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Cables from Kabul: Bureaucracy Does its Thing Again

June 7, 2011

I’ve been reading Sherard Cowper-Coles’s newly published memoir of his time as British ambassador to Kabul and as UK Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Cables from Kabul.  This has been getting some play in the UK media along the lines of ‘former ambassador says that there is no military solution in Afghanistan.’ Yawn, is it possible to find someone who says anything different?

I read diplomatic memoirs for the insight into the practice and texture of foreign policy and diplomacy and what you get from Cables to Kabul is a strong sense of the way that the organizational dynamic of coalition counterinsurgency/stabilization shapes what happens. While Cowper-Coles has complementary things to say about many of the people involved the impression is of a totally dysfunctional organizational environment. Cowper-Coles diagnoses the overarching problem as the lack of a political strategy that can bring the Taliban into an acceptable Afghan settlement. Without a political process neither military action or development work can produce an end state that is sustainable without ISAF. During the period as ambassador during the Bush administration he saw little interest in pursuing such a strategy even as many of the individuals involved recognized the imperative. In the absence of an overarching political strategy what seems to shape the response are institutional interests and routines, for instance the Ministry of Defence’s policy of rotating full brigades every six months, the six weeks on-two weeks off work pattern at the embassy. The involvement of agencies from across government ensures a huge amount of effort goes into coordination and endless cycles of meetings, seminars and conferences. The coordination burden is then multiplied across multiple coalition members. You rapidly get the impression that Cowper-Coles inhabits a closed self referential system that has little engagement with anything outside particularly Afghans or the Taliban. The Americans inhabit their own semi detached system.

This observation about the closure of the diplomatic system is reinforced in the the funniest bit of the book. The incoming Obama Administration appoints Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). The UK is desperate to influence the development of US policy and decide that it might be easier if they have their own SRAP so Cowper-Coles gets the job, next thing the Germans and the French decide that they need SRAPs, in a stunning display of institutional isomorphism (Dimaggio and Powell 1983) everyone else decides they need one creating a roving conference of 40 SRAPs in pursuit of Holbrooke (who in turn seems to spend his time at art exhibits, eating dinner and going to the opera talking on his three mobile phones and generally failing to engage).

The dysfunctional role of coalition operations have been identified previous interventions (eg Bosnia) and seem to apply as much to Libya but in sitting down to write this post I remembered Robert Komer’s 1972 study of Vietnam – Bureaucracy Does its Thing (there’s also a later version Bureaucracy at War)

Bureaucracy Does its Thing is summarized on the RAND web site as:

An analysis of the impact of institutional factors on the U.S./GVN response in Vietnam. Essentially both governments attempted to handle an atypical conflict situation by means of institutions designed for other purposes. Such constraints as institutional inertia — the inherent reluctance of organizations to change operational methods except slowly and incrementally — influenced not only the decisions made but what was actually done in the field. These constraints helped lead to

1. an overly militarized response;

2. diffusion of authority and fragmentation of command;

3. hesitation to change the traditional relationship of civilian to military leadership; and

4. agency reluctance to violate the conventional lines dividing responsibilities.

The conclusion is that atypical problems demand special solutions. Policymakers must be sure the institutions carrying out the policy can execute it as intended. Adequate follow-through machinery must exist at all levels, to force adaptation if necessary. Where the United States is supporting an enfeebled ally, effective means of stimulating optimum indigenous performance are essential.

The fact that what Komer labels as ‘atypical’ actually seems to be normal reinforces the point that government bureaucracies find it hard to learn.

Cowper-Coles, S. (2011) Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign. London: Harpercollins Pub Ltd.
DiMaggio, P.J., and W.W. Powell (1983) ‘The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields’, American Sociological Review, 48: 147-160.
Komer, R. (1986) Bureaucracy at war : U.S. performance in the Vietnam conflict. Boulder  Colo.: Westview Press.
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