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Pete Turner on “Collecting Instability”

Friday, June 12th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Collection Center Collects Instability

Pete Turner of The Break it Down Show had a powerful post that encapsulated what is wrong with the American approach to intervention in foreign societies, both in terms of our aid and development programs as well as COIN and military assistance of various kinds.

Collection Center Collects Instability 

….A good example of what we did involves things called Collection Centers, which our government built to afford Afghan farmers a place to showcase products to vendors. The Center is supposed to create greater revenue for farmers. Despite the best of intent, and a lot of hard work, the program was and remains an utter disaster.

Why has the program been such a flop?

We, the US, came in and established these centers without ever considering how the existing system worked. We never bothered to determine how changing the system might be accepted or rejected, or cause harm to those we intended to help. We didn’t consider if the Afghans even had a system (which, of course, they did).

Instead of defining the existing system and assessing whether or how our tool might address a need, we just came in and started changing things It didn’t work, and we barely cared that it didn’t; and we reported the opposite.-

An aside–the if you read the report, look for mentions of Afghan involvement in the process. You won’t find it.  

I spoke with an Army Major in charge of the program and asked him about the existing local market chain from grower to consumer. He admitted that he didn’t know about it. When I asked why he was trying to change it, I was met with silence.

We also never considered if we were creating a harmful situation for farmers, and that ignorance caused unexpected and undesirable outcomes. At the most basic level, Taliban fighters notice “western” influence. A farmer who uses (though they never actually did) the collection center is exposing his allegiance with the US and therefore putting his family and himself in jeopardy. Further, the farmer buyer relationship is established relationship. Changing the nature of their transaction is reckless in such a conservative, Taliban influenced place. What we can’t do is create a situation that is perceived to increase uncertainty for farmers.

We built these centers throughout Afghanistan. At every instance, covering multiple units, I observed the same poor US decision-making. We never bothered to involve our Afghan partners in the decisions and never allowed them to guide us on how to work within their system. We forced these centers upon the people of Afghanistan, and wasted more than money and resources in the process. We wasted opportunities to actually improve the lot of the farmer, which makes de-legitimizing the Taliban fighters more challenging.

Read the whole post here.

Turner wore many different hats in Iraq and Afghanistan but in one extended tour in Zabul, Pete worked closely with political science Professor Richard Ledet, who in addition to his scholarly expertise, was uncannily good at donning local attire and blending in with Afghan villagers.

Dr. Richard Ledet

Turner and his partner Jon, interviewed Ledet recently on their program:

What happens when an institution attempts to make changes intending to improve the lot of others? What if they ignore culture and fail to communicate with the people designed to receive a benefit from the change? We address these questions in ourepisode with Dr. Richard Ledet.

We are fans of Rich. He’s a warrior, professor, surfer, hunter, all-around brilliant, rugged dude. His current gig is working as a Poli Sci professor at Troy University in Troy Alabama. Rich and I worked together in Afghanistan studying how effective or “affective” our work was as US assets helping Afghans. It’s not common for Poli Sci professors to get so close to the ground truth, and then to be able to test our policy and strategic programs as they implemented at the lowest level. This experience, we believe, is fascinating and applies directly to the real world.

Listen to the interview here on The Break it Down Show.

How shall “in the box” people think “outside the box”?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a gadfly question ]
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We have seen various conversations online in which its is plausibly suggested that YESness leads to upward mobility across an array of silos and disciplines, specifically including the intelligence community and the military — the end result being risk-averse group-think that is pretty much “inside the box” by definition.

Similarly, we have noted that serious and nuanced issues are frequently debated in the media by those who are known for their general-purpose punditry or seniority, rather than by those with specific knowledge of and insight into the particular issues of concern.

Question: How shall we get outside the box thinking from inside the box thinkers?

WARLORDS, INC BOOK LAUNCH!!!

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

This important and terrifying book should be read by everyone who cares about the future of human civilization.” Anatol Lieven

Warlords, inc. ; Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Edited by Noah Raford and Andrew Trabulsi

Warlords, inc. a book to which I have contributed a chapter, is being launched today at The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. Published by Penguin-Random House, Warlords, inc. was the brainchild of Dr. Noah Raford, who recruited an impressive group of experts, journalists, scholars and futurists to analyze and anticipate emergent security trends and irregular warfare among non-state actors, including terrorists, hackers, insurgents, sectarians and corporations.  With a foreword by Dr. Robert J. Bunker, the list of authors include:

William Barnes
Daniel Biro
James Bosworth
Nils Gilman
Jesse Goldhammer
Daniel S. Gressang
Vinay Gupta
Paul Hilder
Graham Leicester
Sam Logan
Noah Raford
Tuesday Reitano
Mark Safranski
John P. Sullivan
Peter Taylor
Hardin Tibbs
Andrew Trabulsi
Shlok Vaidya
Steven Weber

As editor, Andrew Trabulsi did a heroic job herding cats in editing this substantial volume and keeping all of the authors and project on track and on time. Warlords, inc. is available May 12 on Amazon and will be at Barnes & Noble and Target as well. Excited and proud to be part of this endeavor!

New Article: There Are No Tea Leaves to Read About the Mosul Plan

Friday, March 13th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

There Are No Tea Leaves to Read About the “Mosul Plan”

I have a new piece up at War on the Rocks ( which, by the way, is doing an important Indiegogo fundraising drive):

THERE ARE NO TEA LEAVES TO READ ABOUT THE “MOSUL PLAN” 

A mostly forgotten Arab adversary of American influence in the Mideast, the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, once said “The genius of you Americans is that you make no clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them we are missing.”

