Category Archives: Analysis

My thoughts on particular issues, hopefully more developed than a quick blogpost.

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Document Dump: The Battle for the Schools

Time to get back into the regular blogging habit with a review of a new paper from Antonio Giustozzi, one of the most consistently interesting scholars of contemporary Afghanistan — particularly in the context of state formation and insurgency. (I have not yet read his latest book on this, but his Taliban anthologies are must-reads and Empires of Mud was a provocative look at how ‘warlords’ in Afghanistan have formed proto-states in the absence of strong central governments.) If you’re just joining, more articles in the Document Dump series can be found here.

Document: The Battle for the Schools: The Taliban and State Education
Author: Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco, Afghan Analysts Network
Published: December 13, 2011
Source: Published by the Afghan Analysts Network on their website here. I’ve also uploaded a copy in my Scribd library.

Key Content: Most popular international coverage of Afghanistan’s education system focuses on its limited reach and the low level of human capital development in Afghanistan, as well as the threats of insurgent violence faced by students and teachers attending state-run schools (particularly women and girls). Although I was raised by a pair of humanities-academic parents to view education as a basic right as well as a means to better myself and the world around me, public education is also a highly politically charged activity which has the potential to drastically upset existing hierarchies of power and bring the national state down to the level of the family unit in a way few other public services do.

In this work with co-author Franco and in a previous paper published by AAN in May 2010 (Nation-Building Is Not for All: The Politics of Education in Afghanistan), Giustozzi explores the complex process of introducing nationally-sponsored, generally secular educational institutions into local communities. Successive Afghan central governments have swung back and forth on the degree to which they have actively sought to utilize the school system as a means of national civic indoctrination and political mobilization, but it has always been controversial — much as the debate over federal versus state control over education continues to be polarizing here in the United States. The difference being that in Afghanistan, there’s no monopoly of force on the part of the national government to stop that rivalry from turning violent.

“Schools became the main administrative presence of the state beyond the administrative district centers,” Giustozzi writes in Nation Building is Not For All (on pg 3), and “in the early years of the state education roll out to the provinces, many villagers feared that the state was, in a way, acquiring the ownership of their children. In a sense … they were right.” While objections are often framed in cultural, ideological or religious terms, the religious elite who operate madrassahs and other private scholastic rivals to state schools also happen to have a direct financial and political stake in retaining a monopoly over local educational options (and the associated prestige and political/social networks). Equally divisive in a country as politically and ethnically fragmented as Afghanistan are state-developed textbooks’ attempts to define a national language and identity, which has been the cause of more than a few civil wars around the world. State-run schools have not surprisingly faced varying degrees of opposition from existing conservative political and religious institutions who risk displacement by the new educated class — most vociferously from Islamist political and religious leaders in the early 1980s in reaction to the highly ideological reforms of the leftist and Communist governments. Giustozzi notes that the Khalq faction of the Afghan Communist Party had its organizational roots in the state schools, and members of the academia were active participants — and often victims — of 1980s-era conflict.

The focus of The Battle for the Schools is the post-2001 Afghan education system and particularly how the Taliban have reacted to it. Giustozzi’s assessment of the Karzai government’s education system in Nation Building is Not For All found it too top-down and inflexible to account for the interests of local communities, but also too weak to actually mobilize a constituency with national rather than local political loyalties that could effectively counter the influence of existing community elites. (This could be said for much of the rest of the post-2001 Afghan state-building project as well.) As early as 2002, attacks resumed on public schools, although Giustozzi and Franco view local militia and religious leaders as more likely culprits than a reconstituted Taliban at that point in time; still, in its first major codification of its rules for Taliban fighters (published in 2006), the Taliban leadership-in-exile endorsed attacks on state education institutions that failed to follow their rules, and violence spiked. But while they frame it in religious terms, in interviews (on pages 5-7 of the paper), Taliban fighters and field commanders appear to object to state schools and see them as a target for attack primarily because they view them as outlets for the state (and international) political influence that they are seeking to challenge — not out of opposition to the idea of education per se. (Although secular women’s education does appear to be a point of general ideological objection, which can conveniently be used to de-legitimize their state/international rival as un-Islamic.)

Given that many local communities in post-2001 Afghanistan — even areas previously controlled by the Taliban — actually welcomed the opportunity offered by some form of education, the strategy of directly attacking state schools and the accompanying casualties among teachers and students did not endear the insurgency to the local population and instead provoked something of a backlash. The Taliban were also at this point reentering areas where they had not traditionally maintained a strong base of political support, and needed to present themselves as a legitimate rival government to the Karzai administration. In response, the Taliban have adapted and refocused since early 2007 on coopting (through a mix of coercion and negotiation) state-run schools, as well as establishing their own network of private religiously-oriented schools.

Taliban negotiations with the Ministry of Education at the national level over a revision of the state curriculum, which had begun at least by 2007, do not appear to have been initially successful; the U.S. is also said to have objected to any such talks. Provincial and local-level agreements appear to have been struck more widely, however, allowing schools to stay open or reopen without risk of attack in exchange for the removal of teachers that the Taliban objected to. By 2010-2011, Giustozzi and Franco report that these local deals appear to have culminated in a national-level tacit agreement with the Ministry of Education that allowed state schools to reopen despite continued Taliban military operations around the country; in March 2011, a decree issued in Mullah Omar’s name directing insurgents not to carry out attacks on schools or schoolchildren. (A new Taliban decree on its policy towards girls’ education, forecast last year by the Minister of Education, has yet to be released.) In exchange, the Ministry of Education has reportedly accepted the reintroduction during the 2012 academic year (which begins in March) of the 1990s-era school curriculum, which was established under the Taliban regime and is much more heavily weighted towards religious subjects.

Unanswered Questions: Since this paper’s publication, the Ministry of Education has rejected all of its accounts of talks, leaving it unclear exactly what may happen in terms of any compromises that may have been made over curriculum for this coming academic year. Despite increasingly clear signals that the U.S. intends to significantly reduce the level of its security and financial investments on behalf of the Karzai administration within the next two to three years, the Afghan government has yet to develop a serious indigenous political counter-mobilization effort against the insurgency and instead preferred appeals for ongoing international aid. The government’s dependence on the support of the international community for its continued survival (at least as it is currently constituted) will place it at a serious disadvantage in any peace negotiations and seems likely force additional concessions like those that may have been made to the Taliban so far on education.

Giustozzi and Franco obliquely acknowledge that these agreements effectively amount to a capitulation by local communities to Taliban priorities for how education should be structured; with rare exceptions these communities lacked the means to defend themselves against insurgent threats of violence. And the Afghan state, they write, appears to be “giving away more than it gets”; the only prospective advantage to the government in this agreement is the possibility of using cooperation over education as a confidence-building measure to kick-start more substantive peace talks with the insurgency, which the Karzai government has blown hot and cold on over the past year and a half. Taliban interest in substantive talks that would involve concessions on their part as well (in this or other areas) remains uncertain.

Most Taliban interviewees who do acknowledge a shift in previous positions on education portray it as a way of being responsive to the concerns of local communities, who want access to some form of education.  Even though the Taliban represent (comparatively) one of the most successfully organized political movements in Afghanistan’s history, Giustozzi and Franco’s paper notes that they have been forced to account for local community preferences in shaping their policy towards education. Should the Taliban one day find themselves back in a position of national power again, they may find it just as challenging to effectively impose their vision of education across Afghanistan as the Karzai government has.

