Defending the Afghanistan Experts

Afghanistan Conference Munich

Some anonymous attendees of Central Command’s Af-Pak conference have penned highly critical blog posts, which have appeared at two pre-eminent national security blogs, Christian Bleuer’s  Ghosts of Alexander and Andrew Exum’s Abu Muqawama.

I would call your attention in particular to a posting at the latter, entitled "The CENTCOM Af-Pak Conference: Lessons from a Failed Military Conference."  The portion that caught my eye:

The conference was structured in a way that prevented it from generating the analysis that ISAF so badly needs. The structure was built entirely on the participation of experts. Let’s be clear about something here: when it comes to social and political issues, experts don’t exist. A doctor is an expert if he can correctly diagnose a disease or successfully perform a surgery. The think-tankers, pundits, and (very few) academics who presented at this conference do not have comparable accomplishments to prove their expertise. They have publications and organizations. Every expert at this conference–there was nearly one of them for every two participants, and the participation of every single one was selected by conference planners, not volunteered independently–was considered an expert because he or she had written about related topics, lived in related places, or participated in related activities. That isn’t expertise. It’s just experience. And it’s a really huge leap to assume that an individual’s personal or even professional experience can provide generalizeable insight into an entire region or social situation.

The experts who argued so ardently for this or that position at this conference are in most cases the exact same experts who have been giving advice to our military planners and political leaders for the entire duration of this conflict. If these people’s ideas, in and of themselves, were worth anything, then ISAF would have something to show for it by now. The experts have failed the military, and the fact that they continue to attend these events and dispense their warrant-less assumptions and evidence-less arguments shows a shocking lack of awareness of their own uselessness, or else a shocking disregard for the military that is asking them for help. This conference, like so many other outreach efforts, gave self-proclaimed experts a privileged position in the debate about how ISAF should carry out its mission. The debate, and ISAF itself, is no better off for it.

This is, to use the term of art popular in the national security literature, complete nonsense.  (Stronger variants are used in the military vernacular.)

We have no counterfactual upon which to base our analysis but it’s extremely unlikely, to put it mildly, that people without training and experience would provide more useful answers than those with it.   It’s quite likely that the experts’ advice has thus far yielded relatively small results because the enterprise to which they’ve been assigned is extraordinarily difficult, if not essentially impossible.

Furthermore, these anonymous critics clearly don’t understand the concept of expertise.   A physician is an expert to the extent that he has the required training and experience to tackle a problem.  The most accomplished surgeons on the planet quite frequently fail to save patients.  Indeed, the best probably have a higher fatality rate than the mediocrities, since they’re most likely to attract the most difficult cases.  Further, I wouldn’t volunteer to let someone without the requisite experience and training perform surgery on me so he might establish "expertise."

Now, it’s possible that the ISAF planners are listening to the wrong experts.  That is, they could be stacking the deck by relying too heavily on counterinsurgency enthusiasts rather than South Asia scholars.  Or military planners instead of development experts. Or Westerners vice local nationals.  Or those who believe the mission doable rather than those counseling getting out as fast as possible.   But I’d certainly rather take my chances on the counsel of people with extensive training and experience over those without it.

Despite relying on an incredibly flawed premise, some of the recommendations of the posting are interesting.

1. Level the playing field. Leave the ‘experts’ at home. Instead of selecting speakers, do what real academic conferences do and solicit submissions. If someone really wants to participate, they can volunteer their ideas along with anyone else who thinks he or she has something to contribute, and everyone’s name can be stripped from the ideas themselves so the proposals can be evaluated on their own merits. There is absolutely no way the organizers of an event can ever determine beforehand which ideas are best or who has them. Soliciting submissions allows the best ideas to come from anywhere and work their way to the top. The point is that everyone at an event like this should have to earn people’s acceptance of their ideas, rather than being able to rely on that acceptance based on artificially elevated positions granted them by the conference organizers.

2. Get arguments and evidence, not experience. A person can live for decades in a region working on issues directly related to our operational, strategic, and political concerns, and still make a completely bogus assertion based on skimpy or flawed evidence or warrant-less assumptions. If that person can marshal the evidence and logic needed to justify his or her assertion, then his or her expertise is no longer relevant to the question of whether we should accept the assertion. If the argument and evidence is there, a five year old should be able to say it and we should still accept it. Assuming an event is structured to take all comers (see point #1), each volunteered proposal should be included in or excluded from the conference proceedings based on the logic and evidence the presenter cites in defense of his or her conclusions. The person’s resume shouldn’t even be a consideration.

Now, I’m skeptical as to the degree that incredibly complex strategies can be reduced to the level of a 5-year-old.   But soliciting ideas without regard to the credentials of the submitter and then subjecting them to rigorous debate is a good idea.    Of course, the experts have a name for this:   Peer review.    Most of the academic literature is created in precisely this manner.   But much if not most of the policy debate is solicited from established "brand names," perhaps closing the debate somewhat.   And, certainly,  both CENTCOM chief David Petraeus and ISAF commander Stanley McChrystal have famously solicited "independent" reports from hand-picked experts already largely in sync with a preferred outcome.

But, again, this is a function of  which experts rather than whether experts.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. AP Photo by Sebastian Zwez.

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