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Archive for November, 2011

The Haqqani come to high Dunsinane

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

[ 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.

Gentile: COIN is Dead, Long Live Strategy!

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011


Will COIN go Gentile into that good night?

Colonel Gian Gentile at WPR argues that the US Army must put away tactical things of counterinsurgency and assume the responsibilities of strategy:

COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics

There is perhaps no better measure of the failure of American strategy over the past decade than the fact that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, tactical objectives have been used to define victory. In particular, both wars have been characterized by an all-encompassing obsession with the methods and tactics of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the tactics of counterinsurgency require political and cultural acumen to build host-nation governments and economies. But understanding the political aspects of counterinsurgency tactics is fundamentally different from understanding core American political objectives and then defining a cost-effective strategy to achieve them. If it is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past decade, American strategic thinking must regain the ability to link cost-effective operational campaigns to core policy objectives, while taking into consideration American political and popular will….

Dr. Gentile is spot on here, but with a caveat that a serving officer cannot readily state: the political class and civilian leadership
of the USG are failing to provide the American military with the appropriate grand strategic and policy guidance
with which to build the strategic bridge between policy and operational art. This is not a small problem.

The military cannot – and more importantly should not  under our constitutional system – be the sole arbiters or enunciators of American strategy. The proper role of the senior military leadership are as junior partners working hand in glove with policy makers and elected officials to fit the use of military force or coercive threat of force with our other levers of national power to advance American interests at acceptable costs to the American people. If the military’s civilian superiors cannot or do not take the lead here in crafting strategy, the US military is unable to step into that inherently political vacuum and it would be an usurpation for them to try. Operational art is as far as they can go on their own authority while remaining on safe constitutional ground.

Rather than seeing the past 10 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a potent reminder of war’s complexity and, more importantly, of the limits to what it can accomplish, the American military has embraced the idea that better tactics can overcome serious shortcomings in strategy and policy. The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said thousands of years ago that “strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory,” but “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Though still relevant, Sun Tzu’s brilliant formulation of the relationship between tactics and strategy is nowhere to be found in current American strategic thinking.

I fear the real stumbling block is that a coherent and effective national strategy is viewed suspiciously in some quarters as a constraint on the tactical political freedom of action of policy makers and politicians to react in their own self-interest to transient domestic political pressures. This view is correct – adopting a strategy, while an iterative process – involves opportunity costs, foreclosing some choices in order to pursue others. Having a realistic strategy to acheive specific ends with reasonable methods and affordable costs is generally incompatible with “keeping all options open”.

Even on purely domestic issues, which politicians have greater familiarity and expertise than foreign and military affairs, the debacle with the borrowing limit and the “supercommittee” demonstrate we have a political class in Washington that is virtually allergic to making choices or assessing costs clearly and honestly. They see even less well in matters of war and peace.

….Future threats for U.S. ground forces promise to be quite lethal, ranging from state-on-state warfare to hybrid warfare to low-end guerilla warfare. Constabulary forces based on light infantry and optimized for wars like Iraq and Afghanistan will be highly vulnerable and open to catastrophic destruction in this lethal, future environment. Instead, future land battlefields demand a ground force built around the pillars of firepower, protection and mobility. Moreover, this future ground force needs to be able to move and fight in dispersed, distributed operations in an age where the accessibility of weapons of mass destruction makes a ground force that concentrates vulnerable to annihilation. Much will have to change in order to transform the Army and Marines to ground formations of this type, but that transformation is critical, and it will not be accomplished if military thinkers remain obsessed with counterinsurgency tactics.

To build American ground formations for an unpredictable future, counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan offer very few strategic guideposts. To argue otherwise is to commit the U.S. Army and Marines to strategic irrelevance in the years and decades ahead.

I would guarantee that the US will be plagued with irregular warfare for as long as we have to co-exist with the rest of the world. What is probable, in my view, is that we are quite likely to face several different kinds of serious security threats at the same time  – say, a terror-insurgency spilling over from Mexico coinciding with a possible conventional war with a regional power while also defending against a run on the dollar if China tries to “Suez” the US during a third country crisis. The luxury of different threats in convenient sequence is unlikely to happen and American military capabilities must be broad and adaptive.

