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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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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How the Crowd Reads Crowd-Sourced News

It turns out that we have lessons to learn from Uganda – more specifically, from web coverage of events in Uganda this week.

I’m constantly trying to improve my own ability to follow real-time world events, whether through social media, advanced search technologies, or aggregation of multiple old/new information technologies. About this time last year, as the Georgian-Russian skirmishes were just kicking off, I wrote about keeping up with information on international events (“Using Web 2.0 to Track a Political Crisis“).

In the intervening year, development of real-time tools and techniques has really blossomed. This past week, the onset of violent political unrest in Uganda has served as yet another crucible in which new techniques and web-based technologies can be tested and tweaked.

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Three cool new projects in Microsoft Research

[April Fool’s Edition]   I haven’t blogged in a little while – been a little busy – so I’ll make up for it with a burst of three cool new things coming out of the inventive lab work at Microsoft Research – improving Twitter, computer performance, and mobile phones.

MegaNano: New High-End Camera for Cellphones

Many people are dissatisfied with the fuzzy quality of photos taken with their built-in cellphone cameras. So Microsoft will be rolling out this summer the most advanced built-in mobile phone-cam on the market, based on a fantastic prototype now in final user testing at Microsoft Research’s Beijing lab.

MegaNanoDubbed the “MegaNano,” the sylish but diminutive camera boasts 72 megapixel resolution and a shutter-speed setting range from 0.003 seconds all the way up to seven hours.

The itty-bitty MegaNano will be launched simultaneously with the new Microsoft Mobile Apps Store, bundled with a nice selection of jackets and outerware with specially reinforced pouch-pockets and backpacks designed to hold the tiny device. 

I know you’ll want one. One beta-tester says, “It’s so small yet so powerful!  I have to remind myself sometimes that the weight on my shoulders is actually a tiny camera!”

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Some say Obama has already chosen Cyber Czar

I’ll wade into the breach again, of analyzing (and trying to anticipate) some national-security appointments for the new Obama Administration.  Today I must admit that I’m taken with the latest reportage from the U.K. Spectator – a quite conservative publication not usually known for its closeness to the Obama inner circle.

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Armed Autonomy: Mechatronics plus Software plus Ammo

The Killer Robots are Coming!

Fact: According to a new story in LiveScience (“Will the U.S. Have a Droid Army“), “autonomous robots with the ability to open fire upon their own initiative are under development in other countries.”  Robotics researchers Doug Few and Bill Smart at Washington University in St. Louis are quoted with the assessment that “the U.S. military may be 30 percent robotic by the year 2020.” 

Analysis: I’ve been having some interesting discussions with DoD and their contractors about robotics lately, and the question of autonomous behavior comes up frequently, though infrequently about armed systems.  Among other reasons, Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) places great store in unarmed robotic systems coordinating with other command and control or combat systems. Continue reading

Using Web 2.0 to Track a Political Crisis

My gut tells me that the latest round in the Georgian-Russian crisis is going to get ugly.

CNN’s “Russian Tanks Rolling into Georgian Breakaway” shows one thing: our old friend Vladimir Putin feels free to call the shots.

Twitter alerts can only get you so far, in following a crisis.  Check out these first attempts: this Twitter search or this one, or this Live News feed.  You can RSS any of these by the way.

I’m working on several Popfly-designed orchestrations of alerts and newsfeeds to keep me updated on the latest news from South Ossetia, incorporating crowd-sourced information as much as I can. 

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