Small Wars Journal

Foreigners in a Foreign Land: Complexity and Reductionist Staff Approaches in Stability Operations

Share this Post

Foreigners in a Foreign Land: Complexity and Reductionist Staff Approaches in Stability Operations

Christopher Varhola

In a world of over seven billion people, the human domain and civil concerns on the battlefield are not distracters to be ignored or sidestepped by the military; they are dominant battlefield features that define campaign success or failure.  Future complex operations will require a “new breed” of warrior, but this must go beyond images of squad leaders talking to vendors in the bazaar, or platoon leaders organizing neighborhood councils.  These operations will require integrating deeper and more accurate understandings of society into military decision-making processes.  This in turn requires a new breed of staff officer. 

Collecting, analyzing, and applying local knowledge was one of the largest challenges facing coalition forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and stability operations in general.  This paper seeks to present three points related to these challenges.

  • First, staffs must have a deeper appreciation for and ability to operate within the humanized land domain and its inherent complexity.  This requires staffs to have some degree of sustainable regional training and specialization. 
  • Second, without this, staff processes are more likely to amplify skewed information by reductionist approaches that selectively utilize decontextualized and irrelevant paradigms and data. 
  • Third, the reliance on faulty information, albeit institutionally processed and approved, can undermine working relationships with other U.S. agencies and coalition partners.

In this regard, all discussions of the Land Domain should be understood to actually be a “humanized land domain.”  The U.S. Army has partially come to grips with this notion by characterizing stability as being on par and concurrent with the traditional missions of offense and defense.  The military, though, is still largely uncomfortable with how to conduct stability operations, and continues to subordinate them within a framework of lethal action.  Part of this has to do with limited institutional expertise, but it is also that stability operations themselves are inherently non-military, not just because they involve less shooting, but because they are hard to measure and clear definitions of success are elusive.  The essence of what is commonly referred to as the Powell Doctrine is overwhelming force coupled with clear criteria for success and withdrawal.  Stability activities allow for neither.  Planning to take control of a terrain feature or defeat a military force is different from attempting to manipulate social systems, which in turn must be predicated on an understanding these systems.

In these complex settings, the U.S. military often creates and operates off of dubious “facts.”  This is despite a recognition that we operate in VUCA environments: environment that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.  Indeed the operational approach is supposed to account for this by constantly questioning assumptions and adjusting course so as to avoid marches of folly.  But without requisite knowledge and timely, reliable feedback mechanisms, the ability of a staff to advise a commander is a challenge, and course adjustments themselves may not be grounded in reality.  This can result in stability operation equivalents of trench warfare, characterized by the seizure of meaningless pieces of terrain in the form of inappropriate development projects, or the establishment of local institutions based on Western models that do not necessarily resonate with non-Western populations.

Military planning formats for stability activities do not vary significantly from planning for more traditional combat operations: plans in stability operations are a model that becomes a socially constructed reality that prescribes action.  This affords synchronization through navigating a critical path of achievable Decisive Points (DPs) and Critical Events (CEs).  These points represent a series of hypotheses within a theoretical framework that the military refers to as a plan. The hypotheses are tested in the form of operations, and the research findings are presented in situation reports (SITREPs) and after action reports (AARs).  Achieving and evaluating decisive points in stability operations, though, requires measurement, and measurement requires method.  Method requires selecting and evaluating indicators that are captured in a consistent manner over space and time.  Here the methodological ground starts getting squishy. 

There is an inherent contradiction in attempting to measure what the military characterizes as ambiguous and uncertain.  The military’s focus on metrics is good to a certain extent: it lends insight into complex events, suggests action plans, and justifies resource expenditures.  Measurements, though, may do more harm than good if the measurements selectively justify a particular course of action or reflect institutionally constructed facts that are products of faulty deductive paradigms.  Body counts in Vietnam did not reflect U.S. success any more than the number of wells dug in East Africa, or the number of town councils established in Iraq.  Misusing indicators may provide false conclusions: an increase or decrease in violence, for example, does not necessarily reflect intentions or capability of insurgents and should not automatically be used as an indicator of our own success or failure. On the contrary, it might reflect the dominance of insurgents and the hesitancy of the local population or government forces to counter them.

Human expertise and field research can offset faulty paradigms and incomplete data sets.  However, they must be matched by staff processes that can contextualize and account for multidimensional, situational, and dynamic information drawn from multiple sources with different interests, affinities, and standards for reporting.  Moreover, faulty or skewed information is amplified if the information is converted into complex briefing slides.  It is not so much that these presentations are bad in themselves; it is that they are often used to mask superficial understandings and sparse information.  However, once something is published or “hung” on a computer network portal, the information is given institutional significance and is reproduced in multiple forms and handed off to succeeding units.  Briefing slides, therefore, especially those that are approved by a commanding general, become official positions that promote a command-driven groupthink, even if their content consists of overly general “bullet comments” or “quad charts.”  Commanders and staff who have training and experience in particular regions can reduce this tendency.

