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New Article up at Pragati: Lethal Ideas & Insurgent Memories – Review of The Violent Image

Friday, October 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

I have a new book review up at Pragati this morning:

Lethal ideas and insurgent memory 

….One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21stcentury’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20thcentury followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Read the rest here.

 

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The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Several weeks ago, Cheryl Rofer wrote an important post analyzing the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I found Cheryl’s argument quite persuasive and would like to add a few points of my own; because while some of the concerns raised by Myhrvold are valid and his intent is no doubt well-meaning, the approach he suggests is, at times, problematic.

If in the past ten years you have been a serious student of terrorism studies, insurgency and COIN, national security, counter-terrorism policy, counter-proliferation policy,  intelligence community affairs and military theory, there is little that will be new for you in the first part of the report. Many of these problems had previously been raised (at least in part) by figures as disparate as Michael Scheuer, John Robb, Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, William Lind,  Robert Bunker and dozens if not hundreds, of thinkers, practitioners and scholars. In addition, this ground was also covered by government agencies like the National Intelligence Council in its periodic Global Trends reports, and in classified analysis by the Office of Net Assessment and various three letter agencies. The blogosphere also had a lively discussion of catastrophic WMD terrorism, superempowered individuals, 4GW/5GW, apocalyptic Mahdism and related subjects throughout the mid to late 2000’s.  Diffusion of society-shifting power into the hands of small groups and individuals was a theme of Alvin and Heidi Toffler back in the 70’s and 80’s, so this is an old rather than new problem.

Dr. Myhrvold is a polymathic character, but his original area of specialization was mathematical research so it is not surprising that his approach to things “strategic” is dominated by scalar considerations. Namely, a threat taxonomy based upon potential magnitude of  disaster events up to the extinction of the human race (High M 10).  Wondering here, as the bibliographic references of this report are extremely scanty, if Myhrvold was influenced by Herman Kahns ideas on escalation or game theory based literature on deterrence or something else. Regardless, while there’s some merit to this definition – obviously if your civilization is destroyed or everyone is dead you have suffered the ultimate in strategic defeat – there are weaknesses too as the linear progression of destruction implies an apolitical environment and inevitable process. That’s not how things work with strategy in the real world, neither today nor back in the era of Cold War superpower nuclear brinksmanship. Even John Foster Dulles and Vyacheslav Molotov were more politically nuanced than that.

This is an important point. Myhrvold is focused on capacity alone rather than in conjunction with political purpose in defining strategic threats.  Capacity in bad hands is worth worrying about and Myhrvold is right when he criticizes the government for their obstinate refusal to develop a robust threat detection system for shipping to US ports of entry ( that’s boring, hard work with little payoff from a political perspective, but the NSA building a system for surveilling all Americans is fun and gives government bureaucrats great potential power to ruin anyone they wish); that said, outside of comic books and James Bond movies, people do not historically initiate violence on an epochal scale out of a Joker-like admiration of nihilism, not even terrorists. Instead, they have a political end in mind for which violence is a tool. This variable appears to be absent from Myhrvold’s thinking.

More troubling, Myhrvold’s solution to the potential threat of bioweapon terrorism would appear to be, as I infer it, even greater centralization of power in the hands of a national security surveillance state. As I expect Dr. Myhrvold is a great respecter of data-driven, probabilistic logic, he might want to consider that nearly every man-made, high magnitude, lethal event in the past century and a quarter years has been initiated by governments for reasons of policy, up to and including the auto-genocide of tens of millions of their own citizens. Most people on this planet are in far greater danger of harm at the hands of the state than they are as a result of terrorism or foreign attack and it would seem foolish, in light of such statistics, to increase our risk by delegating greater grants of power to the entity most likely to cause us harm. In the words of the late defense and security expert Dr. Fred Ikle, we would be risking Annihilation from Within.

Ikle anticipated years ago much of what Myhrvold wrestled with in his report and, in my view, prescribed better answers.

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Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear Diner.com and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

by Cheryl Rofer

Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

Note that potentially. again on page 10:

Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

And the “large and growing” number of “ragtag countries” that “have developed homegrown nuclear devices”? Well, let’s count them. Outside the five nuclear weapons countries enumerated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan that are known to have significant numbers of nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested three nuclear devices; whether they have weaponized any is not known. And, despite Iran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons, some people believe that is the case. That’s all I can think of. Nine is not a large number, nor is it growing particularly rapidly. I’ll leave it to Myhrvold to tell us which of those countries are “ragtag.”

So his assumption that nuclear weapons are easily available to terrorist organizations fails. I’m not as closely acquainted with the issues of biological weapons, but if Myhrvold’s arguments there are equivalent to the ones on nuclear weapons, I’m not worried. Likewise, he cites only one example, Aum Shinrikyo, for the terrorist use of chemical weapons, but there have been no incidents since. And he uses his expansionary sense of capability: If they had been able to disperse the sarin more effectively, more people would have died. But they didn’t; these weapons are difficult to make effective, and small groups, even with expertise, have shown themselves not up to the capability of states.

