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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]
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Charles Cameron’s introduction: Regular readers may know my son Emlyn from previous contributions on Zenpundit [1, 2]. Here he wages a war of miniturization on the Korean fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un.

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Snow falls on Kim Jong-Il‘s funeral cortege

Reflecting on the Nuclear staring contest now ongoing between the United States and North Korea, I confront mixed feelings: Obviously one must consider different strategies and engage in a pragmatic calculus; One must consider the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the numerous lives which might be ended or fail ever to be lived as a consequence of any policy. It is, I need not say, a very complex issue. Worse still, it is an issue of severe import to many whose lives hang in the balance.

But I find myself grappling with a less practical question and coming away irresolute: If North Korea’s brand of surreal statism could be overthrown without bloodshed or tragedy, how would I feel? Would I be proud? Pleased? Grateful? Somehow, I can’t convince myself that I would be entirely satisfied. I feel certain that any pride, pleasure, or gratitude would be alloyed with something else. And this in spite of my knowledge that such a coup would be, well, a coup, and of the welcome it would justifiably receive.

“The bloodless anticlimax to an Orwellian police state?” I hear the likely refrain, “Terrific!”

“A peaceful end to a regime which embraced not only Stalinist propagandism, but De Facto Monarchy? Still better!” The voices continue.

“And a conclusion to tantrums and ICBM rattle throwing? Who could hope for more?” Comes the triumphal call.

And yet, I am unconvinced in the recesses of my heart. That might be strange to many people, even a tad immoral, but it’s how things stand.

In order that such a stance might make more sense, I’ll admit that I have a strange affection for the turbulent little state and its Emperor’s New Jumpsuits. This probably extends from more general conflicted feelings about overt dictatorships: I am someone who deeply loves enlightenment philosophy, and cherishes my personal freedoms. I am, all the same, a morbid person, prone to fatalism, and I harbor dark anticipations about the future of humanity. Somewhere in the middle I developed a great relish for bleak wit. For these reasons, it should come as no shock that I am a great admirer of George Orwell and a fan of his writings. Perhaps like others who count themselves among his readers, I find myself emotionally torn while reading Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; The dystopias he presents disturb me, and yet, (in spite of my philosophical leanings) a small part of me is always tugged at by a desire to relinquish the struggle of self determination, and to escape the paradox of choice by giving in to such an oppression. The terrible certainties, even of state assigned conclusions and death, speak to some tired part in me, which recognizes strain from the ongoing alertness required of anyone who wants to be the arbiter of their own affairs.

North Korea, likewise, is a natural antagonist to the individualism I hold dear, but, perhaps because of its total conviction and flagrance in opposing my worldview, I am captivated by its iconography and insular existence. I have always been fascinated by the ludicrous spectacle, the stark imagery, and the total devotion of totalitarian nations, though I revile their premises. Having one around, therefore, leaves me in rather a strange position: I desire the grip of the North Korean state on its people broken as a matter of principle, while simultaneously fearing the death of a kind of dangerous endangered species; I am struck by the feeling that the end of the North Korean state would be a victory for my values, and the loss of one of the world’s great curiosities.

A friend recently called North Korea “an Eighth Wonder of the World”, and I agree. It is a tragic wonder, dangerous rather than glorious, but a wonder none the less.

My grandfather, a conservative philosopher, referred to himself as a “sentimental monarchist”. If a peaceful end came to the militaristic regime in North Korea, my relief would be tinged with a similar kind of sentimental loss; Something interesting would be gone, and I would feel a nostalgic pang for the missing strangeness. I fancy that I would rather keep the aggressive little power, not on a map, but on a shelf. I should like to keep it in a snow globe, I think (the state already more or less frozen as it is).

I’d like a little magnified globe, not unlike the coral paperweight in Orwell’s book, in which would be held the repressive slice of 1950’s authoritarianism: Marches and missiles behind safety glass. Occasionally, on a quiet night, I might chance to hear a soft, televised threat to my safety, or a report on bountiful rations; If I felt a stab of longing for the atmosphere of suspended aggression from my parents and grand parents age, I could go to the mantle and wind the little state up by hand (rather than by tweet) and hear a tinkling anthem that takes me back; I’d like to visit the trinket now and again and watch snow fallout from a nuclear winter after I shake it, or watch tiny jackboots and smiling, slightly condescending diplomats go about their days work. Maybe the mandatorily grateful workers would even build a cardboard city for my benefit, to give an impression of plenty. And once I had seen the last settling flakes fall, I would place it back above the fire place with a feeling of having harmlessly revisited my childhood, glad of a souvenir to solidify the bittersweet memory. After all, a snow globe can cast nothing else from the mantle to the floor, nor launch beyond its translucent border.

