Gaming Iraq’s future; methodologies

How should we approach this? By sketching personalities, and mapping hierarchies of dominance, or by moving tokens on a board? In “Al Qaeda Hostage Release, & Lantana Weed Control”, it’s asserted that Qatar cannot be tokenized. In other words, Qatar has a complex internal structure that spits out behaviors considerably more complicated than a shocked lab rat.

Some problems become simplified en masse, while others become more complicated. The physics of bodies with gravitational fields provides an example of magnificent clarity:

  • The mechanics of a single body is trivial.

  • The mechanics of two bodies has a simple formula solution.

  • The mechanics of three bodies has no formula solution. All you can do is calculate the evolution of their motions in tiny increments of time, and keep doing it till you get to the time you want. This is called “iteration.”

  • The mechanics of more than three bodies becomes increasingly miserable, until, when you have about 13 or more, provided the bodies are identical, and you don’t care about their individual identities, statistics emerge, and can be solved for. Statistics are numbers that characterize the particles as a bunch.

Inexact analogies to human behavior are obvious: individual, cabal, crowd, tribe, society… The imprecision, and perhaps, lack of practical exploitability of these relationships is as frustrating for intelligence as it is for physics. Could one, for example, predict a revolution by monitoring the behavior of a crowd, as, for instance, with tweets before the 2011 Egyptian revolution?

The U.S. intelligence community observed a large scale social instability prior to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, but was unable to  predict the revolution itself. To predict the fall of Mubarak would have required analytic tools that work from the large to the small.  One group (citation missing)  published claims of a model-with-software that predicted the fall of Mohamed Morsi, supposedly by analyzing the claims, grievances, and resources of the “actors” of Egypt’s political scene.  But as the claim was made after the fact, it and a couple of bucks will buy you a latte.

While informatics is still largely preoccupied with models and statistical quantities thereof, it has also moved past that, with the new understanding that some important information may be uncovered, if we are only willing to cede the need to know the reasoning. The neural network is one such device.  The details of how a complex neural network actually functions cannot be known, because the states are too complex to interpret individually. But if it says yes, or it says no, and it has a track record, what the hey?

This was one of the inspirations behind crowdsourcing intelligence; put lots of warm & wet neural networks on the case, and feed their outputs into some kind of algorithm that would cleanse the data of their bizarre individual opinions, exposing hidden gems. Suppose, for example, you had assembled a  collection of opinionated heads who always, without exception, gave the wrong answer. You pose the question: Will Bashar Hafez al-Assad be among the living after June 16, 2015, the end of the month of Ramadan? The group reply is “without a doubt, absolutely, bet your life on it”…and the group is always wrong. Would you ignore the prediction?

If this seems farfetched, the financial markets use methods like this, called contrarian sentiment indicators, and they are valued by many for market timing.  The simulated market is  a crowdsourcing methodology for intelligence work, perhaps the most widely used. There was an operating “terror market”, devoted to predicting terror events, which was terminated by ethical considerations, such as the possibility of encouraging the act.

You should not underestimate the possibility that your own warm & wet and conveniently available neural network can tackle prediction problems with results better, at least, than the “opinion pieces”. It does require a high level of self-awareness to create the required  virtual “detached little man.” Do some meta-analysis about your own thinking. When you think about Iraq, ISIS, Iran, and Syria, do you gravitate to:

  • Individual players?
  • Cabals?
  • Tribes?
  • “Peace of Westphalia constructs”, with political maps populated by men wearing western business suits?

Without tipping my hand before the next post, this is a big problem. Each presents a different way of abstracting and simplifying the situation. Each is very incomplete, yet there is no combinatorial principle that provides completeness.


Russian Casualties estimate; a technique note

In “Russia is short of soldiers…”, the estimate of 400-650 Russian deaths is provided. It may eventually join the pile of  published wrong guesses. But it is an example of how disparate bits of apparently unrelated information can come together to provide an intelligence estimate. Some of these bits are “general knowledge”, while others would be noted by the amateur military historian while reading the news.

