US perceptions vs. reality

A game of chicken – US and Afghan troops take back road held by Taliban
What makes organizations miss so badly on the things they try to do?
Over the last few blogs I have hammered away at Glevum Associates. I’d like this blog to be the 3rd part of that discussion. Instead of critiquing the accuracy of Glevum Associates and DoS, I’d like to help you see the “ground truth.” Revealing how our American culture causes us to make poor decisions and negatively impacts our operations.
It’s easy to look at one’s own work and feel confident that you have gotten things right. You’ve prepared, you’ve worked hard and then poured your heart and soul into the work. You’ve applied the academic/doctrinal answers you’ve spent your career learning. You might even have not one but several degrees from prominent schools. Why wouldn’t you be successful?
However, when an outsider looks critically at operations as a whole, it’s often clear that success hasn’t been won. If anything, the desired effect has not only gone missing, but what is left behind is actually the opposite, and the operations have created less stability (This is the “Dynamic of Stability Operations)
Here is an example. At one of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) offices in southern Afghanistan is a picture of an operation. It captures a moment when the PRT worked to help open the main route to a district (the alternate route was a more mountainous road that slowed travel). Both routes were controlled by the Taliban. By closing the main route they better denied access to governmental assistance, prevented military access and allowed the Taliban to monitor/harass the residents.
The route opening was a major area of concern for the people in the district. The PRT went out, opened the route and claimed the “win.” Days later the operation failed. The route had been closed for 10 years. After the PRT’s operations it remained open for less than a month. Yet for the PRT that was considered a win. Let me put this a different way…the PRT introduced “New Coke,” and thought so highly of the product that they kept the branding images up on the walls at headquarters as a measure of their success.
This example and many others have taught me that at the tactical level, any task requires a significant amount of effort to get right. It’s never as simple as, “build it and they will come.”
This type of trap ensnares all of us, not just those of us that work in Afghanistan or Iraq. I’m just as guilty as the rest. What makes me and those like me different from others is that we have learned to see these problems. We do our work not wondering what “to do,” but rather asking “how” we accomplish our goals both strategically and tactically within the accepted norms of our partners. We also seek to understand our partners’ goals and barriers. Then and only then can we slow down enough to not dominate and work from assumptions.
Americans are a force. We can come in and we provide help. Our impulse is to desperately want everyone to like us and be better off because “we were there.” We’re also highly educated and feel as though we have answers before we ever understand the nature of the problems.
This combination helps make us insufferable to those who have to endure our “help.” They’ll tolerate us, and might even like us individually, but as a group we are often times exhausting. Many Americans will deny their involvement in this…that begs the question, why are you different from anyone else? Why are you ideas original? How have you managed to come up with a solution so obvious yet your predecessors (who received the same training) failed to see it? This last question in particular haunts me every time I feel like I’ve found an answer. If I have truly found a nugget, then surely my idea is resilient enough to withstand some tough questions. If not, then the idea fails the test and back to work we go to find solutions.
We must accept these realities before we can become more collaborative. My views expressed here, my lens, were formed from actual conversations with US workers and locals and their leaders, and from my experience. We Americans are consistently out of synch with the views and needs of the very people we want to help. We don’t understand their culture, and we certainly don’t understand how to constructively influence their “infrastructure of the mind.” Yet, we so confidently think we know what to do next, and then we mark of another “win” on the wall. We have such a passion to help; we’re compelled to work before we think. Again, before we decide to “do” anything, we must understand what we are up against. There are no simple solutions without a lot of painstaking work to interact with the locals.
So what are my tests allow me to detect when we are over estimating our contribution?
When I listen to my counterparts (and again, I’m just as guilty) I listen for the errors in logic that are common. I test for collaboration vs. contempt. I listen for their verbs when they discuss partnership. Are the verbs they chose dominating? or collaborative verbs. Do my peers speak with ease about their relationship with elders—do they even have relationships with elders outside of their scope of work? Are they full of contempt for these people or ignorance? Or are they respectful and knowledgeable of the load they bear on a daily basis.
We must always remember that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq have endured tremendous hardship. Their trust is hard won and easily lost. Our peers preceding us have likely cost us the ability to do our jobs as quickly as we expect. This isn’t because they are bad people, it’s because settling conflict zones and standing up a government is not easy work.
If we don’t adapt to their relationship based means of decisions making, they WILL NOT adapt to or comprehend ours.

One thought on “US perceptions vs. reality

  1. Question?
    After WWII, we were very successful at helping Japan, Germany and Italy rebuild their countries. They became friends and strong allies.
    Why can’t we repeat that type of success in Iraq and Afghanistan?
    What’s different from then to now that we’re failing so badly at rebuilding these nation’s?

    Grande

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