Hat tip SWJ Blog


The Post-COIN Era is Here

Is COIN Dead?

Recommended Reading

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Top Billing! Mike FewBlood Done Signed My Name

Major Mike Few takes leave of editorial duties at SWJ for a guest post at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure:

….Duke professor Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Signed My Name: A True Story describes the 1970 murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow, a 23-year-old black man who once served as a paratrooper in Fort Bragg.  The memoir them limns the acquittal of his three white killers, and what the aftermath of that injustice wrought on the tiny town of Oxford, N.C.

So, you ask, what does this have to do with small wars?  Well, I could start by reminding you that U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis recommends that we study the works of Martin Luther King as if they were texts about strategy, and Blood Done Signed My Name certainly is a tale about the civil rights movement.

But if we agree that Mattis is right, then don’t we have to look at how King’s strategy played out at the micro-level of villages and neighborhoods, towns like Oxford?  And isn’t that perhaps what an entire generation of soldiers and Marines already has done overseas, albeit when prosecuting quite a different strategy to very different ends?

When I was conducting recon in Iraq, I found it helpful to think of a town as an eco-system.  Once I understood how the caste, theological, ideological, linguistic and kinship relationships entangled the village in violence, my job became the commander who tried to untie them, or the pacification process wouldn’t work.

Various types of counter-insurgency theory were important, but it was always vital to keep an independent mind about them while I explored the hard realities of life and death in these Iraqi villages.   Experience with violence caused me to rethink a lot of those theories, just as Blood Done Signed My Name has made me reassess the role violence played in the larger civil rights movement.

Global Guerrillas – OCCUPY NOTE 11/20/11: The HIDDEN logic of the Occupy Movement

….Using John Boyd’s framework as a guide, this media disruption did have an effect across all three vectors:

  • Physical.  No isolation was achieved.  The physical connections of police forces remained intact.  However, these incidents provided confirmation to protesters that physical filming/imaging of the protests is valuable.  Given how compelling this media is, it will radically increase the professional media’s coverage of events AND increase the number of protesters recording incidents.
  • Mental.  These incidents will cause confusion within police forces.  If leaders (Mayors and college administrators)  back down or vacillate over these tactics due to media pressure, it will confuse policemen in the field.  In short, it will create uncertainty and doubt over what the rules of engagement actually are.  IN contrast, these media events have clarified how to turn police violence into useful tools for Occupy protesters. 
  • Moral.  This is the area of connection that was damaged the most.  Most people watching these videos feel that this violence is both a) illegitimate and b) excessive.  Watch this video UC Davis Chancellor Katehi walking from her building after the incident.  The silence is eerie.

The Chronicle – The Kennan Industry

A less laudatory view of George F. Kennan than Henry Kissinger gave us, from David Engerman:

….In other cases, Kennan went far beyond handwritten reminders. Soon after he authorized Princeton to open his personal papers to researchers in 1970, Kennan was, apparently, shocked that a young historian, C. Ben Wright, would focus so closely on a 1930s draft essay called “The Prerequisites.” It called for “an authoritarian state” that denied suffrage to those unable to wield it properly-that is, to immigrants, women, and blacks. Wright, who greatly admired Kennan, quoted extensively from “The Prerequisites” in his dissertation. Wright also had the temerity to suggest that Kennan’s version of containment might have a military component after all, using Kennan’s letters and speech drafts from the 1940s to support his interpretation. Kennan flew into a rage, trying to strike the offending quotations from Wright’s work and-in Gaddis’s telling-ultimately driving Wright out of the profession. The offending documents (if that is the right description) were removed from Kennan’s papers, and photocopying from the remainder of the collection was forbidden.

Hat tip to Lexington Green.

