The Emptiness of Expertise

by Joshua Foust on 3/4/2011 · 13 comments

My friend Manan Ahmed has a brilliant essay in The National, on the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s rejection of expertise:

Both [Rory] Stewart and [Greg] Mortenson illustrate one particular configuration of the relationship between knowledge and the American empire – the “non-expert” insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an “expert”.

Even a cursory examination of the archive dealing with the American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates that there has been no related growth in specific scholarly knowledge about those sites of conflict. The knowledge of Arabic, Urdu or Pashto remains at extremely low levels in official corridors. There is, one can surmise simply from reading the back and forth sway of military and political policy in Afghanistan, very little advancement in understanding of either the text or context of that nation.

In America’s imperial theatre, Stewart and Mortenson exemplify a singular notion of “expert”. We can build, based on the profiles of other specimens – Robert D Kaplan, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan – a picture of what the ideal type looks like from the official point of view. Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.

At the same time there are greater claims, and greater efforts, towards satellite cameras and listening devices; drones which can hover for days; databases which can track all good Taliban and all bad Taliban. Yet who can decipher this data? When one considers the rise of “experts” such as Stewart or Mortenson against the growth of digitised data which remains elusive and overwhelming, one is left with a rather stark observation – that the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalised.

Read the whole thing in full. He is getting at something I’ve noticed within the government, which became so intently frustrating I had to seek employment outside of it: the quest for, and consumption of, knowledge not for its own sake, but merely for exploitation. It was the heart of my fundamental disagreement with the Intelligence Community’s attitude toward knowledge. Learning something without bias (or at least an honest attempt to avoid bias, in the sense of understanding a thing, place, people, or idea on its own merits) will reveal things you will never learn if you start, from day one, filtering for information you can exploit for action.

That is, at its heart, what is wrong with our policies in Afghanistan, and why we’re struggling to maintain the stalemate we’ve been able to achieve. The people in charge of Afghanistan never learned about Afghanistan the people—they only learned about Afghanistan the war zone. Stephen Tanner’s influential 2002 book, Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander The Great To The Fall Of The Taliban, exemplifies this, for it sees Afghanistan as nothing but millenia of conflict and war and conquest. Seen through this lens, its people can never develop agency save as spoilers for tyrants and marauding kings; Afghanistan as a place filled with people can never have history, culture, customs, or self. It is only a vessel for war.

That mindset infects U.S. policy thinking utterly. And it is why you can still read government reports about exploiting tribes or pushing various inane ideas but never questioning what a tribe is, or if it matters, or if any of those ideas had been tried again. As Manan argues quite eloquently, it is based upon a rejection of expertise, and in many ways a rejection of knowledge. Which is precisely what I, too, angrily rail against routinely.

Well done.

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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 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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m March 5, 2011 at 2:27 am

Can’t help but wonder what opinion Manan Ahmed would have of the the re-poster of his article. Good doctor heal thyself

james March 5, 2011 at 4:39 am

Great post and I will pass it on. This really gets to the root cause of our difficulty in making progress.

DD March 5, 2011 at 4:48 am

He’s probably happy his idea is being spread. I wonder what he’d think of commenters who have an inflated appreciation of their own wit, or lack thereof?

I see this in my work in Afghanistan. I made a proposal to the local commander to come up with a religious engagement strategy, for no other reason than to understand what local practices were, why the area shrines were important, and get a general understanding of the role and influence religion has locally. He saw it as some kind of subservience to Islam, which apparently, the US Army cannot even appear to do. Now, as the fighting season begins in fervor, the new commander dusted off my report and is running with it.

There seems to be a fear that to undergo what it would take to holistically understand this place, would be to jeopardize military or intelligence goals. We can’t count and build our way out of here, and there’s no algorithm to tell you after what cup of tea or lunch with a bazaar shopkeeper will he decide to risk his life in confiding with you on the location of IEDs he knows about. You can’t mass produce face time, and rapport building is more than a few sentences in Pashtu and vapid inquiries into the status of the season’s crops, or offers of a school or clinic. Until the military and intelligence communities decide to make an effort for its ground forces to not be seen as a piggy banks with M4s, this situation will continue to stagnate.

zaji March 5, 2011 at 8:20 am

Okay, but for an argument that suggests we need to make better us of data the article seems to commit some selection bias. Yes, commercially successful “experts” have an inordinate amount of institutional credibility but there are a handful of academic experts who are regularly consulted. At the high end you have someone like Goodson, who has worked closely with CENTCOM and as a faculty member at one of the War Colleges (Army), has a great deal of opportunity to shape perspective of our future military leaders.

AG March 5, 2011 at 4:50 pm

What sells is a narrative that runs well with one’s own ideological stripes, and it has nothing to do with expertise per se. At the recent session on Af-Pak in Madison, who was the Afghan expert? If we apply the strict standards of expertise to mean “having lived there, (and) speaks the language(s), (and) has sustained field work experience in studying Afghanistan,” then the said panel had no Afghan experts.

