Posted by: Christian | April 27, 2009

Warriors and Nation Builders

Surprisingly readable, considering the subject matter. (H/T Barnett Rubin’s listserv) And I do like books that you can download:

Andy Tamas, Warriors and Nation Builders: Development and the Military in Afghanistan, (Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2009). Download PDF.

And only in the colonies: “Copyright © 2009 Her Majesty the Queen, in right of Canada as represented by the Minister of National Defence.”

I’m to busy to give a well thought out analysis of this great book. So I’ll just throw out some excerpts:

“You development workers are nothing but a bunch of Birkenstock wearing, granola-munching tree huggers.”
– Colonel Mike Capstick, Commander, SAT-A, Kabul, September 2005.

The Colonel forgot to mention the dope-smoking and the proclivity for Bolshevism. The Colonel  does later say that “the military does not do development!”

OK, that was just for a laugh. I think the book is quite objective and offers good criticisms of all parties involved; the military, the NGOs, the Afghan government, the consultants…. the parts I found most interesting were about interactions with the locals:

A number of team members (mainly the younger ones) regularly expressed frustration at how slowly the Afghan system moved, and tried whatever they could to get the Afghans to remove what seemed to be obvious roadblocks to progress and increase their units’ effectiveness. This is common in many parts of the world: while recipients of aid are accustomed to receiving advice and encouragement from foreign technical specialists, and know their presence is necessary to maintain donor interest in supporting their operations, many have created subtle methods of not changing things in the way the advisors want and thus preserving the integrity of their existing systems, however dysfunctional they may be. Often there are valid reasons and powerful motives for this “resistance to change” that the foreign advisors do not understand and the locals cannot (or choose not to) adequately explain.

And on those powerful guys:

An example from Afghanistan is associated with the realization that the head of one of the key government ministries was not able (or willing) to do his job properly and the most obvious solution was to get the President to replace him. Although this recommendation had been made several times no action was taken, much to the frustration of the advisors who were trying to help the ministry improve its performance.

A closer look at the situation shed some light on why this was the case. The minister was a former mujahadeen commander (like several others at that level) and had been given this high-placed post as part of an arrangement to keep him happy. He liked the status that came with the position, and had let it be known that he wanted yet a higher profile job for which he was even less qualified, so the appointment could not be made. If he were removed and suffered loss of face or status it would cause a great deal of trouble for the President, because he had a large number of friends in Parliament who would make life even more difficult than it already was.

In the reality of the situation it was easier for the President to put up with a poorly functioning ministry than to suffer the consequences of applying the most obvious remedy – removal of the individual. […]

On the over-enthusiastic and sometimes paternalistic kharejis and sagshoyas:

In meetings with Afghans and development advisors from a number of agencies there were several situations in which the advisors’ strong encouragement and insensitive enthusiasm, sometimes coupled with paternalism, contributed to their not being able to exert significant influence on the organizations they were trying to help. In some cases it may have been a function of incompatible or inappropriate communication styles or attitudes, and in others it was a matter of Afghans being expected to move faster than they wanted to go. The results were usually a shift in communication patterns coupled with extensive discussions among the Afghans, especially when the technical advisor was not present. These awkward situations affected not only foreigners – Afghan expatriates who returned to their home country to help the Karzai government could also find themselves being shut out and not being able to exert meaningful influence in the system.

And on over-enthusiastic military development projects:

The military operates on considerably shorter schedules than do most development agencies: they tend to think in terms of days, weeks and possibly months rather than in years. A community’s norms and attitudes rarely change that quickly. While there may be a need for quick impact initiatives in an AO, wherever possible these should be designed as an integrated series of inputs that exert an on-going and sustainable influence on the living conditions and patt erns of relationships in the community.

On state-society relations:

One way of regarding the recently-introduced government of a country like Afghanistan is as a relatively thin layer of new organizational patterns that has been spread over a much deeper layer of long-standing networks of relationships that really determine how the society operates. These two can be called the formal and informal levels of the host country’s systems. […]

In places like Afghanistan the international community spends most of its time and energy engaging with the relatively thin formal layer, while what actually happens in the society is determined largely by the deeper informal network of relationships. Because of the short time that most military actors spend in the country, many fail to recognize the importance of the informal network, let alone discover how it operates.

