Tag Archives: Iraq

Wikileaks and classification

When Wikileaks released those thousands of documents about Afghanistan I thought the real lesson to be learned was that we were still classifying way too much stuff.

I’m glad to see I’ve got some additional company now.  Stratfor has come to a similar conclusion after reviewing the Iraq document dump.

By saying there are very few true secrets in the cache of documents released by WikiLeaks, we mean things that would cause serious damage to national security…However, it is important to understand up front that something that causes embarrassment and discomfort to a particular administration or agency does not necessarily damage national security.
Only 204 of the 391,832 documents were classified at the confidential level, while 379,565 of them were classified at the secret level. This demonstrates the propensity of the U.S. government culture to classify documents at the highest possible classification rather than at the lowest level really required to protect that information. In this culture, higher is better. 

There are so many problems resulting from over-classification that it’s hard to even know where to begin describing them all.  I suspect one of the least discussed is the erosion of respect for the whole classification system.  When the mundane is classified then you’re practically begging individuals to take the system in their hands and release information as they see fit. 

The un-Awakening

This American Life has a great episode about life in Iraq today that’s worthy of an hour of your time.  I’m probably a bit biased and susceptible to confirmation bias but it really does reinforce the idea that while the Surge was successful at making Iraq look stable enough for us to get the hell out of there without looking like complete incompetents, the prospect of a stable Iraq is still very far from certain.

Stand out moments for me:

  1. The two Iraqis who describes Americans as ‘using Iraqis like tissues’.  In other words, totally disposable.  Very moving.
  2. The description of a scene where a leader of the Sons of Iraq is brought to a meeting with a group of Americans.  The very Americans, it turns out, who had tortured him for information three years earlier.  And what do these shining examples of the intelligence community say?  ‘Hey, the past is past.  We’re friends now, right?’  The whole incident is so shot through with incompetence and hubris it boggles the mind.
  3. The former ‘Son of Iraq’ so esteemed for his efforts and accomplishments by the military that even the CENTCOM commander (Gen. Petraeus) and other senior military officials recommended he be allowed to immigrate to the U.S.  He was, of course, denied from immigrating to the U.S. and had to pay a smuggler $50,000 to sneak him into Sweden where he now lives.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a new narrative since the NYTimes had a story recently about the Sons of Iraq fleeing that group to re-join the insurgency.

…hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

…even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.

Yes, mission accomplished.

If you’re in the Princeton area today…Updated!

There’s a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson school that sounds pretty good:

“The Politics and Psychology of Intelligence: Iraq and Other Wars”

October 07, 2010 4:30 p.m. 6:00 p.m.

Location: Robertson Hall Bowl 016
If I can make it there, find me and I’ll buy you a beer.  The code phrase is:  ‘Shiloh sent me’
UPDATE:  Yeah, it might help if I could tell the 6th from the 7th.  Not sure if I can make it tomorrow but if I can, the deal is still on.

Comedy apparently isn’t universal

From the NY Times (via Ricks)

An Iraqi reality television program broadcast during Ramadan has been planting fake bombs in celebrities’ cars, having an Iraqi army checkpoint find them and terrifying the celebrities into thinking that they are headed for maximum security prison.

Yeah…Well, call me a stick in the mud but I’m not sure I get the humor here.  I guess it might appeal to a certain demographic (unemployed torturers?  eds.) but really, how far would you take this thing?

Can’t we just send them reruns of Jersey Shore or would that violate the Geneva Conventions?

The beginning of the end…finally

Modern wars may resist definitions of ‘victory’ of ‘defeat’ and they’ll also resist terms like ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ but today was a long overdue milestone with the official withdrawal of the last combat brigade from Iraq.  I’m hoping history refers to this as the ‘Money Pit War’ or perhaps the ‘Distraction War’ (Any other suggestions out there?) but I’m sure it’ll follow the trend of amazingly unimaginative names we’ve been giving conflicts for the past 100 years or so and have some sort of B-movie quality like ‘Gulf War 2’ (Gulf War 3D by James Cameron coming next summer!).

Seven years and five months after the U.S.-led invasion, the last American combat brigade was leaving Iraq, well ahead of President Barack Obama’s Aug. 31 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations there.

And so, what do we have to show for our efforts in Iraq?  Well, Saddam and his thuggish regime are gone, that’s a positive.  Violence continues (admittedly, not at the pace of 2004-2007 but levels that are high by anyone’s standards) and five months after an election, there’s still no Iraqi government in place (those would be negatives).

Long term stability remains in question.  We basically may have just gotten things to a point where we’ll be able to wash out hands of the matter if it all falls apart in a couple of years (see:  1972-1975 – S.E. Asia).

I remain dubious that Iraq will now be a long term fast friend of the U.S. and one has to wonder what, exactly, is our return on investment here.  We used up a lot of resources in terms of soft and hard power and what exactly did we get for it?  If you look at the situation from an idealist perspective, did we bring about a net decrease in human suffering or a net increase in the livelihood of the people there?  I’m just not convinced we did.

