A Brief Study in Hyperbole

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at Camp David, 1984.

Yesterday I took part in an in-class debate on which was the more ‘special’ relationship: Churchill and Roosevelt, Macmillan and Kennedy, or Thatcher and Reagan? I was assigned to the Thatcher-Reagan team.

I took it upon myself to write an opening statement, and it follows. Bear in mind I wrote this in approximately 30 minutes (including edits and rewrites). Then you can decide: did I actually say anything at all? Or did I just make it sound like I did? In other words, where’s the beef?

Since revolution tore the two asunder, and the White House burned in 1812, the United States and United Kingdom have enjoyed an extraordinary partnership unrivaled by anyone in the world – a “special” relationship.

The relationship has waxed and waned over the years, but never was it stronger or more dynamic than the Thatcher-Reagan era of the 1980s. Bound together by mutual respect and admiration, cultural affinity, and a shared commitment to western values, the special relationship between the Gipper and the Iron Lady was forged in history and sealed with blood. Through war and in peace, America and Britain held fast at home and abroad with Reagan and Thatcher at the helm.

From the windswept south Atlantic to the skies above Libya, Reagan and Thatcher were partners amidst a sea of troubles. Politically like-minded like to pair before them, they successfully navigated the shoals of the Cold War and brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Together they restored a sense of national pride to their respective countries and returned the special relationship to its lofty pedestal.

Personally, politically, diplomatically, and militarily, Reagan and Thatcher were exceptionally close. Maintaining a solid front publicly, they never hesitated to disagree in private, always constructively and without hint of animosity. Anglo-American relations, NATO, and indeed the west itself were and continue to be rejuvenated by their remarkable friendship; and nothing less than the whole of humanity has been the beneficiary of Thatcher and Reagan’s truly special relationship.

I like the lofty rhetoric I came up with, but methinks the substantive portion leaves something to be desired. And that’s ignoring what I actually think about the merits of the argument.

22 Bahman as COIN

Crossposted at Secure Nation.

So in addition to using their Chinese-made riot trucks and gas attacks on the protesters, the Iranian security forces were able to quell much of the 22 Bahman uprising by simply relying on the weakness of the movement’s organizational structure. Letting the enemy defeat itself; very Art of War. The very lack of hierarchy in the green movement was both a blessing and a curse. From Foreign Policy:

Like many of the green movement activists, Sadeghi’s belief in the protests seems related to their “horizontal organization,” the fact that they were structured without hierarchies. This was supposed to be the great strength of the movement, but it is also an abiding weakness. A horizontal organization can’t clearly delineate different roles to different people according to their strengths; it can’t reward those who participate, or sanction those who hesitate. Facebook enabled many young Iranians to forget these points.

Now obviously the Taliban is not organizing via Facebook, but the principle of decentralization is the same. Avoid having a center of gravity, put together your demonstrations (attacks) at the last possible minute; coordinate, execute, and then melt away into the night. But if the Iranian green movement using the same principles was successfully put down, does this offer us a rubric for approaching insurgencies?

Mir Hossein Mousavi's Facebook page.

The short answer is probably not. The Taliban is not planning its operations through Facebook or tweets. But the reason the Revolutionary Guard so effectively shut down the protests was by blocking access to means of communications; that is to say the internet. No Gmail, no Facebook, no twitter meant that there was no coordination between demonstrators, nor was there a way to quickly spread the word of crackdowns in a particular area. The networks used by the Taliban for communication are more dispersed, making a system-wide shutdown more difficult. Walkie-talkies and satellite phones are the order of the day, and while we can intercept calls, we cannot easily end them. Even if we did, human couriers would merely proliferate further.

Also worth keeping in mind is the psychological element. The pushback given by the Iranian regime was demoralizing and a clear setback for the movement, slowing momentum and further progress. Presumably more than one green movement adherent changed his colors, or at least plans to lay low thanks to the IRG. But when ISAF and the United States attempt to stop the movement (the Taliban), it disperses them without costing the Taliban anything. Most of the Iranian protesters were relatively concentrated – do we need to herd Taliban fighters into a single killing zone? And is the Battle for Marjah a step in that direction?

Handheld Technology and the Red Queen

According to John Robb et al., one of the primary enablers of ‘global guerrillas’ is cheap, accessible technology. The possibilities that modern technology allow for are nearly limitless, and much of today’s problems are locked in an escalating war of symmetry.

If you’ve ever studied evolution (or possibly just read Michael Crichton’s The Lost World), you’ve probably come across the Red Queen scenario. As originally found in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the queen says to Alice: “It takes all the running you can do, just to stay in the same place.” As a complex system, the Red Queen definitely finds some parallels in warfare.

Need to brief from the field? There’s an app for that. Modern technology is miniaturizing and decentralizing, so that tools once in the hand of a battalion commander or higher have devolved to sub-squad levels. An individual soldier now has access not only to real-time satellite intelligence, but also has the ability to reposition those satellites. From the field.  For the cost of roughly $1 million per satellite. It’s trial-by-fire, as the military is deployed to several hotspots around the world.

Right now, much of the devolved abilities available to the average soldier come through consumer-grade products; iPods and iTouches and the like. To a certain extent, the development of specialist equipment seems redundant. But that’s where the Red Queen comes in.

The nature of warfare and arms competition means that the enemies of America are doing the same thing. Both are modernizing as fast as they can, but the technologies take very different paths. Whereas the United States, having seen the potential of these consumer devices, is now rushing to design a proprietary purpose-built system, the other team is making do with what they’ve got. We may be able to control our Predator drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan from thousands of miles away, but the neo-Taliban can “hack” them with $26 software (though as The Security Crank points out, it’s not really hacking).

That’s the difference in a nutshell: they make do with what they’ve got (Rumsfeld’s “army you have”); we’re constantly trying to forge our own path. I’m not making a judgment one way or another, but that’s the choice ahead. ‘Open-source warfare’ means that these ideas spread without any additional prompting. With off-the-shelf technology, you can go right ahead and set up a self-organizing peer-to-peer wifi network.

The neo-Taliban has been cracking and forcing cell networks offline in Afghanistan for years, and we can merely react. It’s really an open-ended question as to where this all might lead. You can’t stifle innovation at home just for the sake of denying advantages to our adversaries (besides, it’s not like they operate on the cutting edge).

We’re running as fast as we can just to stay standing.

Why They Fight

They hate us because we don’t know why they hate us.” The perceived ignorance of Americans as to the wider world around them was often cited as a compelling reason for the mass murder of several thousand citizens on September 11, 2001. Low scores on math and science, and the inability of two-thirds of Americans between eighteen and twenty-four years old to locate Iraq on a map in 2006 merely perpetuated this claim; that somehow American geographical ignorance is responsible for jihadists and regional strife around the world.

This is of course not the only suggested explanation for conflict in the developing world. Essentially, all the arguments put forth can be summarized as pertaining to ‘greed’, or monetary and personal gain, and ‘grievance’, i.e., ideological and cultural clashes. Abridging the vast array of motives to these two is oversimplifying the matter to begin with; further choosing one of the two as the sole factor would be downright spurious. Complicating matters is the tendency to use the ‘pre-modern’ character of third world conflicts to build an intellectual bridge back to the very beginning of history. Continue reading