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American Today


Battlefield Detective Work

By Sarah Stankorb

Ben Jensen at Kabul University

Capt. Benjamin Jensen, SIS professor, with members of the Faculty of Social Science at Kabul University. (Courtesy: Benjamin Jensen)

When Capt. Benjamin Jensen, SIS professor, tells a war story, it’s free of sweat and grit. His tales are rich in data, and somehow, the broader political and historical context of his stories gives the battle a richer consequence.

For good reason, many of us focus on courageous service at the front lines — but there are those who draw those lines and make the plans that, we pray, will keep our troops safe.

Jensen is a planner.

Called to serve

Like many who enlisted in the armed forces a decade ago, Jensen was moved to serve after 9/11. “The attacks, because I lived so close to the World Trade Center, were very personal. I went down and kind of volunteered at Ground Zero,” said Jensen. “I decided there are moments when you have to do something, give something back, and that was one of those moments.”

Enlisting in early 2002, Jensen had a choice. He had his undergraduate degree, and so could either get right into the fight or go to graduate school while doing ROTC. He opted to earn his master’s degree at American University while serving in the Maryland Army National Guard.

By the time he was mobilized through the 29th Infantry Division to the Balkans in 2006, he was enrolled in an SIS PhD program. He spent a year in Kosovo in the “plan shop” working on peace enforcement. Jensen defines that as “making sure that people who historically hate each other don’t do bad things to each other.”

After training at Fort Leavenworth, he deployed in 2011 for six-months in Kabul as a Red Team member, which involves “at a high level, trying to critique plans and assumptions in intelligence estimates so that you can give the commander an alternative perspective.”

When you’re the one helping make calculations that go into entire campaigns — wartime decisions that affect your fellow soldiers, tens of millions of Afghans, in a region with a complex history — research methods matter.

Today, Jensen advises his AU students, “If you’re one of those guys or gals who walks into a classroom, slinging buzzwords and sounding like a policy wonk on cable news, you’re wrong. Because that’s how people die. Because bad decisions perpetuate and when you’re talking about 137,000 troops in a nation of millions, the cost of those miscalculations are innumerable.”

How you ‘think about thinking about war’ is gravely important. Said Jensen, “We have to have some place to stand in the middle of that darkness.”

Wartime puzzles: “I’ve come to a nation of lions”

Now that Jensen has returned to AU, he’s transitioning back to the role of professor, but one for whom theory and research carry particular weight. At a talk this semester, Jensen used his own experience as a military intelligence officer to illustrate the very tangible implications of the methods he teaches every day.

The puzzles he recounts have a central theme: what advice do you give a general waging war in Afghanistan? You try to answer questions about the insurgency and understand cultural biases that can help lay the groundwork for planning future campaigns.

What is the enemy’s intention? How do they plan their battles?

If your general understands how top-ranking insurgents view the war, and their place in it, you’re a step closer to making sound plans for facing them. It is, of course, always difficult to understand another person’s intentions. “The stakes are much higher,” said Jensen, “when in cross-cultural communications with someone who wants to shoot you, whose intentions you don’t know or if you know, you don’t understand.”

To approach this question, Red Team members used a method Jensen teaches his students called “thinking in time,” taking a long-view historical approach to decision making. This is not Afghanistan’s first insurgency, not its first corrupt government. In talking to Afghan academics, the team learned that geography translates into psychology. The nation’s location leaves it open to invasion. “Afghans are proud of the fact that they have resisted and fought multiple foreign invaders,” Jensen explained.

Alexander the Great once wrote home to his mother: “I’ve come to a nation of lions, where every inch is like fighting a mile in Persia.” It’s been centuries of cyclical violence — foreign invaders, a retreat into the mountains and survival. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mongolians, Russians, or Americans. Said Jensen, “It doesn’t matter why they’re there. It matters that in the Afghans’ view, even after us, other people will come. And after them, more people will come.”

War is long, inevitable, and recurrent.

This represents a set of cultural biases, but what is also beneficial is understanding the psychological profile of the enemy. “We don’t have the luxury of laying them down on a Freudian couch and asking them questions about their mothers,” Jensen said.

The Red Team linked up with special forces teams and visited the home villages of senior insurgent leaders and asked for stories. Were they nice on the playground? Were they tough? Do they value money? Respect? The respect that comes from money?

Such a profile hints at how a particular leader might go about planning his next campaign. If piety drives them, there will be no willingness to negotiate with Americans. A person motivated financially though, might.

Jensen encourages his students to focus their university time on developing explanations for complex sets of behavior. “If you get the explanations down, predictions and planning are easy.”

His experience is a lesson in balancing method and theory. He says, “Knowledge is the integration of theory and fact. If you don’t have a theory, you just have a bunch of observations. You don’t know what to do with them. If you don’t have observations, you just have an interesting idea.”

In isolation and on the battlefield, nice ideas or piles of data won’t get you far. Combing facts for broader context and understanding how to apply them is what leads to meaningful — and usable — intelligence.