Small Wars Journal

“Temporareality”: Permanent Contingency Operations and the Pervasive Influence it Has on US Military Operations & Culture and the Afghan Perceptions of Commitment

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 12:30am

“Temporareality”: Permanent Contingency Operations and the Pervasive Influence it Has on US Military Operations & Culture and the Afghan Perceptions of Commitment

Greg Kleponis


I can’t provide the reader an official or textbook definition of “Temporareality” in short because I essentially made the word up. If one however were to find it in Webster’s or Wikipedia, the definition would go something like this; “A mind-set that develops in individuals or groups as a result of a lack of goals or objectives or organizational focus, mission, or animating purpose; manifesting in a lack of commitment, risk aversion, lack of intellectual curiosity, minimization, cynicism, scepticism and cognitive dissonance.” That sounds like a serious organizational condition, right?  A credible argument can be made that the US efforts in Afghanistan have largely been affected by this phenomenon. Many have labelled the US efforts as a “failure,” “fragile success” and just as having “mixed results.” The reasons for these less than enviable results can be attributed to a host of exogenous factors such as endemic corruption, incompetent or unwilling Afghan security forces, lack of economic development, or influence by outside state actors such as Pakistan and Iran. All these factors however, I believe, can be traced to an endogenous causal factor which has been at work for the past 16 years which I refer to as temporareality.

The last sentence above is very telling. The US has been laboring away in Afghanistan for the past 16 years. To date, it has become the longest “war” or conflict for the USA in its 230-year history.  What is it about this war that has allowed it to drag out for so long?  One might attribute a lack of decisive leadership by at least two administrations. Others might look to a lack of risk taking on the part of military leadership. It could also be the ever changing “goals” or “visions” that the various experts who seem to come and go with head spinning frequency, have for the so-called end-state.  Lack of decisive leadership, exacerbated by lack of awareness of the people, politics and culture have all contributed to the problem but the general lack of a sense of permanence is the real culprit.   The general lack of awareness of the people and the culture, even after 16 years stems from one of the symptoms listed above which is lack of intellectual curiosity or intellectual laziness. The fact for example that the US Military has been fully engaged in Afghanistan for 16 years and to my research, there is not a single senior officer nor non-commissioned officer serving as a mentor, advisor or on the RSM (Resolute Support Mission) staff that speaks any of the commonly used languages in Afghanistan such as Pashtun or Dari, is simply astonishing. Similarly, not a single Company, Battalion or Brigade commander who during the entire time the military has been deployed there has bothered to even  learn the language at an acceptably proficient or even passable level, never mind fluent. This perceived laziness is interpreted in many ways by both the US personnel and our Afghan friends. It says, “Don’t bother to learn the language, it’s not important and we’re not sure we’re staying.” The Afghans interpret it to mean that their language isn’t worth bothering to learn and they probably aren’t bothering to learn because they don’t intend to stay.  

Temporareality is a strange military internal sub-culture that I have personally observed for over 16 years in 4 post 9-11 deployments. A major contributor to this phenomenon is the persistence of the notion of “temporary”. This expeditionary mind-set is brought about by the expeditionary model that we function in where it is doctrinally defined and operationally constructed to be temporary. Personnel are deployed on 6 months and 1 year cycles. Living quarters, apart from the few permanent buildings that existed prior to US military arrival and subsequently appropriated, are nearly always temporary. Accommodations consist of tents, plywood structures or shipping containers. This alone sends a significant message to both soldiers and the Afghans – “don’t bother building anything permanent because we’re not staying.” A important contributor to this persistent sense of temporary can also be linked to the way institutional aid, support and operations are funded through Congress which is year to year and lacks long term financial commitment. If the political apparatus funding the war effort on is doing so in an ad-hoc, short-term basis, it isn’t hard to imagine that both a short-term orientation and mentality as well as a reluctance of full commitment will follow.


Let’s examine the effect PERSTEMP[i] or “personnel tempo” on actual people.  The effect of short term assignments not only on personnel but the mission itself is complex and beyond the scope of this paper. I would like to describe however a couple of key behaviours that result from this policy. For the past 16 years, the policy for personnel deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom has seen rotational tours of six months to one year between all the services. At present all personnel are rotated on these standard 1-year tours presumably because of the operational and social damage it causes at home station.  A close examination of the effects of these rotations reveals the deeper effects it has on the lack of overall operational success and the transitory nature it has on building partnerships institutionally and establishing any permanence and definition in programs we create.

