have the power to define who is, and is not, a good Muslim, and that even senior Afghan officials are not safe. Rather than hurting the Taliban, this message empowers them.
Furthermore, different individuals and U.S. organizations may have different perspectives. Take the example of an Afghan governor in a district that had both a U.S. combat brigade with State Department advisors, and a Special Operations team. The Special Operations team consistently reported that the governor was ineffective and should be replaced. The State Department, on the other hand, reported how effective the same governor was and why he needed additional support.[viii] The differing viewpoints were both a product of limited sources of information. Similarly divergent views were common between special operations forces and conventional units, as well as between the State Department and USAID. These divergences in information are important in raising questions. Otherwise, staffs rely on single sources and are more likely to accept assessments at face value.
In this vein, military briefings in stability operations should be less rigid, so as to promote the free flow of ideas, especially from interagency counterparts. Otherwise, the ambiguity inherent to stability operations can empower senior leadership in an unbalanced manner that discourages staff officers from raising issues, since their objections are most often not grounded in solid facts or relevant doctrine. This presents the risk of faulty institutionally approved knowledge being fabricated from the interaction of rank and proximity to rank, as opposed to accepting the limitations of our own knowledge. Military staff processes can further distort this information, especially if it is unduly shaped by theoretical approaches, such as counterinsurgency doctrine. Rather, information should be collected to determine the nature of the conflict and the appropriate mix of doctrinal and non-doctrinal tools. This requires more complex and coordinated staff action between the military and its unified action partners.
LTG Michael Flynn stresses the need for widening the aperture of information collection, while General Stanley McCrystal advocates “flattening the network” to better match perceptions at the tactical and operational levels.[ix] Both require close coordination with a broad range of non-military actors, especially other U.S. Government organizations. Other agencies, though, have different institutional cultures, as well as different ways and means, even if the problem is defined in the same way. The State Department is challenged to operate even in semi-permissive environments and they have limited numbers of Foreign Service Officers, of whom, even fewer have military or stability experience. This often frustrates military counterparts who may be eager to view the State Department as regional and political experts, thus relieving the military of the burden.
Department of State approaches, however, focus more on political reporting, versus planning and directly addressing problems.[x] In contrast, a common U.S. military cliché is that problems should not be raised without presenting solutions. This ignores that if there were an apparent solution, there would not be a problem. Yet this is an American Military cultural element: the presupposition that all problems have solutions and impossible missions are possible. Inaction is unacceptable and reductionist approaches that simplify conflict are typical: entities are reduced to hostile, friendly, or neutral factors relative to their attitudes towards the U.S. This does not reflect how the same entities may be viewed by other agencies and cross-sections of the local population, though, and how those entities may change as circumstances change.
For example, in much of southern Afghanistan, Afghan government officials and the Taliban are not polarized, but rather have overlapping relationships based on patronage, family ties, corruption, mutual accommodation, and narco-trafficking. This does not necessarily make those Afghan officials our enemies, but rather is a measure of the society in which we are operating. However, while the State Department may be attempting to build relationships with them, the military may place them on arrest lists and attempt to remove them.
In this sense, differing institutional categorizations complicate unified approaches, with some military members strategizing within one paradigm and interagency partners within another. Rather than questioning assumptions, the selective use of institutionally-approved knowledge runs the risk of reinforcing and reproducing skewed approaches and widening interagency divides. This is further exacerbated by compressed military timelines for staff actions and requests for information. Interagency counterparts not directly answerable to a military chain of command may not respond immediately and thus become further excluded from decision processes. Often by the time they do respond, the military has moved on.
Equally important, activities within higher headquarters in Afghanistan and Iraq were largely devoid of Afghan and Iraqi influence and involvement. The involvement that did occur was routed through multiple staff sections and language filters that could not account for nuance, context, or ulterior motives. Localized priorities were often not known or taken into account. Consequently, coalition civil-military leadership was prone to set its own priorities, and then expected host nation counterparts to concur, usually in some form of Key Leader Engagement. In some ways this was cultural arrogance, but it was also a product of an institutional structure that placed little emphasis on understanding operating environments, but demanded action within the framework of one-year tours, even if the action was inappropriate. In this environment, “green on blue” attacks proved a highly effective way of increasing the divide between the U.S. and Afghan counterparts by further reducing opportunities to understand Afghan social, political, and economic dynamics. The improved partnering of officers experienced in a specific region with local counterparts may incur short-term risk, but it is a critical factor in the development and execution of sound plans and operations in the longer term.
Unification of unified action requires staff processes that do not just emphasize combat and logistics, but also the regional, social, political, and economic context in which military operations are conducted. Plans that ignore social complexities or do not factor them in properly run the risk of being both irrelevant and dangerous. This requires more than common sense and familiarity with generic plans and strategy formulation that can result in theory-doctrine being applied indiscriminately or inappropriately. Rather, it should be adjusted with new sets of hypotheses-plans drawn from improved understanding of the unique humanized operating environments that will continue to characterize the modern battlefield.
Although some senior leaders may rebuff ideas that they need to have regional or functional expertise, they nonetheless must have a foundation of knowledge to be able to determine whether ends are feasible in different social settings and whether information provided to them is credible. Otherwise, the officer corps will have little comprehension of the veracity of the information it is dealing with and runs the risk of devolving into a dumbed-down managerial and process-oriented element that relies on intermittent and often flawed expertise from presumed experts. Not only does this undermine overall effectiveness, it prevents the military from operating on par with other agencies.
[i] H. Russell Bernard, Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition (Alta Mira, California: AltaMira Press, 2002), 190.
[ii] Personal Observation, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2012.
[iii] James Dubik, “Operational Art in Counterinsurgency: A View From the Inside,” The Institute for the Study of War, Report 5 (May 2012), 13.
[iv] Ronald Cohen, “Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 7 (Oct 1978), 388.
[v] Leif O. Manger, From the Mountains to the Plains: The Integration of the Lafofa Nuba into Sudanese Society (Sweden, Motala Gafiska, 1994), 130.
[vi] Personal Interviews and Research, Iraq 2005.
[vii] Personal Observation, Kandahar, Afghanistan 2012.
[viii] Personal Observation, Kandahar, Afghanistan 2012.
[ix] Michael Flynn, Matthew Pottinger, and Paul Batchelor “Fixing Intel in Afghanistan” Marine Corps Gazette Volume 94, Issue 4 (Feb 2010).
Stanley McCrystal “It Takes a Network: The New Front Line of Modern Warfare,” Foreign Policy (22 February 2011), accessed 2 January 2014, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/22/it_takes_a_network
[x] Charles A. Stevenson, America’s Foreign Policy Toolkit: Key Institutions and Processes (Los Angeles, Sage Press, 2013), 155.