Then again, just because I’d have the terror held safely under glass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t continue in earnest within.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in Foreign Affairs #2, more directly to his point

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — following up on Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in Foreign Affairs, my oblique analysis and more pertinent to the point he’s making ]
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Daveed is illustrating a pretty significant pattern with his latest article in Foreign Affairs, The Coming Islamic Culture War, subtitled What the Middle East’s Internet Boom Means for Gay Rights, and More:

These paragraphs:

Today, a new type of discursive space—one that will foster a very different set of ideas—is opening up in the Muslim world. In April 2011, Bahraini human rights activists created one such space when they launched the website Ahwaa, the first online forum for the LGBT community in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Esra’a al-Shafei, one of the website’s founders, was modest about the site’s ambitions, explaining that Ahwaa was intended “as a support network” for the “LGBTQ community” as well as a resource for those “who want to learn more by interacting with [LGBT] people.”

Although little-noticed at the time, Ahwaa’s seemingly innocuous project was in fact revolutionary. Homosexuality in the MENA region is not only stigmatized but generally criminalized and banished from the public sphere. The creation of an online platform where LGBT people could candidly discuss the issues affecting their lives, such as romantic relationships or the tensions between Islam and gay rights, was thus a direct challenge to deeply inscribed cultural and religious norms. Indeed, Ahwaa heralds a wave of challenging ideas that, fueled by rapidly rising Internet penetration, will soon inundate Muslim-majority countries.

Online communications, by their nature, give marginalized social and political groups a space to organize, mobilize, and ultimately challenge the status quo. In the MENA region, online spaces like Awhaa will give sexual minorities the ability to assert their identity, rights, and place in society. So too will the Internet amplify discourses critical of the Islamic faith, or of religion in general, and solidify the identities of secularists, atheists, and even apostates. The rise of these religion-critical discourses will in turn trigger a backlash from conservative forces who fear an uprooting of traditional beliefs and identities. The coming social tsunami should be visible to anyone who knows what signs to look for.

Into the black swirl of geographical regimes that give no room for questioning — gay, political, religious, or whatever — a white circle of online discussion and possibility blossoms —

Shielded by the relative anonymity of online communications, marginalized individuals of all stripes can discuss intimate and controversial issues. The Internet, furthermore, allows like-minded people from disparate corners of the world to find one another and create virtual communities. An atheist living in rural Egypt, for example, may not know anyone else who shares his views. But when he goes online, he will find millions of people who do.

— and as it blossoms, the black swirl of repressive backlash again threatens it.

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Likewise, though this does not happen to be Daveed’s point, into the white swirl of western democratic societies a black circle of illiberalism opens — the internet providing a networking space for anti-Semites and other far right groups they would previously lacked —

Today, the Internet is a powerful and virulent platform for anti-Semitism — hate towards Jews that has a direct link to violence, terrorism and the deterioration of civil society. Hitler and the Nazis could never have dreamed of such an engine of hate. [ .. ]

The Internet allows anti-Semites to communicate, collaborate and plot in ways simply not possible in the off-line world.

— and this blossoming extends into the Trump camp, as JM Berger suggested

New developments and new propaganda items are a constant part of the ISIS landscape, whereas content in white nationalist networks tends to be repetitive, with few meaningful changes to the movement’s message, landscape, or political prospects. A notable exception to this is Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, which has energized white nationalists and provided new talking points and opportunities for engagement. Trump’s candidacy is likely driving some portion of movement’s recent gains on Twitter.

And again likewise, this blossoming begins to be threatened by its own backlash — the blossoming of internet speech within contrary geographical cultural norms cuts both ways. It’s almost apocalyptic — that internet space blossoming can open up cracks in what David Brooks called “the post-World War II international order — the American-led alliances, norms and organizations that bind democracies and preserve global peace” — to which Steve Bannon is vehemently opposed.

Apocalyptic? Whether we’re speaking of Daveed’s “coming Islamic culture wars” or Brooks’ “international order” there are signs of the times to be seen. As Daveed says —

The coming social tsunami should be visible to anyone who knows what signs to look for.

— and in closing —

Regardless of their ultimate outcome, however, signs of the coming Islamic culture wars can already be discerned. Western observers have long overlooked or misinterpreted social trends that have swept through Muslim-majority countries. This is one trend that they cannot afford to miss.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in Foreign Affairs, my oblique analysis

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — in which Gartenstein-Ross reminds me of Albrecht Dürer ]
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Daveed speaks:

Daveed is worth reading and heeding, especially when he says he’s written something of particular consequence — so read his Foreign Affairs piece.