The Vietnam war was caught between old military paradigms and those in the process of invention.  Unlike the wars that followed, there were situations in which American units were actually slaughtered. This created pressure from the top to show great damage to the enemy, with inflated “body counts”. Subsequent wars, even Afghanistan, have had been more favorably asymmetric. And as the value of the body count as raw material for the intelligence estimate became appreciated, the culture moved in the direction of precision and lack of bias.

The Ukrainian Army inherited  the old Soviet military doctrine. Particularly since the flat terrain of Ukraine is “good tank country”, whatever changes in doctrine have occurred are the results of small forces operating in vast territories and the occasional appearance of modern weapons. It seems likely that, in some cases, battlefield radar has been used, allowing the Ukrainian forces to locate Russian mobile columns and attack them with some success.

But although the Ukrainian forces have sometimes demonstrated good local awareness, they lack situational awareness on the scale of the entire “front.” This is has been shown by frequent encirclements of Ukrainian units. In World War II, similar gaps in situational awareness were exploited by talented generals on both sides to create “pockets”, sometimes entrapping hundreds of thousands of enemy troops.  Encirclements have not been a prominent feature of warfare since, because when one occurs, the echelons of an advanced army quickly acquire complete situational awareness, and concentrate forces to break the encirclement, or even use the situation against a less advanced enemy to provoke their forces to concentrate.

The observation that the Ukrainians have poor situational awareness bears on their casualty estimates. The inability to clearly see the hostile forces means that casualty estimates rely on subsequent inspection of the battlefield and rude estimates of retreating convoys and the capacity of the constituent vehicles, provided by discretely hiding spotters. As with Vietnam, there is a need to generate optimistic estimates, because optimism keeps them going.

Suppose, having lived on Mars since the beginning of the year, and knowing nothing of this conflict, you are presented with a white sheet of paper on which are printed, in bold letters:

  • Russian casualties: 15 – 2000

  • Ukrainian situational awareness: poor

  • Demand: Generate number now.

What would you do? If your inclination were to roll it up into a ball and try to hit the trash basket, you’d probably be right. Based upon the white sheet of paper, the knowledgeable estimate is, “somewhere between 15-2000. ” Those boundaries, serving as “almost facts”, are the factual fence of the problem.

But you’ve absorbed something from the news. Intuition, fueled by both conscious and unconscious impressions of their behavior,  is  used to posit that the Ukrainians have generated the maximum possible number, by summing nonlethal and lethal casualties.

This biases the estimate downwards from the neutral, no-knowledge number of 1007.5.  In counter-bias, quoting Reuters, “The battle, the soldiers said, killed more than 100 Russian soldiers serving in the 18th motorized rifle brigade of military unit 27777, which is based outside the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Now there is a choice. It is tempting to guess that 3 to 5 times this number have been successfully hidden by the Russians. But it would be just a guess, masquerading as insight. The efficiency of the media at ferreting is unknown.

Resorting to “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics”, for a ratio of lethal to nonlethal, has both intuitive and factual elements. The factual part is that the document is available. The intuitive is to select the basis for the ratio, but the range of ratios that can be generated from the report is not large.

The intuition used here is formally  expressible as a few “dumb rules.” As an argument requirement, the “dumb rule” is a form of Occam’s Razor, a beneficial distinction from thought processes that are not sharable in any form. That vague kind of intuition should be avoided.

Russia is short of soldiers for Ukraine; military incapacity seems evident

See Reuters.

Conscripts are being deployed, contrary to Russian law. Quoting, “Vitaly says officers tried to force his son – serving mandatory military service – to change his status to a contract soldier, which would legally allow him to serve abroad. Conscripts in Russia are exempt from foreign service.

Hospitals in Rostov, Moscow, and St. Petersburg have filled to capacity.

