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NPS Prof. to NATO and U.S. Afghanistan Commander: “It Takes the Villages”

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NPS Prof. to NATO and U.S. Afghanistan Commander: “It Takes the Villages”

By Barbara Honegger
Military Affairs Journalist
Monday, October 27, 2008

When Naval Postgraduate School National Security Affairs Research Professor and director of the university’s Program for Culture and Conflict Studies (CCS) Thomas Johnson met with the commander of both U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, in September, he had a clear message:  “To win, it will take the villages.”

Naval Postgraduate School Prof. Thomas Johnson, left, met with Pashai tribal elder and provincial council member Al-Hai Mohammad Hassan, right, and their interpreter, center, during Johnson’s trip to Afghanistan to discuss governance and security issues in Nangarhar and opportunities for the Pashai in eastern Afghanistan.

Naval Postgraduate School Prof. Thomas Johnson, left, met with Pashai tribal elder and provincial council member Al-Hai Mohammad Hassan, right, and their interpreter, center, during Johnson’s trip to Afghanistan to discuss governance and security issues in Nangarhar and opportunities for the Pashai in eastern Afghanistan.

This simple message was actually profound, as it represents a 180-degree change from the way the U.S. and its coalition partners have waged the war against the Taliban since Operation Enduring Freedom began there over seven years ago.  And it was bound to get attention, as it came in the midst of dire intelligence warnings of a downward spiral in the country and as Russia’s ambassador briefed NATO generals that they were “repeating all of our mistakes.” 

“That mistake is making Kabul, the capital, and a few other urban areas the center of our counterinsurgency administration and strategy,” said Johnson.  “Such a strategy in Afghanistan hasn’t worked—not for the British, not for the Russians and not for us—and it never will, because all counterinsurgency, like all politics, is local—which in Afghanistan means tribal. 

“We have to fundamentally revise our goals and our means of achieving them in Afghanistan,” Johnson stressed.  “The center of gravity of social organization in Pashtun areas, where the Taliban has its base, is the tribal villages and surrounding districts.  We will only win when we move to a decentralized strategy and deploy troops out of the green [protected urban] zones and into the villages and districts to support the tribal elders to resist the extremists.  The elders want to resist, but they’re isolated and intimidated.  They don’t approve of the Taliban’s draconian social dictates or their extremist tactics, but they’re afraid and don’t have the confidence and power to stand up to them without our critical-mass presence in their immediate area.  The numbers of deployed troops doesn’t have to be large, but it does need to be of critical mass.  Doing this will provide real security, and security is the foundation for any forward progress in development, reconstruction and a lasting peace in Afghanistan.”

Johnson’s message seems to have gotten through.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told journalists this month that the situation in Afghanistan will probably get worse “barring rapid, major improvements to bolster district and tribal leaders” to offset the weak central government in Kabul, and the Bush Administration has announced a major review of its Afghanistan policy. 

Johnson’s meeting with McKiernan was one of many during his most recent trip to Afghanistan, where he frequently travels to remain current on the highly fluid events and tribal loyalties in the country and region.  In fact, his calling card could read “Have Anthropologists, Will Travel.”

“There’s nothing more important than getting ‘ground truth’ data and context in country,” he said.  “The premise of our culture and conflict program at NPS is that, to properly interact with another culture, we have to understand it.  To advance that understanding, we collect, organize and disseminate anthropological data to help governments, organizations and individuals build key relationships in this critical country and region.”

In addition to meeting with General McKiernan, on this latest seven-week DoD-sponsored trip Johnson embedded with provincial reconstruction teams and others and met with Afghan tribal elders in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the top poppy growing area and Taliban stronghold. He briefed numerous U.S. and coalition leaders as well as teams collecting data in the field.  During this research trip, Johnson was also able to ask questions of three Taliban commanders through an intermediary using a Pashtun translator.  According to Johnson, “the main purpose of this trip was to do field research on Taliban propaganda narratives so we can develop counter narratives that resonate with the Pashtun people.  Counterinsurgency is fundamentally an information war, and the NPS Program for Culture and Conflict Studies has developed a large repository of Taliban night letter propaganda and DVDs.”  

Johnson’s campaign to educate top military and government officials, Congress and the press -- his most recent articles include, “Winning in Afghanistan,” which was in Newsweek in September and “All Counterinsurgency is Local” (coauthored with Chris Mason) which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly this month—is just one of the more visible parts of the Culture and Conflict Studies program, which he founded at NPS in 2007 in coordination with the Department of National Security Affairs.  The program is dedicated to informing U.S. strategic and operational policies on Afghanistan with accurate, detailed and up-to-date anthropological, ethnographic, social, political, security and economic data at the provincial, district, tribal and clan levels of analysis. 

