J. Scott Shipman, the owner of a boutique consulting firm in the Metro DC area that is putting Col. John Boyd’s ideas into action, is a longtime friend of this blog and an occasional guest-poster. Scott has an important report regarding the “war of ideas” against the Islamist-Takfirist enemy in Afghanistan after attending a workshop hosted by DARPA.
DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War
by J. Scott Shipman
I had the opportunity to attend a DARPA workshop yesterday called STORyNet. The purpose was to survey narrative theories, to better understand the role of narrative in security contexts, and to survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools (see below):
This STORyNET workshop has three goals:
1. To survey narrative theories.
These empirically informed theories should tell us something about the nature of stories: what is a story? What are its moving parts? Is there a list of necessary and sufficient conditions it takes for a stimulus to be considered a story instead of something else? Does the structure and function of stories vary considerably across cultural contexts or is there a universal theory of story?
2. To better understand the role of narrative in security contexts.
What role do stories play in influencing political violence and to what extent? What function do narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how do theyinfluence a person or group’s choice of means (such as violence) to achieve political ends? How do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict? Is it possible to measure how attitudes salient to security issues are shaped by stories?
3. To survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools.
How can we take stories and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion? What analytic approaches or tools best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people? Are particular approaches or tools better than others for understanding how stories propagate in a system so as to influence behavior?
I was alerted to the meeting by a member at one of my “groups” at LinkedIn and just barely made the registration cut-off. It was a good meeting, but not reassuring on our situation in Afghanistan—you’ll see why below.
As a “hobby” I’ve been tinkering with the implications of patterns with respect to language and communications. Just about every presumption I have articulated over the last several months is being pursued in one way or another—which is good news for our guys. While the on-going research is good, I do believe there is room for better and more imaginative thinking, although I didn’t say anything during the meeting for once, I kept my mouth shut and just listened.
This is exceptionally brief and decidedly non-techincal. Here are some observations of interest:
- In Afghanistan, stories (those who tell them and those who believe) are central to our geopolitical strategy and policies.
- There is underway, a “battle of the narratives,” where any “counter” narrative developed by the US must have credibility. This seems obvious, but the speaker observed the “story telling” was more important than the story. Given the high illiteracy rate, this makes sense.
- We [DARPA] are reviewing chants (which are wildly popular), video, magazines, poetry, the Internet, and sermons as thematic vehicles for analysis.
- The language of the Taliban is not secular, and not the language of the insurgency—for the Taliban everything hangs on the legacy of jihad and religious struggle.
- The Taliban not willing to negotiate on matters of jihad. They are using a unified vision of Islam giving their struggle a noble foundation against the corruption of outsiders who want to “Christianize” the nation.
- The Taliban uses symbology to portray the struggle as a cosmic conflict against Christian invaders and US puppets (those cooperating with the US). Framing this symbology to communicate clearly the frame of the righteous vs. the infidels.
- The Taliban manipulates the language to connect the current struggle to previous struggles of “warrior poets.” There is hope a “discourse” can be created that will counter this framing [personal note: I’m not optimistic]. The Taliban uses different language to subjugate rural and urban dwellers, and actually have standard operating procedures for dealing with villages that resist.
- The cognitive patterns of rural Afghanistan are “foreign” to most Westerners and they use alien methods of knowledge transfer (chants, often under the influence of hashish).
- We are adding a geospatial element to our analysis of local and personal narratives (which includes subject, verb, object) with respect to identified “master narratives.”
- Internet data is indexed, with an eye toward predictive analysis and situational awareness (and interestingly, “sentiment” analysis). We are finding predictive power from the topology of “networks” used in models.
- From a neuroscience perspective, there was an amazing talk on empathy. It turns out, based on fMRI testing that empathy is quite predictable across subjects. Research indicates people “care more” about an “in-group” to which they belong more than an “out group.” The speaker defined the brain as a “parliament” of competing parties and nuanced spectrums [personal note: this elegant description tracks with everything I’ve read on the topic.].
- One presenter observed that after 10 years of war, we’re finally “getting” the importance of Pashtun culture and language. This presenter also noted US is still in need of people with language skills sufficient to adequately support the effort.
First, I’d like to cordially thank Scott for letting me share his insights gleaned from the workshop here with ZP readers. This is one of those fascinating events largely unavailable to those folks residing outside a reasonable driving distance from the Beltway.
Secondly, I am heartened that the brilliant folks at DARPA are taking the theological-ideological discourse of the enemy seriously in analyzing the power of narrative. Charles Cameron makes that point here with regularity. Michael Scheuer, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy did so even before 9/11. Our political appointees and policy makers remain steadfastly allergic to this reality, unable to process or discuss in public with coherence how religious ideas are a root for political extremism. Col. David Kilcullen, who certainly understands political Islam better than most and whose creative and analytical acheivements in structuring a framework for countering insurgency are second to none, eschews dealing with the topic in his theoretical writings on COIN where it can be avoided. That is the cost imposed by the political correctness to which our ruling elite are psychologically welded.
It comes as no surprise to me that only after “10 years of war” are we finally “getting the importance of Pashtun culture”.
Maybe at the dawn of the 22nd century we will be “old hands”.