zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » The Haqqani come to high Dunsinane

The Haqqani come to high Dunsinane

[ by Charles Cameron — why is non-actionable (useless) intelligence sometimes the most intelligent (useful)? – importance of multiple frames for complex vision ]


I have fun choosing my data points, I’ll admit, and I enjoy the art of juxtaposition for its own sake — but the particular juxtaposition above is frankly useless.

Readers of the Chuang-Tzu, however, will be familiar with the idea that the useless is not without its uses

Here, then, is the method to this madness.

What I want to establish in myself – and in others who choose to follow me – is a rich supply of frames, of analogies, of patterns that can be seen at a glance. And the ways to do this are (a) to read widely in those arts and sciences which make frequent use of symmetry, analogy, metaphor, and pattern, and (b) to practice, oneself, the techne of analogy-, metaphor-, symmetry-, and pattern-making.


In the two image-frames above, the lower image shows a still from a Haqqani network training video from SITE — which could be viewed as the fulfillment (albeit in Afghanistan, and waking reality) of a prophecy made earlier (about Scotland, a not-entirely-dissimilar country, mountainous, clannish, proud), in suitably oracular fashion, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth Act IV Scene 1 (shown in the upper frame, from the First Folio edition).

Here, you might say, the Taliban come to high Dunsinane Hill.


This is not actionable intelligence.

The injunction to “keep a lookout for people on the move pretending to be trees” is not a useful addition to tradecraft.

It is, however, vivid. And it’s an instance of “the leap” from one idea to another that’s at the heart of the process of insight and discovery. It is an example of a specific skill of considerable analytic importance.


Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, in Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, p. 42, [quoted in Fishbein and Treverton and Jeffrey Cooper ] define mindfulness thus:

By mindfulness we mean the combination of ongoing scrutiny of existing expectations, continuous refinement and differentiation of expectations based on new experiences, willingness and capability to invent new expectations that make sense of unprecedented events, a more nuanced appreciation of context and ways to deal with it, and identification of new dimensions of context that improve foresight and current functioning.

How’s that for a prose version of the basic OODA insight?


Obviously, I am not talking about the kind of tactical intelligence that is concerned with materiel and logistics here, but with mindset and morale.

This may get overlooked, since…

Emphasizing current intelligence for actionable exploitation may have created an unintended mind-set that undervalues the immense importance of knowing and understanding the adversary’s intentions throughout the course of the confrontation, even at cost of foregoing exploitation of these sources for temporary advantage on the battlefield or in the diplomatic conference room.

[Cooper, Curing Analytic Pathologies: Pathways to Improved Intelligence Analysis, p.30]


What I am talking about here is that “willingness and capability to invent new expectations that make sense of unprecedented events, a more nuanced appreciation of context and ways to deal with it, and identification of new dimensions of context that improve foresight and current functioning mentioned above.

New dimensions of context? What this boils down to is multiple frames of vision… which the IC understands very well, as expressed in the often-repeated chess master analogy — good for strategic thinkers of all stripes. Here’s Robert Sinclair‘s version, in Thinking and Writing: Cognitive Science and Intelligence Analysis, p. 13:

Simon estimates that a first-class player will have 50,000 of these patterns to call on — by no means a small number, but orders of magnitude less than the theoretical possibilities that flow from any given position. The expert can use them to drastically reduce the number of choices he must consider at any point in a game, with the result that he often hits on an effective move with such speed that the observer attributes it to pure intuition.

Enter Neustadt and May, whose book Thinking in Time Zen reviewed here just the other day — enter, in fact, history, as a store of stories.

Richards Heuer explains [Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, p. 38]:

An analyst seeks understanding of current events by comparing them with historical precedents in the same country, or with similar events in other countries. Analogy is one form of comparison. When an historical situation is deemed comparable to current circumstances, analysts use their understanding of the historical precedent to fill gaps in their understanding of the current situation. Unknown elements of the present are assumed to be the same as known elements of the historical precedent. Thus, analysts reason that the same forces are at work, that the outcome of the present situation is likely to be similar to the outcome of the historical situation, or that a certain policy is required in order to avoid the same outcome as in the past.

And the analogies and insights can come from fiction as well as history, as Charles Hill is quoted here as saying:

That is why Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him on his conquests, and why Queen Elizabeth studied Cicero in the evenings. It is why Abraham Lincoln read, and was profoundly influenced by, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and why Paul Nitze paged through Shakespeare on his flights to Moscow as America’s chief arms negotiator.