Estimates of Russian deaths range from a Ukrainian high of 2000 to a low of 15, by unspecified human rights workers (Reuters). A Congressional Research Service report, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics”, provides figures for American conflicts of possible comparative value. An average ratio over recent wars with some similarity of character is roughly  3.5 non mortal wounds per conflict death. With the assumption that every Russian soldier observed to be evacuated from the battlefield is optimistically counted by the Ukrainians as a mortality, an estimate of 600 Russian deaths results. If the Ukrainians observe removal of corpses with equal efficiency and without distinction, the estimate becomes about 450 deaths.

This is an example of open-source analysis that anyone can do with only slight digging. It contradicts the popular notion that Russia has a competent, though small, professional volunteer army, capable of fielding even a small Ukraine incursion with the sophistication of recent U.S. battle doctrine. With the glimpse of medical logistics, it offers the picture of a sclerotically weak Russia. Perhaps this is why Putin keeps up the nuke talk.

But it is hardly a scoop.  An active, international, cooperative framework of open source diggers, with some kind of clearing hub, could have provided the raw material for analysis some time ago.

Start digging and posting.



ISIS & Calls for U.S. leadership & Growing the Ideal Lawn

There have been calls for the U.S. to exercise “leadership”, originating on partisan political lines.  A bias towards passivity , described in part by the phrase “leading from behind”, went badly wrong in Syria, seeding the ground for ISIS. A misdirection of priority for  the political integrity of Iraq further compounded the problem.

It would be a shame if  the idea of leading from behind, which, according to the New Yorker, originated with Nelson Mandela, were a casualty of these recent events. Foreign policy tends to be described by single buzzwords, and here we have a whole phrase of three words, a welcome addition to the sparse palette of buzz-choices.

In Making Plans; Getting Ready; Iraq Mosque Massacre, the argument is made that the problem of ISIS defies the conventional notion of a plan, which tends to have an algorithmic expectation for attainment of the goal.

So ingrained is this in the human psyche that we habitually call our politicians liars when they put forth plans that call for military pacification of millions of people followed by reconstruction of the local civilization (or lack) and erection of a democratic polity — and the plan fails to come off as expected.

If, thinking the better of the above,  politicians propose a plan without the algorithmic element, meaning that no promise of a specific, endpoint-goal is made, the politicians are called indecisive.

Military plans once had a rigidity caused by the difficulties of communication and awareness (the fog of war), and the process of “mobilization.” Driven by the rigid scheduling of railways, this reached a peak with World War I. Each country had an intricate plan to move  military assets to the border in minimum time. Once started, the plan could not be interrupted or modified, because trains run on tracks, and the rest of the transportation was by horses or foot. Perhaps diplomats unconsciously copied this pattern in the rigid framework of interlocking alliances that made the assassination of an obscure archduke a compulsion to war.

In certain fields, humans have been forced, by compelling need, to abandon the legacy of a mental framework. In the Fifth Solvay Conference, in 1927, the physicists received the first intimation that the concepts of truth, as examined by philosophy, are widely invalid in the real world. In physics, compelling need has caused the concept of truth to evolve, diversify, and, in some cases, become non sequitur. And although Ludwig Wittgenstein provides a kind of a gap-filler for anxious liberal arts students, physics continues to outpace. At best, we can claim Wittgenstein is relevant to us, and we are limited.

With those eminently respectable examples in front of us, consider the evolution of warfare, which has been info-centric for a long time. The colorful costumes of Napoleonic and earlier were required to know where the troops were. Orders were originally shouted, then written,  then sent by telegraph key, then typed, then teletyped, then sent by encrypted burst radio; now by micro-cellular radio with heads-up display. This is reflected in the evolution of U.S. battle doctrines. The first evolved doctrine, the product of Vietnam’s junior officers, was AirLand Battle, superseded by Full Spectrum Operations” (  American Army Doctrine for the Post-Cold War). And it keeps going. While political debate tends to have a cyclic, repetitive character, the U.S. Army learns from their mistakes. Experiencing the death of soldiers under one’s command seems to provide collective inspiration, which is why, some have said, war brings out the best in men, though making the kind of history that should have been avoided.