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My topic is triggered by a single sentence in Daveed’s piece, and is orthogonal to his. Daveed writes:

These spaces included both literal ungoverned territory and discursive spaces

In the overall flow of Daveed’s piece that’s a simple introductory remark, an observation of fact. From my point of view, though, there’s more to it than that — it’s a disjunction & conjunction of the two realms of geography and cognition, matter and mind, or “outer and inner space” if you will. And that’s something always worth noting.

In fact, Daveed’s comment reminds me of Albrecht Dürer and his illustrations of Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon, from The Apocalypse:

Here, the supernatural sits comfortably above (Latin: super) the natural.

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The physical-metaphysical (body-mind; outer-inner; objective-subjective) disjunction & conjunction is recognizable in Descartes, and takes contemporary form as the so-called hard problem in consciousness. It’s significant that the “war in heaven” of Durer’s vision no longer fills the skies in our contemporary images of war, though heaven and hell are no less with us than before..

And so I note that, en passant, Daveed has alluded to what is perhaps the great schism of our time, that between visionary and factual truths.

Kathleen Raine, poet — and mentor of my youthful self:

Fact is not the truth of myth; myth is the truth of fact.

Witness her distress as we abandon truth of myth shining “above” truth of fact, for truth of fact alone:

Chemistry dissolves the goddess in the alembic,
Venus the white queen, the universal matrix,
Down to molecular hexagons and carbon-chains,

John of Patmos, the alchemists, Durer, Blake, Jung, Raine, have the richer vision.

“Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces”

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski – a.k.a “zen”]

A remarkably blunt article on SF/SOF (“special forces” is being used as an umbrella term for both) in the context of policy and strategy, from the perspective of an emerging great power by LTG Prakosh Katoch of the Indian Army. The American example of SOCOM in Afghanistan/Iraq/GWOT has obviously had an impact here, as has the negative example of Pakistani use of terrorists as proxy forces and ISI covert operatives for direct action in Indian territory and elsewhere. Quite aside from global conflicts and the bilateral rivalry with Pakistan, India also faces more than a dozen long term irregular conflicts with their own dynamics, such as the NaxaliteMaoist insurgency , which Katoch places in the context of Chinese strategic ambitions against India.

A must read.

Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces

….In India, the lack of strategic culture, more on account of keeping the military out from strategic military decision making, has led the hierarchy to believe that conventional forces coupled with nuclear clout can deter us from irregular threats. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Pakistan, though conventionally inferior, has been successfully playing her ‘thousand cuts policy’ knowing full well that India has failed to develop the required deterrent. It is our inability to find a cure to this Achilles’ heel, that has led China, which was hitherto using Pakistan as proxy to wage irregular war on India, now directly aids and supports insurgent and terrorist outfits inside India.

….Why the US has managed to secure its mainland post 9/11 is not only because of an efficient Homeland Security organisation but because the US Special Forces (USSF) are operating in 200 countries including India. Significantly, USSF have undeclared tasks such as conducting proactive, sustained ‘man-hunts’ and disrupt operations globally; building partner capacity in relevant ground, air and maritime capabilities in scores of countries on a steady – state basis; helping generate persistent ground, air and maritime surveillance and strike coverage over ‘under-governed’ areas and littoral zones and employing unconventional warfare against state-sponsored terrorism and trans-national terrorist groups globally. Before 26/11, Al-Qaeda had planned similar operations against New York but could not because the USSF had infiltrated Al-Qaeda. One cannot guard the house by simply barricading it. You must patrol the streets and the area outside.

Growing inter-dependence and interlinking of terrorist groups regionally and internationally should be a matter of serious concern. It is not the US alone that has deployed its Special Forces abroad. This is the case with most advanced countries including UK, Russia, Israel, China and even Pakistan. Pakistan’s SSG was operating with the Taliban in Afghanistan and has been active in Jammu and Kashmir, Nepal and Bangladesh, primarily training anti-India forces. There is a strong possibility of their presence in the Maldives and Sri Lanka as well, aside from presence within India. The Chinese have been smarter. For all the development projects throughout the globe, including in Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan-POK, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Seychelles, contracts underway by PLA-owned/affiliated companies employ serving and veteran PLA soldiers and disguised Special Forces with assigned tasks, including evacuation of Chinese citizens from that country in case of emergencies. 

Read the rest here.

