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Ways of thinking about Afghanistan…

October 31, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: A thinkpiece from Foreign Policy warns of the risks of using anecdotes in place of analysis

I came across this thought-provoking piece in Foreign Policy, reminding me of some of the analytical difficulties in judging what is going on in and around Afghanistan.  This piece voices the view that factual information is taking a back seat to more local, anecdote-driven, examples of whatever point is trying to be proved:

My strategic analytical view from 2006…

“A combination of bureaucratic pressures, journalistic factors, and data scarcity has led U.S. public discourse on Afghanistan to over-rely on “ground truthed” subjective narratives and personal testimonials.  Proportionate, objective assessments of metrics relevant to governance reform have lost out in the noise.”

The particular point being made here is that this allows “progress” to be demonstrated simply by the selection of a few personal experiences.

But it seems difficult to know what measures should be used in order to judge Afghanistan’s direction – “progress” is a very loose concept, defined individually by the hundreds of Afghan, NGO, government, military and media teams present in the country.  There is much to be said for local flavour to inform analysis and decision-making – in my 2006 incarnation at the ISAF HQ, General Richards, the then commander, was always off making visits to various key areas of the country.  Fast forward to 2011 and General Allen was doing the same.  It has got to be better than merely relying on paper reports and at least they have the advantage of exposure to the strategic and the local level.  And, actually, I still get the sense that Afghan government officials are much worse at getting out and about, than their international colleagues.  The “local” is the experience I am guessing most military personnel are getting in country and what most journalists are seeking.  It is perhaps natural to imbue he/she who can genuinely say “I was there and saw it myself” with more credibility than others sitting in headquarters, government buildings and national capitals.

About a million years ago, I wrote a dissertation looking at the evolution of trench warfare on the Western Front in the First World War.   If you were “there”, sitting in a trench, your perspective would have been extremely narrow; if you have any sense of what was happening on the flanks, it was largely rumour-driven or open to wide misinterpretation.  If you could have levitated, Google Earth-style, above the trench position you were in, your judgements would have been much better informed.

But this is not an argument for dismissing the local or concluding that strategic analysis is the only way forward – difficulties lie at each level.

I am visualising Afghan analysis as an hour glass: In the top half, broad, sweeping, strategic analytical judgements can be made.  The bottom half is the massive assortment of “I was there” local experiences, where the risk is assuming that the situation facing village x or district y represents much more than it actually does represent.  The key in this perhaps fatally-flawed metaphor is the waist of the analytical hour glass – being able to link the local to the strategic in a way that gives coherent and verifiable assessment.

Perhaps Rumsfeldt was right – we’ll know success when we see it, but we won’t have been measuring it when it arrives…

And for me, it kick starts a few other thoughts, some of which I have already half-chewed over in other posts:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 10:13 am

    Tim, When I do my country comparisons I look at demographic data, especially the following: infant death rate; life expectancy at birth; fertility rate; net migration; etc, which I get from the World Factbook of the CIA. In looking, just now, on the Net for Afghan-specific historical trends in these and other measures, I found this helpful site:

    Of course, all data are subject to error and to different methods of collection and reporting. It is still useful to look at a given country’s data over time because one can reasonably assume that the methods remain fairly constant within a country. In reviewing the above and other measures for Afghanistan I note a seemingly significant change in trends from the year 2008 to the year 2009. I’m guessing that the data from 2009 are better done, but I have no basis for this. In any case, before 2009, the trends were positive (starting from year 2000), and after the changes in 2009, continue generally positively, using 2009 as a baseline.

    Bottom line: from the demographic data, it seems that life for the ‘average’ Afghan is improving. Someone more skilled than I (an easy search) can possibly make more informed conclusions.

  2. November 2, 2012 12:27 am

    been there, done that –
    yes, entirely too much focus on inputs – money spent, projects started, etc.
    yes, too much extrapolating this point in time, this single interaction into ‘this is the way it is’
    there does not seem to be a single, definable icea of what success & progress are…the definition changes as often as the command, if not more so…

    • November 3, 2012 7:45 pm

      Hi and thanks Dan. It was all “mission creep” from December 2001 onwards, as far as I can tell…

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