Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Biological Warfare: "1491" by Charles C. Mann

An amazing read! Charles C. Mann's book "1491" describes the possibility that native American contact with European traders may have depopulated the continent in advance of the arrival of colonists via spread of disease. Hence, when the colonists arrived, they found a relatively sparsely populated countryside. This context then gives rise our cultural imagination of the native population as 'primitives' living in a relatively uncultured and somewhat 'ecologically harmonious' and naive state.

Biological relativism is also debunked in Appendix C. European disease obliterated native American cultures, and the natural question arises--what diseases originated on this continent that had the same effect on Europeans? One oft-repeated answer: syphilis. The first recorded European outbreak of syphilis occurred around 1494-1495, brought back by mercenaries working for Charles VIII of France's armies in their conquest of Naples. As Charles' army fled a counter attack, mercenaries split off from the main retreating body, spreading syphilis as they went via their habit of rape and pillage. Within a year, European cities were banishing people who suffered from syphilis. It's not clear whether the disease came from American with Columbus' returning voyage, as suggested, with an equal number of arguments for and against. Hence any positive assertion of biological symmetry is sketchy at best. Mann makes the point that while smallpox toppled empires, syphilis did not, even if it did come from the Americas.

This book is interesting beyond the war-health perspective and will debunk many myths built up from years of TV, Hollywood movies, childhood fiction, and junior high text books.

The Battle of Towton: Human remains tell the story of a battle fought 500 years ago

The December 18th-31st issue of The Economist has an interesting article about archaeological excavations of the Battle of Towton which occurred March 29, 1461 in England. By examining the bones found in a mass grave site, archaeologists found that the fighters (for they were not professional soldiers) were taller than the popular imagination makes them--just 4 cm shorter than current Englishmen. Poor nutrition and disease caused stunting later-- in the Victorian era. The longbow was the primary weapon, and evidence shows thickening of the upper right arm bone near the shoulder and the left arm near the elbow, in response to the bow's use. Also, the battle was the scene of the earliest use of gunpowder, and archaeologists think they may have found a fragment of a handgun. The stress of the battle was so enormous that the fighters clenched their teeth together hard enough to cause splintering.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The history of foreign aid: "Samaritan Diplomacy"?

Not only am I back from Afghanistan, where I had extremely limited access to the internet both in terms of time and actual connectivity, but I am also back from a 2 month long "victory lap," as a friend called it, of the U.S. I got to see great America, and it was great! Starting at the Statue of Liberty and heading west (with a northerly detour to Niagara falls) I got to see all those iconic US spots that I hadn't previously seen (the corn palace in Mitchell, SD; Mount Rushmore; Grand Canyon; Petrified Forest and the Painted get the idea).

Now that Christmas is done and I can start to settle in, I am doing some reading. In my travels I found the third book of Daniel J. Boorstin's series called "The Americans", the third book is called "The Democractic Experience" published in 1974. At the end of the book he discusses "Samaritan Diplomacy" and the changes in US perspective from pre-Marshall plan when aid to other nations was considered unconstitutional, to post-Marshall plan when US aid was expanded beyond war reparations and European nations to under developed nations. (It was first expanded by Truman in his "fourth point".)

Boorstin starts this section off: "For most of the nation's history, the United States remained uncomfortable, inept and on the whole unsuccessful in diplomacy." (p 568) Interestingly, one of the first acts using the military for aid came in 1880 during one of the Irish potato famines. Congress passed a joint resolution that allowed the Secretary of the navy to use a naval vessel to carry volutary (privately donated) relief to the Irish. Later, this was regarded as a regrettable stretching of the Constitution to appease the Irish-American vote.

According to Boorstin, not until the Marshall plan was there enough political justification to use American tax money to assist other nations. The confusion of motives for the aid stems from this time: "The American institution of foreign aid was a by-product of World War II. It marked a new stage in American foreign policy in which charitable, fiscal, political, ideological, and military motives would be more confused than ever before. Incidentally, too, foreign aid would newly confuse the techniques, attitudes, and institutions of peace with those of war, and so would help open an era in American foreign relations when the American people were neither at war nor at peace." (p 574) Boorstin claims that "except in religious missions, the nation had no substantial precendent for a world-wide program of foreign aid....foreign aid now expressed faith that American wealth could raise the standard of living of people anywhere. A people with a higher, more nearly American standard of living, it was assumed, would be more apt to be democratic, and hence more apt to be peace-loving and friendly to the United States. Implied, also was the complementary assumption that poverty, misery and industrial backwardness would make any people less peaceful and less democratic, hence more prone to communism, and therefore more inclined to join the enemies of the United States." Of course, the assumptions have not always born out.

In fact, this discussion gave me pause, particularly in light of the steady drum beat of the Millenium Development Goals, the political and military discourse about globalization and "haves" versus "have nots", and the confusion over the common use of the term "humanitarian aid" (for purely humanitarian reasons? or for political motives?)

