Russian tanks & Ukraine

Russian tanks are again massing on the border with Ukraine. The refusal by separatists of Poroshenko‘s amnesty offer has lead to heavy casualties among them. Since the killing happened within 60 miles of the border, it could presage another Russian land grab.

With characteristic perspicacity, Putin observes the world faces “a growing cult of violence“, which he is afraid could be imported into Russia. He is most likely thinking about the Caucasus, which includes Chechnya,  subdued in a notoriously brutal pair of wars, for which he was given a moral exemption by the West. Ukraine is on the northwestern flank of that land mass, which, bordered by the Black and Caspian Seas, looks a little like a peninsula, except that the southern border is land: Turkey and Iran.

So if Ukraine were an active enemy on the flank of that volatile region, it would complicate any future need to contain violence emanating from the Caucasus. If Putin decides upon a land grab, there is another solemn fact: Ukrainians make good soldiers. In a previous post, I attempted, without success, to find a rule for this. Perhaps there is a Freudian explanation? Does the unemotional Ukrainian personality mask a sublimated capacity for organized violence? Hitler put Ukrainians in the static divisions on the Western Wall, and they fought.

Like many other facets of life, the battlefield has been miniaturized. Handheld weapons, MANPADs (Man-Portable Air Defense)  and ATMs (Anti-Tank Missile) deprive capital assets like tanks and planes of the overwhelming edge they formerly enjoyed over infantry. Of course, even the humble RPG is formidable in the hands of those with preternatural skill. And there are quite a few of those operators.

To maintain the asymmetrical advantage over opponents armed with modern light weapons, the U.S. developed complex battle doctrines: AirLand, and most recently, “Full Spectrum Dominance“, which became current during Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary. Rumsfeld pushed the the military in the direction of “better, faster, cheaper.” But the most recent test,  the Iraq war of 2003, was inconclusive. Deprived of air cover and communications, some Sunni Iraqi units proved formidable opponents. They raised their rifles in the air, and brought down helicopters in unison. Since many Iraqi units had been bought off before the shooting, critics reasonably argued that Rumsfeld had not brought enough lead to the gunfight. Had the tip of the U.S. spear been blunted, we would hear more about this.

The border with Russia is good tank country, flat, and open. But Russia would not possess all the elements of an asymmetrical battle doctrine, which has never been tested by them in battle. Ukraine would have some advanced elements: Western intelligence, imagery, and communications, which are quickly being enhanced. Depending upon the speed with which NATO transfers advanced man-portable weapons, the proven quality of Ukrainian soldiering could result in protracted conflict and chronic enmity.

With Sochi a distant memory for would-be tourists, Putin has seemingly positioned Russia as an adversary to the West. More than any Russian leader since Lenin, Putin is a thinker, who endeavors to leverage assets, rather than commit them to a grind.  The event that seems to have dulled Putin’s mental edge, leading him in what history might call an inexorable direction, is evident: the  deposing of Viktor Yanukovych.

Putin, the tightrope walker, has fallen off the wire. He is using increasing force to achieve less, and is depleting his personal cachet with the world at large.

 

 

The Iraqi Army

The Iraqi Army cut and ran.  There are no reports of any strategic initiatives, tactical maneuvers, mobile reserves,  or anything other than a rout. Iraq has an “Armed Service and Supply Institute”, a.k.a. a war college, but Maliki runs the war personally from his presidential compound, which has both civilian and military sides. Such is his trust in whatever military expertise may be available.

At D-Day, the German forces at the beachhead were designated by the Wehrmacht as “static divisions”, a special class of substandard soldiers equipped with substandard equipment, incapable of organized movement. Hence the term, “static.” Yet they fought.

Napoleon’s Army at Waterloo was composed of three tiers of elite beyond the common soldier, the Old Guard, the Middle Guard, and the Young Guard. At the critical  moment, Napoleon committed the Old Guard, nicknamed the “Immortals.” But the immortality  of the Old Guard was not corporeal, but a myth of invincibility.  When the Old Guard began to retreat, the myth died, the Middle Guard broke, and  most of the Young Guard fled.