The thinking implied by the article, “Post 9/11 Stability Operations; How U.S. Army Doctrine is Shaping National Security Operations”, could help avoid the painful mistakes of past counter-insurgencies. But part of the avoidance is not getting in the situation in the first place. And a risk of not getting involved is the kind of global malignancy not seen in past Cold-War situations. There is no doctrinal replacement for fluid intellect in calling the shots.

DoD is at the service of public policy, not the originator. DoD doctrines are shaped by the need to connect the dots, in detail, all the way to training the soldier. The need to be absolutely nuts-and-bolts practical and implementable results in great detail at the bottom, and less at the top. There is no DoD manual on when to engage. That’s left to the politicians. The cited document provides methods, but the judgment to apply is left to Wise Men, who are often not that wise.

The nature of partisan politics tends to promote one-word solutions. Phrases of three words are better, though, as recently seen, three might not be enough. Homeowners in the suburbs who are trying to grow nice lawns are acquainted with reading little articles on the side of grass seed bags. You start with red fescue, just to get something down, mulch, aerate, weed, mow, and fertilize, and seed with Kentucky Bluegrass to replace the coarse fescue. Then, after some years, you’re supposed to have a nice lawn. Although I hate yard work, and I have never actually seen this happen, millions of homeowners seem to obtain life  fulfillment in their quests.

That was about 50 words. You don’t exercise leadership to grow a lawn, and you don’t follow it. Sometimes you let it sit, and sometimes you mow and weed like crazy, according to the weather, not some grand plan. Single words and simple phrases don’t suffice. Perhaps we should grow a vocabulary.

ISIS Beheadings

In ISIS Executions & Emotional Reactions, I remarked that it is important not to be captured by emotion. It is natural to be more affected when the victim is culturally one of our own. It is not necessary to offer the opinion that all lives are of equal value. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t; that is your private affair. But let us not be distracted from the game in which the opponent is ISIS. There is data to be extracted.

Some have suggested that, in the personal address of threat to President Obama, the perpetrators believe that this may deter a U.S. policy of confrontation with ISIS. This is one possible interpretation. Another  interpretation, exclusive of the first, is that the intended audience is internal, to spur other ISIS combatants to competitive acts of savagery. To an audience  of sympathizers, it could be a recruitment pitch.

A third possibility is that the executions stem from nothing complicated;  they are merely physical venting of extreme hostility, or taunts, as appear in the Scandinavian  “blood sagas.”

Which is more correct? The inexperienced analyst may fall into the trap of projecting a made-up mental image, a kind of false empathy, into the problem. Perhaps, having just seen an emotionally charged movie, a complete work of fiction, you have had an animated discussion on the motives of a character. Whatever you think, it is a projection, because the character never existed, not even in the mind of the script writer, who, from personal experience, goes for overall-impression-and-damn-the-details.

There are perhaps four intelligence agencies with the depth of resources for an answer that is more than a guess. One test of relevance of a strategy to counter ISIS is that the answer matters.


Ukraine & Politics of Appeasement

Many younger readers may not be familiar with the phrase “politics of appeasement“, which is best associated with British P.M. Neville Chamberlain’s misguided attempt to avoid World War II by forcing Czechoslovakia to cede territory.

Chamberlain was not the only practitioner. The period over which the Western democracies attempted to appease the Fascist states spanned 1931-1939. It even includes the refusal of the U.S. to recognize Japan’s annexation of Manchuria, which did not avert the subsequent atrocities or the war itself.

