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Conflict in Afghanistan; Understanding the Narrative

Interview: Rear Adm. Greg Smith (USN-Ret.)

Warfare is a hard science, but different social science disciplines can also be useful to equip or enable warfighters to have a better awareness of their surroundings in terms of how people think and feel about their presence, and how that sentiment might result in cooperation or adversity.

There is both an art and a science to being able to sense and understand the collective conversations in the societal environment that surrounds warfighters. How do they plug into the psyche of the individuals most affected by the war in Afghanistan – the people of Afghanistan – who are trying to figure out what the future holds for them with these competing narratives of actions and words? It is important to listen, understand, and participate in the conversation, said Rear Adm. Greg Smith, USN, who retired in October.  Smith was the chief of public affairs for U.S. Central Command, and before that the  director of public affairs for Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. He spoke with Edward Lundquist about understanding the narrative, and why it is so important.


Edward Lundquist: What is the “narrative,” and why is it important at the theater, regional, and tactical levels?

Rear Adm. Greg Smith: You’re dealing with people who are in the middle of an argument between the government – [which is] trying to represent those people – and insurgent groups who want to replace that government with what they claim to be a better form of governance. And in that argument are many different narratives. There is the narrative of the insurgent group, in this case the Taliban, [which claims] Afghanistan is being misled by foreign infidels who are destroying the culture and [are] un-Islamic in the way we operate here, and … claim that the Taliban would restore all that is Islamic back to Afghanistan and kick out the infidels. The government, on the other hand, is saying, ‘Wait a minute. We’re a constitutionally mandated nation of law. We have a free – although … not altogether perfect – election process; we do have an elected representation of your interest in the form of a government; and while we’ve got lots of issues and things that we’re trying to work on, we certainly don’t want to return to the days of Taliban rule, those five ugly years of rights being stolen away from women and children.’ The Islamic narrative that the Taliban imported – and its strict set of what they claim to be Islamic law – would be imported again.


And the government is saying, “We are not un-Islamic,” right?

That’s right. In fact, they use the Islamic voice here to the official religious structure – the Mullahs, who are the religious elite of the country – to remind people that … the way in which they are being governed is under Islam, is the way which it is written in the Quran, and is the right of a representative government; … that this government represents and what it stands for is … purely on the side of Islam, and therefore they align themselves very strongly to Islam in that regard.

Then you’ve got, of course, a coalition built around a NATO structure that’s trying to weave a narrative of “why we’re here in the first place.” Remember, we’re not part of that argument. We’re neither the government nor the insurgents, but we are here because, as an international community, we don’t want the insurgents to win this argument. We recognize that from our own self-interests, not the interest of the Afghans themselves. We do not want to return to a point where pre-2001 Taliban rules allowed for transnational terrorists to occupy Afghanistan. All of the individuals who eventually ended [up] flying airplanes into buildings in the United States on that fateful day of 9/11/2001 began their training right here in Kandahar.

Recognizing that the international community has a security interest in maintaining regional stability, more specifically here in Afghanistan, we begin to weave that narrative of why we are here. … over time, our conduct on the ground feeds into that narrative.

So it’s not just what we’re saying – or only what the insurgents are saying, or only what the government says, or only what the international community says – that has the biggest impact on the narrative. At the end of the day, the people are witnessing all this activity around them, by those that claim to be representative of the government, or claim to be here to help that government, or these insurgent groups. What they’re witnessing is – over time – a pattern of behavior that is really the greatest formulation of their judgment about the true intent of all three parties.


Is that something that you and the ISAF leadership considered in the same way that you would consider troop strength and logistics levels and training levels and readiness at staff meetings?

What we are trying to manage and to understand is this narrative argument and where we stand. Is our narrative becoming the dominant or [the] supporting narrative – because obviously here we are trying to support the Afghan government? Or, are we losing that narrative? Are people making choices about the future – because they both witnessed and heard things – that they … will then side with the government, or are they aiding and abetting the insurgencies because they have lost trust in the narrative of their own government? We think that we are seeing a tremendous amount of indicators of growing confidence by the Afghan people that the Afghan government is largely on the right track. Confidence in the government being on the right path is growing. But the discussion isn’t being held as intimately in all parts of the country. There are many part[s] of the country that have never seen an ISAF soldier, or seen the government of Afghanistan in action. They may have heard about the government through local radio and through word of mouth, and that’s about it. While in another part of the country, there are people who have literally in the last 24 hours seen everything from ISAF breaking down the door to their compound, arresting bad guys, protecting women and children, and everything in between. It depends on where you stand on the effect of the narrative on you, personally, inside Afghanistan.


