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Archive for June, 2011

This Was Clever

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

My son discovered this, his first official contribution to ZP:

Few at SWJ on “Less is Often More?”

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Major Michael Few had a short theoretical post that sparked an important discussion at SWJ Blog and other social networking sites. He’s wrestling with the military-tactical effects of diminishing returns. Well worth your time to read through:

Less is Often More?

This is a post that I never would have written while practicing the art in Iraq. On the ground level, every commander wants more forces. In fact, one of the unstated prerequisites for command is that you must conduct at least one daily bitching session where you emphatically describe how much more effective you could be if you were given another platoon, company, battalion, etc…

– More forces equal more villages and more neighborhoods you can clear and occupy.
– More forces equal more visible power and control.
– More resources equal more money to bribe your enemies.

But, sometimes more is actually less:

– More forces mean that you can act unilaterally and just ignore the impotent host nation security forces.
– More forces mean that you can coerce and bully the corrupt political leaders.
– More resources mean that you may waste money building elaborate schools and medical clinics and digging canals rather than repairing the existing suitable structures.

Sometimes with more, we merely attack the symptoms creating short-term visible gains rather than attacking the root problems. Doctrinally, we would call this creating maneuver space on the human and physical terrain.

Read the rest here.

Follow-Up on the “Astrategic” Discussion

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

The real value was in the comment thread. Original post here.

That caused Joseph Fouche to post Overgrown Comment, Short Post from which I will excerpt relevant comments from JF, Dave Schuler and Seydlitz89:

Dave Schuler comments:

I think that the Obama Administration’s actions are less an instance of only an indirect relationship between means and ends than a disagreement with you on ends, Mark. Just as one example, the primary objective of the Obama Administration (as in all administrations) is a second term. Consider the actions through that lens.

Also, isn’t it possible that the Administration is really sincere about the “international support” trope that marked the Libyan intervention? International support will never be forthcoming for intervention against the Syrian regime. I don’t think that either the Russians or Chinese would stand for it. The Russian relationship with Syria at least is much cozier than that between Russia and Libya.

Noted Clausewitzian seydlitz89 comments:


Good thought-provoking post, you actually got me out of my hiatus from blogs/blogging, just don’t tell anyone over at milpub ;-)>

While I agree with Joseph’s comment, I would add a few other points to consider:

First, “strategy”, is a specific concept in terms of strategic theory which can be linked to “strategic effect”, but not necessarily so.  Force and personality alone (which are not “strategy” the way I define it -see http://milpubblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/when-strategy-is-not-strategy.html) can achieve strategic effect.  So we need to be clear how we  are using this particular adjective, which need not be linked to a specific strategy at all.  Also the strategy in question might be bad, even self-defeating, as Joseph points out and still be a strategy.

Second, when has our Middle Eastern policy ever been consistent, in terms of treating all countries the same?  Perhaps under Bush I during 1990-91, but we have always treated the different Arab countries differently in line with our different interests involved.  Bahrain gets a pass, whereas Libya gets NATO intervention, and Syria gets referred to the ICC .  .  . In each case the US interest is seen as different so the response is different.

Third, the real root cause of the problem is imo our dysfunctional political system which is unable to implement policies which are in the best interests of the country as a political community.  The Iraq war was essentially a collapse of US strategic thought and rather was based on narrow and corrupt interests, deceptive politics and notions of unlimited US power (force) and exceptionalism (personality)  which triggered a still ongoing strategic disaster for US interests in the region, but not limited to it.

We have a long way to go and I don’t see us getting there any time soon, unfortunately.

The Committee comments posts:

Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, just before transmogrifying into Scottish celebrity historian Niall Ferguson, proposed an approach that serious credentialed historians could use if venturing to write the generally silly and uncredentialed genre of counter-factual history:

To produce serious counter-factual history that is not utter bollocks, your point of departure from our factual timeline has to be a documented and real credible alternative raised by a documented and real credible person at a documented and real point in time prior to the moment when factual and the proposed counterfactual timelines diverge.

