Small Wars Journal

The Real Challenge in Afghanistan: Toward a Quantum COIN

Tue, 08/23/2011 - 8:54am

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“Apathy” is a largely correctable problem if one understands its sources.  Whether it comes from a lack of a stake in the society or from a preconscious concept of self, “apathy” freezes everyone in place and makes it hard to get anything done.  It is likely, in fact, that widespread “apathy” is an important factor encouraging the widespread corruption that is the subject of so much comment.  Corruption facilitates action that is problematic in tribal societies, with widespread “apathy” and low social trust (which limits cooperation between people). 

The antidote to apathy is empowerment.  Empowering Afghans or other tribal people is a difficult and complex challenge.  If we cannot bring ourselves to understand and address the complexities, we should really start dismantling our operation and prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan.  The consequences of this, I believe, would be horrendous—resonating across the region.  One can only hope that we have the moral and spiritual resources to embrace this challenge and see it to a positive conclusion.

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About the Author(s)

A. Lawrence Chickering is a social entrepreneur and writer who designs and implements civil society strategies in public policy.  He is founder and President of Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful program for promoting girls’ education and empowering traditional communities by reforming government schools, partnering with the government of the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India.  He has concentrated his recent writing on the uses of civil society in foreign policy and, more specifically, in counterinsurgency warfare.  He is coauthor of Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (2006).  His other, great interest is conflict management and the search for a transpartisan politics.  He has written two books on that subject: Beyond Left and Right (1993) and (with James S. Turner) Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life (2008).  He is a regular contributor to the SWJ.


Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 2:55pm

Bill C,

I appreciated your last comment very much. It revealed for me why so often I feel people, in responding to my articles, are not responding to me, but to an“opponent” in the larger debate. I am not sure why, but your comment revealed again how difficult it is to be clear about what people are saying, and one reason I like this Comments section so much is that it affords an unusual opportunity to get clear. If it is so hard to get clear in these highly focused conversations, one can appreciate again how difficult it is to get policy right – with policymaking an incredibly more complicated process than what we are doing here.

I learned some important things about my own views this morning when I started writing a new article called “Misunderstanding Afghanistan”. (I hope you are amused by this; I was.) The opening sounds as if it could have been written by you or by Dayuhan or Bill M. Both left and right do want to turn tribal people into little modernists, supporting political democracies and market economies. As I argued in my last article on the Middle East, it took centuries of social development in the West to go from tribal societies at the end of the Middle Ages to the 18th century, when democratic institutions and values started to take root.

My project is vastly less ambitious. Traditional people, I believe, have a preconscious, role-driven concept of self. The great majority of them don’t believe they can control their own lives, just live out their roles. Girls don’t go to school not because of any active animus against them, but because they have never gone to school. My program aims to “awaken” them to move beyond these static roles and start to see each other as people. When girls stand in a public meeting and ask for a chance in life, this awakening begins when the men respond and connect empathically with them. Empowered and conscious, they can come together and pursue what they care about. This explains how, in a two year period, communities built 178 wells for clean water out of 500 schools. We gave them no money. They did it all.

When people are empowered in this way, they do what they care about. Not what we care about – what they care about. When they have a stake (ownership) in things, they will resist efforts to harm them. That insight, I believe, explains observations from all global regions about how tribal people resist insurgencies when they have a stake. In this, they are following their dreams, not ours – although our values here powerfully overlap. They act independently of us, and in that sense I have argued that their actions are a quantum phenomenon.

I don’t believe we should be in the business of trying to change people in the lives they want to live. I do believe “activating” them (neuroscience term) is important for empowering them to pursue what they care about, including security.

Bill M.

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 1:25pm

In reply to by Bill C.


If you have been reading SWJ for the past couple of years you would find that Bill C. has made these arguments and supported them in some depth in previous posts, if you're new to SWJ then the argument may appear to be coming out of left field, but it isn't. I also think his argument is relevant to this discussion. You countered my argument two posts ago by stating correctly that the Afghans' and ISAF's goals are not necessarly opposed to one another. I didn't respond to that because in my view that argument has no legs. First the Afghans don't have a collective view anymore than Americans have a collective view, there are of course some "progressives" that believe in what we're trying to do, and of course those are the Afghans we interface with the most. There are also several Afghans that oppose our transformational efforts, and that is the segment of Afghanistan that Bill C. and I are refering to.

