Is Afghanistan a Wicked Problem?

I like and recommend Anthony Cowden’s post at RealClearDefense which purportedly asks questions about our present national strategy in Afghanistan but I would say is actually a critique of our lack of a practical strategy. Here are some of the questions he poses:

  • Is pride an appropriate national interest?
  • To what degree should past efforts be relevant in crafting a new strategy?
  • Are the consequences of a rapid exit predictable? Are they unacceptable?
  • What does history have to teach us about fighting in Afghanistan?
  • What are the conditions that the strategy is based on?
  • Is the U.S. seriously considering a negotiated settlement with the Taliban?
  • Why does the term “counterinsurgency” not show up in this strategy?

but it makes me uncomfortable, too. For one thing I believe that Capt. Cowden misuses the term “wicked problem” and does not establish that Afghanistan is a wicked problem. Here’s his definition:

However, Afghanistan is a wicked problem – one that is not simply complicated but also complex and with no clear solutions – and wicked problems tend to defy strategies.

and this:

Wicked problems are best addressed through leadership, and one of the core leadership skills necessary to address wicked problems is to ask a lot of questions.

is just plain wrong. With a wicked problem the best you can do is create a process. It’s not a matter of leadership. It’s a matter of objectives.

Wicked problems are problems without solutions, generally because the requirements change as the old requirements are addressed or because for one party caught up in a wicked problem to succeed the other party must fail and neither party has the ability to prevail outright. As an example I would say the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians is a wicked problem.

Is Afghanistan a wicked problem? I don’t think so. Any problem from which you can just walk away is not a wicked problem. Our problem in Afghanistan is that we don’t want either to win or lose. That’s not a wicked problem. That’s pigheadedness.

2 comments… add one
  • Andy

    I had to go look it up again and Wikipedia tells me this definition for “Wicked problem”:

    A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil.[1] Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”.[2] Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

    I think there’s a valid argument that some of what we’ve sought to do in Afghanistan is close enough to fit.

    However, I think the bigger issue is, essentially, hubris in that we think we can change factors in the conflict there that we actually can’t change. A couple of those factors:

    – Lack of national institutions
    – Lack of stability in the society generally
    – Pakistani safe-havens
    – Pakistan’s differing goals and their ability & willingness to help further our goals
    – Domestic US politics

    These factors have been enduring since 2001. Our attempts to change them have universally failed. Any strategy needs to demonstrate an ability to mitigate those factors or turn them to our advantage. Instead, we just keep hitting our head against a brick wall.

  • steve

    Why the emphasis on the speed of exodus? No matter when we leave we face the problem of having the place fall apart when we leave. It is a poor country and corrupt. No way they keep a functioning military the way we have been training them after we leave. That seems like an insoluble problem on the domestic political front. Pakistan is a problem at least partially because of India. I don’t see us solving the India-Pakistan conflict.


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