View Full Version : Coping with wicked problems: the case study of Zaganiyah-my thesis

09-22-2008, 07:26 PM
After a lot of late nights threading through the inebriation of the Sierra Nevada, I've finally completed my thesis proposal. I will be completing this thesis over the course of the next six months.

As many of you have directly/indirectly provided insight, recommendations, and sheer opinions(KEN), I wanted to share where i'm heading for further help.

I hope to bridge the seemingly irrational world of iraq with the very rational lens of academia using my experiences.

Thank you for your time and your help.



Tentative Abstract. Over the past thirty years, the village of Zaganiyah, Iraq, an austere, farming community of 10,000 nestled deep within the recesses of the Diyala River Valley, experienced frequent policy shifts. These shifts coupled with partisan intervention and the introduction of radical Islamist Jihad dissolved the social fabric of the villagers of Zaganiyah into an acephalous society exasperating an inherent wicked problem- a situation so messy, hostile, complex, and dynamic that there is no right or wrong long-term solution. Instead, there is only good and bad. Dubbed the Surge, elite paratroopers implementing an effective counter-insurgency strategy secured the town and maintained control for the short-term, but this occupation failed to resolve the inherent problems within the village. This thesis attempts to define the parameters of the wicked problem territory of Zaganiyah, explain qualitatively the how and why of each policy shift, and describe the effects of these shifts on the social fabric of the villagers. Finally, this thesis explores future strategies to cope with this wicked problem.

09-22-2008, 07:55 PM
I really liked your use of "acephalous society" but I got the impression that "this wicked problem" has a very specific meaning that I'm not clear on...

In this context, what constitutes a "wicked problem"?

09-22-2008, 07:59 PM
A wicked problem is so complex, dynamic, and hostile (think minzberg) that it cannot be defined....

Here's some characteristics...

There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-false, but good-bad.
There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that maybe incorporated into the plan.
Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
The planner has no right to be wrong.

09-22-2008, 08:01 PM
Attempts to solve or fix wicked problems are dubbed 'taming' strategies...

some examples...

1. Lock down the problem definition. Develop a description of a related
problem or a sub-problem that you can solve, and declare that to be the
problem. Resist all efforts to expand or modify the problem definition.
2. Assert that the problem is solved. Since a wicked problem has no
definitive solution, the whole point of attempting to tame it is so that a
solution can be reached.
3. Specify objective parameters by which to measure the solution’s
success. This is the measurement approach.
4. Cast the problem as “just like” a previous problem that has been
solved. Ignore or filter out evidence that complicates the picture.
5. Give up on trying getting a good solution to the problem. Just follow
orders, do your job, and try not to get in trouble.
6. Declare that there are just a few possible solutions, and focus on
selecting from among these options. A specific way to do this is to
frame the problem in “either/or” terms, e.g., “Should we attack Iraq or
let the terrorists take over the world?”

None of this is original thought...In my haste to provide explanation, I failed to give credit to the authors...i'll provide references in a bit.

09-22-2008, 08:02 PM
Hey Mike, Congratulations! This looks to be an interesting thesis and it promises to add new thinking and perspectives at a critical time. I wish you the best of luck.

Looking at your proposal, I have a few questions or points to raise, namely:

1. You mention looking at the issues through four disciplines (economic, anthropological, sociological and historical) yet you later put anthropological/sociological together. I don't clearly see the distinction in approach between the historical, sociological and anthropological.

2. I noticed you didn't mention political, which is fine, but if you want to draw this in and tie it to economics, you might look at political economy models. Anthropology also uses these models and tries to tie local realities into global frameworks.

3. In chapter 4, you mention "coping strategies". I've seen this term used in development anthropology to refer to how societies in poverty respond to food crises or how to develop livelihoods to sustain themselves. You seem to be referring more to coping with crisis more than economic or livelihood problems, though the former probably did create the latter. In any case, the strategies you mention are external, almost colonial repression of the Iraqi people, while their coping is a reaction to this. As you probably know, there's a lot in Anthropology that focuses on colonialism and local responses to it. How is local culture maintained, changed, or lost altogether as a result?

4. related to above, you note the 4 periods of occupation of this village, including the current by US forces. I'll be interested to see how you treat each of these periods in terms of the occupiers. And the reaction - is it mere coping where the local villagers have no agency to respond - they just need to cope? Or can they do something to change the situation?

Good luck to you!


09-22-2008, 08:19 PM
I think you've chosen an excellent subject for your thesis. Enjoy yourself, and try to mitigate the risk of academic-ese watering down the practical substance of what can be a solid paper.

Have you read War Comes to Long An (http://www.amazon.com/War-Comes-Long-Revolutionary-Vietnamese/dp/0520023617)?