Chicago Boyz (Bruno Behrend) –A must read for every Conservative/Libertarian

Mother JonesInside the Corporate Plan to Occupy the Pentagon

AFJ Polyglot Dragon

Foreign AffairsThe Problem Is Palestinian Rejectionism

Recommended Viewing:

Hat tip to longtime ZP reader Morgan:


The Forum and The Tower, a review

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

[by J. Scott Shipman]


The Forum and The Tower by Mary Ann Glendon

“The relationship between politics and the academy has been marked by mutual fascination and wariness since the time of Plato.”

The first sentence on the flap of the dust jacket of this very good and informative small book. Professor Glendon, who is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law school, set out to write a book for her students that would answer ageless questions such as:

“Is politics such a dirty business, or are conditions so unfavorable, that couldn’t make a difference? What kinds of compromises can one make for the sake of getting and keeping a position from which one might be able to have influence on the course of events? What kinds of compromises can one make for the sake of achieving a higher political goal? When does prudent accommodation become pandering? When should one speak truth to power no matter what the risk, and when is it acceptable, as Burke put it, to speak the truth with measure that one may speak it longer? When does one reach the point at which one concludes, as Plato finally did, that circumstances are so unfavorable that only the reasonable course of action is to “keep quiet and offer up prayers for one’s own welfare and for that of one’s country”?”

Professor Glendon answers these questions and more through brief examinations of the lives and works of some of history’s most important figures:



Justinian, Tribonian, and Irnerius


Thomas Hobbs and Edward Coke

John Locke

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Edmund Burke


Max Weber

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik

All in all, I believe Professor Glendon has provided a uniquely valuable book to help her students and other readers to answers those questions. In short but focused chapters of about 20 pages each, she provides mini-biographies of the subjects above and how they answered the some of the questions both in their lives and in their philosophy. Some of her subjects were thinkers lacking the abilities for the public square, Plato, for instance, but were enormously influential just the same. Rare were those like Cicero and Burke who were equally comfortable in the political arena or the academy.

My favorite chapters were on Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, and Burke—mostly because I’ve read a respectable amount of their work. That said, I have not read Plato’s The Laws—and Professor Glendon suggests it is much better than The Republic—which I have read and did not much enjoy. Not surprisingly, The Laws will be on my list for this winter.

The inclusion of Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik was something of a surprise, but Professor Glendon is weaving a sub-story through each chapter and illustrating how Roosevelt and Malik’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was something of culmination and extension of over 2,000 years of thinking and political action—not in the context of human progress towards a utopia of sorts, which she wisely rejects,  but rather a reflection the common threads of political thought throughout history.

While this is not criticism, I would have liked to have seen a chapter on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and a chapter on Karl Marx, whom she frequently mentions.

This is a book that is approachable and readable, and in our tumultuous domestic and global political climate, important.

She closes with this illuminating sentence:

“If one message emerges from the stories collected here, it is that just because one does not see the results of one’s best efforts in one’s own lifetime does not mean those efforts were in vain.”

Professor Glendon is to be commended for a job “well done!”

The book comes with my highest recommendation and may be the best book I’ve read this calendar year. Add this book to your must read list.

Referenced works you may find of interest (some of these works are out of print and expensive—for simplicity I’ve used Amazon links): 

The Laws of Plato, translated by Thomas Pangle

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, by Anthony Everitt

Cicero, A Portrait, by Elizabeth Rawson (Glendon praised this book.)

A Panorama of the World’s Legal Systems, John Henry Wigmore

The Life of Nicolo Machiavelli, Roberto Ridolfi

The Prince, translated by Harvy Mansfield

Machiavelli, by Quentin Skinner

The Lion and the Throne, Catherine Drinker Bowen

The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, by Thomas Pangle

Statesmanship and Party Government, by Harvy Mansfield

The Great Melody, A Thematic biography of Edmund Burke, by Conor Cruise O’Brien (I read this wonderful book in 1992 when it was released: highly recommended.)


Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Thinking in Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May

Picked up this classic work on metacognition, history and strategic decision making for the astronomical price of…..$ 4. Including shipping.

The diminuition of the teaching of history in elite universities after the 1960’s, when the old undergraduate canon was chucked in deference to demands by student and faculty radicals for an a la carte system (to replace the old core with politicized race-gender-crit rubbish), has contributed to the decline in American strategic thinking.

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