Are Insurgencies “Antifragile”?

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book,  Antifragile . It’s a highly intriguing book and I will give it a full review soon, but Taleb’s core concept of antifragility is important  and lends itself to wide application. Here’s Taleb on what constitutes “antifragility” – things that gain or improve with disorder – which he was careful to distinguish not just from “fragility” but also from “robustness” and “resilience”:

Almost all people answer that the opposite of “fragile” is “robust”, “resilient” , “solid”, or something of the sort. But the resilient, robust (and company) are items that neither break nor
improve, so you would not need to write anything on them – have you ever seen a package with
“robust” stamped on it? Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. It’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed. [31]

Italics in original.

Taleb uses a number of metaphors – the Phoenix, the Hydra – as well as examples to get across the point that an antifragile entity overcompensates in reaction to stress/damage/disorder by becoming better, growing stronger, more powerful, adaptively improving itself. Think of the effects of weight training in building muscle or a wildfire spurring bountiful growth in an ecosystem. There’s more to Antifragile than this but the gist is sufficient for now.

Which brings me to the question, “Are insurgencies antifragile?”

The study of insurgency, terrorism and revolution, while important and useful tend to suffer from several drawbacks. One is compartmentalization and academic specialization. As Robert Bunker pointed out in Narcos Over the Border,  a problem like “criminal-insurgency” attracts very different reactions from Law enforcement, intelligence analysts, the military, counter-terrorism officials and other experts (to say nothing of politicians) which makes consensus over a common analytic framework very difficult. Sometimes even defining the problem across domains is frustrating. As a result, many studies are too narrow and the few admirably ambitiously broad ones are deeply stamped in the political lens of the era in which they were researched and written – i.e. imperialist Small Wars, the Cold War, the War on Terror, Pop-centric COIN of Iraq and Afghanistan wars etc.  It is a subject that requires both more (and more intellectually creative) scholarship and a greater degree of synthesis.

In the meantime, I’d like to offer some speculation in an effort to answer the question:

  • The characteristics of “antifragility” in terms of at least some kinds of insurgency bears a striking resemblance to that of “wicked problems“, which has also been used to categorize some enduring irregular conflicts. Particularly in the sense of not having natural stopping points , manifesting complex interdependencies and resistance to simple, silver bullet solutions that could destroy it.
  • Moreover, most successful insurgencies are not, contrary to Maoist theory, autochthonous  – they draw many resources from external sources – black globalization, foreign patrons, legitimate trade, fundraising – and from the very state waging counterinsurgency warfare against them. The Afghan Taliban would be a much poorer military force without the vast amount of American aid passing through the hands of Pakistan and the Karzai regime
  • An insurgency’s claim to being “antifragile” may rest as much or more upon the general political and socioeconomic environment being relatively chaotic than on the nature of the insurgent organization itself.  The Chinese, Russian and Lebanese civil wars, Mexico’s narco-insurgency, West Africa and Afghanistan in the 1990’s, the Congo basinand Iraq in the 2000’s all had polycentric and disorderly environments that allowed  irregular groups to rapidly rise and fall on a local and regional basis. By contrast, “bilateral” insurgency vs. state dynamics can stabilize conflict for decades
  • An insurgent organization may lose antifragility as it restructures itself over time to become either more robust (ex. –Hezbollah) subnational entity or to accept greater fragility in order to acquire state-like hierarchical advantages ( political discipline and specialization). Note that “fragile” does not mean “weak”, it means “vulnerable”. States can be very strong and concentrating massive amounts of resources and coercive force, yet be strangely vulnerable to internal coups, popular uprisings, economic collapse, strategic myopia or even natural disasters. One of the great dangers today are complex systems that combine epic power with extreme fragility – small disruptions by irregulars yield huge ROIs.
  • States might be able to seek a strategic advantage over insurgencies by improving their robustness and smother the relatively ineffectual kinetic attacks of guerrillas or terrorists with inertia, refusing to “feed” the growth of an antifragile insurgent opponent, starving them of material resources and political oxygen. India has trucked along with something like seventeen ongoing insurgencies and episodic acts of major terrorism for decades without the Indian state remotely being in jeopardy of being overthrown by, say, the Naxalites, Sikh extremists or Kashmiri Islamists. Compare that with the rapid collapse or retreat of the state in places like Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Syria and so on.
  • The effects of globalization and information technology, the ability to have  John Robb’sopen source” decentralized, fast-evolving, insurgencies, give an an impetus to insurgencies becoming antifragile. At a minimum, it improves the odds.
Comments welcomed

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