The emotional quotient of an army, though hidden, is huge. When it is destroyed, only a hero can restore it. You may wish to listen to a short speech of Churchill,  rallying Britain from defeat in France. When the movie “Young Winston” was screened in London, moviegoers would, at the end,  stand and solemnly applaud, just as if the great man could hear them. The 20th was not a particularly good century from the moral perspective, yet we can at least cherish the memory of a few people who tried to do the right thing.

Can you imagine Maliki rousing his “nation”, or delegating responsibility to those more capable than himself? There must be some, if Iraq is not a uniquely untalented place.

From what kind of society does a good army spring? The common element is hard to find. Do authoritarian societies produce the best soldiers? The Germany principalities, and Bismarck’s Germany, had a strong hierarchical social order. The U.S. army estimate of  the combat effectiveness of a German soldier in World War II is  1.3 times that of a U.S. soldier. But the Western armies continued to improve the art of creating the soldier, so a Spartan mentality is no longer a requirement.

Do violent societies produce the best soldiers? Countries where people shoot guns in the air, and where soldiers festooned with bandoliers and menacing expressions, are not noted for their soldiering. They are noted, instead, for “militia.” The excellence of the Indian Army further destroys the idea.

What about the power of myth? At the close of the  Vietnam War, in a situation with some parallels to the current one, North Vietnam triumphed. Yet not too many years later, they  became enthusiastically corrupt capitalists. Whatever drove North Vietnam to victory survives primarily as a Ho Chi Minh personality cult. Ho’s writings are  insubstantial compared to the great ideologues. Yet the North Vietnamese had an idée fixe when they needed it; perhaps it qualifies as  a myth.

What about land? Do people fight for it? Perhaps land-bound peasants fight for their land, but not beyond? But North Vietnam was a nation of peasants; they went south and fought.

For every demonstration of pattern, there seems to be a contradiction. This can happen if we are trying to define something in terms of what we think are elemental attributes, when the something is itself elemental. But perhaps an equivalence is possible. Perhaps the potential for a good army is equivalent to a strong national myth, which, being insubstantial, is elemental. Perhaps Iraq’s rousingly bad army is because of the absence of a national myth.

The tensions in the region are religious, so we cannot avoid the subject. The British had no confidence in the Shiite ability to rule.  They chose, instead, the Sunnis, whose more subdued demeanor encouraged hopes of Western style rationalism. The mythic space of the Iraqi religious landscape may leave no room for  a national myth. Iran has one, but with the benefit of a national culture that predates the current religion.

In Syria, the Alawite minority, with a religion concisely described as a blend of Shi’ism with syncretistic elements, has prevailed over Sunni extremists. So analysis particular to a specific religion is inconclusive. But one idea that remains intact is that Iraq lacks a national myth, and that there may not be enough head-space to inject one.

Now we come to the conclusion, the generation of intelligence from all the open source input, stirred together by philosophical speculation. With reports that Sunni  figures from the Saddam era have made common cause with the ISIS, the Iraqi Army cannot regain  the Sunni heartland. Driven by ties to the land, with American air support,  and stiffened by Iran’s Republican Guard, the Shiites will hold the south.

Partition has occurred.

 

Stretching exercises for predictors

Rather than passively wait for the future to be delivered, the predictor attempts to narrow the scope of what can happen. In the process,  one must avoid delusions of grandeur that this can actually be done.   But viewed as probabilities, the future is like the alluvial fan of a river delta, with a flow as small as individual sand grains. Now and then, a flood dislodges a boulder, which we call news.

So the exercise is to indulge and exercise our imaginations. Write imaginary headlines, and be as specific as possible. Embellish with as many details as you like, as, for example,

1. “Maliki flees south to Karbala, holes up in mosque.”

2. “Maliki found hiding in a hole. His first words, ‘I am the president of Iraq.'”

3. “Shiite/Sunni conclave convened by Maliki. Warm words show increasing bonds.”

4. “Maliki deposed in lightning coup. Iran influence seen. New leadership unknown, promises national unity.”

5. “U.S. air raid mistakenly targets Maliki; 9 members of entourage killed.”

6.” Maliki tours Iraq’s largest refinery as production resumes.”