It’s worth going back to that paragraph from page ten to examine Myhrvold’s rhetorical methods, which persist throughout the paper. The first two sentences are sensational assertions with no specific content. And it is an inflection point – everything has changed! This is a common trope for computer guys, and the rest of us are on to it. Again, no specifics. Then the “facts,” which turn out to be wrong and unsupported. And then the sensational conclusion that the first two sentences told us we would come to.

He provides a number of old chestnuts, again with no support. Many of them have been shown to be doubtful.

  • Terrorists have no home address; therefore retaliation and deterrence are difficult or impossible.
  • “If a nation-state really wants to hurt the United states, why risk reprisal? Why not inflict damage by giving encouragement, resources, and direction to a group such as al Qaeda?”
  • “The quickest path to power for a ruthless and ambitious 21st-century man in many parts of the world is now to lead a stateless terror group.”
  • “The bully pulpit afforded by modern communications has allowed what once would have been isolated fringe groups to knit together into formidable adversaries against the most powerful nations on earth.”

He conflates all terror groups with al-Qaeda and almost asserts that their single goal is to build a caliphate. I say “almost” because throughout the paper, he implies or states pseudo-conclusions loosely connected to earlier statements, not quite willing to own his implications. However, since he includes them, one might assume that they represent his thinking. This method of presentation, however, leaves him ample room to say “I didn’t say that.”

He defines (or, in his loose way, almost defines) tactical and strategic terrorism, presumably attempting a parallel with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical terrorism – the shooting up of shopping malls and bombing of marathons – can be handled by normal means of law enforcement. Strategic terrorism – which seems to mean actions that can kill millions of Americans – needs Myhrvold’s advice.

The parallel, however, doesn’t work, because strategic nuclear weapons exist, but the capability for a terrorist group to kill millions of Americans doesn’t and isn’t likely to for some time, if ever.

But let’s consider Myhrvold’s advice. It is to centralize and highly fund (ah, now we see why he’s getting an audience in Washington) an organization with a single executive to prevent strategic terrorism.

Business knows best, he says, and this is how business does it. But, whatever the virtues, this has been tried before. Any number of politicians and lobbyists have advocated a special agency with an executive focused like a laser on their preferred goals. Sometimes the agency is formed. It would be helpful if Myhrvold would list the successful examples.

The government is doing many of the things that Myhrvold advocates; he seems not to have researched what is being done and what is not. And some of his (almost) suggestions are scary: we must reconsider whether the dangers from the Bill of Rights outweigh the benefits. Not even that explicitly, his goals of preventing strategic terrorism imply a great deal of surveillance, probably a lot more than the NSA is now being accused of.

Harris says that Myhrvold is talking to people in federal agencies concerned with terrorism, although Myhrvold is shy about saying whom. There are always a few people in federal agencies who are impressed by a Big Name with Big Money. Perhaps they just wanted him to sign their copy of his cookbook. And perhaps some see an opportunity to use Myhrvold’s recommendations to enhance their agency’s budget or reach.

But it’s the sameold sameold: be very afraid, the terrorists are coming to get you! The country seems to be moving past that after twelve long years.

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Nairobi tweets 2: Sun Tzu and more

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — further hints from the HSM Press twitter stream, following on from part 1 on bullet-proofing ]


Update:


As of Monday morning 11am California time:

I now think it’s clear that the twitter stream I was commenting on in this post and the first in the series was not an official Shabaab feed, and thus untrustworthy as to its statements — although it’s exact status (fan, mimic, troll, loosely connected?) is undetermined.

I am leaving the post up (a) for the record, and (b) for whatever minor interest it may still have.


Original post:


.

Okay, let’s pick up the thread from my earlier post in this series with this sheer poetry — sheer Anglo-Chinese poetry in fact, the poetry of Sun Tzu from The Art of War — Chapter 7, “Maneuvering”, # 19 in the Lionel Giles translation.

I won’t be presenting the rest of these tweets in graphical form, since that would be labor intensive and I’m trying to be conservative about my labor, but there’s one more Sun Tzu quote I noticed in their stream, and we’ll come to it.

In the meantime, HSM Press tweeted on a variety of topics, all of which seem relevant to them:

**

Let’s note first the importance given to prayer in these tweets:

  • our mujahideen just prayed salat dhuhr! #westgate #alshabaab #Nairobi
  • our mujahideen are preparing to pray salat maghrib! #westgate #AlShabaab #Nairobi
  • The Qur’an is cited:

  • and kill them wherever you find them! ring a bell? #westgate #AlShabaab
  • Their Islam is a religion of peace —

  • yes islam is a religion of peace! thats undebatable. the debate here is who hit first? #westgate #AlShabaab
  • dont blame islam! islam never told you wage war on another country! #westgate
  • — but peace comes arms-in-arms with justice.

