Collection Center Collects Instability

A post I wrote for LinkedIn

Break It Down Show Host, Professional Speaker and Cultural Consultant.–What’s your “Ground Truth?”

Collection Center Collects Instability

We are fans of Rich. He’s a warrior, professor, surfer, hunter, all-around brilliant, rugged dude. His current gig is working as a Poli Sci professor at Troy University in Troy Alabama. Rich and I worked together in Afghanistan studying how effective or “affective” our work was as US assets helping Afghans. It’s not common for Poli Sci professors to get so close to the ground truth, and then to be able to test our policy and strategic programs as they implemented at the lowest level. This experience, we believe, is fascinating and applies directly to the real world.

A good example of what we did involves things called Collection Centers, which our government built to afford Afghan farmers a place to showcase products to vendors. The Center is supposed to create greater revenue for farmers. Despite the best of intent, and a lot of hard work, the program was and remains an utter disaster.

Why has the program been such a flop?

We, the US, came in and established these centers without ever considering how the existing system worked. We never bothered to determine how changing the system might be accepted or rejected, or cause harm to those we intended to help. We didn’t consider if the Afghans even had a system (which, of course, they did).

Instead of defining the existing system and assessing whether or how our tool might address a need, we just came in and started changing things It didn’t work, and we barely cared that it didn’t; and we reported the opposite.-

An aside–the if you read the report, look for mentions of Afghan involvement in the process. You won’t find it.

I spoke with an Army Major in charge of the program and asked him about the existing local market chain from grower to consumer. He admitted that he didn’t know about it. When I asked why he was trying to change it, I was met with silence.

We also never considered if we were creating a harmful situation for farmers, and that ignorance caused unexpected and undesirable outcomes. At the most basic level, Taliban fighters notice “western” influence. A farmer who uses (though they never actually did) the collection center is exposing his allegiance with the US and therefore putting his family and himself in jeopardy. Further, the farmer buyer relationship is established relationship. Changing the nature of their transaction is reckless in such a conservative, Taliban influenced place. What we can’t do is create a situation that is perceived to increase uncertainty for farmers.

We built these centers throughout Afghanistan. At every instance, covering multiple units, I observed the same poor US decision-making. We never bothered to involve our Afghan partners in the decisions and never allowed them to guide us on how to work within their system. We forced these centers upon the people of Afghanistan, and wasted more than money and resources in the process. We wasted opportunities to actually improve the lot of the farmer, which makes de-legitimizing the Taliban fighters more challenging.

Our need to force the construction of the collection centers denied the fledgling Afghan governmental leaders the opportunity to make decisions that might improve the lives of the civil populace. I need to point out that we would not only force the center upon the governor, but also pick where it would be built. Let me say this again and in another way. We never discussed the centers with Afghans during planning. We simply picked a place and assembled the center…leaving the Ministry of Agriculture representative to explain it to the hand full of farmers he might encounter—when he was forced to go out to distant farming districts.

The result of our combined actions reduced stability for farmers…and eroded the minimal, if any, support locals had for the governmental leaders.

These stories, these lessons are one of the reasons why Jon and I do this show. We can do better…whether abroad or sitting at the Solano County Transportation Authority meeting…data matters…help shouldn’t be forced as a default.

Listen to Rich, Jon and I Break It Down.

A Review of “Code Name: Johnny Walker”

code name Johnny walker
I just finished reading my advanced copy of “Code Name: Johnny Walker.” Before I write more, I’d like to include two caveats. 1. I know Johnny Walker personally. This fact is important because, I have firsthand knowledge of many of the events. Also during my decade long friendship with Johnny, I have heard many of his tails from him or other friends of his. 2. I served for years in Iraq. This exposure to Iraq’s conflict zone warps my perception. I will try to write from an outsider’s point of view, but I am confident, I am going to fail at that. Since I am not sure how to be unbiased, I am not going to worry about it.
The book, “Code Name: Johnny Walker” for me is an essential book for anyone that desires to better understand Iraq. “Hurt Locker” was fiction…this book is real. You as the reader will have no option but to be gripped by Johnny’s tales. The book has so much weight; I was reluctant to flash it in a few hours. Yet, I read it in two short readings.
Jim DeFelice’s work deserves more attention in my review. He will not receive enough credit for what he has done. If you know Jim’s work, you already know his gift as an author is a gift to us all. If you know Johnny, you’ll be amazed at Jim’s work in helping write a coherent story out of the mosaic that is Johnny’s life; while not overwriting. It is an incredible skill to co-author a story with a native English speaking partner. I cannot imagine the challenges Jim worked through to help Johnny write such an incredible book. I should spend more time on Jim’s work. I’ll ask that you, dear reader, will appreciate that I’ll simply say, “Thank you Jim.”
Johnny’s story is of a native and proud Iraqi man. How he grew up, how he learned, loved and survived. His reflections are something we rarely if ever get to see. Immediately after reading it, I wanted to go back through, chapter by chapter and re-read the entire book. I want to sit down with my friend and have 1000 conversations with him about everything.
In one book, he lets the reader better understand pre-war Iraq and its challenges. He has illustrated what we put our “partners” through and what they experience when we go abroad, “to help.” He provides insights into what was, yet wasn’t, sectarian violence in Iraq. He captures what is like for US service members who go “outside the wire.” He tells his love story in such a way that I constantly felt his family’s touch and pain. He reveals the side of Iraq’s recent history that no US news network was able/willing to reveal. In all honestly, Johnny’s story is too graphic to be told on the news. This story needs time and distance and the safety of paper to be digestible. To highlight this, take a look at the pictures they include in the book. This book is so dangerous, he’s the only person who’s not redacted. Incredible.
I have worked in Iraq for years. I’ve been on 100’s of missions. I’ve spoken with 1000’s of Iraqis. Like Johnny, I’ve been in places where I was out 2 and 3 times in one day. He has served in Iraq more than anyone else I know. Our experience allows me to say that he has captured more comprehensively than anyone else the total picture of modern war.
One aspect that I think is well illustrated is the total confusion of doing this type of work. He notes the guess work, the innuendo, the unknowable and the mistakes. Combat is not a linear thing. The more we apply Western methods and analysis the more we confuse things. Johnny gets this, he knows and it’s a giant part of what he went through. I cannot express how valuable he was to US service members. How many lives he’s saved?
His savagery, will likely net him some negative criticism. To these critics I say, “Walk in his shoes.” We have the luxury of stability and safety. None of us has been hunted, or had to hunt other humans. His tale is real. It’s unbelievable. His sacrifice his family’s costs are unbearable. Yet, here he is, writing what will surely be the best book I’ll read in 2014. There is another book in Johnny, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.