Functional specialists, particularly in fields such as information operations, intelligence, and civil affairs, will be less effective if they have not spent years focusing on a single region, similar to what is done with Army Special Forces.  Efforts to incorporate specialists, such as human terrain teams, Af-Pak Hands, and interagency partners, are positive steps.  However, they also create an increased burden on commanders and staff to utilize or interact with them appropriately.  This requires that regional understanding goes beyond a limited number of specialists in subordinate and supporting roles.  In this regard, the introduction of regionally aligned forces is an important start point.  Regional specialization in the military, though, must go beyond single random assignments in a regionally aligned brigade, component command, or combatant command.  Rather, regionally specialized soldiers need to serve in a series of vertically aligned assignments, each focusing on the same region and being accompanied by civilian and military education. Ultimately this may create commanders and staff officers who do not enter into a conflict without ever having been in the region before, but rather who have a foundation in understanding and applying relevant information from a broad range of sources. 

Sources and Limitations of Information

In Afghanistan, in addition to intelligence sources and battlespace owners, there existed a network of trained human terrain specialists, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), District Support Teams (DSTs), Special Operations District and Provincial Augmentation Teams (PATs and DATs), and Civil Affairs teams.  Other sources included debriefing Afghan military units. Although these entities are in an advantageous position to collect information, this collection must also be accompanied by consistent command focus.  This can require difficult choices, given that interactions with local populations are de facto combat operations that draw on resources, while not necessarily generating readily recognizable results. 

For example, it may require a convoy of ten armored vehicles with air support to drive to a village to conduct an hour’s worth of interviews.  Lives may be lost for no tangible benefit, as the interviews themselves may yield little information.  Rather than any form of meaningful information collection, interactions in tactical settings can often be more theatrical public discourse than insightful encounters that gradually build reasonable models of reality.  For instance, interviews with an almost randomly selected old man may be reported as “viewpoints of village elders”, and information collected under the watchful eyes of armed soldiers or Taliban sympathizers is of questionable reliability.  However, the alternative of not interacting with local populations in meaningful exchanges of information is more detrimental and forces a reliance on even more limited sources of information.

This cautionary note applies to Key Leader Engagements (KLEs) as well.  KLEs in Iraq and Afghanistan merited their own acronym and entire staff sections dedicated to outlining networks of influence and what effects “engagement” with them could hope to achieve, like the impact that artillery would have on an enemy armored formation.  KLEs became the military equivalent of key informant interviews, which are methodologically risky, especially when done through translators and if not nested into multiple other methods.[i] KLEs often had great influence over command and staff actions, even though, again, they were essentially theatrical performances repeated with continuous new casts of ISAF leadership.  In the words of one HTT member in Afghanistan, “we’ve coached them on the appropriate answers and they tell us what we want to hear.”[ii]

Higher staffs, though, are heavily reliant on these reports, which in turn are often utilized in rigid and faulty deductive approaches.  Despite the lack of alternatives and the collective staff desperation for data, such reports must be kept in perspective. As such, “facts” in VUCA settings must be accepted as “much less linear, much more impressionistic and mosaic, difficult to measure.”[iii]  Surveys and “atmospherics” can compound the problem, since quantifiable survey data is attractive due to its simplicity and the opportunity to outsource it to nonmilitary parties.  Survey data, however, is questionable even under ideal circumstances (with large population data groups and baselines of normalcy).  In nonpermissive environments, the veracity of survey data is undermined by any number of factors, to include fear of reprisals, limited access to population groups, approaches that do not incorporate local nuance, and surveys that are falsified, either out of convenience or at the behest of a local powerbroker seeking to benefit from conveyance of misleading information.  Atmospheric reports that draw conclusions based on detached conversations can be so misleading as to be dangerous, since they do not necessarily account for context or reflect broad popular sentiment.