    There are matters of logistics:

  • we tweeted arrival of 2 squads and they are replacing our first two now. hooo-ah! #Westgate
  • update: our third mujahideen squad just crossed the border, enroute to #garisa and other undisclosed locations. #Westgate #AlShabaab
  • update: 4th mujahideen squad rendezvous to undisclosed location! brace yourselves #kenya #westgate #AlShabaab
  • Here’s that other Sun Tzu quote, along with a mention of training camps:

  • the first thing they taught us in training camps: know your enemy! #AlShabaab #Westgate
  • and there, making a fine DoubleQuote, is Margaret Atwood‘s nifty variant on Clausewitz:

  • “War is what happens when language fails.” #westgate @nairobi
  • Now, about those “training camps”?

  • have we mentioned we trained in this same building months ago! our mujahideen know every corner of this building! #alshabaab #westgate
  • But also:

  • our mujahideen are all under 25 years old. 7 of them having completed training in black water facility in north california! #Westgate
  • So they train with Blackwater / Academi and in situ, eh? And they’re all under 25 — when they started naming namesa bit later, they identified at least one 27 year old, but you get the drift — and at least one is a young woman:

  • our female combatant took out 15 kenyan soldier! what an amazing woman! #Westgate
  • They count the cost — though unlike AQC in the case of 9/11, they don’t do so to show what a huge ROI they have, just to be glad it wasn’t a flop:

  • the vast amount of time, money and dedication we contributed to this operation were glad it was carried successfully! #westgate #AlShabaab
  • They call it an op here, but their view of its size and importance is pretty flexible as to scale…

    It’s a game – the “war as game meme” once again!:

  • lets see how yall enjoy this game! #westgate #alshabaab #Nairobi
  • They also call it a war:

  • this is a war and its not going to end well. #westgate #AlShabaab
  • It’s not a Jihad, though:

  • #JIHAD is a big word to use for this drill. #kneyans you will know when jihad is happening its unevitable! #westgate #AlShabaab
  • It’s gonna get worse:

  • you call few hundred death a deadly attack. well see what a deadly attack is. brace yourselves #lenya #westgate #AlShabaab
  • — and hey, it looks as though they have their eye on S Africa as a target further down the road:

  • #southafrica gere we come!!! #Westgate
  • **

    Those are the tweets I found interesting on a first read. HSM followed up with the names and home cities of three American participants, and then their feed was suspended and I was invited to return to my home timeline…

    Credit goes to JM Berger for getting Twitter to be a whole lot quicker in disabling their feeds, but it’s all a bit whack-a-mole, and I suspect they’re probably back up by now, under some variant name or other.

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    Octavian Manea Interviews General David Petraeus

    Monday, September 2nd, 2013

    [by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

    Octavian Manea has had an excellent series of COIN  interviews at SWJ and this is one of the more important ones:

    Reflections on the “Counterinsurgency Decade”: Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus

    SWJ: In his recent op-ed published in the New York Times, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War”, General H.R. McMaster warned against the fantasy of “a new era of war”, and especially about the dangers in the blind faith in the transformative effects that technology promises to have on war. He argued that over the past counterinsurgency (COIN) decade we relearned a few lessons that we really should keep in mind as we head into the future: “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments”. His warning reminds me of an article you wrote in 1986 with General John Galvin about “uncomfortable wars”. You warned to take into consideration “the societal dimension of warfare”. To what extent do you see that prophecy still holding true post Iraq and post Afghanistan?

    General Petraeus: I think the essence of the article back in 1986 with General Galvin was frankly the importance of the human terrain in each particular situation, and the importance of understanding the terrain, having a very nuanced, detailed feel for the context of each situation, not just nationally, but sub-nationally and literally all the way down to each valley and each village. That kind of knowledge was achieved in Iraq and helped us enormously during the Surge. We had a greater understanding there, earlier than we did in Afghanistan, just because we had so many more forces on the ground, 165,000 American military alone at the height of the surge. In Afghanistan at the height of our deployment, we had 100,000 US troopers and about 50,000 coalitional forces, and we maintained that level for a relatively brief period of time. As I noted on a number of occasions, we never really got the inputs close to right in Afghanistan until late 2010.

    So, noting the importance of human terrain, I believe, is a fundamental aspect of crafting a counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, it was the biggest of the big ideas when we launched the Surge in Iraq, and we knew that since the human terrain was the decisive terrain, we would had to secure it as our principal focus – and to do so by living with the people, locating forward operating bases/joint security stations in the neighborhoods and villages, and specifically right on the sectarian fault-lines across which the heaviest fighting was ongoing in the capital. We ultimately established 77 additional locations just in the Baghdad area of operations alone, and many dozens more elsewhere throughout the country. There were other big ideas to be sure:  e.g., that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, such as we faced, therefore you need to reconcile with as many of the insurgents as was possible, seeking to maximize the number of the reconcilables; correspondingly, we also needed to intensify our campaign of targeted operations against the irreconcilables. But I think, fundamentally, it comes back to this issue, that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people.

    Read the rest here.

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