At the TEW 2010 workshop, one of the terms batted about rather casually was “whole of government.” It’s a very now buzzword, implying that the full range of government instruments—the military, to be sure, but all the civilian agencies as well—should be mobilized to “fix” a “broken” state at all levels of operation. I’m actually brutalizing a lot of the subtleties that go into WoG approaches (the OECD has guidelines, as does the State Department, DOD, and most NATO member countries), in part because we don’t have the space to really discuss it here, but also because I think these frameworks are horribly inadequate.
Drew Conway just posted about the models we use to discuss the formation of states: why does it happen? What are the characteristics and preferences of those who choose to form them? Again, for brevity’s sake I’m glossing over a lot of what he says, but he asks a very fundamental question: most ideas about state formation already assume a state. What if there isn’t one there already?
That is a question many advocates of tribal engagement simply avoid. The state is either something that exists but is distant and/or dysfunctional, or it is already there in some way and just needs cooptation and/or integration in order to work better. What if there is no state to begin with? What then? Can you do a “whole of government” approach when there’s no government on the other end of your efforts?
In situations where there isn’t a state, or a meaningful, agreed-upon idea of a state, a place like Afghanistan, I would advocate a similar, parallel idea that I call Whole of Place. It’s almost a constant when the military begins talking about “engagement,” even if limited to tribal engagement, they have to assume a lot of can openers. It is another way of discussing the Underwear Gnomes of Counterinsurgency (discussed repeatedly in this space): we have our engagement policy, then we have ???, then we have victory and go home!
As one example, think about how to synchronize all the various efforts and initiatives underway to address basic governance issues. At the national level, how do you pick which ministry to run a given project through? There is a ministry for education and one for higher education; one for transport and one for “air transport and tourism;” one public works ministry and one water and electricity ministry but two development ministries—one urban and one rural; one reconstruction ministry but separate ministries for “mines and industries” and industries; separate ministries for “Information & Culture,” and Communication; and the list just goes on and on. Outside ministries, we have the various community outreach programs, a collection of acronyms almost as byzantine as America’s military-industrial complex: the ANDS, NSP, ASOP, AP3, CDI, CDC, LDI, and probably others, all work toward empowering local communities. It’s incoherent, the result of designing means without a shared goal in mind. Now that there are new Regional Commands being stood up, adding at least a half-dozen new generals to the cacophany of voices and programs competing for General McChrystal’s attention… well, how does one make all that work together?
Let’s take another example, this one drawn from Anbar (since the military is determined to draw lessons from it). The Surge was sold to the U.S. public as “creating space” for the Iraqi government to fix itself. Then, as now, the bigger question has been: now that we have space, what now? In Afghanistan, the “now what” that comes after creating this space—think of Marjeh—is much more complex. There is a lot of agreement that unit commanders have to establish relationships, and that is true… but it is not enough. There is a lot of agreement that we need governance, even if we can’t have a government, and that is true… but it is not enough. There is broad agreement that communities must have a functioning and fair judicial system, and that is true… but not enough.
When we stop looking at the government as the end-goal, and think instead of the place, we suddenly have a greater menu of choices with which to plan our next steps. Taking this NYT story about a “FOB in a box” (everything is in a box these days! and those boxes must move on creaky old Soviet rail lines!) as one example, how does a unit at a small FOB develop a Whole of Place plan?
For starters, we have to accept up front that Whole of Place thinking requires a serious departure from the normal big Army way of working. As a broad principle, the FOB should create around itself an oasis of stability and prosperity. Yet that is obviously not the case: at FOB Salerno, in Khost province, for example, as recently as 2007, nearly six years after its refurbishment (it was originally an old Soviet base), the local brigade there hadn’t the first clue who lived in the villages right outside the base’s gates. It’s where most of the workers and many Afghan interpreters lived, but the soldiers had no idea who was there, what they wanted, or what they thought about.
So, we can do this in three broad principles. Principle one: know thy neighbor. We all get at this point that building relationships with the locals is important, but knowing them is a big deal. It’s not just the three cups of tea thing, and it’s not forcing everyone you meet to submit to a biometric scan (they know what those are, and a lot of people, including Americans, are made uncomfortable by it). If you know your neighbor, your neighbor will tell you what’s going on nearby, and that’s how you learn just what is needed to protect that population from insurgents.
Principle two: live off the local economy. One of the lessons I took away from my too-brief time in Kapisa last year was how important it is to understand local problems and to localize solutions (you can read about that experience at the link). In short: your base should be an oasis of stability and prosperity, since the one thing we have lots of that most Afghans don’t is money. Why we waste so much money importing food and bread from Dubai when we could be paying local Afghans to supply it to us, thus enriching them and creating an economic foundation for the future is completely baffling (though, to be fair, it also means the Afghan economy won’t crash as hard when we eventually do leave). One thing the French at FOB Morales-Frazier did right was order several hundred loaves of naan from a local baker—it was not only delicious, but supported his entire extended family.
Principle three: be social. This flows naturally out of the first two steps, but bears repeating. Afghans are smart, even if illiterate: they know patronizing when they see it. When we walk into a place terrified and on edge, they know it, just as they know if you’re going through motions or really don’t like them.
There are other principles specifically related to engagement, but these set the foundation for addressing a place as a place, and not merely a target of governance efforts. It sounds like a weird distinction to make, but these distinctions—one could call them semantics—subtlely but powerfully shape how we choose to perceive and react to situations. Meeting the people of an area, becoming their friends, and existing in the bazaars create organic connections to the communities we’re meant to secure, which reduces the need for coercive, and fairly dangerous, system of running HUMINT sources onto the base to get information. It also creates a natural method for reaching out to solidarity groups as well as political and economic figures—and perhaps more importantly, the religious figures who are normally neglected in most governance efforts.
By design, a Whole of Place approach requires dealing with an uncomfortable amount of ambiguity and contradiction. Then again, Afghanistan is seemingly composed of ambiguity and contradiction. We might as well incorporate that into how we make our plans. Because what we’re doing right now really isn’t working. It’s time to look at some new ways of engaging.