Is this “narrative” something that can be measured qualitatively and quantifiably?

We could argue that you could measure the strength of understanding of the narrative. Illiteracy rates here are astronomically high, some of the highest in the world. We don’t have a population which is easy to have a qualitative discussion with. It’s very challenging in that regard. What we can do, though, is quantitatively measure their attitudes toward certain behavior and one of those would be “do they support our efforts on the ground by turning in bad guys, telling us where the IEDs are, and truly becoming partners in the security of their own villages?” Or, do they go and shut their doors, lie to us … support a guy hiding in their home, knowing full well that he’s likely tomorrow to plant an IED that could … kill their own children if they stumbled into it?

You could measure those quantitative things, and we certainly do, as a way of seeing where the people’s attitudes are shifting. What we can’t do is truly get inside the minds of the people to – with any great confidence – predict which way this thing will actually go, because this is a nation of survival. They’ve had 30 years of war, and they’ve seen and have been promised a great deal. There are some that would tell you that, even during the bad time of the Soviet era, as ugly as that was – … hundreds of thousands of Afghans … died during that period – there were some things that the Russians delivered that they liked. They delivered a lot of local support. A lot of projects were built.

But when things got kinetic, the Soviets went pretty heavy-handed and a lot of people got caught in the middle. So, it’s really been 30 years of back and forth.

Like a chameleon, the Afghan people are not going to change their colors completely, because they don’t have a lot of confidence in a future that’s not well understood or well known to them such that they can actually pick sides at this point. You won’t be able to predict that necessarily.


How can you measure sentiment and represent that in a graphic way so that a Marine or a soldier has something on a handheld device as he faces a village, giving him some idea about “should we go in there or not?” We’re talking about tools and methods.

Here’s the problem with that, I think, from a practical point of view: If you haven’t been somewhere, and you’re trying to figure out what to do when you get there, you’re not likely to have real reliable information. In other words, you don’t have a presence there and therefore it’s impossible to measure or collect data. Without data, it’s difficult to build a database that would go behind the search engine that would be pulled up on a handheld that would present to you what you could expect when you go there. Over time, we can get the atmospheric collection teams and human terrain teams on the ground and into an area, and they can begin to build that database to see where we’re at on that glide slope … You could see the attitudinal changes, and perception changes that are measurable. But it’s pretty spotty. It’s a little bit like doing any kind of polling. You just don’t have the manpower or the resources to be able to get much beyond small sample sizes, and no two villages in this country are the same, let alone valleys, districts, provinces, and regions. I think you might get a slice of the feeling of the 600 people that live in this valley if you could spend enough time living with them, among them. You could get both quantitative and qualitative data from that. But that would be a huge investment.


Are there tools or systems that seem promising that might be able to help with collection? Can you measure and try to qualify some things – like cell phone traffic, social media, emails – to gather sentiment or to look for increases in traffic, or focal points of conversation, or terms used for certain people, that might indicate that this person is an important person or this person is respected or this person is leading some kind of nefarious activity?

I have not been exposed to any of those tools since I have been here for a year and a half. I suspect there may be some of that being engineered, in someone’s human terrain teams. It sounds like sort of a noble effort but not one that I am aware of actually happening on the ground here. Two years ago I made a community investment in the collection of raw atmospherics. It’s now shifted over to the intel community. It’s starting to get pretty mature. A small number of analysts sit at major hubs around the country, and then below them are teams that are born with one individual that actually works directly below us as sort of an overseer or supervisor. But what he really does, he goes into villages and he develops relationships with 20 to 30 people in an area, and those individuals, in essence, come back and report to him how things are going: Are the markets open like they are supposed to be? Are women allowed to walk down the street? What do they say during the Friday prayers? Is there a university in the area, and what are the university students talking about?

These are attitudinal metrics, a collection of local criteria so we can give them a bit of a focus. And then all that information is rolled up and collected at a regional level, so that you can get a bit of a sense of things. It’s a huge human capital requirement in order to have enough collection nodes out there, with enough sophistication, to roll that meaningful data quantitatively so you can display it.

I wanted to build a model where we could overlay layers on a map of social aspects. You lay on a map over a village so we can collectively figure out if this is a peaceful tribe, ethnic background, economic status, who their allegiances and alliances are with, and then work in the attitudes, perceptions, behavior patterns, and lay that on top in layers, so you could sort of visibly weave your way down through those layers to find out what you’re dealing with and what are the roadblocks that are keeping our narrative from getting into that village.