Additional Context and Further Reading:

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A Brief History of U.S. Conditions on Aid to Pakistan

My memo on past and present efforts by Congress to condition aid to Pakistan (and its decidedly mixed results) is up:

After a year of successive blows to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and growing mutual mistrust, the prospect of continued American military and economic aid to Pakistan in the coming fiscal year is now increasingly contentious. This month Congress is considering how much money to provide to Pakistan as well as what kind of strings to attach for fiscal year 2012, which began in October but is now being funded by Congress on a month-by-month basis. Informing the debate over record-level aid to Pakistan are disputes between Washington and Islamabad over the transition and reconciliation processes in Afghanistan, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan and Pakistan’s anger over multiple unilateral actions on its territory, and a renewed American domestic political focus on cutting government spending costs at home.

This sort of controversy is by no means new. American aid to Pakistan has gone through a series of peaks and valleys over the past 30 years as American strategic priorities shifted from nuclear counterproliferation (beginning in 1979) to cooperation against the Soviet Union (1980 to 1989) to concern over military rule (1999 to 2008) to counterterrorism and the conflict in Afghanistan (2001 onwards). Along the way a variety of laws and amendments to those laws have dictated how Congress and the executive branch dealt with this aid: sometimes boosting it, often cutting it, occasionally ending it only to kick-start it again as foreign policy priorities swiftly shifted in the region.

You can read the whole thing at CAP’s site.

A Primer in Understanding Budgets (Part Two)

Previously in Part One, I outlined some of the basic analytical questions that may help in analyzing a budget, and went into detail specifically on those related to understanding the content of the budget itself – how much is being spent (the budget scope), how is it being divided up (the budget priorities) and how does it compare to other budgets (the budget context).

But a budget is much more than just a series of numbers and how they stack up next to one another on an Excel sheet. The process of gathering resources, identifying priorities, and applying them to achieve goals is at the core of every organization’s strategy, and it is an inherently political process.  Understanding how that process work requires understanding a budget’s sources and how they impact decision-making; the budget actors who set the priorities by which the money will be distributed; and knowing who will be responsible for budget execution in the end. I’ll cover all of these aspects in this post, again using the specific case of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan for my examples. The last post sought to answer the relatively easy question of how much does the U.S. spend in Afghanistan?  This one will cover the much more complex question of how does it get spent?

Part Two: How Does the U.S. Spend Money in Afghanistan?

Budget Sources: The way an organization gains resources and revenue will have a major impact on its structure and priorities; the top priority of any organization is usually to gain more resources or at very least to preserve access to those it currently maintains. Generally speaking, an organization is going to be faced with a tradeoff between maintaining a diverse sourcing of revenue, which increases resiliency but also potentially increases aggregate constraints, and single sourcing of revenue, which reduces the breadth of constraints but makes those that are in effect more severe. To use a business example, Amazon.com has a variety of different revenue streams, from its huge variety of online sales offerings to its new Kindle content ecosystem to cloud server hosting, each of which on its own maybe brings only a moderate amount of money to the company. Amazon can afford to lose some money on one part of the organization or another (Kindles are being sold at a loss right now in order to bring people into the service ecosystem where Amazon will hope to make back the money), but its margins of profit are thin and it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of freedom to concentrate a lot of resources at the expense of others and expand rapidly into new areas. Google, on the other hand, derives a massive share of its revenue just from its lucrative search ad business, which has given it a lot of cash on hand to throw into experimental projects that don’t necessarily need to pay off in the immediate term if ever; if the online ad market ever tanks, however, it will face serious problems, and it always has to prioritize the health of that revenue stream. Many organizations are going to be a mix of the two, and this is not a perfect example, of course; Amazon started with a concentration in book-selling and Google’s now diversifying into other sectors like mobile phones.

When analyzing a government organization, the most common form of diverse resourcing will be some form of taxation – income and sales taxes generally being the big ones, the former more progressive and the latter more regressive in terms of which parts of society feel the greatest impacts. Single source revenue usually comes from rents collected by virtue of the state’s exclusive control over access to various valuable assets – things like licensing fees, trading access (customs duties), and (often the big one) state-owned natural resources. The other big source for some countries and many non-governmental organizations is going to be donor aid; this can also be viewed as a form of rent, particularly when that aid is given in exchange for some form of strategic cooperation or access (as would be the case for U.S. aid to both the Afghan and Pakistani governments). Some governments also successfully generate revenue through state-owned businesses or sovereign investments, although the actual productive track record on these has not always been great. Finally, organizations can take out loans (usually on fairly favorable terms if they represent a state), although these too eventually require some form of resource income in order to repay them.

Organizations that depend on public tax revenue are more resilient in that no one single contributor bears responsibility for funding any more than a small fraction of the government’s operations. If taxpayer Colin Cookman happens to be unhappy with the exact ways in which the government is slicing up its cut of his paycheck between its various agencies, it doesn’t matter much (particularly since he lives in D.C. and has no representation). As a whole, however, the government is going to have to be concerned with public reactions to their budgeting priorities, since it doesn’t don’t have other large assets that can make up for the loss if a large portion of the taxpayer base revolts and stop contributing (or demands a change in priorities through an election).  That taxpayer-constituent / government relationship represents the basic core of the social contract in a democratic state. Rentier economies suffering from the “resource curse” by contrast don’t have to give a damn about what the vast majority of their populations think, since state seizure of the major rent-producing assets is often enough to fund government operations (and allow it to coopt or marginalize any rivals) without any need for public input. The risk of this (besides becoming totally disassociated from the concerns of a large portion of the public) will be that if the asset price of your commodity of choice drops (or your big single donor gets upset with how you have decided to spend the money), you have very little alternative budget sources available (this is why all the major oil producers rely on cartelization to keep their commodity prices high).  To use another example, non-governmental organizations that rely on a large endowment for their operations usually can afford to have very specific and not necessarily widely-shared priorities compared to those that rely on small-dollar donations, and have to devote far less of their energy to active grass-roots mobilization and cultivation.

Afghanistan Case: The U.S. government does of course generally depend on public taxation as the main source of its operating funding. When taxes got high enough and decision-makers disconnected enough from the priorities of those contributing that money, we fought a revolutionary war over the issue of who would get to control how our resources were going to be spent. Our elected representatives in Congress now control the budget in matters of both war and peace, and their need to be able justify those military operations to their constituencies does serve as something of a check on what we are willing or not willing to fund in Afghanistan. (Pres. Obama and U.S. Congress members primarily justify the ongoing intervention to the public on domestic U.S. counterterrorism concerns, so in this regard it’s not surprising that Afghan state-building has not been a big priority.) Again that’s not to say there’s always a direct relation between popular opinion and the ability to fund war operations; Congress has become increasingly deferential to the executive branch on the details of military operations around the world in the past half century, which probably not coincidentally coincides (particularly over the past quarter-century) with an increased reliance on external debt financing that further removes the direct costs of spending from the current generation of voters and taxpayers. (The other factor moderating constituent concerns is an all-volunteer military force that only draws from a small percentage of the overall U.S. population). As our national conversation has refocused on debt issues and our economic liabilities in the past few years, you’ve seen much stronger criticism of the Afghan war’s relative costs to benefits for U.S. security.

A pretty good mirror case to the U.S. system is that of the Afghan government, which is extremely donor-dependent for both its basic operating costs and any capital investments in its security establishment or other public services. I would argue Afghanistan definitely qualifies as a rentier state, providing a single high-value good (counterterrorism cooperation) in exchange for large-scale international assistance. The Afghan government’s primary constituency is U.S. (and to a lesser degree other international) donors, not the Afghan public; elected members of parliament may get to review and vote on budgets, but it’s ultimately the Afghan Finance Ministry officials who work with donors in an attempt to coordinate money flows that actually set the country’s priorities (and even their ability to do so is limited by their dependency on what donors want to do with their money). This dependency on international aid by an Afghan central government is not unique to the U.S. intervention, as Barnett Rubin’s history of the Soviet period notes.

