Tag Archives: machiavelli

Machiavelli in Afghanistan

A commenter asked a pretty good question in one of my earlier posts about Machiavelli and Afghanistan and I wanted to bring it and my response up to full blog post level (plus, I’m a Gen X slacker and I never pass up on an opportunity for easy blog post content).

Sam asked:  Hi, not sure if you’ll ever get this but I have a question about your response. I don’t really understand why Machiavelli would be hesitant on removing our troops within 2, 5, or 10 years. perhaps you can talk briefly in your own words on this subject? I appreciate your help.

To which I replied:

Sure…although with two provisos: 1) I’m not a Machiavelli expert (as much as I enjoy his work) and 2) see #1.

But, my thinking is that if we asked Machiavelli for his advice about how to best ‘conquer’ Afghanistan (a separate question from the wisdom of such a decision) he’d conclude that since the country doesn’t have governors or satraps who derive their power from a central government they’re unlikely to easily switch their allegiance to an invader like the Persians did for Alexander.

He does present three options for those who conquer a nation (chap 5 of the Prince): ruin the country, demand tribute or reside there in person. I think most people would agree that Afghanistan is pretty much ‘ruined’ already. Demanding tribute really wouldn’t accomplish our security goals and is out which only leaves residing in the nation. Since our political leadership won’t do that sort of thing (could you imagine the U.S. government temporarily relocating to Kabul as a demonstration of their resolve to see this thing through to the end?) we’d have to substitute a military presence. In Chapter 3 of the Prince he argues that you can hold that territory by establishing colonies of veterans or “keep there a great number of cavalry and infantry” in the country. I suspect it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be handing out land grants to veterans (although that would be an interesting idea) so we’re really only left with an extended military presence.

I think he would argue that a military presence would have to be extended (much more than 2 or 5 years) because the only way to ‘hold’ a conquered nation used to living under their own laws is to get them used (at a very fundamental level) to living under someone else’s.

I’m pretty sure he’d caution that history wouldn’t be on the side of the conqueror in this regard but if we were determined to try we wouldn’t have many other options than a lot of troops there for a lot of time.

The Prince (analyst edition)

Warning:  I was a bit unsure about the wisdom of posting this since I suspect it may very well be the most pretentious drivel I’ve ever written (and, let’s face it, that’s really saying something.  eds.) but one of my blogging rules is not to censor myself so I’m going to give it a go.

Recently I was talking to an analyst who had been moved to a new job within their same agency and wasn’t particularly happy with the move.  Apparently, her new position involved an almost exclusive focus on data entry and retrieval and virtually no analysis.  While her pay and title remained the same, in terms of job responsibilities this was clearly a very big step backwards.

‘If something doesn’t change this will BE my job forever’ she said (opportunities for advancement or even lateral moves are vary rare) ‘and there’s no way I can do this for the next 20 years!’  Her personal/professional situation rules out relocation and the current economic climate means that other opportunities in her area are virtually non-existent.  She was (well, is, I guess) pretty stressed out.

And so I began thinking, what advice could I give her to at least improve the odds that this need not be her lot in life?  As I’ve said repeatedly, analysts tend not to have much power or influence (and, as usual, I’m talking not talking about the Federal IC but rather analysts in the law enforcement (federal, state, local), homeland security (regional, state, local), et. al.).  They’re relative newcomers to the field, rarely have a seat at the table in terms of…well anything really and so have few opportunities to use official levers of power to change things.  This is why I’ve often advocated ‘guerrilla analysis’ where analysts have to use their skills to force their organizations to change.  In my earlier writings I’ve been pretty vague, however, and what’s probably needed is a bit more in terms of specifics.  So, in what may  be the first of a multi-part series, I’m taking inspiration from my old friend Nicolo and offering my own humble thoughts on how an analyst should act in a situation in which they find themselves seemingly powerless against individuals or institutional forces  which work to undermine their role.

For while we may not be princes, we certainly fill the role of counselors.   It is we, after all, that best fit the description of the types of people the prince should surround himself with in order to give him advice:

…a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, …he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred;*

Chapter 1:  On the sources of power of councillors (hint:  Ms. Joplin is relevant here**)

When one thinks of analysts, one rarely considers them the repository or ‘power’ or possessing much influence in shaping the environment around them.  Rather, they’re often seen (even amongst themselves) as powerless when compared to the forces around them and see little choice other than ‘going with the flow’.  I believe in many cases that’s due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the environment that they find themselves in.  They do, in fact, have power to wield.  Allow me to propose several examples:

