Sustainability of the Afghan Security Forces: A Wicked Problem
By: Dr. Guy Duczynski, Australian Special Operations Command,
COL Jaroslaw Jablonski, Polish Special Forces, and
Dr. Samuel H. Huddleston, US Army
When the future arrives, it may differ wildly from the present in detail, but it will resemble the existing pattern in a few major respects. There will be only one of it—future—and each parameter of change will have a particular value; its parts will coexist within an intricate system of mediating rules … and it will trail behind its own distinctive history. Its parts will fit together (however uneasily) and its changing patterns will show sequential consistency through time.1
Aside from the challenges associated with establishing and maintaining security within Afghanistan, government officials are faced with the additional and equally complex task of implementing and maintaining appropriate sustainability measures over the longer term. In this paper, we explore the subject of Afghan security force sustainability using General Morphological Analysis (GMA), a method that has proven to be highly suited to the detailed analysis of wicked, messy problems. The sustainability problem in Afghanistan exhibits systemic features that conspire to cause underperformance; if an appropriate level of sustainability is to be achieved, these systems-based elements must be managed. We developed a factors-and-conditions array (called a Zwicky box) that captures the primary factors associated with sustainability; extends these factors into a range of conditions from the most favorable to the most unfavorable; specifies the current and desired (end-state) conditions; and highlights a series of planned condition changes to get from here to there.2 We highlight key stages of the GMA process throughout and draw comparisons between operational design, critical vulnerabilities, asymmetry, and other military planning terms. The method we describe here does not, however, claim to replace conventional military planning processes; rather, it complements such processes and invites a deeper appreciation of the problem as a whole. Instead of offering specific solutions, our intent is to demystify the problem and inform purposeful actions that move toward resolution.
Wicked, Messy Problems: What are They?
When dealing with problems that have a large social component, planners encounter a level of complexity and interconnectedness that render conventional planning methods unsuitable. The problems are wicked and messy because they are ambiguous and (initially) opaque; they are ill-defined; they encompass strong moral, political, and professional interests;3 they involve many interrelationships, often within a nonquantifiable problem space; they react, often unexpectedly, to attempts to bring about change—they won't keep still; and finally, there is the potential for many unintended consequences that planners must remain alert to, akin to Garrett Hardin's observation that "we can never merely do one thing."4
The first detailed account of wicked, messy problems appeared in Policy Sciences under the title "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning."5 The authors were two urban planners who described a problem that initially appeared to be straightforward and solvable through the application of appropriate science. What they discovered, however, is that the surface problem actually concealed a host of additional subproblems that an unsuspecting planner could inadvertently stir up to magnify and enrich the initial difficulties.
Some examples of wicked, messy problems are
- Gun ownership in the United States
- Smuggling of people into Australia through Indonesia
- Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean
- Underutilization of public transport
- Overuse of petrochemical fertilizers
Each of these issues embodies a range of stakeholders who often have competing interests and unclear and sometimes diametrically opposed definitions of what constitutes an acceptable solution, as well as the method for achieving that solution. The problems often cross organizational and jurisdictional boundaries, thus confusing the question of who is responsible and inviting the involvement of a variety of hostile, neutral, and cooperative actors. On top of all these difficulties, their solution typically demands a change in learned, often "institutionalized" behavior. Security and law enforcement sustainability in Afghanistan shares many of these characteristics and qualifies as a wicked, messy problem of considerable complexity.
Solving Wicked Problems
We use the term solving here cautiously, because wicked problems are never fully solved. Through dispassionate study, however, they can yield a more favorable set of conditions associated with the area of interest. It is these potential shifts in condition from the current to the desired that the GMA method seeks to reveal. Due to the high social content of these problems, which often is the primary source of their wickedness or messiness, progress must be accompanied by changes in behavior, aside from any organizational reforms associated with the solution.