09-23-2008, 01:01 PM
Mike, try and get ahold of BG (Ret) Huba Wass de Czege...he's doing some great work on wicked problems and would be value added I believe to your thesis. I'm sure you've looked at some of Dr. Naveh's work as well on top of Minzberg. If not, his takes on systemic operational design have some implications for your paper as well.

War Comes to Long An is a great book to delve into a true wicked problem. Some very interesting similarities between Long An and Zaganiyah, Iraq. Race's book was a dry read but brought out some interesting facts which directly relate to the events in Zaganiyah.

Gian P Gentile
09-24-2008, 12:07 AM
Do you read arabic and do you have access to primary sources from the town?

09-24-2008, 12:45 AM
COL Gentile-

Sir, I’m a mere product of the North Carolina education system. I consider myself lucky to speak/read something resembling the Queen’s English let alone Arabic. Humor aside, my time in Iraq enabled me to comprehend the majority of Iraqi conversations. Moreover, I have access to professionals fluent in all dialects of Arabic to translate pertinent documents.

IRG to primary sources from Zaganiyah, I’m still in contact with many of my friends from the town. Furthermore, I am the first westerner to actually live in the town so my experiences provide me with a unique perspective. Throughout my time in Zag, elders provided the oral tradition dating back thirty plus years which I will utilize in my thesis.


As usual, you provided questions that I cannot answer at the moment. My second reader and I are currently debating on whether I should divide the anthro/social chapter into two.


I’m going to add War Comes to Long An to my reading list, and I’ve made preliminary contact with BG (Ret) Wass de Czege.

Thank y’all for your help/assistance.



Gian P Gentile
09-24-2008, 01:32 AM

great, sounds like you have the primary sources in hand for an excellent piece of work that will contribute to knowledge.

The historian in me first moved to the question of sources.

Keep me in mind if you need a set of eyes to look at it.


02-09-2009, 06:12 PM
I've received several emails asking for updates on my research. I haven't had time to respond to all. After much deliberation and wise counsel, I decided to narrow the scope of my thesis topic. In my game theory course, I created a model that may help explain the transition from COIN to SSTR. Initially, this model was only going to encompass one chapter, but it deserves further development. My thesis will expand on this thoughts. Below is a synopsis. Attached is the draft chapter one.

I look foward to hearing y'alls thoughts and feedback.


The application of classic counter-insurgency principles applied during the Surge allowed the Government of Iraq and United States military to secure the populace; however, it failed to deliver a seamless transition into Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR). It other words, the Surge succeeded militarily but failed politically (Ricks, The Gamble, 2009). While the military effort provided breathing room for political negotiation, the various sectarian and tribal factions failed to overcome past grievances, hatred, animosity, and fears to capitalize on the stability and unite the nation.

Currently, even as Iraq conducted peaceful provisional elections, all the seeds of revolt that initiated the civil war still remain. The outcome of the United States’ intervention in Iraq is far from decided. Ambassador Ryan Crocker forecast that “the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened” (Ricks, 2009).

The purpose of this thesis is to introduce a simple game theory model that explains qualitatively the collective struggle of the Iraqi hearts (emotions) and minds (utility). This thesis reflects my findings based on my personal experience in Zaganiyah.

This thesis explores the possibility of modeling the conflict in Iraq by introducing a simple two-person game using an adapted version of Maynard Smith’s Evolutionary Stable Strategy and John Nash’s Arbitration Point to model the arbitration of hearts and minds necessary for transition from protracted counter-insurgency operations towards reconstruction and stability operations.



03-22-2009, 01:45 PM
Conflict Resolution: A Counter-Insurgent's Guide to Controlling the Hearts (http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/198-few.pdf)reflects my findings after eighteen months of research.

04-09-2009, 07:45 PM
have an essay pending that will lay out the constructs of a revised Post-War foreign policy using my personal observations as empirical evidence. It is extremely complex mostly in verse as that is how I have learned to cope with diminished cognitive skills in the wake of too many concussions. It requires a primer. Below is Towards Transcendence. Take your time with this. It is important, relevent, but extremely personal. The intent of the following works are searching for truth- I'm walking a fine line with politics and religion, but I feel my path is still on the straight and narrow.



Towards Transcendence

Recently my friend inquired, “How are you so certain? How do you know?” I can neither express nor articulate the intuition flooding through my damaged hippocampus pouring south along the tributaries of my brain stem, channeling through my broken thyroid, and merging into my heart swelling in calm warm springs like the hot baths of Big Sur. The dam burst. I just know. It just is.

