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Thursday, November 15th, 2007


Kent’s Imperative had a post up that would have been worthy of Coming Anarchy:

Enigmatic biographies of the damned

“….Via the Economist this week, we learn of the death of an adversary whose kind has nearly been forgotten. Khun Sa was a warlord who amassed a private army and smuggling operation which dominated Asian heroin trafficking from remotest Burma over the course of nearly two decades. In the end, despite indictment in US courts, the politics of a failed state permitted him to retire as an investor and business figure, and to die peacefully in his own bed.The stories of men such as these however shaped more than a region. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization. Yet these are not the biographies that are taught in international relations academia, nor even in their counterpart intelligence studies classrooms. The psychology of such men, and the personal and organizational decision-making processes of the non-state groups which amassed power to rival a princeling of Renaissance Europe, are equally as worthy of study both for historical reasons as well as for the lessons they teach about the nature of empowered individuals.

Prospective human factors and leadership analysts are not the only students which would benefit from a deeper pol/mil study of the dynamics of warlords and their followers in the Shan and Wa states. The structures which were left behind upon Khun Sa’s surrender were no doubt of enduring value to the ruling junta, and tracing the hostile connectivity provided to a dictatorial government by robust transnational organized crime is an excellent example of the kombinat model in a unique context outside of the classic Russian cases…”

Read the rest here.

There are no shortage of warlords for such a study. Among the living we have Walid Jumblatt, the crafty chief of the Druze during the 1980’s civil war in Lebanon, the egomaniacal and democidal Charles Taylor of Liberia, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Islamist mujahedin commander and a large assortment of Somali, Colombian, Indonesian and El Salvadoran militiamen and paramilitaries. The history of the twentieth century alone offers up such colorful characters as “The Dogmeat General“, the ghoulishly brutal Ta Mok of the Khmer Rouge, “The Mad Baron” Ungern von Sternberg, Captain Hermann Ehrhardt and Pancho Villa among many others.

What would such a historical/cross-cultural/psychological “warlord study” reveal ? Primarily the type of man that the German journalist Konrad Heiden termed “armed bohemians”. Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty, coupled with an amoral sociopathology to do so ruthlessly. Paranoid and vindictive, they also frequently possess a recklessness akin to bravery and a dramatic sentimentality that charms followers and naive observers alike. Some warlords can manifest a manic energy or regularly display great administrative talents while a minority are little better than half-mad gangsters getting by, for a time, on easy violence, low cunning and lady luck.

Every society, no matter how civilized or polite on the surface, harbors many such men within it. They are like ancient seeds waiting for the drought-breaking rains.

Thursday, October 11th, 2007


Via Kent’s Imperative, I learned that George Friedman of Stratfor is now blogging. KI also has a critique of Stratfor itself, a taste below:

“Stratfor thus stands somewhat apart from the rest, as an independent shop in continuous operation for over a decade. But in that decade, its track record has been exceptionally unsteady. It first made its bones during the Kosovo crisis, with unique new information sources (in an area where few shops had anything at all) and the occasional innovative but solid analytic line. Its attempt to act as a “global” shop in the mould – and even, boastfully, claiming competition with – CIA, did not fare so well over subsequent years. Occasionally, they have a good piece. But often their analysis reflects their hiring strategies, which Friedman himself proudly holds up as an ideal model – the selection of young students, fresh from university, with no prior intelligence experience. Stratfor claims this allows them to build new analysts with no “bad habits” that might have been learned in the intelligence community. However, it ensures that they have a workforce that will always lack substantive experience, creating a shallow bench on accounts. This can be quickly and professionally fatal on hard targets, or when they step into areas in which existing analysis is a career long affair for an entire analytical sub-specialty (such as oil market dynamics). While we are great believers in the value of the beginner’s mind, and of the importance of Smoking Mirror, we think Stratfor’s approach goes a bit too far.”

Personally, I have never been as high on Stratfor’s products as other bloggers in the foreign policy/intel/military/national security area (nor have I ever slammed them, for that matter), my preferences running toward RAND, The Jamestown Foundation, PINR and several other think tanks. I tend to mentally segregate Stratfor in an unnamed category alongside Seymour Hersh and Yossef Bodansky but many rungs above MEMRI and the DEBKA file. I’ll read what they had to say and go “Hmmmmmm….” Perhaps this is unfair; I candidly admit this arises from an intuitive prejudice or instinct on my part rather than any kind of systematic analysis and if anyone cares to argue otherwise, I’ll give them a fair hearing in the comment section.

I’m not really intending to post on comparative value of analytical sources, however. What I found interesting in this bit of information was that Dr. Friedman, already having a substantial platform in Stratfor, arrived at the conclusion that blogging would, nevertheless, be a value-added activity for his ROA ( “return on attention“). Why ?

My guess is the interactivity and connectivity/network-building of blogging is a qualitatively different medium for broadcasting information from the very Web 1.0 Stratfor. One that reaches an audience of potential allies, not mere consumers of information.

Sunday, August 26th, 2007


Justly praising The Small Wars Journal, Kent’s Imperative raises an idea up the flagpole. Who will salute ? “Micheal Tanji…Tanji….Anyone….Anyone ?”

I’ll kick in something of journal quality, outsider’s perspective of course, if that will help fill space. I strongly suggest, however, inviting some ex-DCI’s for the launch issue. Also, Baer, Scheuer, Bearden…. Christopher Andrew or another ” popular” historian of intelligence for name rec, street and academic cred ( umm..maybe Tanji and Scheuer shouldn’t be in the same issue). Mix people on the MSM radar with unknown but great IC insiders.

If you ask 100 and get 10, you’re viable.

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007


An interesting confluence of information has crossed my computer screen in the last 24 hours.