Rule of Law, Part 2

While I work to help stabilize Afghanistan, I come across many astonishing stories. Most of the time these stories evaporate into fables and nothing. However, this recent Rule of Law encounter has been captured. Follow the link to see the story.

You won’t see, or hear me in the story…but that’s the point. I’m not the story. It’s the story of Afghans settling decades old problems. Turns out the old 25 year fight was actually a 51 year feud that was totally resolved just this week. The growth of the people and their willingness to unite is impossibly rare and wonderful. Enjoy the story.

Rule of Law, The Afghan Springer Show

First, apologies for dropping off the blog for the past 2 months. I went on vacation and it’s taken a minute to get going again. Rest assured, there are plenty of things to discuss.

Rule of Law is one of the key aspects to “fixing” Afghanistan. When the Taliban dominated the country, they controlled the “courts.” As Taliban influence waned, the US and partner nations have sought to create a more traditional court system. I can’t speak intelligently on why “WE” decided to create a more western form of law in Afghanistan, but I can say, it’s not the correct approach.

I work in a remote district. It’s over an hour to the main provincial (think state) government center. The difference between the two places is about as extreme as possible. The villages, even the district center (think country govt) lack ANY essential services. There are no plumbing systems, no electricity, no garbage service…nothing. Yet, the people here survive; and dare I say? Thrive.

Like most farming folks, the people here like to be left alone. The people appreciate the Govt–Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan aka “GIRoA”–but they only want so much help. Rule of Law doesn’t fit into their needs.

So, how do rural locals settle disputes?

I just recently worked with a local governor as he negotiated the resolution of a 25 year dispute. Dispute doesn’t really describe what happened…feud is more appropriate. Each side had multiple murders, one family had 1300 fig trees destroyed. Decades of money in dispute. The feud was complicated enough that the Taliban failed to resolve the issue in nearly seven years of negotiations. Negotiations require buy-in from many parties…I could go on about this, but I doubt I can make it any clearer…

I’ll try…Group your family whackos…I’ll get mine…let’s mix in another family’s crazies..add guns and grudges…NOW get them all to agree on who they all trust to lead them through a binding negotiation. Did that help?

Finally, our district (county govt) governor is called upon to start the process of reconciliation. This BTW is MAJOR progress for the legitimacy of GIRoA. It means the people trust this man to handle this dispute. It might become national news (for Afghanistan) though you will never hear this story on any US network or .com site (except After weeks of massaging each side, pulling out their story, commitments (commitment to settle is vital in these things) and “evidence.”

An aside about evidence…in a society that is mostly verbal and illiterate, nearly anything written can become something that it is not…WTF are you talking about Pietro? What I mean is, give someone who can’t read a document. That paper is written in a foreign language, with foreign letters. Tell him its a deed to a piece of land…wait 35 years. Now, tell that man’s grandson that the land he’s been farming for 10 years; that his family has worked for generations, isn’t actually his.

Now he has nothing; he can’t provide for his family. Tell him, his paper is a receipt for a Persian rug, not a deed…explain that he owes the real land owner for the use of that property and revenues generated. Let me know how that goes…if you smell cordite it probably didn’t go to well.

Back to our story…The governor calls in Sharia/Islamic law experts and elders from both tribes and other community elders. Mix that group into a bunch of small rooms and start shifting groups from room to room…hours of discussions (which looks like arguing to me). Don’t forget, this thing hasn’t been settled before, it’s serious business, and here serious business is settled with an AK. At anytime the whole ordeal can melt into violence.

Success is fleeting. I have a gun, no fooling…I’m armed….

Have you noticed that I’ve not mentioned the county courthouse or lawyers and judges? Ya, no thanks, the proper way to handle this dispute is in a 10×12 mud walled room, no power, no running water, no cell phones…just a bunch of old men sitting on the floor.
Yes there are advocates and yes there are legal experts, but there’s no bench, or government intimidation…no confusing legal mumbo jumbo…it’s a law they all understand.

Then before I even comprehend what’s happened…it’s settled. I’ll have to explain the settlement when I better understand it…but the agreement is binding. It happened in front of my eyes and I never even saw it.

Dozens of finger prints (a man signs with a print instead of writing his name; remember these folks are mostly illiterate) the deal is done. The feud is done. The biggest thing to do now is feed the crowd, 60 plus people were involved. The elders hash out who owes what for the costs of the negotiation, nobody earns personal profit from working the settlement (lawyers you may shudder now).

It’s not how we define Rule of Law, but it works. If we as a coalition of forces can learn to accept this, Rule of Law might actually be a success in Afghanistan.

I need to post a picture…but it won’t make this any clearer…just a cool visual.

Did that make any sense?