Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of Scepticism and Paranoia

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect. To a large degree, the events of our lives shape who we are. We know this intuitively, but seldom do we stop to think about the actual relationship between those events and our attitudes and concerns. This particular blog entry is deeply personal to me, and thus to some extent, cathartic.

All of my life I’ve had a deep distrust, and, in fact, dislike of all authority figures. I freely admit that to this day when I see a policeman (or similar figure), although I know intellectually that he is charged with a difficult and often thankless job, my emotional response is almost always one of fear and loathing.

I’ve often wondered why that particular response is so deeply ingrained in my psyche. I’m a law abiding citizen, I strongly believe in contributing to the security and welfare of my country, and do so through the work that I’ve chosen to do. I pay my taxes, albeit grudgingly, and contribute to the public discourse. And yet, I’ve always felt a hair trigger away from rebelling and seeking my fortune in some lawless frontier. This dichotomy has often been a difficult one to manage.

My parents lived through the second world war. They were both too young to have participated, but they lived the better portion of their childhood through the event. My father on the American side, my mother on the German. My father’s older siblings all joined the armed services, he, since he was too young, stayed home and built models of airplanes that were used by the Army Air Corps to train pilots to recognize enemy aircraft.

Meanwhile, my mother spent her childhood fleeing from Russian soldiers, allied fighter aircraft, and countless other dangers to life and limb as she watched her country be systematically destroyed by the Allied war effort. Her father, my grandfather, was a colonel in the Luftwaffe. He flew missions largely on the Eastern Front. After the war he was tried as a war criminal, and narrowly escaped execution by the Russians. He passed away in the 50’s from a heart attack. I think by any standard, that is an awful lot for a young girl to live through.

My mother does not blame the Allies for these hardships. Make no mistake, she blames Hitler. She saw first hand what a socialist megalomaniac can do to a country. Her hatred for all things socialistic or totalitarian is palpable. When she was 25 years of age, she came to America and became an American citizen. And ever since she’s never avoided speaking her mind, often without regard to consequence, when the subject came near anything that smacked of oppression, repression, or authority without accountability.

During the war my mother’s aunt passed away. Her death certificate stated that she had died of a blood disease. Since that time the family was skeptical. She was known for speaking out against Hitler and his regime, and one day she simply disappeared. Some time later, my grandfather received the certificate.

Recently my uncle, still in Germany, decided to pursue the matter now that the archives were open. We now know what really happened to her. She was taken by the Gestapo, interned in a concentration camp and tortured. She finally died from a medical experiment that was conducted on her. She wasn’t Jewish or a Gypsy. She was a German citizen who had the courage of her convictions to speak out against her country’s regime and she paid the ultimate price for it.

In trying to come to terms with my feelings toward authority, I came to a philosophical accommodation. My belief is that it is a healthy practice for any citizen to regard all authority with a high degree of skepticism combined with a large dose of paranoia. I believe that such an outlook is in fact critical to guard against the sorts of things that my mother had to live through. To believe that “it can’t happen here” is simply the height of naive stupidity. The recent discovery of what actually happened to my great aunt has simply confirmed my commitment to that belief.

With this blog I have included a photo of part of my family. The woman is my great grandmother. The boy is my grandfather, and the young girl is aunt Martha. The photo was taken around 1912. When I look at that girl I see the face of my own daughter and I tell myself to always keep my dislike of authority in check, but never to let it die.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Those Shotgun Wielding Black Swans

My last several blogs have discussed what I believe are shortcomings in the approaches we currently take toward understanding and anticipating non-state violent actors. Stepping away from that for a moment, the real dilemma in all this is not whether we are using the right tools, but whether we’re even asking the right question. Permit me to ruminate a little more on the matter.

The failure of existing tools to provide useful predictions about the future leads me to the conclusion that the fundamental premise behind their use is flawed (one to one maps and so forth). That flaw rests upon a series of assumptions that we know are convenient simplifications of perceived relationships that exist in reality (normal distributions, etc.). That we have turned to these assumptions to guide the exploration of future trends leads me to believe that the questions being asked to begin with may rest upon flawed assumptions (how do we predict adversarial behavior is a question that itself presumes that the adversary follows fundamental rules such as rationality).

