05 Jan 2011 @ 12:38 PM 

The Civilian Side


There’s an interesting article posted over at Small Wars Journal that brings up some thoughts I have on the subject.

In my experience in Afghanistan as both an embedded adviser and with the COIN Center, I had many and various experiences from the military side of the house with civilians of many flavors. In 2007, there was a dearth of US civilians on the ground. In 2009-2010, I witnessed the “civilian surge” and its effects.

My overall impression of Afghan government officials is that they are, to a man, in over their heads. From Karzai on down to the district Sub-Governors, not a one has managed so much as a township-sized administration prior to be being thrown into their current position. Afghanistan had/has no “institutional memory.” If I were put in charge of my state’s Highway Department, although I am unskilled, there is enough institutional memory present to keep things from becoming a total disaster for at least a period of time. People raised within that system know how things are done, and things will get done to a greater or lesser extent. Over a longer period, my incompetence at running a highway department would eventually put a lot of drag on the organization. But in the short to medium term, things would run.

Afghanistan, and many other countries which we would seek to provide stability assistance to, has no institutional memory. Their administrators and managers have long since been run off or killed. COIN does not function as a self-standing strategy for resolving instability, it is a methodology for fighting against an active insurgency, but it does not resolve the causes and conditions that gave rise to the insurgency to begin with. Instability is an incubator for insurgency. The military role in the stability operations required to remove these underpinnings is the lesser of the three main lines of effort.

I have seen a lot of dedicated people doing really great things; things that never get trumpeted or even spoken about here stateside. But 350 is not nearly enough good people to really make the stability progress needed to remove the underpinnings of an insurgency. The Afghan National Army is one of the greater successes in Afghanistan to this point, and its successes have been due to mentoring; being present. Money is not the solution, although it costs money. But these Afghan civil servants with no prior experience and no institutional memory to support them truly need mentoring. Without it, they fall back on the types of behaviors that are spawned as survival mechanisms in “conflict ecosystems.” We use their incompetence as further proof that they do not deserve our “blood and treasure.”

I echo those first two commenters at SWJ who have seen greatly capable people disabled by archaic management. The military has struggled with the massive paradigm shift of COIN Operations with wildly varying degrees of success (and failures that are inappropriately rewarded because Afghanistan is not worth a single officer’s career unless it is an infraction of political correctness… and we can’t punish what we ourselves cannot define as failure, anyway). All the while, the military has dealt with infighting and malcontents who simply do not want to fight this kind of war and dicker endlessly about a doctrine that has never truly been applied across the spectrum. Any argument about FM 3-24 that includes reference to its having taken over the military culture is fatally flawed from the start. Noise and smoke do not a takeover make.

In short, no one is truly leading the way. Everyone is making excuses ranging from, “FM 3-24 simply doesn’t work, anyway,” to “It’s not critical to our national interests,” to the equivalent of, “Afghans are alien creatures incapable of governing themselves and undeserving of our best efforts.” The battle for modernity is not being fought in the villages of Afghanistan so much as it is within our own institutions, and those comments above illustrate this. It is our internal struggle to adapt to the changes that globalization have wrought upon our world. Old world views clash with the concepts that are inherent with the realization that the world has irrevocably changed. Apathy driven by the urge to endlessly examine one’s own navel in a poor economy, the lack of direct impact on the greatest mass of Americans and blaming foreign policy for poor responses to a changing world economy exacerbates this and makes for some strange political bedfellows.

The absence of an obviously existential threat means that no patriotism is required, right? We are all in this for the money and our careers and there is no need for discomfort and risk. Our own tactical commanders often illustrate the resulting risk aversion and zero-defect mentalities (see MAJ Jeremy Kotkin’s recent article at SWJ). If this view is prevalent in the military, then why should civil servants not follow suit? Where is the requirement to endanger oneself or even suffer discomfort; isn’t that what a professional military is for?

I’m not sure that a Civil Service draft is the answer, but this article is a strong statement about the fact that, in a three-pronged approach, we are not doing very well. IF we achieve some limited success in Afghanistan, it will be because there are a lot of smart, energetic people out there (including Afghans) who are doing the best they can, largely unsupported by cumbersome and archaic institutions, and getting some good things done. I do know that on the ground, “Afghan good” is good enough… but we struggle to get to even that standard.


Responses to this post » (5 Total)

  1. Max in Paris says:

    Colonialism has failed (obviously), cooperation failed (back in the 60′s and 70′s), military operations are failing. I mean not only in afghanistan but everywhere (Vietnam, africa, iraq …). Change can barely come from abroad. It reminds me of the time I was in Bosnia, during the war (“on the civilian side” as you say); It happened next to us, in Europe and still the gap was huge and is not filled yet. A gap digged with hatred, communist culture, underdevelopment. Fifteen years after the end of the war, things haven’t changed much. But they are changing a little, very slowly. You can’t swift from middle-age to modern time in a life-time. You can give technology, but not change the minds in one generation. However you won’t give up and want to try again because you are this kind of guy. What you can bring them modestly his hope, show them things can be different. Make them to expect a different fate and how to achieve this. You can show them the road, give them some money, but they will have to cover the distance by themself. Now that they have caught a glimpse of a new possible way of life, many of them will keep the hope of making their life different ……hopefully.
    In the meantime our governments will find afghanistan is not such strategic place to draw the people attention.
    “One need not hope in order to undertake; nor succeed in order to persevere”. ~ Prince of Orange

  2. Max in Paris says:

    here is a link where you’ll see some news of recent operation in south Tagab, and see FOB Kutschbach

  3. Ajay says:


    Sorry…having some difficulty getting my comment to appear…

    I am a Forward Deployed Engineer at Palantir Technologies and have been working very closely with the US Marine Corps. While the DSF/TCAPF frameworks are good, I believe we are still lacking good tools for the actual collection and analysis of local survey data. Analysis, if conducted at all, is typically confined to the data available at the unit level. Aggregation and real-time analysis by higher level headquarters to inform strategy is virtually impossible to do. Anyway, if possible I’d love to share with you some of the work I’ve done with USAID and get your thoughts on how we can help improve the situation. To better understand Palantir’s capabilities, check out our web site:

    An Open Source View of the Afghan Conflict

    DoD Update: Palantir’s Support for Full Spectrum Operations Across the Globe

  4. WOTN says:

    The “they’re too savage to embrace peaceful change of government” argument is just as tired and worn out as the rest.

    Ole Blue has it right. Money is not a solution. It is a means. There is no national/institutional memory of good governance or peace in Afghanistan. The “civilian surge” has proven to be a bust, because there is little execution but plenty of hype and spin.

    When the previous administration (and State Dept) found a lack of volunteers for Iraq, it first tied the duty to the careers of its employees and then removed “volunteer” and made it “voluntold” to the unpopular duty station. While there remain differences in Iraq and Afghanistan, there also remain parallels and contrasts in them and the execution of the two Administrations execution of the Surge Coin Policy.

    On a separate note, Ole Blue, your posts seem to be erratically chosen for excerpt on the main page. This one showed up on the calender but not on the main site, at least in my browser. I doubt that is intended on your end, but I’ve started looking for your calender to tell me if you have new words of wisdom.

  5. [...] Original-Artikel erschien auf Afghan Quest: The Civilian Side, von Old Blue, [...]

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