'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 8 February 2015

UK Defence Position in Iraq: The “Unearthly Ballet of Bloodless Categories”

In 2009, then-US Marine Corps Major and Middle East foreign area officer Ben Connable published a characteristically elegant article in the august journal Military Review in March entitled “All our Eggs in a Broken Basket” regarding the US Army decision to augment sociocultural understanding of brigade combat teams in Iraq and Afghanistan with civilian social scientists, rather than develop an organic expertise within the service components.

I was reminded of that title when reading the House of Commons’ Defence Committee’s critique of UK intelligence on the ground in Iraq. Following on from my previous post here regarding the imprecise, amorphous language of the Army 2020, the dangerously abstract terms in which the UK Defence establishment now couches its analysis renders any understanding of a particular stance, or indeed comprehension of a single direction, impossible.  

I was reminded of Connable’s title because to me the UK Defence reports now try to position no eggs in any baskets at all.

When the philosopher Sir Karl Popper produced his theory of falsification to demarcate the line between science and pseudoscience, he showed that rigorous definition was the key to scientific understanding, that it had to be precise enough, and consequentially testable, such that it could be proved false. In that way, to some degree, science is afforded a direction, built upon a level of concrete rigour.

Consider in opposition to that the UK Defence position in Iraq as outlined by the House of Common’s Defence Committee’s critique on 5 February 2015.

Just as in the problems I outlined in the post below, the same elements recur:

The Committee was shocked by the inability or unwillingness of any of the Service Chiefs to provide a clear, and articulate statement of the UK’s objectives or strategic plan in Iraq. There was a lack of clarity over who owns a policy—and indeed whether such a policy exists.

This again is soldier sorcery: the magic of describing thin and indistinct threats in order to place no eggs in any baskets at all. Perhaps the most telling problem, not for Iraq, but for the general efficacy of UK Defence strategies, was here, also in the summary:

The report recommends that the UK invests heavily in staff to develop a better understanding of the situation on the ground

This, by chance, is a very interesting recommendation, because we might inevitably ask that from a UK force size in-country of 4000 in 2008 in the ongoing Operation Telic (reduced by 1600 from the previous year after the completion of Operation Sinbad in Basra), we find it necessary to suggest in 2015 the heavy investment in human capability.

So what happened? The US example, as the primary foreign agent in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 is instructive. In order to ensure a handover, the surge of forces placed men and materiel on the ground between 2007 and 2009. During that time, remarkable social science research was undertaken on the ground by organic and non-organic elements within, or attached to, the deployed service components.

At least two teams on the ground conducted semi-structured interviews with the Sons of Iraq, the bureaucratic embodiment of the Anbar Awakening, in order to ascertain how the handover of payment from US forces to al-Maliki’s predominantly Shia government should work for them. The results indicated that there was likely to be some significant discrepancy between the reality of the work provisioned for them under Maliki and their expectations having suppressed the AQI surge in the territory.

At that point then in 2009 it would be reasonable to assume that our knowledge of the country was reaching its apogee. But military interest in foreign theatres is ephemeral. With the departure of materiel and manpower, the ability to securely visit all areas of the country ceased. And as Iraq dropped from the foreign affairs radar, the motivation to do in-depth social science research was reduced. Hence both means and motivation effectively ceased.

The British experience in Iraq was more wounding, and hence the motivation to continue research in the theatre was less attractive. In effect, the war could be written off and unlearned. Only, the Maliki government effectively disenfranchised the Sunni minority to the extent that Sunni insurgents were apparently openly greeted when they entered Mosul in June 2014. They came not as oppressors, but as liberators from a corrupt and vicious regime.

From that point forward, the US and Britain have been playing catch up. The spectrum of horrors employed by the Sunni insurgents, all familiarly violent motifs in the annals of war fighting, was rendered visceral, globally-available, and immediate by the use of social media to proliferate and control the message.

Unlike the British experience in Iraq, which effectively unlearned the conflict, for the insurgents in that life or death battle, they necessarily evolved sophisticated platforms to control narratives and finance their operations. This evolution has been borne from harsh assessments of past campaigns and the centre of gravity for insurgent operations (see for example, al-Suri’s Global Islamic Resistance Call for the requirement to control a successful media campaign, and a book from which many elements seem to have been adopted by ISIL).

According to one report, ISIL now controls an area in Iraq and Syria in which there are 15 million civilians, making their own amorphous, indistinct and fragile territorial gain, in terms of population larger than that of Ecuador.

Socio-cultural knowledge is a pre-requisite to successful UK Defence operations. It is relatively inexpensive and requires few personnel. Done well, it can highlight problematic contours such as with the disbanding of the Sons of Iraq, or the leader networks in areas, or inequality, or trajectories of disenfranchisement. Without this capability, we end up with amorphous and meaningless assessments of our positions in countries and when this ephemeral requirement to act returns we are left without understanding of the appropriate manner in which to do so.   

