“Americans have to learn geography, because they are living now in a world in which they’re no longer isolated. . .and they simply will not make—will not be able to make—sense out of what they read in their newspapers and about the decisions their government makes unless they understand some historical and above all, geographical, relationships.”

Henry Kissinger (former National Security Advisor)


The Problem with The Double Ds

Denigration and degeneration are frequently combined and parts of the same process. When people do not understand something they tend to denigrate its value. When in charge of a program they are appointed to lead without merit, their actions tend to degenerate the value of the program’s performance.  As a result, their customers unknowingly suffer, relying on the impression that they are receiving the most valuable information and assets available.

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than within the scope of the military intelligence’s geographic analysis.  When the customer is the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States, the quality of information he receives kind of matters.  Main reasons for my pessimism are observed behaviors such as:

  • A Monopolistic, unchallenged system and unwillingness to accept alternatives (military cultural system)
  • Equating spatial description with geographic analysis (“denigrating its value”)
  • Installing personnel who can perform only on a mediocre level (“degenerating its value”)
  • Among the officer cadre (and their civilian equivalents downrange, many of whom are former military officers), not accepting one’s own mental limitations of spatial comprehension, hence blocking the scope of work he/she cannot grasp (combine denigrating and degenerating the value of geographic analysis)

These conditions will not change overnight, if ever, because the military prefers to structure analytical thought as I described in the The Flagellants and the Black Death: Intelligence Community’s Zeal for Human Geography.

“Fixing” Intel (Or Manipulation with Maps): Seasonal Reruns

With the new administration in the White House, I cannot avoid asking the same question I asked in the “Fixing” Intel (Or Manipulation with Maps): “After I heard the news about the revolt of military analysts at the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM)—because they claimed that their reports have been altered by higher ups to fit the White House’s perceptions—my first question was ‘ What about the maps in those reports; somebody had to be fixin’ spatial intel, too, in order to fit the agenda?’.”

Considering my experience and interest in Afghanistan and that the current National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General, Michael Flynn, was among direct customers of my geographic analytical products, I cannot resist having a feeling of concern about the quality of spatial intel he and the President will receive about that country.  Of my particular concern is the quality of spatial information they will receive in the form of maps, a serious matter I explained in Making Maps and (Not) Understanding Geography: Implications.  A lot of superficial description combined with little geographical analysis in a product are not only of little value, but could be more dangerous for planning and operation than not creating a particular product at all.

Hypnotically Descriptive Analysis

Description masqueraded as analysis suffers from many problems, one of them being a crucial cultural limitation—the inability to look at Afghanistan through the eyes of the Afghans; in simple terms, putting one in the locals’ boots.  This, by default, creates a gap of knowledge in determining what is important to emphasize and what to avoid.  And, of course, non-politically correct aspects like the ethnicity-related issues are perceived as challenging or inflammatory, hence must be avoided.  I described some of the issues in Success of ISAF’s Urban Stability Operations Program in Afghanistan  and Afghanistan’s Continuous Struggle With Itself: The Census and Ethnicity Issue. Description without analysis looks like this map:

Figure 1 (Source). Al Jazeera’s map of who controls what in Afghanistan.  These kinds of maps widely circulate among journalists, think thanks, politicians, contracting outfits, and other Open Source gurus that influence public opinion and policymaking.

Note the word “What” in the title of the map and how this (choropleth) map depicts administrative boundaries of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, as if the control of “what” must be along the administrative boundaries, which for the Afghans mean nothing.  Many Afghanistan veterans and subject matter experts would express a considerable difficulty in comprehending and, more importantly, discomfort in articulating for a customer the significance of all the “whats” in a greater context of stability and security.  Compare it for example to the analysis of Afghanistan’s Watersheds and Their Relevance to Instability in the North and how the maps are used with a narrative to articulate cultural geographic significance of Afghanistan’s north and how that relates to the stability issues.

Prognosis Negative

Inadvertently preventing decision makers from receiving holistic information about the land and people, because of the reasons mentioned above, correlates to withholding information from them.  During his deployment in Afghanistan and later years, LTG Flynn expressed concerns over such problems in Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (2010) and Integrating Intelligence and Information: Ten Points for the Commander (2012). In the “Ten Points” he underlined (my additions are in the brackets):

Just because you can see imagery from miles above the earth doesn’t mean you understand the problem…. We need to build teams of area experts [geographers] and geospatial analysts [analysts of space] who can construct templates of societies. The burgeoning populations in the places most likely to experience conflict are those we understand least…. Context is king. Achieving an understanding of what is happening—or will happen—comes from a truly integrated picture of an area, the situation, and the various personalities in it.

Flynn’s concerns where that the emphasis was on description, illustrated with the left side of the chart, while the right, conceptual side was left hanging.

Figure 2. C. F. Gritzner’s definition of geography, “What is Where, Why There, and Why Care?” stapled on the wall in my workspace.  It articulates geographical methodology for research and analysis, which I used as a methodological framework while working at ISAF.  I sent a copy of this, as a poster, from Kabul to LTG Flynn after the publication of the “Ten Points” article so he could have a copy.

For sake of this article’s brevity, I will not go into the details of articulating each concept in this chart in regard to Afghanistan.  But I need to add that without the analytical and implicational aspects included, subject matter statements articulated and defended, little can the descriptive (phenomenological and spatial) side of the chart —of which the double “Ds” are strong proponents—assist the President and his National Security Advisor.  The spatial intel they will continue to receive will likely remain inadequate, because of the four factors mentioned at the beginning of the article.


In wartime, years can fly by fast.  If American military involvement in Afghanistan was a person born in 2001, he or she would be eligible for a driver’s license by now.  Yet it seems like our comprehension of this country and its people is stuck in a learner’s permit category.  To my knowledge, there is no comprehensive cultural geographic analysis of Afghanistan that was created to serve military intelligence purposes and thereby provide a holistic analytical understanding of this country.  If such an analysis did exist, it would greatly help the new administration.

Rather, the process of piling up spatially fragmented data creates the following impression: comprehending Afghanistan is like reporting what is in a refrigerator by reading the list of items on sticky notes posted on its door (description).  All of the listed items may be inside, but they might be spoiled thereby contaminating the rest of the refrigerator’s contents. We cannot grasp the condition of the refrigerator’s contents unless we open the door, see the contents with our own eyes, understand the cause and effect of contamination, then take appropriate steps to clean the mess up so the refrigerator can once again serve its function (analysis).

Figure 3. What could be behind that hill and “Why Care?”  Realizing such gaps in knowledge, in 2011 and 2012 my team and I began effectively developing a series of mapping products supporting the ISAF Commander’s lines of effort (i.e. stability, security, and development; or, as quoted below “security, economy, and government performance”) and integrating them into a holistic comprehensive analytical set. (Photograph by the author.)

I am afraid that we still rely on the sticky notes. How else can one explain the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) 2011-2013, retired General John Allen’s, recent comments that “The new administration should give the nation’s top Afghanistan experts 90 days to come up with a plan to bolster that nation’s security, economy and government performance.”

Does that mean that the nation’s top Afghanistan’s experts could accomplish something in 90 days that they did not undertake in 15 years?  What is new in terms of an analytical framework they could offer the National Security Advisor and the President, who may be considering increasing the number of the American military personnel in Afghanistan? Not much more than their version of the double Ds, while debating the topics like the ones I described in the Fighting Season in Afghanistan and Other Nonsense. And, at the end, more spatial intel may be making its way to the White House, one way or another, yet again explaining who controls what, but failing to address the critical issues of why and why care.

National Security Advisors and Geographical Analysis Downrange