One-year tours, like temporary living quarters send personnel in our military a message. The message is this; “We know this place sucks, we know this work is hard, we’re really not going to be here that long anyway so bear with us. We are going to manage the “pain” for you so that you can get back to your ‘real jobs’ as quickly as possible.”  The “takeaway” either directly or indirectly is pretty clear. In the end, none of this really matters to your long-term career prospect. In fact, an attempt in 2009 by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to establish a long-term career oriented approach to Afghanistan called the “Afghan Hands” program was aggressively resisted by the services as senior officers advised junior ones that it was a career killer.1

The second effect that one-year rotations have is that it creates a staff of dilettantes who never really fully becoming competent. While they may be expert in their respective fields on the support side, the same jobs they had at home; such as logistics, security, administration or personnel, they never can become experts in this environment; an environment vastly different that any they work in at their home stations. Advisors and military mentors and trainers who are there ostensibly to work closely with the Afghan counterparts and develop a close personal or at least professional relationship, are also there for no more than a year. One must ask how effective can these people really be if they spend only one year there? How can they possibly be expected to develop the cross-cultural competency, and language skills to be effective or to even gain trust? Trust is, for most Eastern Cultures an indispensible element in relationships and relationship building. We have seen the results of failing to fully appreciate the importance of it throughout our experience in Afghanistan as we meet passive resistance from ministerial and departmental officials or even just plain deception. This rotational policy is also responsible for a lack of continuity at the staff and programmatic levels. Programs and policies seem to have a transitory and fleeting dimension to them. They tend to be developed in power-point and sponsored by individuals or small groups of individuals who are also temporary. They, in many cases, peter out or are dropped as the new “crew” arrive and need to make their mark while at the same time the original “sponsors” of the program rotate away. In other words, there is little by the way of institutional continuity or even programmatic permanence.

The third message that is sent to our Afghan partners is a lack of commitment. How do we expect them to commit to our programs and vision of the future if we ourselves seem incapable after over a decade and a half to do so?  It is my experience that this waffling by various administrations as well as military leaders and diplomats has at best frustrating and demoralizing those Afghans trying who once placed trust in us and at worst infuriating and alienating others. There has been a series of what the military refer to as incidents of “Green on Blue”[ii] shootings. Briefly this is where local soldiers have turned on and killed and injured US and coalition soldiers. Many state that the problem is that fanatics get through the vetting net and are then able to kill at close quarters as an insider. It is a problem of infiltration or is it possible that demoralized, cynical members of the police and military make excellent recruits for such a mission? I believe that the latter should be considered; if you as an Afghan citizen view lack of commitment to your country by the US and the never ending discussion about leaving by Coalition and US politicians and representatives, coupled with what seems to be increasing violence and destabilization, then doesn’t the US simply look like an unwelcome intervener or at worst invader? Why not kill them? Isn’t it as a patriot, really “your duty?” Add in the rhetoric by the Taliban and other conservative preachers and local leaders that we are simply infidels, and this becomes a very powerful motivational tool. The narrative goes as “They’re not staying anyway they’re making things worse so let’s get them out of here sooner by killing and demoralizing them.”

Temporareality and its Effect on Corruption

Anyone who has spent more than 30 minutes in the country of Afghanistan knows that one of the most pernicious and damaging aspects to progress is corruption. When discussing corruption I’m not referring to the sort of ordinary low level almost cultural aspect of corruption but rather the large scale corruption involving public larceny, rent seeking, nepotism and partisan patronage that permeates all ministries and  makes it fiendishly difficult if not impossible for institutional trust to develop in a normal way.

