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Archive for February, 2008

Age is No Barrier ( Sometimes)

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

The other day I was at the gym working out when I noticed an older but solid looking gent piling an impressive number of plates on the bar. He appeared to be within a stone’s throw of fifty and had an air of a long time lifter about him though if you saw him on the street you might guess that he was a construction worker rather than an aspiring Arnold. The guy was doing barbell shrugs, an exercise for the trapezius muscles where you lift the weight by hunching your shoulders upwards. I watched him a while. He topped out at a little over 900 lbs. The photo gives you an idea of what that kind of weight looks like:

To put this feat in perspective, my personal best in that exercise when I was thirty, in peak condition and considered unusually strong by bodybuilding standards, was the low 700’s!  While shrugging can’t compare to deadlifting in terms of effort, what this gentleman managed was absolutely remarkable. Generally, the only guys who could touch that kind of weight would be accomplished powerlifters or Olympic lifters – large ones – and maybe a few NFL or Big Ten linemen. Maybe. Certainly much bigger dudes than the guy I saw shrugging yeterday.

Inspired by his example, I decided to shrug with 500 today, something I’ve not done in a while. It felt good. Who knows? Maybe when I’m fifty I too will be muscling up almost half a ton.

Calling All Orientalists

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Abu Muqawama pointed to a LA Times article on the difficulties the CIA is having in getting clandestine officers near actual, real, live Islamists. Not Islamists in Waziristan, Mogadishu or Gaza but near Islamists whose mosque might be down the street from a Starbucks in Rotterdam.

But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars setting up as many as 12 of the companies, the agency shut down all but two after concluding they were ill-conceived and poorly positioned for gathering intelligence on the CIA’s principal targets: terrorist groups and unconventional weapons proliferation networks.  The closures were a blow to two of the CIA’s most pressing priorities after the 2001 terrorist attacks: expanding its overseas presence and changing the way it deploys spies.The companies were the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to increase the number of case officers sent overseas under what is known as “nonofficial cover,” meaning they would pose as employees of investment banks, consulting firms or other fictitious enterprises with no apparent ties to the U.S. government.

But the plan became the source of significant dispute within the agency and was plagued with problems, officials said. The bogus companies were located far from Muslim enclaves in Europe and other targets. Their size raised concerns that one mistake would blow the cover of many agents. And because business travelers don’t ordinarily come into contact with Al Qaeda or other high-priority adversaries, officials said, the cover didn’t work.

Summing up what many considered the fatal flaw of the program, one former high-ranking CIA official said, “They were built on the theory of the ‘Field of Dreams’: Build them and the targets will come.”

Heh. In fairness, the Allen Dulles model of spymastery has its uses. You set up shop somewhere, loudly hint you might have important connections with American intelligence and wait for a variety of shady and desperate characters to walk in your door. This is what Dulles did in Switzerland during WWII and he reaped many a major intelligence coup by getting on to the radar screen of the Abwehr ‘s high-placed cabal of anti-Nazi dissidents. It’s what good CIA station chiefs or their senior staff did regularly and the KGB and GRU did it too. While the embassy staff had to sift through a sea of crackpots, walk-ins nevertheless provided the biggest HUMINT gains for either side during the Cold War

Unfortunately, that tactic only works at a certain level of play. When Ike wanted to work with the French Resistance, Dulles was of little help. The OSS had to get it’s hands dirty and infiltrate agents behind German lines in high risk operations  run by William Casey, another future DCI, using personnel who could blend in with the target population, speak the languages, generally operate without a net. And in so doing, FDR,  Stimson, Marshall and Eisenhower accepted that, every so often, some OSS operations were just going to blow up in our faces (trying to beat Hitler provided a lot of political wiggle room and the media and this nation’s Boomer elite today have attitudes toward covert ops that are 180 degrees different from the GI Generation). Today we are not recruiting, retaining or training enough people with the characteristics that General William Donovan and the OSS once eagerly sought out.

Abu Muqawama used the all-American Matt Damon’s face as a metaphor for the problem. It’s very  true, we need to revise our legacy policies on recruiting children of native speakers and those with extensive overseas experience ( the kind that yields authentic local knowledge, dialectical inflection and street credibility). But take a look at the pasty complexion of  John Walker Lindh, who wandered around Yemen and militant areas of Pakistan prior to joining the Taliban as a mujahid. An American goof with no particular skills except an ingratiating sincerity and mediocre Arabic ended up in the proximity of the world’s most sought after terrorist leader.

Then there is the even more improbable case of Adam Yahiye Gadahn or “Azzam the American”, as he likes to style himself. A partly Jewish son of California Hippie parentage, who once cranked an air guitar to heavy metal tunes, is now al Qaida’s youtube equivalent of Lord HawHaw. At some point, we might want to consider that the Islamist movement and even al Qaida itself are not really “hard targets” in quite the same sense as is North Korea. I have trouble seeing a clueless California teen-ager in 1949 getting to break bread with Josef Stalin at his dacha on the basis of being a Communist and speaking some broken Russian. We are limited here by our own systemic cultural-linguistic ignorance of the rest of the world and our cherished bureaucratic paradigms.

