The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recently issued a devastating report — Stabilization: Lessons Learned from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan — that evaluates the work of the DOD, State, and USAID in that country, especially during the “civilian surge” of 2009 and 2010. Full disclosure: I was the Public Affairs Officer at the American Embassy in Kabul during the surge.
Here are a few bullet points of the Executive Summary:
”1. The U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of its stabilization strategy.
“2. The stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context.
“3. The large sums of stabilization dollars the United States devoted to Afghanistan in search of quick gains often exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption, and bolstered support for insurgents.”
And these are just the first three!
The SIGAR report did not particularly focus on the work of Public Diplomacy. The report prompts me, however, to once again underline the need for the Foreign Service and for the Public Diplomacy cone to formally capture the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan (in particular) and expeditionary diplomacy (in general) – even as the two wars’ extraordinary demands ease. There are at least four reasons:
- It is wishful to think that Public Diplomacy can “return to normal” now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan scale down. The international environment is volatile, and Public Diplomacy is sure to receive unexpected taskings. It’s not hard to imagine circumstances that would again require a “surge.”
- During the two wars the Foreign Service developed close relationships with the armed forces. Two of the major elements of national power are “diplomatic” and “military.” In the future, the United States will need more, not less, alignment of these two elements of national power. We need to capture the “case studies” of civ-mil cooperation – positive and negative – in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Short tours in specific places affected all of our visions, and it’s natural to generalize that what was right and what was wrong at “my post” during “my time” represented the whole. “Lessons learned” can help all of us see the bigger pictures.
- What self-respecting profession shakes off more than a decade of war with no self-examination of the experience?
To say we need to capture, study, and debate the “lessons learned” says nothing about what those lessons may be. I hope for rich argument about “what ought to have been” or “shouldn’t ought to have been,” for sure. We can’t do so, however, without knowing what “was.” We also need to open discussion on the roads taken, and not taken.
There’s room for plenty of arguments – liberal vs. conservative, realist vs. idealist, Bush vs. Obama, goals vs. means, and so on. A fair accounting will show that no decision maker had a perfect batting average. All these discussions will be little more than dueling op-eds, however, without a significant body of historical study.
In time, as the actions of all participants – including the Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the tribes, and the Pakistanis, to name a few – become known, it will be increasingly possible to write out full histories of the two wars. That will, however, be the work of decades. We need the preliminary step of “lessons learned” sooner not later.
When I speak of capturing “lessons learned,” I am speaking institutionally about the “civilian” side of the war – diplomacy; public diplomacy; the embassy, consulates, and PRTs; coordination with the military commands; resources, money, people, and so on. This includes organizational paradigms, institutional repertoires, career patterns and incentives, and so on. All influenced the “civ” responses to the wars, and we need to clarify them. The SIGAR report has put broad brush strokes on the canvas, but it barely scratches the surface.
The process must begin with questions. Here’s one man’s starter list:
Facts and Figures
For the Foreign Service posts in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2000 to the present, it will prove increasingly difficult to retrieve basic figures on people, programs, scale, and money. A proper accounting of “lessons learned” requires some baseline counting, so the figures must be collected now.
For instance — for each year since 2000, by post, there were how many: American FSOs, American 3161s, Presidential Management Fellows, deployed S/CRS personnel, members of MIST teams, loaned military personnel, and local hire Americans? How many FSNs were on staff? Staff numbers are a measure of effort and scale.
How many Lincoln Learning Centers were in operation, employing how many people? How much money was available to PAOs in which accounts? How many Afghan and American Fulbrighters, Afghan IVs, YES students, English Access microscholarship recipients, and other exchange program recipients were there? With a plain set of figures, debate can begin with facts, not imperfect memories or conjectures.
Deploying Public Diplomacy
Looking back, how effective was the guidance in the whole-of-government COIN plan (which largely derived from FM 3-24)? Were the tasks feasible?
What programs in Public Diplomacy’s traditional repertoire were useful, and which were not?
Among PD programs, which have had lasting impacts? Should/could we have done more of those things, and less of others?
What were the rates of return for exchange programs that sent Iraqis and Afghans to the U.S.?
Were there overlaps between Public Diplomacy and USAID programs? With DEA programs?
There were many actors focused in strengthening the Afghan media. USAID, PAS, VOA, RFE/RL all had programs in this area. Were all these actors aware of others’ efforts? Which were most effective? What are the “best practices”? Which were “not so best”?
The two embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan developed two different models of dealing with Public Diplomacy people in the PRTs. What were the patterns? What were the up and down sides of each?
How effective was reliance on Regional English Teaching Officers and Regional Information Resources Officers to serve the outsize needs of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Working with the commands
Did Public Diplomacy (on the “civ” side) and Stratcom, Psyop, and IO (on the “mil” side) work well together? Were they partners? Rivals? Or perhaps (to borrow a Chinese proverb) “same bed, different dreams”?
Did the civilian side establish an effective/credible analogue to the military PA/IO effort? USAID, USAID contractors, PAS, and various military commands were all buying air time on radio and television networks. (My perception was that it was very much a seller’s market.) Was there a need for coordination of media buys?
Was there good coordination between the Embassy and the commands on the issue of civilian casualties? What were the arrangements in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Again, baseline figures need to be compiled. Which USG radios were broadcasting into Iraq and Afghanistan? How large were the services? What were the time slots, the total hours, the broadcast footprint, and the listenership?
How did in-country Public Diplomacy align with the work of the out-of-country USG broadcasters? Are changes needed in the State-VOA MOU signed by Secretary Powell?
Before I served in Afghanistan, three small regional radio networks had been pieced together — by USAID’s Internews, by NATO (CJPOTF), by the Special Operations Command (CJSOTF). How did they work? Did they work together? What was their effect and their legacy?
How well did the military RIAB’s (radios in a box) contribute to the overall communications efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan? What were the “best practices”?
PAS work with private sector Afghan broadcasters included such initiatives as the “Eagle Four” crime series. What was the effect?
Finding and Sending People:
A one-year assignment to Iraq or Afghanistan required a two-year commitment – one for a year of language, one for the assignment. Many officers who had completed language training told me that at the Embassy they never used their language. How important was language training for deployed officers?
Every commentator acknowledges that one-year tours adversely affected program continuity and the achievement of U.S. goals. Could the Department have been more creative at finding ways to keep staff on the job for 18, 24, or 30 months rather than 12? Among the options: extended periods of leave between assignments, short tours, shared tours, double encumbering position numbers, or creating a pool of unassigned position numbers that could be given to any officer willing to stay at post for a longer period, even if less than a full second or full third year.
What were, and what might have been, the options for spouses to accompany officers?
Usually, the system had replacements for an individual officer lined up before he or she arrived. This made extensions of tour problematic. What arrangements would have given the system more flexibility?
What were the pros and cons of relying on 3161 personnel?
What were the advantages and disadvantages of relying on deployed S/CRS personnel?
The armed forces hired many “cultural advisors” from among Iraqi and Afghan immigrants in the U.S. Could this practice have helped Public Diplomacy?
Compared to other Public Affairs Sections around the world, Baghdad and Kabul had fewer FSNs. Why? What could have remedied the shortage?
From the Public Diplomacy point of view, was SRAP a useful organizational innovation?
What changes in Public Diplomacy authorities are required if particular posts must spend millions of dollars per year?
Did the template organization of Public Affairs Sections (“information” and “cultural affairs” units) meet the need?
What tasks performed at the Embassy might have been migrated to Washington?
Continuity of operations: how was the experience of one officer passed on to his or her successor?
Yes, we need to do this. And now, not later.
This is an updated version of an earlier essay that is no longer available online.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.