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Never bring a sword to a pen fight?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which I suggest that reality may be more like a river, our understandings more like canals ]
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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Moon of Enlightenment" from One Hundred Views of the Moon


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I read a couple of things this morning that struck me. The first was in Zen’s post, Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have:

Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time-tested tactic in bargaining.

The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

There’s this business about words and realities, or maps and territories if you prefer. The word is not the thing, the finger pointing is not the moon, the name that can be named is not the true name… and gaming a war is not the same as fighting it.

And yet troop movements near a border “in an exercise” are still troop movements, and thus threatening. And a threat is what? — an implicit form of violence?

Alex Schmid, in his Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism, #3, writes of “physical violence or threat thereof employed by terrorist actors”…

A threat, a promise, a plan, a scenario, a prediction, a prophecy, a self-fulfilling prophecy — words and images have impact, the pen can be mightier than the sword, just as it can be cut down by it. How does the saying go? Don’t bring a pen (or sketch-pad) to a swordfight? or should it be — never bring a sword to a pen fight?

So how do we talk about the disjunction Zen mentions, the “negotiating in bad faith” mechanism, in game theoretic terms? What kinds of maps allow us to note the positioning of minds as well as mortars?

And what if the minds themselves are split — how do we model that?

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Which brings me to the second thing I read today — this one in Graeme Smith‘s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, p 96:

Like many Afghans, my translator’s extended family included both government workers and insurgents. Not all of them disagreed with each other ideologically; sometimes they followed the pragmatic tradition in which Afghan families hedge their bets, sending their sons to serve in a variety of factions in a conflict.

I’d seen this division of familial labor mentioned some years ago, and today a review of Smith’s book brought the memory back to me, and again I wondered — what does that do to all those network maps that show who knows who?

I guess what I’m saying is that reality is inherently fluid — like a river if you will, with its shifting banks and oxbow lakes — while our categories for thinking about reality tend to be as straight and inflexible as a canal.

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How do we transition, in understanding, from the neat, crisp idea to the rumpled reality? From the finger pointing, to the moon?

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New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  ”go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

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Jottings 13: on matters of porcine theology

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- with a sidelong glance at anti-Imperialist cows ]
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The pig: both trayf and halal

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The news was in an AP post headed Pig heads in boxes sent to Jewish targets in Rome:

Italian police say they are searching for the sender of pig heads to Rome’s main synagogue, the Israeli Embassy and a city museum hosting an exhibit on the Holocaust. Police headquarters said Saturday the anti-terrorism squad was handling the case. The pig heads arrived in three separate boxes, all sent by a delivery service unaware of the contents. The deliveries were made Friday, three days before an international memorial day for Holocaust victims.

Joel Richardson at Joel’s Trumpet draws our attention to a significant parallel:

One might see echoes here of the acts of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek monarch, who in the second century B.C., sacrificed a pig on the altar in the Jewish Temple, criminalizing the very practice of Judaism.

What troubles me here is the powerful, implicitly apocalyptic emotion such a parallel draws on.

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But if Jews can be targeted with pork, so can Muslims — and I also think it is worth pondering the practice of greasing bullets with pork fat, in the hope that this will consign any Muslims killed with such bullets to hell, pork being a haram or forbidden food in Muslim theology.

Jihawg Ammo makes a sales point of this idea. As WND put it a few months back in New Ammo cancels free ticket to Paradise:

A company in northern Idaho has come up with a culturally sensitive approach. Jihawg Ammo has developed a proprietary system for infusing ballistic paint with pork. The special pork-infused paint is then applied to the bullets of loaded ammunition. The inclusion of pork in the paint makes the bullets haraam, or unclean. Under the strictest interpretations of Islamic law, anyone who comes in contact with any haraam item is then unclean and must engage in a cleansing ritual.

The objective of Jihawg Ammo is not to insult Muslims, nor even to send a terrorist to Hell. The objective is to serve as a deterrent – to place the promise of instant passage to Paradise into doubt. Without the promise of Paradise, how many Muslim literalists would be willing to lay their lives – and eternal souls – on the line to engage in acts of terrorism?

Likewise, a gun oil whose manufacturer claims his product was on the bullets used to kill bin Laden is advertised as demoralizing terrorists:

SILVER BULLET GUN OIL, is a HIGHLY EFFECTIVE Counter-Islamic terrorist force multiplier. SILVER BULLET GUN OIL was designed specifically to put Demoralizing FEAR and TERROR into SUPPOSEDLY “Fearless” Islamo-Fascist terrorists. It was created with the “TRUE BELIEVER” in mind. According to the Koran, Allah states, “Any of my followers contaminated by swine at the time of his death will be denied entry to my paradise forever, I HATE THE STENCH OF SWINE.”