The reality is that it is difficult to reduce complex and dynamic human interactions into concise reports and measurable facts that can be grasped and utilized in staff settings. The categorization of social structures needs to accommodate shifting ethnicity, kinship, and multiple overlapping and contextual identities.[iv] Otherwise, networks of influence can be constructed based on questionable linkages.  Tribes, for instance, can take on disproportionate significance in military settings because they are easily identifiable and quantifiable.  However, much of the insight on tribes and their contemporary role comes second-hand and from historical sources that do not account for how varying cross-sections of a population may characterize their own tribal membership, and view appropriate and inappropriate roles for tribal leaders.  All social institutions change and this dynamism is cyclically accelerated by conflict and economic stress, meaning that cognitive frameworks and running estimates must be constantly updated.[v]

In some cases in Afghanistan, for example, economic incentives, political alliances, or narco-trafficking have rendered tribal relationships less relevant.  Conversely, there are instances where loyalty to the Afghan government or to the Taliban was based almost exclusively on kinship and tribal identity.  In Iraq, tribal linkages and religious affiliation were often given disproportionate weight in the immediate post-invasion timeframe.  Yet later, tribes gained more prominence, with individuals seeking tribal affiliation as a means of protection in the midst of social collapse.[vi]  Likewise, as religious differences became accentuated, Iraqis had to adopt a stronger sectarian religious identity.  In many African countries, there may be a tense relationship between civil authorities and tribal leaders.  As such, inappropriate empowerment of local tribal leaders by unknowing members of the U.S. Military may decrease stability through the exacerbation of localized power struggles.   

Western cultural prisms may also cause information to be misinterpreted.  Information Operations, for example, might include a commander-approved messaging campaign that highlights how terrible the Taliban are for bombing a mosque and killing senior Afghan political and security officials who were in attendance.  To many Americans, this is a logical approach to engender popular outrage against the Taliban and thus isolate them from the populations using a “war of words.”[vii]  To many Afghans, though, the same messaging might demonstrate that the Taliban have the power to define who is, and is not, a good Muslim, and that even senior Afghan officials are not safe.  Rather than hurting the Taliban, this message empowers them.

Furthermore, different individuals and U.S. organizations may have different perspectives.  Take the example of an Afghan governor in a district that had both a U.S. combat brigade with State Department advisors, and a Special Operations team. The Special Operations team consistently reported that the governor was ineffective and should be replaced.  The State Department, on the other hand, reported how effective the same governor was and why he needed additional support.[viii]  The differing viewpoints were both a product of limited sources of information.  Similarly divergent views were common between special operations forces and conventional units, as well as between the State Department and USAID.  These divergences in information are important in raising questions.  Otherwise, staffs rely on single sources and are more likely to accept assessments at face value.

In this vein, military briefings in stability operations should be less rigid, so as to promote the free flow of ideas, especially from interagency counterparts.  Otherwise, the ambiguity inherent to stability operations can empower senior leadership in an unbalanced manner that discourages staff officers from raising issues, since their objections are most often not grounded in solid facts or relevant doctrine.  This presents the risk of faulty institutionally approved knowledge being fabricated from the interaction of rank and proximity to rank, as opposed to accepting the limitations of our own knowledge.  Military staff processes can further distort this information, especially if it is unduly shaped by theoretical approaches, such as counterinsurgency doctrine.  Rather, information should be collected to determine the nature of the conflict and the appropriate mix of doctrinal and non-doctrinal tools.  This requires more complex and coordinated staff action between the military and its unified action partners.

Interagency Challenges

LTG Michael Flynn stresses the need for widening the aperture of information collection, while General Stanley McCrystal advocates “flattening the network” to better match perceptions at the tactical and operational levels.[ix]  Both require close coordination with a broad range of non-military actors, especially other U.S. Government organizations.  Other agencies, though, have different institutional cultures, as well as different ways and means, even if the problem is defined in the same way.  The State Department is challenged to operate even in semi-permissive environments and they have limited numbers of Foreign Service Officers, of whom, even fewer have military or stability experience. This often frustrates military counterparts who may be eager to view the State Department as regional and political experts, thus relieving the military of the burden.   

Department of State approaches, however, focus more on political reporting, versus planning and directly addressing problems.[x]  In contrast, a common U.S. military cliché is that problems should not be raised without presenting solutions.  This ignores that if there were an apparent solution, there would not be a problem.  Yet this is an American Military cultural element: the presupposition that all problems have solutions and impossible missions are possible.  Inaction is unacceptable and reductionist approaches that simplify conflict are typical: entities are reduced to hostile, friendly, or neutral factors relative to their attitudes towards the U.S.  This does not reflect how the same entities may be viewed by other agencies and cross-sections of the local population, though, and how those entities may change as circumstances change. 

For example, in much of southern Afghanistan, Afghan government officials and the Taliban are not polarized, but rather have overlapping relationships based on patronage, family ties, corruption, mutual accommodation, and narco-trafficking.  This does not necessarily make those Afghan officials our enemies, but rather is a measure of the society in which we are operating.  However, while the State Department may be attempting to build relationships with them, the military may place them on arrest lists and attempt to remove them.