Further, the appropriate insights and possible framings can come from future and/or speculative histories — hence the meetings between IC members and various science fiction authors and thriller screenwriters which then DDI Jami Miscik arranged in an attempt “to see beyond the intelligence report and into a world of plot development”.

As I noted a few days back, I’m particularly impressed by Frank Herbert‘s ability to recognize the importance of the oil / desert / ecology / major powers / jihad / Mahdi complex – back between 1957 and 1965, while writing Dune.


But all this takes me back to a comment I made a while back on Mark Stout‘s On War and Words blog, on “the notion of the kinship of spycraft and literature.” I wrote there:

I think that idea has a lot of merit. Chaucer was a spy, as was Kit Marlowe, and Wordsworth, and Basil Bunting. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene spied, and John le Carre – and if I’m not mistaken, much of the early OSS was recruited from the Yale literature department by the likes of Archibald MacLeish…

My own suggestion would be that this is because the literary mind is well suited to understanding and expressing complex relationships, just as (it has been suggested) the engineering mind is suited to seeing things in black and white – you’ve probably seen Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog’s paper on Engineers of Jihad, in which they determine that “engineers, in particular, were three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences”.

I don’t know whether that allegation is accurate, or just an artifact of their research methods – but if it’s true that literature offers a different (and in some ways more subtle) means of modeling the kinds of complex situation we’re all facing these days, maybe we need to increase the intake of lit and humanities majors into the IC, and stop being so tech-centric about our analytic methods. The human mind might just be better at selecting and connecting the right dots than our datamining programs.

Keith Oatley‘s paper Shakeapeare’s invention of theatre as simulation that runs on minds might give us a hint or two.

And we’re back to Shakespeare.



Because what’s important in all this is the quality of imagination expressed. And the core insight is that the greatest poets, dramatists, science fiction writers and historians create pocket universes — worlds invented or perceived in which the logics of the many binary oppositions, tides, undertows, tipping points and emergent patternings of our profoundly complex world are found in miniature.

The mind in a nutshell, the world in a grain of sand…

Perhaps clearest statement of this perspective comes from the great scientist Gregory Bateson, who writes about poetry in these terms:

One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get mapped onto a level of diversity in us that we don’t ordinarily have access to. We bring it out in poetry. We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships in the other person and in the world that we are not usually conscious of in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves, because of this mapping from complexity to complexity.


If it is great imaginative power that provides the deepest insights into a complex world, great minds and hearts will be those you need to follow — not minds cowed by the pressures of bureacracy and success.

“You want some new ideas? Read some old books” Marine Gen. James Mattis told his audience at the 14th annual American Veterans Center conference the other day, in a speech which “recommended books by and about leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.”

Great hearts, great minds. And not always well-tolerated by those around them.


Jami Miscik again, at a conference discussing “The Power of Impossible Thinking: A Prerequisite for Profitable Growth“:

Embrace the maverick.

Miscik is clear that the purpose isn’t only to be widely read, but to be independently and courageously thoughtful.  Bureaucracies are not by nature the most friendly places for independent thinking, stove-piping and soloing, seniority and comfort all militate against it — hence the need to embrace the maverick, to develop (in fact) a culture that embraces the maverick.

Miscik addresses that issue, too: “She also warned the audience that a single spate of change is not enough; an organization will always have to change again.”

Or as Sinclair has it in Thinking and Writing (op. cit., p. 9):

I do believe diversifying the workforce in this way would require a cultural shift at least comparable to that involved in a shift to online substantive collaboration. Without such a shift, the directorate, like any organism under threat, would identify people who failed to fit the dominant pattern as foreign bodies and extrude them.


I am thinking, in all this, of those whose task it is to provide the richest, highest level analysis of “the adversary’s intentions” — the readers of minds by which history is about to be written.

Those whose job it is to be concerned about the threats that face us, from the Haqqani, from the Chinese, from Pakistan, from wherever, will do their job better, with greater insight – with greater critical doubt and critical confidence – if their minds are richly sown with myths and histories, matter for analogies pattern languages, than if they have focused down along the scope of a single silo…

As Mattis, Hill, Miscik, Sinclair, Bateson, Oatley, Heuer and company, each in their own way, suggest…


When you come right down to it, audacious, insightful thinking is its own form of special ops.

Comments are closed.

Switch to our mobile site