  1. In many cases they’re civil servants.  This usually means that they’re affiliated with a union of some sort and so the probability of dismissal or any serious punitive action is relatively small, especially if your ‘friction’ with the organization is centered around recommendations to the existing system (including the pointing out of flaws).  While I have, on occasion, heard analysts cave into institutional pressure citing the fact that they didn’t want to risk their job, the fact is I’ve never heard one able to describe a situation where an analyst had been fired.  They had just been so conditioned by our private sector culture they weren’t able to see how their situation was different.
  2. In addition to not needing to be particularly concerned with punitive action, among analysts there is little opportunity to be ‘rewarded’ by ‘playing ball’.  Since many agencies have refused to develop or implement a career advancement program for analysts, sublimating your sense of how intelligence analysis should work in the hopes of reaping professional rewards later will have about as much chance of success as winning the lottery.
  3. These factors are important when considered in combination with the fact that analysts are usually surrounded by people who have opportunities for advancement or banishment (virtual or actual) to various nether regions.  Analysts can exploit these facts by supporting or undermining the professional agendas of those people (as opposed to the mission of their agency which they’re ethically bound to support).

Now, I’m not advocating being a jerk but these factors do give you a degree of freedom to speak ‘truth to power’ and you should exercise that freedom for all it’s worth.  Just remember a couple of ground rules:

  1. Put it all in writing.  Yeah, informal conversations and water cooler discussions allow you to blow off steam but since there’s no record of them their effect will begin to dissipate the moment the words come out of your mouth.  Write it down in a well organized, thoughtful way.  Lay our your arguments and make your recommendations.  Oh, and keep copies of everything.
  2. Know your audience(s).  Look, let’s be honest.  There are a lot of vested interests in every organization and analysts generally don’t get a seat at the table.  So, you need to be aware of which one of those interests might want to use you (and your ideas) to further their own agenda and figure out a way to make sure they know of your existence.  Just make sure you leverage any such opportunity to benefit yourself and your fellows and, as much as possible, avoid becoming an foot soldier in someone else’s factional fight.
  3. Increase your profile.  There’s a cliche about the impossibility of being a prophet in your own land.  Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t.  What is true, however, is that you’ll never be a prophet if no one hears you.  Recognition outside your agency (ideally by entities which command the respect of your agency) not only increases the chances that your lot will improve but makes it more difficult to dispatch you to the equivalent of Siberia.  So, all that stuff you were writing?  Make sure you distribute it…widely.  Start a blog.  Take every opportunity to speak publicly you can (even if you hate public speaking).  Get out there.  Keeping your head down, plugging away and keeping a low profile will usually guarantee you of blending into the woodwork and being taken advantage of.  It may not be fair but that is the world in which we have found ourselves.
  4. Know what you’re talking about.  Chances are few others do.  Take the time to learn about your profession and understand the current thinking about it.  Understand your agency’s (stated) mission.  Figure out where the two coincide.  That’s the sweet spot.

*I could go on at length about that passage and how Niccolo essentially identifies the need of princes to have a strong, coherent planning and direction process but that may be for another time.  Given that one of my central tenets is that such a process is almost universally lacking my advice has to also revolve around how an analyst can guide ‘their’ prince to wisdom.  Or, at least, away from ignorance.

**Or, ‘Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose’.

The Machiavellian Renaissance

I’m not sure why or how but occasionally I feel like I’m tapping into the great hive mind.  Just as I’m thinking of writing a post about Machiavelli, I see a story on Cracked that mentions him.  Then, the next day Boing Boing writes that he’s everywhere (although they only provide one link to back up that statement).

But…that link is golden.  It is to Don MacDonald’s comic (uh…graphic novel) rendition of Machiavelli’s life.  Absolutely brilliant.  The guy clearly has a good handle on the source material, going beyond the Prince and delving into the history of Florence in the early 16th century and using Machiavelli’s letters and contemporary sources to flesh out his story.  Very nicely done and we can only hope that when he’s finished, MacDonald will bundle the whole thing up and offer it as an eBook or in hard copy.

Oh, and I found this link buried in the BB comments section about a recent book by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff trying to link the Blair government with the wisdom of Nicky.  Just for the record, that is the same idea I presented to my undergraduate adviser way back in 1992 (although, admittedly, not about Tony Blair).  Perhaps it was too ambitious a project for one such as me but I have to admit I’m a little peeved that I knew there was a book in the idea but my adviser smothered the idea in its crib.  Well…nertz to you, dude!

But, this post isn’t about me (Yeah, who are you trying to kid.), it’s about Machiavelli.  So, here’s a recommended website of Machiavelli miscellanea you might enjoy.

Afghan Roundup

Dexter Filkins had an article about the incestuous relationship between private military contractors and insurgents a couple of days ago.  It suggests that some PMCs are taking money to protect supply convoys and using some of that money to pay off insurgents creating a ‘win-win’ for both groups.  There’s also indications that the PMCs may hire insurgents to attack rivals and stage attacks to encourage the coalition to hire PMCs to guard more convoys.

