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Posts tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Bureaucratic Barriers and Local Knowledge

510px-CIA.svgBy Taylor Marvin

Writing in The American Conservative, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi strongly criticizes the “cultural ignorance” hampering US foreign policy and security agencies. Rotating assignments and an obsession with leakers and “insider threats” that discourages hiring first or second-generation Americans with foreign language and cultural skills have left American foreign policy, Giraldi writes, bereft of local knowledge and an understanding of alien societies. While American-born practitioners with deep local knowledge do exist “they are largely absent from government,” and counterproductively “organizations like the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency have a deep institutional prejudice against their employees ‘going native,’ rotating officers every two or three years to avoid someone’s becoming too identified with local interests and cultures.”

Giraldi’s argument is reminiscent of Rory Stewart’s essay “The Plane to Kabul” in the book Can Intervention Work?, co-written with Gerald Knaus. In the essay Steward, like Giraldi, argues that Western governments are unable to effectively carry out state-building and counterinsurgency missions because they lack the number of dedicated specialists necessary to truly understand the cultures these missions operate within. Steward even draws the same comparison to British Imperial administration as Giraldi; as both note, British colonial administrators were, in Giraldi’s words “expected to go out to foreign posts for extended periods, to learn the local language, and to acquire an understanding of the indigenous culture.” Today, this is not the case. As Steward extensively argues, few administrators involved in the multinational mission in Afghanistan can match the local knowledge British colonial officials once commanded. Casualty aversion restricts aid workers, diplomats, and administrators’ ability to travel through Afghanistan and meaningfully interact with locals, and few practitioners are fluent in Afghanistan’s languages. Unlike the British colonial administrators who would spend their entire career in the colonies, today’s practitioners in Afghanistan typically spend little time in the country and rotate out frequently, creating a “lack of continuity” that, quoting Stewart, makes political work difficult “because it stopped the development of trusting relationships with Afghan leaders.”

Both Giraldi and Stewart stress that many US governmental agencies and Western NGOs minimize the career value of acquiring regionally-specific knowledge and languages. The consulting culture embraced by both American governmental agencies and development NGOs, Stewart argues, emphasizes universal principles like conflict resolution, developmental economics, or public administration rather than specific knowledge grounded in local realities. Similarly, Giraldi notes that the CIA officers often do not possess advanced language and cultural skills due to the likelihood that they will soon be tasked with work on another region. “Senior Agency officers, who are disproportionately minimally language capable, generally excuse themselves by arguing ‘an op is an op is an op,’ meaning that spying is not culture specific.” But while this institutional generalist focus might be counterproductive, it is also somewhat understandable: individual practitioners and the organizations they work for have an incentive to stress universal skills that remain in demand when attention moves on from one crisis region to another.

9780393342246_CanInterventionWork_PB.inddIn a reaction to Stewart’s essay, I challenged the idea that the lack of local knowledge Stewart rightly sees as hampering the effort in Afghanistan can be remedied by future “smart” interventions benchmarked around preexisting country-specific knowledge. The British colonial administrators both Stewart and Giraldi approvingly cite could commit themselves to acquiring a career’s worth of local knowledge because they had good reason to believe that the British Empire, and perhaps more importantly the job they’d spent decades training for, would exist by the end of their career. This logic is no longer the case. Indeed, the modern strain of liberal intervention is explicitly benchmarked around the idea that crisis areas can be stabilized by the application of military force and subsequent state-building efforts, again explicitly establishing that, if successful, intervention does not create permanent employment for specialists. Of course, this does not mean that there will not always be a need for dedicated regional specialists — but successfully prosecuting limited-term military interventions obviously requires a temporarily larger cadre of these specialists. There’s simply no way to avoid this surge problem in anything but the most-limited military interventions. While Arabic is a major global language and the Middle East will remain a focus for American foreign policy, there is already a perception among career-minded students that learning Arabic is no longer as useful as it was a decade ago.

Given the time horizon inherent in liberal interventionism, military officers, State Department staffers, and NGO workers have less incentive to heavily invest themselves in acquiring the local skills that will be in less demand in the future. While acquiring these skills will not hurt young practitioners’ future prospects per se, they do carry heavy opportunity costs. Unless an individual practitioner or organization is very dedicated to a specific region, and can count on being promoted on that dedication, it is better to invest in more universal skills without a built-in shelf life — those that justify the believe that ‘an op is an op is an op.’

