Monday, March 04, 2013

Planning is difficult enough, planning for Afghanistan is a nightmare

My admiration for Western technology predates my first encounter; nevertheless the first encounter remains to be very impressive. When I was 19 I witnessed a grand banger display of western military might. The US military started bombing Taliban positions in Kabul in October 2011.  The first round of the bombing campaign targeted command and control centres, communication centres and long range surface to air batteries. one fine afternoon I was cycling in Karti Parwan area of Kabul when a Taliban command centre was hit by an incendiary bomb. The target was housed in a prominent private building which was seized by Taliban. It was one of the things about the Taliban, they were quite keen on claiming others property. The smoke was visible from any part of the city. As I was cycling by this huge house on fire, I had to wade my way through rubbles, body parts, pieces of Taliban light weaponry all scattered meters away on the main street by the power of the blast. This building was well known to everyone in Kabul for housing senior Arab and Pakistani Taliban commanders. In this phase long range bombers such as B52 and Cruise missiles were used to destroy the targets. The second tier of bombing targeted military installation, logistic and supply centres and mobile short range anti-aircraft guns. Then came the last round of bombing that targeted infantry unites. It was around 4pm that I saw for the first time an A10 Thunderbolt flying very low and slow. The aircraft slowed down and fired a round from its heavy rotary cannon while banking sharp left. The shell hit a car with half a dozen women and children on board. This was the first unfortunate incident I learned to know about. But it started to occur more often and more frequently; a week later a stray rocket from a gunship hit house of a friend of mine. One day I was chatting with my friends toward the end of Taliban days and one said; “the early days of bombing by B52s was very accurate but ever since these slow and low aircrafts has entered, the Americans are starting to miss targets”. I realised that something was going wrong. A10 Thunderbolt and Apache Gunship are exactly designed to penetrate into enemy controlled territory to seek, accurately identify and destroy enemy targets. So what was going wrong? Was this a tactical error, sort of an operational level bug occurring in the beta version and bound to be fixed once Westerners gain firm and more ground. Or was it a shortcoming that western technology was suffering?

Allied forces had superb and real-time information gathered by forward air control, high flying surveillance aircrafts and stratospheric satellites. This information dominance enabled allies to destroy enemy units with minimal collateral damage and loss of friendlies, their gain was compounded by the ignorance of Taliban. They could have never imagined that the Allies knew about their commanders and command centres. Oblivious to their predicament they had gathered in a command centre to sip on some green tea.  Not only that, but the information would be offered to a supercomputer (not the internet, I mean literally) which would make it available to other computers that are run by middle management. The middle management then distil the data into usable form while perceiving local situation. The computer would also tell the man on the top about the second and third order knock on effect. This is called Effect Based Operation in military it is shortened for EBO. EBO is offering the leadership a precise outcome of a tactical decision, therefore enabling them to guide troops on the ground. The rise of hierarchical organisation owes much to the invention of this concept. In the business world this concept is known as ‘the big picture’, the leader at the top of the organisation has an intrinsic claim on information in order to build the big picture. Resources, tools and a level of staff time are dedicated to supplying information for the leader. The leader then studies the market and competition before embarking on the most suitable course of action.

There are a few reasons that could possibly explain why the US led bombing campaign had become more inaccurate. The arrival of close air support and ground attack aircrafts to combat theatre did not contribute to inaccurate targeting. The reason was that the bombing campaign had become more extensive and from few targets a day had expanded to hundreds a day. This was bound to contain tragic loss of civilian life, contributed by the magnification of marginal error. Moreover, operations that grow in scope and scale within a short period of time tend to contain errors.  At this stage, the ‘big picture’ strategy advocates introduction of standard operating procedures (SOPs). it is feasible to eliminate operator level errors; by gathering accurate information the organisation can reduce the number of accidents and mitigate its impact. This sounds like conventional wisdom but why is it not working?

Boris Gromov was the commander of the 40th army, the core force of Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Gromov served three tours of two years in Afghanistan. He undertook one of the most daunting duties in the history. He wanted to create institutions with apparatus that would be capable to connect with communities across Afghanistan and collect information that would enable him to curb the resistance and win over the support of the population. This was the first attempt in Afghanistan, individual only interacted with the tribe not with the state and no institution has ever had the power of collective enforcement. Gromov created branches for the government to engage with the tribes, the ministry was financed and tasked to liaise with the tribes. In November 1987 when a Mujahidin force of up to 20,000 strong laid siege to Khost, Gromov got the minister for tribes and ethnic affairs Suleiman Huskien to organise a Loya Jirga under the auspices of the president to encourage Zadran tribe to allow the supply convoy to pass through tribal controlled territory. The same concept of  tribal council was later used by the Coalition forces, the Allied forces arranged for a series of Loya Jirga to endorse what would normally be the task of constitutional tribunal and parliament, such as drafting constitution and appointing an interim president. Gromov modernised radio and television broadcasting and created sophisticated media campaigns that was tailored to address audience illiteracy and reach rural masses. These mobile multimedia propaganda units were sent out during Khost siege to villages around the road leading to Khost in order to tip loyalty in his favour.

