How to Win in Afghanistan

07/21/2010 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is an analysis of the Afghanistan War through the lens of improvisation. (The analysis is further informed by conversations with Afghan and American journalists, social entrepreneurs working in Afghanistan, members of the American military who have fought on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both, and, in some cases, conversations with their relatives. And I've done my share of anecdotal reading/viewing on the subject.)

Improvisation isn't inherently comedic. As conceived by the godmother of modern improvisation, Viola Spolin, in the 1930s in Chicago, it is the practice of spontaneous communication and fast learning, leading to the collaborative solving of problems. It is about generating positive outcomes from unforeseen circumstances. It is the science of serendipity.

Spolin saw improvisation as a bridge-building process between cultures, a way of transcending ideologies by creating the shared focus on a problem that leads to transformation (e.g. from problem to solution, from cause to effect, from blocked to open).

Because 'transformation' (from 'terrorist-friendly' to 'not so much') is literally the stated U.S. objective in Afghanistan, there can be no better process than improvisation to ensure success.

Here's how to win in Afghanistan:

Close the Improvisation Gap!

The ability to improvise is the area where we are at the single biggest disadvantage against our enemies. Because of this, closing the improvisation gap presents a lot of room for movement in the narrative, and the biggest opportunity to go from an unwinnable scenario to a winning one. It will not be easy. Our enemies are nimble and leave no footprints; we are lumbering and make big tracks. They operate from themes, and we follow scripts. They are viral, we are mechanized. It's a big gap.

To help assess the dimensions of the gap, here's one familiar 'Al Qaeda' narrative and one equally familiar 'U.S. military' narrative:

The Al Qaeda narrative: In nine years, we have not killed or captured Bin Laden, the one person on Earth who has it coming. We sure have killed a lot of other people, though. Offering any kind of 'kill' as 'proof that we're winning' is the equivalent of scoring a hockey game by counting how many spectators get hit by pucks. In improvisation we call this, 'not achieving the objective.' Improvisers are far from the only ones who'd call it that. Most people would. The U.S. military, on the other hand, has a hundred names for it, like 'collateral damage,' 'casualties of war,' 'dying for one's country,' and none of them can compensate for the symbolism that as long as Bin Laden is on the loose, so is Al Qaeda.

The U.S. military narrative: Pat Tillman (ironically, an excellent improviser, a non-stop learner who played multiple roles while never straying from his essential character or his theme of 'love for Country') did not get away. Him, we killed. Plenty awful already, right? But not awful enough for the Pentagon, which, to make matters worse, denied the reality of the scene and tried scripting it instead, re-writing Tillman's death into something it was not. In improvisation, denial is death, and scripting is worse. Improvisers describe scenes with a lot of denial and scripting as 'Going to Crazy Town.' Our military in Afghanistan went to Crazy Town in 2004 with the Tillman cover-up and, judging from the June 22, 2010, Rolling Stone article that shattered Stanley McChrystal's charade, we're still camping there in tents spun from the ephemera of unreality.

Closing the improvisation gap is a single key, but it's not a simple one. It is encrypted with 75 years of learning and tactics coded by some of the world's most imaginative minds.

For the U.S. military to close the improvisation gap in Afghanistan, its most basic notions of how we communicate, learn and perform there will have to evolve. Here are three of the many adjustments we must make to win.

Honor the Environment

Improvisers do not go into a scene and start acting like they're someplace else, yet this is exactly how the U.S. military plays the War game. Look at the juxtaposition of an Afghan warrior to an American infantryman, and tell me who's the fish out of water. This is not improvisation, this is refusal to honor the environment. We are fighting in a country that, if the past is any indication, cannot be conquered, it can only be inhabited, and we are doing a poor job of inhabiting it. We are not assimilating. Not speaking the language, wearing the garb, dancing the local dances or singing the native songs. No, our troops armor up, get pumped on porn and hardcore rap, and feed on MREs like astronauts on the moon. They might as well be, as disconnected as they are to their surroundings.

Let Go of Expectations

Closing the improvisation gap will have many implications. The real question, as with any key, is what does it unlock? We've had keys to winning before, and all they've gotten us is a trillion-plus dollars deeper in debt as a nation, more opportunity for competitor nations to do oil deals in the Middle East, more fuel for Ahmadinejad's agenda, and more violence and stray dogs in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul.

This being improvisation, we cannot, by definition, know what the outcomes will be. What we can count on is that our probabilities of solving the problems we face get better when we let go of the kind of command-and-control processes that characterize our military, and adopt the more nimble, faster-to-field, edge-to-core flow of an improvisational model.

Change the Damn Game

Notice that when I say winning in Afghanistan, I do not mean winning the War. Winning the War is a fool's objective. The Afghan warlords have been playing this game for a thousand years, and as long as we keep playing it, so will they. They have infinite patience. They have grandchildren they are already counseling on how to cripple a U.S. military vehicle -- and within days those grandchildren are doing it. There is no winning. There is only more war, with no end in sight.

We win by changing the game from the win/lose scenario that all war narratives demand, to a game that is win/win. What this win/win scenario might be, I do not know, but I see threads of it in the actions of Connie Duckworth, a former investment banker from Chicago who has created Arzu, which invests in Afghan-produced rugs and funds education for women; I see the promise in the Skateistan project, a skateboard park tied to a school for young people in Kabul; I sense the possibilities when I read about Gary Mortensen's mission in his book, Three Cups of Tea; I feel that Gary Brooks Faulkner, the Colorado man arrested in Pakistan on his way to take down Bin Laden, was at least honoring the environment, and was more focused than the U.S. military; I see the clear vision in the eyes of a young Afghan journalist, Anand Gopal, featured in Robert Greenwald's Rethink Afghanistan film series, when he says to me, "The first step must be to stop the War. Now."

Because all military campaigns need a catchy name, let's call the campaign to close the improvisation gap Operation Mighty Harold. Improvisers will know what I'm talking about, and it is already past the time when our military leaders and their civilian overseers should be learning for themselves.