As Dave Schuler alludes, how Zen, I, or seydlitz interpret what is strategic, what is astrategic, and what is antistrategic is often determined by what we individually interpret as political, apolitical, or antipolitical. We put events in boxes and eventually there is a box beyond which we do not stray because we don’t know this outer box is there. We can perhaps use Ferguson’s approach to separate which of the Administration’s factual alignment of ends to means are impossible and which are merely improbable and which of our various counterfactual alternative alignments of ends to means are impossible or merely improbable.

….I’ll close my observations on this post and its comment thread with two points:

  • Whatever framework you use to analyze human actions, especially those actions your framework categorizes as war or conflict, it should be equally capable of shedding light (and defining) “good” or “successful” actions and “bad” or “failed” actions. Categorizing one lump of actions as Actions while excluding another lump of actions as less than actions does not a good framework make. For those frameworks that aspire to pass as “strategic theory”, this means that they should be just as capable of analyzing Hitler’s strategy of dividing Germany into bloodied, burned out, and thoroughly wrecked fragments occupied by foreigners as they are of analyzing Bismarck’s strategy of creating a unified and independent Germany. A proposed strategic analytic framework that accepts some strategic phenomena into the garden of strategy while consigning others to the outer darkness of non-strategy does serve a useful purpose. Strategic effect rains on both righteous and wicked alike. Neither can be barred from opening an umbrella to shield themselves from strategic fallout because an observer runs up and commands them to stop because theory forbids it. One of the fundamental principles of strategic theory is that theory cannot absolutely forbid umbrella opening: the umbrella opener will inevitably seek to subvert any theory that seeks to unnaturally restrict their freedom to open umbrellas.

That was very interesting and thought provoking. I have, in fact, thought about these comments for several days and I do not have a neat, plausible rejoinder so much as some thoughts in regard to epistemology, which is the level where this discussion really is taking place.

Dave, I think, is correct that are a jumble of motivations in play within the Obama administration, not least of which is the overriding focus of domestic politics in an administration where the national security and foreign policy apparat is heavy with politicos. There is an internationalist faction in the administration too, though they are hardly dominant. They win some and lose some.  Incidentally, most administrations, from transcripts and memoirs I have read operate in a state of crisis management much of the time – tightly focused sessions like ExComm during the Cuban Missile Crisis are exceptions. Oval Office convos and meetings as a rule, ramble like meetings do everywhere except when the POTUS (like Eisenhower) demands otherwise.

So, is it proper to categorize this behavior as something other than strategy? Yes – at least when you want to discern conscious strategic thinking about geopolitics and military operations, or absence thereof, you’d refer to what the administration is doing currently as “politics” insofar as their eye seemed to be primarily concerned with domestic political effects rather than strategic effects in the international arena. Strategy requires conscious effort because it is pro-active and often, what passes for strategy is brilliantly intuitive tactical reactions coupled with a fair piece of luck that generated fortunate outcomes that were strategic in their effect, if not intent.

I am pretty much in agreement with Seydlitz89 that the root of our inability to think and act in a strategic fashion is our dysfunction as a political community and his caution regarding strategic effects. There’s a number of reasons for this dysfunction but even if that was instantly remedied by the Good Civics Fairy, we would have to make a conscious effort to build a rational strategic culture.

Regarding Joseph Fouche’s comment on frameworks, he has a logical point regarding strategic theory that works….in theory. By that I mean that I don’t disagree, he’s right in the abstract sense that such a comprehensive and consistent structure would be preferable. My impression though – and I think this is in line with what he is arguing above – is that strategic theory as a field itself may not be quite up to the high standard to which Fouche aspires.  Strategic theory in practice, rarely demonstrates the concise  elegance of Newtonian physics. In terms of explanatory power, strategic theory used by practitioners or created by modern day theorists rarely rises beyond being situationally “good enough” for the problem at hand. An intellectual tool, like a sharp rock or a pointy stick in the fist of a paleolithic hunter-gatherer. For that matter, if strategic theory proves to be situationally accurate and useful, that is often a cause for celebration!