Gromov had put together an army of thousands of bean counters and field agents to provide him the information for making calculated strike. The establishment of this sophisticated system of data management enabled Gromov to calculate the impact of his action and estimate likely movement and reaction of the enemy. He was able to make some strategic manoeuvres that would seem as unnecessary and risky by an onlooker at first glance, while his intention was to lure in the enemy into calculated situation. For Gromov to have an illustrative idea of what is happening where, he needed detailed maps. In 1985 he started a massive task to map Afghanistan and created a range of topographic, geological and agriculturl maps. It is the most detailed mapping of the country with 500 meter in 1 cm. The map has been an invaluable resource to NATO forces and was used to support USGS projects in Afghanistan.  Contours and English tags were generated in computerised terrain modelling processes which then added cartographic rendering for all branches of NATO forces. 

Big picture management strategy came about with the rise and increasing influence of institutions in our modern life.  Institution utilises the sum of knowledge to provide efficient mechanism and reduce costs. However, sustaining institution is very expensive and gathering the correct information is difficult. In order to obtain the desired information a large workforce is needed. Assembling such force and then enabling them to collect the relevant information is time consuming. Running any analysis on the information would also take weeks if not months, so by the time the data is produced, it will not be applicable to the situation. It makes it very easy to conclude that organisations would become much more efficient in gathering and analysing data only if they had superior computing power. Only if Gromov had satellite surveillance and advanced aerial imaging, only if the massive maps were available in digital format, only if his massive bank of data and ground resources were computerised; then he would have known that the resistance was not interested in negotiating. They had created a network of bunkers with the funding of CIA and expertise of Osama bin Laden and his associates. The enemy was provided by CIA supplied advanced stinger SAM (surface to air missile), multi launcher rocket batteries, self-propelled guns and artillery. The enemy was well dug in and the road approaching Khost that passed through Sotikandaw valley was mined for several miles. Most importantly the Mujahidin believed that they could not be dislodged from fortified mountain positions, and peace talk would only buy them more time. 

Fast forward twenty years and the same man, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who tormented the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan supported by USSR is giving Islamic Republic of Afghanistan supported by USA a very hard time. They are tagged “Haqqani Network” by NATO and has conducted some of the most daring attacks. This time USA is after compiling the most comprehensive military planning based on superfast processers that the soviets lacked. Fusion cell is US principle strategy to integrate and coordinate Afghan counter insurgency activities and capabilities across the US Army and joint services. The strategy has a small core “cell” that includes the Director, and has a large “in-house” staff accounts for building ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) capacity, stability operations and the integration of unconventional warfare and counterterrorism. They are also in charge of revising COIN doctrine; COIN (counter insurgency) is the tactic used by NATO to fight Taliban.   NATO has embedded hundreds of mentors in ANSF to Train Afghans in research, compilation, and analysis methods to map incident and crime trends and patterns. Billions was spent on equipment and resources to enable ANSF to conduct hourly mapping updates. The program is heavy on training ANSF in the use of computer software to prepare intelligence briefings and use the maps in PowerPoint slides as visual references.