The CCS website, www.nps.edu/Programs/CCS/, is effectively an online Afghanistan Almanac.  “It’s a 21st century gazetteer,” Johnson noted, “the product of a highly collaborative ongoing effort to provide current open-source information to our provincial reconstruction teams in the field, mission commanders, policy makers, academics and the general public.  It covers Afghanistan’s tribes, politics, events, trends and people, providing data, analysis and detailed maps—even tribal genealogies, poppy field maps and the texts of political documents like the country’s constitution—not available anywhere else.  There are comprehensive assessments of the provincial and district tribal and clan networks—even cultural and operational assessments of individual Afghan villages.   The site is an international resource.  We get hits from all over the world.”  The web portal also includes a monthly peer-reviewed journal, The Culture and Conflict Review, and a new monthly update on the situation on the ground.” 

“In addition to shifting to a decentralized counterinsurgency strategy, dealing with the poppy explosion and mitigating the escalating effects of IEDs, it’s important to be patient,” he said. “As the Taliban’s leaders like to say, ‘The U.S. has the watches, but we have the time.’”

One of Johnson’s more surprising revelations is that Al Qaeda doesn’t play a major role in most areas of Afghanistan.  “The Afghan insurgency is genuinely indigenous, especially in the south of the country,” he said.  “If there’s an Al Qaeda presence, they’re more like embedded trainers.  They don’t call the shots in Afghanistan.  Al Qaeda has become a BYOJ—‘Bring Your Own Jihad’—franchise.  They provide training for improvised explosive devices, which traditionally are completely foreign to the Afghans,and train insurgents in suicide bombing tactics, which the local tribal elders deplore.  In fact, the first ever suicide bombing in Afghanistan was the assassination of the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001.  Suicide bombing as an insurgent tactic only became relevant in Afghanistan in 2004.  Since then we have witnessed a significant increase in this tactic.”

Naval Postgraduate School faculty members, affiliated with the CCS program, sponsor and organize numerous conferences and workshops, brief deploying troops as part of the NPS Regional Security Education Program (RSEP) and Leadership Development and Education for Sustained Peace (LDESP) initiatives, and respond directly to requests for information from mission commanders and provincial reconstruction teams on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The program and website, in fact, were originally developed as a reachback resource for our deployed troops, commanders and provincial reconstruction teams, and then evolved to include the academy and the public as well,” Johnson said.  “We receive questions from operational military personnel on a regular basis.”  

One of those was from Army Capt. Matthew Lea Trea with the 63rd Brigade.  “I’m the project officer for a unit deploying to Afghanistan and have greatly benefitted from the CCS website,” Trea wrote, requesting a presentation on the history and cultural guidelines for the country and region.  And the site recently received a request for information from the Combined Security Transition Command, Afghanistan National Security Council Team operating out of Kabul.

And the data flows both ways.  Lt. Col. Bryce Brakman, who became the provincial reconstruction team commander for Afghanistan’s Zabul province in March, monitors the site for critical updates and analysis and provides information that’s been added to the section on the province. 

Prof. Thomas Johnson, left, director of the NPS Program for Culture and Conflict Studies,  interviewed Nangarhar provincial council members Dr. Nijra Habib, center, and Habiba Khaker Qazizada, right, about women’s issues in Afghanistan during Johnson’s DoD-sponsored trip to the country.

Prof. Thomas Johnson, left, director of the NPS Program for Culture and Conflict Studies,  interviewed Nangarhar provincial council members Dr. Nijra Habib, center, and Habiba Khaker Qazizada, right, about women’s issues in Afghanistan during Johnson’s DoD-sponsored trip to the country. 

“Professor Johnson’s Afghanistan effort is superb,” said NPS Senior Intelligence Officer Capt. Tim Doorey.  “He has been studying this problem for almost 20 years and has assembled an outstanding team of researchers.  As Senior Intelligence Officer, I’ve asked that the information about the Culture and Conflict website be disseminated to all officers heading to Afghanistan.” In addition to its faculty research affiliates, CCS also has a team of six research staff.

For more information about the NPS Culture and Conflict Studies Program, go to http://www.nps.edu/Programs/CCS/ , or contact Professor Johnson at thjohnso@nps.edu or ccsinfo@nps.edu.

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