And here lies the problem with outsourcing military operations with private, for profit companies.  Their primary loyalty must be to their shareholders or owners and therefore it’s in their best interest to maintain enough instability (or at least the appearance of it) to keep those high dollar contracts coming.  It is most definitely NOT in their best interest for a conflict to get resolved or peace to break out unless there’s another conflict they can shift operations to.

And here’s where Filkins’ article falls a little short.  He writes like the problem is with those danged corrupt Afghans and doesn’t touch on the fact that this problem is inherent in the whole system.  It doesn’t matter if the owner and employees are Afghan or red blooded Americans.  But this isn’t new…listen to the master:

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.

A couple of weeks ago I expressed disbelief at the estimate that about one third of all supplies transiting to Afghanistan through Pakistan were getting lost through insurgent activity, theft, etc.  Well, apparently feeling the need to demonstrate this to me, gunmen torched a convoy of 50 vehicles recently.  Not a pretty picture…

And I don’t want this to become the convoy destruction scoreboard but there was another one this week.

The Tuesday night attack on some 100 oil tankers and trucks meant for transporting supplies to Nato forces in Afghanistan in the Tarnol area of Islamabad left 80 of the vehicles badly burnt. According to official figures, another 60 carriage trucks (22-wheelers) were also gutted.

Witnesses told the news agency when the attack was launched there was only one security guard at the parking lot to protect the Nato fleet parked there.

Ghosts of Alexander was posting the observations of a couple of attendees of a CENTCOM AfPak conference.  I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the posts as they were heavy on opinion and short on supporting facts.  That’s the problem with live blogging such events.  You don’t get a chance to synthesize the information, pull out themes and consider questions.  Eventually they did take a bit of time to reflect however and posted the results up at Abu Muqawama.  The result is a huge improvement and worth a look.

The conference was structured in a way that prevented it from generating the analysis that ISAF so badly needs. The structure was built entirely on the participation of experts. Let’s be clear about something here: when it comes to social and political issues, experts don’t exist. …Every expert at this conference–there was nearly one of them for every two participants, and the participation of every single one was selected by conference planners, not volunteered independently–was considered an expert because he or she had written about related topics, lived in related places, or participated in related activities. That isn’t expertise. It’s just experience. And it’s a really huge leap to assume that an individual’s personal or even professional experience can provide generalizeable insight into an entire region or social situation.

So, they propose an alternate way to structure such conferences (sort of a Lollapalooza AfPak extravaganza):

  1. Leave the ‘experts’ at home. Instead of selecting speakers, do what real academic conferences do and solicit submissions.
  2. Assuming an event is structured to take all comers (see point #1), each volunteered proposal should be included in or excluded from the conference proceedings based on the logic and evidence the presenter cites in defense of his or her conclusions. The person’s resume shouldn’t even be a consideration.
  3. Don’t just invite competition; facilitate it.
  4. The most important thing is not how good the conference or workshop or publication is. Its main usefulness always lies in its ability to connect people who work on similar issues so they can go forward working together instead of separately.
  5. Everything said in events like this one–everything–should be open to merciless criticism from all sides, both within and outside of the government.

Israel’s paintball follies – Failocide

Well, I’m sure you’ve heard abut the Israeli attack upon a flotilla of activists supporting the Palestinian cause.  I’m guessing the Israelis were upset that North Korea and Iran were getting all the consideration for the title of ‘international pariah’ and decided to raise the stakes a bit.  Did they put an ad in Craigslist?

Wanted:  Partner in Axis of Evil…should know how to make hummus…previous partner had to leave due to invasion.  Should be tone deaf in terms of international relations.  Possession of nuclear weapons a plus!

Who came up with this plan?  Rather than just stop and demand to inspect the cargo, they decide to drop special forces on the ships.  And their plan to establish control of the ships?

Paint ball guns.

‘And tell me general, what will you do if you encounter resistance?’  You’d think someone would have asked that question.

‘Oh…I guess we could kill a bunch of people.’ Was the apparent response.

As the Economist asks:

It’s difficult to fathom some of the decisions taken by the Israel Defense Forces in planning the interdiction. Why board the ship rather than disabling and towing it? Why use helicopters to rappel onto the deck one by one, vulnerable to the mob? If the intent was to surprise and overwhelm the passengers, why not break off the attempt when it was clear they were not surprised or overwhelmed? If the intent was to provoke violence among the protestors and win a propaganda victory, why not board the ship in daylight hours and invite the international media along?