Of course, the axiomatic principle is that being a Pakistani makes one an instant expert on Afghanistan.

Salman Ashraf March 6, 2011 at 10:14 am

It appears that Manan Ahmed over-estimates the degree to which Stewart and Mortenson’s influence has been on the U.S. / U.K. military and governments, which is nominal at best. With his new PhD in 2008, he is trying to get credibility to position himself as an ‘expert’ on the region.

Stewart and Mortenson both often state that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, so why does the military and policy makers continue to seek their advise and follow their lead?

Both Mortenson and Stewart’s organizations (Turqoise Mountain and Central Asia Institute) are opposed to and reject any federal U.S. or British government funds, USAID, Dept Defense funds or any money tainted with a government stamp, which is not the case with many of the big NGOs. They don’t have an agenda to try and solicit government funds.

Although Stewart is now a politician, he and Mortenson voluntarily give of their services to the Department of Defense and policy-makers and we’re not paid for their ‘advise’.

In their own literature, Stewart and Mortenson have both stated that they are not ‘experts’ as this article falsely states.

If both men have been able to travel, live and work in rural Afghanistan, the NWFP and tribal regions for years (about 18 years in Mortenson’s case, and 2 years in Stewarts case) without any security, and remain un-harmed and alive; they obviously have been both adept at cultural assimilation and understanding.

In comparison, a heavily armed soldier, or gunman protected aid worker might only last a few minutes in the same region, they might possess at least a bit of cultural knowledge that might be of benefit to others.

One hopes the next time a cultural, historical, language, economic expert like Manan Ahmed leaves his Berlin sanctuary to spend three years roaming the back valleys of Nuristan, Kunar, Bajaur and Waziristan that he would let us all join in the tea party as he gives daily lectures from the village carpets on what is the path we should follow.

Stewart and Mortenson’s primary message is not an intellectual message. They both merely advocate to build relationships, empower communities, and have great respect for the elders. This is sage advise, and one wonders what is so threatening about it to Mr. (or now Dr. ‘expert’ Manal)?

Charles H March 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Foust is the poster- child for a self proclaimed Afghan expert; Speaks no relevant language, has no academic training and his only trip in country was a Human Terrain System FOB vacation. No serious scholarship or experience, yet Foust can continually attack those with long histories in the region. Josh you are the epitomy of hypocrasy!

Boris Sizemore March 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Charles-when I see comments like this I go guns up.
(gets me pissed). Who are those with such long long
histories in the Region? Who are the great experts before 2001?

I can only think of one person who has had relationships with the real Afghan leaders since the 1980s, speaks Pashtu, is considered a friend of Afghanistan and can travel totally unharmed amongst the tribes with friends on both sides of the Durand dating from the anti Soviet Jihad.

There is only one. He is Joshua Novak, and he is in China. He visits from time to time, sees his many friends and leaves. All without having any influence on our disjointed policy. He does not have to wait for a visa, he has a permanent one, the only American with one of these. He can go anywhere and see anyone as a friend. No one in the ISAF or Diplomatic leadership cares to find him and use his expertise.

We, all of us, especially the Afghans laugh about this all of the time. The US prefers to relearn what it takes twenty years to develop. We cannot believe that the one person who can deal with Afghans all the time is not included.

Why? Because no one cares. It is good enough to have these post 2001 “experts” in the show. No one is interested in having a sane discussion with those who care about sanity in this war.

You can’t do that unless you have the relationships. You can’t turn this struggle without a renewal and restrengthening of Afghanistan. This is almost impossible to achieve if you do not even have the friends.

Joshua Foust is providing a center of discourse for all of us. I have been here most of a decade, and I still know nothing.

A center of discourse is what is needed. Joshua Foust does this admirably without pretense. Knoocking holes in the party line and asking for sanity is always to be admired. A forum is as it as always a been a place to discuss those issues and the angles that form them .

Registan presents both sides, and provided a forum for Joshua Novak who is in my opinion our last best chance to avoid disaster here.

There are few experts, because most left during the 1990s, lost their “friendships” and never became real friends of the Afghans. There are so few now, and we would never use them if we could.
We prefer tragedy and failure it seems.

hungry March 8, 2011 at 9:36 am

This is such an absurd post. There is only one expert on Afghanistan whose knowledge predates 2001? And he is a former Army Advisor to El Salvador?
Have you been to a library? Have you even used google scholar? I am not disparaging Mr. Novack’s knowledge but I also don’t have the time to list the many knowledgeable fellow experts that are out there (many of whom can speak Pashto, or Dari, or Uzbek or all three) AND have spent significant time in country, sipping tea or whatnot.
Hell, I speak Dari but I would not consider myself an expert. Learning the language (just like running a blog) does not make you an expert. But it is an important tool and it is actually quite an easy language to learn. And someone with deep interest in Afghanistan would be well advised to spend some time with it.