That we consistently ask such questions leads me to believe that we have constructed for ourselves a "thought methodology" that insists that we couch our solution sets within the contrived notion that we are capable of deducing sets of causal relationships, and that only inference generated from said causal relationships can provide a foundation upon which we can practice the art of "prediction." That we have convinced ourselves that the only way we can approach any such problem is through hypothesis testing bounds us by the collection of data. Because not all data is collectible, we then must further apply the construct of proxies within the data we've collected, which, in and of itself, is susceptible to any number of flaws and mistakes. We then satisfy ourselves that we're explaining things correctly because seƱor R squared has winked and nodded.

Stepping back for a moment, if we look at things we actually know, we find that few of those things continue to be recognizable within the thought methodology I've described above. Return to case studies. Is rationality real? Are the causes of rebel groups concrete or protean? Do groups behave in their own self interest? If yes, do we have any real way of discerning what that self interest is without assuming the group actually does exist for a purpose other than socialization? What we find is that certain sorts of tools describe things very well, but we are unable to reconcile those tools with our thought methodology. For instance, we know that power law relationships are very robust when we compare frequency of events with their severity. We also know that when we examine social network structures we begin to see fractal patterns emerge. Yet, we are unable to utilize these findings because, again, they do not conform to the deductive/inductive patterns we've defined for ourselves.

So what does all that mean? It means that our entire conceptual framework from which we generate such questions as "what will our adversary do next" are coming from our own concretized socio-cultural-institutional framework. Well that's a wicked problem, isn't it.

Let's go back to assumptions. If we are trying to predict behavior, we are making an assumption that if we know what some individual/group/nation will do, we can act to avert it. Yet we also know that our action (even the mere act of observing) alters the prediction. Paradox ensues, rendering the entire exercise pointless. The question itself puts the ox before the cart; we predict to define action, but the action redefines the reality rendering the prediction invalid. To some extent that’s the point, except that the processes of contingent and collateral effects will render repeated experiments problematic. Psychologically, confidence in the prediction capability is simply the best way I can think of to get a black swan to walk up and shoot us with a shotgun.

Redefining the question a little to "what will happen when we do 'X'," we only complicate the issue, compounding our bad assumptions, handing the swan a 12 gauge instead of a 20.

So what should we be asking? That's a good question. What we have to recognize is that the thing walking around out there that can really hurt us is that shotgun wielding black swan; the rest is risk management. So the question has to revolve around the idea that what we need to be concerned about is not what is going to happen, but how do we protect ourselves from the events that are going to happen but that we cannot predict?

Examples of this sort of thinking:
We don't have to worry about predicting whether or not a sub-national group will use an NBC weapon if they can't get one.
We don't have to predict the supply routes or behaviors of drug runners if there is no demand for the product.
I don't have to predict where traffic is likely to be difficult if I telecommute

I recognize that these examples are obvious and entail their own complications with tractability and so forth, but that's not the point. The point is that we back away from impossible problems by reframing the questions such that the foundational premises become reduced to tractable actions and concepts. In turn, these suggest strategies to pursue that lie within our own capacity to implement, and thus protect ourselves.

That we see fractal patterns emerge in social networks tells us something very important, which is that they exhibit self-similarity. Self-similarity gives a useful tool to describe what a network looks like. Altering that pattern through external action may be sufficient to then break it apart or reconstruct it in less conflictual ways. Power law relationships are also very powerful in that they describe for us an equilibrium that exists because it is governed by very specific constraints. Exploiting those constraints relieves us of the burden of having to predict actions by, instead, removing the capacity for committing the actions we most fear.

A very simple economic principle sums all of this up: There is no free lunch! Thinking that an adversary's behavior can be predicted implies that we think there is a shortcut for guiding our course in the world; that we can view the world's problems from orbit and contend with them via remote control. We are wrong to think that. We're wrong to even waste time dreaming about it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Just What Are We Dealing With?

