Sunni vs. Shiite; Who are the “Good Guys” ? Movie rental.

In December 2012, the bodyguards of Vice-President of Iraq Tariq al-Hashimi were arrested and beaten. Whatever they said in these comfortable circumstances was used to accuse him of running an assassination squad. He was tried in absentia, sentenced to death, and now resides, safe from extradition, in Turkey.

With confessions obtained by torture and al-Maliki’s sectarian attitude, it should be easy to discount this as a gross perversion of justice.  So it is. So what did al-Hashimi’s political bedfellows have to say about it? Quoting the Seattle Times, “Two of Iraq’s top political leaders voiced muted criticism…”  Muted? Why “muted” ?

In February 2012, the New York Times reported, “In a report offering details of their investigation into the politically divisive case, the nine judges, drawn from all of Iraq’s main ethnic and religious factions, appeared to offer support to terrorism charges leveled by the Iraqi authorities in December against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.”

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, it’s a Zen Predictor’s Exercise. You have a natural desire to identify the “good guy.” This exercise will help you get away from that.

Suppose aL-Maliki knew, somehow, that aL-Hashimi was a plotter. It doesn’t make sense to the Western mind to televise confessions obtained by torture. Torture was used in the recent past in  a desperate attempt to save American lives from the predations of Al Qaeda, but it never occurred to us to decorate judicial proceedings with the results. We forget that torture was an instrument of justice as late as the 1850’s in Switzerland, of all places. We forget that the Miranda ruling was, in part, a guard against “forced confession”, which encompassed torture, i.e., the rubber hose, the telephone book, and much worse.  We have collective amnesia on the subject.

That was a very long, but necessary detour in a post about who’s good/who’s bad in Iraq. Does it make Maliki the “good guy”? The New Yorker has an interesting sketch. Quoting, “Having spent much of his life hunted by assassins, Maliki gives the impression of a man who learned long ago to ruthlessly suppress his feelings. ”

It does not appear that one can qualify an Iraqi politician by Western standards of behavior, since staying alive is such a preoccupation. The U.S. no longer participates in the Iraqi political process, but hypothetically, should we choose based upon who the man is a proxy for? The only certain fact is that Maliki is a Shiite. The uncertainty is such that both Al Jazeera and Middle East Monitor decline to identify his successor.

The most interesting example of “who is this guy working for” is Ahmed Chalabi, blamed by some for getting us into Iraq in the first place. The  history of this man’s alliances, shifts, positions, and alleged betrayals makes fascinating reading. And he’s still alive.

To the Western mind, this is all very peculiar. With our judicial mindset, we want to pick the “good guy”, but it seems as if the actors of the Iraqi political scene  balance only two desires, temporary coexistence, and doing each other in. This should all be familiar to us from the movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Rent it.






Russian fighter jets arrive in Iraq; it’s deja vu all over again

Some sources, such as the NY Times, The Independent, are behind pay-walls, which may be accessible by a free monthly article allotment. Reuters has a silent video.  Do your own Google search.

The U.S. refused to deliver fighter jets for a good reason: When used as tactical bombers without sophisticated targeting, they are indiscriminate devices, leveling neighborhoods. Where Sunnis have fled, real estate is going to take a real hit. The desirability of precision targetting is why there has not, as yet, been U.S. air support.

Let’s paint the picture:

1. Of the 10,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq, some will die from bombs, others from lucky bullets, and others will disperse to both urban and rural locations.

2. Those Sunnis who return will find nothing remains of their homesteads.

3. The fighter jets, with the amazing lack of accuracy characteristic of dumb munitions, will strike both Sunni tribesmen, ISIS fighers, and people who claimed to be innocent Sunni tribesmen, who either are or are not.

4. The Saudis have urged the Sunnis to participate in Iraq’s government. There is as yet no indication that their cooperation will be offered or accepted for other than immediate objectives, such as killing their personal enemies.

5. A U.S. general, whose name I can’t remember, hoped that the absence of immediate U.S. military intervention would help the Iraqis understand the need for an inclusive government. With Russian  jets, this is no longer necessary. Iraq’s Shiites are going to do it the Syrian way. After all, it worked in Syria, where the Alawites are a minority, so why shouldn’t it work in Iraq, where the Shiites are a majority?

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.”


