iWAR: The Weird Analytics Review

How Can We Understand A Complex Operation?

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I have a new article up at PBS Need to Know, discussing how we can really know what’s going on in Marjah, Helmand:

ISAF, however, doesn’t see things that way. By May of last year, three months after the start of the campaign to “win” Marjah, General McChrystal had declared the Marjah area a “bleeding ulcer” that was distracting him from his goal of winning Kandahar. Even months after new leadership took over the war (when General McChrystal was suddenly replaced by General Petraeus), Marjah was described only in terms of constant combat. “The Taliban are still here in force,” said an AP reporter in October, “waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.” By December, however, ISAF declared Operation Moshtarak “over,” an example of their success in routing the insurgency.

In a way, this was to be expected — as with the Afghanistan War Review, General Petraeus has been up front in his desire to proclaim only good news about the war, regardless of what the intelligence community believes. But it also leaves nothing but questions about how one could evaluate the current situation in Marjah. Since October there have been very few (if any) reporters to visit Marjah — and even then, they’re not reporting on Marjah so much as peripheral issues like cross-dressing interpreters. While senior officials talk of “progress,” and “shifting momentum,” there aren’t any means by which one could actually say these things are happening.

That’s really the gist of it. In brief, public data say one thing, while officials say another. How do you de-conflict them? I don’t have a meaningful answer to that just yet. But what we do need is a consensus about what deserves measurement, what the changes in those measurements mean, and what our reactions to those changes will be. That has never taken place in Afghanistan, and I suspect that is why our policy remains the same regardless of what specific bits of news emerge from the war.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm

The Heat of the Moment

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It’s very easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment when analyzing political events. In the Middle East, it’s been clear that the utopian statements of many of the reporters covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are based more on the euphoria of watching dramatic history unfold in real time than any sober consideration of the consequences these uprisings will have.

In Tunisia, the uprising happened in a dramatic, and tragic way. After his vegetable cart was stolen by a policewoman Last December, Mohammed Bouazizi, unable to get help or even recognition of his plight from the authorities, doused himself with petrol and lit himself on fire (he died January 4). The shocking suicide attempt sent ripples through Tunisian society, and his cause became a rallying cry for a series of protests that led, later in January, to the sudden resignation of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. It was a delirious moment, the first time in decades that a massive protest led to the downfall of an Arab autocrat. Now, so the conventional wisdom went, Tunisia can have freedom and democracy.

If only Tunisians felt the same optimism. The revolt and soft coup has led to a wave of emigration. The flood of refugees into Italy, for example, is so great it’s sparking a mini-crisis with the EU. The tourism industry, which is a major contributor to Tunisia’s economy, has been at a standstill for months. Even more importantly, they still don’t have a government, and people remain unsure of how to proceed with crafting a future for themselves.

Egypt faces a similar dilemma: yes, it was exhilarating to watch teeming crowds of people eventually force Hosni Mubarak to resign the presidency in some way. Yet all the protests have done so far is to replace a hated tyrant with a small cabal of Army officers. Rather than proceeding immediately to democracy, the military is instead threatening the protesters in an effort to dissolve the mass movement. As the protests change from anti-Mubarak to anti-military, it is not at all clear that Egypt will see a happy end to its revolt.

Both outcomes could have been foreseen (and were by the more cynical among us). Leaderless movements can be effective means of bringing down governments, but they are terrible at creating replacement governments—to do that requires leadership, coherent ideas (and even ideology, though not necessarily), and a plan for transitioning society from now to the future. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia have that in any great abundance.

So what about Yemen? There the situation has been different from Egypt and Tunisia: by and large, the protests have been carefully planned and proceeded relatively peacefully. One observer wryly noted after witnessing the protests, “By 3pm, traditionally Qat chewing time in Yemen, everyone had packed up and gone home.”

The main reason the protests have proceeded as they have in Yemen is because the opposition movement, while fractured and beset with in-fighting over specific issues, is still relatively organized. They have limited goals for their large protests (a reform of electoral laws allowing them a fair chance in the next election is at the top of their list), and adhere, with very few exceptions, to non-violence. This week, a smaller crowd of young protestersᾹthe New York Times says hundreds while the BBC says a thousand while the AFP says three thousand—marched at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, angrily demanding the ouster of President Saleh. They were beaten back with sticks and rocks, and there are rumors that several were beaten with batons and arrested.