Going beyond “good enough” to “universally” or “generally” applicable strategic theory is an intellectual feat of the first order. That kind of system -building is usually the result of a life’s work and cannot be called into being on a moment’s notice. Aside from the fact that most people are not capable of rising to becoming a Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, the time constraints make it impossible for state decision makers to think and act within such a framework unless they have arrived into office with one already inculcated as part of their worldview (and even then, it is of great help if they spent years out of office thinking through real and hypothetical problems using that framework, internalizing the principles without losing the ability to observe and think critically).  This is why in matters of strategy, our decision makers are usually wielding the intellectual equivalent of stone tools – the statesman with the cognitive flintlock musket or strategic steam engine is few and far between.

So, we are often left with a fractured mess, analytically speaking. Entrails to root through, looking for signs from the gods.

Recommended Reading

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011


Top Billing! Fred Leland  Book Review: TEMPO Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative Driven Decision Making by Venkatesh Rao

 The author of Tempo, Venkatesh Rao a man I have never met or heard of prior to the book, began research into decision making that was funded by the United States Air Force and concerned key concepts such as mixed initiative command and control models: complex systems where humans, autonomous robotic combat vehicles and software systems share decision making authority. This research led Rao to this insightful 157 page book, packed full of useful information all law enforcement and security professionals should read.

….In the chapter he titled Narrative Rationality described as; “an approach to decision making that starts with an observation that is at once trivial and profound: all our choices are among life stories that end with our individual deaths. Surprisingly, this philosophical observation leads to very practical conceptualizations of key abstractions in decision making, such as strategy and tactic, and unique perspectives on classic decision-science such as risk and learning.” Orientation and the factors Boyd discuss that shape and reshapes orientation; cultural traditions, genetic heritage, previous experiences, new information and analysis and synthesis all play a roll here. He goes on to say that the simple view “calculative rationality” or planning is not wrong, it’s just limited to simple situations that fits one or more of your existing mental models very well. In complex situations, planning based on such models is merely a training exercise to sample the space of possible worlds, get a sense of the complexities involved, and calibrate your responses appropriately

Speak of the devil…. 

Venkat RaoA Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

….If this sounds eerily familiar, it shouldn’t. The year was 1772, exactly 239 years ago today, the apogee of power for the corporation as a business construct. The company was the British East India company (EIC). The bubble that burst was the East India Bubble. Between the founding of the EIC in 1600 and the post-subprime world of 2011, the idea of the corporation was born, matured, over-extended, reined-in, refined, patched, updated, over-extended again, propped-up and finally widely declared to be obsolete. Between 2011 and 2100, it will decline – hopefully gracefully – into a well-behaved retiree on the economic scene.

In its 400+ year history, the corporation has achieved extraordinary things, cutting around-the-world travel time from years to less than a day, putting a computer on every desk, a toilet in every home (nearly) and a cellphone within reach of every human.  It even put a man on the Moon and kinda-sorta cured AIDS.

So it is a sort of grim privilege for the generations living today to watch the slow demise of such a spectacularly effective intellectual construct. The Age of Corporations is coming to an end. The traditional corporation won’t vanish, but it will cease to be the center of gravity of economic life in another generation or two.  They will live on as religious institutions do today, as weakened ghosts of more vital institutions from centuries ago.

Infinity Journal has an amazing array of authors for their third issue including Martin van Creveld, TX Hammes, Gian Gentile and David Betz 

SWJ Blog – Ordinary Men and Abhorrent Behavior

The mediocrity of Evil.

Information Dissemination (Galrahn) – The Navy is Losing the Narratives Battle

If you have been following ADM Roughead’s speeches lately, whether at the Current Strategy Forum (PDF) or last Thursday’s event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (PDF), you may have noticed that AirSea Battle is no longer discussed. The question has come up a few times… is AirSea Battle dead?