Putin’s paramilitary problem

I was going to write a lengthy essay on this, but I risk being scooped by events, so here’s the short form. Paramilitaries are like unguided missiles, stoked to a fevered pitch by  emotional appeals to patriotism. There is no “off switch.” Putin has to let their springs run down a bit, and even then, they are a huge problem.

So Kerry’s demand that Putin disarm the revolutionaries “within hours” is obvious theater. Kerry knows how it works.

Those who live to return to Russia have left the blood of their comrades in Ukraine. Just as with the Bay of Pigs Invasion,   there are going to be some very angry people. They will accuse Putin for betrayal. Recall that some theories of the JFK assassination implicate Cuban counter-revolutionaries. Without any suggestion by me that such theories are valid, because I have no idea, this should give you an idea of how serious a problem it is.

It is somewhat encouraging that four OSCE monitors have just been released. This suggests that the paramilitaries are, in fact, coming off their surge, and becoming semi-manageable.

But the returning paramilitary is a ticking time bomb, with ample capacity for conspiracy directed at revenge. Putin is an expert at staying alive. If necessary, he will liquidate particularly dangerous individuals.

National Security Council report on Iraq, leaked!

Dear Mr. President:

After consideration of all the factors, involving political stability, potential alliances, and achievable force levels, we have concluded as follows:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Putin’s Ukraine Miscalculation; his war plan

The broad outline of the plan seems to have been:

1. A false flag operation  would fake a rebellion. It would be carried out by Russian paramilitaries with supervision by more professional elements of the Russian covert establishment.

2. Disinformation techniques would activate latent ethnic tensions.

3. The fake rebellion and and active ethnic tensions were to draw energy from each other, just as a dry wind fans a forest fire.

4. When the conflagration  was burning brightly, Russian troops would invade to put the fire out.

5. Since Putin considers himself a moral person, the conflagration was never intended to be a real one. It was intended to have all the fire and sparkle of an electric Christmas tree. This was a weakness of the plan.

6. The Russian armed forces would put on a visible show of worldwide scope to remind us that they are not a pushover. We noticed this, and were amused.

Disinformation, and propaganda in general, have been such a staple of USSR strategy, both internal and external, Putin felt he had the best brains in the business to draw on. One can imagine KGB fossils summoned out of retirement, with canes, bad-fitting suits, puffing away on  cheap cigarettes, reminiscing about the good old days. “Ukraine is a ripe apple, comrade. We will make it fall into your lap.”

There is  indication that this worked in some small villages, but elsewhere, the KGB veterans were overwhelmed in an information horse race.  They simply did not appreciate that the grapevine moves faster these days. The Internet, which Putin calls “a CIA invention“, has a lot to do with this. But even the plain old cellphone affects the calculation. Human naivete is not a constant. Connectedness and naivete are inversely related.

Economically, a Russia-Ukraine match-up makes great sense. But the majority of Russian speaking Ukrainians do not favor it. It is to Putin’s credit that, unlike the truly dark figures of history, he did not yield to the temptation of a false-flag massacre, or more direct incitement of Ukrainian violence, which, if accomplished without decisive detection, would have turned their heads toward Russia.

Next: How can Putin extricate from this mess?

Putin is remorseful; his Bay of Pigs

Poroshenko says, “Peace depends upon Putin’s mood.”

To a limited extent, and with a complete admission of fallibility, I think I understand the guy. In this context, at least. I’ve given it more than casual consideration; a couple years ago, I wrote a paper on Putin’s character.

I think Putin is, in a sense, remorseful, in that he is genuinely worried about the potential for loss of human life. Whether this extends beyond ethnic Russians is yet to be seen. But among the lives at risk, there are Russians. Besides the broader Russian population of Ukraine, there are the proxies, who, as with the Bay of Pigs, were put there as the result of a faulty calculation. The conditions on the ground did not move in the direction that would favor success. And now, he must be thinking, “How do I get them out of there?”

The appearance of  Putin as a cold, calculating individual is at least partly a put-on.  It works to his advantage. It does not appear that he rises to the sensitivity of leaders of the E.U., but that may be as good as it gets in human history. Compared to our own record, Putin is probably not impressed with our argument based on defense of freedom. We, on the other hand, are less than impressed by Putin’s comparatively small sacrifices because of the motive, grabbing land. The one subject both sides seem to tacitly avoid are the Chechen wars. Some things are worth not talking about, and defense of Western civilization is one of them.

