Lessons in complexity, from a field in Afghanistan

Just over two years ago, British soldiers in a remote region of Afghanistan came across a solitary man sowing seed – wheat rather than poppies. This was risky and unusual: a planting at the turn of the year was very late, and the area had been made dangerous by incessant fighting. But the farmer had his reasons. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, had been assassinated a couple of days earlier. The man reckoned that wheat prices would soar as a result and wanted to cash in.

The story – told by Major General Andrew Mackay CBE and Commander Steve Tatham in a new paper on “Behavioural Conflict” for the UK’s Defence Academy – illuminates the situation facing coalition forces in Afghanistan. There has been a tendency among commentators and politicians to treat the “hearts and minds” aspect of counter-insurgency as a popularity contest. But the “voters” are not casual spectators, trying to choose between the Taliban or the coalition forces; they are individuals weighing up complex choices in difficult circumstances.

I met Andrew Mackay, who commanded 52 Brigade in Helmand Province (and who announced his resignation from the army in September), because of his interest in the problem of influence in conflict situations. He was reading books about behavioural economics, including my own, in the hope of adding some insight to experience gained in the field.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.