22 May 2010

Afghanistan is a wicked problem

Over the last thirty years there has emerged a substantial literature on so-called “wicked problems”. This is the class of problems that may be considered highly resistant to solution, by contrast with so-called “tame” problems, those that might be technically complex to solve but can be tightly defined and a solution fairly readily identified or developed.

The terminology was originally proposed by H. W. J. Rittel and M. M. Webber, both urban planners at the University of California, Berkeley, USA in 1973. In a landmark article, the authors observed that there is a whole realm of social planning problems that cannot be successfully treated with traditional linear, analytical approaches. To the extent that they can be modelled mathematically the mathematics is non-linear: everything is connected to everything else, and there is acute sensitivity to initial conditions.

There is a good succinct summary of the characteristics of wicked policy problems on the Australian Public Service Commission website here. In brief, these characteristics are:

-  They are difficult to define clearly: different stakeholders have different versions of what the problem is, and there is usually an element of truth in each of those versions.

-  They have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal. Often, there are also conflicting goals and objectives within the broader policy problem. This means that solving them requires coordinating inter-related responses, and accepting trade-offs between conflicting goals.

-  Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences. This arises from the complex connections between the component elements of the problem.

-  Often they are not stable: the nature of the problem is changing while the attempt is being made to fashion and implement a solution.

-  They are socially complex and it is their social complexity that often overwhelms the efforts to solve them.

-  They hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibilities of one organisation.

-  The solution to wicked problems involves changing behaviour of some or all of the stakeholders.

-  Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

A most important characteristic of wicked problems is that they have no stopping rule, i.e., no mechanism for deciding whether to stop or continue a process on the basis of present and past events. Another is the fact that every attempt to solve a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation” because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error; every attempt is significant.

Some researchers make a distinction between wicked problems and super wicked problems. The latter have the following additional characteristics:

-  Time is running out.

-  There is no central authority.

-  Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.

I think there will be ready agreement that the Afghanistan problem has the above three characteristics, so if it really is a wicked problem, it is clearly a super wicked problem.  When one looks at the characteristics of wicked problems as outlined at the beginning of this essay, it is easy to discern the key elements in the Afghan situation: different perceptions of what the problem is, multi-causality of the origins of the problem, interconnectedness between the important elements of the problem, conflicting goals and objectives within Afghan society, the nature of the problem keeps changing, they are socially complex, they don’t sit within the responsibilities of any one organisation, there is a fundamental need for behavioural change amongst most of the stakeholders, there is certainly chronic policy failure, and there is certainly no “stopping rule”, no protocol that tells us when it is time to give up and go away.

The question is what to do about it, and the purpose of this essay is to try to establish a basis for thinking about the problem in a manner that might point the way to a solution.

If it is accepted that Afghanistan is a wicked problem, it may well be productive to consider the generic approaches that have been taken to the solution of such problems.

Efforts to solve wicked problems usually involve one of the following three approaches:

Authoritative, in which an attempt is made to reduce the complexity of the problem by placing responsibility for solving it in the hands of a few people

Competitive, in which the opposing ideas are left to battle it out, with a requirement that the adherents of each viewpoint put forward their preferred solutions

-  Collaborative, in which an attempt is made to engage all stakeholders in order to come up with a solution that is best for all.

Authoritative approaches would seem to be ruled out if it is agreed that Afghanistan is a super-wicked problem. There being no central authority sitting above the whole problem (unless perhaps all the parties were to agree to place the problem in the hands of the United Nations and to abide by the outcome), there is no-one to select the smaller number of people who will come up with the solution on behalf of all stakeholders.

That circumstance could change, of course, if there were to be a genuine ceasefire and the various parties appointed a number of delegates to negotiate a solution that everyone would be prepared to accept and abide by.

The competitive approach is in effect what we are locked into at the present time, with the different ideas about the preferred solution being backed by force of arms (often financed by the drug trade or covert assistance from foreign governments pursuing their own agenda) and organised violence.

A collaborative approach seems to represent the only hope. As Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress in September 2008, we cannot kill our way to victory.  What is needed, Admiral Mullen said (see Fox News report here):

... is better Afghan governance, more foreign investment, a viable alternative to the poppy farming, greater cooperation with Pakistan and more U.S. nonmilitary assistance.

That sounds to me like the start of a collaborative solution, with the notable absence of any reference to engaging the opposing forces, especially the many insurgents (David Kilcullen’s “accidental guerrillas”[1]) who are not fighting us out of religious or ideological antipathy – they are fighting us because we are in their country, or their valley, or their village.

In future posts I will attempt to explore in more depth what a “collaborative approach” in the relevant sense might look like.

One point I would make at this stage. The NATO forces have to make a clear choice between a collaborative solution and a competitive one. In a competitive solution the focus of the military effort will be on attacking the opposing forces. In a collaborative one, the focus will shift to protection of the population and avoidance of the collateral damage and collateral recruitment to the opposing forces occasioned by “targeted” military strikes gone wrong. We cannot have a collaborative solution with a little bit of killing our way to victory thrown in. If we want to solve this thing we are all going to have to take a deep breath and deal with some very unpleasant people. But then, we have done that before.


[1] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford University Press 2009.

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