Now, let’s be fair.  Israel has a long history of killing the wrong people at sea.  What I don’t understand is why we continue to throw billions of dollars to a country which seems intent on undermining our goals at every turn (oh, and let’s not forget an aggressive espionage program against us)?

What the hell are those guys smoking?  Israel’s position that the flotilla represented a premeditated act of violence is just ridiculous.  These people were clearly trying to provoke the Israeli government to overreact and they did not disappoint. Of course, if your government isn’t interested in a long term peace solution and wants to employ a policy of colonizing the Palestinians out of existence (see The Prince, chapter 3)  this might be exactly the sort of thing you would do.

And just to prove that I can find a Swedish link to anything…Henning Mankell, the famous Swedish crime author, was on board one of the ships and has recently been released by Israeli authorities.

The Israelis seem to have forgotten my new favorite quote:

Don’t let fighting get in the way of winning.

Apparently the head of Mossad understands that Israel is losing it’s strategic value to the United States, so why not use this time to make it clear to Tel Aviv?  Come to heel and start figuring out who’s in charge or give up that couple of billion in aid and the international cover we provide.

If you like to indulge in a bit of alternative hypothesis may I recommend Lung Hu who introduces the possibility that a rocket attack on a Turkish base on the same day as the flotilla ‘interdiction’ was perpetrated by Israeli forces.

Likud is furious that the Turkey/Brasil Iranian uranium enrichment proposal has undercut US/Israel sanctions efforts in the United Nations.   Turkey’s role in pushing for ‘nuclear-free Middle East’ language in the recent NPT declaration was another straw on the camel’s back.   Finally, Israeli intelligence probably has what it thinks is firm evidence of Turkish military support for –or involvement in– organizing the Gaza aid flotilla.   In the minds of the beleaguered Israeli government (think of their Masada mindset), this means that Turkey –as a friend of Israel’s enemies– is now also an enemy.

Finally, h/t to Abu Muqawama who asked if this graphic was ‘too soon’.  The best response was that no, it was too late

Machiavelli’s advice about Afghanistan

I’m reading David Loyn’s ‘In Afghanistan‘ which is history of British, Russian and American military intervention in that country.  It’s quite a good read although there isn’t much here to make you think our current efforts will turn out much better.  Loyn’s description of British and Russian attempts to impose some sort of order bare a creepy similarity to our own current efforts, particularly when discussing the assumptions about Afghans and what is needed to ‘get them on board.’

I came across this passage (page 89) however and it struck me as worthwhile for bringing up here:

The Afghans in 1879 leaned n the one set-piece confrontation on the Charasiab ridge that they would not defeat the British army in open warfare.  So they avoided it.  They were quarrelsome and confrontational with each other-weaknesses in conventional war, but qualities that gave them flexibility and unbeatable power in an insurgency.  Their disunity generated centrifugal forces that made the country ungovernable and gave them a sinuous strength when they came together.

As I read that, I couldn’t help thinking about chapter 4 in The Prince:

I answer that the principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or by a prince and barons, who hold that dignity by antiquity of blood and not by the grace of the prince…

…in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

So how does Machiavelli say we can ‘win’ in Afghanistan?  Well, it doesn’t look like he’d look too favorable on any plan that has us withdrawing forces in 2, 5, or 10 years:

Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession; but with the power and long continuance of the empire the memory of them passed away, and the Romans then became secure possessors. And when fighting afterwards amongst themselves, each one was able to attach to himself his own parts of the country, according to the authority he had assumed there; and the family of the former lord being exterminated, none other than the Romans were acknowledged.

I was a teenage Machiavelli

Yet another occasional series in which I thumb through my 25 year old copy of The Prince to see what the 16 year old me thought was important to remember on my quest for world domination.

One should never allow chaos to develop in order to avoid going to war, because one does not avoid a war but instead puts it off to his disadvantage.

That quote seems a little more complicated when you’re a power with interests all over the world and not an Italian principality that’s essentially a regional power.  Clearly there are time you want to avoid (or perhaps just postpone) wars either because you’re already engaged elsewhere, have some serious domestic issues you need to get in order, or maybe suspect that you’re about to get your clock cleaned and want to buy a little time.

After all, the Romans used avoidance to good effect (more or less) by bribing various enemies pushing against their borders for a very long time.  Of course they didn’t do anything with the time they bought and once the barbarians realized they didn’t have to settle for piles of gold and could take Roman land as well it was just a matter of time.

But, on the other side of the coin, clearly the French and British (and maybe the Russians) didn’t do themselves any favors by putting off war with Germany in the 1930s.  And I’m still a believer that leaving Iraq intact in the wake of the first U.S./Iraq war wasn’t particularly good for us.

Of course, the trick is determining when your actions are just delaying a war and when they’re actually addressing the underlying causes of conflict and preventing a war.