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Coffee House

Avoiding Groupthink

30 May 2010

4:11 PM

30 May 2010

4:11 PM

I hope CoffeeHouse readers will forgive the attention I am heaping on the Afghanistan
War these days, but the campaign is moving into a decisive phase with a July donor’s conference in Kabul that Hillary Clinton is reportedly attending, a “peace jirga” scheduled to
consider plans to negotiate with the Taliban and only a year to go before the first US combat troops begin heading home.

No 10 is now letting it be known that the Prime Minister, his key Cabinet ministers, generals and aides will gather shortly to discuss the mission. A sort of condensed Obama review of the UK
contribution. Besides the Afghan experts already in the Crown’s employ – like Army chief General David Richards – David Cameron would do well to invite a number of outsiders to
the brainstorming, either because they know the theatre very well, because their strategic sense as good as or better than most Cabinet ministers, or because of their unique insights into the
nature of contemporary counter-insurgency campaigns. If I was writing the guest list to the meeting, I would consider including the following people:

·         Minna Jarvenpaa – a Kabul-based analyst who worked for Kai Eide and helped plan the Helmand campaign after a career in the Balkans.


·         Gilles Dorronsoro, a French visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, and a renowned expert on Afghanistan, and South Asia.

·         Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign and defence secretary, whose sense of global politics is still not matched by many in the Cabinet.

·         Andrew Exum, a former US Army officer and scholar at Center for a New American Security who is rapidly becoming a leading COIN expert.

·         Emma Sky, a former adviser to General Richards in Kabul and General Odierno in Baghdad, she is one of Britain’s stabilisation expert

·         Matt Waldman, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and former Head of Policy and advocacy for Oxfam
International in Afghanistan.

"Groupthink" was the term American scholar Irving L. Janis used for the phenomenon of flawed group dynamics that can let bad ideas go unchallenged and can sometimes yield disastrous
outcomes. The phenomenon was widely believed to have affected John F Kennedy in the run-up to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro that became a
fiasco. To avoid the same over Afghanistan, the Cameron government needs to ensure its deliberations allow input from a range of people who bring expertise and insights not commonly found inside
government and whose view is not as “Helmandocentric” as so much of the official analysis and advice.


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