The Value of Reproducible Research: Sometimes the response matters more than the results

Yesterday I followed a tweet to a post by Jason Lyall responding to apparently widespread criticism of a new survey in Afghanistan done by the Asia Foundation. The post was the first I’d heard of the survey or of the response to it, so I don’t know anything more about the criticism than what Jason wrote, or much about the nature or arguments of the criticism. But the post did link to one criticism in particular, from Sarah Chayes, a journalist turned NGO-founder and regular ISAF-hired expert on Afghanistan. The general approach taken in her critique seems illustrative of something I find very valuable about systematic and reproducible research and analysis: it facilitates productive and progressive (though perhaps not always intentionally so) responses. Continue reading


Feeling Ineffective … Needing the “Haqqani network”

One of the things I dislike most about being in academia is the feeling of creeping complacency. I don’t feel it very often – that’s why it’s ‘creeping’ – but when I do it’s painful and soul-frustrating. Working for the military was where I felt least complacent (despite the numerous other downsides), so perhaps it’s not surprising that the things that make me feel most complacent typically have to do with the military and irregular warfare. The current situation in Afghanistan should be enough in itself to make anyone stop and think whether such a situation is really necessary and whether there isn’t anything that could be done about it. 326 members of the international coalition have died in Afghanistan so far this year; 3,021 Afghan civilians died in 2011; suicides among US troops have been averaging one a day in 2012; the Dept. of Veteran Affairs estimates 18 veterans are committing suicide every day. All this is an ongoing and overlooked tragedy. But it’s not the overall tragedy that makes me feel complacent. For me and for most people it’s about as outside the bounds of being influenced as is the weather. No, what makes me stop and feel terribly complacent are the errors in thinking about social phenomena in Afghanistan that policy-makers and military analysts continue to make, and that social scientists seem incapable of helping correct (…perhaps because we’re often not so immune to them ourselves). Continue reading

Experts-shmexperts. Where’s the data?

I wrote yesterday about the kind of expertise that makes its case by relating what other experts and regular folk reckon. Once I started thinking about it, it struck me how similar this kind of expertise is to the kind relied on by the US government and military in Afghanistan. This is a topic that I thought a lot about while working for the Army, and that friends still working in that area did and still do write about. It’s also gotten a lot of attention recently since Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book about the war in Afghanistan came out. Rajiv criticizes the Obama administration for bringing its “C team” to Afghanistan. Continue reading

Trying to Understand Influence, the US Military Can’t See Past a Line and Block Chart

Much of the US Military is based on a fairly simple rule: if you want to get something done, go to the man in charge. Following the rule usually works efficiently. To preserve the rule, military service-members learn the chain of command and learn to be sticklers for abiding by it. So when it comes to the US military, you can generally expect if a General tells a bunch of Colonels to do something, it gets done, and so on down the ranks. Graphed, this process becomes a line and block chart (see Figure 3). Since the military is so big, these charts can be very helpful for using the rule. If a certain block is causing trouble, you follow the line to the next block above it and you tell that block to tell the block below it to fall back in line and do it quick. Continue reading

Dying Like the Enemy

The rise of suicides within the US military has been one of the most tragic and noteworthy aspects (among many) of US efforts in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. OIF and OEF have also been marked by the extensive use of suicide-attacks by insurgents. In the respective areas of medical/psychological and military/conflict-studies research these two types of phenomena have been rigorously documented and analyzed, but they also seem to have remained almost entirely separate and disconnected. As far as I’m aware, no published research has considered the possibility of a relationship between the two. While there are certainly reasons to consider suicide-attacks and military suicides as unrelated and distant phenomena, a connection between the two is also worth considering. Continue reading