Still, this is far less violence, on a far smaller scale, than either Tunisia or Egypt saw (in both of those countries, hundreds of protesters have been killed by the government). And just as importantly, the major opposition groups have not participated in these smaller, more militant protests. They are not, in other words, in the mainstream of Yemen’s opposition movement.

This is important when pondering the importance of these protests to Yemen’s political environment. In the United States and Britain, protests of under a thousand people are so common as to be not worth reporting in any real sense—even when the demands are crazy, and the crowds far larger, there’s no speculation about the “stability” of the government or its ability to remain in control of itself. Yet, in Yemen, when vanishingly small numbers of people try to make a statement and get beaten back, it’s reported as if it’s on par with the millions of people who camped in the streets of Cairo for over two weeks to force out their dictator.

It is truly exciting to see people take to the streets in protest. In fact, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the emotions of the movement, even if you don’t really have a stake in them. But this tendency, which happens even among the very educated, of assigning huge importance to very small, routine events like a few hundred people at a protest march in Yemen, can obscure our ability to think clearly about these sorts of events. We can do with a little more sobriety.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Analysis, Objectivity

Tagged with , , ,

How to Handle the Aftermath of Egypt’s Revolution

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Max Boot analyzes the events in Egypt:

But for the time being, let me offer a thought as someone who is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Egypt shows that there is a better way than setting off bombs if you want to change regimes. “People power” protests of the kind we have seen in recent weeks in Cairo and Alexandria have toppled far more rulers in recent decades than all the world’s terrorists and guerrillas combined. East Germany, the Soviet Union, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Lebanon, Georgia, Tunisia, and on and on — the list of countries where popular demonstrations have toppled unpopular regimes is a long one. Now add Egypt to that list…

There is a lesson here for those not too fanatical or deluded to learn it. Put down the bomb, the sniper rifle, whatever weapon you have, and grab a placard, go on Twitter, organize a rally. True, many peaceful protests have been repressed too, as we have seen most recently in Iran; but they offer a much surer road to regime change than does blowing up innocent people.

What is so interesting about Boot saying this is, he is unwilling to follow his own advice. Whether Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Yemen, Boot has publicly stated he has zero faith in the power of other people to change governments or situations he doesn’t like, and would prefer to use the might of the U.S. military to make things happen more in line with his sense of timing.

But even beyond the hypocrisy of Boot’s newfound belief in mass movements to undermine dictatorships and outwit terrorism, it doesn’t make any sense. Terrorists, almost by design, hold a minority view that they feel cannot get a fair hearing in public (it is why they resort to violence to intimidate societies into compliance). They cannot, almost by design, be equivalent to a mass protest movement, which involves large numbers of people generally using non-violent means to petition a government for change. He’s using apples to disprove oranges.

And that’s setting aside the assumption that mass movements are automatically a net good. Today, February 11, is the day that Mubarak resigned his dictatorship in Egypt. It is also the day another mass protest movement brought down a hated tyrant that had abused his people for decades: the Shah of Iran. There, too, millions of angry citizens took to the streets demanding a change. The result can’t be said to have been all that great. Several of Boot’s other examples of “people power” fall into similar traps: Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia. None have necessarily benefited from the uncertainty and upheaval their people power movements created.

In other words, it is not always a good thing when a dictator falls to an angry mob in the streets. We can hope for the best for Egypt (as I certainly do) without making specious arguments about its morality, or the certainty of what comes next being any better than what came before.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Analysis

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On the Utility of Link Charts

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Intelwire recently published a fascinating link chart: Anwar al-Awlaki’s “social network.” I hope they permit my reposting the image here:

This chart is meant to catalog “Awlaki’s current social and inspirational connections to terrorism,” as part of an effort to “illustrate some of his reach and influence.” It is revelatory for several reasons: for one, it shows that Awlaki is something of a hub, but not a node for terrorist activity (in the sense of he seems to connect to loners more than networks for action). For another, he’s just not very good at planning terrorist attacks (which makes it so puzzling that Janet Napolitano would sound the alarm over AQAP, of which Awlaki is middle management).

This chart, however, is also limiting in many ways. This is, in part, because of the assumptions behind it—it doesn’t help us understand who influences or inspires Awlaki himself, for example. Anwar al-Awlaki is more than just a terrorist, he is a person operating in an environment native to his family. Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father, has been begging the media to stop “demonizing” his son. It is an understandable thing for a parent to not want to believe the worst about his child; but does this make Nasser an accessory to Anwar’s terrorism?