Corruption in Afghanistan emanates from a basis of cultural artefact. Minor or low level corrupt practices such as kick-backs and small payments to low level officials have been an aspect of life in the East for centuries if not longer. It is a culture fact of life both in civil administration as well as in the private sector.  The large or literally industrial scale corruption that we are witnessing and directly feeling the effects of in Afghanistan now, is a phenomenon brought about by the conditions that exist in the country presently mainly caused by two distinct elements:  reconstruction and aid policies and our uncertain, temporary posture. The first element has to do with the money made available by the USA.  Billions of dollars flow into the country monthly to finance public works projects and pay for life support, materials and salaries for those supporting the US and Afghan Government. This tsunami of money has flowed into a country that prior to the US intervention that average daily income of an individual was about $3 dollars a day and the GDP or what passed for one was 4 billion.2 This unchecked flow of money into an otherwise cash and resource “drought stricken” country could only have dramatically bad effects if not carefully managed. The second is the lack of oversight, accountability and criminal enforcement processes are all influenced by the phenomenon of “Termporareality”. The officer who engages in corruption do so because in part because they believe at least two things: The first is that the US is not going to hang around long enough to prosecute them and secondly, and more importantly, that they need to steal as much as they can get their hands on before the US leaves. This mind-set extends downward from by cabinet officers to the regional police chief. Everyone believes that the party will end soon and they better stuff as much from the buffet as they can into their pockets. Sadly nothing the US government and military says or does indicate that the truth is otherwise.

Effect of Security Forces

There is an old saying “you can’t buy an Afghan, but you sure can rent one.” Billions of dollars have been spent arming and equipping and paying the Afghan army and police and the effort to organize, train, equip and deploy the Afghan Security Forces has accounted for much of the focus as well as cash of the US government efforts in Afghanistan.3 The US has worked hard in this effort and US personnel have lost their lives in this process. The soldiers and police serve in their units at great personal risk to both themselves and their families in many cases. While trying not to assign motives generally, my personal research mostly indicates many do so strictly for the small pay check they receive in a country where there is approximately 35% or higher unemployment.4 Others do as they serve regionally with members of their clan or tribes as a way to ensure they maintain some element of power or security as they have little trust in the central government’s ability to protect them in the future. History has taught them that decentralization and regional power bases are the norm. The current system of centralized government is an autocratic enterprise not to be trusted and decentralization will be the future.5 Their idea therefore, is that they should remain postured accordingly. Security forces are also in some cases reluctant in many cases to aggressively go after insurgent groups as they may be the very people that will have to work with when (not if) the Americans leave.

How Other States View It

Temporareality is observed by and acted on by neighbouring states as well. Pakistan believes that the US has no historical legacy or presence therefore any legitimacy in the region nor wishes it to have one. This is one of the primary reasons for their constant meddling in Afghanistan and attempts to frustrate any American progress. It interferes by supporting insurgent groups with the aim to keep the country off- balance. Iran and Russia also view the US presence as temporary (much like their own was) and is now developing influence orbits in the country among certain groups to ensure they have influence in a post-American Afghanistan. They are developing their Afghan engagement strategy for when not if we leave.

How the Enemy Views It

Finally, temporareality affects how the “enemy” views us and how they construct their own near term and long-term strategies. Like Pakistan, the Taliban and other anti-Western, anti-Ghani government opposition, view the USA’s presence as both illegitimate but more importantly, as temporary. They view the USA’s presence as a short to intermediate term temporary deterrent to their eventual end-state. In other words they are having to slow down a little for the American “speed bump” in the road before reaching the ultimate success of their to their long term goals which are the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan guided by and centered on Deobandi/Sunni Fundamentalist ideology and law.6 Dealing with US forces and the corrupt central government is a necessary inconvenience for the moment in their view. The approach to achieving the desired end-state by the collation and the Taliban couldn’t be more opposite. The US seems to be unsure of what a post-US Afghanistan should look like. They are unsure of how to proceed with developing the security forces or helping to build government ministries. On the other hand, the Taliban seems to articulate with crystal clarity who they wish to remove, what they wish to achieve and precisely what the end-state will look like. While the US seems to plod along with a year to year plan, they on the other hand, have an adapted a 15 year strategy. The best the US can manage in terms of planning is from administration to administration. The Taliban despite set-backs infighting, loss of key leaders and resource difficulties seem to remain steady in their messaging, unwavering in their rhetoric and obstinate in supporting their insurgency.