Protip: The Afghan government’s chances of collecting large-scale tax revenues from its public are limited, given its capacity limitations, security challenges, and the country’s general level of impoverishment. Its priority then is to to capture control over as much of external donor money as it can in order to fund its own priorities (first and foremost, consolidating its position against rivals). Doing so requires satisfying the concerns of U.S. officials, not necessarily those of the residents of Kandahar or Mazar-e-Sharif. If you’re wondering why the Afghan government is not particularly popular with many parts of the Afghan public and where all the distortion and waste in the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan comes from, this dynamic is at the core of your answer.

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Budget Actors: The process by which actors within an organization decide how resources will be split up amongst the various priorities of a budget account is the core of the political process. This is sometimes described as “governance” or “strategy” but it’s all essentially the same thing — you just have to remember that it is a political process and that the interests of any specific actor may not necessarily be identical to what we assume the interests of the whole would or should be. The actors who control the process of prioritization (either by actual statutory authority or their ability to broker agreements between the competing interests) are in most cases going to be the most powerful parts within an organization, so identifying them and understanding the ways by which they assign priorities is going to be one of the most basic tasks required of an analyst attempting to understand how another organization works and what it wants.

The budgeting process can be separated into three distinct phases which correspond to three different types of actor — requests, wherein members of an organization attempt to advance competing priorities for the distribution of resources; authorizations, wherein approval is granted for a certain level of spending among the priorities, usually based on certain conditions; and appropriations, wherein the final approval is granted to release funds. (The actual disbursal, or spending of the money, will usually be done by the original requesting agency, and is dealt with in further detail in following section on Budget Execution.)

Requesting agencies are generally going to be pushing for the highest levels of resources they can get; authorizers will attempt to control the process by which it gets spent by adding conditions and other requirements; and appropriators potentially exercise the ultimate authority by agreeing to dole out the money (or not). Some organizations involve multiple layers of authorization before the final appropriation is approved; others regularly grant budget requests with minimal debate over their particulars. Some actors play different roles at different times. Organizations with greater internal checks and balances will separate some or all of these functions into different offices or agencies in order to avoid a concentration of decision-making power in any one actor. Without this separation of powers, organizations can potentially end up with seriously distorted or unsustainable budgets — it’s why we generally don’t let employees independently set their own salaries or implementing agencies choose their own funding levels without some higher approval and oversight process.

Afghanistan Case: Since we’re dealing with the U.S. system here and how it spends money in Afghanistan, that means understanding Congress (which has control over the budget source in our system of government, public tax revenue) and how it works. There are a variety of different backgrounders floating around on this process that you can Google but, in brief, it begins with the various agencies of the executive branch — the State Department, Defense Department, USAID, CIA, etc — formulating their requests, which the White House reviews and presents as an annual budget proposal package, usually in February of the year. (With the exception of a very, very few programs, like Social Security or Medicare, Congress is extremely loathe to enact multi-year budget appropriations, and thus everything is up for renewal every year.) The budget proposal then goes to Congress (usually starting in the House of Representatives) where the action begins.

The two houses of Congress (the House and Senate) have a long-established committee system which divides up legislative jurisdiction over various issues facing the government. If you think that this system of jurisdictions might tend to encourage narrow parochialism among members and uneven standards of accountability across the multiple agencies that collectively contribute to American foreign policy, you’d be right! But in any case, these committees — like the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the House Armed Services Committee — have the power to authorize spending at particular levels (which may be higher or lower than those sought by the requesting agencies), create new program accounts or agencies to spend money in the future, and introduce new laws related to their jurisdiction.

These can come in a big legislative package (the FY 2012 Defense Authorization Bill, for example) or in bills dealing with a particular country, conflict, or program (the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorizing expanded civilian assistance to Pakistan, for example). Authorization bills for the major categories of the U.S. government budget are supposed to pass every year and given the Congressional logjam, most smaller initiatives tend to get glommed onto them by amendment. It’s worth noting that the foreign aid authorization process in particular has been broken for the past several decades, effectively forcing State and USAID to rely on the same basic program accounts since the 1960s or otherwise on irregular, narrowly-focused legislation (like the aforementioned Kerry-Lugar-Berman) that amends this piecemeal. The act, as amended through 2002, can be found here.

The authorizing committees’ powers are separated from those on the Appropriations Committees and their various subcommittees (which deal separately with Defense, Foreign Operations, etc) who hold ultimate decision on the release of funds, which cannot be higher than the levels authorized by the authorizations process but can sometimes be considerably lower. Although they can’t technically enact anything that doesn’t have a specific monetary angle attached to it, Appropriations committee members are the ones who release the funds and not coincidentally tend to be the longest-serving (in a seniority system) and most powerful members of Congress.

Any legislation, including appropriations bills, that passes through committee has to go on to pass the full House or Senate (where it is potentially subject to further amendment) and then has to pass in a matching version in the other house of Congress. Any discrepancies in the two final bills have to be ironed out in a conference committee appointed by House and Senate leadership and then pass again in both branches of Congress. The THOMAS legislative search engine will be your friend when tracking all of these bills.

Protip: The “power of the purse” is Congress’ biggest institutional prerogative, but once budget funds are officially released to fund a particular program or agency, its ability to actually control how money is used can be limited, particularly in matters of foreign policy where the executive branch has wide leeway (and where Congressional ability to conduct oversight has been poor). “Sense of Congress” statements or Congressional “findings” that express a preference on how the money gets used are common, but generally speaking are not going to be binding. Congressional committees can threaten not to fund a budget account in the future their members don’t like how the administration is using its money, but this makes for a rather blunt policy instrument.

Three of the most common mechanisms used by Congress in both authorization and appropriations bills in an attempt to place closer controls on how money is spent are notification requirements that require agencies to let Congressional committees know when money has been spent or transferred; reporting requirements where the administration has to testify or prepare a lengthier report on how it is spending or planning to spend money; and the stricter certification requirements, where the president or one of his deputies must formally certify to Congress that certain standards are being met or otherwise trigger a fund cutoff. Beyond forcing the executive branch to share information with Congress, requirements can potentially create a public trail of documentation on a particular program account that Congress (and outside analysts) can use to make a closer assessment of the administration’s activities.

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Budget Execution: After the budget actors have divided up a budget’s resources among its various priorities and approved the money’s release, it still has to be spent. Here’s where the balance of power has the potential to shift back to the requesting and implementing agencies. As noted above, appropriators usually have limited direct control over these issues, and depend on their control over future funds (as well as whatever other non-monetary authority they are able to exert by means of law or custom) to compel implementing agencies to abide by their budget priorities.

Knowing whether or not those priorities are actually being met requires regular oversight and feedback mechanisms, which some organizations structure into their basic operations and others do not. Even organization that do review their own spending practices often don’t make this information public, which can make conducting outside analysis and oversight extremely challenging.

Is the money actually being spent at the levels appropriated in the original budget document? Agencies that fail to spend all of their appropriated funds are inviting other competitors for those resources to make the case that they would be better-spent elsewhere, so the pressure to spend all the money received even if it goes to waste will be high. Will money actually be spent in the ways specified by the budget framers? Appropriators sometimes give organizations considerable freedom to transfer money around between budget priorities, but most require a minimum a notification if this takes place.

