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Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.
Legal Scholar

Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

Business ethics expert; senior fellow at Harvard’s schools of law and government; former General Counsel for General Electric; former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services.)

18-month miracle?

In response to this week's On Leadership question: What's the best way for U.S. forces to nurture leadership among Afghan forces? Is it possible to teach leadership across cultures?

President Obama set highly questionable timing goals in his Afghanistan speech at West Point Tuesday night:

First, the additional 30,000 U.S. troops (plus an unclear additional number from our allies) will, he said, stop the Taliban, train the Afghan security forces and then start leaving in July, 2011 (subject, of course, to "conditions on the ground").

Second, this military effort will provide room for the civilian strategy of creating a stronger Afghan government by, among other things, supporting those who are not corrupt and holding accountable those who are corrupt, again by July, 2011, when we start to withdraw.

Both goals depend, in the first instance, on finding motivated Afghan leadership on both the military and civilian side in 18 months -- after eight years of failure. It has been widely reported that current Afghan military and police forces are largely incapable of carrying out their roles in situations of conflict. It is widely understood that Afghanistan is a failed state, riddled with corruption, kept afloat by a narco-economy (with 90 percent of the world's opium grown there) and beset by potent and long-standing tribal and ethnic divisions.

It is not that cross-cultural training in the many skills that together make up leadership is impossible. Such training occurs in a wide variety of international organizations--from international financing institutions to transnational companies to professional schools attracting students from all across the globe. But in these, and many other circumstances, the recipients of training are highly motivated. And they have time to apply general knowledge and skills to their particular cultures.

What will motivate potential Afghan leaders? Professionalism? Patriotism? Pay? Ambition? Fear? Rivalry with others? Perhaps the U.S. and its allies can use these diverse appeals in its attempt to encourage new military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan.

But ultimately, motivation and leadership are grounded in culture: the shared principles (values, policies and attitudes) and shared practices (norms, systems and processes) that influence how people feel, think and behave.

Why do we think we can change the complex Afghan culture when our "outsider" attempts to influence it -- including billions of dollars in assistance -- have, to date, been unsuccessful? General McChrystal, in his now famous report, said: "We face not only a growing and resilient insurgency: but there is a crisis of confidence among Afghans -- in both their government and the international community -- that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents."

President Obama was silent about these profound questions of culture and motivation in his West Point speech. He was silent, too, about a single historical example where such a dramatic reversal in culture, motivation and leadership has taken place in such a short period of time in such a difficult place. (Is Iraq illustrative or not? The president avoided any analogies and only talked about six hard, controversial years there.)

Until the administration provides detailed answers to these basic questions about how cultural change and motivation of leaders can occur in 18 months, the Afghan speech will surely be seen as a political compromise, carefully crafted in good faith in Washington, to escape from the bad policy options of long-term commitment of more troops and treasure or short-term continuation of the status quo. But, in its haste to enter and exit, it will not be seen as a realistic response to the complex, intractable leadership (and many other) problems in Afghanistan, which have vexed foreign forces for decades.

For many reasons, including the sacrifices of our soldiers and the good of the nation, I profoundly hope I am wrong.

By Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

 |  December 2, 2009; 10:36 AM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The Democratic Party also has a crisis of confidence with their president and his leadership. His leadership on his various agendas this year has been very poor.

Obama's logic is difficult to discern - maybe he wants us overextended with mission impossible so we are too weak and broke to invade any other country... like maybe Iran. The reverse could be true also - perhaps he will use Afghanistan as a springboard to invade Iran and/or Pakistan.

Obama tortured the military, the public and other nations while deciding what kind of whopper he could use as an excuse to escalate this war. His logic is very muddled and incoherent. Even Joe Biden would have made a better president.

Posted by: alance | December 3, 2009 8:52 PM
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To pose an analogy, the US didn't "win" in Vietnam until we withdrew and waited decades for the North Vietnamese hard liners and the Vietcong southerners to consolidate, move on and realize that international trade was imperative for national growth and survival. We now have trade relations with a unified country.

Our culture is spread, not by nation building and military incursions, but by mutually beneficial economic interaction.

Eighteen months, eighteen year, it doesn't matter. Mr. Heineman is correct that Afghanistan is a failed state, but nothing we can do, short of invoking the tooth fairy, can consciously and deliberately change that reality.

The Afghani people need stability in order to advance educationally, economically and in order to improve health and longevity. However, stability can only derive from effective government institutions and native security forces that are actually dedicated to protecting its people.

Unfortunately, I think that the cross cultural interaction that Mr. Heineman stresses is in large part dependent upon educational level. Unfortunately, illiteracy in Afghanistan is pervasive.

The Afghan situation is akin to a dog chasing its' tail.

Posted by: MillPond2 | December 3, 2009 8:40 PM
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Its amazing how impending doom can get one to focus attention on accomplishing a needed task! Consider what would happen to the current Afghan leadership if the Taliban took over. This will cause them to either get to work to develop some sort of stable political structure (they actually had one that functioned fairly well for their social stage of development, forty or fifty years ago), or get out of the country to let someone else have a go at it. Its pretty clear from the last 8 years that if we just hang around they will not take our calls for reform seriously. Just listen to the Karzi interview on the PBS New Hour; an example of a person in denial. I (and others) saw this occur in Vietnam, where we supported a Catholic elite (irrevocably tied to the history of a colonial WWII Vichy government's accomodation with the Japanese) in a Buddist nation.

Posted by: kenarmy | December 3, 2009 6:07 PM
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Well I belief we should back president becouse we dont have any other choice defeat in afganistan is not an option at all.
But one thing is for shure that to gain any sort of real succuss in Afganistan it is very important to support and stabalize pakistan against its efforts against militants in pakistan which they believe are beining funded and supported by RAW.
Its very very important to settle the issues between those two arch rivals either in the favour of India or Pakistan but they must be resolve otherwise it is impoosibe to stabalize the region over there and militants will continue to take advantages of that.
Pakistan is thought to be helping its allies in Afganistan for its own obvious reasons and India supports and funds pakistani talaban and rebels in pakistani provinces for its own obvious reasons.
So its very very important to settle those regional issues which are no regional any more because the secruity and peace of the world is directly effected by them.
The world cannot efford to ignore south asia any more otherwise forget about any succes in Afganistan and South Asia.

Posted by: mo283 | December 3, 2009 2:34 PM
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The Afghanis groups have different backgrounds, languages, cultures. I suspect most Afghanis has contempt for the American materialistic consumer culture, and considers us wasteful, greedy infidels (they may be right). I also suspect they prefer to be left in peace to grow their poppies. What may unite them is a common desire for us to leave.

This is the most reasonable analysis of the problems in Afghanistan I have ever read in the Washington Post.

Posted by: shadowmagician | December 3, 2009 1:50 PM
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