Anne Smedinghoff Didn’t Have to Die Part 2

Pete Turner

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

Mar 29, 2016

Last week I wrote about the tragedy of Anne Smedinghoff, who died on a patrol in Qalat Afghanistan.  This is part 2 of the story–

My intention here is to illustrate HOW? rather than “what” we (Dr. Rich Ledet and I) did regarding the proper means to improve education in rural Afghanistan.  I submit that our method is more reliable, predictable, measurable and can be replicated; yay scientific method.

Dr. Ledet and I leveraged an unusually strong partnership with a key Afghan political-religious leader.  More than simply believing that we had a great relationship, we’d taken steps to build and validate the strength of our partnership, leveraging tools I had personally developed over years of immersion in conflict environments.

To begin with, we avoided the common US “crutch” of dominance, never assuming that we were “in charge.”  Not only did we share many meals and tea with him, but we socialized with him and his family apart from any other American military elements. We also invited this leader to our dining facility to eat with us on numerous occasions.  We shared our relevant reports (normally made for US elements only, these reports dealt with our evaluation of his region) with him (unclassified or FOUO) so that he could better understand our role and how the US was attempting to support him–This post is long enough already. I’ll have to come back to this particular topic later.

As a side note, I thought I had a great relationship with this leader after working with him almost daily for months.  One day, he sat back, put his hand above his head and said, “I get what you are doing now.  I understand that you are truly helping me with the Americans.”  This breakthrough was surprising, as I thought we already had a good partnership.  But I had misjudged what was previously accomplished, and the lesson I learned was that not only is trust VERY hard to earn, but also that there are different forms of trust to be accounted for when attempting to partner with leaders in conflict environments.  Only after this point did I realize that I had earned an additional level of trust, and that he allowed me more latitude and access than he afforded any other American.  In fact, I could come to him for advice, as he knew that I was genuinely working to support the Afghans in a way that was within the bounds of their customs.

We brought our research problem regarding education to our partner, and asked him how to best work toward a solution.  He immediately identified the other elders with whom we needed to discuss and work, while providing us with the new Provincial Minister of Education’s (MoE) personal phone number (which we did not previously have on record) and advised us to mention his name when we talked.  He noted that he was also attempting to work with the MoE on education in his district, and although they hadn’t always agreed, he felt the MoE was an honest man.

This process of partnering, and acquiring information about other leaders and the MoE, demonstrated a measure of trust indicating that our partner indeed valued us and our efforts.  Further his validation through providing us with an introduction to other key decision-makers in the province which gave us unique access to a set of leaders that didn’t typically interact with US elements.  We had truly entered through a more culturally appropriate door, as our partner trusted that we would not expose him in a negative light to the other leaders.

Once we were able to make contact with the recommended leaders, we were careful to explain the agenda, set up appointments, and accommodate their schedules as best as possible.  We never showed up unannounced, or uninvited.  With the safety of all involved in mind, we took time to determine their preferred place of meeting, which was critical considering that we lived on an American forward operating base, and could move in heavily protected convoys.  We were remarkably “safer” than those leaders, as they lived in constant threat.  We displayed a respect for their safety when we considered their venue preference.  While these logistical steps seem obvious, we found this level of respect nonexistent in DoS, PRT and US forces attempting to work with local leaders, again relying on domination to achieve goals; US forces prefer to show up unannounced, unscheduled and take over the Afghan leader’s schedule as we set fit.

When we met, the recommended leaders were also accompanied by multiple religious elders.  We didn’t ask them to do this, by the way, but it was something that was required in their culture.  This was also an indicator to us that we approached the problem from the most culturally appropriate angle known to us (and recommended by our Afghan partner who originally set us up for success).  Afghan leaders, when not influenced by Americans, will have a religious leader (mullah) present as they make decisions.

Over the course of several meetings, and after deliberation between the MoE and other family and religious leaders, we were able to ascertain what was expected in terms of US assistance.  Keep in mind that what we were also doing was helping to link family, religious, and political leaders with a valid MoE backed plan to improve education throughout all of Zabul province; a critical element of creating stability wins.

These leaders never asked for money. They never asked us to build another school.  They recognized that we could help, and they also wanted us to help them determine if these programs were working.  They knew we had the capacity, which they knew they did not, to help them measure the success of the program.

