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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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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Cruise Missiles and Yemeni Neighborhoods

“The US is planning retaliatory strikes in Yemen against al-Qaida over its attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day.  American officials […] warn that finding those responsible is unlikely to be swift and say that identifying other ‘high-value’ al-Qaida targets for retaliatory attack would also be a priority.” – The Guardian (U.K.), 12/30/2009

As U.S. officials are quoted mulling cruise-missile strikes on Yemen, it should be noted that the Yemeni government, such as it is, has already been fighting the hard slog – on the ground, rooting out Al Qaeda in Yemeni neighborhoods and villages.

Below is an interesting 7 minutes of film fresh from Yemen,  just posted to youTube today:  a moment-by-moment video documenting the Arhab raid by the Yemeni Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) on an Al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula (AQAP) safe-house, on 17 December, the same day as a coordinated U.S. cruise missile attack on another site.

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DCGS Worldwide Conference 2009 is next week

DCGS Conference logo
US Joint Forces Command is sponsoring next week’s third annual DCGS Worldwide Conference in Virginia Beach, and I’m looking forward to participating on a great panel. If you don’t know much about the world of the “Distributed Common Ground/Surface System,” you can find some slightly dated background information at http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/systems/dcgs.htm. DCGS is in many ways all about ISR, or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance – as well as their integration throughout the defense intelligence enterprise through the network of JIOCs (Joint Intelligence Operations Centers) and elsewhere.
 
There aren’t a lot of unclassified guides to the DCGS and ISR world for me to point to out on the web as background, although an anti-war group has posted a draft version of Army Intelligence Field Manual  (FM) 2-01, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which you can read in html format here.
 
 
The conference’s overall goal is “bringing together program offices, developers, and users to focus on establishing a fully integrated and seamless Enterprise in support of the warfighter.” Quoting more specifically from the conference material, “The conference objectives are to:
  • Improve knowledge of DCGS and JIOC capabilities for security, engagement and relief and reconstruction activities
  • Increase the utility and value DCGS provides to Irregular Warfare and General Purpose Forces operating independently, and through increasingly lower echelons
  • Markedly improve the ability to integrate with U.S. agencies, coalition forces, and other partners across the ISR enterprise
  • Inspire new thinking in areas of acquisition of ISR services, DCGS capability metrics, and the rapid delivery of intelligence solutions to the warfighter.”
 
The panel I’m participating on is titled “Amplifying ISR: Bringing Proven Advanced Video Processing Technologies to the Warfighter Now,” led by my good friend John Marshall. Below is the line up of the panel, which will focus primarily on the key topic of how to exploit and manage the waves of information coming off the profusion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) around the world.

Moderator:
Mr. John A. Marshall
Chief Technology Officer
Joint Transformation Command – Intelligence
United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM)
 

Panel Members:


Ms. Michelle Munson

President and Co-Founder, Aspera, Inc.


Mr. Lewis Shepherd

Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Institute 

Panel Members:


Mr. Robert Gourley

CTO, Crucial Point


Mr. Rudi Ernst

CEO/CTO, Pixia Corporation


Ms. Casey Henson

DIA/DS-CTO


Dr. Kari Kelton, Ph.D.

Chief System Sciences Officer, NSI, Inc.

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Microsoft and Google Look at the World Differently

I didn’t think I would have to write this same kind of observation twice within a year. But today, on D-Day, I notice yet again a striking difference between Google and Microsoft.  And in this case, one can almost read the evidence as a snub from Google to the United States, to the nations who united in sacrifice during World War II, and to President Obama on a day of his personal leadership in commemorating international war and peace.

I made a similar observation on Columbus Day, when Microsoft chose to honor Christopher Columbus and his explorations’ significance to American history and the world, while Google chose to honor – wait for it – Paddington Bear’s “birthday.” (See my post from then here.)

Today is of course D-Day, the 65th anniversary of a day in which over 2,000 American soldiers lost their lives, leading the way in the greatest military operation in the history of the world, as the initial landing to liberate Europe and the beginning of the end of the Nazi empire.

Google and Microsoft are two great American companies, which operate globally. Each has a public face to the world through signature online properties – their search engines. In Google’s case, that page at Google.com is their ne plus ultra public face, since they are at core a mighty search engine.

Take a look at the two pages today. Microsoft’s Bing search-engine uses its home page to commemorate D-Day, with a dramatic photograph of Normandy Beach today, and mouse-over popups providing historical highlights and links to more information on the battle’s signficance to World War II and to world history.

Bing D-Day

Google uses its home page to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the invention of the computer game Tetris.

Google Tetris

The mouse-over popup on the cutesy Google logo reads, “Celebrating 25 years of the Tetris effect – courtesy of Tetris LLC.”  (I suppose one could read that as, predictably, a coporate ad, right there on Google’s home page.)

Just as I noted on Columbus Day, this doesn’t appear to be a localization issue, or an issue of appealing to a global audience – both Microsoft and Google know my location, and in fact each is serving up a page targeted for me in the United States.

Don’t get me wrong: Tetris was an amusing and absorbing game. As a young guy I spent hours dropping the bars and shapes to fit into the rising pile below.

But at certain moments in life, you put aside childish things. Unless you’re trying to make some other kind of statement.

Note: I am a Microsoft employee. But this is not a Microsoft corporate blog, it’s my personal blog – and I’ve been known to tweak Microsoft here frequently as well.  This is my personal observation space.

I have to admit I am puzzled – and personally appalled – by the decision-making over at the Googleplex, and the statement they choose to send to the world.

President Obama is leading our delegation himself at Normandy Beach today, for the international event with other world leaders remembering a moment of global importance.  Self-evidently Eric Schmidt and the Google gang weren’t on board with that, and by their way of thinking saw something more significant to mark. 

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John Brennan’s Approach as the New CIA Director

Barring unforeseen Washington politicking at the last minute, John Brennan is being announced later today as President-elect Obama’s choice to replace Mike Hayden as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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