The problem is that there is no obvious means of addressing the institutional cultural ignorance that both Giraldi and Stewart detail. Of course, Giraldi’s smaller-scale focus on the lack of local skills within American intelligence agencies and the Foreign Service can be in part remedied by focusing less on insider threats and overcoming the so-called institutional prejudice against “going native”. But as long as the American government is tasked with operating in nearly all world regions, it will have trouble finding enough specialists to support ramping up intelligence, military, or even development activity in any given one. Even if practitioners within intelligence agencies or — no less importantly — the wider foreign policy industry are not rotated from specialization to specialization, in-demand regions will shift. Again, it isn’t unreasonable to suspect that the US foreign policy establishment will require less Arabic speakers in the future than in the 2000s, and people make decisions about which skills to acquire based on these expectations.

The problem isn’t only that bureaucratic disincentives make it difficult for organizations to acquire the locally-knowledgable practitioners necessary for state-building or counterinsurgency to work. Stewart stresses that decisions in favor of military interventions should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments” that do or do not suggest that a successful intervention is possible. But while military interventions may be wars of choice, their locations are not. The United States did not choose to strike Afghanistan in 2001; it was forced to take action by an unprovoked and largely unpredictable attack. While it was not forced to embark on a state-building mission or even to invade Afghanistan, again it is not clear that this was a really a choice at all — as many have noted, the United States cannot realistically smash foreign government and then entirely absolve itself of the unpleasant consequences. While other examples of military interventions may be less dramatic and less costly, the same logic applies. France may have lobbied for military action in Libya and later Mali, but it did not “choose” the events that prompted calls to intervene. This inherent uncertainty about where calls for military interventions will occur makes it difficult to preserve the deep institutional bench of country specialists required to wisely implement policy — and “smart” strategies that rely on their availability problematic. Even when potential crises are suspected, this knowledge is often not enough to prompt bureaucracies to foster the relevant language and cultural skills: as I previously relayed, while the UK knew through the 1970s that Argentina aspired to take the Falkland Islands (though they did not deem it likely), during the war British forces included very few Spanish speakers.

Of course the decision to militarily intervene should be based on specific local knowledge, and an honest assessment about whether military and civil organizations can acquire skilled practitioners quickly enough and in sufficient quantities to be effective. But given the bureaucratic barriers to maintaining a deep bench of specialized practitioners, many potential intervention efforts will not be able to leverage the human capital effectively prosecuting them requires.

Update: Edited for clarity. 

Are Drones More Likely to Inflict Civilian Casualties?

By Taylor Marvin

MQ-9. US Air Force photo by Kristi Machado.

MQ-9. US Air Force photo by Kristi Machado.

At Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter highlights a recent Guardian piece by Spencer Ackerman relaying the claim by a classified Department of Defense study suggesting that drone strikes over a yearlong period in Afghanistan “caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.” The study suggest that this higher incidence of civilian casualties is due to insufficient training of drone pilots compared to their in-the-cockpit counterparts. Carpenter notes that if this is true, the argument that drones are a more humanitarian option than crewed aircraft would be substantially weakened.

(Though, importantly, drones strikes within Pakistan are often held up as the more humane option compared to Pakistani military action, not US airstrikes conducted by crewed aircraft, so the study’s findings would not necessarily affect this higher-profile controversy over the ethics of drone strikes.)

There are numerous reasons to doubt the validity of these findings: First, as Carpenter remarks, the study itself is classified — making its data and methods impossible to verify. Secondly, as Dan Nexon argues, there are many within the DoD, and particularly the US Air Force, that find the prospect of a future where fighter jocks take a backseat to drones deeply unattractive and have an incentive to discredit UCAVs. Finally, there’s an obvious potential bias here: as other commenters noted, in the last decade the United States has disproportionately used drones to conduct signature strikes in civilian areas, while crewed aircraft are more often used in more traditional combat strike roles. It’s entirely possible that the manner in which drones are used, rather than operator training or anything inherent to remotely piloted aircraft, is more likely to cause civilian casualties. Unless the study in question is made public we won’t know if this bias is accounted for.