In a world of uncertainty, chance and circumstance are masked by notions of reason and rationale. Some things are best left undefined. All things considered, some mysteries are left only to God. They just are. How does a squirrel know to spread the tree’s seed? How does a rooster know when to crow?

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. More is less, less is more. Light in village, heavy in urban. Strykers medium fill the void. I will go in this way and find my own way out stepping outside a box never really in. Shadows subside as storms pass…Walk with me once more…For a moment, give me voice; it takes two to listen.

In the same parallel that x is a function derived from y and depicted numerically on a graph, the Arab world is a wonderful, mystical land full of multiple paradoxes competing and contrasting directly with traditional western rational thought, norms, and values. This land that provided the world with Hammurabi’s law, algebra, and three religions coexists within the same mosaic that introduced honor killings, suicide bombers, and assassins. This cradle of civilization ebbs and flows in the persistent and unrelenting current of conflict with modernity while defying western utopian dreams of perpetual peace. This land contradicts and conforms in a beauty unresolved leaving most unfamiliar unnerved striving to determine some rhyme and reason to it all.

Proclamations of absolutes conflict current thought skewed in measures of self denial and deprivation. Forgiving without forgetting strikes in contrast. Acceptance is retribution. A life well live is absolute revenge. Everything conforms absent self-reliance. A decision must be made; a choice derived. Present day academics astute intelligence as the regurgitation of past events, recollection, and the sum of the parts mindless of new thoughts derived. Time to voice, but what regulates choice? Eschewed notion of disbelief hampers progress in some desperate rationale of resolve- revenge destructive, forgiveness everything. Let it go striving towards purpose.

1. Conform.

2. Walk away.

3. Action- Truth to power.

What is al Qaeda? The active absence of hope and passion skewed in anger. Tumbling, spiraling down, the Islamic Revolution unfolds in search of deep introspection. Nearly four score past, Sayyid Qutb questioned his isolation, unhappiness, and loneliness. Bitterness derived from grievances revealed, theorems proposed juxtaposed to uneducated masses; Muslim Brotherhood evolves. All for naught in distaste for compassion. Self-denial self-inflicted for naught in the lack of creativity, curiosity, and thought. No renewal of the mind, the martyr self-destructs. I know because I walked with him. It hurt, and my heart bleeds. Who will teach the children to read? Temporal thoughts temper tolerance tolerant to teaching towards temperance. Anarchy ensues. Not our fight. Victims victimized verily refusing validation.

See what I see, walk where I walked, know what I know, feel what I've felt, taste what I taste in hopes of the renewing of the mind back towards God. Today I help you; tomorrow, you me. Always alone, never alone, he walks with us unrealized at times. Transcend storm and know peace.

Towards the confluence of verse...onward now

Or are we just moving words around on paper?

Does it make me crazy to believe that the dreams of my youth can unfold after all that I’ve done, all that I’ve witnessed, all that corrupted? Certainly not. Quite possibly, the crucible of tragedy tempers the coal melding rough and coarse into beauty sparking creative thought. Maybe we simply must let go of expectation, dream with arms wide open, breathe deeply, and embrace the storms. The storms bring rain, but they also bring rainbows. Maybe one cannot appreciate the rainbow unless he has walked through the storm.

Maybe injury but a gift for us all
Maybe attitude defines reality
Maybe I'm wrong
Wouldn't be the first time

Ever thoughtful, always too thoughtful
are we moving towards transcendence
or drifting down in woeful ignorance?
Pray tell, Prayer may heal

So how is he doing?
has mind faded in madness?
Or am I simply happy
loving you longingly

Playful evermore
Moving words on page

Healing transcends
Cathartic emotions released
no more to grieve
no more distraught

Play with me playfully
embracing the thought
love with me longingly
lest rendition rings remission

Is that too much to ask?
Certainly not
Walk with me towards confluence
All you have to do is say yes when I ask

This is how I now think

04-17-2009, 01:19 PM
By no means am I a scholar or academic despite having a Masters Degree and one (1) year of postgraduate work under my belt. Having never been in Iraq, my opinions are simply that. My involvement in a 3rd world war, Viet Nam and direct living experience with two (2) other groups of 3rd worlders, one of which was Muslim, gives me pause to suggest that "the wicked problem" is by no means unique and distinctive to Iraq. We are collectively the wicked problem and always have been and each generation views their predicament as the most intense and difficult ever. I would suggest that our Western linear thinking heightens our sensitivity, at times to the point of compulsive thinking but this is not to deny that a 'mess' exists in Iraq, or for that matter East Lost Angeles or South side Chicago or rural Appalachia or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation - talk about disparate culture clashes and wicked problems, they are with us everywhere, vibrant, transgenerational and immune to any fix our logic and rationality can come up with.