Also relevant, the theory of counter insurgency calls for massive development expenditures in dangerous areas in order to create sympathies for the legitimate government, in order to assist people attain their basic life needs--water food shelter--so they feel better about their government and 'buy in' to it's legitimacy, lay down arms and stop harboring terrorists. But, as pointed out in the Washington Post front page yesterday, it's not that easy. USAID and the US State Department in Afghanistan, for example, only want the military to provide "security" so they can provide development assistance. Yet their vision of security and the military version are disparate. And sometimes discussions about where to deliver development assistance veer toward the absurd when geographical areas are deemed "too safe" for development assistance and other areas not safe enough. USAID doesn't want to deliver aid where it's unsafe, and they don't want to waste their aid on places where it's too safe. And they damn sure don't want the military to meddle in their humanitarian space (as they call the battlefield) by delivering aid or creating development projects.

Boorstin had it right. It's a confusion that is not about to go away. Are we confusing the world with our own confusion? Is "smart power" truly smart?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ashraf Ghani

Kabul Afghanistan has terrific weather. Dry air, cool evenings, sunny that you would happily consider retiring to. On a balmy evening last spring, when the air was just warm enough to feel soft on your skin, the breeze light and not forbidding, and the sun was just setting over the mountains so the sky was pastel ivory and pink, I was scurrying from my desk to dinner when I ran in to Lieutenant General Rodriguez standing outside the headquarters building waiting for someone. I snapped a salute and he saluted me back, then engaged me in a moment of pleasant chatter. I was honored, of course, that such an important man would engage me. Honored? No, more like stunned. Blinking up at him and smiling. Probably saying stupid things, or at the very least, trying to think of non-stupid things to say. In the midst of this inner turmoil, LG Rodriguez then changed the topic -- asked me for a favor, even. Of course, I replied. Ashraf Ghani is coming, he said, and he had left some important papers on his desk--would I fetch the papers? Who ME? I'd LOVE to fetch the papers, of course, right away Sir. I had never even thought about approaching the Inner Inner sanctum-- the General's Office-- which is revered and feared much like the elementary school Principal's office. I scurried back into the building to fetch the papers. Who is Ashraf Ghani, I wondered? Didn't he run for president, maybe?

Darted into the General's office, found the papers, darted out. The sun had sunk just below the mountain peak way off in the west. The General looked at the papers, then looked up at the mountains, and smiled and thanked me as if I had just done something important. I considered leveraging my moment of glory to ask who is Ashraf Ghani? But just as I was considering, a white pickup bristling with Afghans and guns zoomed up followed by an armored SUV. As if choreographed, the moment the vehicles slowed just enough, a beautiful man in flowing robes exited the SUV with a smile. As if Venus alighting from the Clamshell I remarked, surprised. He warmly grasped LG Rodriguez's hand and they swished in to the building for their meeting. Clearly Ashraf Ghani was someone. No, I mean Someone. Big S. A colleague passed me by on the street just then and said, that was Ashraf Ghani. He's the most wanted man in Afghanistan. What? I asked. He didn't look hunted. He looked angelic! We laughed.

Turned out Ashraf Ghani had run for president of Afghanistan, and has done so much more. He was the finance minister for Afghanistan, he is an advisor to Afghan President Karzai, and he is a reformer of international aid, former World Bank Employee. He runs the Institute for State Effectiveness. That was what my google search turned up.

Less than a month later I was in Kandahar. Kandahar has weather that you would not retire to. Dry, boiling hot and dusty. It's flat there, with odd spires of rock that protrude from the desert floor like the spines on a reptile's back. The dust is a soft powder brown and as you sweat, it sticks to you in a fine even coat. The only nice weather is at sunset when the sky turns rosy and the call to prayer meanders across the desert floor like steam from a tea cup, redolent with ancient meaning. I was down in Kandahar on business, waiting for my flight home, tired, perusing the 'donated books' shelf. My body armor already on, I felt hot, sweaty, distracted. I just needed something to read for the trip back to Kabul. Lots of science fiction floats around these donated book shelves, romance novels and other relatively unidentifiable material, mostly with eye-catching covers and little substance in between. I scanned the shelves, nothing. Then, in the very corner of a shelf I saw a hard bound book. Those are not usual, so I focused...Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart "Fixing Failed States". What? Ashraf Ghani! The most wanted man in Afghanistan!! (I don't know if this is true, but of course it's the kind of thing you would remember). Gotta read it.

