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December 20, 2009

The great Afghan spaghetti monster

For a good example of how difficult it will be for the US military to regain the momentum in Afghanistan, check out this graphic on the military counterinsurgency (aka COIN) strategy.

The graphic from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff looks like a tangled ball of multicolored yarn, or perhaps it is the military's depiction of the all-powerful, all-knowing Flying Spaghetti Monster...

Whatever the case, it documents the complex relationships between Tribal leaders, soldiers, aid workers, drug dealers, militants, ethnic groups, government leaders, etc.

"For some military commanders, the slide is genius," wrote NBC's Richard Engel, "an attempt to show how all things in war – from media bias to ethnic/tribal rivalries – are interconnected and must be taken into consideration. It represents a new approach to war fighting, looking beyond simply killing enemy fighters. It underscores what those fighting wars have long known, that everything matters."

"But for others," Engel writes, "the diagram represents a fool’s errand that the United States has taken on in the name of national security. Detractors say the slide represents an assault on logic, an attempt to jam a square peg into a round hole. They say the concept of occupying a foreign nation to protect security at home is expensive, time consuming, ineffective and ultimately leads to the 'spaghetti logic' of the slide. They say this slide is what happens when smart people are asked to come up with a solution to the wrong question."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has about 18 months to show that the graphic is genius and not a fool's errand...


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Reply to Hindmost,
You obviously know more about this than I do, yet it seems to me what you are suggesting is that this graphic (and iterations thereof) overcomes the old saying "no plan survives contact with the enemy." Is that whay you are suggesting?

Also, I was wondering, within the confines of this meta data, how to account for the hidden hands of interests with agendas outside, or away from, the confines of this data? For example, pipelines.

Thank you for your kind consideration.

Based on the notation, this is not an info-graphic, it is the visual display of an actual dynamic model of the feedbacks in the Afghan "system", which can be run to simulate the impact of different investments that can be made. Each of the lines has a formula describing the type of feedback (positive/amplifying, vs negative/dampening), as well as the scale of the feedback (linear, log, exponential,etc).
This visual display itself isn't meant to be helpful - what is really useful are the graphs produced after running various scenarios, which show how the strategy affects each element in the map over time.

Models like this have to trade off complexity for clarity - hence the simplification of putting all insurgent groups into a single element. Note also the "draft" status of this model - there will be many iterations with varying configurations tested.

This type of modeling can be extremely useful to help understand the underlying dynamics of a given problem space. It is especially helpful at elucidating unintended consequences of possible strategies _before_ you commit.

I can't comment on the specific model without more study, but it looks reasonable at first blush.

thats no map man its' an art form,similiar to the oreintal "the monsterous conspiracy" (good luck)oo,ya know finding it,I vaugely remember it my self,well that or a twisted swastaka imatating a map of the magnetosphere(einstienn flyers phere),splitting the globe in half and thairby crackin and hatchin ta da "the earth,now thairs a word that fits on this "graphic illustration somewhere,maybe right next to the dragons claw

that map is a joke to everyone in the United States. if the president thinks it going to win the war he's got another thing coming. the map make me laugh just looking at it. all it has is lines and words that doesn't go anywhere but straight to trouble. it also reminds me of a DOG chasing it's tail and bitting itself in the back end. it's called "Good Old Goverment".

our groverment has always got to stick their nose into where it don't belong every time in every country. i under stand we were attacked and i hated every moment. but our goverment and president is killing more of our men just by sending them to Afghanistan or other wars to which we don't belong into. that map is the messed up mess that we all know our United States is all about. being messed up totally. we need an Overhaul of our Goverment Toatlly!

our big heads of state and military thinks that the map is going to win this war when it's obvious it's just a big mess of lines with names in it that won't help in the least. i have to laugh at the map. just bring our men home and let the Afghanistan's kill themselfs.

I like Tom's idea. The Afghans don't want us there and they don't want Osama there. Why don't we make a deal: find Osama and give him to us - and we will all leave?

I think you should move the narcotics part of the graph between the insurgents and central and tribal governments as you forgot the links between the warlords we support, including Karzai's brother, and the heroin trade.

Read Joe Lauria, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould's pieces at http://www.boilingfrogspost.com
for a clearer perspective on Afghanistan.

I find it interesting that if you will note most items in the graphic have at least one arrow in and one arrow out. Except, "Narcotics and Criminal Activity Levels." There's a way in, but no way out...

Sometimes less is more.


The crazy thing about that graph is that it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface.

One huge example is that it's lumped all insurgents together, rather than acknowledging that there are many different groups with different agendas.

It reminds me that in order to properly map a situation, even a simple one, it would require a diagram of such complexity it would render itself useless; and a situation like Afghanistan is about as far from a simple situation as it gets.

It also concerns me that someone would put weight into this diagram as a way to help us out of the troubles we're in. I admit that I found myself looking for keylogs myself for a few minutes before realizing that this type of mindset (shortcuts to knowledge/understanding by way of powerpoint presentation) is one of the main reasons we're in the trouble we are right now politically, militarily, and economically. We've exchanged the pursuit of knowledge for the pursuit of convenient knowledge.

Our Powerpoint-driven military at work.

afghanistan is, quite frankly, a waste of time, people, and resources. just tell those people give us osama bin laden and all others connected with the attacks of 9/11 and we will go away. is,nt that why we are there anyways?

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Checkpoint Kabul is written by McClatchy journalists covering Afghanistan and south Asia.

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