But at this moment, Poroshenko has provided us with an absolutely stunning insight: Putin can lose his cool. If Putin is playing Hitler yelling at Chamberlain (see Munich Agreement) for what purpose is the theatricality?  Whatever the intelligence view, the White House is justifiably concerned about whatever possibility remains of invasion. But on the other hand, Putin must know it would wake up the Germans.

Meta analysis example; a Reuters opinion piece

The sample piece, dated 4/24/2014,  is “The revolution in Putin’s head.”

1. DIscount the title. The purpose is to get you to read it.

2. “Former Kremlin operatives, serving officials, diplomats and dissidents that I recently spoke to in Moscow all agreed that Putin, who is a pragmatic leader, has been reborn as a true revolutionary who will challenge the West in the following ways.”

The phrase “all agreed”, indicates a sampling bias. Couldn’t the author find anyone to disagree? Even if you have to look a little bit, dissenters are valuable sources.

If you are reading this, you probably live in a country where politicians frequently redefine themselves. Are they constantly being reborn? That’s a heck of a lot of nativity.  “Reborn” refers to the Christian religious doctrine of “spiritual rebirth.” The writer is motivated by the desire to excite the reader’s interest, rather than inform. Good writing does both, but  the balance here is wrong.

3. This contains a  fallacious piece of logic: “Putin was drawn to the potential of ethnic nationalism in Crimea. He knew its power and he feared that if he did not tap into it, someone else would. ” It’s a defective syllogism:

a. “potential of ethnic nationism” OK.

b. “knew its power”   OK.

c. “feared that if he did not tap into it, someone else would.”  Not OK; it is not derived from the two “premises.”

Was the writer prescient?   “Putin will do all that he can to ensure that Ukraine’s elections on May 25th are seen as illegitimate.” Apparently, the writer was not prescient.

So the piece is a bucket of loose bolts, but there is some precious metal content that interests the scrap yard. There is a direct source quote, “Expect to see the spirit of the Maidan in the East”, which, in that time frame, I would have put in my “possibly useful” pile. But the gem is this:

“Putin has made domestic politics equally uncertain. An academic who was tapped to write a speech for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last year was — in an unconnected event — interrogated by the Public Security Bureau. “In the old days,” he said, “you knew where you were. Either you were in with the regime or you were interrogated. No one knows where they are any more.””

Confusion is much harder to fake than fact. This goes into my pile called “psychology of the inner circle”.  The inner circle  circled the wagons. It is compatible with the idea that the regime, anticipating absorption of Ukraine, armored itself against heightened internal tensions. The crackdown on social media adds to the picture.

The best part of the quote’s appearance is the lack of interpretation. It is left as a diamond in the rough. Now it’s in my pocket.





Questions/discussions wanted; media reflections

This blog is actually about process, not results. The predictions made here are to pique your interest in the techniques, which many readers can pick up.  The game is largely defined by the IARPA/CIA experiments in crowd-sourcing open source intelligence, in which people without expert qualifications, some working as teams, others as individuals, beat the experts.

A typical Reuters or CNN opinion piece mushes info, hope, faith, aspiration, more info, aspiration, faith, and hope, into a calzone-like object, decorated with stock photos vaguely related to the subject. These are confections, not intelligence. Open source intelligence is partly a salvage operation, because you do not have a free plane ticket to Tehran or Baghdad to get your own “ground knowledge”. Opinion pieces often have useful information. Simply discard the opinions.

My experience with the “Forecasting World Events” project was very positive. Reading the opinion pieces always gave me a dull feeling, but a gift of the FWE project was  license to feel that I could do better. No longer did I feel hostage to the opinion pieces. My analysis could be more incisive without being fallacious.

If you are content to be a follower, this is not for you. If you are an ideologue, or an emphatically political animal, this is not for you. If you are genuinely curious about open source intelligence, pick an intelligence problem, and post about it here. We’ll both learn something.




Zen exercise for predictors

Practice and encourage holding contradictory notions in your mind at the same time. Examples:

1. An individual who, you think, simultaneously, (a) should be admired for personal sacrifice in defense of constitutional liberties and, (b) should be sentenced to a long prison term for disclosure of classified information.

2. Someone like Philippe Pétain of France, who lead France to victory in World War I, and, as Prime Minister of Vichy France, collaborated with Germany in World War II.

