A few mornings ago, I slowly sipped my coffee and browsed the news when a headline caught my eye: US focusing Anti-Taliban effort inside Kabul.  My first reaction was “Oh, this is going to be good,” which an opening paragraph confirmed:

“The Afghan capital is now the main focus of the anti-Taliban fight, with U.S. special forces conducting raids in the sprawling city and additional American military advisers arriving to help beleaguered local police, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday.”

In the following paragraph, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, confirmed that the number of operations inside of Kabul are increasing and said that “Kabul is our main effort now.” He spoke those words after the meeting with the U.S. Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis.”  First thing that always crosses my mind after I read about meetings and statements about Kabul City is “What maps have they used and who briefed them on the situation in this metropolitan area?”  because I know very well that some of my work will pass before their eyes.  An intelligence officer at a rank of Major, possibly, will brief them and explain everything about Kabul and how it all fits into a big picture.

The Major will use a series of maps not only to show insurgent’s operating areas, but also the scale of their activity and kinetic activity-related classified “Red” stuff.  I do not know the content of these maps, but if I had to brief General Nicholson and the Secretary Mattis about Kabul right now from my living room, I would probably get spatial content around seventy percent or more correct (seventy percent solution!) in what the briefer was going to tell to them.  They can always contact me if they need me to prove it.  How could I know that? Because every insurgent’s activity must occur in space and time and is related to culture, hence cultural geographic analysis of the population is necessary in order to understand the insurgent activities.

[Unfortunately, the approach in understanding insurgent activity in the Kabul area (and elsewhere) is almost always backward. That is, the analysts study insurgents’ movement and try to figure out how that influences changes in a cultural geographic area/region, rather than understanding that insurgents’ activities patterns are exactly like that because of the cultural geographic characteristics of the Kabul area.]

Figure 1. Cultural landscape of the Kabul City’s geographic expansion. (Photograph by the author.)

What I would really like to know is if and how the briefer has integrated cultural geographic aspects of Kabul City into his brief, and how he has related that to the “Red” stuff in a comprehensive spatial analysis. If he had not done that, the value of his brief is minimal and all the effort dedicated to Kabul will be ineffective. If he had done that, he must have relied on the material from maps and products that I originally created (which by now certainly has found its way into new products, and most likely without reference to my team and its initial work.

How do I know that? I was the first one to create a comprehensive ethnic population distribution map of Kabul City (based on my field work, not on sitting in some basement downtown using secondary and tertiary sources), relate that to vital infrastructure, resources natural and cultural, spatial aspects of urban growth, and to many other cultural geographic aspects as they pertained to stability and security (i.e., insurgents-related activities).

I created formal, functional, and vernacular maps, briefed numerous generals and majors (conventional and special forces), highest level Coalitions’ military intelligence officers in Afghanistan, spooks and spooks-wannabes, walk-ins, and many others entities on complexity of Kabul City.  I briefed the leadership of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) so they could see what they should have been doing all along.

I briefed Defense Intelligence Agency’s executives in how to apply tactical and operational cultural geography from Afghanistan into understanding strategic cultural geography in other parts of the world (e.g., regions under Pacific Command).  And then I left Kabul and Afghanistan, satisfied that we did a lot of good and productive work that will be used in years to come.  Most of it is recalled in my book Photographic Memory of Kabul City: a Deployed Geographer’s Perspective.

The end of my deployment was pretty good, but the beginning was less than pleasant.  No one likes to be ridiculed and that is exactly what happened when upon my arrival, I brought up the question of Kabul City and its importance to the bosses and peers.  Kabul was simply not important in their eyes at the time.  It took months and an incredible amount of energy and productivity, while working and walking on some serious margins.  Consider the following passages from my book:


After I arrived at CSOC [Consolidated Stability Operations Center] and organized my thoughts and workspace, I asked around the office “Can you direct me to who is comprehensively studying Kabul City as a geographic area at the unclassified level?”  The initial goal of CSOC’s mission was to transfer the results of research to the Afghanistan Government upon ISAF’s withdrawal, hence, my interest in unclassified studies.  I found the response both surprising and discouraging.  Evidently, there was very little interest in knowing details of the city, whether in my office, or at the higher institutional level downtown.  It was particularly disconcerting, because we lived in the middle of a metropolis with extremely limited information about what and who was around us.  In our immediate proximity were millions of neighbors about whom we knew almost nothing, let alone the urban environment we shared.  For a base of our size, which one could walk across in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, knowledge of our surroundings was a matter of basic physical security.

Despite periodic attacks, Kabul City at that time was generally immune from kinetic engagements, hence the lack of interest in studying the city’s infrastructure and people.  Even if the analysts sought to change their focus, I presumed, the management would see it as diversion of resources.  It takes time to study, learn about, and understand a large developing city and this is not easy to justify in a short-term focused work environment.  On a production matrix and in weekly production reports to a Commanding General, a brief one-page desk note counts the same as a thorough long-term analysis.

In ten years, a capital city largely in ruins rebuilt and expanded from around one million residents to more than five million.  Its sections rapidly grew in all directions.  Much of the original geographic data pertaining to the city’s ethnic geography was obsolete, or otherwise insufficient.  Small bases were surrounded with millions of people who, if they wanted, could have walked in and eliminate us all.  If they chose to attack and slaughter each other we would still not know who was fighting whom.  I felt an urgent need to make a difference and fill the knowledge gap.


After thorough research, I was simply unable to find any comprehensive and current analytical products on the consequences of Kabul City’s geographic expansion.  So I conducted research and wrote one myself, which was well received and was followed up by my numerous products.  Prior to that, it appeared that no interest was given to the city about which General Nicholson would say the following, nearly seven years after my first paper was published:

“Nicholson said that some members of a newly arrived brigade of U.S. Army advisers are being assigned to mentoring Afghan police in Kabul as part of a comprehensive plan for improving security in a city of an estimated 5 million residents.

I’ll just be very candid. We have a lot of work to do because this city has grown exponentially over the last 15 years’ and in a haphazard way that left it vulnerable to movement by insurgents as well as criminal groups…“

Somehow I feel that no one is ridiculing General Nicholson’s comments about the importance of Afghanistan’s capital now.  It just may be little too late to begin fixing it at this point.  Good luck with your brief, Major on complexity of Kabul City and how to fix all that mess!

For more on the topic of Kabul City, please consult my article Kabul, Afghanistan’s Gordian Knot, which also includes links to additional relevant articles.

Generals and Majors in Kabul City