Research in Afghanistan: Organisations, Innovation and Security in the 21st Century
In the Summer of 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil spoke with the University of Wollongong’s Professor Theo Farrell about his work in Afghanistan as part of ‘Organisations, Innovation and Security in the Twenty-First Century’, an ESRC fellowship which fell under the Global Uncertainties programme. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about how you came to work in this research area?
Professor Theo Farrell: My research on Afghanistan developed by happenchance. In 2008, I co-wrote a paper on the British campaign in Helmand in southern Afghanistan, which ended up being published in the RUSI journal. The prevailing view at the time that the British Army was doing a terrible job at counterinsurgency. This was at a point when Britain was encountering a lot of difficulty in Afghanistan, and we were arguing that while there had been a lot of initial problems, by 2008 or so there were signs of tactical success and signs that the campaign was improving. This article got some attention in government after making into the ministerial reading pack. Later, in late 2009, while attending a briefing session for a brigade about to deploy to Helmand, I met an official from the Foreign Office who had read the article, who invited me to go conduct a review of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team. This, in turn, led to me being invited to understand a number of other reviews in Afghanistan.
For example, in January 2010 I was invited to be the British member of a Strategic Review Team working for the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal. Later that year I was invited by the British Army to go back to Helmand to conduct a review of their campaign in central Helmand. As a consequence of this, I pivoted my Global Uncertainties Fellowship – what started as a project which was supposed to look at innovation and adaptation by different kinds of organizations turned into a fellowship focused on the conduct of stabilisation operations by the British Army in Afghanistan.
Can you tell me a bit about the key takeaways from this work?
One of the key takeaways was the value of fellowships which are flexible and offer the ability to pivot. When I changed the focus of my research, the Global Uncertainties team at Research Council’s UK were still able to see the value of my research and continued to support me. That gave me the opportunity to do very impactful research supporting the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense. I had the opportunity to conduct classified research and strategic reviews which sought to inform improvements to operations in Afghanistan and assist with learning of lessons. Those opportunities to generate impact would not have happened if the research councils had been less agile and flexible in response to changes in my research plan.
How did you build on this work with subsequent projects?
I have since done some theoretical work around adaptation by the British army. This work has contributed to the subfield of military innovation studies, because a lot of pre-existing theory examined top-down models of innovation, and my work contributed to a field of scholarship on bottom-up innovation, or adaptation. In these models, militaries adapt their tactics, structures, and technologies on the ground to enable them to win the fight.
I also wrote a book called ‘Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001–2014’, that was a trade press book published by The Bodley Head, and this brought my research to a much wider readership. It was a Book of the Year for the Sunday Times in 2017. I think this is a good example of PaCCS and Global Uncertainties funded research which has informed a wider public debate and brought wider attention to an issue in current affairs.
I have also done some research to try to understand the conflict from both sides. I wanted to understand the conflict from the Taliban side but for fairly obvious reasons, I could not interview Taliban in Afghanistan. So, I partnered with Dr. Antonio Giustozzi, who has published several books on the conflict from perspectives of the Taliban and Afghan security forces. Our Afghan field researchers interviewed members of the Taliban, as well as non-Taliban locals, and built a picture of the Taliban’s military and political campaign in Helmand. The paper emerging from that work made it into the British Army’s pre-deployment reading pack for Afghanistan/
I also became interested in understanding the Taliban’s position with respect to peace talks. For this research, I partnered with Michael Semple, then a Fellow in the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Over 2012 and 2013, and again in 2016, held confidential discussions with a number of senior Taliban figures at locations outside of Afghanistan. We sought to understand likely Taliban positions in peace talks, and to explore other options to de-escalate the conflict. We provided confidential briefings of our findings to the US National Security Council and the UK Cabinet Office, and public versions which were published by RUSI in 2012 and 2016. It’s very hard to assess how much impact we had with this work. My understanding is that it opened up space in the US and UK governments for peace talks with the Taliban, and in a modest way contributed to capacity building within the Taliban for peacemaking.
During part of this period, you also sat on the PaCCS Strategic Advisory Group. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
As a member of the Strategic Advisory Group, I was particularly involved in the Conflict Theme, and chaired the Innovation Grants Panel and Interdisciplinary Grants Panel under this theme. Both grant schemes were incredibly effective. The Innovation Grants were designed to encourage risky, cutting-edge research, and the Interdisciplinary Grants scheme really pushed the envelope on cross-disciplinary collaboration in conflict research. When the research councils took a risk on me in my fellowship, it created space for impact, and I am glad we created that type of opportunity for other researchers.
Photo Credit: “Prof Farrell (left) with British official, Nad-e Ali District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2010.” Photo taken by Gavin Davis, and used with the permission of Professor Farrell.