Afghanistan Case: The U.S. government has a comparatively robust oversight framework in place to monitor how its budgets are spent, starting with the Congressional committees, which can compel testimony and reporting from the various agencies that they fund. As part of the budget process, agencies like the State Department and the Department of Defense prepare budget justification documents which are supposed to describe the activities they are carrying out and what future funding will be spent on. (This year’s State Department justification can be found here, for example.) Reporting or certification requirements enacted in other Congressional legislation are also intended to

Both the House and Senate also have dedicated Oversight committees which are supposed to carry out investigations and keep an eye out for waste or misuse of funding. Each U.S. government agency has its own in-house Inspector General, which in the case of Afghanistan is further supplemented by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction‘s office (although after a tumultuous leadership history, there have been suggestions that SIGAR may be either folded into the State and DOD Inspectors General offices or merged with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction to create a general wartime oversight body). The Government Accountability Office‘s investigators also conduct oversight when tasked to by Congress.

Protip: The last question to ask yourself when considering how a budget is spent is the most important one: what results did the money actually achieve for the organization? This is the hardest form of oversight to conduct because it requires tracking not just how money came or went (the outputs) but how the programs that were funded did or did not accomplish the goals set out for them (the outcomes). Conducting effective oversight requires identifying a desired outcome and identifying what metrics you actually need to look for in order to judge the success or failure of that effort; in Afghanistan, we have not done very well at this so far. Tracking outcomes is not only complicated but also potentially challenging to the interests of those who provide the information for assessment and who implement the programs. Tracking budget outputs is always easier and safer, but don’t confuse it for the reality on the ground.

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Thoughts? Critiques? Alternative frameworks for approaching budget analysis that I’ve failed to cover here? I’d appreciate any and all feedback in comments below.

A Primer in Understanding Budgets (Part One)

As I’ve written previously, understanding how governments and organizations budget resources to achieve their strategic objectives — or, to put it more plainly, learning how to follow the money — is one of the most important skills an analyst can have. In that light, I’m putting together another primer on some of the basic analytical tools you can use to understand and track budgets. (I caveat again here that the framework here is only based on my personal work experience; I’m not a professionally-trained budget analyst, and I’d appreciate any further comments and advice from those with additional experience.)

You can learn many different things from a budget depending on how you choose to approach it. I’m going to attempt to generalize as much as possible but I’m going to use the framing question how much does the U.S. spend in Afghanistan, and how does it spend it? for this exercise because 1) it’s an area I’m most familiar with, in order to be able to give concrete examples from; 2) it allows me to cover a variety of budget documents from a variety of different angles; and 3) I get asked this question by reporters, staffers and other people way too many times as it is. With this post, you too will now be able to answer this question — and more!

The U.S. government also happens to be a (comparatively) transparent organization which makes most of its budget data publicly available in a consistent and timely manner; obviously, it will be a much greater challenge to figure out this information when you’re dealing with more secretive or fragmented organizations.

When approaching a budget, the basic questions to answer are ones of:

  • Budget scope: how much is being spent, and over what time period?
  • Budget priorities: how is the money being divided among its sub-component programs?
  • Budget context: how does what is being spent compare to other budgets?
  • Budget sources: where is the money coming from and where will it come from in the future?
  • Budget actors: who is asking for the money; who is approving the request, and what conditions, if any, are they placing on access to the money?
  • Budget execution: who is going to be doing the spending, and in retrospect, how much of the budget actually got used?

As you can see, I’ve grouped these questions. The first three deal specifically with the money being spent (the “how much” part), while the latter three deal with the actual process of spending it (the “how does it” part — which are the most important questions in terms of a budget as a political process).  I’ll unpack these as briefly as I can in turn, applying them to the case of Afghanistan as I go.

Because of the length of this topic, I’m covering the first three aspects in Part One of this topic (this post), and will address the second three in detail in Part Two (a post coming later this week).

Part One: How Much Does the U.S. Spend in Afghanistan?

Budget Scope: This is the overall, “topline” figure for whatever the budget in question may be. It may, at the end of the day, be all someone is looking for, although it’s not going to tell you the whole story.

Budget figures will usually have a specific time-frame associated with them — which generally speaking will be a fiscal year (or possibly quarter), over the course of which the budget is expected to be spent. It’s important to know when the fiscal year starts since it usually takes time to actually spend the money and saying “we’ve spent $100 million” the day after the new $100 million budget is agreed to wouldn’t be accurate. (Saying we’ve appropriated that much at that point would be. I’ll talk about this terminology distinction a bit more in the Budget Actors section in Part Two when I go through the process of proposing, authorizing, appropriating, and disbursing a budget.) Fiscal years almost never sync up with calendar years, and every country’s are different, and furthermore the government’s fiscal year won’t necessarily sync up with that of private business or other organizations.

In the case of the U.S., the government fiscal year is supposed to start at the beginning of October and end at the end of September in the following year; i.e. Fiscal Year 2012 began October 1, 2011, and ends September 30, 2012. Because the U.S. Congress is a horribly broken institution, we often find ourselves (as we have multiple times this past year) at the start of a fiscal year without a new budget approved and in place, and thus have to rely on big “Continuing Resolutions” which circumvent the normal budget-making process and renew everything at the same levels and under the same authorizations as the previous year (maybe — sometimes, as happened in the compromise deal this year to avert government shutdown, negotiations over the C.R. will make cuts or additions as well) for a set period in order to give Congress time to fight it out some more. Whatever budget we do end up passing will then be in effect for whatever the remainder of the fiscal year is (if there is a big increase in funding, this can sometimes make it difficult to get all the money spent before the fiscal year is up — this has been cited as one of the challenges with the increase in aid to Pakistan that was made by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman act in late 2009).

(Afghanistan, incidentally, appears to be having the opposite problem; their parliament just changed the start of their fiscal year in order to stretch it out and give them more time to finish spending donor money they’ve received that was supposed to be spent this fiscal year.)

Beyond this question of time frame and the topline numbers, the other thing to watch out for when researching will be the currency and units (millions, billions, etc). Depending on what you are studying this will probably be in U.S. dollars; but if not (and you are studying from that perspective), you will need to find a reliable calculation of the exchange rate. XE.com offers a quick-and-dirty version of this for most all international currencies, although it will generally not take into account purchasing power parity effects if you are looking to get a sense of the topline costs in the context of what it would actually buy in the local economy.

Afghanistan Case: There is, believe it or not, no single reliably-updated U.S. government publication that will tell you the total cost of all American spending in Afghanistan on an annual basis. If you want to track down every last budget justification document and tally this up for yourself, more power to you. The Congressional Research Service’s report on The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11 (the most recently publicly leaked version of which was last updated in July 2011) is probably the best single source for the cost of military operations, though, and the chart below, from page 21 of that report, offers a overview of those costs.

CRS War Costs for Afghanistan Iraq and Global War on Terror

Source: U.S. spending by agency in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other 'war on terror' operations from FY01-FY11, Congressional Research Service March 2011

The total cost of Afghanistan operations through the end of this past September, then, should be approximately $444 billion (of which the past two out of ten fiscal years make up nearly half the spending); but this figure will probably be revised in the coming months as FY11 has only just ended and some previously projected or estimated spending numbers may be revised up or down.

For American assistance spending in Afghanistan, which forms the other big portion of our intervention there, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction offers a fairly comprehensive quarterly report to Congress, the most recent of which shows (in the chart below on page 45) that cumulative American military and nonmilitary assistance appropriated to Afghanistan between FY2002 and June of FY2011 totaled approximately $73 billion. Again, slightly under half of that was approved just in the past two fiscal years.

U.S. Military and Non-Military Assistance to Afghanistan FY02-FY11

Source: U.S. Military and Non-Military Assistance to Afghanistan FY02-FY11, SIGAR July 2011 Quarterly Report to Congress

Both of these charts only show the funds appropriated in the budget-making process — which does not necessarily represent how much was actually spent. Also note that the CRS report may include a few small operational expenditures during the earliest month of the intervention in FY01 that SIGAR does not. But with these caveats in mind, adding these two parts of the U.S. intervention together, you will get a total figure of approximately $516 billion in U.S. spending over the past ten fiscal years, about $135 billion of which was spent in the most recent fiscal year (compared to about $200 billion during the first eight years of the war).