7. “Maliki assassinated by bodyguard.”

8. “Iran Revolutionary Guards increasing presence near Baghdad.”

Keep going.  To the well-oiled imagination, the  list should appear to be endless. If you’re thinking, like Heraclitus, “You never step in the same river twice”, I agree.

Edit: I thought of something. Never edit the imagination. To wit,

9. “ISIS scatters as Iraqi Army advances.” (This is the kind of outcome that has one regretting one’s lack of “ground knowledge.”)

 

 

Why did things look so promising?

So why did things look so promising on the eve we left Iraq?

The pajandrums of politics, sociology, history, I.R., etc. can drown us in words. But maybe these few words get to the nut:

*The Americans were the social glue*

Besides dispensing money and influence, the American presence oiled the social fabric, like this: X, a Sunni, and Y, a Shiite, won’t talk. But Z, an American, talks to both of them. X and Y, for their own reasons, want to please Z. Maybe a little bit of general good will seeps into it. So they talk, for a while.

Some forms of tribalism are so arbitrary, like inner city gangs, or extended families, that in a generation of favorable time, they can fade, so that a nation’s spirit can be born. But in Iraq, tribalism is sustained by elaborate religious traditions, which, history has shown, can endure  beyond comprehension.

In the bad times of Saddam Hussein, the two groups socially intermingled,  though power was concentrated in the Sunni elite. But Hussein’s methods are not acceptable to us.

We seem perpetually inspired by General Douglas MacArthur’s success in forging the modern state of Japan. If used to inspire, the situations must be carefully compared.

 

The camel has his nose in the tent

Iran, the camel, says it will defend Shiite shrines. Maliki’s charge of genocide sets the stage for a massive territorial violation.  That a little word-slinging could set the stage is because Iraq is a made-up country, created out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by Winston Churchill in 1921, when he was Colonial Secretary. Captain Arnold Wilson warned,

“that the deep differences between the three main communities – Sunni, Shia and Kurds – ensured it could only be “the antithesis of democratic government”. This was because the Shia majority rejected domination by the Sunni minority, but “no form of government has been envisaged which does not involve Sunni domination”.

So this disaster was predicted one hundred years ago. Who says history can’t be relevant?

For Maliki to make southern Iraq a satrap of Iran, he doesn’t have to overcome the usual prejudice against selling out one’s country. He merely has to overcome the melody of Pan-Arabism, which is being drowned out by gunfire. Iran is not an Arab country, but, in the face of genocide, what can he do? [sic].

 

 

Maliki accuses Saudi Arabia of “genocide”

Maliki accuses Saudi Arabia of genocide.

Now, ask yourself:

1. In the culture of the region, is this possibly an effective call for action?

2. Or, as it would probably be regarded in Western culture, is it an attempt to exculpate one’s self?

Add your conclusion to your assessment of Maliki’s personality.

Also interesting is the boycott of the Sunni political block. Does this imply that a defacto partition is in the offing?

Edit: I had to add something:

3. A justification for something, as in, “You made me do it.”

 

You want to understand Iraq?

You want to? Here’s your first assignment, which will help you develop your prediction super-powers:

Write a character sketch of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  If the thought frees you up, pretend that you’ve gotten to know him as his biographer.  Or that he’s your uncle. You may fill in the personal details with fiction that helps you construct the mental image; whatever works for you. Once you’ve got it down:

1. Use/test the result on Iraq’s current situation. How did his personality contribute?

2. Make an estimate as to how flexible he is, and how quickly he can adapt. Every person has a characteristic rate.

Wondering when or whether the U.S. Cavalry will drop from the skies is not productive, but understanding the main characters will keep you ahead of the pack.

Never be loyal to yourself

Crowd-sourcing intelligence was the idea behind the IARPA initiative that funded FWE.org, “Forecasting World Events.”

A crowdsourced prediction  is that of a large group of unqualified people (henceforth referred to as “idiots”), which may be no more than feelings and whims are tallied day by day. The prediction is the outcome to a question worded something like,

“What are the chances that Moody’s will upgrade Tunisia’s bond rating by October, 2014?”