But beyond these issues it’s important to remember that this study has little relevance to the debate over drones themselves. There is little reason to suspect drones are inherently more prone to collateral damage than crewed aircraft, at least in the manner which they have recently been utilized. After all, when conducting signature strikes in undefended airspace — drones’ signature mission in the last decade — there is little qualitative difference between remotely piloted aircraft and crewed strike aircraft. Instead, what makes drones different is their political baggage, which is typically understood as less restricting than crewed strike aircraft. In many situations — in particular, contested airspace — remotely piloted aircraft will likely suffer more from limited situational awareness and other operational limitations than crewed aircraft, limitations that may make them more prone to killing civilians. But there is again little reason to suspect that the limitations of contemporary unmanned platforms have affected drones’ propensity for inflicting civilian casualties today. Instead these civilian casualties are more likely due to the United States’ division of labor between crewed and uncrewed strike aircraft, rather than the inherent qualities of each platform.

Drone strikes will remain controversial, as they should. But it’s important to untangle debates over the consequences of UCAVs themselves, and of their applications. I’d argue that this study is more relevant to the latter than the former.

Bureaucratic Barriers to Successful Interventions

9780393342246_CanInterventionWork_PB.inddBy Taylor Marvin

I recently finished Can Intervention Worka slim volume of twin essays authored by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus examining how humanitarian-motivated military interventions can succeed. Stewart’s essay, which opens the book, suggests an interesting comparison between the practitioners of modern intervention and British colonial administrators. One of the key failures of the current effort in Afghanistan is a lack of local knowledge among military and especially civilian practitioners. Because of security concerns, conflicting priorities, and the generalist focus of most modern government agencies and NGOs few practitioners spend extended periods in the Afghanistan, are able to create durable connections with ordinary Afghans, or learn local languages.

Stewart contrasts this disconnect separating international practitioners and ordinary Afghan society with British imperialists. While few modern officials or NGO workers would appreciate the comparison, in contrast to today the colonial officials of the British empire prized the local knowledge of specialists and created institutional structures that encouraged and fostered these skills.

British colonial officials were often cruel, erratic, and racist, as well as representatives of a colonial system fundamentally designed for exploitation, not development. However, Stewart argues, in contrast to their modern counterparts, British colonial officials stationed in Asia served abroad for decades, acquiring — and, crucially, were promoted on the basis of — language and cultural skills. Unlike today “this cadre of specialists in Parliament, the military, and the media,” Stewart writes, “provided a well-informed challenge to exaggerated ambitions or fears about Afghanistan.”

There are reasons to question this reasoning.* For all their local knowledge British colonialists suffered major defeats which were often sparked by their tone-deaf indifference to local grievances; the 1857 Indian Rebellion is one example of many. Indeed, despite the “well-informed” regional knowledge of 19th century British colonialists the First Anglo-Afghan War was certainly a Western defeat in Afghanistan more severe than today’s war. This suggests that while regional specialization is important, it is no panacea for the arrogance inherent to colonialism and often foreign invasion.

But it is true that today’s practitioners in Afghanistan — and the entire international effort they embody — appear to often lack the specialized local knowledge crucial to successful state-building. As Stewart and others have noted, this is a serious weakness of the current effort in Afghanistan. For military servicemembers, the demands of rotating deployments makes it difficult for veterans to pass on regionally-specific experience and lessons learned. For civilians, this disconnect is arguably even worse: security concerns restrict most foreign aid workers and administrators to guarded compounds, and few possess relevant cultural and language skills. The senior officials responsible for setting policy, both in and outside of NATO governments, spend little time on the ground in Afghanistan, and have even less local experience.

Of course, Stewart is carefully to differentiate between the local specialization and general outlook of colonial officials. Western governments, Stewart writes, “should not be trying to replicate a nineteenth-century ethos”; obviously, Western and Afghan societies would not support them if they did. But it is obvious that the modern practitioners’ generalist outlook is problematic. Too few speak Afghan languages, and too few are able to meaningfully interact with ordinary Afghans. This generalism is the result of many limitations: the buzzword-heavy culture of modern management consulting that stresses universal principals over regional specifics, the casualty-adversion that isolates practitioners into guarded compounds, the short overseas tours that disincentivizes learning specialized local knowledge. But whatever its cause, a generalist outlook disconnected from local realities is not conductive to successful, realistic policy — as Stewart’s anecdote of attending a government conference on Afghanistan, held in Estonia and attended by only three Afghans, all US born, amply illustrates.

Stewart expands his critique into a general call for smarter interventions; in this telling, decisions to intervene should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments on why we cannot intervene in a particular place, or why we should not intervene too deeply.” This is certainly a valid critique of liberal interventionist thinking, though I would caution that the general hurdles to successful interventions are as vital as specific knowledge.