Again while I agree with many of your arguments regarding apathy, I think it is a bit of reach to assume that the majority of Afghans embrace our view for their society.

Bill C.

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 11:35am

Dr. Chickering:

No sarcasm is intended. I truly believe -- and have stated for quite some time -- that we have taken on the job of transforming, through various ways and means, outlier states and societies (causing them to abandon their present way of life [often tribal] and causing them to adopt our way of life [that associated with market democracies] instead); this, so that these outlier states and societies might come to cause the modern world fewer barriers/problems and offer the modern world, instead, more usefulnes/utility.

This sets stage, in my mind, for the global "way of life" wars (both internal to states and societies -- and internationally) that we see today.

Please take a moment and re-read my comments from this -- very serious -- perspective.

Accordingly, it is within this context (the state and societal transformation project that we have for outlier states and societies) that I tend to see many/most of our intervention efforts and view such things as "empowerment."

Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 3:05am

Bill C,

I like sarcasm as much as anybody, but it is probably not most effectively used to communicate complete misunderstanding. In your opening sentence, you sarcastically paraphrase my position as saying we want Afghans "to take 'ownership' of the entire project that we have for [them]". Where do you find this position in anything I have written? It is true that many people who support the war in Afghanistan take this position, but I do not. I emphasize the quantum point because my position is the opposite of what you are saying it is. I think that this position, to the extent it influences current policy (which I think is quite a lot), is undermining our real interest there. As my last comment below argues, we don't have to "convert" them to modernist values to empower them independently to resist insurgencies.

Since you have obviously not read all of the comments here (I encourage you to do so), I want to repeat a point I made early in the exchange:

My argument about apathy is not a thought-experiment. It is based on observations of tribal people when
they experience ownership and empowerment. These observations come from hundreds of communities
[in very tribal cultures (Rajasthan in India, northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Upper Egypt, among
others]. If you think apathy is really a form of resistance, I can only think it is because you have never,
yourselves, seen how people change when really empowered.

I accused Bill M of making up much of what he was attributing to me. He admitted it, and I thought we had a very useful exchange on real issues. You have also made up most of this comment. Your reference to the Afghan military has nothing whatever to do with the argument I made about the "apathy" in the Afghan military.

To be honest, there is little incentive to respond to someone who has expanded so little effort to understand what I wrote. What is the value of making up a lot of things and then poking holes in them? These are really serious issues that need voices challenging major positions in the public debate. But there is no chance for enriching the debate without first serious listening to and understanding other viewpoints.

Continuing my comment below:

Herein, our "common interest/common objective" may be more properly seen -- not as resisting insurgencies -- but preserving our (diametrically opposed/distinctly different) ways of life?

Bill C.

Thu, 09/01/2011 - 11:37am

The ultimate question would seem to be: How does one motivate the Afghan people -- and other such contrary individuals and groups -- to take "ownership" of the entire project that we have for all such outlier (not like us) states and societies, which is: To have them:

(1) Abandon their current (often tribal) way of life; which they have depended on for eons but which now runs afoul of the wants, needs and desires of the modern world,


(2) Adopt our more "open" and more "modern" way of life instead. (Thus, providing that these outlier states and societies are "transformed" so as to offer the modern world fewer problems and more utility/usefulness.)

(How to motivate Afghan military and police forces -- whose primary purpose is to stand against the members of their own society who would oppose such a transformation -- to be seen and understood as an integral part, but only a sub-set, of the overall state and societal transformation project described above.)

Should "apathy" -- as seen in this context -- not be viewed as Bill M. suggests, to wit: as resistance? Or, lacking this, as simply a lack of agreement with the overall direction (state and societal transformation -- tribal to modern) of this project?