Protip: The subtler form of exchange rate conversion that people often miss is going to be inflation, particularly if you are looking at a budget over an extended time period. If your data is historical or current dollars, it has not been adjusted to reflect the equivalent value of a dollar today and represents whatever numbers were on the check the day it was signed. If it is constant dollars, it has been adjusted (often based on inflation rates calculated in ten-year increments) to reflect that the equivalent amount would be today after inflation. Comparing 1980 dollars to 2010 dollars as if they were equivalent is like comparing euros to dollars today, and makes for a highly distorted picture. There are a variety of resources that you can turn up with simple Googling that can help you calculate inflation effects if you’re using U.S. dollars and the data hasn’t already been adjusted (and indeed, it looks as though the SIGAR and CRS figures I used above are not inflation-adjusted). For foreign currencies this is going to be more of a challenge and may in the end just need to be caveated.

— — —

Budget Priorities: Budgets are all about priorities; some things get money, and other things don’t. (Money is not the sole measure of organizational priority, but its ability to stand in for other forms of prioritization makes it one of the easiest and most important for tracking and comparison purposes.)  Ascribing those priorities to an organization as a whole requires an understanding of how the process of prioritization takes place, which is going to be discussed in further detail in Part Two. That process of may appear to be nigh-incoherent, given that there are often multiple actors with control over different parts of it and who potentially have conflicting priorities that may make no sense as a whole — but it is a process and in the end priorities are assigned (or re-assigned — most budgets are revised regularly, either on the annual basis or mid-year as needed).

Budget expenses usually take two forms, either capital investments (for example $200 million to build a new Afghan military base, say; or $5 million to train a new police battalion) or recurring expenses (also commonly referred to as operations and maintenance — $20 million to keep the lights on, stock the fridge, and keep the roof from caving in after five years; or annual salaries for the unit). Whether a budget account favors one type of investment or another is one form of prioritization in and of itself, as expansion requires new capital investments but sustaining that expansion requires budgeting for recurring payments thereafter.

Classification of the various sub-components of a budget allows for further comparisons and a deeper understanding of just what kind of activities the budget actually funds. When looking at the budget for U.S. foreign assistance to Afghanistan, for example, some of the money is being directed towards the security sector, some to public health programs, some to agricultural development, etc. Most budget documents will highlight these general categories of spending out for you; within each category are going to be the program accounts which are, in the U.S. system at least, the funding channels established through the legislative authorization process that allow certain agencies of the government to pay for certain activities.

Understanding how those accounts operate and under what conditions requires investigating both the specific legislation that created them and the implementing agency’s interpretation of that legislative guidance, a process that will be described in more detail in the next post. The main thing to note at this stage of review is that you should not necessarily trust the categories provided to you by the budget document under review if you don’t understand how the programs within fit into that category. As an example, U.S. bilateral aid budgets seem to have the tendency to classify program accounts not specifically administered by the Defense Department as “non-military” programs, even when they have strong security components (think counternarcotics and law enforcement programs). Hiding unrelated or loosely-related programs under a broader budget account is a classic technique for funding something that a funder doesn’t want publicly acknowledged or debated.

Afghanistan Case: Looking at the numbers described in the last section, it should be pretty clear that while the U.S. has spent over $500 billion “on Afghanistan”, the portion of that money representing aid spent to rebuild the country has really been dwarfed by the costs of our military and diplomatic operations. (And the amount of aid money that actually reaches Afghanistan after the layers of foreign contractors and costs of security and operations expenses are taken off any given contract is going to be considerably less. This is apparently considered preferable to corruption losses in assistance funds given directly to the Afghan government.) This is not to say it’s not a real expenditure — Afghanistan is certainly nowhere near being able to buy the level of security and military action against the insurgency that the U.S. war machine can provide — but it should give you a sense that when it comes to priorities, “nation-building” has never really been up there on the list.

Within the aid budget alone, which the charts on pages 148-149 of the aforementioned SIGAR report shows in some detail, we can see (with the help of a calculator) that assistance given to the development of the Afghan National Security Forces represents the biggest single program supported by the U.S., at 54% of overall aid spending. SIGAR adds this together with a few other military assistance programs used to train and equip the Afghan security forces to create a “Security” category of assistance totaling approximately $40.97 billion (56% of total aid spending). This categorization is a little imprecise, however, as it doesn’t include programs under the “Governance and Development” category like the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund (which can be used by the Defense Department to support the construction of Afghan military installations) or the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (which is often used for quick-impact projects which are supposed to support counterinsurgency objectives by employing the local populace).

Protip: Memorize the phrase “Does this include the costs of long-term operations and maintenance for this project, though?” and interject it into discussion whenever possible. Odds are decent that you are the only one thinking about this question. Particularly if you’re talking about budgets in Afghanistan.

— — —

Budget Context: Budgets, again, are about priorities, and determining relative priorities requires context. (“Ten million dollars worth of commitment” doesn’t really tell you anything if you don’t know where it’s coming from and how it compares to other commitments. It’s a couple lifetimes of toiling at the humble research associate salary for the Colin Cookman household; it’s at most a few minutes’ worth of daily expenditure for the U.S. government.) Some forms of comparison can be made relatively easy — for example, is a particular year’s budget rising or falling compared to the year prior, and how does it compare to past budgets a five or ten-year span?

A single budget account can be broken down to its component priorities, as discussed in the section above, but you can also go the other direction to compare it in the context of other, larger budgets. (This is really just about redefining the scope of the budget you are studying.) A road project in Wardak forms a portion of the overall Commander’s Emergency Response Program budget in Afghanistan, which in turn forms a portion of total U.S. security-related spending in Afghanistan, which in turn forms a portion of overall U.S. spending in Afghanistan, which in turn forms a portion of the overall U.S. defense and foreign operations budgets, which in turn forms a portion of the overall U.S. national budget. National budgets in turn can be compared to the total national Gross Domestic Product (the sum value of the American economy). At every level of this nesting set of budgets (and across levels) you can make comparisons in both absolute and percentage terms as to what is getting a greater or less share of resources.

U.S. military spending (in blue) compared to other world powers. Source: SIPRI, via ThinkProgress.

To really get a sense of context it is also important to compare one organization’s
spending to what other organizations are also spending. The classic example of this is the wailing of defense establishment hawks about any prospective cuts to U.S. defense spending (which so far only represent reductions in projected future increases), even when America spends more than the entire rest of the world combined on defense. This also comes up frequently in the case of Afghanistan, where the U.S. is the largest spender on almost every program compared to almost every other organization operating in the country, including the Afghan government itself. Knowing that the U.S. is going to spend approximately $13 billion for the training of the Afghan national security forces this year tells you one thing; knowing that the Afghan government will itself be spending about $1.8 billion during the same period (according to their 2011-2012 budget) tells you quite a bit more.

Afghanistan Case: The previous section already noted that, within the overall Afghanistan budget, security operations and security assistance dominate. There are any number of parts of the U.S. government budget, military or non-military, that you could compare Afghanistan spending to, which I won’t attempt to do so in detail here but which forms a favorite past-time for many members of Congress looking to stave off cuts to a favored project or program. One Congressional Research Service report from June 2010 estimated that the costs of the war (operations only, and not including assistance) were equivalent to about .7% of American GDP in its peak year (at that point 2010, although FY11 has since exceeded it), out of overall defense spending that year equivalent to about 4.9% of GDP. By this measure the cost of Afghanistan on the U.S. economy as a whole has actually been one of the lowest of any war fought by the U.S. in its history, second only to the first Persian Gulf War. Whether you think that’s too much or two little depends on your perspective of the war and the opportunity costs to other budget priorities.

