From Whole-of-Government to Whole-of-Place

by Joshua Foust on 3/31/2010 · 10 comments

Gameplanning a Solution In Medias Res
Local v. National Control

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from 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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TJM April 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

“Whole of government” is a pipe dream (of the crack pipe variety). I forget where the quote is, but Adm Mullen himself stated that our capacity for leveraging a whole of government approach is ten years out because our DoS and DoJ simply do not have the personnel and do not have the capacity to recruit, train, and deploy enough of them in the near term. Apparently, we need to focus “capacity building” within our own bureaucracy.

Your “Whole of Place” suggestions sound almost verbatim what every BN commander I’ve ever known tried to pound into the heads of their subordinate leaders.

reader April 1, 2010 at 12:33 am

Foust, you make my head hurt. Why are we doing all this? Why? And a better answer please than keeping the Al Qaida bogeyman away.

Terry April 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm

When I looked at the abstract of countries that were field tested(OCED Guidelines), none of them had US Involvement. This begs the question: Why is the US Approach considered flawed? What elements are missing from the US Approach (training, doctrine, SOCIAL CAPITAL?? style of implementation?). Of course there are others regarding the countries that conducted this approach and other conditions around the spectrum of stability but you get the point. Lastly, the methods proposed are not really new and are implied and stated in books like “The Ugly American:. in many cases what you propose , and what the OCED propose as effective guidlines is really cemented in fundamental development of social capital and networks of trust. We seem to be rather weak in this area and if the US Army/Govt and others continue to do the “heavy lifting” in this regard then radical changes in training outside the considered normal military affairs is also crtical; once again a seemingly fundamental weakness.

Terry Tucker, PhD

Toryalay Shirzay April 1, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Despite all the efforts and sacrifices of the US/NATO in Afghanistan,the country will by and large remain an evil and abusive place for the vast majority of its inhabitants.This is because the US/NATO are either unable or unwilling or both in trying to solve the gut-wrenching Afghan problems;their current approach will not yield enough positive results because this is not how you fight and cleanse out evil.Notice the new Karzai claim of elections corruption due to foreigners not Afghans!Do you see how the US/NATO have empowered such bastards all over Afghanistan?

Bob Jones April 2, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Wow. Your entire strategy, as outlined in your three key points, boils down to “Be nice to people.” How silly of all of us troglodytes that we haven’t realized this earlier.

Most US units are already engaged in these practices, especially at remote FOB’s, where local engagement and micro economies create symbiotic relationships that serve to further both parties’ standing. Where this level of engagement doesn’t take place, you get Keating, but since you cannot reduce an insurgency’s motivation to “You’re mean to me,” even in places where it does take place, there are still those who actively participate in and support insurgent activities.

As for your Salerno anecdote, I’d have to say **citation needed** considering from 2005-2006, when I was last at Salerno, we had great relationships with locals around the base, we pumped huge amounts of money into the local economy, and people still shot rockets at us (often), which would seem to contradict your groundbreaking theory (as would similar situations in countless small FOB’s throuhgout the country). Back to the drawing board.

Joshua Foust April 2, 2010 at 2:25 pm

See, I’d have to ask YOU for sources. Because in 2007, the 2 shop at Salerno could not name any leaders or elders in the villages near Salerno. If we had that information in 2005, then that’s great – but it got lost in the RIP/TOA (which is actually a depressingly common occurrence).

Also, I’m not sure which small bases you were at, but very few of them I’ve ever visited or studied actually contributed meaningfully to the local economy. They had their long-tail supply chains reaching back, eventually, to Dubai (right up to having food and sometimes even water ferried in on Chinooks). On occasion, when they could get permission, the MRAP convoy would let them wander the local bazaar for an hour or two. That’s not the same as “pumping huge amounts of money” into the local economy.

As for the sniping about “being nice.” Well, in 2009 my team had to advise the local PRT SECFOR to stop breaking windshields with frozen water bottles (they thought it was funny, and had turned it into a contest). Smirking at the concept is fine, I admit it’s silly to have to mention it. But soldiers are not often nice. They are arrogant, preachy, condescending, and petty—just like many of the elders (to be fair). You might think they do it already, but they really don’t, and Afghans complain constantly about being disrespected and mistreated. So again: we might say we do this, but we really don’t.

DE Teodoru April 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm

BOB JONES, it might do well to think that lots of money and superior fire formations do not make for a security situation in which you can build anything. We’ve been there almost a deacde and done what? Try and see it from their view because ultimately the issue is how many casualties can they afford and how many can we? Also how much does it cost them to cause us a casualty and how much does it cost us to cause them one? Also, what;s the end game that makes the cost to an economically and lilitraily bleeding america worth it all? Lastly, how can we win funding the wealthy that feed the insurgency with our purchase of oil at INCREASING cost again?

DE Teodoru April 2, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Mr. Foust, what is the realm of the possible? When you speak of “understanding local problems,” I’m sure you realize that, like a patient going to a doctor, your Afghan clients have you there, not for you to understand the disease that befell their nation, but to relieve their illness. McChrystal is quoted with a gem: ““We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat….” in a NYTimes article:

Now imagine you’re a surgeon on morning rounds with your team of fellows and residents and, speaking about the previous day’s surgeries you made a comparable statement while at the surgical ward’s nursing station within earshot of all the patients’ rooms so they could hear. Could you understand why your residents would have a hard time getting “informed consents” for their surgeries the next day?

Obama pops in on Karzai and sais what? We’re going to make sure your brother and Cabinet do not make a dime off heroine exports this year? Per Gen. Barno, the Taliban is out of poppy business, it’s all Karzai Gov. Wouldn’t it be clear that Karzai would invariably say the things such as what this story reports he said:

One of your erstwhile bloggers on this page wrote that it was silly to expect the US to suddenly pull out. A few weeks ago I said it would be silly for the surgeon who botched an operation to tell the patient that miraculously survived that he can’t refuse the surgeon going back in because his reputation as a surgeon is at stake. So my question is this: are we free to do in south Asia whatever we want or can we be kicked out?

So far America has imposed itself way past the point of criminal negligence. If you were Karai’s lawyer, what would you recommend?

Please don’t refer me to past comments but tell me how you would respond to the analogy based on these two NYTimes articles. Thank you and the best of Holidays.

DE Teodoru April 2, 2010 at 10:36 pm
DE Teodoru April 3, 2010 at 2:37 pm

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