Lawrence Chickering

Wed, 08/31/2011 - 5:55pm

Bill M,

One of the assumptions on which your comments are based is the assumption that "our" interests and "theirs" are in inherent conflict and that as long as we pursue "ours" at the expense of "theirs", they will resist us passively or otherwise. This dualistic formulation misses my quantum point. I believe our interests and theirs are identical, and that is precisely why we should stop pushing our interests on them: because it paints targets on them and (as a result) weakens their commitment to our common objectives and because we don't need to do it.

Our common objective is to resist insurgencies. We do it because we are fighting a general war against them. The Afghans will do it if they are empowered to do what they value because security is one of the first things empowered people value. We do it for the general good; they will do it, independently of us, for their own good. The policies you rightly criticize are those that recruit them to pledge their allegiance to COIN. It is not, however, in our interest for them to do it for us; it is in our interest to do it for themselves.

I hope this is useful.

Lawrence Chickering

Sun, 08/28/2011 - 1:03am

Bill M,

When your comment came in, I was just about to post another comment saying that I hoped you did not take anything I was saying to mean that I think ISAF is actually doing what I am proposing. What we are doing, I believe, is all over the map -- some good, much very bad. I like much of what you have written in your last comment. Unfortunately, I cannot answer on my iPhone at the length I would like. I will write again in a couple of days.

Lawrence, as requested I re-read your article and you're partially correct, I did make it up, but not without reason. The coalition's goals are imposing democracy, western government practices, western economic models, etc. on the Afghan people (dare I say nation), and if you are arguing for ISAF to stay, then by default (intentional or not) you are arguing for more effort to help transform Afghanistan into a more western looking place, while on the other hand your arguments for empowerment (which I strongly agree with) call for the opposite.

Your points on empowerment and motivation I strongly agree with, and have made similiar arguments in previous SWJ posts. We don't listen to the people, we only pretend to listen and as soon as their done talking we start pushing our doctrine, agenda, etc. and we wonder why they stare at us like we have a penis growing out of our forehead.

I don't know much about your organization, but the title "Educate Girls Globally" obviously doesn't mesh well parts of Afghan culture, it is considered a very Western idea and many Afghans are opposed to it (violently). Most of us from the west are supportive of it, and consider people that treat women as property backwards. So without caveat I agree with the mission of educating women/girls globally (and everyone for that matter), but it is not an idea that is accepted globally.

My point about apathy being a form of resistance, perhaps it would be more accurate to state we cannot determine if it is apathy or passsive resistance. If they don't concur with "our" objectives, then it may very well be passive resistance (which is highly effective, because as you stated if they don't buy into the plan and are motivated to execute it then the plan is doomed to fail).

I want to share some quotes from your article for those who may not have read it, which will hopefully motivate them to do so.

"Our current, mechanistic policies operate from a ―Newtonian‖ concept of motivation.5 The common sense view, which comes from mechanistic Newtonian physics, is that everything that happens happens because we do something (we train Afghan soldiers, we ―help‖ Afghans). This local causation makes everything we do essentially about us, no matter how we protest that of course the challenge really needs to be about them."

"Such empowerment becomes a quantum force as it connects them and they start to promote both, independently of us. When they become actively and independently involved, the total resources supporting COIN increase exponentially." (of course for this to happen, they have to agree with objectives we're trying to reach, because the COIN plan is all about "our" objectives, not Afghans'. The empowerment issue goes well beyond the tactical engagement level and should include the strategic level, but is that possible with the current Afghan Gov and our culture?)

"Part of his point is about ownership, ownership from what they do. Their ownership becomes even greater when they have a role in deciding what to do." (Amen, but that is unlikely to happen unless we withdraw the majority of our conventional combat forces).

"almost universal philanthropic and donor norms and practices. Focusing on ownership rather than on the school or well focuses on the psychology of the recipient of help rather than on the help itself." (Another Amen, but as you stated it is so rarely done, apparently our self esteem needs are greater than the Afghans')

"Unfortunately, helping them also disempowers them because it fails to honor their capacities and resources. It treats them as having only needs, no resources."

"systematically disempowering and intensifying apathy, indifference, and even active hostility."

