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.

Second Things Second

USAID does have a need for good geospatial data. But they also have much more pressing needs that should be fixed first. For example, USAID has no idea when and how its programs are effective: In almost every analysis of mission activities, they announce inputs to the host country (miles of road paves, number of schools built, dollars invested, and so on) and pretend that those constitute the economic, social, or political effects they were trying to achieve. In case it weren't clear; simply paving roads, building schools, or investing money in local programs says absolutely nothing about whether those roads are used (including whether they're used by good guys and not militias), whether those schools actually educated children, and if the money that's been invested resulted in any economic development or growth.

At the end of the slideshow announcing this new GeoCenter, USAID listed the missions it prioritizes for using geospatial data. Afghanistan, which is USAID's largest and most expensive mission, is not listed. In Afghanistan, there are USAID project ongoing in all 34 provinces, spread out across a vast and unfamiliar (still!) landscape, spending hundreds of millions of dollars per month. And that's not a priority for incorporating geospatial data services. (Iraq, also an enormous USAID mission, is not listed as a recipient either.)

Learning from the Worst

Even while USAID talks about incorporating all the newest "gee whiz" gadgets into its aid delivery, it doesn't seem to have a good handle on its biggest activities or how to better manage them. Much like a previous discussion about "fixing" USAID, there are much more serious problems of strategy, design, collection, and execution in USAID's activities that need to be fixed before we should worry about improving one margin of them with pretty maps.

In a way, it's almost like USAID is adopting the worst practices of the military in dealing with broken systems. In 2010, Major General Michael Flynn, then the top American intelligence official in Afghanistan, wrote a scathing assessment of American intelligence activities in Afghanistan. His solution for a bloated, ineffective bureaucracy was... to create another layer of bureaucracy to work around it. He didn't suggest actually fixing the problem. Similarly, when the Pentagon thought economic development was somehow a counterinsurgency tactic, rather than interacting with USAID (which ran its own private sector development programs in Iraq and Afghanistan), it created its own parallel private sector development program that, according to the GAO, is so uncoordinated with other agencies they almost work at odds to each other.

Now, we see USAID responding to a Congress that wants to slash its budget by announcing a new, expensive scheme to improve one section of its operations without addressing any of the larger, systemic failings that drive disillusionment with the agency. It's putting lipstick on a very ungainly pig: The pig might look a little better if it hands out colorful maps all the time, but that doesn't make it stop being a pig.

USAID has more fundamental problems than a lack of geospatial analysis that is mostly done by the intelligence community already. Rather than creating its own duplicate GIS system, USAID could instead try liaising with these agencies (many of which, like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, have scads of unclassified GIS data to use) to see what's available before they go dropping cash they really can't afford to spend. And in the interim, USAID could best help improve itself by addressing more systemic problems: poor oversight of contractor activities, accountability and follow-up on mission activities, crafting national strategies instead of national wishlists, and more stringent measurement of program outcomes and effectiveness. That would go a much longer way toward making USAID more effective than a few more maps clogging the internet.

Image: Wikimedia Commons