zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Guest Post: DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War by J. Scott Shipman

Guest Post: DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War by J. Scott Shipman

J. Scott Shipman, the owner of a boutique consulting firm in the Metro DC area that is putting Col. John Boyd’s ideas into action, is a longtime friend of this blog and an occasional guest-poster. Scott has an important report regarding the “war of ideas” against the Islamist-Takfirist enemy in Afghanistan after attending a workshop hosted by DARPA.

DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War

by J. Scott Shipman

 I had the opportunity to attend a DARPA workshop yesterday called STORyNet. The purpose was to survey narrative theories, to better understand the role of narrative in security contexts, and to survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools (see below): 

This STORyNET workshop has three goals:

1. To survey narrative theories.

These empirically informed theories should tell us something about the nature of stories: what is a story? What are its moving parts? Is there a list of necessary and sufficient conditions it takes for a stimulus to be considered a story instead of something else? Does the structure and function of stories vary considerably across cultural contexts or is there a universal theory of story?

2. To better understand the role of narrative in security contexts.

What role do stories play in influencing political violence and to what extent? What function do narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how do theyinfluence a person or group’s choice of means (such as violence) to achieve political ends? How do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict? Is it possible to measure how attitudes salient to security issues are shaped by stories?

3. To survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools.

How can we take stories and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion? What analytic approaches or tools best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people? Are particular approaches or tools better than others for understanding how stories propagate in a system so as to influence behavior?

I was alerted to the meeting by a member at one of my “groups” at LinkedIn and just barely made the registration cut-off. It was a good meeting, but not reassuring on our situation in Afghanistan—you’ll see why  below.

As a “hobby” I’ve been tinkering with the implications of patterns with respect to language and communications. Just about every presumption I have articulated over the last several months is being pursued in one way or another—which is good news for our guys. While the on-going research is good, I do believe there is room for better and more imaginative thinking, although I didn’t say anything during the meeting for once, I kept my mouth shut and just listened.

This is exceptionally brief and decidedly non-techincal.  Here are some observations of interest:

  • In Afghanistan, stories (those who tell them and those who believe) are central to our geopolitical strategy and policies.
  • There is underway, a “battle of the narratives,” where any “counter” narrative developed by the US must have credibility. This seems obvious, but the speaker observed the “story telling” was more important than the story. Given the high illiteracy rate, this makes sense.
  • We [DARPA] are reviewing chants (which are wildly popular), video, magazines, poetry, the Internet, and sermons as thematic vehicles for analysis.
  • The language of the Taliban is not secular, and not the language of the insurgency—for the Taliban everything hangs on the legacy of jihad and religious struggle.
  • The Taliban not willing to negotiate on matters of jihad. They are using a unified vision of Islam giving their struggle a noble foundation against the corruption of outsiders who want to “Christianize” the nation.
  • The Taliban uses symbology to portray the struggle as a cosmic conflict against Christian invaders and US puppets (those cooperating with the US). Framing this symbology to communicate clearly the frame of the righteous vs. the infidels.
  • The Taliban manipulates the language to connect the current struggle to previous struggles of “warrior poets.” There is hope a “discourse” can be created that will counter this framing [personal note: I’m not optimistic]. The Taliban uses different language to subjugate rural and urban dwellers, and actually have standard operating procedures for dealing with villages that resist.
  • The cognitive patterns of rural Afghanistan are “foreign” to most Westerners and they use alien methods of knowledge transfer (chants, often under the influence of hashish).
  • We are adding a geospatial element to our analysis of local and personal narratives (which includes subject, verb, object) with respect to identified “master narratives.”
  • Internet data is indexed, with an eye toward predictive analysis and situational awareness (and interestingly, “sentiment” analysis). We are finding predictive power from the topology of “networks”  used in models.
  • From a neuroscience perspective, there was an amazing talk on empathy. It turns out, based on fMRI testing that empathy is quite predictable across subjects. Research indicates people “care more” about an “in-group” to which they belong more than an “out group.” The speaker defined the brain as a “parliament” of competing parties and nuanced spectrums [personal note: this elegant description tracks with everything I’ve read on the topic.]. 
  • One presenter observed that after 10 years of war, we’re finally “getting” the importance of Pashtun culture and language. This presenter also noted US is still in need of people with language skills sufficient to adequately support the effort.

– End


Zen here:

First, I’d  like to cordially thank Scott for letting me share his insights gleaned from the workshop here with ZP readers. This is one of those fascinating events largely unavailable to those folks residing outside a reasonable driving distance from the Beltway.