The Sustainability Problem in Afghanistan
The modern use of the term sustainability arose from the environmental movement of the late twentieth century and primarily indicates the preservation of biodiversity and the protection of natural resources. Ecological sustainability seeks to regulate human behavior within the four interconnected domains of ecology, economics, politics, and culture. According to the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, "sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."6
This general definition of sustainability is only partially useful for our specific area of interest. With regard to law enforcement and national security in Afghanistan, we take sustainability to mean the following: achieving appropriate law enforcement and national security capability outcomes while remaining within the carrying capacity of the nation's economic, human, and other resources to accommodate capability outcomes into the future. This definition recognizes that large public institutions must deliver services today and into the future and that predatory social or institutional behavior based on patronage, tribal, or other short-term gains represents another form of the "tragedy of the commons."7
Afghanistan has received approximately US$20 billion of financial and material aid in an effort to establish and maintain security. The declared US policy goal behind the provision of aid was to "prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven for terrorists that threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world."8 After 13 years' expenditure of blood and treasure, the broadly accepted assessment is that these efforts have been unsuccessful. Violence and instability remain endemic, and governance is localized, fragmented, and largely tribal.9
When donor nations gave (in some instances, sold) helicopters, weapons, vehicles, radios, uniforms, facilities, ammunition, computing and information management systems, and other materiel to the Afghan police and military, the donors expected (or, in some cases, simply assumed) that the Afghan security forces would develop the capacity to sustain these systems over the long term. This would ensure that entire-life support, maintenance, servicing, inspections, replacement, upgrades, training, and other essential activities would become institutionalized within the Afghan security forces to the point that Western involvement and support could be reduced and eventually discontinued. Such an outcome aligned with the general definition of sustainability and the assumption that present-day decision making is mindful of the future. Indeed, the important steps required for institutional or organizational sustainability should be independent of the equipment or logistical items the recipients are seeking to manage (sustain).
A sustainable law enforcement and security environment has failed to coalesce in Afghanistan despite all those years of effort and billions of dollars, and it has become apparent that there is a set of systemic and chronic weaknesses that combine to undermine any capability achievements. For example, one of the most vulnerable and costly items affected by this situation is a fleet of Mi-17 helicopters that provide vital force projection and mobility across the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. Experts acknowledge that few of the 30 Mi-17s that would represent full operational capability in 2017 will be airworthy within five years due to inadequate maintenance, servicing, and repair.10
The systemic liabilities have been widely documented and reported:
Corruption, ineffective program monitoring, budget shortfalls at all levels, inability to generate revenue, and limited public financial management capacity continue to plague the Afghan national government. Weak cooperation between national and subnational levels of the government hampers significant long-term sustainability and limits access to public goods.11
The principal aim of this article, therefore, is to explore these factors and build an assessment framework to guide the system towards a more favorable set of conditions. The premise is that something is being sustained; in this case, we are looking at law enforcement and national security, but it could just as easily be public health, public education, or some other major institution. If we were to substitute one for the other (take away the helicopters and so forth and replace them with doctors, nurses, and hospitals), then similar system essentials would need to remain intact and functioning.
In the case of a wicked problem like Afghan security, a sustainability model built simply on compliance and adherence to rules and regulations will fail. There are deeper motivational elements that must be brought to bear, because sustainability suggests responsible, proactive decision making, together with innovation that anticipates unintended or undesirable effects and avoids or minimizes their occurrence.
The General Morphological Analysis Process
The GMA process can be summarized as an approach that progressively deepens planners' understanding of a problem and informs the development of purposeful actions. It is ideally suited to "structuring and analyzing the total set of relationships contained in multi-dimensional, non-quantifiable problem complexes."12 It mirrors many of the features associated with operational design, although the method presented here offers more structure and less discourse than that promoted in the literature of operational design.13
The six steps of GMA are as follows:
Step 1: Compose a question that will focus stakeholders' individual views and perceptions toward a shared orientation. This question usually begins with "What are the factors that… ?"
Step 2: Record the factors that the stakeholders generate in answer to the question in step 1.
Step 3: Reduce the list to seven or fewer primary factors and then name a range of conditions that characterize each of these, from the most favorable to the least favorable, thereby creating a factors-conditions array. For planners to achieve the necessary gestalt awareness, develop a representative acronym in this step.
Step 4: Pair each condition with one from another factor in a systematic manner (e.g., factor 1/condition 3 + factor 2/condition 2) and then perform a pairwise comparison by judging each of the condition pairs according to their internal consistency: "Can these two conditions logically coexist?" Filter from consideration any configuration of factor-condition pairs that contains a pair that is illogical or contains inconsistencies. This step dramatically reduces the number of considered configurations to the much smaller set of conditions across all factors that could actually occur (an example follows in the next section).
Step 5: Agree on the current configuration (i.e., the current conditions across all factors) and the desired configuration (the desired conditions across all factors) and examine the intermediate configurations for completeness. The intermediate configurations (sets of conditions across all factors) describe possible future states that lie between the current condition and the desired end-state. The current, intermediate, and desired configurations now describe the continuum upon which the campaign is built.
Step 6: Starting from the current conditions field, plot a series of incremental condition changes that shift the area of interest from where it is to where you want it to be.
Step One: The Sustainability Question
The area of interest is "sustainability within the Afghanistan national security and law enforcement institutions." We assume that we have assembled a group of individuals who share a concern for this subject—they do not have to be senior decision makers, but they must be stakeholders—each of whom brings his or her portion of the problem into the planning environment for consideration. If we are going to identify a shared starting point and a common orientation to the area of interest, then it is essential that we develop an appropriate opening question.
