Through the Afghan Looking Glass

The news today that the United States government will be paying $367 million dollars to Russia, for 21 Russian Mi-17 “Hip” helicopters for use by Afghanistan’s military, for some reason made me recall something I heard Monday.  I was talking about the Libya crisis to an E-Ring friend and former colleague in the Pentagon who told me, “the difficulty in Libya is that this is all new territory for us, new because it’s more complex, and so we have to figure it out as each new complication comes along.”

That’s one way of looking at modern life, as if drowning in too much data. Perhaps there’s another, driven more by longer memory, and analysis “à la recherche du temps perdu.”  Let’s set down some facts, past and present, and see if any lessons emerge. With apologies to Mark Twain whose forward to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reads:

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author”

Once upon a time, not so long ago (the 1980s), the United States armed Afghan “rebels” against an oppressive central government and its foreign puppetmaster patron, the Soviet Union. The rebels pre-existed the foreign involvment; in fact there is difficulty finding a historical point in the region’s history when there weren’t “rebels” against anyone claiming to be “the government.” (If it’s easier for you, imagine the residents of the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.)

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Contributing to Intelligence Innovation

Below are two ways to contribute to innovation in government, and specifically in intelligence matters. One is for you to consider, the other is a fun new path for me.

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DARPA crowd guru gets a new lab

It’s been a little over two years since I came back to the tech private sector from my government service, and it’s great when we have other folks take the same path, for it improves the knowledge of each side about the other. Today we’re announcing that Peter Lee, currently the leader of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Activity’s innovative Transformational Convergence Technology Office (TCTO), is joining Microsoft to run the mighty flagship Redmond labs of Microsoft Research.

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An Afghanistan Echo from 1986

In all the hubbub over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disastrous Rolling Stone profile which sparked an international furor today, I notice there hasn’t been time yet for most Beltway armchair analysts to focus on the article’s actual depiction of the state of American policy in Afghanistan.

To sum up: grim.  The quotes from McChrystal’s team reinforce the assessment – there’s little confidence on display. (Here’s the full article in pdf, it’s worth the read.)  As the RS article’s last lines put it: “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.”

Is that an unfair assessment, too bleak? I’ve been a fairly consistent supporter of the Afghanistan war since the inception, but even I was struck that a “senior military official in Kabul” is quoted in the article saying: “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here.”  So even hypothesized success of McChrystal’s current surge would result in more troops, not less, heading for the fight – a decade in. 

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Net-clever personal PSYOP targeting

In a way I’ve been studying Information Operations (info-ops, or IO) and Psychological Operations (PSYOP) all my life. We all have – particularly if you grew up in the marketing-saturated post-World War II United States. But I also started reading intently about those practices when I first worked at the Cold War Pentagon in the mid-1980s.

Those two terms have specific meanings in a military and international-relations context. The Pentagon’s official doctrinal definitions can be found in Joint Publication 3-13, “Information Operations” (updated in 2006) and in Joint Pub 3-53 “Doctrine for Joint Psychological Operations” (dating back to 2003). They make plain that PSYOP is one of “five core IO capabilities: electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, operations security, and military deception.”  As the latter manual states, “The overall function of PSYOP is to cause selected foreign audiences to take actions favorable to the objectives of the United States and its allies or coalition partners” (page xii).

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Follow the USS Carl Vinson to Haiti

As I write on Wednesday afternoon (EST), the scenes of chaos, death, and destruction in Haiti are only now beginning to be visible to the outside world through media. As horrific and heart-rending as those scenes are, they serve a purpose in letting other nations comprehend the magnitude of the crisis and the urgency required in lending direct aid. The U.S. military is uniquely positioned to contribute.

Flight Deck of the USS Carl Vinson

What a difference a day makes: barely 24 hours ago, several hours before the earthquake struck, the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) was cranking up its nuclear engines and setting a peaceful course out of Hampton Roads at the base of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. At long last after completing a complex overhaul and new sea trials, she was heading south, to make the South America turn and return to homeport in San Diego as part of the Pacific Fleet.

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To fix intelligence analysis you have to decide what’s broken

“More and more, Xmas Day failure looks to be wheat v. chaff issue, not info sharing issue.” – Marc Ambinder, politics editor for The Atlantic, on Twitter last night.

Marc Ambinder, a casual friend and solid reporter, has boiled down two likely avenues of intelligence “failure” relevant to the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his attempted Christmas Day bombing on Northwest Airlines Flight 253.  In his telling, they’re apparently binary – one is true, not the other, at least for this case.

The two areas were originally signalled by President Obama in his remarks on Tuesday, when he discussed the preliminary findings of “a review of our terrorist watch list system …  so we can find out what went wrong, fix it and prevent future attacks.” 

Let’s examine these two areas of failure briefly – and what can and should be done to address them.

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The Purple History of Intelink

When I first began talking with DIA CIO Mike Pflueger and Deputy CIO Mark Greer in the fall of 2003 about the work I’d be doing with them inside government, most of the ideas were big ones: let’s re-architect the DoDIIS enterprise, let’s find and deploy revolutionary new analytical software. One of our thoughts was a little one, but for me personally it turned out to be a most valuable project. They let me pull together a panel for the upcoming 2004 DoDIIS Conference called “Geeks and Geezers,” featuring some of the grand old names of intelligence technology. The panel was a success, and in organizing it, I spent quite a bit of time talking to those giants, or should I say listening to them. I learned an enormous amount about “the early days.” This post describes the important work of one of those fellows. 

Para Bellum Web

Tim O'Reilly, Ray Ozzie

Tim O’Reilly created a bit of a stir last night in the tech world by writing a thoughtful essay entitled “The War for the Web.” He’ll be expanding on his thoughts in his keynote address today at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. From the essay, here’s the core argument:

“[W]e’ve grown used to a world with one dominant search engine, one dominant online encyclopedia, one dominant online retailer, one dominant auction site, one dominant online classified site, and we’ve been readying ourselves for one dominant social network. But what happens when a company with one of these natural monopolies uses it to gain dominance in other, adjacent areas? I’ve been watching with a mixture of admiration and alarm as Google has taken their dominance in search and used it to take control of other, adjacent data-driven applications.

It could be that everyone will figure out how to play nicely with each other, and we’ll see a continuation of the interoperable web model we’ve enjoyed for the past two decades. But I’m betting that things are going to get ugly. We’re heading into a war for control of the web. And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform. [emphasis added] Instead, we’re facing the prospect of Facebook as the platform, Apple as the platform, Google as the platform, Amazon as the platform, where big companies slug it out until one is king of the hill.

… P.S. One prediction: Microsoft will emerge as a champion of the open web platform, supporting interoperable web services from many independent players, much as IBM emerged as the leading enterprise backer of Linux.

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Cyber Deterrence Symposium webcast

As I type this, I’m sitting in a seventh-floor conference area at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, listening to the keynote speaker for the second of five panels today in the “Cyber Deterrence Symposium,” a joint production of INSA (the Intelligence and National Security Alliance), and the Homeland Security Policy Institute.

If you’re reading this on the day of the symposium (Monday November 2, 2009), you can tune in to the live webcast of the speakers and panels. It is a stellar line-up, see the roster below.

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