After hanging around here for a couple of years or so and being exposed to so many professional and experienced people, I believe COIN's existence centers on four (4) principles: understanding the cultures, respecting the cultures, adopting the cultures and generating meaningful employment for those capable of bearing arms against us. We have failed with the latter two principles hence we remain in a twilight zone of being neither the occupier nor the enabler.

The most successful COIN operatives in our history were the free trappers, the mountain men operating in a 14 year period of time from 1820-1834, the rise and fall of the beaver trade. They went in small numbers hundreds of miles into uknown territory and at times lethal territory without any logistics and Intel. They successfully implemented the 4 COIN principles and survived and it can be argued they even thrived. The analogy applicable for our current dilemma would be if at the time of the invasion, separate squads of grunts dispersed from Basra and walked to Fallujah and up to Kurd land, passing through Baghdad, all done with no communication and no backup, just their packs and rifles. 60% of them would have returned south alive in 14 years using Arabic as often as English, half their attire would be Iraqi style clothing, they would have fathered some children, they would prefer a lot of Iraqi type food over American fare and they would feel a bit of a connection to Allah.

That is the core of the wicked problem, an inability to mingle and adopt. The only real shot we had at adopting was language but how many boots on the ground have basic communication skills and see any merit to speaking Arabic other than using it as a tactical tool? Secondly, and to resort to the mountain man analogy, we haven't traded for beaver pelts with young men capable of bearing arms against us. Sure, jobs have been created; Green Zone type jobs, camp followers abound but not so at the grass roots level. We could have and should have given temporary economic fixes/employment using the principles developed in our own great economic crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s, namely the Public Works programs and Civilian Conservation Corps. Some people quickly realized back then that idle young men can easily become very discontented. How many unemployed young Iraqi males have been in at least one fire fight or provided services to those thus engaged? We will never know. Very early on, I noted via TV thousands of young Iraqi males standing idle and tens of thousands of tons of rubble - it was work waiting to be done and I presume the rubble still abounds. I'm not suggesting this was/is the solution but it was/is a most viable option for developing relationships and enabling/nurturing. What unemployed family man would have turned down good wages for 8-10-14-20 months of steady labor? 1 truck, 6 men with leather gloves, water, the noon MRE meal and cash at the end of the day and you don't have 6 enemies or potential enemies. If the reader can't envision this, then he is locked into glitches and obstacles and thinking linear while being involved in a circular environment.

Our forces and leadership are to be commended for the understanding and respect of Iraqi cultures that has been fostered and grown with remarkable speed and this at least is keeping us in the ball game. A big tip of the hat to General P. and his crew. I recall in Viet Nam a guy building a house and I inquired as to when he thought he might have it completed. He responded that his sons or grandkids would finish the job and so it is with the world's wicked problems that will require our blood and resources.

Your thesis proposal is impressive and quite sound in my opinion and variables exist in droves for you to labor on. Keep us posted and keep up the good work and thank you for your service to our nation and Iraq.

Ken White
04-17-2009, 07:58 PM
Hope today's a good 'un for ya.

04-17-2009, 08:48 PM
Very early on, I noted via TV thousands of young Iraqi males standing idle and tens of thousands of tons of rubble - it was work waiting to be done and I presume the rubble still abounds. I'm not suggesting this was/is the solution but it was/is a most viable option for developing relationships and enabling/nurturing. What unemployed family man would have turned down good wages for 8-10-14-20 months of steady labor?
Exactly right.

When we rolled into Baghdad in April 2003, one of our first tasks associated with "restoring law and order" was to detain looters. For crimes against their fellow Iraqis, this made sense. However, this order extended to young men who were stripping wire and pipes out of destroyed government buildings. What sense did that make? None, in my opinion, but those were our orders. You can disobey an unlawful order. Unfortunately, you can't disobey an incredibly stupid order that ensures the mission will fail. I can't count the number of times that I recommended to my CO and S3 that instead of detaining 18-year-olds who are stripping raw materials from destroyed buildings, we should be encouraging them to do it some more. Several of my fellow platoon leaders were making similar observations, as were squad leaders. I'd like to think that our chain of command had already argued the issue with their chain of command and lost. But my impression was that they trusted the bright ideas of people completely removed from the situation, rather than the judgment of those of us who were in it everyday up to our eyeballs.

One of the metrics briefed everyday by the staff was the number of looters rounded up. They briefed it and compared numbers to adjacent units as if it were some kind of measure of success or a scorecard against which to measure performance with sister units. A competition. So stupid. As it turned out - and as it should have been obvious - it was nothing more than a competition to see who could turn the most people against us and create the largest pool of recruits for an impending insurgency.