I spent the last two days at a workshop organized by the Small Wars Foundation to discuss “tribal engagement” in Afghanistan. While it was a lot of fun to bounce around ideas in a highly educated, experienced crowd, in many ways I found it a discouraging experience: the collection of policy advisers and highly educated soldiers and Marines was extraordinary, yet the discussion barely moved beyond a discussion of semantics.
The semantic discussion is vitally important. There is a bit of a crippling strain of experientialism in the military. It leads a lot of people to trust implicitly their own experiences and to assume those experiences are shared or generalizable. It also tends to engender a degree of mistrust of academia, since most academics gain their understanding through voracious reading rather than extensive experience (ethnographers are a notable example, though their studies have their own methodological and epistemological issues). I was amazed to see the demand for specificity of definition for military terms, while at the same time defining a complex idea like “tribe” was most often waved away as being semantic (to be clear, this has been encouraged by certain academic types as well).
Thankfully, the passive acceptance of indistinct semiotics wasn’t as much in evidence there as it normally is. I remain a firm advocate of using precise language and precisely defined terms and signals to describe and implement policy, but for the sake of expediency I also accept we have to employ shortcuts. Many of the soldiers and marines seemed unable to decide on which terms to use to describe local efforts—community, local, village, “tribe” (always with the scare quotes)—but there was, at least, an acceptance that tribe in a insufficient term to describe solidarity groups in Afghanistan. It is a victory, even if a minor one.
The workshop was also hobbled by a bit of a selection bias. I don’t even mean that, even though this was about figuring out how to do tribal engagement in Afghanistan, there were only like three or four Afghans there (and no social scientists who have studied Afghanistan in a systematic way over several years). I mean, most civilians there had PhDs, or decades of experience with the military. The military people were all mid-level and higher officers, with multiple tours in the country. A lot of the Majors there are currently working through grad school. And most of the military people themselves were special forces, which means they were already singled out for some sort of excellence or drive. So, the discussion almost by design was a bit limited for the war writ large.
Coming into this thing with almost all of my experience in the Big Army was interesting too: for one, it quelled some of my instinctive mistrust of SF, but it also highlighted just how difficult anything we discussed will be to ever see enacted. Correctly, one group of people said we needed to fix the OER, since the way it’s structured right now doesn’t incentivize successful operating in Afghanistan. That is very much true—I’ve argued that repeatedly in this space, whether about how Army administration is way too top-heavy, or the administrivia of casualties. But how do you do that?
Similarly, one of the groups—mostly Special Forces majors—discussed the pressing need to exist outside the bases, in effect so they share their fate with the community where they are embedded. Again, I agree whole-heartedly with this idea… but how do you put it into action? We all accept that there must be an element of danger, and that there must be a greater willingness to accept casualties and take risks… but the Army, the Big Army, does not. How do you fix that?
Indeed, at the end of the day the whole workshop was crippled by three things the workshop’s organizers cannot control: the war’s strategy and history, the military’s bureaucratic inertia, and a nasty ontological problem we still didn’t resolve. Most importantly, we are coming at this in 2010, when the leadership has already decided upon tribal or community or local “defense initiatives” as the way it is going to solve the war. That severely limits the discussion—despite an entreaty to answer the question “should we even do this,” there was almost no discussion of why everyone assumed the answer was “yes.” Even so, there were a few good ideas to come out of it, which hopefully we’ll be able to discuss over the next week or so.