Boris Sizemore March 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Actually the language is not the main thing that I am promoting for my long term friend. He is actually friends with a great many (hundreds) of Afghan both Tribal, Anti Soviet Mujahadeen, and Current Government and ANSF Officials.

The Ex Advisor element is key in relationships with our allied forces because he has been in this situation before. However the key is these human relationships which are the real valued part of Afghan life and culture that we as outsiders seem to miss on a disturbingly regular basis. You can get nowhere in one year or two.

After so many years I wonder how long it really takes to gain the trust and respect and “love” if you will of the Afghans. This is truly the root of our problems because without that respect, trust, and friendship you cannot move the mountains we aim to move.

He is not the only expert, but he is the only one who has these kind of relationships, which are multi generational as they were started by his Father even before.

In South Asia, multi generation familiar relationships are more key than most would give credit. A relationship with a man’s father brings recognition and entre into what otherwise would be a non possible discussion.

It is not only scholarship, or language that count in these types of situation. It is relationships with key political leaders who via local jirgas, family relationships and influence can actually determine the course of the war on a local and panlocal level.

Neutrality or non action on the part of the great majority is one of the key factors that is holding back progress in the war. We do not have access nor influence over the critical mass of leaders that might make a difference in this struggle.

He is the only foreigner I have ever seen who’s very name brings a smile to widely divergent groups of Afghans, and he is welcome in each and every one of their homes at any time. Many if not most of these friends live in villages in what we call conflicted areas, where he can travel via pashtunwali without the slightest fear. Needless to say, I can never acompany him to these areas as I am working with the International forces.

I have been fighting this war or working here for a very long time and have never seen anything like it. In general I am very cynical, but this is a real phenomena and it is not getting noticed by anyone but the Afghans.

Steve Magribi March 9, 2011 at 12:27 am

Boris, just to second the motion about Josh Novak.

I was in Hisarak the other day, and getting a hard time on seeing the District Leader. I mentioned the Novak name and suddenly all of them were out of the houses and offering me tea.

I am not sure what he gives them to smoke but it must be good. This has happened many times. Works every time.

M Shannon March 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm

The link is to a story about a Brit officer beings sent on a Pashtu course before being deployed to Helmand as a cultural adviser. Good for her but it begs the question as to why the British Army would employ a Brit in this position- wouldn’t an educated Afghan be a better choice? The US HTTs raise a similar question about who to get local cultural info from. I would and did go for an Afghan adviser but the military seems to have a serious distrust of Afghans which he my experience isn’t warranted.

anan March 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm

“I would and did go for an Afghan adviser but the military seems to have a serious distrust of Afghans which he [“in” SIC] my experience isn’t warranted.” Bingo. Absolutely. Worse among the fifty some non US allied countries than it is with the US military. Some US military get it better than others, for example the Rakkasans and Marines.

Shannon, the Brits need this British officer to be trained in Pashtu, and to hire expatriate Afghans and to hire local educated Afghans . . . all simultaneously.

Getting more international woman trained in Pashtu and Afghan culture is valuable. There is a shortage of international woman to train ANSF, serve as embedded advisors to woman ANSF, and teach at Afghan woman universities . . . especially teach Afghan woman masters and PhD students. ANSF and Afghan university students, in my view, benefit from prolonged exposure to international woman. [of all kinds, expatriate Afghans, Indians, Iranians, Chinese, Europeans, American, Japanese, Pakistani, Canadian, Australian, Arab]

Charles H, know you are trying to be funny. Yes, we could all use more expertise. I have observed that Joshua tries to learn from Afghans and others who know Afghanistan better than he does. Joshua is decrying that ISAF isn’t utilizing more people who know Afghanistan better than he does. And he is right. There are many hundreds of thousands of well educated accomplished talented and motivated expatriot Afghans who would love to serve Afghanistan. But ISAF and the international community [and UNAMA and the many other agencies that operate in Afghanistan] do not hire them.

I would argue that Iranians who speak pharsi are also valuable, as are Pakistanis and Indians since they share a common culture. But are they hired?

For that matter, there is a treasure house of human capital in the ANSF. Does ISAF appropriately utilize this? Some units such as the Rakkasans do and did. They actually took “embedded partnering” “combined partnership” seriously. Not enough ISAF units have, unfortunately.

Joshua, it is more important for the ANSF and Afghan civilian institutions to utilize experts than it is for ISAF and international aid agencies to do so.

If we truly network the ANSF and ISAF into a “partnered embedded” “combined partnership” joint force with true shared HQs, planning, situational awareness/intelligence, strategy and mission sets . . . then can’t the ANSF specialize in Afghan expertise while ISAF specializes in ANSF combat enablers?

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