The discrepancy between American expenditures on Afghanistan’s security forces and those of the Afghan government has already been noted; while Afghanistan’s tax revenue collection has been increasing in recent years (thanks to a considerable degree to better customs revenue collection at the border) its national budget still remains eclipsed by activities of foreign donors, and the government is highly aid-dependent. Coordinating amongst the more than seventy international donors who contribute either directly to the Afghan government’s operations or to projects managed by their own aid agencies or non-governmental organizations is a huge challenge, as the Afghan Finance Ministry complained in a November 2009 report. That report notes (in the chart on page 48 of the pdf) that the U.S. was the largest single donor to Afghanistan by far in terms of both pledges and actual disbursal, which still holds true today; although on specific programs (like the education sector, which I believe has been principally financed by the Canadians) other countries sometimes contribute a greater proportion of the funding.

Protip: When researching budgets, as when researching so much else, the challenge is usually to recognize what information isn’t being included that should be used as a point of comparison, as much as what is. Ultimately this is going to require reading widely in the field you are investigating and familiarizing yourself with as many of the resources provide information on it as possible. But the general first step after reading any account is to ask yourself, “what’s missing from this, and where else could I find that information?”

— — —

That’s it for Part One. Part Two, covering the much more exciting (!) political process of how budgets are made and spent, should hopefully be up within the few days.

So You Want to Be Paid to Sit at a Desk and Think About Things

Living the dream.

A couple weeks ago I did an orientation session with our latest class of incoming interns, who are much more fun to deal with now that I don’t have to be the one responsible for interviewing and hiring them all. We mostly talked about some basic research tips and tools they could potentially use during their time here and afterwards, and I thought I would rework some of that into a post for this blog, which I’m a little afraid is going to be otherwise starved for content.

There’s lots that could be said on work in the policy field in Washington (some of it much snarkier than the approach I’ve opted for here), and what is here is my attempt to distill some of what I’ve learned on the job for the past three and a half years. Much of this may seem self-evident, particularly to folks reading who are later on in their careers than I am or who have received actual formal training, but I can’t recall ever getting specific guidance along these lines when I was in undergrad, and maybe it will prove useful to others. I’d also appreciate any thoughts or suggestions from others more experienced than I.

There are different paths to success in Washington, many of them involving the art of relationships, politics, and occasionally having a rich uncle who donated to the campaign or owns the magazine. Those are all important areas to master which I haven’t, so I can’t really offer advice on them. As important as the need to be politically astute and responsive is, I would still argue that you are really going to be best served in whatever you do by having a solid grounding of analytical and critical thinking skills, so that’s going to be my focus. Some good advice that I got when I started goes along the lines of if you do the work, you will get the work, and while you may not always get the job title or the front page quote, I do think this generally holds true. It also means it would be best for you to actually want to do the work, because otherwise it is probably going to be a long disappointing grind for you. But there is a lot of turnover in Washington and with a solid body of work and a little bit of putting yourself out there, people will notice and start calling on you. Think first about how to prepare yourself with as solid of an intellectual foundation as you can, before you find yourself in charge of a Coalition Provisional Authority ministry in the Romney administration without a clue as to whether the locals are Sunni or Shiia and whether that makes any difference.

So the first point, and this applies to many more things in life than just policy work, is: what you practice regularly is what you get good at. Comic strip artists may not be able to paint the Mona Lisa, but they turn something in every day for publication. In college we generally get good at taking lecture notes, reading large chunks of text, writing a dozen or so 15-30 page papers over the course of three-month semesters, and passing hour-long closed-book tests, all of which is useful but probably none of which is directly relevant to the kind of work you are going to be called to do on a daily basis. The specifics of that work will change depending on the exact nature of your job but the three things you should be doing no matter what are: read every day; write every day; and write about what you read every day. If you’ve got a job that gives you the opportunity to do all of this on the clock, that’s great, but if not, start yourself a blog, even if it’s pseudonymous or just a private journal only you ever read. (The value of pseudonymity versus writing in your own name early in your career is probably worth a fuller discussion but I’m not sure I have fully developed thoughts on it yet.)  Blogging isn’t a perfect substitute for the kind of writing you’ll generally be called upon to produce (which, beyond style and depth differences, is probably going to involve much more collaborative drafting), but forcing yourself to think about what you’ve read and putting it into writing other people can understand is at the core of a lot of the work you will being doing over the course of your career. I’ll talk more about the reading part of this further down in this post, but the ability to write with speed, concision, and accuracy is probably the most valuable skill you will develop, and in the end it takes practice (and usually either merciless self-criticism or regular feedback from editors and readers).

The importance of concision is because nobody in Washington has any time to pay close attention to anything. (Yes, I do appreciate the irony of arguing for concision in a 2800-word blog post.) This increases the further you rise up in seniority. As a junior research staffer, I have the comparative luxury of focusing on America’s relations with only two of the world’s most complicated countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan; my bosses have to think about a whole range of U.S. foreign policy problems, as well as our organization’s relations with other organizations, donors, media, etc; and at the top of the organization, we have people charged with overseeing both the health and growth of the organization as well as policy research and political action on everything from labor policy to Chinese currency policy to how to build a green economy. (At the other end, our interns are generally going to be working on very discrete research projects — how much military aid did we give to Pakistan under the Bush administration, or whatever.) This is not even getting into the elected officials, who have to constantly be justifying their jobs to the public every two to four years. Some organizations or offices are more focused on a particular issue than others but generally speaking, time and attention will be the most valuable commodity overstretched and overworked policymakers can give you.

One of the most common relationships in Washington is going to be the principal-staffer dynamic, wherein you, the bright-eyed junior staffer, reports up to an overworked senior principal who is going to be relying on you to identify what’s actually important for them in the flood of information coming in on whatever particular issue area they have tasked you to explore. Smart policymakers will try to use the limited time they have on an issue to engage and get at the substance of the problem and the potential effects and second- and third-order consequences of pursuing a particular course of action. (You should do this yourself.) But often principals are going to look for individuals who appear to know what the hell they’re talking about, build a level of trust with them, and then rely on them to provide both the questions and the answers. (In an ideal world, people who demonstrate that they clearly don’t know what the hell they’re talking about would be subsequently ignored, but Michael O’Hanlon still has a job, so let’s not pretend we’re living in an ideal world here.)

Doing this effectively requires regular communication with your principal about what pieces of information are important for them to do their job, and early on in your career should hopefully involve lots of feedback. Inevitably, however, you will know more about a specific issue or incident than the smartest and most widely read principal, and it then falls to you to anticipate how much of this information they need to know to make informed decisions and figure out what it actually suggests. That judgment in turn requires building a level of specialization and depth on the issue areas you work on — you won’t always want to or be able to stick to this specialty (particularly if you work in a general-subject policy organization like a Hill office or a think tank), but having something you actually understand at a deep level will help ground you and more importantly should help build the critical thinking and research skills that allow you get up to speed in new areas as needed. (Just be cautious about overapplying your experience in one area to others where it is really not all that applicable. See Exhibit A, as in Afghanistan, General Petraeus’ experiences in.)

So, finally, the question of how to build this body of experience and understanding. This takes time but I think the answer ultimately is: read every day. Ask yourself what happened. Ask yourself why it happened. And then ask yourself how you know that to be the case. We are in an era of information overload, and your challenge is to collect from as a broad a range as possible, curate it to sort out what’s relevant, and analyze the implications before making decisions. (I believe the acolytes of John Boyd describe this as the OODA Loop, although I haven’t read the theory.) You cannot rely on the New York Times or The Economist (or god forbid, network television) to tell you everything that’s important in your specific issue area on a given day (also, prospective interns: I’m not nearly as impressed as you seem to think I should be when you tell me you read the Economist). You should read them, but these are publications intended for the general-interest, busy principal, and as a staffer and an analyst you are going to need to go wider and deeper.