On government officials and unseen networks:

If the actions of a host-country official seem to make little sense to an observer who is a member of the international community and is expecting behaviour that is consistent with the patterns of the formal structure, it is likely that the largely invisible deeper dimension of the informal structure, which is that official’s real psychological, social and economic home, is exerting its influence. In many cases these complex deeper patterns are not clearly evident even to the individuals themselves – they are largely transparent and difficult to explain to outsiders. These informal networks are oft en deeply rooted in the individuals’ histories. They may have been developed in childhood or while in school or even earlier, through kinship, social and business relationships extending back several generations. Discovering how they operate is a major challenge in development work – once some understanding is achieved, the deeper dimensions of the society’s patterns of behaviour and belief become more evident and it is possible to apply appropriate influence with greater beneficial effect.

On the inappropriate nature of Japanese factory-style morning calisthenics:

Afghans who have participated in training and orientation missions in Korea reported that while some of the content was useful, there were other elements that missed the mark entirely, such as the group-based calisthenics designed to foster team spirit and increase motivation to dedicate their energies to the country’s advancement.

I understand completely. I had an employer that forced everybody to do something similar before the morning shift. I hated it.

And there is a lot written on civil-military relations:

Military actors working in an area need to identify, understand and establish appropriate relationships with these influential organizations as they exercise their mandate to improve security and foster progress in the regions in which they are deployed. […]

They can also have different types of relationships with the military. These relations are, to say the least, complex, and can sometimes be contentious.

No kidding? There is an extended discussion on this in the book. Which is good as many in the military don’t have a good understanding of the issues:

The mission of agencies providing humanitarian assistance is to be able to impartially serve all civilians in a conflict zone and they do not want to be seen as supporting either side in the conflict. Their independence is essential: although many humanitarian organizations receive funds from government they should not been seen as sub-contractors implementing donor countries’ political agendas. This core principle is jeopardized if they become involved in political or military-related activity.

Th e military, on the other hand, wants to use aid to serve their objectives, such as force protection (reducing the hostility of a population), to win hearts and minds and increase support for government – in a carrot-and-stick approach with clear tactical and political objectives. These two mutually-exclusive sets of objectives are the subject of considerable debate. NGO personnel often assert that the militarization and politicizing of aid is eroding the humanitarian space and putting their personnel at risk: this is often heard in a variety of criticisms of the military’s role in the conflict.

As this book seems intended for government and military types, a full critique of NGOs will not be found in this book.

And about those local power brokers:

Communities are rarely homogenous entities – there may be quite different conditions in the various sub-systems of an area in which an intervention is to take place. Although it is essential to work with local leaders, it is not safe to assume that the formal leadership of a community speaks for all its members, and that the picture conveyed by the leaders is shared by the entire population. While the formal leadership needs to be engaged in an intervention, it is often the informal leadership that exercises meaningful influence in a community. Informal leaders can be difficult for external agents to identify, and they may be reluctant to collaborate with the intervention.

Without their support, however, most interventions are likely to have minimal effect. Local co-workers or others with knowledge of the area are key to identifying and establishing productive relationships with the community’s informal leadership. Because of the likelihood of a community having sub-groups which have their own ways of thinking and acting, a single cultural broker will rarely be able to provide an adequate picture of how a community works. Multiple points of access are advisable, using several cultural brokers who have different types of access to formal and informal leaders in key sub-groups, so the external actors have more than one view or entry point into the system.

And their use of manipulation:

Each cultural broker is likely to be seen as linked to a particular part of a community or organization. Becoming too closely identified with a broker who is part of one sector of a community’s power structure might alienate other sub-groups and prompt them to provide additional support for the insurgency even while some members of the community are shift ing away from this pattern of belief and behaviour. Having multiple points of entry with several cultural brokers who are linked with the various sub-groups can mitigate the negative effects of this selective distortion process and will present interveners with a broad array of information on which to base their initiatives. […]

Each potential cultural broker will have his or her own priorities that may or may not have the best interests of the population or government in mind. While some may be motivated by a high-minded commitment to their people, others may see their relationship with powerful external agents as enhancing their own position and increasing their ability to manipulate the situation to their own advantage. Interpreters are in particularly powerful positions that they can (and oft en do) exploit to their personal benefit.

