Mustafa and I first met when we engaged in a conversation atop an elevated area overlooking Kabul City and surrounding area. The views extended even farther from the metropolitan area and we could see toward other provinces.  In distance, mountains separating Kapisa and Panjsher looked astonishing that day.  Mustafa commented that one should go to Panjsher if for no other reason than to just relax in nature and eat fish caught in local streams.  I agreed.

Lives of Others

From leisure and gastronomy, our chat moved toward the cultural geography of Kabul and the neighborhoods where Mustafa’s family resided.  A minute later he paused and said “You are not like the others, you really know about this place.”  I chuckled and said “Yes, it seems like I do.”  The “others” were people Mustafa and his brother encountered around the COIN (Counterinsurgency) Academy.  This experience provided the brothers with a solid comprehension of the scope of ignorance towards Afghanistan’s land and people, equally among instructors and students.

[For more on COIN Academy instructions see my Counterproductive Counterinsurgency Instructions and Lessons from Afghanistan.]

Figure 1. A Coalition soldier in Afghanistan’s landscape.  Everything is in reachable distance, it has been said, if you have enough time to get there. Once you get there, a proper next decision must be made that begs the question “Why am I here in the first place?” (Photograph taken by the author.)

Ignorance can be a Strongly-Defendable Choice

Ignorance is not mandatory.  It is a deliberate choice of disinterest in gaining thorough knowledge of a particular theme, topic, or region resulting in incompetent decision-making.  Ignorance is also masqueraded as knowledge when an educational framework fosters memorization of facts—via standardized testing and multiple choice questions—versus analytical thinking and development of articulate, systemic analysis.  Such a system produces people who make three crucial mistakes that severely affect a mission:

  • They believe their factual knowledge of topics or regions is at least up to the standard, hence adequate, because they took the standardized tests
  • Once they realize that their knowledge may be far from adequate—because it solely relies on facts rather than concepts—and intellectually insufficient to compete, their response is to become combative
  • Their combativeness is illustrated through focusing on small factual details in intellectual discourse in trying to denigrate works of others; i.e., shooting holes in other people’s work, yet providing no superior alternative or alternative analysis of any kind

These people are the “others” Mustafa had in mind while looking down on Kabul City.  They work on all levels and organizations.  Their behavior is institutionalized through

Behaviors described in the above bullets, combined with an habitually short attention span and absence of interest in Afghanistan’s historical geographic evolution, has been entrenching for seventeen years, since the arrival of the American troops.  Its outcome is in front of our eyes.

Reminiscent of pre-1992-1996 Afghan Civil War, The Butcher of Kabul, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is in Kabul.  Security has deteriorated so badly that the Coalition troops travel in helicopters just to cross the street in the heavily-protected nation’s capital, where the Hazaras continue to receive the brunt of terrorist attacks just for being Hazaras.  Meanwhile, ethnic militias (but we are not supposed to call them that) are exchanging gunfire in Uruzgan and elsewhere, practicing for greater conflict that is on horizon. The north is as tense as always because of never-corrected historical decisions (see Afghanistan’s Watersheds and Their Relevance to Instability in the North).  All these and many other conditions are the product of described ignorance in decision-making since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.  One does not have to be a prophet to realize how the pre-1992-1996 Afghan Civil War conditions may evolve in the not-too-distant future.

If Only…

A former colleague and I recently discussed his role in the Afghanistan campaign.  He received one of the well-deserved highest awards that the Department of the Army designates for civilians based on their contribution to the mission.  In his instance, much of it was for our joint efforts in trying to break ignorance-based behavior policies created by the “others.”  The Major General who pinned the medal on him commented “If only we had all the material you created when we invaded Afghanistan in 2001.”

As nice it was to hear a complement from yet another flag officer for our work, I seriously doubt that much different would have been accomplished beyond the tactical level of operation.  Primary reason is the low-level of intellectual input and resulting operational barriers as described in this and other linked articles.  Not even the good General can change that.  Today, defense of ignorance-based failed policies is still more powerful than the will to cha(lle)nge them.

Revisiting Afghanistan-Related Ignorance