Although Merkel is not a Chamberlain, and Putin is not a Hitler, there are certain similarities. Merkel is rumored to push Poroshenko to make concessions, which, presumably, would lead to “peace for our time.” And Putin, who does not have Hitler’s histrionic speaking style, repeatedly makes reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

It is disconcerting that Putin thinks the EU is susceptible to psychological manipulation, and also, that he might be right. Two sources of Putin’s inspiration come to mind.

The small mustelid predator called the “weasel” overcomes the speed of the rabbit  by performing what is called the “weasel dance”, rapid lateral leaps and bounds, which apparently overload the rabbit’s nervous system so that the flight instinct is paralyzed.

Among the underclass of thieves and murderers, and perhaps among KGB veterans, there is the lore that to kill a familiar person, it helps to habituate the intended victim to the presence of the murder weapon. Familiarity by the victim of the knife or the gun provides the killer a few more seconds, before the victim is aroused, to accomplish the deed.

The interpretation of Putin’s behavioral subtleties is not a science. But there is more power to the technique than referring to the Dnieper river, which bisects Ukraine, as a strategic goal. As a student of Napoleon, Putin knows that being a prisoner of circumstances, and being an opportunist, are not contradictions.

Germany, Ukraine and “Peace for Our Time”

On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the U.K., returned from Munich, having negotiated with Hitler to permit annexation by Germany of portions of Czechoslovakia. He said, “I have brought peace for our time.” This  was a false hope. Next, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II followed.

David Clarke says that Merkel is pressuring Poroshenko to concede territory in the east of Ukraine, eerily similar to Chamberlain’s pressure on the Czech government, who capitulated to the Munich agreement.

On 8/22, Germany approved the acquisition by  Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman of RWE Dea AG, an oil and natural gas subsidiary of RWE AG.  Berlin explains that, removing concerns about Russia, the holding company that purchased RWE, LetterOne, is an EU based company.  Fridman’s current relationship, or lack of, with Putin, would be interesting to know. It would help determine whether the  Russian invasion now under way was encouraged by the approval of the deal.

Here my detached “little man” homunculus steps in, providing remove from despair at the West’s response, which stems from a convergence of factors. Some are  some coldly economic, and some are psychological.

Unlike the U.S., the Germans are possessed of a national characteristic that drives them to run a tight economic ship. They do not mint money. Until a few years ago, Germany was the largest exporter of finished industrial goods in the world. The names you know: Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Bosch, Sennheiser,  Leica/Leitz, Zeiss (the oldest optical company in the world.) German quality is the stuff of legend.

While Germany’s parliament does not have the equivalent of U.S. conservative pressure on foreign policy, it has high labor costs, which includes a bargain with labor: everyone will participate to keep the economic machine running 24/7. Unlike the U.S., Germany does not enjoy even the illusion of continental self-sufficiency. If something out of science fiction  isolated each country behind an impenetrable barrier, the U.S. would survive longer. The atmosphere in Germany is too small to hold much oxygen. The U.S. economy can almost stop and then start again; in Germany, cessation of life might be permanent.

Although conservatives are quick to condemn the current Administration as weak on foreign policy, even a strong reaction to Putin’s Ukraine adventurism would not have been enough to catalyze the equivalent of Cold War unity against Russia. Extraordinary  economic interdependence between Europe and Russia is one obstacle. And the erstwhile “Allies” watched the U.S. mainspring run down after the Iraq invasion,  as U.S. “neoconservatives” attempted the Manhattan project equivalent of social engineering, with consequences disastrous for both doctor and patient.

The current Administration has pursued a policy to draw down U.S. activism in world affairs. They know that, historically, no empire has managed to shed its burdens quickly enough to avoid economic ruin. Some personalities are better at bluff, formerly called “brinksmanship”, than others. Hillary Clinton’s remark about China debt,  “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”, could be paraphrased by Germany as, “How do you expect us to drive into the economic ditch, when we have no empire as an excuse?”