Their follows an extended section on interpreters and brokers:

Most of the foregoing presumes a relatively honest and altruistic interpreter. This is not always the case. Th e outsiders’ dependence on interpreters and cultural brokers puts these local staff in positions of extraordinary power and they can, and oft en do, take advantage of their position for personal gain and to enhance their standing in their own community. They are in a position to direct resources to their friends who may be giving them kickbacks or other benefits because of the contracts they send their way.

And something NGOs deal with all the time:

Most development operations (including the PRTs in Afghanistan) are seen by many locals as producing ripe fruit that is easy picking – there oft en is a circle of local business people hovering about ready to capitalize on the contracts for development work and the other benefits available from the wealthy outsiders. When development workers manage to bypass this cluster of eager local agents to do their projects they oft en find they can get work done for substantially less than they have been accustomed to paying, indicating they have been subjected to inflated prices – something that has likely been done with the knowledge of their interpreters and cultural brokers.

And yet another Colonel with a “brilliant” idea:

Sharia Law was used as an example in a discussion of a problem with international interventions, and a pragmatic solution, in a presentation on Afghanistan by Col Steve Noonan before an audience of university students in late 2007. He argued that one problem with the mission in Afghanistan is the American’s desire to institute government in the same form as in the US. He suggested that it might be wiser to reinforce locally acceptable forms of government that did not result in the violation of basic international principles. He said this could even be Sharia Law that, unlike American democracy, is deeply rooted in local culture.

And again on those Birkenstock-wearers:

Most military analysis seems focused on dealing with an adversary to reduce its ability to do what it wants. In development thinking, the concept of adversary is not as evident as it is among the military, and this forms a
foundation-level difference in approaches to the “mission”. Development workers tend to see an entire region or community as an environment with which they are being invited to work, and there are positive, neutral and negative forces or energies in that environment that need to be taken into consideration and worked with as they try to help it move in a desirable direction. To base an intervention strategy on the idea that the main thing needed is to overwhelm or neutralize an adversary is foreign to how they think about their activities.

[criticizes the military for a while]

Development workers have their own changes to make in this regard: they have been characterized as “Pollyannas” who see all the local actors as members of the society who will listen to reason and who can be enlisted in programs to improve the system. Unfortunately there are people who do not want to be part of any programs they are offering and who will do everything in their power to resist their efforts, including committing
atrocities such as beheading 13-year-old girls for going to school. When these brutal characters are on the scene it is clear there is an adversary, an us-and-them, good guys and bad guys, and the military’s traditional concepts
and tools are entirely appropriate.

Hugs from NGO hippies can work better in certain situations:

As noted earlier in the example given by Lane and Sky, a group of angry villagers confronting a local official may be simply demanding an equitable distribution of resources that the official had been giving only to his own sub-group in the area. A number of visits by a development worker who drinks multiple cups of tea while patiently urging the official to grasp basic concepts of good governance is likely to achieve a more sustainable beneficial effect than a kinetic response to that official’s panic call for an air strike on the angry mob of villagers that is besieging his office.

Anyways, that’s probably enough excerpting considering this book is copyright by the Queen of the Canadas. The bottom line: this book is essential for any military types who need to engage the locals, the government and potentially the NGOs. For the competent and experienced NGO type this book will probably just seem like a basic review. But they are not the intended audience. But probably contractors and diplomats should also give this book a read. However, there is a lot of management and development theory to navigate. And that’s not too much fun.

Download the book.


  1. Thanks much for this great review, it’s really encouraging. I’m working on a sequel, “The Phoenix and the Bureaucrat: Rebuilding the Civil Service After War” which will be a collection of articles by people on both sides of the donor-recipient relationship in Afghanistan, Iraq and hopefully elsewhere. A functioning public administration is a prerequisite for a stable state, and it’s quite an adventure helping this emerge.
    Baghdad, May 2009.

  2. Andy,

    Thanks for the comment. Sorry I didn’t structure it like a decent book review. Shortage of time, piles of paper everywhere, PDFs all over my computer’s desktop. I’m sure you can relate.

    Good luck with the civil service project. I look forward to reading it.

    — Christian

  3. […] Military and Civilians in COIN 29 September 09 ocmpoma Leave a comment Go to comments Warriors and nation builders: Development and the military in Afghanistan Andy Tamas Categories: Ghosts of Alexander Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, COIN, policy, politics […]


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