Spatial Oddity

“Well, this is little odd,” I recall thinking about the class content and method of instruction, while attending a COIN (Counterinsurgency) Academy course in Kabul City. At the time I thought, “The visiting instructor is using an unnamed city as a case study of COIN in an urban area—easily identifiable as Mosul, Iraq—and not a word yet on Kabul City, the very city we are sitting in. Shouldn’t they talk about the real world, the most relevant locations which are in front of our eyes, particularly considering that a brutal civil war took place right here and it’s bound to happen again?”

The course finished without references to Kabul City. We exited the classroom to visit Taj Beg palace, where the Soviets killed Hafizullah Amin and, with the take-down of Kabul, effectively entered their Afghanistan campaign. From Taj Beg palace the graduates enjoyed the grand view of southwest Kabul City, with only a handful grasping the cultural landscape.

A year later the leadership of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) invited me to present at the highly anticipated Inaugural Human Geography Conference. Unsurprisingly, the title of my (unclassified) presentation included the terms geographic fieldwork and cultural landscape.


Figure 1. Cultural landscape of Kabul City. Concertina wire prevents some from coming to the base below and affects others from leaving it. (Photograph by the author.)

As conditions in Afghanistan worsen, people ask me “How come we can’t figure out what to do there and what is that we need to do to understand the underlying causes behind the problems?” Half-jokingly I answer, “Leave Mosul to Iraq and Kabul, Kunduz, or Ghazni to Afghanistan” and forward to them what I wrote after the Human Geography Conference for my friend Drew’s blog. It is relevant today, perhaps more than ever, and applicable to many corners of the world.

Here it is, with Drew’s flattering introduction and minor edits and additions. I was the one behind the camera.


This is a guest blog by my good friend, Zok.  Zok is an interesting character, a person who has lived through the break up of the former Yugoslavia, and expert on ethnic relations, a talented geographer, a gifted photographer and enthusiast of single-malt Scotch Whisky.  He is also a fellow midwesterner, by choice, which in and of itself, endears him to my heart.

One of my favorite stories is by the much-maligned Rudyard Kipling; in his story “Riki Tiki Tavi” he states that the Mongoose family motto is “Go and Find Out”.  Zok embodies this philosophy (and the courage implicit), and true scholarship cannot be accomplished from Ivory Towers or library stacks. Geography, like other social sciences is overpopulated with theorists, bureaucrats and “me toos” who really contribute little to expanding the body of knowledge.

Without further ado, here is Zok’s contribution:

Lessons From Afghanistan: Study With Open Eyes (and Mind) And Walk The Walk

Rather than viewing and accepting Afghans as some alien, perhaps extraterrestrial species, our team merged ourselves into their culture as much as possible.  Armed with the methods and techniques of geographical analysis (because everything occurs in space and time!), we focused on fieldwork—original research and information gathering—that revolves around understanding the cultural landscape, the human imprint on Earth’s surface.  We cannot rely simply on computer screens and GPS data to learn about the world!  Other than for Drew’s occasional tendency to drive treacherous mountain roads in a suicidal manner, the benefits have been great.


Figure 2. Doing fieldwork where it matters. (Photograph by the author.)

Cultural Landscape

Cultural landscape documents people’s activities: technological, economic, social, and political. All one needs to do is to look and attempt to understand.  Yet, as some geographers have noted, to most Americans the landscape just is; it represents something without practical meaning (Lewis 1979).  It’s the “stuff out there,” instead of a goldmine of freely available information that needs to be understood through deductive reasoning.


Figure 3. Learning from people, learning from land.   (Photograph by the author.)

Landscape represents an archive, a record of “What is Where, Why There, and Why Care (Gritzner 2002).” To the unskilled eye it means little, despite its potential to provide answers to many questions.  In a war environment, however, time is of the essence and learning from looking can save lives.

Instead of spending hours talking to villagers about what crops they grow, one can instantly benefit from looking at fields (rotation hasn’t changed much in the past couple of centuries anyway).


Figure 4. Onion and cannabis. Staple and cash crops combine to help an Afghan farmer. (Photograph by the author.)

The same goes for construction materials, political messages, price of land, or any other important aspect of local lifestyle.  Most importantly, in Afghanistan like elsewhere (e.g, Northern Ireland), the landscape teaches us about ethnic neighborhoods, the core areas and the periphery, as well as social and physical boundaries.


Figure 5. Rebuilding Afghanistan one brick at the time. (Photograph by the author.)

Breaking the Boundaries of Intellectual Convenience      

Our approach was that of an assumed uphill battle. We needed to break away from the shackles of intellectual convenience and open the shades of conventional wisdom that drive decision making.  Many people, it seems, are far more comfortable obtaining and manipulating facts than they are in understanding concepts.  By so doing they fall far short of learning the reality on the ground.  This, of course, contributes to a very limited, and often grossly incorrect, view of existing conditions.

For example, even after a decade of experience in Afghanistan, many westerners continue their obsession over Afghan tribes.  Yet two-thirds of Afghans (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and the list goes on) do not practice tribal lifestyle at all.  The list actually narrows down to the Pashtuns, the vast majority of whom could not tell you more about themselves than could a basic Wikipedia entry.


Figure 6. What is where… (Photograph by the author.)

Over-romanticized notions of preserving human groups as “living museums” have played a detrimental role in the western perception of Afghanistan.  Still, that cannot stop the western social scientists and cultural advisors who serve our military, diplomats, or anyone else, of wanting to be the ones who can teach the Pashtuns about their own code of honor—Pashtunvali (as, apparently, the non-Pashtuns have no honor to worry about).

The consequences of not understanding Afghanistan’s people and culture, as well as the trends and processes involved in its development, can be troublesome.  For example, the widely referenced CIA World Factbook gives some interesting ethnic and religious statistics.  For religion it cites (2012) 19% Shia and for ethnicity 9%  Hazaras.  Yet there is no doubt that over 90% Afghanistan’s Shia population are ethnic Hazaras, thus you draw the conclusion who is getting short changed.  Something is missing.  And when people confine themselves to the packages of intellectual convenience something will always be missing.

[Note 10/19/2015. It took the CIA over a decade to finally add a note into the Factbook that “Current statistical data on the sensitive subject of ethnicity in Afghanistan is not available, and ethnicity data from small samples of respondents to opinion polls are not a reliable alternative.”]


What is missing is the understanding of culture change.  Afghans have not been “fighting for centuries,” as the media often broadcasts.  Afghans have fought fewer wars than has the United States.  Its periods of peacetime, in fact, have lasted much longer than anywhere in Western modern history.  Just as American Indians prefer houses over tipis or wigwams, Afghans live in houses, rather than caves.  The bestselling car in Afghanistan, as is in the United States, is Toyota.


Figure 7. At the end of the day… (Photograph by the author.)

A nation whose population is nearly fifty percent under the age of 15 is bound to be a nation that looks to the future. Every young person we engaged in conversation, among the hundreds we interacted with of all ethnicities, always expressed his/her concerns about the future, never about the past!

And that is what our job in Afghanistan encompassed—fieldwork, cultural geography, interacting with people, and providing accurate information about the country and its human mosaic.  This type of research and information gathering cannot be done on a computer screen or employing data from a satellite in geostationary orbit.

Counterproductive Counterinsurgency Instructions and Lessons from Afghanistan
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