Tools of the trade. Your first step if you haven’t already should be to set up a Google Reader account (or some similar newsreader program) and familiarizing yourself with the wonders of RSS Feeds (almost every website these days publishes multiple feeds; if your experience on the web to date has been manually going to a series of bookmarks every day, you will be amazed at how much easier it is to have it delivered to you all in one place). Subscribe to all the major dailies (NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, Al Jazeera) and news wires (Reuters, AP, AFP); then start adding as much local-area press (ideally in the local language, if you can read it) and local sourcing as you can. Start looking for blogs and organizations publishing on the issues you are covering, follow their links, and expand your network of coverage. Use the Google Reader note button in your browsers or some other cross-platform notation service to keep track of pieces that pop up as you are wandering across the web. Use Reeder or another mobile app that syncs with your Google Reader to load and read during your morning and evening commute, assuming you have a smartphone or iPod touch. I hear good things about Evernote and Instapaper, although I don’t use them myself — my personal daily routine involves starring items I want to read as they come up during the day in my Google Reader, then loading and reordering them to read and write up the next morning as part of the daily news summaries I write on Afghanistan/Pakistan. Find something that works for you, but commit to skimming your Reader at regular intervals throughout the day; it will be a firehose of information, particularly as you increase the number of feeds you follow (I’m up to around 400, although some number of those are defunct ones I haven’t bothered unfollowing), but you will get better (callback to the practice point at the start here) at skimming out stories worth reading in full and at picking out the relevant new material in any story. (Also, it helps if you never again take vacation.)

As a supplement to your Reader account, you should join Twitter and start looking for individuals on there who share the same research or professional interests as you. Twitter may be useful as a tool for promotion and communication, but its real value to a researcher is that by following the right network of smart people and sharing in their reading experience, it provides you with a whole additional level of curation on the day’s news, as people post links and comment on events, helping you to catch stories that you may have otherwise missed. (See also Diana’s piece on the value of Twitter and social networking in general for young analysts.) There are other social media services that can provide this but my experience is that Twitter is best for this because 1) the basic limited-character format forces people to be concise and tends to encourage link-sharing; and 2) it is almost totally public and open, allowing you to tap into the comments of people and experts you might not otherwise come in contact with (which I think is the problem with Google+ — conversations may be happening among established social circles but it’s not obvious where they are or how to tap into them). Even more so than RSS feeds, Twitter is a huge flood of information, and trying to follow everything on it constantly is a recipe for sleepless breakdown, but the use of retweets to re-share major developments mitigates this to some degree, and there are a few services out there (I use The TweetedTimes) that can scrape links shared by the network of people of people you follow into a regularly-updated page (whose RSS feed you can then plug into your Reader).

Beyond this, there are lots of resources out there that you can tap into; this varies by subject but some of the big general-use resources that I think everyone working in Washington should be familiar with are Congressional Research Service reports (which are often written from secondary or tertiary sources but can be useful to get up to speed on a new issue at a general level), GAO and department Inspectors General reports (but be aware that these are often maddeningly specific in their scope), the World Bank’s datasets, the Greenbook on U.S. foreign assistance, the THOMAS legislative search engine, and the Congressional budget justifications that every U.S. government department submits as part of the annual appropriations process. Read books on your issue to compress months or years of daily news into a single volume, and when you’re done them, read the books they use in their bibliography. When reading the news, learn to identify the sources and remember that almost everything you read in the paper appeared there because someone wanted it to, and think about who and why that might be. When reading official reports, understand the definitions as they are being used and how people obfuscate with them.

Finally (and this is running long so I’m wrapping up here), a few general guidelines for critical analysis when you are trying to figure out what is going on in almost any given situation:

  • Follow the money. Strategy is how you allocate resources to achieve policy objectives. Whether coherently or not, these decisions are made in a budgeting process. (Sometimes that process is one guy taking the money and running, but it’s still a process.) To understand an organization’s strategy, you must identify the decision-makers in the budgeting process and the process by which they make their decisions. (There’s a decent introduction to the American budget process here.)
  • Organizations (in whatever form) not states, or civilizations, or “the people”, make both war and politics. (I previously borrowed this point from Sinno here.) Individual actors can be important but they almost always operate within the constraints of the organizations (and political system) they are a part of, and generally speaking, “you stand where you sit” — it is very hard to break out of those immediate constraints. (See: The Wire, particularly seasons Three and Four.)
  • No organization — and especially no broader national polity — is a monolith. We use shorthands a lot in international relations writing (I’ve been using “Washington” throughout this whole piece), but every organization is going to have multiple policy priorities. These priorities will not be supported unanimously across the organization, and their relative importance to the organization will shift over time depending on internal politics and the perceived chance of successfully advancing at a reasonable cost. Per the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, the foremost of these is usually the survival and advancement of those in decision-making positions.
  • A lot of this basically boils down to Hanlon’s Razor. Don’t ascribe other organizations, countries, or individuals with super powers or grand strategies just because you don’t understand their thinking or behavior. Also, just because a report is “classified” doesn’t necessarily mean it holds the comprehensive truth.

There you have it. Good luck, and try not to inadvertently invade any foreign countries.

Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement

First up: this is not my normal area of focus. In general, I don’t follow U.S. domestic politics closely, and I do not have an extensive political science background. This is partially an issue of limited mental and temporal bandwith (Afghanistan and Pakistan keep me plenty busy, thank you) and partly due to domestic politics feeling a little mundane compared to the complex foreign countries whose politics I do attempt to track. (Which is not to suggest that this is how anyone else should feel about it, but rather an attempt to explain my own personal taste quirks. In a similar vein, I was never interested in the Beatles or other classic rock groups, which have all the excitement and novelty of elevator music at this point, and swung instead towards hip-hop for the first several years of my music-listening history. Psychoanalyze as you will.)

So I have only superficially followed the news on this movement, and this is only a stab at getting my current thoughts on it in some kind of order. I want to underline here that I am trying to separating my sympathies for the movement’s stated concerns about inequality in the American system and the mismanagement in the public and private sectors that led to our current financial crisis — which I share!  — with my analysis of its actual structure and future prospects.

So with all that caveat lector out of the way, here’s what I’m seeing. As plenty other people have already identified, the root of this protest is inequality, which has been on the rise in U.S. society for several decades and is now running up against a multi-year worldwide economic recession whose effects have thus far been born unevenly — ripe territory for any revolutionary movements. Like the social protest movements in the Middle East that it clearly seeks to draw inspiration from and comparison to, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement’s strength is its decentralization and ability to command public / media attention around this agenda. The loose leadership structure and well-networked individual participants have allowed it to converge against a single symbolic target (Wall Street in the current case, Mubarak or Ben Ali previously) while resisting efforts to disrupt it (there is no single leadership cell to arrest or bargain with, and in the absence of a centralized leadership, any subset that is split off by either detention or cooptation can be discarded or disowned by the rest of the movement with few costs to participants who continue to protest).

The membership’s development and memetic spread of public messaging (through tools like the We Are the 99% Tumblr, Twitter, etc) helps it establish an internal culture or brand that (so far) is loose enough to accommodate a fairly wide range of political views but distinct enough to serve as an identifier for the movement, helping to participants to determine who is “in” and who is “out” even as they contest with each other for what exactly that should mean. (This is an interesting paper on the culture and cohesion of 4chan and Anonymous that explores a somewhat related topic.)