The answer is yes and no. AirSea Battle doctrine is rarely discussed anymore in public by the Navy because the Navy is backing off AirSea Battle, and some would call it backpedaling with speed. AirSea Battle is a warfighting doctrine developed towards dividing roles and responsibilities of military forces in combat from the sea, and is intended to provide guidance towards cutting redundancy and insuring all mission requirements are clearly understood by the services. The development includes a great deal more detail, but that’s the general overview. That guidance would inform the services where overlap exists, and in theory inform services where cuts need to be made and where renewed focus on capabilities needs to be emphasized.

Committee of Public SafetyOvergrown Comment, Short Post

Joseph Fouche summarizes and extends the debate on whether or not the administration is “astrategic

…Whatever framework you use to analyze human actions, especially those actions your framework categorizes as war or conflict, it should be equally capable of shedding light (and defining) “good” or “successful” actions and “bad” or “failed” actions. Categorizing one lump of actions as Actions while excluding another lump of actions as less than actions does not a good framework make.

Shlok reviews The Profession 

Wikistrat’s Grand Strategy Competition is underway

Jihadica –Zawahiri at the Helm

Seth GodinCoordination

The internet has largely mirrored (and amplified) this competition. eBay, for example, not only pits sellers against one another, it also pits buyers. Craigslist makes it easy for buyers to see the range of products and services on offer, making the marketplace more competitive. Google, most of all, encourages an ecosystem where producers can evolve, improve and compete.

I think the next frontier of the net is going to use the datastream to do precisely the opposite–to create value by making coordination easier.

Adam Elkus –We Go to War With The Strategic Culture We Have

Dr. Von –An Attempt to Make Some Sense of Quantum Mechanics

Eide Neurolearning Blog –A Jolt of Insight

Singularity Hub –Archetype Movie Asks: Can The Dead Live On As Robots?

WSJ (Gillepsie and Welch)-  Death of the Duopoly

Outside the Beltway –Obama Impersonator Tells Racist Jokes at Republican Conference

I share Dr. Joyner’s utter weariness with the GOP’s politically self-immolating wingnut faction who appear to have secret brainstorming sessions where the objective is to come up with some jackass way to lend maximum credibility to 2012 Democratic campaign attack ads. OTOH, Rep. Weiner appears to have cornered the all important “national laughingstock” crown for his party, proving stupidity is thoroughly bipartisan.


Robot Mercs of Armored Core

Book Review: JM Berger’s Jihad Joe

Monday, June 20th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — “homegrown” jihad ]



Jihad Joe: Americans who go to war in the name of Islam

by JM Berger

Potomac Books, Inc, 2011, hard back, $29.95


The title by itself is striking — Jihad Joe – and captures nicely the somewhat surreal blend of the normal and the utterly strange that we encounter when we think about “Americans who go to war in the name of Islam” – the subtitle and topic of JM Berger‘s book. And think about them, know a bit about them, we should.

The big question, of course, is Why?

Berger writes early on of young men who gather “to focus their rage through a religious filter” and while noting that jihadists comes from varied backgrounds and travel for varied reasons, correctly zeroes in on the sense of obligation that a jihadist interpretation of Islam imposes:

While all major religions have rules that limit or justify war, a small but significant minority of Muslims believe that under the correct circumstances, war is a fundamental obligation for everyone who shares the religion of Islam. When war is carried out according to the rules, it is called military jihad or simply jihad. [emphasis mine]

The rage may spring from many sources, social, economic, political, but when religion is used to focus it, as Berger nicely puts it, that obligation is what provides divine legitimacy — and the promise of miracles, martydom and a paradisal afterlife – and the sense of serving a higher purpose, to otherwise quieter lives.


