Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Science of CT

Following from an earlier posting on scientific predictions about bin Laden's likely location (that turned out to be uncannily accurate WRT the type of location if not the specific location), an article has just been published in Science, one of the top two journals in any scientific field (Nature is the other), that describes a means by which insurgency can be predicted. I found this over on Danger Room - have a look at their analysis. My analysis continues below.

Here is the abstract

In military planning, it is important to be able to estimate not only the number of fatalities but how often attacks that result in fatalities will take place. We uncovered a simple dynamical pattern that may be used to estimate the escalation rate and timing of fatal attacks. The time difference between fatal attacks by insurgent groups within individual provinces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and by terrorist groups operating worldwide, gives a potent indicator of the later pace of lethal activity.

As a general rule I am very skeptical of hard science in political affairs. I think it can provide excellent data about which to think about problems but it should not be a substitute for the hard work of the latter, which requires experience, learning and judgement. In both American civic and military culture there is a tension between art and science with an overwhelming emphasis on the science of military affairs, industry, trade, communications, finance and so on. America’s abundant natural resources combined with the new technologies of the industrial revolution and mass migration propelled the US to world leader status in no time. Naturally the US looks to its strengths in science and technology to solve problems, even social problems, at home and abroad. It is not an exaggeration to claim that ingenuity and innovation are national traits in a country that gave mankind the power of flight, put a man on the moon, mastered the immense power of the atom, and invented the internet, among many such achievements. In international affairs, as American power and responsibility grew, there came to exist a series of interrelated dichotomies that flow from the tension between art and science. In the universities qualitative analysis takes a back seat to the emphasis placed on quantitative method. In the US academy, social sciences measure and try to explain the human condition. In the European academy the humanities contextualize and try to understand the human condition. These are not semantic differences. The American approach is predictively oriented and nestles neatly with the American cultural inclination to look forward. The European approach is concerned first and foremost with understanding societies based on continuities and differences observed through history.

The distinctions between the US and European intellectual approach to society find its correlates in the making of war. US war colleges teach and talk Clausewitz but the military machine practices Jomini. In Afghanistan at least, the US proclaims COIN all the while practicing CT. The tension in this dichotomy is expressed in the dissatisfaction with the idea that we cannot kill our way to victory (CT).[1] Yet there is also a realization the US does not have the time, money, or will, to impose the deep and lasting changes required to pacify the societies that threaten US security (COIN). But the COIN approach misses the point to a degree. Whole societies do not threaten the US, only very small but powerful groups within them that are joined across national boundaries. It may be enough to remove the aggressors within these societies thereby giving the time and space to allow the societies to self-organize. Further, it is preferable to work by, through, and with, locals to assist them to rid their own societies of the internal threat than to impose this change from outside and afar. There is a risk that the way they choose to organize will follow a path that results in the embrace of suicidal nihilism. But the Arab spring shows the world that the Muslim people’s of North Africa have rejected the AQ-way outright. Much like the people of Iran rejected the extremism of their regime in the wake of the last ‘election’ in 2009.[2]

With respect to intelligence and operational activities, perhaps the most significant trend noted above is the importance of the individual versus the societies in which they operate. Strategically it is much easier to remove individuals and their networks from the scene than it is to build functional western style democracies in cultures that have never known those concepts. The intelligence challenge in such an approach is not at all easy, in fact it is incredibly difficult. It is the equivalent of finding a silver 
needle in a stack of three million stainless steel needles.

Critics of the intelligence driven small footprint CT approach will say it is just a recipe for an endless 
game of “wackamole”. They are right. Yet until the Muslim world completes its Enlightenment then perhaps for the small violent radical minority, Lawrence’s dictum remains tragically pertinent “an opinion can be argued with; a conviction is best shot”.[i] Perhaps bin Laden’s legacy will be that he forced the Muslim world to hurry up and choose its path between the past and the future. In the twitter epoch, civilizations are not afforded much time to resolve complex questions. I feel for our Arab friends having momentous change forced on them at the speed of light. Yet to the very great credit, so far, they have chosen wisely. Wackamole will give them some space to choose, at the same time as being realistic and affordable for the West. Let’s face facts, the Arab spring has not come at a great time for the liberal democracies. But it has come and it must be embraced for what it is – a once in a lifetime opportunity for progress and lasting peace. Life wasn’t meant to be easy.[ii]

[i] TE Lawrence, Evolution of the Revolt, p.6.

[2] Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
[3] It may well be that as in the past Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan will be outliers to these trends. But it is hard to see how a COIN approach in either case will be superior to the CT approach.


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