Anyone who has spent much time wading through the literature on violent non-state actor groups, especially literature on terrorism, knows one thing: what we know about the subject seems dramatically different than what we actually understand about it. Blinded by preconceived notions that inform our theoretical structures, all too often we apply the assumptions of rationality, purpose driven behavior, and utility maximization to violent sub-national groups and their members.

One author on the subject of Terrorism, specifically suicide terror, is Robert Pape. His contention is that suicide terrorism is an asymmetric tactic used to expel occupiers. He uses statistical techniques to arrive at this conclusion, then sets forth a rather broad policy prescription that, in a nut shell, equates to something like “if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone.” Many have bought into Pape’s argument, believing his methods for arriving at his conclusions are sound and scientific. In reality, they are not. Assaf Moghadam, fortunately, has written an extensive critique of Pape’s book, Dying to Win, in which he identifies in detail the problems with Pape’s analysis, technique, and conclusions. I refer you to the article itself for details.

Another author given great regard is Louise Richardson, particularly for her book What Terrorists Want. Ms. Richardson draws upon her personal experiences with members of the IRA and on several interviews she conducted with other terrorists, and concludes that they are rational actors pursuing specific political goals. Although the case studies she presents are illuminating, the overall prescription, once you’ve read through the bulk of the book, is to discover "how and where terrorists operate, how they organize themselves, how they communicate with each other, how they finance and plan their operations." Apparently the details of how to do that are left to others. I’d also add that anyone who didn’t know that before they started to read the book has been living in a cave.

Applying assumptions of rationality and so forth to violent non-state actor or terrorist groups and the related research is sometimes referred to as the structural or strategic model. From that perspective, counter-terrorism policies usually involve notions of reducing the political utility of terrorism such that terror groups no longer care to pursue the tactic. Evaluation of that frame of reference would seem to indicate failure, as the last time I checked, terrorism is still with us.

Max Abrahms, in a recent article (the title of which plays upon the title of Richardson’s book) What Terrorists Really Want ( pokes some serious holes in the structural approach. He does so by presenting seven puzzles:

1. Terrorism fails to achieve the stated goal almost all of the time
2. Terrorism is almost never used as a last resort
3. Terrorist organizations almost always reject compromises despite significant policy concessions
4. Political goals of terror organizations are, without exception, protean
5. Terrorist attacks are usually anonymous
6. Competing terror groups with identical or highly similar goals generally prefer to attack each other than any other target
7. Terror groups seldom disband despite the consistent failure of the tactic to actually accomplish their objectives

Abrahms’ seven puzzles illustrate clearly that the structural model for approaching terror groups cannot yield useful results because each of the requisite assumptions simply do not, in reality, apply. And that leaves us with a serious problem indeed.

But before we start thinking too hard about the solution, perhaps we should think some more about the actual problem. What is it that we actually fear from terror groups? The clear answer, far and away, is that thanks to the diffusion and accessibility of advanced technology, we fear terror groups could do significant damage through the employment of NBC weapons, or cause significant hardship, economic and otherwise, through cyber or eco attacks and so forth. One reason that the structural model provided us with some level of comfort was that if we assumed a rational actor, we could tell ourselves that specific policy behaviors could deter the use of such weapons or tactics. Removing that safety blanket leaves us exposed indeed.

But it’s an exposure that we’d better get used to. And getting used to it requires that we recognize that withdrawing from the world is not a solution to this problem. In fact, we need to do the opposite. Ms. Richardson’s bromide of know your enemy is particularly apt, despite her reticence to provide some method for accomplishing it. The fact is that any terror group can only be understood and contained by detailing its network and identifying its identity entrepreneur. Accomplishing that requires penetration into societies where such groups are likely to spawn, and we do have some fairly specific understanding of what those societies actually look like. But our marriage to technology and the social remoteness that it has engendered has created obstacles both psychological and physical. Our ultimate salvation does not lie within the walls of ivory towers, but on the streets of the cities of the world. As Americans we have a deep distrust of the word “empire.” Yet empire is what we are, and our security depends upon understanding that being a citizen of that empire means we cannot address it via remote control, stare at it from orbit, or apply convenient assumptions. To do so may give us the sense of security we crave, but it will ultimately prove false, and may cost us all we hold dear.