There is nothing inherently wrong with PowerPoint or GPS mapping but they do impact the way we conduct ourselves. In a centrally planned institution our critical faculties disengage. Bigger and faster computer are introduced, complicated and burdensome processes are created to ensure the flow of information to the “big picture” and await instructions. All to contribute to an elusion of control. As Sydney Haris put it half a century ago “The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.” The trainer embedded with ANSF is primarily tasked to “transfer knowledge” through daily mentoring, workshops and seminars. If I hazard a guess on other activities of the mentor, I am pretty sure after the end of the day he or she takes a ride in an Armoured Vehicle that is leased to NATO at US$8,000 a month from a company owned by a cousin of some senior Afghan minister. The trainer then arrives in a heavily fortified compound where he has access to a good stash of cold beer and latest episode of Homeland after some threadmail in shorts. The trainer does not speak Farsi or Pashto, integrate with Afghans, understands about Afghan culture and way of life, and does not maintain a healthy curiosity about Afghan condition and aspiration. Then comes the insider attacks, ANSF members turning their guns against their mentors in anger and frustration. The principle NATO strategy, train and equip ANSF to take over the mission, is in disarray. Training programs have been suspended and the isolation gap is spiralling.
There are many dedicated and smart service men and women who have come to realise the need for change at many level. When Petraeus took over NATO command he issued a 24-point under COIN strategy. It reads as a list of pieces of advice, including: live among the people; walk, don’t ride, on patrols; take off your sunglasses when talking with locals. And drink lots of tea. But before drinking tea NATO has to revise the chain of command and the people running the show as part of institutional transformation. 
The National Health Service (NHS) provides free healthcare for all UK residents. The service is undergoing a major revamp since budget cuts. Hospitals and branches are shutting down around the country and the institution is putting to experience any idea that seem half decent. One of the key strategies of NHS for the future of healthcare is community based health care. The recent analysis of National Audit Office (NAO) of the NHS's quest to make £20bn of efficiency savings by 2015 said: "There is broad consensus that changing how health services are provided is key to a financially sustainable NHS. Such changes will include integrating care and expanding community-based care." NAO is working with Healthcare leaders and has suggested “service transformation”. Experts believe that we will see a transformation of Healthcare in the UK and developed countries in general toward community based if the service is to cope with the double burden of ageing and long-term conditions. For this brave new dawn lobby groups such as Kings Trust is pushing NHS to reduce investment on Hospitals and state of the art machinery and focus on health awareness as well as preventative and rehabilitative treatment. Central London Community Healthcare Trust is already in Swing and has no fancy building, PowerPoint presentation or cutting edge machinery. Instead it is run by community-based healthcare staff such as district nurses, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. It works in four London boroughs – Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Barnet. Last year they responded to some quarter of a million patients, most of whom were visited in their homes and the Trust only has 3200 staff.
We live in a world where knowledge is localised and not obvious to the outsiders. Sustainable institutions are not only dealing with the problems of the present but addressing the future. Sustainable institutions focus on locally integrated service delivery and investment in the community. The intelligence gathering and central planning efforts boosted by NATO is not useless; it is just incapable of capturing tacit knowledge. NATO just like NHS has the plan and the state of the art hardware but it is weakness is community integration to harness the implicit knowledge. 

The silver lining is that NHS has been fairly successful in adapting and providing reasonable service quality. It is very tempting to conclude that institutionalised planning will allocate the resources necessary to undertake creative projects. The proponents of planning would argue that institutions are the best entities for nurturing creativity and rightly point out that most of the key and sustainable initiatives have come out of institutional investment.

We are now in the twelfth year of NATO military presence in Afghanistan. It is fairly safe to conclude that changes in planning the conduct of war and building the Afghan state had occurred and those changes are generally in the positive direction. However, This does not explain why a US operated CH-47 Chinook was brought down in a meticulously planned operation by Taliban using inaccurate and simple weapons. The Taliban lured US forces into the trap by transmitting false intelligence. The US military is hacking Taliban phones to gather information and location data. A Taliban commander, Qari Tahir, aware of the US hacking capability fed the hackers with false information that a Taliban meeting was taking place in the area. The incident happened in August 2011 in Tangi Valley of Wardak province. Afghan and US forces attacked a compound which turned out to be an ambush. This is a populated village and NATO could not issue advance warning for civilians to evacuate as that would tip of the Taliban. The scope of air strike was limited so NATO called for reinforcement. This is exactly what the Taliban planned to happen. The only way the reinforcement could respond quickly was with helicopter insertion. The Taliban knew which route the helicopter would take. It is the only route, so they took position on the either side of the valley on mountains and as the helicopter approached, they attacked it with small arms and RPG. It was brought down by multiple shots. All 38 on board Chinook were killed, 30 of the dead were elite US commandos.
There is no doubt that experience is crucial to purify the information. Therefore, long-term engagement in a well planned institution is bound to meet success. This also suggests the process of data gathering is as important as the final outcome. In order to obtain the information that closely correspond to reality the actor need to revise the data, filter the sources, close loopholes and address inconsistencies. In reality big picture planner will face a number of challenges to prevent them from refining the data. The most important of the challenges is corruption. It hinders the ability of institution to implement the process. NATO has been planning to tackle the wide spread corruption in the entire apparatus of Afghan government. This has been unsuccessful as the planner fundamentally misunderstands the nature of it.

Idiosyncratic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk said “don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by … what you don’t play can be more important than what you do.” Planners always face the dilemma of choose. Their priorities are always the subject of contention but I would like to point to the importance of information deemed trivial. The action priority hierarchy created by information classification should be implementable, this require highlighting the key while omitting the trivial. But trivial could turn into trend and go unnoticed. After the fall of Taliban government in 2001 it was generally believed that Taliban were gone for good. On May 1, 2003, Hamid Karzai told BBC's David Frost during an interview on June 8, 2003: “I don't see a resurgence of the Taliban." He continued by saying: "As far as the defeat of the Taliban is concerned, they are defeated, they are gone-as a movement, as a government, as a structure, a political structure, a religious structure-they are not there." Donald Rumsfield and George W. Bush had voiced the same opinion on a number of occasions, they were so confident that the administration felt comfortable to pick another war.