What is most telling is that these leaders noted a lack of security, which is a common theme throughout my time in conflicted areas.  Security concerns are superior, and every other effort is subordinate.  This is where you need to pay attention DoS–The MoE asked that he never be seen engaging with the US at his office, as US patrols could only expose him to harm, he and other leaders wanted to reduce the amount of contact between US forces and their children for the same reason.  Moreover, leaders in the district wanted us in the background, as they wanted to see the Afghan government and the MoE doing their job.  They wanted the people living in Zabul Province to see the same–This is setting the stage for believable, culturally based stability win…and there is no photo op.

Our work established the beginnings of a clear plan that meets the requirements for creating stability. It satisfies a test we developed that indicates potential success when conducting non-lethal missions or operations…Is the operation Afghan inspired, Afghan led, Afghan provisioned, and sanctioned by a Mullah?

Is it possible that if DoS had bothered to teach Anne this test or heed our report, that she would still be alive?

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.

http://www.breakitdownshow.com/episodes/43-dr-richard-ledet

On Representative Duncan Hunter’s Questions About HTS

This is a copy of a Guest Post I wrote from ZenPundit.com

Guest Post: Duncan Hunter and Human Terrain System by Turner

ZP is pleased to bring you a guest post by Pete Turner, co-host of The Break it Down Show and is an advocate of better, smarter, transition operations. Turner has extensive overseas experience in hazardous conditions in a variety of positions including operations: Joint Endeavor (Bosnia), Iraqi Freedom (2004-6, 2008-10), New Dawn (Iraq 2010-11) and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2011-12).

ON REPRESENTATIVE DUNCAN HUNTER’S QUESTIONS ABOUT HTS

by Pete Turner

Today I was sent this USA Today article about Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca) and Human Terrain System with a request for comments. An excerpt:

….A critic of the program, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded answers about the program from Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy in a letter sent Monday. Hunter noted “striking similarities between the two programs” and called on the Army to explain how the Global Cultural Knowledge Network differed from Human Terrain System. He also asked for an accounting of its cost and the number of people it employs.

“Unless the Army can show real differences between programs, then there should be no doubt that this constitutes a blatant attempt to rebrand and reboot a failed program under another name and a launch it with a reworded mission statement,” Hunter told USA TODAY on Tuesday. “What’s obviously lost on the Army is that it wasn’t just the implementation of HTS that was the problem, it was the whole thing, to include the program’s intent and objective.”

I have no faith in TRADOC’s ability to get Human Terrain System or HTS 2.0 any more right than last time.  The program was full of prima donnas, liars and academics who lacked the ability to relate to the military and commanders.  Also, commanders aren’t trained in how to best use HTS assets either – and that matters. For example:

COL: “Pete, I want you to tell me who the most influential person in our region is….can you do that?”  

Pete: “Yes Sir, I have the answer already…it’s you…until the people recognize their own governmental leaders, police and military, our focus has to be in ramping your influence down while we enable them to ramp up, Sir.”   

That statement is the essence of what an HTS does – we identify and translate the intersection of the ramps.  There is no book on how to do it well. The ground truth is where the best work is done.  It’s a shame that Rep Duncan Hunter and DoD cannot see that.

For those who aren’t familiar with my work, I have 70+ months of time working in combat zones.  I’ve worked most of this time at the lowest level interacting with locals on well over a 1000 patrols.  A great deal of this time I worked in the HTS program mentioned in the article.

Rep D. Hunter questioned the need and was critical of the original HTS program.  Like any program we absolutely had our share of fraud, waste and abuse.  Here’s the thing…the HTS program even when legitimately run is expensive.  Units work hard, long hours and a relentless schedule.  On numerous occasion, I’d work a 20 hour day followed by an 18 hour day followed by a string of 16 hour days.  An 84 hour week is the minimum I’d work.  Working at the minimum pace of 12 hours a day 7 days a week, a person will “max out” on their federal pay for the year and accumulate “comp time” or paid days off.

Since there are always things to do, lives at stake, command directives to pursue…missions to go on, planning to complete, analysis to run, reports to write, meetings to attend…it’s not hard to work 90+ hours a week and be seen as not doing enough.  How about this – some units will practice for a meeting for hours prior to the actual meeting?  If a unit is going to spend 6 hours prepping for and executing a meeting, that’s just ½ of a day…yes, legitimate work will result in paid leave.

