(Mis)Understanding Afghanistan
: An ethnographic examination of 'human elements' affecting the nexus between understanding and strategy in population-centric conflict

  • Alexei Gavriel

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


(Mis)Understanding Afghanistan is an ethnographic examination of human elements affecting the nexus between understanding and strategy in population-centric conflict during the US/NATO engagement (2001-2015). Fieldwork traces processes of knowledge production that delineate three primary actor-groups of focus in the research: (1) ‘those that collect data’ — ‘knowledge-producers’ engaged in the production of ‘understanding’ of problems for decision-makers; (2) ’those data is collected for’ — ‘counterinsurgents’ that consumed produced knowledge to devise problem-solving ‘strategy’; and, (3) ‘those data is collected on’ — ‘the population’ that experienced the ‘application’ of understanding and strategy in their local communities.

Divided into two parts, the body of the study maintains a holistic perspective through utilisation of a ‘zoom-in/zoom-out’ approach centred around aspects of the inquiry that affect each group of actors, examining them individually, and then the interaction as a whole.

Part I provides a zoomed-out orientation of the inter-related ethnographic contexts of the inquiry: first, the ‘historical context’ of Afghanistan’s cultural and political past that would shape its present from pre-history up until the events of 9/11; second, the ‘situational context’ of US-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (2001-2015) with focus on periodised changes in strategy that are then reflected back to Afghanistan’s ethnographic record; third, the ‘institutional context’ of US security and intelligence organisations from WWII, to the end of the Cold War, and into the post-9/11 era with focus on changing institutional attitudes and competencies towards human and technological aspects of understanding and strategy.

Part II zooms-in from these wider ethnographic contexts to the field where the initiating chapter establishes how these issues manifested in the context of the fieldwork environment and were experienced amongst each actor-group. It then zooms-in further with three corresponding chapters focused on specific issues related to understanding, strategy, and application: the first, on ‘understanding’, examines sources of population-centric understanding utilised by counterinsurgents in Afghanistan to inform strategy; the second, on ‘strategy’, examines counterinsurgent institutional culture and dysfunction that imposed barriers to the formulation of effective strategy; the third, on ‘application’, examines how the absence or presence of different forms of understanding enabled or hindered the development of effective strategy, as experienced in localised settings throughout Afghanistan.

The conclusion zooms-back-out to examine the wider view of how these issues are interrelated through combining all of the above factors in an analysis of ‘human problems’ and the nexus between understanding and strategy.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorHastings Donnan (Supervisor) & Paulo Sousa (Supervisor)


  • Afghanistan
  • intelligence
  • conflict
  • human intelligence (HUMINT)
  • counterinsurgency
  • ethnographic intelligence (ETHINT)
  • population-centric conflict
  • Taliban
  • civil affairs
  • psychological operations
  • strategic communication
  • atmospherics
  • human terrain
  • ethnography
  • cognitive anthropology
  • psychological anthropology
  • applied anthropology
  • conflict zone research
  • organisational ethnography

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