The book that has shaped my thinking on war and politics probably more than any other (unless you count Ghost Wars, which got me into Afghanistan in the first place), Abdulkader Sinno’s Organizations at War, has a number of very important lessons that I think can potentially be applied here. One basic assumption of Sinno’s argument is that “movements” or “the people” or “societies” do not make war (or, by extension, politics). Organizations do. As a dedicated fan of The Wire, I subscribe to this view of human political behavior. Despite its loose and anarchic character, I think the OWS movement is a distinct political organization, albeit a very fragmented and decentralized one right now. Those characteristics give it a level of resilience that have allowed it to carry on its activities for the past several weeks even at the geographical heart of the political / financial system OWS (at its broadest level) seeks to overturn.

Sinno further argues that decentralized organizations like OWS (or the 1980s Afghan mujahadeen movement, in his case study)’s strength of resiliency becomes irrelevant in the absence of continued harassment by the rival political order they seek to challenge. After you clear or are ceded the public square, being decentralized and having a thousand different voices arguing for a different course of action or policy priority is not in fact especially conducive to your organization’s goals. Decentralized organizations that want to continue to survive go through the messy process of centralization in order to be able to develop complex political strategies and effectively allocate resources to achieve those goals. (Sinno doesn’t make this comparison, but this also somewhat brings to mind Jared Diamond’s theories of civilizational density and complexity in Guns, Germs, and Steel— societies that reach a level of accomplishment in complex tasks like industry and war require a certain level of density and hierarchy to feed a system that allows for specialization in warmaking and the manipulation of political symbols.)

This is happening now, as the OWS camps set up working group committees and attempt to hash out manifestos and policy demands (and I gather it is several months along in Egypt, but my coverage of international politics goes no further west than Herat, so I’m unfortunately not able to make comparisons with the latest developments there). The OWS participant makeup is pretty opaque, but as much as participants may wish to portray themselves as operating through total decentralized consensus, I expect there are proto-organizations within the organization already, either new groupings being formed for the first time or already established organizations like Code Pink, labor unions, environmental groups, whoever, who may subscribe to the broadly defined goals of OWS but who presumably have their own political priorities they would like to see it harnessed towards. Settling the question of the movement’s priorities and how to achieve ultimately involves a level of centralization, and right now it’s far from clear which groups or individuals will win out in that process.

“The longer organizations take to centralize,” Sinno notes, “the more likely they are to be defeated by rivals that can take the initiative, or to fall apart.” It’s difficult to identify the contenders at this point, but presumably at some point soon you will see established groups like ANSWER or black bloc anarchists or whoever challenging whatever currently constitutes the OWS organizational core, which will either result in those rival groups being shut out of the bigger organization (if something within OWS has centralized sufficiently to counter their claim on its political space) or them taking control and marginalizing other parts of the movement (in which case, given their limited public appeal, it will probably fall apart into something more resembling the rioting in London over the summer.) The further possibility is that the movement is supplanted by another, bigger and better-centralized rival political organization entirely.

Here’s where I think it’s useful to bring in comparisons to the Tea Party, another political organization (actually several, I gather — again, I apologize that U.S. domestic politics are just not my specialty, but I think they interoperate enough at this point that I can refer to them in the singular) that began as a loose and decentralized political movement uniting around opposition to a common rival (President Obama). Conservatives of all stripes and pet issues initially joined the Tea Party, but it centralized fairly rapidly, thanks in no small part to funding from big conservative donors. (No organization can successfully execute any strategy without access to financial resources, and generally speaking those who control the budgeting process in any organization ultimately control the policy decisions.)

The Tea Party organization that emerged appears to have settled on pursuing two main strategic priorities: keeping President Obama to a single term in office and opposing his political agenda no matter what; and capturing the Republican primary process in order to increase the level of Republican party orthodoxy. The latter goal means that the Tea Party organization itself has to a certain degree been coopted or supplanted by the Republican party organization, even as they have had success at changing its internal makeup and setting the party agenda, at least through the 2010 election cycle. (It remains to be seen whether they will be able sustain that into 2012 and beyond; as we can see right now, a rival conservative moneyed faction is pushing Mitt Romney instead). Elements of the old Republican party establishment machinery failed to maintain control over the conservative movement, and found themselves pushed aside by a Tea Party organization that was able to capture and coopt parts of the GOP even as it was itself coopted. The Tea Party lost its decentralized character and independence — I don’t think anyone views it as really distinct from the Republican party any more — but found success for the strategy of the new, centralized organization.

Herein lies the dilemma for the OWS as it attempts to articulate a policy agenda. “Wall Street” is a much more diffuse target for revolutionary ouster than a single political leader (and the means of challenging it within the relative confines of the existing political system much more complex than simply winning an election), which means centralizing and building political support for a more complex strategy will be hard (see also the Egyptian protesters’ difficulties in dismantling the army system, even though they convinced the army to dump Mubarak). Any single legislative priority proposed by the eventual central leadership (in the event that one emerges) is likely to lose a certain amount of support from subsets of protesters who don’t see that as the main priority or don’t trust Congress to actually enact systemic reforms (with good reason). Maybe they can overcome this and reach consensus behind this, but the legislative process doesn’t particularly play to their strengths.

OWS could instead seek to follow the Tea Party model and capture the Democratic primary process in order to shift the party orthodoxy leftwards on economic inequality issues. I think it’s an open question at this point whether it will continue over the long term. I think this is in part because the Democrats still constitute a much broader and less ideologically orthodox political coalition than the Republicans at this point. This appears to be part of a broader trend of ideological polarization and political sorting in American political history, a process which the Republicans seem to be much further along in than the Democrats (and which, thanks in particular to the Senate’s overrepresentation of the rural south and west, they can survive on despite the Democrats potentially representing a much broader group of interests). Because of this, I would guess that a decent plurality of OWS protesters and liberal protesters in general are probably inclined to view the Democratic party as just as complicit as everyone else in the country’s inequality; for this view, see Glenn Greenwald (and my militant-vegan-anarchist brother whenever I’m home for the holidays). The Tea Partiers, however outraged they might be by RINO apostasy, were ultimately willing to follow a program that involved the cooptation rather than replacement of one of the two largest political organizations in the country.

I haven’t seen signs yet that OWS has reached the strength, reach, or level of coordination (all characteristics of a relatively centralized political organization) where it can start primarying Democratic incumbents and then carry them through to election (and I’m not even sure if the movement has even suggested an interest in such a strategy at this point). The Democratic party’s presidential candidate is already effectively locked in and can only be pushed so far in the absence of a primary process, as he already expects to have to tack to the center for the general election (and at this point probably has considerably more resources to resist the OWS’ challenge than the OWS can bring to bear against him, even assuming they could talk Ralph Nader into throwing in once again). Soros rumors aside, OWS doesn’t appear to have any sizable financial resources behind it yet with which to support a down-ticket pressure strategy, or any other strategy beyond the decentralized seizure of abandoned space.

In the absence of an OWS capture (even partial) of the Democratic Party, though, it’s hard for me to see what other options are going to be available to it over the medium to long term. I suppose the oncoming European recession could spark an even deeper worldwide depression that could more drastically shake up the rules of the game, but right now I think the American political system is simply too strong for a poorly funded, poorly organized, brand-new political organization to completely overturn it from the outside, no matter how resilient it may be over the short term and effective it is at temporarily seizing a media spotlight. Decentralized political organizations have a potentially very powerful set of advantages, but they only apply in certain contexts. OWS has the potential to disrupt the terms of political debate and set the stage for another organization to take up its mandate, but in its current form, I do not think it is going to be the one implementing the changes it seeks.