Secondly, I am heartened that the brilliant folks at DARPA are taking the theological-ideological discourse of the enemy seriously in analyzing the power of narrative. Charles Cameron makes that point here with regularity. Michael Scheuer, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy did so even before 9/11. Our political appointees and policy makers remain steadfastly allergic to this reality, unable to process or discuss in public with coherence how religious ideas are a root for political extremism. Col. David Kilcullen, who certainly understands political Islam better than most and whose creative and analytical acheivements in structuring a framework for countering insurgency are second  to none, eschews dealing with the topic in his theoretical writings on COIN where it can be avoided. That is the cost imposed by the political correctness to which our ruling elite are psychologically welded.

 It comes as no surprise to me that only after “10 years of war” are we finally “getting the importance of Pashtun culture”. 

Maybe at the dawn of the 22nd century we will be “old hands”.

11 Responses to “Guest Post: DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War by J. Scott Shipman”

  1. Cameron Schaefer Says:

    This is incredibly interesting to me, thanks for the post – amazing how the art of story is foundational to nearly every aspect of culture from religion to statecraft.  Charles Hill’s new book takes a really in-depth look on literature and its symbiotic relationship with the development of the state, highly recommend.Seems there is a need to emphasize literature more in strategic circles since it deals with the sides of humanity often neglected by the more hard, analytical subjects like science and math.  We could use some people working on grand strategy who like poetry as much as they do statistics and military history.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Cameron Schaefer writes:

    We could use some people working on grand strategy who like poetry as much as they do statistics and military history.

    I believe that’s more or less where I come in…
    Here are some notes I posted today on the list Scott and I are both on, regarding the Afghan and Taliban use of poetry:

    For poetry and the Taliban, we currently have to make do with <A href="http://edocs.nps.edu/npspubs/scholarly/papers/Occ_Paper4_Poetry.pdf ">Poetry: why it matters to the Afghans</A> by Wali Shaaker of the Naval Postgraduate School.
    Shaker writes: <blockquote>the importance of poetry as a widely used instrument of communication among Afghans can not be underestimated. Realizing that poetry is critical to the process of communication among Afghans we will need to take further action in incorporating poetry in our communication efforts with Afghans. </blockquote>Shaaker’s paper offers clips of proverbs in couplet form that can be quoted by US forces when introducing topics such as building a school… but basically rises little above the level of a handy phrasebooks for tourists.
    I’m impatient to see *Poetry of the Taliban* complied by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, due out from Hurst (UK) later this year. That should take us a bit deeper into the topic. In the meantime, there’s always Rumi of Balkh to read and ponder — here in California I had an Afghan taxi-driver pick me up the other day, we got talking, and he waxed enthusiastic about "Mowlana Rumi Balkhi" — so an acquaintance with some of the stories in Rumi’s *Masnavi* (aka *Mathnawi*) probably wouldn’t come amiss…

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    My apologies for the formatting problems.
    Shaaker’s paper is at:

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Here’s another interesting and relevant link from a few days back — A Day at the Theater with the Pentagon:

    Last Thursday I had the opportunity to sit next to Masood Khalili — a ringside player in Afghan politics over the last twenty years — as he relived his past on stage, including the terrifying moment when he witnessed the assassination of the anti-Soviet commander and Afghan political leader Ahmad Shah Massoud by Al Qaeda operatives, just two days before the 9/11 attacks.
    The occasion was the Tricycle Theater’s The Great Game, a series of plays on Afghanistan’s history, which the Pentagon invited back to Washington for two day-long private performances.
    The Pentagon performances were organized after a conversation between Army Maj. Gen. John Nicholson, deputy chief of staff of operations for the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and Mary Carstensen, a consultant with Good Stewards, a service-disabled-veteran-owned small business that focuses on supporting State Department and Defense Department contractors.
    Officers in the Joint Staff’s Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell first attended The Great Game‘s public performances in Washington last September and thought the plays could serve as a unique learning tool for military personnel wanting to better understand Afghanistan’s culture, as well as the history of Western military involvement in the beleaguered country.
    Speaking with Khalili, other Afghans, and serving military in the audience confirmed why artistic representations of war can provide a deeper understanding than history books or lectures…

    Here are some of the specific comments:

    Other Afghans in the audience emphasized the need for more Americans to understand their country’s history, remarking, "Afghans know about their history, but Americans don’t. I think members of Congress and the Senate should see this play too!"
    An American soldier in the audience who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004-2005 told me, "I’ve read about Afghanistan factually in books but to bring it to life gives it new meaning. Seeing the determination of Afghan people on stage, seeing it brought to life…it was a very vivid expression."
    Another soldier who will be deployed to Afghanistan next week decided to attend the play to obtain a deeper understanding of the country’s history. He said that "theatre, like a good movie, can tell a story from a different perspective. It has made the history more alive and I am able to relate to it."