If my patrol leaves at 3AM because there is a full moon and we move up and over a mountain arriving at a village before dawn…then spend the rest of the morning patrolling more and finally return to base at 2 in the afternoon…I still have to report on what I saw, a report may take 3-4 hours to write….and then prep for the next day’s patrol…unless your unit is doing 2 patrols a day.

I recall one specific time when a brigade from the 82nd that I was attached to was going to rotate home.  The brigade commander wanted to provide the new unit with the best possible handoff in terms of data, relationships etc.  To facilitate this handoff, my team was tasked to improve a “smart book” of dossiers on prominent Iraqis.  At one point I sat in the same chair for 24 hours writing, rewriting and then updating the book…simply because we HAD to work – the books weren’t getting better, just being constantly reworked.

Why do I bring this up?  Two reasons: First, the 82nd works HARD and if one is attached to them, that person works hard too, or suffers from irrelevance.  The 82nd spent a lot of taxpayer money on HTS people writing those books with the best intentions.  Secondly, the next unit came in and literally, never used the books.  When I asked why,  the new unit said, “we really don’t do that.”

When Rep Hunter originally questioned, the need for the program, I reached out to him to illustrate how when done properly, HTS work saves money and creates the kind of wins that unit’s cannot do without a HTS capability.  I also sent several notices to the my district’s congressional rep Mr. Mike Thompson.  Both he and Mr Duncan are veterans; I thought, surely they’d value my unique “ground truth” based knowledge.  I was wrong, both representatives ignored my offer to provide feedback.

The answer to Rep Duncan’s question about the need for this program is this:

Commanders need an outside element to translate what the US is doing for locals; in this case Afghans.  Meanwhile the HTS person also translates back to the US military what the locals are experiencing.  What an HTS person really does is works as a cultural translator allowing the different sides to understand the reality of their “partner.”

I worked in a valley that had a steep narrow canyon.  The local US Army agricultural development team (ADT) a truly myopic, xenophobic program that commonly created instability more than anything else, decided to build a check dam.  The dam was supposed to elevate the water in the river high enough to charge the irrigation ditches that ran the length of the river valley.  Over the course of 18 or more months the ADT fought with locals to improve the dam, while the locals rejected it and attempted to destroy it on several occasions.

The Dam Project

I was able to talk to locals who reasonably explained why the dam was an issue.  Simply put, they didn’t want it – and it was predicted to fail as soon as the first rain came.  Further, the region had an Afghan leader chosen to handle water issues for the families.  He agreed that the dam was a bad idea; and also predicted it would fail with the first rain.  We never effectively engaged the water elder–instead the ADT insulted this person and ignored his position and influence with the farmers.  A commander can’t know these things without an HTS person on the ground studying the human terrain.

I spoke with the ADT engineer responsible for the final “upgrade” to the dam.  I mentioned the concerns of the people and the water elder about the long term viability of the dam, which was visibly failing – the ADT hydrologist said, the elder may be right. Exacerbating this further, the dam project was done, updated and repaired all without any planning with the local Afghan governor.  All in all, the dam cost well in excess of $100k

Then the first rain came…

If one was to look at the ADT reporting, the dam was a hit.  It was accomplishing great things for the valley’s farmers.  Without an human terrain operator like myself, the ADT and the local US commander likely would never have found out how miserably they’d failed.  Rep Duncan, you want to fix things? Give me a call and I’ll show you where the money is really being wasted.

It gets worse…not only did the dam fail; when locals began to engage the governor about his plan to deal with the dam (this BTW is a small win, as most farmers a month prior saw no benefit from the government) the governor had no capacity to change anything.  This in effect confirmed for many locals that the governor had no ability to help them and therefore,  the Taliban would remain the dominant force in the region.  Ultimately, the ADT had closed the books on the region and meanwhile security further eroded.  Our efforts to create capacity resulted in us undermining the fledgling power of the governor.  Within a few months of my leaving the region, a district once considered to be a model of stability, had three service members assassinated by their Afghan partners.

Without an HTS asset, we never learn these lessons.  This is one of dozens of tales I was able to illustrate as an HTS operator.  Of course, since Reps Duncan and Thompson can’t be bothered with the ground truth – its all fraud waste and abuse, isn’t it?

Problems In Helmand

Taliban Fighters Surrender In HeratBLUF: In modern conflict one only wins if they are able to achieve affects militarily, socially, culturally and politically.

The later three are mostly ignored in most modern conflict endeavors. Our training, both military and Department of State, has no capacity to teach/train our people how to win this fight.