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The Islamic theology is bad, however, and the pork coating ineffective…

I’ve used the USC database and searched the Quran for such a sentence without success. There are by my count six references to swine in the Quran, at 2.173, 5.3, 5.60, 6.145 and 16.115, all of them refer to the eating of swine flesh, none of them talk about death, and in each case the point is made that Allah is merciful and forgiving to those who consume pork flesh “without wilful disobedience”. It thus seems unlikely that any “TRUE BELIEVER” would be terrified of dying from a contaminated bullet, especially since the jihadist martyr is forgiven all sins and feels no pain beyond a pinprick at the moment of death…

As I posted elsewhere recently:

Gen. Pershing, as I recall, is said to have shot Muslims with pork-fat-coated bullets and / or buried them and poured pig’s entrails on their bodies in the belief that these actions would somehow make them unfit for heaven. Snopes, the usual place I turn to fact check dubious stories, has a page on this idea called Pershing the Thought, and calls the story “undetermined”.

I’d like to add that the idea itself, which has also been used recently to market fancy pork-coated bullets to US troops, has no basis in Islamic theology. You simply cannot get more authoritative theological guidance on things Muslim than the Qur’an itself, in which we find (Qur’an 2. 173):

These things only has He forbidden you: carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, what has been hallowed to other than God. Yet who so is constrained, not desiring nor transgressing, no sin shall be on him; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.

The whole story looks to be a rumor attached to a falsehood… It wouldn’t even work!

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What cannot be doubted, however, is that evidence suggesting the US military might be coating bullets with pig-fat so as to deny paradise to mujahideen can be used, and is in fact used, as evidence for the notion that the Unites States is at war with Islam – an idea that is a powerful aid to jihadist recruitment.

It is a claim that both Presidents Bush and Obama have explicitly denied — and that bin Laden himself made in his 1998 declaration:

All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on Allah, his messenger, and Muslims.

It’s the basic AQ argument: show that Islam itself is under attack by the United States, and it follows that every able-bodied Muslim has an obligation to defend it.

And that’s not just an obligation on some Muslims — it’s an kndividual obligation, fard ayn.

Here’s Abdullah Azzam on the subject, in his Defence of the Muslim Lands: the First Obligation after Iman, Chapter 3, “Fard Ayn and Fard Kifaya:

Jihad by your person is Fard Ayn upon every Muslim in the earth. …
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Neglecting the jihad is like abandoning fasting and praying, more than that, neglecting the jihad is worse in these days. We quote from Ibn Rushd: “It is agreed that when jihad becomes Fard Ayn it takes precedence over the Fard of Hajj.”

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And beef?

Allegedly the British bullets that sparked the Sepoy Rebellion / First War of Indian Independence were coated with both pig and cow fat — in hope of offending Muslim and Hindu alike.

Me? I’m mostly vegetarian…

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Rant Day, twelve years and two days on

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

[defrosted by Lynn C. Rees]

Eleven years ago, on September 9, 2001, the Web rudely informed me that Ahmed Shah Masood had been assassinated.

I was annoyed.

I hated the Taliban. To me, they were the enemy of all mankind. My hate didn’t single them out just for their Third World thuggishness, their seventh century flavored oppression, or their harboring of a declared enemy of my country. No, my hate singled them out for blowing up a few statues that had stood for 1,500 years.

For 1,000 of those years, Islam lived alongside the Buddhas of Bamiyan. During that time, weather, entropy, and sporadic iconoclastic enthusiasm had heavily damaged the Buddhas. But, until March 2001, they still stood, as they had stood for one millennium and a half.

Then the Taliban came. They were different. They had the iconoclast ends of March 622 and the means of March 2001 to carry them out. Dynamite, artillery, and rocketry let the Taliban do in three weeks what history had failed to do in fifteen centuries.

History is fragile. What survives down to us is idiosyncratic. We inherit only a few suggestive piles of rubble from the past. From this debris, numberless castles of the imagination have been conjured. One very insistent ghost of conjured history drove the Taliban to destroy the statues: an idealized vision of the community created by Muhammad in Medina and then Mecca from the hegira in 622 to his death in 632. From an antiseptic remove far from the compromised Islam of March 2001, this phantom umma looked down on the Taliban from the heights of 15 centuries and commanded them to erase the Buddhas of Bamiyan from history. The phantom umma promised that, as each piece of shattered idol fell away, the sacralized community of the Prophet would draw nearer and nearer.

And so the Buddhas of Bamiyan fell.

Since history consumes itself anyway, I oppose those who feel that history needs help swallowing. Human meddling in what survives and what doesn’t is unneeded: accident and negligence will always chew up more history than intention can aspire to. But the Taliban insisted on speeding the work of history along. Furthermore, they figured that they could not only speed it up but make it flip 180° and make it run backwards. And so they declared war on history.