The UK Defence establishment may bemoan recent and anticipated spending cuts, but without a better understanding of the threats faced, and a much more coherent propagation of that message, no political entity will have the motivation to reverse this trajectory of change.

ISIL, or DAESH (al-Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham) to use the on-the-ground name for the Sunni insurgent group (as the UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee did), took UK and US Intelligence by surprise precisely because of that lost human capital on the ground. That is not to say that ground in the race cannot be regained. 

Like any new product, ISIL in control of its new territories is a hostage to the cycle of hype:

As we pass the group’s peak of inflated expectations and civilians experience the deep disillusionment of political control by a religious authority, the opportunity for Iraqi government to regain strong narrative and enfranchised societal gains in order to steal away popular approval of the group from its amorphous territorial gain on the ground must begin. As a brand, it is necessary to take away the group’s appeal.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Unknown Unknowns Muddy Soldier Sorcery of Army 2020 and Defence Committee’s Critique

When trying to get a point across, it helps if you can point at something.

Published today in two volumes, the Commons Defence Committee's critique of Army 2020, 2012 (and Army 2020, Update 2013) in I and II volumes crystallises distinct problems for the Army going forward: uncertain threats (nothing to point to); absence of consultation (creating problems which would have been avoided); difficulty of recruitment the cost of deploying reservists; and, force reduction dictated by economic concerns impacting national security.

Unknown threats are highlighted in Army 2020 stressing an ‘increasingly uncertain future' and the requirement of ‘competing decisively with the full spectrum of competing of potential adversaries’ (meanwhile, the reservists should be integrated into the army within ‘clearly defined roles’). This is horizon scanning. And Horizon scanning isn't sexy, and to prevent being "wrong", it leads to the amorphous indistinct identification which proliferates Army 2020.

The Army should be excoriated for the insertion of these phrases in the Army 2020 documentation:

“conflict is constant and inevitable”

“We don’t choose wars, they pick us.”

No wonder then that the Defence Committee noted that “First, the MoD has failed to communicate the rationale and strategy behind the plan to the Army, the wider Armed Forces, Parliament or the public.”

If you can't point to a Fulda Gap, or a Karbala Gap, then creating a coherent identity is problematic. Without a known threat, however, the identity can still be developed which increases recruitment and develops the Army career path. Increasing civil affairs aspects of the military (as in QDR 2010), will allow Army chiefs to develop scholarly aspects of war fighting capabilities, making the profession more attractive to academic high achievers. As a corollary, this academic symbiosis makes the Ministry of Defence identifiable in the public realm. Rather than sponsoring research through DSTL and Global Uncertainties, a fledgling National Defence Academy can be created, along similar lines to West Point, which has garnered much praise for the creation of the CTC, in response to training deficits apparent in the wake of 9/11.

Army 2020 mentions “language training”, but geographic interest by the military is ephemeral and episodic; culture training is time much better spent, which can also lead to a wide variety of Phase Zero deployments. Lessons learned from Defence Cultural Specialist Unit can be absorbed and used to effect, and collaboration with senior social scientists from the Human Terrain System such as the recently departed Dr Christopher King should be considered. Such developments will augment and clarify elements of the New Career Development Framework.

Regarding reduction, the Army 2020 highlighted force reduction and expansion and integration of reservists (following from the Future Reserves 2020 Review), implementing proposals in the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review and developed through the Army’s Three Month Exercise:

“Army 2020 will create an integrated Army of 112,000 personnel by 2020. In order to achieve this, the Army has already begun a programme of redundancies to reduce Regular Army manning levels. Two further tranches of redundancy will be required over the next five years to bring the Army’s Regular strength down to around 82,000 by 2020. The Reserves are currently recruiting to increase their manning levels to a trained strength of 30,000 by 2018.”

Army 2020 lists three amorphous core purposes of the Army: Contingent capability for deterrence and defence; Overseas engagement and capacity building; Civil engagement and homeland resilience. Given the absence of any particular threat, force reduction to proposed levels is not only possible but inevitable. A spectre may haunt the Armed Forces, but it is less a foreign foe and more the global economic landscape.

Fighting insurgencies has severely impacted the Armed Forces. To combat IEDs, technological solutions were developed, such as the MRAP in the US. A programme so costly that it led to a debate in the august journal Foreign Affairs. Snatch Land Rovers are out and Warriors are in, meaning that the trend is for increasingly costly technological enterprises, even against the most technological rudimentary of enemies. The Joint Strike Fighter makes Augustine's Law seem more relevant and more meaningful than satirical as each defence budget arrives. Meanwhile, a logistical problem of long term significance is unfolding in Afghanistan as regards equipment.