In this sense, differing institutional categorizations complicate unified approaches, with some military members strategizing within one paradigm and interagency partners within another.  Rather than questioning assumptions, the selective use of institutionally-approved knowledge runs the risk of reinforcing and reproducing skewed approaches and widening interagency divides.  This is further exacerbated by compressed military timelines for staff actions and requests for information.  Interagency counterparts not directly answerable to a military chain of command may not respond immediately and thus become further excluded from decision processes.  Often by the time they do respond, the military has moved on.  

Equally important, activities within higher headquarters in Afghanistan and Iraq were largely devoid of Afghan and Iraqi influence and involvement.  The involvement that did occur was routed through multiple staff sections and language filters that could not account for nuance, context, or ulterior motives.  Localized priorities were often not known or taken into account.  Consequently, coalition civil-military leadership was prone to set its own priorities, and then expected host nation counterparts to concur, usually in some form of Key Leader Engagement.  In some ways this was cultural arrogance, but it was also a product of an institutional structure that placed little emphasis on understanding operating environments, but demanded action within the framework of one-year tours, even if the action was inappropriate.  In this environment, “green on blue” attacks proved a highly effective way of increasing the divide between the U.S. and Afghan counterparts by further reducing opportunities to understand Afghan social, political, and economic dynamics.  The improved partnering of officers experienced in a specific region with local counterparts may incur short-term risk, but it is a critical factor in the development and execution of sound plans and operations in the longer term.


Unification of unified action requires staff processes that do not just emphasize combat and logistics, but also the regional, social, political, and economic context in which military operations are conducted. Plans that ignore social complexities or do not factor them in properly run the risk of being both irrelevant and dangerous.  This requires more than common sense and familiarity with generic plans and strategy formulation that can result in theory-doctrine being applied indiscriminately or inappropriately.  Rather, it should be adjusted with new sets of hypotheses-plans drawn from improved understanding of the unique humanized operating environments that will continue to characterize the modern battlefield.

Although some senior leaders may rebuff ideas that they need to have regional or functional expertise, they nonetheless must have a foundation of knowledge to be able to determine whether ends are feasible in different social settings and whether information provided to them is credible.  Otherwise, the officer corps will have little comprehension of the veracity of the information it is dealing with and runs the risk of devolving into a dumbed-down managerial and process-oriented element that relies on intermittent and often flawed expertise from presumed experts.  Not only does this undermine overall effectiveness, it prevents the military from operating on par with other agencies. 

End Notes

[i] H. Russell Bernard, Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition (Alta Mira, California: AltaMira Press, 2002), 190.

[ii] Personal Observation, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2012.

[iii] James Dubik, “Operational Art in Counterinsurgency: A View From the Inside,” The Institute for the Study of War, Report 5 (May 2012), 13.

[iv] Ronald Cohen, “Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 7 (Oct 1978), 388.

[v] Leif O. Manger, From the Mountains to the Plains: The Integration of the Lafofa Nuba into Sudanese Society (Sweden, Motala Gafiska, 1994), 130.

[vi] Personal Interviews and Research, Iraq 2005.

[vii] Personal Observation, Kandahar, Afghanistan 2012.

[viii] Personal Observation, Kandahar, Afghanistan 2012.

[ix] Michael Flynn, Matthew Pottinger, and Paul Batchelor  “Fixing Intel in Afghanistan” Marine Corps Gazette Volume 94, Issue 4 (Feb 2010).

Stanley McCrystal “It Takes a Network: The New Front Line of Modern Warfare,” Foreign Policy  (22 February 2011), accessed 2 January 2014,

[x] Charles A. Stevenson, America’s Foreign Policy Toolkit: Key Institutions and Processes  (Los Angeles, Sage Press, 2013), 155.


About the Author(s)

Colonel Christopher Varhola, USAR, is an African Foreign Area Officer and Civil Affairs Officer.  He is a Senior Fellow with the Joint Special Operations University and was recently chief of planning for the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, as well as the governance section chief for Regional Command-South in Afghanistan in 2012-2013.  Previous assignments include ceasefire monitor in the Sudan, ARCENT G9 in Saudi Arabia, and multiple tours in Iraq.  He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.  He currently lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


"Planning to take control of a terrain feature or defeat a military force is different from attempting to manipulate social systems, which in turn must be predicated on an understanding these systems."

The thought here would seem to be erroneous.