We need to face facts that the USG and it’s IC needs people who speak three or four languages well and can pick up new ones on the fly, if need be. Who are intuitive anthropologists. Who empathize -but do not self-identify with – the cultures in which they immerse themselves. Who have cognitive maps that can integrate different or alien worldviews and profit from them analytically without being transformed by them. We need 21st century “Orientalists” in the mode of Sir Richard Francis Burton, who spoke perhaps thirty languages and knew the cultures from the Nile to the Indus. Impossible ? A friend of mine, trained as a linguist, speaks seven languages, which is very impressive until he relates that his late mentor spoke forty(!), including several dead ones.

The human mind has not changed much since Burton’s day, just our culture and the incentives offered.

Kosovo Rising

Monday, February 18th, 2008

“If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans” Otto von Bismarck

“I think what we did in Kosovo was profoundly important.” – Bill Clinton

A new nation declared itself today after close to a decade as a UN protectorate; a fragment of a fragment of an extinguished artificial state once built upon the polyglot ruins of European empires and Muslim sultanates. This particular geographic node, Kosovo, has a quality that all of it’s larger forerunners lacked – the cultural unity of identity that will make the nation the primary loyalty of the overwhelming majority of it’s citizens. A fact on the ground that trumps diplomatic protests over the finer points of international law or the mythic appeal of seven hundred year old Lost Causes.

Kosovo’s declaration of independence is ultimately rooted in an overwhelming demographic reality that could have only been altered by Kosovar Serbians having had larger families three and four decades ago than their poorer Albanian neighbors; and the Yugoslavian and Serbian governments having given rural Serbs some kind of economic incentive not to migrate to Belgrade or the larger towns of Serbia proper. As such, Kosovo’s declaration is worrisome to all multiethnic states plagued by separatism where the majority population is in decline – from the windows of the Kremlin, Serbia today must look hauntingly like Russia writ small.

However demographics alone was probably not enough here to explain Kosovo – Kurds, Shan, Tamils, Basques, Tibetans, Palestinians, Uighurs, Baluchis, Pushtuns and in previous centuries, the Irish – all thoroughly dominate their respective homelands but are not yet being welcomed into independence by great powers. What hapened is that the adversaries of the Kosovar Albanian, the Serbians nationalists, also morally de-legitimized themselves under Slobodan Milosevic, with years of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milosevic and his murderous policies had considerable popular support until the very end; they still retain support from a not inconsiderable, defiant, hardcore as evidenced by the inability or unwillingness of Serbia to bring Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to justice. As the Germans bade farewell forever to East Prussia and Silesia in 1945, Serbians today can reflect on Sarajevo’s impact upon their legal claim to sovereignty over Kosovo.

That being said, events can be handled well or poorly. Kosovar independence would have gone down better in a world where Russia was a prosperous, democratic state, thoroughly integrated into the Core and a regional strategic partner of the United States instead of a bitter, increasingly paranoid, plebiscitary “soft” dictatorship that views America with grave suspicion and the EU with contempt.  That was not an outcome that Washington could have created alone but a relationship that three administrations might have attempted to build with Russia but elected not to do so. Benign neglect mixed with pressure toward Moscow was a deliberate choice on our part, one that might have made Berlin, London and Paris happy in the 1990’s but it wasn’t to our long term strategic benefit.

Independence is good for the Kosovars and in the last analysis, inevitable; but our statesmen should be arranging matters so that the United States profits from inevitable events rather than simply bearing the diplomatic costs.

Kosovo Links:

Coming Anarchy  ,  Duck of Minerva,   TDAXPAqoulOutside the Beltway,   Centerfield,   John RobbMatthew Yglesias   Catholicgauze – New!,     Weekly Standard -New!


The United States government has formally recognized the independence of Kosovo via the State Department but, significantly, with an accompanying statement by President Bush.

Recommended Reading

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

A little early….

Top Billing! Early reviews of If We Can Keep It by Dr. Chet Richards ( my own review will be in a few days)

TDAXP     Fabius Maximus    William Lind

Now for the rest….

The Glittering Eye A New President Will Restore the U. S.’s Position in the World

Wise words from Dave.

ERMBVirtual Worlds Becoming All Too Real

Kind of a cool topic and one outside of Steve’s usual focus.

Hidden UnitiesDeployed Soldiers Losing Custody Of Their Kids

At what point does the machinery of government cease treating serving military personnel like crap?

Abu MuqawamaThe Evolution of Odierno

Abu seems to write on the newly promoted Odierno with some frequency. And the topic bears close reading as some insiders see General Odierno replacing General Petraeus sooner rather than later. Or perhaps getting an even higher posting.

Edge PerspectiveInnovating on the Edge of Big Waves

Fabius MaximusSurrender in Al Anbar province

FM is the resident contrarian here.

Presentation Zen –  Deep or wide? You decide , Books are dead (long live books!) , Books are dead (long live books!) part 2                   

A rare triple-play but I have a soft spot for members of the “zen community”.

Dr. Von More on Science Funding Woes

The Telegraph – “Britain a Soft Touch for Homegrown Terrorists” ( Hat tip Pundita)

That’s it!

Primary Source Doc: The Al Qaida Diary

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

The English translation of the captured AQI/ISI Diary, courtesy of  DefenseLink’s Blogger’s Roundtable.  Some redacting.

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