[This is a guest post by Mike Martin author of An Intimate War which tells the story of the last thirty-five years of conflict in Helmand Province, Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of the Helmandis. The book has been the subject of a good deal of interest in the press lately on account of the Ministry of Defence’s disapproval of it. In the West, this period is often defined through different lenses—the Soviet intervention, the civil war, the Taliban, and the post-2001 nation-building era. Yet, as experienced by local inhabitants, the Helmand conflict is a perennial one, involving the same individuals, families and groups, and driven by the same arguments over land, water and power. The book—based on both military and research experience in Helmand and 150 interviews in Pushtu—offers a very different view of Helmand from those in the mainstream. It demonstrates how outsiders have most often misunderstood the ongoing struggle in Helmand and how, in doing so, they have exacerbated the conflict, perpetuated it and made it more violent—precisely the opposite of what was intended when their interventions were launched. Mike Martin is a Pushtu speaker who spent almost two years in Helmand as a British army officer (covering Operation HERRICKs 9-16). During that time, he pioneered and developed the British military’s Human Terrain and Cultural Capability—a means to understanding the Helmandi population and influencing it. He also worked as an advisor to several British commanders of Task Force Helmand. His previous publications include A Brief History of Helmand, required reading for British commanders and intelligence staff deploying to the province. He holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London where he studied under the supervision of Professor Theo Farrell.]
It is hardly controversial to say that the Afghan campaign has been a complete disaster. Of course, the question is why it has been a disaster. Which particular element of the multinational, multi-billion dollar effort failed? I think the answer lies in the prose of the great master Clausewitz:
The supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that a statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.
What is the old Prussian saying here? He is saying you have to understand the conflict you are fighting, and in Afghanistan, with an internal, ‘low-intensity’ war, that meant understanding the population. After all, almost all of the ‘enemy’ were drawn from this population. He is also saying that we must avoid imposing our own narratives on the war. The war is what they think it is, rather than what we think it is. So….it is a question of perspective, theirs versus ours.
Now that is a problem. How do you understand another people’s perspective, when you yourself are stuck in a highly institutionalised organisation (i.e. a Western military)? I mean, the army found it hard to understand DFID and the FCO (and vice versa). This is even more amazing when you consider that most army officers, diplomats and development officers have similar educational and class backgrounds, speak the same language and work along-side each other for years. How do you understand a bunch of people who have never left their own village, can’t read and have been told since birth that the Angrez (the British) are the greatest enemy? It is hard. But I can suggest a good place to start: language. Edward Said said it best in 1978:
…the most current transformation overtaking Orientalism: its conversion from a fundamentally philological discipline and a vaguely general apprehension of the Orient into a social science speciality. No longer does the Orientalist try first to master the esoteric languages of the Orient; he begins instead as a trained social scientist and “applies” his science to the Orient, or anywhere else.
I could easily replace the word orientalist with development worker, army officer, diplomat, spy, journalist etc etc.
Why do we assume that we can execute counterinsurgency, or development programs, or governance initiatives—nothing less than social engineering, although that term is slightly out-of-fashion—if we do not understand the societies that we are trying to change? How do you understand other societies if you don’t speak the language? Anything else, at least to me, seems like lunacy. (By extension, the issue of language learning is tied to the issue of actually spending long periods of time in the societies that you are trying to engineer—something more than the six months that the British military spent on each rotation in Afghanistan and Iraq).
The publication of An Intimate War has raised another key issue: namely that of MOD censorship. The hacks (mostly Defence Correspondents for serious UK newspapers) at my book launch at RUSI on Wednesday were incensed by the recent increase in MOD control over what they could, and could not, publish. They felt that it was stopping them from exercising their democratic function: that of holding power to account. Now, hacks have complained of this since the beginning of time, and the ongoing Levenson (SP?) issue illustrates that this is an extant issue. But their feeling was, and I whole heartedly agree with this, is that the MoD is desperate to avoid criticism of their efforts in Afghanistan. What else can we make of their attempts to block my book under spurious claims of contravening the Official Secrets Act, when they ordered the study themselves in the first place as part of their own lessons learned process?
Of course, there is a linked issue here that is highly pertinent to King’s students and academics, many of whom receive funding from the MoD to work on specific research projects. Indeed, the fact that they do so exposes the parlous state of central government (i.e. blind funding, not tied to a specific department’s retail agenda) funding for social science research—this then opens the door for MoD funding to enter the research funding market.
I will conclude with a question: how many academics in the UK are watching what they say and write for fear of not receiving further funding from the MoD? Is this something that should continue?