There is still room for personal inclination. One  relatively low cost option is to supply arms to virtuous supplicants. There seems to be a bias against handing out guns, rooted in guilt over decades of proxy wars. Is the Ukraine conflict a case of “Live free or die”, or some inhuman premise of international law, such as territorial integrity?

The detached “little man” steps aside. Make your choice.



Al Qaeda Hostage Release, & Lantana Weed Control

The NY Times quotes Rick Brennan of RAND. “Qatar has an interest in making certain it is seen as an ally in the war on terror. And beheading Americans or Westerners is not in Qatar’s interest.” Qatar negotiated with Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, for the release of journalist Peter Curtis, who was held somewhere in Syria. According to the media, no ransom was paid.

Until the advent of ISIS, Al Nusra was perhaps the most effective Sunni opposition group in Syria. The NY Times has claimed that Qatar funds Al Nusra, and has transferred MANPADs (shoulder fired AA missiles) to them.

Although open sources on this subject are a minefield of kooks with agendas, there is perhaps one more reasonable fact: the philosophic inspirer  is Abu Musab al-Suri, described by some as the most sophisticated jihadi thinker. It seems that he is the creative author of some ideology compatible with Al Qaeda, and a motivator as well — enough for a group of fanatics to assume his teachings as their mantle.

As the West is hostile to the notion of overthrowing legitimate governments and replacing them with caliphates, the Western definition of “terror group” is more inclusive than that of the Qataris. The Qataris, on the other hand, have less concern about genuine acts of terror — although, if asked, a Qatari would probably not condone all of the acts of Al Qaeda, or even condemn. In juxtaposition with the way Qatar has made facilities available for western military projection of power, this presents a very complex picture that is probably worthy of extensive psychoanalysis. But as far as the human mind is concerned, we must remember that internal contradictions are surprisingly easy to live with. We just happen to recognize them more easily in others, and be more puzzled.

There might be a tendency to tokenize the Qataris with a blip like “actor”, and assign to them a few characteristics for simulation, such as “interests”, “activities”, and “likely response”. But actually, they are just as complex as we are, and in this area, perhaps more so. They are probably wondering, just as we are, what they can do to right the ship. They are not passive, nor are they impeded by bulk.

Here we should note that many “experts”, consultants to the West, who are still part of the decision process, declared the demise of Osama bin Laden to be the end of Al Qaeda. This was attractive because of the apparent finality, and because it is an antidote to the assertion that the West created Islamic terrorism.

We did not create the problem. A vulnerable culture was exposed to the wealth of oil. The delicate skin of Arab isolation was ripped off by cultural abrasion, exposing a culture gap of eight centuries. An ideological vacuum filled with a lantana of the spirit. Lantana is an invasive, noxious weed that kills livestock.

The experts who mistook the capitation strike for the solution are still part of the very bulky decision process that has evolved as an inferior replacement for human judgment and intuition. Paraphrasing the NY Times article by Philip Tetlock, debunker of political expertise , we mistake the process for the solution. And the “process” has become so elaborate, and so prolonged, the events of the past several years have repeatedly outrun it. It would be the stuff of jokes if it weren’t so tragic.

Now for the speculation.  Since the Qataris are closer to the problem, they may already have this intuition. They are not blameless, but as a much smaller ship, they can turn around before we even adjust the rudder. They understand that to displace lantana, one has to plant something that can stand up to it, something that itself might be quite noxious to us. Abu Musab al-Suri is such a seed, and he languishes in a Syrian jail. As an ideological fountainhead, he may offer the prospect of a less pathogenic organism than ISIS.

This kind of action could not pass our decision process. But while we unaccept, the world turns. In the past, other unseemly acts have devolved to proxies. But the Qataris are not proxies.

The lantana metaphor, of the need for an ecological approach to the human spirit, may actually be more useful than the typical literary analogy. The Cold War was a cool, quiet game of chess. Now we’re all farmers. It’s time to get dirty and sweaty.



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