The complex wars also exacerbated problems with recruitment; there has been a notable absence of public recognition or clamor for heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Syrian intervention was an important identification of the current public appetite for foreign adventures. As with myriad military adventures of the past, we will salute the immense bravery of the dead, but knowing why they died may be more difficult. In Iraq, security at home was then changed in 2006 to a narrative of securing justice for the Iraqi people. In Afghanistan, both security and justice were developed as narratives simultaneously throughout the later stages of the conflict.

This lack of consultation foregrounded in the Committee's report therefore stems from military performance in impossible conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is exacerbated by hedging in the British military going forward. Are we preparing for a big war in a big war? A small war in the midst of a big war? Smaller wars in small wars? If you don’t know who you are fighting against, you don’t have a coherent idea of self. In such a shadow, training exercises must be interesting, and against a full spectrum of possible threats, there’s relevance in national security for working out how to take down this chap:

After the massacre of Byzantine forces at the battle of Manzikert in 1071, Byzantium itself was never again able to field a sizeable army of its own, but relied heavily on mercenaries. Historical lessons are myriad and clear; economic and human resources dictate responses, after the threat has been identified. Somebody at the MoD should sit down with senior figures and employ a deductive nesting approach to future force configuration. Starting from the top, developing a vision statement which is more than bland aphorisms, it will be necessary to actually leverage expertise and place a lot of eggs in a single basket. That identity will be invaluable for developing and continuing interoperability with the military behemoth (which is currently having exactly the same debate) recruitment, training, teaching, academic and civilian interaction.

“Who are we?” is the question that needs now to be answered.   

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Google and a Free Internet

In May 2013 the UK's Shakespeare Review looked at social and economic benefits from the data revolution. The conclusion was that the UK stands at a fork in the road, able to choose between a limited or a chaotic approach to embracing the world of open data. It is true that 2014 will likely be the year of open data, not big data. Wired in the World, 2014 suggests as much. The Syrian insurgents use Twitter to instantly communicate messages, as reported by the Washington Post. The Post makes the distinction between a security-paranoid bin Laden using couriers and flash sticks, to the different generation instantly posting to YouTube and Twitter.

Google has been doing its bit over the past month. In September 2013 Google's IDEAS launched Project Shield, currently invite only, to protect free speech online. Project Shield was launched in conjunction with UProxy, a suite of tools to connect people to the Internet. On the front page, Google notes that 1 in 3 people live in societies where access to the Internet is restricted. Last month the Internet giant also launched an online video university and has launched Coder from Google's Creative Lab to turn the beautiful Rasberry Pi into a web development platform.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Research on Human Terrain System

With US and coalition forces in phased draw-down in Afghanistan, the period in which scholars can first begin to make capped assessments of the Iraq and Afghan theatres is beginning. Within that large sphere of study, the Human Terrain System, which first deployed an Human Terrain Team to Afghanistan in February 2007, merits particular interest because it has bridged academia and the military, thus existing at that historically significant boundary between scholarship and soldiering.

HTTs were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of Phase Four and Phase Five operations there, working alongside US Army, US Marines and coalition forces. Significant previous studies on the HTTs and the wider programme have been undertaken by authors at Westpoint; the Center for Naval Analyses (as part of a congressionally-directed assessment); and the Institute for Defense Analyses.

A new study conducted by Christopher J. Lamb, James Douglas Orton, Michael C. Davies and Theodore T. Pikulsky at the National Defense University has attempted to answer the question: what accounts for the apparent variation in HTT effectiveness? In answering, the authors have conducted interviews with approximately 100 former or serving HTS personnel and brigade staff, going further than previous studies and charting the historical trajectory of the programme in hitherto unseen depth.

At the same time, the journalist Vanessa Gezari has published an account of the Human Terrain System, also drawing on a considerable range of interviews with key members of the programme. This journalistic account centres upon the story of Paula Loyd and Don Ayala in Afghanistan whilst placing it within a wider critique of the programme.

Centring on the NDU study, an article critical of the HTTs was penned recently by Gian Gentile. A detailed response was published by one of the NDU authors, Michael Davies, which rebuts Gentile's argument point by point.

Broadly, the continued interest which HTS holds for stakeholders is due to the unresolved notion of academic assistance to the military structure: Can it help or hinder? How can it help? How has this relationship developed through history? What does HTS mean for the future direction of social science approaches to warfighting more generally? Is this future direction a "good" or a "bad" thing for the United States military and partner forces?

One of the more interesting developments from the HTS architecture in the future may be the trajectories of those former HTT members as they continue in their careers - possessing a mixture of academic expertise, area specialty - and because of their participation in HTTs, having enhanced, invaluable authority from their experiences downrange in Phase 4 and Phase 5 operations - these individuals will offer the US government remarkable insight into future threats and planning, legitimated by scholastic intellect coupled to warzone experience. In combining these two prized commodities, some may come to influence the future direction of US foreign policy and in so doing, inevitably fuse at some intersections the spheres of social sciences and the military.