Even worse, I don’t think Iraq is going to teach us much.  Sure, for awhile we’ll get more isolationist but despite the fall in support for the war over time, I think two factors are going to keep any lessons learned from sinking in to the American psyche:

  1. You’ve still got a vocal group of people who are going to claim that Iraq was a successful mission that we needed to do.  They’re going to push that message hard.  Hey, they got Nixon to look like a wise statesman and continue to try to turn Vietnam into a victory.
  2. I just don’t think the war penetrated into the lives of many Americans.  Such a small number of people participated, the conflict was just a bunch of talking heads on TV.  Is there any sense among the public that we need to avoid war in the future?  That we need to look for alternative ways to address conflict?  Given the resurgence of talk about attacking Iran, one assumes not.

And so, I say ‘good riddance’ to Operation Iraqi Freedom.  If we aren’t going to learn the lessons from it at least we can stop paying the price of it.

Talking counterinsurgency

Abu Maqawama has a most excellent (yet depressing) post restating the assumptions of our campaign in Afghanistan.  Here they are, in brief.  Read his post to see them in their gloomy and realistic glory.

  1. “The United States and its allies will devote the time, money, and troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan”. Probably False.
  2. “The United States and its allies have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Probably True.
  3. “Afghanistan is a binary conflict between the government and the insurgents”.* Certainly False.
  4. “The provision of social services leads to a reduction of violence”. Mostly false.
  5. “What we do is what matters”.** Mostly false.
  6. “Population-centric counterinsurgency is appropriate for Afghanistan”. Mostly true but perhaps false in one key way.

Spencer Ackerman riffs off that and raises a very important point:

…the American public has never debated, in a rigorous and bloodless way, just how proportional it is to confront a network of a few thousand extremists… through a commitment of something upwards of $300 billion to date and roughly 100,000 troops. The damage that extremist network can export is real. But it’s increasingly insubstantial. If Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the perpetrator of the most sophisticated al-Qaeda plot in years, had succeeded, he would have killed an order of magnitude fewer people than on 9/11 — 300 people. Out of a nation of 300 million. And that is ultimately how asymmetrical warfare succeeds: what bin Laden calls “Bleed to Bankruptcy.”

I mean geez…I’m still waiting for the honest debate about our strategy now that the Soviet Union has collapsed.

Here’s a video of David Killcullen talking COIN at Google last year.

Definitely worth watching if you’re interested in the mindset behind our current counterinsurgency policy.

(h/t from Permissible Arms)

I’ve said for awhile now that I’m too close to Afghanistan to make an objective call (or anything that could even be mistaken for one) on the mission there but it’s getting hard to ignore the fact that I don’t really see a good way out of this thing.

Spying in Swedish

Radio Sweden has recently started a new feature called ‘Konflikt’ which is a biweekly podcast which focuses on foreign affairs.  I hadn’t really mentioned it before because its first English language forays were only so-so but the current episode is worth a listen.

In this edition of Konflikt in English we look at espionage in refugee communities here, and its effects for those living with the consequences. Hear about the Chinese spy imprisoned in Sweden just last month, the Assyrians living in Södertälje who found their lives detailed in the secret files of the Iraqi Mukharabat secret service, and find out why the current Swedish legislation just isn’t good enough, according to some.

Foreign intelligence services targeting immigrant communities doesn’t get much play in the press but it clearly goes on frequently.  I imagine the problem is especially difficult with immigrants who have difficulty assimilating, either through language or cultural differences.

There’s also not to much out there on Säpo, the Swedish Secret Police, and this broadcast gives you a bit of a glimmer in what they do and how they do it.

Kinda makes me think of this….

Social networks, Saddam and crime

Last week Slate ran a 5 part series about the hunt for Saddam Hussein with a focus on how social network analysis eventually led to his capture.  It’s an interesting story and worth you time but it got me thinking about the role of intelligence in both the military and civilian spheres over the past few years.

Back in 2003 when I first got to Afghanistan the Army had difficulty getting its head around the environment it found itself in.  It knew what kind of war it wanted to fight but fate wasn’t shaping up to be accommodating.

In fact, one of the first missions I was tasked with upon arriving at Bagram Air Field was identifying the potential avenues of approach from enemy attacks.  I was stunned at the request since, based upon how the request was framed, the underlying assumption was that Bagram was vulnerable to an attack by a large, mechanized force (a la the 40th Army).  It was a long, hard road to get people to understand that the threat would not come from a motorized rifle division but rather from a few guys on foot with some rifles, an RPG and maybe a homemade bomb.  And for those guys the term ‘no go’ terrain didn’t apply in too many places.

And, of course, when you’re oriented to fighting a conventional, set piece battle you tend not to be too worried about the connections and personalities of local leaders, influential members of the community and others.  As a result, there was really no appreciation for or systematic examination of the social environment in which we operated.