The idea of "stability operations" would seem to be to:

1. Eliminate/eradicate -- not manipulate -- the presently in-place political, economic and social systems of various states and societies and to

2. Replace these such systems -- lock, stock and barrel -- with our own political, economic and social system.

Thus, the question would seem to be:

a. In order to eradicate/eliminate the presently in-place political, economic and social systems of various outlying states and societies,

b. And to replace these such systems with political, economic and social systems more similar to our own,

c. Does this require an in-depth understanding of each states' and societies' current -- and often vastly different -- ways of life, ways of governance, etc., and underlying values, attitudes and beliefs?

The answer to this question would seem to be "NO."

This, given the fact that we are in the business of, re: stability operations, eliminating and replacing -- not working with or manipulating -- such foreign systems.

Or should we look at the question I have posed at "a" - "c" above from the standpoint of "knowing" one's enemy?

Herein the "enemy" to be understood as the differing political, economic and social systems (and correspondingly different values, attitudes and beliefs) of these populations?

This being the "enemy" that we seek, via stability operations, to destroy?

Kifaru 3-73

Wed, 11/12/2014 - 2:00am

There are degrees of expertise in “human terrain” or whatever the in vogue term for people is. The current U.S. Military approach of anyone can go anywhere to do anything with no more than reading a book or two and getting a thirty-minute cultural briefing has not served the military well. There are people writing plans at AFRICOM who have never been to Africa. This is not a formula for success. Lagos is indeed complex, but now is the time to factor that complexity (and the limitations it will engender) into our plans and presumed capabilities so we (the military) can properly assess what we are capable and incapable of doing. This requires that we significantly “up our game” in understanding potential hot spots around the world. Otherwise we go in blind and hope for the best, like in Iraq. There are mechanisms in place for doing this, it has just not been prioritized. Defense Attaches, for instance, are not expected to build and understand the social mosaic for countries in which they are assigned: they have other assigned priorities.

As far as whole of government, it would be an ideal if it could be realized, but I think it requires some serious scrutiny and hard questioning on the part of planners and policy makers. We should not “wish away” the challenges the military will be faced with because of the hope that a multi-faceted expert force of civilian administrators, complete with engineers and regionally attuned people will show up and take over. That type of thinking was present in OIF 1. It did not turn out well. At present, “whole of government” presents mostly fictions of expertise and the expertise that does exist will not deploy in a timely manner in numbers that would make a difference. The QDDR reads like it is detached from reality: most FSOs are not recruited, trained, or prepared to operate in kinetic environments, much less to piece societies back together in the midst of conflict. Even in a time of budget constraints, a reinvigorated Army Reserve that has “whole of government” representation as reservists in uniform is a preferred solution to creating new marginally effective civilian organizations that will require significant military logistical, planning, and security support regardless.

Scott Kinner

Mon, 11/10/2014 - 7:11pm

The author provides a number of good points. But at the base of all such discussions are assumptions and context. The author's critiques are very valid, especially when applied to long-term regional engagement, but stand at odds with actual employment realities and resource constraints.

1. While it is possible to plan, most conflicts, peace operations, humanitarian crises, etc., that the US military becomes involved in, are not predictable beforehand in a manner that allows for the creation of the robust information and specialists the author envisions.

2. Even if such predictions could occur, the sheer complexity of the human fabric defies creating the kind of knowledge required to perform at the level described. A simple look into the demographics of Lagos, Nigeria evinces the impossibility of creating human terrain expertise in a staff in the manner described.

3. Resources are the greater equalizer and prioritizer. As the Army and Marine Corps get smaller, both operational tempo and deployment demands increase with the resulting math dictating that the services become generalists, and not specialists. A regional alignment may be appropriate, but history demonstrates that organizations with small numbers of "widgets" to deploy, focuses on function, logistics, and readiness as employment criteria, not language skills or regional expertise.

4. Not every military operation is "for" the people, but every operation will occur "amongst" the people. The Israeli incursions into South Lebanon and Gaza are examples of warfare "amongst" the people, but operations in which the long-term stability of the population was not the point of the action (though short-term impacts were a consideration).

So people do matter - but there is a scale that dictates when they matter, where they matter, and how much they matter. In many cases, the ability to apply universal human traits of sensitivity, compassion, politeness, and awareness, will suffice for the general purpose force and staff that does not know when they may be deployed, where they might be deployed, or for what purpose until they receive a warning order.

To really meet the requirements of stability requires a true, whole-of-government approach. The fact that the other elements of national power are unable, and often unwilling, to do their part, does not mean that the military must somehow not only be the instrument that threatens and employs force, but somehow becomes governors, lawyers, judges, and civil engineers as well. For a smaller force, with greater operational tempo, to act as the entire "whole-of-government" by itself is to invite disaster.