Berger starts at the beginning. After a brief mention of the presence of many Muslims under slavery, two early and distinctly American expressions of Islam (the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam), and the beginnings of Muslim Brotherhood activity as Egyptian and other Muslim immigrants brought more orthodox strands of Islam to the States, Berger alerts us to the idea that Americans leaving to fight jihad may have deeper roots than we think.

Bin Laden‘s mentor Abdullah Azzam, for instance, was in the US in the 1980s appealing for Americans to help the mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – a cause supported by President Reagan, who took tea with muj leaders for discussion and photo op, and by the wily Charlie Wilson of Charlie Wilson’s War. Azzam’s calls for volunteers were successful:

No one kept track of how many Americans answered the call, and no one in or out of the U.S. Government would venture a guess on the record. More than 30 documented cases were examined for this book. Based on court records and intelligence documents, a conservative estimate might be that a minimum of 150 American citizens and legal residents went to fight the Soviets.

Implications for today: this has been happening for a long time, it’s not something Anwar al-Awlaki invented just yesterday — and there have been times when the US was no too displeased at such activities.

Azzam’s appeal was precisely to the sense of a general, compulsory obligation for Muslims – fard ayn in Arabic – buttressed by tales of the miraculous and promises of paradise. I emphasize these points because their appeal is real. The day Al-Qaida was founded, an American was present, Mohammed Loay Bayazid, aka Abu Rida al Suri, and it was his reading of Azzam’s account of miracles among the jihadists in Afghanistan – apparent supernatural protection from and/or paralysis of superior forces, the “odor of sanctity” on martyrs’ bodies – that turned him from a not very pious Muslim into a volunteer jihadist. You can read the stories yourself — Azzam’s book is now available for download, in English, on the web.

I’m focusing in on the religious element because that’s my area, others will comment better than I on the military or historical aspects that Berger deals with. But Berger makes it clear that from its inception, Al-Qaida numbered Americans among its higher echelons, and bin Laden was “strangely enamored of Americans and people who had spent time in the United States” – if only for the very practical reason that their passports allowed them access most anywhere.


The first act of violence on American soil generally attributed to AQ, Berger tells us, was the 1990 killing of Rashad Khalifa in Tucson, AZ. Khalifa was the numerologically inclined leader of a Tucson mosque and translator of the Qur’an whose apocalyptic date-setting (2280 CE) I mentioned in my Zenpundit post Apocalypse Not Yet? a week ago.

Khalifa’s story leads into that of Al Fuqra, a group that Berger describes in some detail, writing of their “rural compounds and small private villages” and their “covert paramilitary training grounds” and noting that while they have been implicated in “at least thirty-four incidents … from bombings to kidnappings to murder … the government has never moved against the group in an organized manner.”

Berger turns next to the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and his followers, soon joined by the AQ-trained bomb-maker Ramzi Yousef, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center – which failed to topple the towers — leaving the task for Mohammed Atta to complete in 2001 under bin Laden’s command

1992 sees several thousand US troops in Arabia given briefings on Saudi culture – largely a matter of Wahhabist Islam – and four-day passes to visit Mecca at Saudi expense were available for converts. As the Bosnian crisis began to unfold, ex-military Muslims converted by these means formed a natural pool for recruitment as jihadists to defend their Muslim brothers against ethnic cleansing and genocide at the hands of their Serb neighbors.

With the combination of the first WTC bombing and the Bosnian jihad, the “far enemy / near enemy” combo was in place: jihad could draw on both local and global events to fuel its global plans, and find both local and targets to take down…

By the beginning of the 1990s, America was in AQ’s sights, though AQ was barely known to a handful of Americans. The 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu featured AQ-trained forces, and the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy attacks were soon in the planning stages. In 1996, bin Laden publishes his declaration of war on America, and the CIA put together a first plan to kidnap him…


Anwar al-Awlaki enters the picture around this time, a complex man Berger calls “a study in contradictions” – “a gifted speaker who was capable of moving men to action”.