It seemed clear at the time that the military could learn some really important lessons from law enforcement at the time.  The ideas of community policing and the way the regular beat cop develops an understanding for his/her area of operations could have provided us with a great deal of information about the various people we were interacting with on a daily basis and who clearly were much more savvy than we were about understanding who actually had influence and wielded power.

As the article points out, the military isn’t ‘there’ yet in terms of fully incorporating social network analysis into its intelligence work, let alone its operational planning, but I suspect the tide has turned and it’s now law enforcement who can learn things from experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As you get beyond crimes of impulse and opportunity you start seeing networks becoming involved in all sorts of criminal activity which is often either overlooked, ignored or when the subject of investigation, rarely dealt with decisively precisely because analyses aren’t done to make sure the networks are seriously disrupted.  In that regard, law enforcement is similar to the military circa 2003:

…the American military perpetually refights “the last war we liked.” In that model, the enemy is always organized in a hierarchy…

Similarly, law enforcement likes to fight criminal networks that resemble it.  Nice, neat hierarchies with clear rankings and divisions of labor and responsibility.  Even when they don’t exist you’ll see agencies try to cram networks into those sorts of organizations.  Just look at about any press conference after an arrest of street gang members.  You’ll see an organizational chart in the background that could have been lifted from the board room of a corporation with various ‘generals’, ‘captains’, etc. in neat boxes.  Reality tends not to be so neat, however.

Peter over at he Ministry of State Failure has his own commentary on these articles which is worth your attention as well.  I think he hits on the difference between 2003 (when law enforcement could be the teacher) and today (when law enforcement could be the student) in terms of using social network analysis:

…using scientific (and not merely intuitive) network analysis, calculating “betweenness” of nodes for example, not just doing what even ordinary policemen do all the time when connecting the dots (when they also, at least instinctively, apply the concept of networks), was important to: 1) avoid casualties in unproductive raids; 2) speeden things up.

Law enforcement relies very much on the instinctive use of network analysis.  It seems to reject (with a mystifying degree of intensity) the idea of a systematic approach to this sort of thing as irrelevant and too academic.

I do disagree with Peter on one point however:

The use of network theory, gaining knowledge about networks that can help destroy them, still fits a military-centred approach to world politics “bloody” well. Hunting down network members in often lethal raids may seemingly substitute for persuasion, and more carefully devised, long-term-oriented policies.

That’s just not right.  In fact, I’d argue that network theory may enhance persuasion efforts and longer term policies.  If I want to influence an outcome (organizational, political or military) a good network analysis may tell me that my efforts shouldn’t necessarily focus on the person at the top of the pay scale or organizational chart but rather on someone with the right connections.

Kvick Tänkare

The Swiss stole my heritage!  It should be a ‘Roman’ army knife.  Hey, is that the thanks we get for civilizing you mountain dwelling primitives?  (Only kidding.  You guys make great chocolate. Just don’t shoot me.)  Now, tell me this isn’t an amazing marketing opportunity.  How many of us wouldn’t buy a working, functional replica of this?  H/T Kotare.

Lunghu has an amusing chart which riffs off of our brilliant color coded threat advisory system.  How would such a system look if developed in other countries?

Usually when someone dies from a heroin overdose, demand for that brand spikes (‘That guy died from it?  Must be good shit!)  Well, in either an attempt to kill off heroin addicts in Britain or just give them a new kind of rush, heroin is found to be laced with Anthrax in the U.K.  The public health system has put out the following warning:

“Heroin users are strongly advised to cease taking heroin by any route, if at all possible, and to seek help from their local drug treatment services. This is a very serious infection for drug users and prompt treatment is crucial,” he said.

Yeah, anthrax in their heroin is going to be what makes them finally see the light and kick their habit.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw this link (mea culpa!) but it was so crazy I had to include it here.

A British company called ATSC are selling a device which can detect guns, ammunition, bombs, drugs, contraband ivory, and truffles…The ADE 651 uses “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction” and can detect these things from a kilometre away, through walls, under the ground, underwater, or even from an aeroplane 5km overhead.

No police force or security service anywhere in the developed world uses them. But in 2008, the Iraqi government’s Ministry of the Interior bought 800 of these devices – the ADE 651 – for $32m. That’s $40,000 each, rather brilliantly, and they’ve ordered a further shipment at $53m. These devices are being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq, to look for bombs.

Well, I think it’s safe to leave Iraq now.  Clearly, the inmates are running the asylum.

Maybe it’s because I’m reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but this sounds eerily like a Scandinavian murder mystery…

Kvick Tänkare

As if dinosaurs weren’t cool enough, now we find out some of them had poison.  Godzilla isn’t looking quite so fictional now, is it?

How Russia and China got the deal for all that Iraqi oil

…and why that may be an indicator of much bigger financial problems for us (and by ‘us’ I mean those who use the dollar)

Yet more on Swedish holiday traditions:  This time Slate.com explains how the Swedes stop everything at 3pm on Christmas Eve to watch old Disney cartoons.

The Gävle goat succumbs to flames yet again.