But the importance of local knowledge is potentially a general deficiency that makes nearly all full-scale, boots-on-the-ground interventions unfeasible. Successful full-scale interventions, especially those with state-building components, require practitioners with local knowledge. While neoconservatives and to an extent liberal interventionists once downplayed the importance of this specialization, in the post-Iraq environment this assertion isn’t controversial. However, this language and cultural knowledge gap is a human capital problem that poses a real obstacle to advocates of humanitarian military interventions, despite their motivation.

All modern interventions are nominally short-term, despite the tendency of mission creep and unplanned setbacks to expand their mandate. This makes it difficult for institutions to incentivize building the local skills that Stewart stresses. Unlike the colonial administrators Stewart cites — who could expect their postings to last for decades, making acquiring local languages and cultural knowledge a valuable long-term investment through their career — today’s practitioners know that the US presence in Afghanistan will dramatically shrink in the next few years. Even excluding the modern security-driven isolation that makes in-country cultural interactions difficult and institutional cultures that fail to reward specialization, modern practitioners have significantly less incentive to invest the time and effort required to acquire deep cultural knowledge they can expect to soon be dramatically less relevant. Just as Americans who became experts in Vietnamese culture saw less applications for their skills after 1975, those who invested considerable energy in learning Dari or Pashto — while admirable — may see this specialization as less valuable to their career than generalist skills with less of an expiration date.

US Army Photo by Spc. Alex Kirk Amen, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, via Flickr.

US Army Photo by Spc. Alex Kirk Amen, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, via Flickr.

While this is an arguable point, I believe this is a major structural flaw in liberal interventionism. As long as foreign interventions are benchmarked around politically-acceptable short timeframes, civilian and military practitioners will have less career incentives to acquire specific cultural skills with little direct applications decades on. As Stewart argues, government agencies and NGOs could certainly place more emphasis on rewarding those who acquire these skills. Additionally, this isn’t to say that acquiring cultural skills doesn’t provide indirect career benefits — acquiring them certainly demonstrates commitment and general aptitude. But as long as practitioners cannot, unlike colonial administrators, see a stable long-term market that directly applies their skills, they have less incentives to acquire them.

If the success of intervention is dependent on the availability of a large cadre of practitioners with deep local knowledge, this bureaucratic incentive problem is a major barrier to pro-intervention arguments. Prospective interventions can draw from existing regional specialists in academia or NGOs — though, as the Iraq War demonstrates, these specialists are often ignored when they bear unwelcome counsel, and distinguishing disinterested experts from those with agendas is difficult. But successfully implementing counter-insurgency and state-building programs require large numbers of regional specialists also knowledgable about whatever technical field they will be working in, whether military of economic or political. These very specialized human resources take time to grow, and cannot be counted on to emerge in sufficient quantity.

This is particularly troubling because countries have repeatedly failed to incentivize regional expertise even in regions known to be potential trouble spots. For example, during the period leading up to the Falklands War British officials could have reasonably expected that, while they never expected an actual war with Argentina over the islands, building and maintaining institutional Latin America expertise was a prudent strategy. But as reported in Max Hasting and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklandsthe British were unprepared for the diplomatic requirements of successfully averting conflict. Despite their two possessions in the region — the Falklands and, until 1981, British Honduras — Latin America was not a priority for the British Foreign Office. Specialists tasked with the regionlacked resources, and in the early post-war era was primarily focused on commercial, not political, relations. British intelligence on Argentina was minimal, and during the conflict few British servicemembers landed on the islands spoke Spanish. The point is that maintaining institution’s regional expertise resources is difficult, even in regions known to present potential future problems. Because humanitarian crises cannot always be expected to occur in regions with a deep bench of specialists available, this problem is even more apparent for humanitarian-minded interventions.

No matter how many existing regional specialists there are to draw on, successful full-scale interventions will always require dramatically increasing relevant human capital. Not only is this time-consuming — and, as the Iraq War again shows, mistakes made in the opening states of an intervention can have dramatic long-run effects — but incentivizing these specific, limited-application skills is a difficult bureaucratic problem. While many critics of foreign interventions point to a lack of local expertise as a key flaw of these efforts, few question whether bureaucracies can offer sufficient incentives for practitioners to acquire them. The short-timeframes inherent to full-scale interventions suggest that this human capital problem is so challenging that it should be considered a integral hurdle to successful full-scale, state-building intervention.


*More specifically Stewart’s status as a regional expert himself, which he largely casts himself as in the text, has been questioned.

Update: Edited for clarity.