Colorful Maps: The Military's Costly Weapon in the War in Afghanistan

The government is wasting time and money on graphics that do not convey much useful information


Rule number four of working with the military: If you ever want to impress your boss, put it on a map. It doesn't matter what the context, or if a map is even appropriate. Most of the time you can get away with just adding a map to something, often with a collection of colored dots to signify something. Does that mean your map will say anything, or add in some way to the point you're making? Well, not really. What's your point?



See, much like Social Network Analysis (SNA), maps are a primarily visual medium that play into the military's desire for pretty pictures and colorful Powerpoint presentations. Nine times out of 10 the map--even if it's satellite imagery with political boundaries drawn on top--doesn't actually say anything. It's just there to look pretty.

Still, there are ways maps can be badly misused. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, one could assume, Libya and Pakistan and Yemen), one can find all kinds of maps, some with shaded areas, some with a constellation of little bright green dots, and some with the local foreign-word jargon equivalent of "here there be dragons." The shaded areas are my personal favorite: Often used to indicate tribes or something, when you sit back and ponder what the maps are saying it's really quite bizarre and factually incorrect.

This isn't to argue that maps are useless or that geospatial types of analysis are bad. They're actually quite useful, and when done properly, much like SNA, can bring legitimate insight and rigor into the discussion. My complaint here is that maps are, in fact, abused by the higher levels of the military, that they operate on the assumption that, if they could only map this one thing, put this fuzzy and undefined social phenomenon onto an aerial photograph with squiggly lines, then the war might be won.

That's obviously ridiculous. Maps are indeed awesome for some tasks--spatio-temporal analysis, survey work, and obvious military geography tasks (strategery, strategery). But that's not how they tend to get used. These photos with squiggly lines and shaded areas on them, if they are lucky enough to say something, they more often than not say the wrong thing. But most of the time, they say nothing; they're just a cheap visual aid to puff out an otherwise droll and forgettable briefing.

The Need for Geospatial Data

Properly used, mapping and other forms of geo-analysis could be a tremendous boon to the wars. But, much like how drawing a link chart is not actually social network analysis, way too many people confuse drawing a map with doing geospatial analysis. They're not the same thing, not even close. But that's not gonna stop the military from obsessing over them anyway.

So it was with a great deal of interest that I saw USAID standing up its own geospatial intelligence center. Within the realm of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in particular, geospatial intelligence -- the real-time mapping of assets, logistics flows, and imagery and video of events as they unfold -- can be tremendously useful. The challenge, as those who work with the military find out eventually, is that this type of geo-spatial information is misused so often it becomes counterproductive.

In theory, the idea of making all of USAID's data public, browseable, and available by "clicking on a map," as USAID chief Rajiv Shah put it, is a great idea. But this is putting several horses before the development cart.

First Things FirstIn its current state, for example, getting any of the unclassified and supposedly public information out of USAID is like pulling teeth: It requires months of paperwork, meetings, phone calls, and waiting for a stilted and unresponsive bureaucracy to even respond to any request for data, much less to provide it. While the partial goal of the GeoCenter (to become a central clearinghouse of GIS aid and development data with standardized metadata) is admirable and necessary, USAID needs to first work on standardizing its own collection. It must make the types of data it collects common across projects, and it must collect them in a systematic way. Right now, at least as far as non-USAID workers are concerned, that does not happen.

I was part of one attempt by the U.S. military to standardize the collection, storage, and analysis of social metrics when I worked for the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System. Over the course of 18 months, I participated in no less than six different meetings with different "stakeholders" (as they're called) about figuring this out, and at the end of it we still had no idea what sort of social and physical data was worth collecting across the military. There are lots of very pretty briefs about being centralized and working together, but in practice it's been an outrageously expensive failure -- my little corner of the Department of the Army had spent nearly $100 million trying to make this work between 2007 and 2009.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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