    I wasn’t within two thousand miles of the Pentagon that day — but I’d still like to add my applause to the production…

  5. M1 Says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    I’m going to let this piece do the rounds amongst my crew. I’ll get back w/ some input.


  6. J. Scott Says:

    Charles, Many thanks for sharing here! A couple of questions were asked at LinkedIn about the role of Facebook and education in shaping the narrative, here is my answer: "Facebook was not mentioned unless I missed it. Education seems to be key. The literacy rate in rural areas is around 5% (for women 1%), so the power of chants and oral histories play large role in the Taliban’s leverage. My hunch is these folks are much more susceptible to cultural deception (the way the West is framed by the Taliban) than those in more urban areas."

  7. J. Scott Says:

    Cameron, I made the same connection to Hill’s work on the drive back from Charlottesville. The thing about stories is they "scale." Level of education isn’t a definitive variable, as much as relevance/context to the issue at hand. One reason "sayings" have such power, perhaps. "Sayings," "proverbs" in our culture provide a point of origin for meaning and understanding, and the cognitive pattern of these vehicles are part of "us" as some Pashtun stories, but we lack the meaningful cognitive depth. The Pashtun are "indwelling" in their stories, we treat ours more as sound bites or fads.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Scott, all:
    I wanted to find a powerful jihadist nasheed (pl: anasheed) to convey something of the emotion that these "chants" can rouse, and a friend who keeps tabs on such things very kindly pointed me to this one:
    And while it’s not a chant (although there’s one in the background), the video of the "Letter from One of the Sisters To the Brothers in the Arabian Peninsula" strikes me as another example of the kind of narrative impact the jihadists are working with:
    As I said in my comment on that site, this letter is an extremely evocative and powerful instance of the theme expressed by Madawi al-Rasheed in his chapter on “Rituals of Life and Death: the Politics and Poetics of Jihad in Saudi Arabia”:

    In Jihadi discourse the politics of defiance is not only anchored in Islamic duty, it is deeply rooted in the discourse about women, honour and shame. A recurrent theme centres on the association between subservience to infidels and the violation of Muslim women. The local despot is not only an oppressor who does not rule according to the revealed message of God but vigorously contributes to the emasculation of Arab men by ahirat al-rum (‘Roman prostitutes’), a reference to the presence of female American soldiers on Saudi soil for over a decade. … The local despot is often referred to as dayuuth, a strong abhorrent term describing the pimp, especially the one who trades his own maharim (the taboo female relatives such as mother, daughter, sister, etc.). The despot is transferred here from the realm of politics to that of morality, invoking images of sin and punishment resulting from the violation of divine law. Above all, then, the violation of women is attributed to the contribution of two agents: the infidels and the local despot. – in al-Rasheed & Shterin, Dying for Faith

    And while Afghanistan is not Saudi Arabia, I imagine the chants and poems of the jihadists and Taliban there are no less powerful in their emotional impact.

  9. zen Says:

    An athropological comment from James Bennett from CB re: Afghan family structure and cultural ethos would fit in very well at this point…..
    Scott, the pre-Soviet Afghanistan had a rich tradition of Sufi brotherhoods with the particular storytelling that imparted Sufi teachings. Was that mentioned at the workshop as a tradition to draw upon or has war and radically reified  deobandism stripped that from Afghan culture?

  10. Charles Cameron Says:

    I don’t know whether you saw this, Zen — it came out about a week ago:
    All of which reminds me that Idries Shah wrote a novel about the Afghan fight against the Russians, Kara Kush, which would be worth reading in this context, and that his other books, eg Tales of the Dervishes, Way of the Sufis, etc., are full of the "teaching stories" you refer to.
    I mentioned Rumi above — his Masnavi includes a telling of the duel of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd, which I wrote about here on ZP.

  11. J. Scott Says:

    Zen, I believe the pre-Soviet storytelling was mentioned…actually, the Taliban draw on the rich history further back than the Soviets. There was a comment about a "heritage" of expelling the Brits and Alexander.

Switch to our mobile site