Following are some sample questions, from which only one would be selected:
- What factors influence sustainment within Afghanistan's security and law enforcement institutions?
- What factors contribute to the successful sustainment of Afghanistan's security and law enforcement institutions?
- What factors influence the level of successful and independent sustainment of Afghanistan's security and law enforcement over the longer term?
It can be seen that each of the questions introduces a slightly different theme and area of focus and would, therefore, elicit a slightly different set of responses. It is vital that a single and agreed question be analyzed. For the purpose of this article, we selected the third question for our test group of stakeholders to study, because it contains the important elements of "successful and independent" and is positioned "over the longer term."
Step Two: Generate the Factors
After formulating the most meaningful question for sustainability, we asked our participants to take up a pen and record their answers on Post-it Notes—one answer per note, but no limit to the number of an individual's answers. Although this stage did not directly involve Afghan nationals who are responsible for national security and law enforcement sustainability, it did comprise a group of individuals who have been central to the training, advisory, and assistance missions that are focusing on this problem.14 These responses (included in appendix 1) are considered valid for the purpose of setting out the method and providing illustrative content.
From the list of factors that emerged, corruption was considered by most to play a central role in compromising Afghan security and law enforcement. Indeed, corruption is endemic in Afghanistan's governance structures and poisons all aspects of public administration. Corruption alone, however, cannot provide a complete explanation for everything that is wrong with security sustainability in Afghanistan. Reflecting the wickedness and messiness of the problem, corruption combines with other factors, creates secondary effects, and multiplies and propagates throughout the system under investigation until the system's integrity is completely undermined.
Step Three: Specify the Primary Factors and Develop Conditions
A morphological array is formed by first selecting between five and seven aspects of an overall social field that the stakeholders regard as key; these are called primary factors. Then, under each factor, the participants list conditions that describe the worst possible state of that factor, the actual state, and the desired state, plus any plausible intermediate conditions. The software we used facilitates this process and sequences the condition statements for further analysis.15
Although the question may generate well over 100 relevant factors (see appendix 1), the method calls for as few as five but never more than seven primary factors to serve as the dimensions of analysis. These factors should correspond to the topics that one would cover in a brief description of the system that is being studied.16 To arrive at the primary factors, the Post-it Notes are laid out for everyone to see and then grouped by a process of consensus according to their general topic or issue (see appendix 2). Once the sorting and grouping is complete, an overall title—the name of the factor—is assigned to each of the groups to capture the content embodied in that group. Often a single Post-it Note comment within a group conveys a meaningful title for that group.
We now have our primary factors associated with Afghanistan's security and law enforcement sustainability:
- Computing and information management systems
- Decision making
- Inter- and intra-agency relationships
- Capability objectives
Not only does this list of factors serve to guide the discussion of possible solutions, it will also provide a key reference framework against which to assess progress as improvements are implemented, and, importantly, will highlight the next logical factor to require our attention as we continually recalibrate conditions within the system under study.
The participants then describe each of these primary factors with a range of conditions, from the most favorable to the least favorable. The team chooses a few condition descriptions that together offer a crisp and nicely discriminating illustration of the overall field conditions associated with the sustainment of Afghan law enforcement and national security. The resulting Zwicky box is shown below in table 1.
Also in this step, the team assigns a memorable acronym to the project by drawing out key letters from within the factors to create a word, or meta-language, that captures the essence of the topic under investigation. As figure 1 illustrates, we selected the word DIPLOMA from key letters within the seven factors. To create this word we also had to resequence the factors, a process that incidentally helps to discourage any arbitrary or inappropriate prioritization of one factor over another.
The creation of a factors-conditions array is central to the GMA process. It provides both a shared framework of agreed principal factors and specifies the range from the most favorable conditions to the least favorable for each factor.
Step Four: Pairwise Comparison and Filtering
The 27 total conditions that accompany the seven factors (see table 1) present the possibility for 10,800 pair configurations (3 × 4 × 3 × 5 × 4 × 3 × 5), which is far too many to consider or analyze individually. There is, however, a smaller number of plausible configurations within this array that can be determined by filtering out all those that contain illogical or incoherent pairs. The purpose of this pairing exercise is to judge whether each pair of conditions, taken in turn, could coexist within a broader pattern describing Afghanistan's security and law enforcement sustainability. To be plausible, participants should be able to say of each pair, I cannot visualize a situation where these two conditions would not exist at the same time.