Right about this time thousands of Taliban fighters were regrouping without being noticed by recon planes or security forces. Hundreds of Taliban fighters infiltrate to Dai Chopan district of Zabul province. Setting up camps launching attacks on government buildings and military installation killing aid workers, government employees, US and Afghan forces.  Offering rewards for Dai Chopan residents who fight against the US and issuing death warrants for US soldiers, aid workers, Afghan police, and all journalists. They had realised that it is not only the overhead technology that assists the allies but people like aid workers and journalists who gather ground information that could be used by the coalition. on June 8, 2004 the 22nd Expeditionary Unit of US marines were ambushed by hundreds of Taliban fighters. Calling in AV-8 Harriers, A-10 Thunderbolts and Apache helicopters to suppress the insurgents. This wasn’t a tactical challenge that a large force of Taliban could regroup without advance detection it was a fundamental failure of the planned system. In late 2003 a group of local elders from Zabul province met with President Karzai and warned him about Taliban activities in Shajoy and Dai Chopan districts, but he paid no heed as far as the president was concerned the major trend was that Taliban were gone for good.
The best theoretical frame to use for understanding the resurgence of Taliban is the Circular cumulative causation theory of non-equilibrium systems developed by Swedish Nobel prize winning economist Gunnar Myrandal.  He studied underdeveloped societies and noted that events are multi-causal and a change in one part of the society will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular, cyclical, perpetual and cumulative in that they persist in each round. Changes are coming about in small portion, change doesn’t occur all at once because that would lead to chaos. Taliban were never going to have a massive come back but by nature of grassroots change it would be slow and as explained by Myrandal in stages. This resurgence would have impact on the building of Afghan State. These impacts and the slow crawl of Taliban were not detected by the planners. 

Knowledge is spread locally, this seem very intuitive but you have to imagine that organisations are not set up to reach wide locally, especially when they run a foreign country where the gap of living standards create two races of local and foreigners, segregated and often hostile toward one another. The allied forces aware of their predicament earmarked billions of dollars to contract US firms to deliver projects that would interact with Afghans at district and community level, SIKA, AMDEP, ASI, ASOP, Harakat and ASMED are projects that are designed to implement small scale projects that addresses issues particular to a community. The underpinning principle is that lack of improvement in community livelihood is fuelling disillusionment, resulting in sympathy toward Taliban and communities would support the government if they see the government is capable of delivering public services to them.
I am a self-proclaimed expert in this area and was contracted together with my wife over two dozens of these small projects to be implemented across Afghanistan at a total value of US$ 1Mil. These projects only delivered limited success and the fundamental problem is that they serve the big picture strategy. The US government branch funding the program plans all the stages of the project. The community is not in charge of success or failure and does not deal with the consequences of failure while not taking the ownership of success. The system only succeeds in bringing issues that the local manager wants to bring to the attention of funder. They can conceal anything that they don’t want them to know. The selection is not limited to good news vs bad news by local manager but far worst. The manager receives financial support as an incentive for collaborating with the project. He would like to see the revenue to continue and only provides distorted information that he believes would prolong the flow of cash, rendering central planner incapable of building an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. The system suffers the phenomena economist pretentiously call Market Failure. The exact type of Market Failure is a misplacement of incentive. Incentive in economics is very important and the market economy system is the best way of regulating incentives (with a few exceptions). The local manager has no incentive of providing the desired information until the market principle of competition, customer service and financial accountability is introduced.

I have executed over half a dozen project to make local entities financially sustainable. It often starts with collecting financial information, without any exception such information is contradictory and paradoxical and I seek to verify them. I then create a verification tool which is time consuming to implement and develop. The verification assessment often comes back negative which means the community manager deliberately provides us with the wrong information. However, the funder will insist that a workable solution should be found without demanding antagonising the local manager. The project will receive millions more to deal with the problem seeking alternative and creative problem solving while avoiding to address incentives. The money will be earmarked under the disguise of capacity building.  

The nature of knowledge is to be localised and fleeting. The local agent will use the information he possesses for his own benefit. The computerised math “modelling” that explains local forces and illuminates causation is not what is truly significant (given that it was achievable). It is entrepreneurial learning in the context of changing local conditions. The theory of entrepreneurial learning offered by Fredrick Hayed and Ludwig Mises illuminates the significance of non-permanent knowledge and localised learning by entrepreneurs that form the bedrock of western capitalism.

Success depends on having sensible people on the ground that can make sound judgements on the spot and a little bit of luck helps too.  Central planning has been a failure for managing complex system, especially when we have little data about the system.