Obviously it does not. But if Anwar’s own father has a hard time publicly condemning his son for terrorism, what of the rest of the Awlaki tribe? What of the communities the Awlaki’s call home? If they are not constraining Anwar’s terrorist activities, should they be included in his social network of aspirational terror ties? What if they’re encouraging Anwar’s militancy, since people in Shabwa tend to vehemently oppose the government in Sanaa?

These are the sorts of expansive questions one must ask when building a network of a single figure’s ties, influences, and targets. Anwar al-Awlaki is not a single figure, standing astride a vast network of eager empty-vessel recruits awaiting radicalization and instructions. He is the product of a system, an environment of factors that inspire, shape, and just as importantly constrain his rhetoric and activities. We in the U.S. have no idea what those really are: we don’t know who his closest friends are, we don’t know what his family tells him in person, we don’t know who either inspires or discourages him in conversation and in his reading and research.

In other words, we lack information that is critical to understanding his exact motivations and capabilities and intent. Yet, for some reason, we feel very comfortable assigning him tremendous importance and blame in both regional and global terrorist circles… based on little more than after-the-fact dot connecting that may or may not reveal useful information about his ties and activities. Until we close that gap, and start researching the relevant social and environmental factors that shape Awlaki’s decision-making process (and thus, by extension, AQAPs), we will continue to grasp in the dark, not knowing what will come next.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

Tagged with , ,

Unpacking Assumptions

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J. Dana Stuster, an intern at CNAS, has written about Yemeni President Saleh’s succession in The Atlantic. It’s worth unpacking: starting with a number of minor errors that unfortunately add up, the piece is representative of how the assumptions we make can artificially constrain our analysis.

In Yemen, people have an expression for their form of government. They call it “decorative democracy,” a poor disguise for the military autocracy that Yemen has had for decades. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has weathered 32 years in office, including assassination attempts, national unification, and civil war. In the early 1990s, he created the veneer of democratic institutions (including an “opposition party”) mostly for the purpose of courting foreign aid; now, with an affiliate of al-Qaeda festering in his country’s rural interior, Saleh felt his U.S. aid was secure enough to flirt with the idea of abolishing term limits.

This isn’t quite right. Saleh didn’t invent the “veneer of democratic institutions” any more than he invented South Yemen (from which many opposition parties, not just the one noted here, come). Islah, which is perhaps what Stuster is referring to, was formed outside of Saleh’s own party, the GPC, as an amalgam of tribal leaders and Islamists. Unlike Saleh’s GPC, Islah is multi-polar, despite the strong personality and occasional dominance of Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, its nominal leader. Anyway, the point is, Yemen has a thriving, diverse, and raucous opposition movement—it is not the cynical invention of the president. More importantly, these opposition parties were not invented to score foreign aid; a strong case can be made for Saleh massaging the threat of al Qaeda to increase foreign aid (and he has done so successfully the last three years), but not political opposition. The assumptions that underlie this paragraph are wrong, in other words, and thus create a poor foundation for the rest of the argument.

It might have worked were it not for the timing. Yemenis have staged their own protests for political reform in the shadows of Tunisia and Egypt, even naming February 3 their own “Day of Rage.” Saleh has disowned the constitutional amendment that would have abolished term limits, as well as rumors that he was grooming his son for the presidency, and on February 2 he announced that he will not seek another term when his current term expires in 2013.

This, too, rests on some questionable assumptions about Yemen. For one, the “Day of Rage” turned out to be anything but—it was more like a “day of mostly polite pro- and anti-government qat chews.” There is zero evidence to support the claim that the riots in Egypt and Tunisia “inspired” the protests in Yemen. So without those two critical assumptions, Saleh’s decision to rapidly back away from an unpopular decision loses most of its importance, thus undermining this paragraph’s main argument.

The rest of the piece devolves into Kremlinology—an outsider’s assessment of the strengths of various political figures inside and outside Yemen’s mainstream politics. It might be true, or it might now. Frankly, no one really knows, though I share Greg Johnsen’s skepticism of Ali Mohsen’s supposed ambitions. Johnsen also ably deconstruct’s Stuster’s misleading description of al-Zindani’s supposed connections to terrorism, none of which amount to more than rumors and guesswork.