If you are one of the idiots trying to guess the answer, you enter a percentage into a box, and a little pie-chart on your screen is updated. You can do this as often as you like. Daily, a computer grinding away in a back room somewhere adds up how often you feel one way or the other. The secret formula to be discovered by the researchers is how to weigh the opinions of all the idiots to come up with an accuracy rating that beats the experts.

The C.I.A. was interested in this, because they have a large staff of professional analysts who should provide a better product.

A few individuals, also idiots,  had individual abilities that were about as good as all the idiots summed together by secret formulas. For example, I was able to answer a similar question about Tunisian bond ratings. I did this by getting into the head of a hypothetical bond rater, imagining his disgust at all the numbers in the face of a volatile situation, and made a decision based on sentiment, not financial facts.

The reason this works so well so often is that people have processes that they use to bolster their decisions, but in many cases yield to sentiment. The intuition of that particular question has to do with anticipating when that occurs.

Because a crowd-sourcing participant does not make a face-to-face presentation, or write a report, one  can change one’s mind on a whim. One can wind-mill without embarrassment, following the breeze of one’s mood and thoughts.

If you were in a situation where people were relying on you for guidance, this lack of consistency would not inspire confidence. So inspiring confidence is in opposition to being an accurate predictor. Ergo, never be loyal to yourself.

How do we solve this problem?

 

 

Obama threatens air strikes: reading between the lines

This is not in any way a deprecation of President Obama’s response to the Iraq crisis. It is simply a very juicy an opportunity to illuminate news interpretation, and I don’t think any jihadists read this blog anyway.

Preparing target lists for modern, smart munitions is a complex task, involving choice of delivery systems, logistics, aerial surveillance, and much number crunching of target coordinates. It also requires knowing where the friendlies, i.e., the Iraqi Army, are located, which, owing to the rout, is not currently known.

Normally, it’s a terrible mistake to telegraph a punch. Why give the jihadists a chance to get their MANPADs on their shoulders? Why clue them to watch the sky?

A reasonable deduction from Obama’s threat is that the the situation is so fluid, it is not currently known where to conduct airstrikes, and that the conditions of the second paragraph have not been satisfied.

 

The Number “7”

An  FWE question was posed, “Will [specified news media] report by [specified date] that chemical weapons were used in Syria.

At the time, there was speculation that either the regime would go chemical, because the war was going against them, or that the insurgents would capture weapons and use them against the regime.

Based upon a simple analogy with the adage, “money burns a hole in the pocket”, I predicted “yes.” This was not reported by the specified media within the specified time frame, so I lost the question. Later, some media reports retroactively supported my prediction.

I was intensely  searching for clues, ie., studying the media. The following sequence of reports was noted:

1. In December 2012, the regime claimed that while they had not used chemical weapons, seven soldiers  (7, make note of the number) were killed by chemical agents used by the rebels. This was not corroborated by any visual observations or independent reportage.

2. A few days later, the rebels reported that seven (note the number) of their number had been killed in a chemical weapons attack. This was accompanied by visuals of bodies and patients receiving treatment.

If the  occurrence of (1) had been after (2), the explanation would be simple: a regime fabrication to dilute the impact of the the rebels claim. But the reports were dated in the reverse order.

This is not an indication of an elaborate conspiracy. For all practical purposes, broad, hidden conspiracies do not exist. The conspiracy-minded make terrible predictors. Since chemical weapons cannot be calibrated to kill exactly seven people, there is obvious fabrication. But I never formed an opinion about who authored this fabrication. Nor did I bother myself with exactly how false  it was.

The importance of noticing this kind of incongruity is as a check on the general reliability of the reportage. It’s like tugging on a rope to make sure it’s tied to something firm. Over time, integrated with other piecemeal disclosures, discrepancies can acquire unexpected importance. This did not, which leaves it an excellent example of a reliability check.

Another adage comes to mind: Waste not, want not. There is more to be gleaned.  Fabrications are a form of propaganda, and the kind of propaganda hints at how close or distant a culture is from the Western viewpoint. The authors have a poetic, mystical, hyperbolic mode of expression, which could confuse the literal-minded Westerner, even one who already has experience with the Goebbels variety.

Half in jest, look for the number seven.

 

 

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