Fabius Maximus was kind enough to send me a PDF, “Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks” by Eliezer Yudkowsky, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. It’s a very interesting paper on analytical thinking – or s even though a number of the points made by Yudkowsky I have seen previously made elsewhere ( the blogosphere revels in hyperactive disconfirmation biases). Their central cognitive philosophy – “….the one whom you must watch above all is yourself”, is spot on.

Secondly, over at Kent’s Imperative, one of the Kentians, let’s call them “Most Formal Prose Kent” had a highly congruent post to the Yudkowsky paper, “The sins of analytic methodologists “:

There is an increasingly common conceit that reliance on the analyst – subject to, cognitive bias, information overload, and human fallibility – can be engineered out of the process of doing intelligence. Instead, certain methodologists would substitute organizational structures, workflow re-organization, and the introduction of supposedly superior quantitative metrics in order to create a new standard for “answers”. The underlying thrust of these efforts is to reform intelligence activities towards a more “repeatable” process, often described by industrial or scientific metaphors such “foundry” or “lab”. These typically originate from the engineering and technical intelligence disciplines, and are usually directed as criticism of typical all source efforts – particularly those grounded in social science fields or qualitative methodology.

…The fundamental flaw in many of these methodologists’ efforts is that they are essentially reductionist attempts to force the difficult and oft-times messy art of intelligence entirely into the narrow box of its scientific side. While there is a place for scientific approaches, particularly in the grounding and validation of assessment, the inherently creative, non-linear, and even non-rational elements of the profession can never be completely discarded. Most recent intelligence failures have occurred, not due to a lack of precision in judgment, but from a lack of imagination in identifying, describing, and forecasting the uncertain dynamics and emerging complexities of fast-changing accounts.”

Sagely described.

Clear thinking is difficult. Few of us begin by checking our premises or, sadly, our facts. Even in the domain of the concrete and verifiable factual information, so much rides on our implicit opinion of what exactly, in terms of data points, constitutes a ” fact” that we are usually off-base before we begin. Even if we are cognizant of these variables from the inception of forming a question, we might be horrified to discover, with some dogged investigation of the finer details, how fuzzy at the margins that even our peer-reviewed, “valid and reliable”, facts can be – much less the breezy assertions delivered by the MSM.

Then, more to the point of the KI post, there is the hasty selection of particular, reductionist analytical tools that a priori blind us to the nature of the emergent unknown that we are trying to understand. We become prisoners of our chosen perspective. One problem with human perception is that there is no guarantee, having recognized the existence of a novel dynamic phenomena, that our perception represents the most significant aspect of it. Much like conceptualizing an Elephant in motion from blind contact with it’s eyelashes. Or it’s feces.

Human nature is a perpetual rush to judgment. We must rise above that.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007


The other day, Dan of tdaxp objected to my appreciation of logic as an analytical tool in the comment section:

Humans are pretty terrible logical reasoners, so relying on logic doesn’t do much. Expertise comes from analogical reasoning, which allows faster processing, more reliable rejection of bad options, and effortless cognition in general.”

I agree with much of Dan’s statement. Most people are highly illogical and emotional in their decision-making process and not a few, though still a minority of the population, remain concrete thinkers their whole lives. We could not get anything done without cognitive automaticity kicking in to gear; having to consciously, sequentially, reason out the steps of every action would leave us exhausted before breakfast. My only quibble with Dan would be to replace “expertise” with “insight” or “creativity” as many variables, including the effects of chance, go into accumulating an experential base of knowledge. That is a minor divergence, for like Dan, I am an advocate of the benefits of synthesis, analogies, metaphors, horizontal thinking, metacognitive reflection and intuitive cognition – those forms of thinking that are generative of new insights.

I have also seen many complaints recently in the blogosphere about the negative effects of analytical thinking, if overused or abused, in these cases by lawyers, the profession most noted for elevating analytical reasoning above the factual variables to which the reasoning is to be applied. Here’s one:

From Kent’s Imperative:

“Worse yet, we detect a discernable strain of legal thinking which now seeks to impose restrictions not only on the collection of information, but on its use. The idea that a warrant might be required to search against previously accumulated foreign intelligence materials sounds absurd, but recent legal opinions appear to have laid the groundwork for such an argument in future cases. This would also be very nearly absolutely fatal in the context of fusion and collaboration for homeland security intelligence purposes (particularly if critical elements of the intelligence picture are obtained from foreign intelligence activities of DOD and other agencies, as if often the case.)

We have long maintained that the mindsets of the lawyer and the intelligence professional are diametrically opposed. The first seeks to present a structured picture through adversarial argumentation, and by training attacks to exclude evidence from the picture to support a particular viewpoint. The latter struggles to understand puzzles and mysteries, and to assemble a coherent narrative in the face of incomplete, conflicting, and deceptive information in order to support the decision-maker’s choices regarding courses of action. Allowing the lawyers to dictate further the key aspects of the world of intelligence – and allowing intelligence activities to be framed into an “investigative” basis rather than continuing inquiry into matters of standing interest – will be the death of the profession.”

Analytical thinking is a tool for reductionism. It helps you take the watch apart and explains how the gears fit together. It can identify broken parts and quantify performance. Analytical thinking works well in this instance because a mechanical watch represents a closed system with limited boundries. What analytical thinking can’t do, being an interruptive, destructive, activity is conceptualize an alternative way to tell time or arrive at Einstein’s insights about Relativity. For that you require a constructive, generative, pattern of thinking.

Used incorrectly, and analytical thinking often is because more people can analyze than synthesize well, it can destroy group dynamics and productivity through ” paralysis by analysis”. The downsides of all options become the most significant variables and opportunities are lost. Used correctly, to fine-tune, trouble-shoot, tweak and better adapt, analytical thinking can prevent disasters.

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