To me, this made the Taliban barbarians. To me, they deserved to be removed from history themselves. The only man who seemed to be actively helping the Taliban out of history was Massood. And now Massood had gone to Allah, assisted by these same barbarians.

Downstairs I went. I ranted in the kitchen about the tragedy of Ahmed Shah Massood and his death to Mom and the occasional passing sibling. They didn’t know who Ahmed Shah Massood was. They didn’t know where Afghanistan was. To them, it was a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom they knew nothing. Massood of Afghanistan might as well have been the Massood in the Moon, fighting to keep one small grubby corner of the lunar surface Space Taliban-free.

Mom patiently listened as dinner was set. Over the years, she’d grown used to my ranting on and on about this or that distant obscurity. She knew that, with time, I’d fulminate my way out of my momentary idée fixe and go back to quietly tending my garden of trivia. The world would go on. Normalcy would flow unvexed to the future.

She was right. Rant mode ran out of steam. I ate dinner. I went back to my lair where my books and my computers would protect me. The sun set on September 9th, 2001. I went to sleep.

Two Buddha statues and the Lion of Panjshir would be only be the first to fall. Unseen in the gathering dark, history, with brutal intent, blatantly ignoring its own death in 1989, crept up the East Coast to be reborn.

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Sent to Coventry and much else besides

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- shall we say, not a great enthusiast for war? ]
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This image of Winston Churchill in the bombed out ruins of Coventry Cathedral is almost a self-referential paradox in itself, if you still believe the canard that he knew the Germans were going to bomb Coventry that night, and did nothing about it to avoid divulging allied knowledge of the German ENIGMA code.

It it walks like a canard and quacks like a canard…

For a rebuttal of the suggestion that Churchill knew Coventry would be the target that night, see Sir Martin Gilbert, Coventry: What Really Happened [pdf, pp. 32-3] — the post-literate can listen to this Angry History podcast instead.

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As an aside, I wonder what Churchill had in mind when he coined his celebrated mot about Russia:

It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.

According to Wikipedia, the Poles had delivered their early Enigma-breaking theories, tools and sample cryptologic bombs to British military intelligence in Warsaw on 25 July 1939. Churchill’s broadcast, The Russian Enigma, was given on 1st October 1939.

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And another aside, while we’re here — just to note that conspiracy theories are often among the gaseous components of a fog of war…

On the other hand, conspiracy theories can often be revealing of popular and or archetypal hopes and fears. In the present case, the anxiety revolves around situations such as that invoked by Caiaphas’ claim “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people“.

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Coming at the destruction of Coventry Cathedral from another angle…

I have mourned before the losses at Bamiyan and Monte Cassino:

Here’s what’s happened to the Green Mosque or Mazjid Sabz, famous for its dome (upper panel only, lower panel h/t Bilal Sarwary), in the course of fighting in Afghanistan — the country whose oldest mosque it is:

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And yet prayer continues:

FWIW, the lower panel image (above) is from a Christian Science Monitor article titled Israeli settlers respond to mosque burning allegations — the caption reads in part:

Palestinian men pray Monday near a burnt part of the carpet in a mosque that was damaged in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem. Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to the West Bank mosque on Monday

The upper panel image, as far as I can determine, shows the continuing celebration of Mass in a German church after Allied bombardment in World War II.

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It is at least worth pondering the words of these Trappist sisters in Azeir, Syria…

They came to Azeir to continue in spirit the work of the monks of Tibhirine, about whom I wrote, giving extensive background and the entire text of Fr. de Chergé‘s great, final testament here. The sisters write:

Today we have no words, except those of the Psalms that the liturgical prayer puts onto our lips in these days:

Rebuke the Beast of the Reeds, that herd of bulls, that people of calves…oh God, scatter the people who delight in war…Yahweh has leaned down from the heights of his sanctuary, has looked down from heaven to earth to listen to the sighing of the captive, and set free those condemned to death…Listen, God, to my voice as I plead, protect my life from fear of the enemy; hide me from the league of the wicked, from the gang of evil-doers. They sharpen their tongues like a sword, aim their arrow of poisonous abuse…They support each other in their evil designs, they discuss how to lay their snares. “Who will see us?” they say. He will do that, he who penetrates human nature to its depths, the depths of the heart…Break into song for my God, to the tambourine, sing in honor of the Lord, to the cymbal, let psalm and canticle mingle for him, extol his name, invoke it…For the Lord is a God who breaks battle-lines! … Lord, you are great, you are glorious, wonderfully strong, unconquerable.

We look at the people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin, unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the “inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention will be….

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