Temporareality is what I consider one of the greatest impediments to progress in the Afghanistan enterprise. At the beginning of this paper, the effects of temporareality were put forward. What therefore are the causes of this condition? Why can’t the US and its military seem to adopt a consistent policy, develop a coherent strategy, go with it and see it to its successful conclusion? Isn’t that more or less what the Armed Forces of the United States were really almost mythically known for?  My explanation is this: I believe there is a common lack of responsibility or willingness to take responsibility in both in the current political and military leadership cohort. They are reluctant to take risks. The advent of instant news, 24 hour news cycles, social media and above all the lack of integrity by the main stream media and complete disregard for the truth frightens them all. The most glaring example is that of military personnel having to use rotary assets to fly 2 miles to the Kabul Airport because the main arterial road is considered “too dangerous.” Do we even need to remind the reader that this in the capital of the country. I cite the 14 January 2018 interview with General Nicholson, Commanding General, US Forces, Afghanistan, Resolute Support Operation (RSO). In an interview with a 60 minutes Lara Logan, the correspondent questioned why the RSO was flying personnel by helicopter a mere 2 miles to the Kabul Airport. She asked him if it wasn’t the military definition of surrendering terrain? He replied, “I disagree, I see it as a moral imperative to protect our personnel.” He is defending the US and Afghan inability to control a mere two miles of roadway in the middle of the capital city instead ceding failure by using air. This is exactly the type of “safety first”, no risk, high school principal approach to military personnel.  Advisors, when they are permitted to visit their Afghan counterparts do so in armored vehicles, in full body armor, flanked by two fully armed security guards. Again, one must ask what kind of message this sends when an Afghan general is sitting down to a meeting in his dress uniform and his counterpart looks as if he is about to engage in a deep sea dive. We see this in leaderships increasing unwillingness to take risks for operations in the capital and countryside instead walling them up in mini- Fort Apache’s. No military leader wants to be on MSNBC as they “guy who got that transgender kid killed.”  The advent of instant news, 24 hour news cycles, social media and above all the lack of integrity by the main stream media and complete disregard for the truth frightens them all. No one wants to be there long term because it’s a numbers game, in a country of chaos and unpredictably with some really bad people who want to do bad things to you, something is going to go wrong- it’s inevitable. Among the politicians the same is true. If they don’t proclaim a long-term strategy in the country, then it won’t be “their war”, in other words they won’t own the risk, thus they fuel the effort with quarterly and annual budget allowances which sends clear messages to those in the field.

There are those in the national defense establishment who might argue that keeping a temporary or conditional footprint in the country will keep our adversaries off –balance and guessing as to what we’ll do next. In other words, I guess, they mean the less that we actually know what we are doing, the even less they will. As for me, I’m not sure that our adversaries got the memo. As people, they react humanly to basic informational inputs- often emotionally and what I’ve described is their interpretation of what we are doing.  We will leave one day that is certain. When is the question?  Our history is mixed. We pulled out of Vietnam and left it to fall. We retreated from a fragile success in Iraq and left it to conflict. On the other hand we are still in Germany, Italy and Japan. It’s a mixed message and if I am an Afghan, I’m going with – the Vietnam/Iraq model. As an Afghan adversary my analysis would go something like this; (1) That the US has no real appetite for this conflict. (2) The “corrupt Ghani government” is teetering. (3) The US will leave and that government will fall. (4) I can wait. I will wait.

As Ho Chi Mihn said presciently about the Americans in Vietnam, “You may have the watches, but we have the time,” I’m afraid the same is true for the Taliban; they have the time.

Reference Notes

  1. "It may be the top personnel priority of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- but is the AfPak Hands program flopping?" Foreign Policy, April 11, 2011, 3. Accessed January 29, 2018. 1.
  1. "Afghanistan GDP 1960-2018 | Data | Chart | Calendar | Forecast | News." Afghanistan GDP | 1960-2018 | Data | Chart | Calendar | Forecast | News. Accessed January 26, 2018.
  1. Cirro, Scotti. "The US has spent $68 billion training troops in Afghanistan — and there's no exit in sight." Business Insider. July 8, 2016. Accessed January 26, 2018.
  1. "Unemployment Rate Spikes in Afghanistan." TOLOnews. October 17, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.
  1. Canada. Parlimant. Political and Social Affairs Division. Parliament of Canda. By Michael Dewing. October 09, 2007. Accessed January 25, 2018.
  1. Laub, Zachary . "The Taliban in Afghanistan." Council on Foreign Relations. July 4, 2014. Accessed January 22, 2018.

End Notes

[i] PERSTEMPO or personnel tempo is a description of the rapidity and/or frequency that military personnel are deployed on a contingency basis. This is often measured in order to assess the relative stress on the force that frequent deployments have. The flow –down effects of perstempo have been linked to various behaviors and conditions affecting operational readiness and effectiveness as well as social and family wellness.