If the power of religion to focus rage, and the concept of jihad as a compulsory obligation, fard ayn, are two of our first take-aways from Berger’s book, here is a third: rhetoric is the tool that transforms the curious (pious or not so much) into the committed. Anwar al-Awlaki had “a powerful cocktail of skills” but they boil down to this: the ability to talks Islam casually, in the American manner, to American kids — in American English, in a way that appears pious and scholarly, presents jihad as both obligation and adventure, and moves them to action…

Three of the 9-11 hijackers were al-Awlaki contacts… Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who massacred his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood… Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspected “underwear bomber”… Faizal Shazad, the Times Square bomber… the list of those who have known and been influenced by al-Awlaki goes on…

The history of AQ by now is well known, covered in such books as Lawrence Wright‘s The Looming Tower and Peter Bergen‘s The Longest War, so Berger can concentrate on the “home grown” side of things, featuring — alongside al-Awlaki — his clumsier precursor the AQ propagandist Adam Gadahn, and paying considerable attention to another less-than-widely reported aspect of the jihad – the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba group and its ISI-assisted 2008 attack on Mumbai, India, for which the intelligence scouting was done by the Pakistani-American sometime DEA agent David Headley, and the subsequent planning of an attack in Denmark…Berger turns next to Somalia and al-Shabab – but you get the drift, he is offering us a thoroughgoing, fully researched tour of the various Americans and groups joined by Americans across the world, involved in waging jihad, against scattered local enemies, or against the “far enemy” – the United States.


Berger’s work is detail-packed and focused, and a useful resource for that reason alone. But it is also and specifically the work of someone who has read and talked with and listened to the people he is writing about, and his work carries their voices embedded in his own commentary. It thus joins such works as Jessica Stern‘s Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill and Mark Juergensmeyer‘s similarly named and similarly excellent Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.

Bringing us up to date, Berger offers an overview of jihadist use of the internet, paying special attention to English-language sites – Islamic Awakening, Revolution Muslim — emphasizing the peripheral nature of “forum” activities, but also crediting them as an active doorway to recruitment. Zach Chesser, Samir Khan, Jihad Recollections and Inspire magazine, they’re all here. Read Berger’s recent blog post on “gamification” after this chapter, follow him at @intelwire, and you’ll be ongoingly up to date on his thought…

Berger closes with a look at future prospects. The opening of this chapter – an overview of the history so far covered – speaks volumes:

The journey of the American jihadist spans continents and decades. Americans of every race and cultural background have made the decision to take up arms in the name of Islam and strike a blow for what they believed to be justice.

Many who embarked on this journey took their first steps for the noblest of reasons – to lay their lives on the line in defense of people who seemed defenseless. But some chose to act for baser reasons – anger, hatred of the “other,” desire for power, or an urge towards violence.

In the early days of the movement, it was possible to be a jihadist and still be a “good” American…

Berger neither condemns nor excuses: he sees, he asks, he researches, he reports. His observations of the current situation can thus be trusted to be driven by insight rather than ideology – not the most common of stances, but one we very much need.

He pinpoints as the first element that almost all American jihadists have in common as “an urgent feeling that Muslims are under attack”. Foreign policy implications? Yes indeed – but Berger is also looking to the Muslim community to take an approach less focused on what he terms a “litany of grievances” – valid though some of them may be – which in effect helps perpetuate a “counterproductive narrative” of how the US views and treats Muslims.

Once a narrative that America is at war with Islam is established, the argument for jihad as fard ayn can be made – and all manner of shame, frustrations, rage, violent tendencies, alienation and idealism can be unleashed under the jihadist banner.

Berger’s conclusion:

We must preserve the constitutional rights and basic human respect due to American Muslims while changing the playing field to create conditions in which extremism cannot thrive. These goals are not mutually exclusive – they are independent.

If principle and pragmatism are not enough reason to change the tone of the conversation, there isx one more thing to consider. It would be not only dangerous but shameful to prove that our enemies were right about us all along.

Berger’s is a book to read, certainly — and more significantly perhaps, a book to admire.

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