At the end of the day, that is what we’re left with when discussing the post-Saleh political landscape. We have rumors (this guy did this, that guy likes that) and guesswork (he’ll probably do this, he’ll probably not do that). It makes a poor basis for analysis. Saying that Egypt and Yemen are similar because both have fragmented opposition movements is not only not very accurate but it draws a misleading analogy to simplify and gloss over what is, again, rumor and guesswork. Stating up front that that is all we’re working with is fine—there is nothing wrong with either rumors or guessing—but to present that as fact or informed analysis is, at best, misleading.

Further reading: Stacey Philbrick Yadav has written an excellent piece for the Middle East Report: “No Pink Slip for Salih: What Yemen’s Protests Do (and Do Not) Mean.” It is important in that it focuses on the political context of these protests, but highlights the role the U.S. plays in making Yemen’s politics worse off. “The US,” she writes, “does not seem to be listening to the opposition’s claim that meaningful political reform is the only sure path to more equitable and sustainable development.” It’s worth keeping that in mind as the new Kremlinologists dream of what future turmoil will engulf Sanaa.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

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Cause, Meet Effect

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Last week, I wrote for PBS about how we can understand the protests sweeping Yemen:

Reality, however, is more than what happened in the last month. While some protesters in Sanaa have said they were inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, those two revolts did not inspire the protests anymore than my breakfast burrito did. There were protests in Aden during the Gulf Cup soccer tournament last November, protests over the parcel bombs in Sanaa in October, thousands of people protesting over the most recent round of fighting between the government and the Houthi rebels in the north in March. Yemenis protest routinely, and the last several months have seen a series of increasingly violent rallies across the entire country.

And in Yemen, there is a very regular pattern to protests, opposition and Saleh playing the crowds to stay in charge.

This is not to suggest, as Greg Johnsen helpfully points out, that Saleh will never be removed from office. Rather, it is meant to highlight that what is going on in Yemen is going on for purely Yemeni reasons. And, unlike Greg, I just don’t see the same foreboding sense of doom about the “Day of Rage.” I explained why today for The Atlantic:

Yemen’s own “Day of Rage,” held this past Thursday, one week after Egypt’s, turned out to be a generally polite mix of comparably sized pro- and anti-government protest groups. The Thursday protests in Sanaa–the Yemeni opposition has promised to hold a protest every Thursday until President Saleh relents to their demands–was repeated throughout the country. Some rallied for the “southern movement,” part of which seeks south Yemeni secession, some protested the intrusive U.S. and Yemeni government security services, and some were simply upset over the stagnant economy. But, unlike in Egypt, neither the president’s head nor the government’s collapse were on protesters’ agendas. Saleh, in other words, is not in any immediate danger of being strung up on a lamp post, which gives him leeway to do what he always does: try to accommodate public demands, if only in some minimal way.

Yemen remains deeply troubled, and its protests could very well build into something regime-threatening and violent. But so far, it’s not only not happened, the only ones who seem to want that to happen are analysts and journalists on the outside, quietly cheering them onward to Revolution. I’m sure some Yemenis desire violence as a reaction to Saleh’s abusive rule, but so far there’s just no indication—no evidence, to be specific about it—that such a thing is likely to happen.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 8, 2011 at 12:20 am

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

A New Hope

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The universe is filled with bad analysis. Some of it is intentional—talking heads on TV and the radio, partisan hacks, and so on—but a huge amount of it is unintentional. Whether through carelessness or a simple lack of realization, all too often the analysis that we rely on to understand the world and make decisions is actually shoddy and unsupported by evidence or reason.

That’s where we come in. At iWAR, our goal is to highlight the problems with analysis out in the world—in particular when it comes to the life-and-death decisions we as a society make over conflict and war. We will sometimes highlight good or interesting analysis (including our own, both because we are shameless and because we appreciate stringent, rigorous criticism), but we will also spend a lot of time talking about the means by which we understand the world. And, just as often, how we do not.

This will, by design, require highlighting analysis we feel is representative of certain ideas and processes—which is a preemptive way of telling writers and analysts to realize that neither criticism nor praise is personal. Frankly, we don’t really care who you are; we only care about the quality of your work.

There will be time later for a more formal manifesto, including from some colleagues, both from within the government and from the outside. But for now, this basic principle will suffice: we will be your ombudsman.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 8, 2011 at 12:13 am

Posted in iWAR