Here's a link to Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart's Institute for State Effectiveness: One of the themes Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart return to in the book and other writing is the incoherence of the 'intervening' states' programs. By that I mean the incoherence of the aid agencies of various countries as well as the incoherence of programs between the aid agencies and the military. Generally speaking, as various donor nations seek ways to support a weak government, they take on individual programs and projects and then become protective of those programs, competitive, even. The agencies compete with each other to place 'technical advisers' in the nation's governmental organizations. The technical advisers report back to their country, promote their own programs above others and compete for time with the top ministry staff and ministers themselves. Government agencies and officials are often whipsawed between competing demands made more salient by associated programmatic funds. Many nations also pay for top up salaries to high-ranking national staff and ministers, with the richer nations creating a competitive environment for ministerial staff to play one nation against the other. The military is often involved not because of the money and expertise it brings, but because of its sheer massive size and presence. It's wasteful and generally counterproductive. And Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart speak out about it. After reading the book, I wonder if Ashraf is the most wanted by aid agency staff as opposed to nefarious Afghan characters?

Here is a link to a report describing the results of an exercise conducted by the Center for American Progress that tested reforms needed in the U.S. Government's approach to nation building: They
recommend, not surprisingly, that counterinsurgency and development strategy must be harmonized. But how.

Last spring, back in Kabul, the higher-ups, as senior officials are sometimes called, demanded a description of civil-military cooperation. ISAF and donor nation embassies and aid organizations all gathered together for a formalized briefing of how we all were cooperating. It looked great on the slides. The civilian diplomatic and development community were hard at work pouring billions of dollars into a financial system that can't absorb the money, and the military was diligently fighting insurgents. Meetings had been conducted, and programs were in place. It looked well.

But the problem for us to consider is whether the Afghan woman who lives in a village really could feel the difference? Could that woman really feel that their own government had finally gathered itself up and provided her electricity or water? I would guess not. Not in most places where the combined community claims to be engaged, anyhow. To be fair, there are successes--Kandahar and Helmand province, some places in the East and the West. But not the scope nor the depth of effectiveness that one might (falsely?) expect given the vast resources being poured in to the country. This is the crux of the matter, the proverbial hard-nut-to-crack. The community has not really changed enough to make it matter, even in spite of the millions of pages written and billions of dollars poured.

I'm writing a paper on this, and when I'm done I'll post the nuggets here. I don't pretend to have the all the answers, but the problem was one I lived for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and its glare will not leave me. I dream about this problem. So I have to write about it. Meanwhile I'm re-reading Fixing Failed States which I sent home to myself. Ghani and Lockhart probably have all the answers: at least I hope they do.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Back from Afghanistan

I am just back from Afghanistan and intend to start blogging again. I have many impressions to share about the war, Afghanistan, and the "interagency". Civ-Mil cooperation, as it is called, is certainly a focus, though the actual effect of what cooperation there is is difficult to assess.

My first blog, however, must be a description of my work in Afghanistan to provide context.

Imagine a rectangle with a 1.25 mile perimeter. Fill the rectangle with generators, 16-person tents, some brick 2-story barracks, tons of large-grade grey gravel and a brick gymnasium and you now are imagining the headquarters where I and my NATO colleagues toiled for 16 or more hours a day, every day with only a few hours off every week. (A visitor to the compound once stopped me and asked me "Is the dining facility the building next to the prison?" My reply: "The prison? OH! That's not a prison, it's our command building--that's where everyone works!") The ISAF Joint Command, a newly-formed operational command hums and clicks 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The dream child of a select group of officers, IJC (as the ISAF Joint Command is called) has a fabulously novel and famously complex structure that breaks military convention, for good reason. Instead of a normal structure where all the people who deal with transportation sit together in an isolated office, and all the people who make military plans sit in another isolated office, and all the intelligence officers sit behind several layers of barbed wire and chain link fence, the IJC has four teams of people drawn from each specialty area who work together. The four groups are planning teams that are organized according to a time horizon: Current operations, the group that monitors and makes plans on ongoing operations; Future Operations (where I worked) that planned for near-term operations; Future Operations that planned long-term operations; and then the Information Dominance Center that collected and analyzed information and fed the other three teams. (Here's an article about the structure and the Information Dominance Center: )

The beauty of the system is that I (a "stability planner" or Civil Affairs planner) was able to interact with the military planners, transportation planners and intelligence officers day in and day out in order to better understand the complex context of our operations. It is an incredibly information-rich and productive structure. Many officers, particularly the senior officers, have significant trouble understanding their role in this 'new' structure because it break down the rank-authority barriers to a large degree. I enjoyed this facet of the structure because it allowed me to participate more fully.

I worked on two topic areas: building sub-national governance and then at the end of my time working with the western and northern regional commands to support their governance and development operations. It was extremely fulfilling, complicated, important, and frustrating work. I loved my time there. As one of my bosses, COL Wayne Grigsby, would say "This is God's work." Amen to that.

I published an information piece in the Small Wars Journal on the subnational-governance-building piece of my work:
I'm writing a follow-on piece about this program.

I'm glad to be home--the air here is clean and cool, fall is just starting, there are no generators, no dust, no rocket attacks. The land here is fertile and sustaining, our lifestyles so rich and so easy. I am thankful to be an American and proud to have served with so many dedicated, determined, intelligent and thoughtful officers. I have learned to be a better person from them and the Afghans I worked with, as well as a better military officer.