As I write these blogs, I’m often asked to comment on stories that are published. I understand why, much of what you hear isn’t clear or told in a manner that truly conveys the whole story. This is normal…and to be expected. In this week’s blog I’ve been ask to comment on https://soundcloud.com/bbc-world-service/afghan-taliban-not-as-big-a

First, the Taliban is likely losing battles. However, the interviewer is correct in doubting the long-term success. The enduring capability of the Afghan police and military are yet to be determined.

My experience tells me that long term growth for the military is possible; however, progress thus far is rather difficult to measure. Keep in mind we are well past 10 years into this endeavor. Ten years of teaching and training should net a pretty significant level of competence…should. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in most of Afghanistan. Why? That is another blog post…

Second, a critical point is raised in the interview. The local Taliban leaders are from the region. This leaves an indelible mark on the perception of the populace. We have to also realize that this makes the Taliban leaders local or family. Family means survival.

Also, the Taliban were the government before our arrival. If they are still there and exerting power, what has changed for the populace? In Helmand after 10 plus years of fighting, if the Taliban leaders are still there, still wielding power, are they not the local government? Haven’t they proven, to the locals that they will always remain in power?

Even if the Taliban have fled certain areas, the long term security is doubted by locals. Why? We have to go back to capacity. The ability of the police to arrest, try and convict is not sufficient to warrant any confidence from Afghans. When we get to the “ground truth” we see a police force that doesn’t itself believe it can put people in jail. One of things I hope we’ve learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that simply arresting people in hopes of gaining some sort of stability is folly.

Actually this practice of knocking in doors and arresting “criminals” only to release them creates anger with the populace. This anger begets more bombs. We’ll cover more on this topic in another blog.

Forget the capacity of the police and Afghan army. The Taliban, while not desirable, is the leading force in the region and in many others of Afghanistan. Now what do we do to change that?

Let’s look at this from another angle. What does the government effectively do for the population? If the governor is able to provide services, it’s possible they will eventually accept Afghan governmental (known as GIRoA) rule as dominant. If the local government is failing, then it’s highly unlikely that they are seen as anything more than puppets.

In most cases, the government does little if anything at all for the people. I’ve talked to farmers and villagers; they do not see GIRoA as an effective government. Also, many families (again Family = survival) are self governing. They ensure they have water, food and work. There isn’t a rural family in Afghanistan that has survived without family/tribal support. Now…go find me a rural family that survives because of GIRoA support.

Waiting….

It takes years to eventually make a government “legitimate” with its people. Our training does little (and that’s kind) to promote the social movement of the population towards the government. By not focusing early on this factor, we’ve done little to help our partners establish a government of, for and by the people. We are great at putting the pieces together, building a fledgling government. Our ability to see this strategic vision is tremendous. However, it’s a government with no foundation.

Finally, if the government is in active talks with the Taliban, isn’t it safe for locals to assume that Taliban influence is going to remain in their region? If family = survival. If family = Taliban. If the government is fighting the Taliban…what is our expected outcome?

Still waiting…

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.

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.

How Do They Do It?

Last week I took aim at Glevum and associates for their questionable collection methodology and subsequent claims of accuracy.
I wanted to take some time to expand on that topic and reveal some of the hazards of collecting data in a combat zone.
Let me start with access, people, and access to people. In the US, it’s completely normal to have several TVs and phones in a household. These things work well for spreading information, enhancing connectivity to a greater social network within the US and ultimately to a much larger global community.
In the context of high information availability and high connectivity to broader social networks, regarding the ability to formulate opinions about relevant political and social issues, and communicate those preferences to survey researchers, citizens of the industrialized world are in a much different position than citizens of developing nations. Not only do citizens of different nations across the planet live in different contexts, many Afghans live in what more closely resembles the Stone Age, but research conducted in different nations occurs in different contexts as well.
Here in the US, we have the ability to use sophisticated methodologies to collect data on individuals that can be analyzed with a high level of statistical certainty, and used to make fairly accurate projections about political matters. This simply is not the case in Afghanistan, which as a “research environment,” poses a few more data collection problems than conducting opinion research in the US. Proper collection is important because improperly collected data adds more error to predictive models of human outcomes that, because they try to predict what humans will do, are likely already full of error.
To help illustrate my point, let’s consider a district (think county government) called Kaki-Afghan also known as Karkar district in Zabul Province (think state government). On a military map this district is “grayed out”…, kinda like on a computer when you don’t have access to something. It’s basically an entire district that is not accessible, and a district about which little is known to the US Military and ISAF. It is both geographically and politically isolated.
It would be nice if someone could answer for me a question, “If the US military will not, or cannot, go somewhere in southern Afghanistan, how does anyone from a survey research organization go there and conduct legitimate public opinion research?” Perhaps there are government contractors doing “socio-cultural” research in contingency environments that have better access than the Department of Defense, but this seems rather unreasonable to me. When it comes to assessing the progress made in a country, realize that entire districts are left out of that equation.