It is a natural human inclination to judge situations such as these to a final conclusion, even when one is completely out of the loop.  It takes much effort to have a public voice, and it is admirable when one chooses to, but most of the time, one’s judgment is a silent grumble.

Holding contradictory views is a mind-expanding process, far more rewarding than deciding what to do to whom. If you practice long enough, you will become a mind-juggling adept. In an enlarged space of consciousness, your decisions will be better when they really count.

Iraq commentary

Since Iraq seems topical right now, here’s some additional commentary. The nightly news seems fixated in the viewpoint of, “this is what the other parties are doing, and what we should we do about it.” This is more about viewing it as a game, and watching the play.

The main actors in the region are the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the non-state element. The non-state element is an asymmetrical threat, with a strategy that rises little above tactics: take, terrorize, and live off the land. But the state actors have the opportunities to engage in complex strategies.

The second tier actors are the Kurds,  the Shiites of southern Iraq, and the Sunnis of the middle region. With their quasi-nation, the Kurds verge on being the swing player of the moment.  The Shiites have Iran to watch their backs. The Sunnis, with nothing of value save a barren territory, have no better weapon than passive-aggression.

Now photocopy a map from a book, or print one from the web and draw lines between every actor who hates another actor. If you do this correctly, you will have connected every actor to every other actor, with two exceptions:

U.S. <– >Saudi Arabia should be a “love line”

Shiites of Southern Iraq <–> Iran should be a “love line.”

The reason the U.S. is connected to Kurdistan by a “hate line” is that it is a matter of U.S. policy, influenced by Turkey, to oppose a Kurdish state. As for lines connecting the U.S. to other Iraqi factions, we probably all agree that they are all a pita. Perhaps there should be a special line for this.

That the line connecting the Shiites of southern Iraq with Iran is a “love line” is glossed over in all the diplomatic verbiage that’s slinging around right now. The state religion of Iran was born in Iraq. The most holy Shiite shrines are located there.

The only natural force that by extremely tortured argument could compete with this is Pan-Arabism.  Have you heard much of that lately? It was big in the day of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and later revived, without success, by Saddam Hussein. If not dead, Pan-Arabism is very stale.

Part of the appeal of a tie-up between Iraq’s Shiite community, and Iran, solemnized in appropriate documents with the appropriate amount of territory-creep, is the novelty of it. Being a new idea, the follies are not yet known. And, who knows? Maybe the absolute congruence of religion is enough to overcome differences in table manners.

To the Saudis, this would be an Iranian dagger thrust into the heart of the Arab World. Besides their old-man conservatism, which brooks no change, they have a legitimate fear. Every nation in the area has at one point been the heart of an empire, and a caliphate now gleams in the eyes of the mullahs, just as it did in the eye of Saddam Hussein.

Occasionally an idea whose time has come can be stopped by tanks. The Soviets succeeded in Hungary in 1956. The Saudis have the tanks, and the means to get them there, but they have the oil disease.  The U.S. has, oddly enough, the generations of young men anxious to test themselves in battle, and in which they always acquit themselves well, but their parents are wiser.

But Iran is unique, consisting of two societies in unequal coexistence. One society is civil, secretly tending towards the secular, and very similar to the West. The other is the religious state. It might be tempting to call it a state-within-a-state, but it really is more than that. It is the uber-state. And, there is within that state, an individual who one might liken to a Robespierre , who you may know as “Mr. Guillotine.” But unlike Robespierre, he is still kicking,  the modern author of tyranny in Iran, and he is not Khamenei, with whom he may be co-equal in power. Do you know his name?

If the religious establishment commits the IRG to “struggle”, it may be found an instrument of enormous compressed power, the measured complements of strategy and martyrdom.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, one Indian official was quoted to say, “Don’t fight the United States unless you have nuclear weapons.”  The IRG has no such opponent in the region. But is Iran willing to endure the privation that would result? A mere speculation follows. The Russians make a huge distinction between Sunni and Shiite as threats. The Sunnis are the wellspring of terrorism. The Shiites, they argue, are not, even though Iran’s state-sponsored assassination program was prolific into the 90’s, and is still active today. If U.S. efforts to reconstitute Iraq fail, and the ISIS is not obliterated, a congruence of Russian and Iranian interests could bypass Iran’s isolation.