The participants choose yes, no, or maybe to rate the viability of each pairing. A yes answer is fairly definite and not particularly helpful as far as reducing the total number of patterns goes; a no is the most important because it captures a group agreement that there was no internally consistent pattern in which the pair of conditions in question would fit; a maybe is ambiguous and confirms that the group has no strong opinions on whether to keep or reject this pair.
To illustrate this further, the pattern D1I1P1L3O3M2A2, selected at random, would have to be scored as plausible within all of the 21 pairs below to survive this filter:
This pattern did not survive the filtering and was discarded because "prompt, informed, and outcome-focused" decision making (D1) does not coincide with either "cautiously engaged" leadership (L3) or "confused" capability objectives (O3).
Any single pair that is deemed implausible removes the entire pattern from consideration. This filtering process across all condition pairs removes 10,667 configurations, leaving a total of 137 that were considered internally consistent across all seven factors. The surviving patterns are listed in appendix 3. This set of 137 viable pairs will include the current condition and the desired condition for each factor, because they are bounded by (and may actually be) the best and worst conditions. In a later step, the remaining internally consistent configurations will be sorted and strung together to form achievable and sequenced condition changes over time—a campaign plan.
Step Five: Current and Desired Conditions
The factors-conditions table allows stakeholders and planners to visualize both the precise specifications of the current and desired conditions and the gap or distance between the two. The current and desired conditions are shown in figure 2.
As can be seen, six of the seven factors require the conditions to be reset by only one level; the factor capability objectives requires an improvement of two levels. This is encouraging, because it suggests that the system is almost where it needs to be. The fact that all seven areas demand attention, however, also highlights the chronic and systemic weaknesses that conspire to undermine performance.
Step Six: Developing the Campaign Plan
Starting with the 137 DIPLOMA configurations that survived our process of elimination in step 4, we first discard the 86 configurations that were worse than the current conditions and the seven that were beyond the intended end-state. This leaves us with 42 intermediate conditions—the product of the GMA process—from which to build a campaign plan (see appendix 3).
Given the current conditions, we next ask the question: If we were to choose one factor to try to improve, which one is the most likely to show early improvement with the least effort? The stakeholders determine that inter- and intra-agency relationships (and the underpinning behaviors that affect them) must be reset from a condition of neutral to an improved condition of cooperative. Success in the agency factor will also be accompanied by a corresponding improvement in capability objectives from confused to ad hoc and partially shared. Figure 3 illustrates these changes.
This process identifies the next pattern in the series—D2I2P2L3O2M2A3. This incremental improvement may also set the preconditions that make it possible to improve another condition: leadership may move from cautiously engaged to active, engaged, and aware. This process of step-by-step improvement continues until each factor achieves its desired condition. The process is illustrated in figure 4, which presents one preferred and some alternate courses of action. Starting from the current conditions at the bottom of the chart, we can choose to first improve either leadership (left solid branch, row 1) or capability objectives and relationships (right solid branch, row 1). Figure 4 shows that five steps are required to achieve the desired end-state, but there can be more than one way to get there. When faced with this set of choices at the outset, most viewers are likely to see leadership as being pivotal to any other improvements.
In previous exercises, this campaign planning/operational design stage has triggered rich discussions of what can be made to happen and why. For example, it is not uncommon to hear a group member say something like, "A #112 pattern can't come so soon after a #173!" where the numbers stand for whole configurations.
This orientation towards bringing about positive change is different from conventional planning in that we are identifying what "we want to make happen," rather than what "we are going to do," or what means and resources we might use. In conventional military planning, the means are often predetermined by the commander or decision maker, and planning staff. The GMA planning process, by contrast, continues through each incremental improvement until the factors reach their desired conditions (characterizing the optimum end-state), in this case, Afghan security forces that are reliable, capable, and sustainable.
Conclusion: Executing the Plan
More than most other analytical methods, the GMA process offers planners and officials a comprehensive and detailed appreciation of the wickedness and messiness of the problem with which they must grapple. It also makes clear that they must avoid superficiality in execution. Our area of interest, Afghan security, is capable of enormous variety, because of the nature of governance, communication, decision making, and other features common to Afghanistan's public administration. Our solution set therefore must possess an equal or greater capacity for variety.
The problem sustainability of law enforcement and national security in Afghanistan can exhibit a variety of characteristics and behaviors. Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety requires our instruments of national power and any other resources we may mobilize to possess a capacity for variety that is equal to or greater than our area of interest if we are to successfully shape and influence (reset) the existing conditions in a specified direction.