The Obama administration appears determined to live up to Nasser’s estimation of our strategic acumen.

The latest evidence for this proposition would be the ill-fated affair of the administration’s former battle plan to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the butchers of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Problems began at the inception when the anonymous but official Central Command (CENTCOM) briefer revealed a plethora of sensitive operational details to reporters, a move described by journalists in their stories as “odd,” “very unusual,” “rare.” The stories provoked a firestorm of criticism from members of Congress, the Iraqis, and within the Pentagon itself which predictably led the administration’s numerous admirers in the media to mobilize andtake up a defensive crouch, speculating as to the clever hidden motives for releasing the plan. [….]

Read the rest here.

The dust-up over the Mosul Plan is, in my view, symptomatic of dysfunctional organizational problems, especially with the senior White Hose staff and NSC.  The latter of which is now of enormous size, estimated 400-500 people, depending how you count various civil service employees and military personnel on “loan” from their agencies and departments ( a “mini-State Department”, in the words of one member of the natsec community).

By contrast, Brent Scowcroft helped the collapse of the USSR to a soft landing and managed the Gulf War with an NSC of about 50.

Variations on the Blue Screen of Death

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — where would we be without our digital devices, minds & memories? ]
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Two converging thoughts, the first from John Robb at Global Guerrillas:

Over the weekend, ISIS threatened the life of Jack Dorsey, a co-founder and Chairman of Twitter. Why? Twitter, at the urging of the US government, has been shutting down the accounts of ISIS supporters for months. So, ISIS supporters responded by making a threat with a nifty graphic:

IS warns Dorsey the Twitter CEO Robb GG

We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back. But when our lions come and take your breath, you will never come back to life

The CEO as an Objective of War

Unfortunately for the suits in Silicon Valley, ISIS isn’t as much of a pushover as al Qaeda was. They have mass and
momentum and they are smart enough to understand the role of the Internet in this struggle. Additionally, they have lots of experience coercing CEOs. They did it quite a bit of it during the war in Iraq (and it worked).

Regardless, the targeted killing of a well known tech executive in sunny California by ISIS jihadis does appear impossible to imagine. Few places are more remote from each other, and not just geographically. Silicon Valley is a hyperconnected, financially mainlined zone striving for a tech nirvana. ISIS is a disconnected autonomous zone striving to return to the 7th Century. However, that’s probably a bad assumption. Charlie Hebdo showed the world that terrorism is evolving and corporate targeting on global scale is now on the agenda. This means an attack on a tech CEO isn’t just possible, but probable. Worse, once an attack on a senior tech executive happens, future threats will be instantly credible and highly coercive..

If that occurs, we are going to find out very quickly that the corporation, and particularly tech companies, are particularly bad organizations for warfare. One reason is that they are too centralized. In particular, the institution of the CEO is a grave weakness (a systempunkt in global guerrilla lingo). The CEO’s centrality to the corporate network makes him/her a single point of failure for the entire organization. Another is that executives in most of the western world are very soft targets. Easy to find (Google and Google maps), easy to isolate, and easy to kill…

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And the second from Marc Lindemann, When the Screens Go Dark: Rethinking Our Dependence on Digital Systems, from Small Wars Journal:

In a threat environment where even the most useful digital system may be knocked out of the fight, there needs to be a back-to-basics approach that will enable units to continue to fight effectively in the absence of their digital systems and digital guidance from higher headquarters. Every commander should be able to shut off the TOC’s power, slipping the digital leash, and have confidence that his or her unit can continue to function. Junior leaders and staff sections should be able to anticipate the problems inherent in digital-system failure and know what to do without a major disruption in TOC operations. ADRP 6-0’s non-digital solutions – “establishing trust, creating shared understanding, or providing a clear intent using mission orders” – are significant. More significant, however, and more measurable is the degree of Soldiers’ basic proficiency in their warfighting tasks.

Conclusion

Although this paper does not and cannot advocate the abandonment of the U.S. Army’s existing digital systems, the U.S Army’s dependence on digital systems is very much on its leaders’ minds today. These systems have repeatedly demonstrated the potential to make the U.S. Army a much more efficient and lethal fighting force. Before his retirement, however, GEN Robert W. Cone, then Commanding General, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, gave digital systems an ultimatum: “Why do we want this piece of technology? If it does not dramatically improve training ef?ciency, we need the strength to walk away.” Right now, the military is poised to increase digital training requirements in pursuit of inter-service operations, multinational activities, and the expansion of the network to include all Soldiers and vehicles. Leaders at every level must understand their dependence on digital systems, successfully manage their units’ use of these systems, and promote decentralized initiative in support of clearly defined and mutually understood tactical goals. In the end, Soldiers must have tactical knowledge that transcends anything displayed on a computer monitor. Soldiers, not our digital systems, are what will win our future conflicts. When the screens go dark, the mission must go on.

Well, the military details are way beyond me, though they presumably make sense to other SWJ and ZP readers — but the idea that the net, or large domains within it, may suddenly go dark (or blue, as the saying goes) is one that should give each one of us, dependent as we are on digital media for our communications and memories, considerable plause.

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It was my friend Peter Rothman — currently editor of H+ Magazine — who wrote the now celebrated digital haiku a few years back:

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams


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