Let’s travel a little to the south and west of that district, to a place called Arghandab district (there are more than one of these in Afghanistan. In this case I am referring to Argendab, Zabul). In this district there are essentially no service members. When there was a small unit there, they had maybe a 1kilometer bubble of movement around their camp. That’s it…beyond that it became too costly, dangerous and problematic to move freely. This risk also applies to the residents of the district. It is far too hazardous for many district residents to travel to the government offices. My question, “How does a civilian research collector go to places an entire US military unit can’t?” In this case what? Most of the populace remains out of reach of the Afghan government/police…and firmly within the range and influence of Taliban fighters.
Let’s discuss those civilian researchers. One of the problems that the “International Partners” face is filling jobs in remote, dangerous areas with qualified applicants. This is due partly to the lack of qualified workers. The outlying regions (i.e. most places outside of Khandahar and Kabul) simply do not contain people with the level of education that are unemployed, underemployed, or basically just willing and able to qualify, apply, interview, and obtain a job. What further complicates the problem of a shortage of good workers is the perceived and actual threat involved with working for the Afghan government (GIRoA).
The Taliban is firmly entrenched into the “infrastructure of the mind” of rural Afghans, so siding with the current government, and making a public statement by taking a public job, is not a decision one takes lightly. A person must have a high level of protection to accept a government job. Protection can take many different forms, but the point is that Afghans must be accept a level of risk when accepting these positions.
Adding to this complex mix of problems, there are educated and qualified Afghans from Kabul and Kandahar….but due to perceptions (both real and unfounded), the more “urban” Afghans are reluctant to “venture to the hills” for the purpose of working for the current government in the back country and distant districts of their country. Just like rural “Afghans” have their own perceptions about the power of their country’s more extreme political elements embedded into the infrastructure of their minds, we should not assume that qualified “urban” Afghans do not factor the threat of political violence into their decisions to seek or not seek out a government job. We must always remember that instability (read “fear of death”) is closer to the norm there than stability (read “certainty of life”). As it is, instability causes villages and tribes to bond tightly, and avoid extending trust to outsiders. I need to take a time for an aside to add some context to this conversation.
Villagers in districts are constantly encountering Taliban fighters. Not necessarily in a combative nature, but in daily life. What this means is that extremist elements act with impunity in most of the rural districts, especially in the Southern region. In reality, these Taliban fights are the government. The police rarely, if ever, arrest these individuals, cases of kidnapping are never solved or even reported, etc., etc.,.
Given the level of perceived and real threat, how does a company that contracts with the US government to conduct polls in combat environments send out researchers into the field? What compels their researcher to take on this task? Is it money? Since they are going alone, how do we actually know if we can trust their collection protocol? Is data being fabricated? What steps do Glevum Associates take to protect their collectors? More importantly, what steps were taken to protect the well-being of the subject interviewed in their polls? In distant villages, strangers are obvious to residents, thus hindering the ability of survey researchers to properly sample a given population, employ a survey instrument, and accurately assess public opinion with techniques identical to what is commonly used in the US.
My question to Glevum Associates, how do you overcome these obstacles? How do you ensure the data is accurate? How do you protect your researchers and your subjects?
Finally, the geography and environmental conditions in Afghanistan are such that travelling takes an enormous amount of time. Assuming a permissive environment, the act of walking village to village, (with no maps or GPS) for a stranger (read foreign or domestic, not local) to conduct a survey is a relatively resource intensive endeavor, one so drastic that the military finds it to be too challenging, and therefore hires a company like Glevum to do it for them, and somehow, Glevum appears to get information from places that even the US military will not go.
Let’s remember the organizations that do field research for the US are driving decisions and compiling data that is used to make decisions. I submit that a large portion of the data is suspect. We can do better than this. If we are going to be involved in conflict zones, our partners expect more from us.