Ashby's Law originates within General Systems Theory and primarily concerns cybernetics—information and communications. The air in the room where you are reading this article, for example, can exhibit a variety of characteristics, including temperature, humidity, and pressure, to name a few. If you want to monitor and control these factors, then your thermostats, humidifiers, and other environment control devices must possess the functionality to first detect variation and then activate the appropriate corrections. In other words, these corrective measures must possess an equal or greater capacity for variety than the area of interest they seek to influence.
What does this mean for sustainability? If we ignore, or fail to accommodate, the richness and diversity of conditions associated with sustainability in Afghanistan, along with all the less surprising but still unexpected events that may crop up, then we will experience continued disappointment, frustration, and lack of progress. The GMA process allows us to pool the knowledge and experience of experts and distill the aggregate into clear, accessible, realistic steps that, taken with an open mind and an eye to innovation, can lead to real and sustainable improvement.
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Appendix 1: Factors Influencing Law Enforcement and National Security Sustainment
The following factors combine to influence the extent to which law enforcement and national security can be sustained. These were distilled into the seven primary factors.
Computing and information management systems
Availability of labor
Supply and demand models
Item codes and tracking
Proprietary logistics information systems
End-to-end visibility and control
Use of contractors
Access to upgrades
Technical regulatory systems
Tenure of key appointments
Supply and demand management
Inter- and intra-agency relationships
Appendix 2: Grouping of Factors
We grouped the original 67 factors into seven primary factors by placing the Post-it Notes on a wall and allowing the participants to reach consensus on how to group them.
Appendix 3: Surviving Configurations
The following list shows the configurations that remained after we removed all configurations that contained one or more illogical pairs, and those that lay outside the limits of the current and desired conditions. The current conditions are marked with (C), the desired conditions are marked with (D), and the intermediate conditions to get from the current to the desired are numbered.
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About the Author(s):
Dr. Guy Duczynski is a facilitator in general morphological analysis, formerly with Booz Allen Hamilton's strategic security planning team in Canberra, Australia.
COL Jaroslaw Jablonski is a member of the Polish Special Forces.
Dr. Samuel H. Huddleston is currently a senior operations research and systems analyst for the US Army.
Copyright 2015, Guy Duczynski and Jaroslaw Jablonski. The US federal government is granted for itself and others acting on its behalf in perpetuity a paid-up, nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in this work to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the US federal government. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner(s). Foreign copyrights may apply.
- Russell F. Rhyne, Projecting Whole–Body Future Patterns: The Field Anomaly Relaxation (FAR) Method (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford Research Institute, 1971).
- Throughout the process, the authors used an operational design software program developed by Dr. Duczynski to manage all the inputs and process the data. For more information about the study described here, the GMA process, or the software, please contact Dr. Duczynski (firstname.lastname@example.org), COL Jablonski (email@example.com), or Dr. Huddleston (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Tom Ritchey, "Wicked Problems: Modelling Social Messes with Morphological Analysis," Acta Morphologica Generalis 2, no. 1 (2013): 1–8: http://www.swemorph.com/wp.html
- Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243–48.
- Horst W. J. Rittell and Melvin M. Webber, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 155–69: http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
- United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, 1987: http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm
- Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons." Hardin's theory concerns individuals who, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self interest, behave contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests by depleting some common resource. In this case, the scarce resources are the critical inputs to law enforcement and national security in Afghanistan. An interesting additional dimension is that the "tragedy" is often seen as an example of emergent behavior, the outcome of individual interactions in a complex system, which is exactly what is confronting sustainability planners in Afghanistan.
- Jonathan Schroden, Catherine Norman, Jerry Meyerle, et al., Independent Assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces (Alexandria, Va.: CNA Strategic Studies, 2014): 1: https://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/CNA%20Independent%20Assessment%20of%20the%20ANSF.pdf
- Sustainable law enforcement and national security is defined as a condition that exists whereby decision making is guided by capability outcomes and accommodates considerations of both effectiveness and efficiency.
- At the time of publication, the Afghan Air Force Special Mission Wing possessed 17 Mi–17 helicopters.
- Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2014): 71: http://www.defense.gov/pubs/April_1230_Report_Final.pdf
- Ritchey, "Wicked Problems."
- Shimon Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence: The Evolution of Military Theory (Abingdon, England: Frank Cass Publishers, 1997); John F. Schmitt, A Systemic Concept for Operational Design, n.d.: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/usmc/mcwl_schmitt_op_design.pdf
- Although it would have been highly desirable to have Afghan nationals present and actively contributing, the security requirements for implementing this process during this time were prohibitive.
- See note 2 for more information.
- Rhyne, Projecting Whole–Body Future Patterns, 33.
- Data for all tables and figures in this study were compiled by the authors. See note 2 for more information.