Lessons in complexity, from a field in Afghanistan

16th January, 2010

Just over two years ago, British soldiers in a remote region of Afghanistan came across a solitary man sowing seed – wheat rather than poppies. This was risky and unusual: a planting at the turn of the year was very late, and the area had been made dangerous by incessant fighting. But the farmer had his reasons. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, had been assassinated a couple of days earlier. The man reckoned that wheat prices would soar as a result and wanted to cash in.

The story – told by Major General Andrew Mackay CBE and Commander Steve Tatham in a new paper on “Behavioural Conflict” for the UK’s Defence Academy – illuminates the situation facing coalition forces in Afghanistan. There has been a tendency among commentators and politicians to treat the “hearts and minds” aspect of counter-insurgency as a popularity contest. But the “voters” are not casual spectators, trying to choose between the Taliban or the coalition forces; they are individuals weighing up complex choices in difficult circumstances.

I met Andrew Mackay, who commanded 52 Brigade in Helmand Province (and who announced his resignation from the army in September), because of his interest in the problem of influence in conflict situations. He was reading books about behavioural economics, including my own, in the hope of adding some insight to experience gained in the field.

Some of the more successful tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan have indeed been built on the simple economists’ prescription: if you want to change behaviour, change incentives. For example, killing insurgents without holding territory did not encourage co-operation from bystanders, as anyone who had collaborated would be killed when the insurgents returned. When coalition forces switched to the tactic of holding territory and preventing the return of insurgents, people became happier to share information.

The more psychologically detailed insights of behavioural economics may also be promising. Mackay and Tatham cite Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Programme as an example of the “choice architecture” described by policy guru Cass Sunstein and the behavioural economist Richard Thaler. The NSP handed out grants to villages, provided the village leaders were elected by secret ballot, held communal meetings, and posted accounts in a public place: a nudge towards better governance.

Yet it is unrealistic to hope for too much oven-ready insight from behavioural economics. The armed forces need to develop their own approaches, and this cannot be done from Whitehall. A patrol leader will have to make his own decisions about how to influence the local population. Without the right training, they will often be bad decisions. Mackay and Tatham offer a worrying analysis: the British armed forces have little expertise in psychology or public relations, and what expertise they do have is centralised. British research capability in this area is weak, and is being dismantled.

Whether or not generals can learn from economists, economists can certainly learn from generals. I have been as guilty as anyone of being fascinated by behavioural economics. But the financial system did not fail because of some psychological trait, but because it was riddled with damaging incentives that were hard to spot because the system was complex and changing quickly. So, too, with counter-insurgency: Mackay started by thinking about economic psychology but ended up focusing on complexity, and what it takes to create an organisation capable of adapting to complexity. It has taken me too long to come to the same conclusion myself.

Also published at ft.com.

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