(We have operated this way well beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and I believe it why much of the developing world cheered on 9/11. We couldn't understand why they were angry with us, because we were helping them, but in reality we were stroking our own esteem issues and sucking the life blood out of the people we thought we were helping).

"it is theoretically easy to solve this problem"

I disagree because we are not there to help the Afghan people, but rather create an Afghanistan that is supportive of our interests, so no matter how much the guys and gals want to help the Afghans help themselves at the tactical level, our strategic goals create another perception altogether.

Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 08/27/2011 - 6:44am

Bill M,

Where did I say they would adopt Western values? I did not say say it; you made it up. Please reread my article and stop imputing positions I do not hold.


Empowered to do what exactly? To pursue our dream for them? Empowered to embrace democracy, free markets and rock and roll? Empowered to embrace liberal Western values? Empowered to reject opium and grow alternative crops? Empowered to love their neighbors? Or do you simply mean empowered to fight for the items I listed above?

The fact that you reject the resistance argument without any supporting evidence to support your claims other than a faith based claim implies you are blinded by your own beliefs. Empowerment requires a goal, and in our case a goal that is compatible with our overall strategy and objectives if it is going to contribute to a transition state "we" envisioned for them. If your argument is that we envisioned Afghanistan's future for them, so they don't feel empowered, then I agree. Yet, on one hand you argue for empowerment, and then on the other you argue we need to stay. Ultimate empowerment would be withdrawing and letting them pursue their goals without hindering them. To claim they're not empowered is not entirely true, because at the moment hey are empowered to resist us, they don't believe it is futile, if they did they would likely cease resisting.

Your argument is centered on motivation, which in my opinion is unarguably correct. The part of your argument that I believe to be flawed is if they were empowered they would embrace our objectives/goals and be motivated to fight for them. While you may see certain elements of that in places in Kabul, it is not a nation wide phenomenen. I think Charly Daniels had an appropriate song about this, something about we may fight among ourselves, but you outsiders better leave us alone.

Lawrence Chickering

Fri, 08/26/2011 - 8:09pm

My argument about apathy is not a thought-experiment. It is based on observations of tribal people when they experience ownership and empowerment. These observations come from hundreds of communities. If you think apathy is really a form of resistance, I can only think it is because you have never, yourselves, seen how people change when really empowered.

Dayuhan, you hit upon an important point that just doesn't sit well with those of us who want to save the world and its people from themselves :-). On the simpliest level apathy is a form of resistance.

Dr C:

I think your take on apathy, perhaps in keeping with the "quantum" theme, is overly complex. Why not apply Occam's razor, and consider the possibility that Afghans may greet OUR efforts, goals, interests and agendas with apathy simply because they they see them, not unreasonably, as ours, not theirs. After all, we are not there for their benefit; we are there to advance our own perceived interests. Why should Afghans be motivated to advance interests that they do not perceive as theirs?

You seem to assume that if they were less apathetic, they would support us. Is it not possible that they are apathetic because they fear us, and that if they were less apathetic they would actively oppose us? We are, after all, invaders in their country, and it's by no means impossible that many of them just want us to go away and leave them alone, but would rather not act on that preference because we have lots and lots of guns? What you see as "apathy" is likely just a way of coping with an unpleasant situation beyond their control: they tolerate our presence because they can't make us go away. Why would we expect anything else?

You suggest that "ownership" comes from building (example) a school, or even more form "participating in the decision to build a school". I'd suggest that true ownership comes from INITIATING decisions, without outside suggestion, manipulation, or interference, on what if anything is to be built or done in their communities. Participation is not ownership. Ownership is when the capacity to initiate change an d the final decision on change rests solely with the community.

As always, I find the sweeping, generic conclusions about "tribal" and "traditional" characteristics to be disturbing, and the assumption that people in those societies are somehow "pre-conscious" or on a level of consciousness inferior to ours to be downright condescending. One of the problems we often have in dealing with these societies is that we typically approach with those attitudes implanted in our minds. They notice - they are acutely conscious of such things, often more so than we are - and they don't like it.