[ii] “Green on Blue” Green on blue is modelled after an earlier phrase, blue on blue, referring to inadvertent clashes between members of the same side in an armed conflict... Blue on blue originated in the British military in the early 1980s, but has now spread around the world, and even moved beyond the military sphere to describe accidental shootings among police officers.

What are the blue and green doesn’t have anything to do with uniforms. The formulation is based on the standardized military symbols used to indicate different forces on maps. In this system, the color blue is used for friendly forces, red for hostile forces, green for neutral forces, and yellow for unknown forces. Thus, blue-on-blue shootings are incidents in which members of the same force fire on one another.

What green on blue means is a bit more complicated. In addition to Afghanistan, green on blue has also been used in the context of Iraq; US General Raymond Odierno referred to the threat of “green-on-blue attacks” by Iraqi security forces on US personnel in Iraq in 2009 (Politico, 28 May). It would seem that in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan, the local security forces are regarded as neutral, or green: not hostile, but not fully allies, either.


About the Author(s)

Greg Kleponis is currently a PhD Candidate in Conflict Studies at the University of Bolton, UK. He also holds a Masters of Art in Diplomacy with a concentration in International Conflict Management from Norwich University as well as a LLM, Laws from the University of London with a concentration in International Criminal Justice. He is a retired USAF Colonel who has served in advisory capacities in both Iraq and Afghanistan during the last 10 years, with the most recent post as Senior Adviser to the Deputy Minister of Interior, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan where he served as an advisor on security, anti-terror and rule of law programs.  He is a researcher and writer for various projects most recently for the US Army War College, the Peacekeeping Stability Operations Institute and has contributed to the Small Wars Journal and the Strategic Studies Institute. He currently resides in Ancient Corinth Greece.


Ah, Greg. You just took me on a reflective journey of familiar frustration.

Ironic that the AF/PAK Hands program turned away some who were interested. A chip off of our ol' military's personnel system. 

Mr. Kleponis is describing an American officer corps that is characterized by short-sightedness; an officer corps in which this trait has become institutionalized.  Such an officer corps will only win if is pitted, strike will never win.  It will win small tactical victories here and there, which will make for really good movies, because the guys lower down are good soldiers; but there will never be victory in a larger sense because the higher ranking officers, who set the tone for the whole corps, are incapable of waging war or even recognizing what war is.  General Nicholson's comment is evidence of this.  If he were serious and followed the logic of his comment to its conclusion, he would either refuse to serve in such conditions or arrange for the wholesale evacuation of everyone he commands.  This is the comment of a truly stupid "snowflake" of a general.


But such a general is stupid only in his appreciation for the nature and conduct of war.  Generals like that show great cunning and acumen in arranging things to suit the interests of groups other than the soldiers they purport to lead, the country they pretend to serve and the Afghans they fake helping.  The general officer corps is served by having command tickets punched, year in and year out.  The State Department is served by having lucrative hardship positions available year in and year, positions that don't entail much danger or time.  Contractors all over the globe get paid, year in and year out.  The Pak Army get paid year in and year out and their strategic interest of having Afghanistan weak and fragmented is served, apparently forever.


So all these interests are served, and well served.  The troops, the Afghan people and the Americans are not served.  It occurs to me that maybe there is something beyond institutionalized short-sightedness and obtuseness about the nature of war going on with the American general officer corps.  Maybe there is a case of deception about where loyalties really lay.



First I have to write I am very impressed by this new format.  Secondly, I realize there are constraints on the military mostly imposed by political and economic circumstances.  War planning is increasingly decided by Presidential cycles.   It remains to be seen if changing administrations every 4 or 8 years has profound effects that can not be planned.  It has to make our allies devise contingency plans should the next administration be more or less disposed to invest in military assistance. JFK, LBJ, Richard Nixon, each defined the Vietnam War with their own personal imprint.    It had an ignominious ending.   No one wants to see panicked Afghanis loyal to the government clutching at Blackhawk skids for the last ride out of Kabal.  And it is not likely to come to that but for those of us who remember such images it is a haunting possibility.  For some of us , Afghanistan began with the Russian occupation ending with their own version to "di di "this is not a  out of the country.  For some of this is not simply about Afghanistan it is about the broader range of events that have involved US forces in the region since 1979, Hezballah, Al-Quds, Fedayeen, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State,  Taliban a succession of colorful ethnicities bound by the common cause of radical Islam. The diversity and reach of these terrorist groups is as much a reason the Taliban has time as any other.