That’s a model that was in my head … a year and a half ago, but I have not seen it really demonstrated other than really basic raw data being regurgitated back out with anecdotal quotes from people who say this or say that. It was an ambitious undertaking and I’m not certain we would go about doing that with a country the size of Afghanistan, as poor, rural, and unconnected as it is technology-wise. If we were trying to figure out the Chinese psyche and where they’re at, there’s so much stuff out there that you can data mine electronically, and use tools to sort and segregate those kinds of things. But in a very unsophisticated environment, it’s just a human capital challenge to be able to collect enough meaningful data to make it worthwhile.


Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn was the deputy chief of staff, intelligence (CJ2), for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and one of the authors of “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” published by the Center for a New American Security. He spoke to a conference that the Department of Defense and the Office of Naval Research sponsored, called “Unifying Social Frameworks.” In that conversation, one of the things he said was, “Hey, I’m used to bringing intelligence to be able to find and provide and bring kinetics to enemies, and now we’re trying to use intelligence to find and help people.” It’s a fundamental shift, as he explained it.

Absolutely. This is the “white” side of intel, which is understanding the people on the ground – not the enemy, but the people that are in this argument. The success of that effort is still very much in incubator status because of the sophistication of the collection means and even the data when you get it – how to really manage that data and then display it for decision makers. I have yet to see anything other than narrative and analytical papers. You can read a thousand of those. But can I look up on a wall and see things happening over time in a visual way, some sort of a common operational picture of the human dimension? That I have not seen or done here. And, again, I don’t know what lifetime that will occur in, but I think it’s something that everyone has an ambition to try to do.


That’s the issue. How can you collect something that is meaningful, and then be able to display it so it can be used? That means taking something that is definitely a qualifiable thing and trying to turn it into something that can be displayed graphically, which means quantifiably.

I agree. There is a lot of research. But in terms of producing meaningful kinds of display materials, I just have not seen it.


When I start talking to people about “human terrain,” they get a little nervous. What is the real definition of human terrain? And is it a good thing?

There are some who feel the human terrain teams [are] not really predicting a whole lot. That might be the case more than the term itself. I think everybody understands that there is a need to understand the human terrain; it is the terrain, here in Afghanistan.


Human terrain, as explained to me, is sort of a social science approach. You have social scientists on the ground with warfighters.

Inside the community of human terrain anthropologists, it’s a “church and state” issue for them. There are a lot of professions that are caught in that quandary, such as a journalist – who is supposed to be neutral – who’s out covering a story and finds out something that he thinks may be helpful for us to know because he believes that we are going to be attacked by the enemy. What do you do with that information? I think the human terrain guys are caught in the middle of being used in a capacity that they get uncomfortable with once they get out of here because they recognize that the human terrain that we’re talking about here is in the middle of the fight. Because where we’re going to go, and what we care about [is] not the village or the people; we’re trying to figure out the stuff that is out of control and figure out how to get it back into control, and kill only the right guys, and hurt no civilians – that’s the ultimate goal. But getting into the middle of that debate or that discussion … is pretty challenging for them.


NATO trains ISAF officers at the Joint Warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway, for duty in Afghanistan. How would you qualify the training they receive there? When they come over to take up a position in country, are they ready to go and are they ready to contribute?

It’s worth the investment, but it’s still a sterile classroom setting. It doesn’t replace being on the ground. Every bit of professional development that they get raises their game a little bit and that’s helpful. You’re dealing with 48 nations that contribute to this fight. These are staff-level positions, not the warfighters going in unit level support. The course allows them to re-baseline from a native perspective [of] how we actually operate here at the NATO headquarters – which is not the same as any other headquarters in the world, no matter what nation you’re from.


How do you get the Afghan people to, in their psyche, make it unacceptable to allow someone to dig a hole in a road and put an IED in there; so that people will just not tolerate it and will not let it stand, and either report it or do something about that person?

I think all of it comes down to their own personal safety. People know what “right” looks like, but they also know that they are very vulnerable after 30 years of war, of trying to choose sides in the middle of the fight. I think it’s less about supporting the Taliban than it is enabling the Taliban. That’s a nuanced word, but I think it’s important in this particular context. Only about 8 percent or less of the people actually would tell you they believe the Taliban is the right future for Afghanistan. Yet, many, many more people in this country are enabling the Taliban by not doing certain things or, in some cases, actually directly supporting them. For them it’s a matter of economics. If a family has nine boys running around a farm that really can’t produce enough wheat to feed the family, there are stories of a father who sends one son into the army and another to join the Taliban, splitting his bets. It’s not something you or I might understand from a Western point of view, but it is what the reality on the ground teaches us every day.

This article was first published in Defense: Fall 2011 Edition.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...