What “Intimate Knowledge?”

by Joshua Foust on 9/29/2008 · 4 comments

Like any complex society, the Afghans divide and order themselves along a multitude of different social categories that may contradict one other and often apply simultaneously depending on the circumstances. An important structuring principle is the tribal system that covers about two thirds of the population. Although the tribal principle is clear and unambiguous, it by no means forms ”real” social groups. Instead it is one of the recruiting principles of corporate and of conflicting groups, though never the only one.

—Bernt Glatzer (2001). “War and Boundaries in Afghanistan: Significance and Relativity of Local and Social Boundaries.” Weld Des Islams, 41, 3, pp. 379-399.

Keep this in mind the next time some foolhardy Presidential candidate or Army General lectures us on the need to engage Afghanistan by “surging” into the tribes just like Anbar. Indeed, other communal descriptors such as qawm or even more simply “community” have far more significance as an organizing factor in Pashtun society. Neither the Taliban nor the insurgency (they’re different!) are tribal in any real sense—and even though many communities have tribal components or boundaries, those components and boundaries are coincidental.

The biggest reason Afghanistan is spiraling out of control is politicized policy makers are not examining the country on its own merits (this statement teeters on the brink of a much longer discussion of the politicization of military and intelligence analysis I’d rather not have). When looking at Afghanistan through Afghanistan, rather than any pre-designed Western conceptions of warfighting, you get a wholly different idea of what an appropriate strategy for the country would entail. We would do well to remember that.

This makes for a great segue into Spencer Ackerman’s pronouncement of a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan:

Asked to envision a successful end-state to his cavalry troop’s mission, Collins — a tall, broad-shouldered man from Pryor, Okla., with a law degree — immediately speaks in the language of counterinsurgency — a method of warfare that emphasizes economy of force, intimate knowledge of host populations and politico-economic incentives to win that population’s allegiance.

“It’s not that I’ve rid this land of enemy fighters, though that’s a small fraction of what we do,” he said. “It’s that I’ve empowered indigenous forces to stand and fight on their own against enemy forces.” …

“The frustration and the challenge,” said Collins, “is that success in Afghanistan is not related to specific military objectives.” Instead, when his soldiers return home next year, he wants to ensure that the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army he partners with are able to secure the area on their own. For Collins, the key thing is that local government — “not the tribes,” he said — is “capable of self-rule” and that the government can “provide for its constituents.”

This, again, fails the “intimate knowledge” and population-centric test of a strong COIN strategy. Much like Ann Marlowe’s treatment of “the Counterinsurgency in Khost,” this is an analysis based primarily on what the soldiers say they do and want, and not what they’ve actually accomplished. Quite frankly, it’s faltering: the soldiers misunderstand the intent and symbolism of a shura, they are not at all well versed in development, governance, or an Afghan-specific concept of either, and as a result the previous six months have seen a dramatic undoing of much of the success that had been achieved the previous year.

That’s not to ding Ackerman too much—his embedded reporting remains among the higher quality one can find—but it gets more at the fundamental problem of embedded reporting: selection bias. There is an enormous selection bias when reporting only from an Army unit, namely you only hear from people who are inclined to talk with reporters. The soldiers themselves are under strict rules what to say. You just can’t get the “true” story without getting off the FOB and out of the convoy. In a recent Bloggingheads segment, Ackerman and Robert Filkins actually discussed, this issue:

I find it interesting that neither really got at the heart of that piece, which wasn’t necessarily about criticizing the benefits of road construction, but how the topic was covered in the press. I find it especially more interesting that Ackerman was agreeing with it without having read it (though I’m happy to see my cautious optimism about his coverage pay off).

Even so, Ackerman’s point at the end of that clip—which discusses, in a sense, the cultural blowback of trying to engineer societies we might not understand—gets at the heart of this post. It is, unfortunately, extremely difficult and dangerous to get away from the Army and among the people, and it is a hard sell to ask reporters to do this, especially when they’re just blowing through for a few days. But that’s also why we don’t actually know what is going on there, either.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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steve September 29, 2008 at 1:14 pm

Hey J. – Actually, it’s not that hard to get off the FOB, especially if, as a journalist, you’ve been in-country for more than a few weeks like Ackerman. It might be difficult to get off the FOB with _combat_ elements, but, as you know, combat elements are only one type of boot on the ground. PRTs, CA teams, ETTs, etc., are out in the field regularly, almost daily, and they’re more than happy to have journalists along. Their ‘feel’ for the locals is somewhat more nuanced than what you might find among combat troops. I think that selection bias you speak of is more a product of a certain laziness combined with deadline demands than it is a product of the obvious difficulty and danger involved in getting off the FOB. We can demand more from our journalists than what we’ve been getting.

Joshua Foust September 29, 2008 at 1:50 pm

Steve, I agree that other units might get you “closer” in some way, but that still doesn’t address the fundamental selection bias: way too many Afghans of all stripes simply will not talk with armed white people. That’s the problem: the ones we do talk to are already inclined to do so; the ones we need to win over are the ones who don’t come rushing out of their compounds to get candies and blankies.

Some reporters can get at these people (Carlotta Gall among the few westerners who can). Most, especially those on short-term embeds, cannot. I don’t think it would be that big a deal if it was just understood that embedded reporting is much more about the unit itself than the environment in which it operates. Ackerman indirectly got at this, when he mentioned (earlier in that diavlog) that the locals don’t seem to connect militancy with a poor quality of life and high prices. To me that says there is a wide gap between Western and local perceptions that is not being addressed by current policies.

steve September 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm

I agree with your point that we should all, readers and writers alike, work from the understanding that embedded reporting is mostly about the unit the journalist is with at any one time. That it is limited in its scope. All too often, however, we’re presented with journalists who cloak themselves in a mantle of authority merely because they take their meals in the DFAC with the rest of the soldiers.

TCHe September 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm

I’m to tired to elaborate that further but … All that seems to be infinitely better than what’s happening in Germany. You DO have discussions, some genuine interest in the subject and more or less informed commentators!

I spent my evening at a book presentation in Berlin and so called experts (including a former ambassador to AFG) talked continuously about “the Taliban” (Hardcore, moderates, AQ and druglords, that’s all. Who would have guessed it was that easy?!), that the poppy cultivation wasn’t a big problem, that “the Taliban” had provided security in the 90s, something the West did not, and so on. Oh, and after seven years they realized they needed a strategy!

I’ll stop my short rant now and go to bed. But I had to do it 😉

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