[ by Charles Cameron — a post in my importance of form in intelligence series — following up on part 1 with a series of quotes zeroing in from context via analysis to decision — Pakistan, Afghanistan, OBL ]
In Part 1 of this post, I introduced the form of the funnel. I want to use this form, this recognizable and repeating pattern in nature, mathematics, and the transfer of oil into car engines, to illustrate a movement in time, an imperative in intelligence, and a loss in nuance. With regard to Obama and Osama.
I shall do this by offering a series of quotes that, in various voices, take us through the zeroing in process, by which an unimaginably complex world gets sorted into a complex analytic understanding and reduced from there to a yes/no decision and a single, definitive (fatal) command.
Let’s start here:
The universe is a complex system in which countless causal chains are acting and interacting independently and simultaneously (the ultimate nature of some of them unknown to science even today). There are in fact so many causal sequences and forces at work, all of them running in parallel, and each of them often affecting the course of the others, that it is hopeless to try to specify in advance what’s going to happen as they jointly work themselves out. In the face of that complexity, it becomes difficult if not impossible to know with any assurance the future state of the system except in those comparatively few cases in which the system is governed by ironclad laws of nature such as those that allow us to predict the phases of the moon, the tides, or the position of Jupiter in tomorrow night’s sky. Otherwise, forget it.
Further, it’s an illusion to think that supercomputer modeling is up to the task of truly reliable crystal-ball gazing. It isn’t. … Certain systems in nature, it seems, are computationally irreducible phenomena, meaning that there is no way of knowing the outcome short of waiting for it to happen.
That’s Ed Regis, responding to the Edge Question for 2008, What Have You Changed Your Mind About?
What do we do about it? The great (one might say visionary) biologist Francisco Varela has something important to say about that:
Let me try and be clear in the terminology here: for every system there is an environment which can (if we so decide) be looked at as a larger whole where the initial system participates. Since it would be impractical to do this at all times, we often chop out our system of interest, and put all the rest in the background as “environment.” To do this on purpose is quite useful; to forget that we did so is quite dangerous.
Moving on and zooming rapidly in, here’s the state of the FBI’s understanding of Al-Qaida very shortly after 9/11.
…the business of counterterrorism intelligence gathering in the United States is akin to the construction of a mosaic. … At this stage of the investigation, the FBI is gathering and processing thousands of bits and pieces of information that may seem innocuous at first glance. We must analyze all that information, however, to see if it can be fit into a picture that will reveal how the unseen whole operates. … What may seem trivial to some may appear of great moment to those within the FBI or the intelligence community who have a broader context.
Michael Taarnby gives us a sense of the various drivers in play in his paper, Profiling Islamic Suicide Terrorists: A Research Report for the Danish Ministry of Justice, 2003 — note that he’s working on suicide bombers, but many of the same drivers are at work more generally among jihadists:
It should be stressed that this study was based on a sceptical view of the exclusively religious nature of Islamic suicide terrorism. The purpose was to look for alternative interpretations with an open mind. The complexity related to the importance of these parameters is not related to a hierarchical dimension since it is the interplay between the parameters that produces a suicide terrorist over a period of time. The profiling of suicide terrorists from an exclusively psychological perspective for instance is no longer valid, reality is much more complex. Nor is it just a question of political disagreements. When existing profiling techniques have failed to understand the complex issues that leads an individual to sacrifice his life, it is because of a habit of using a monocausal approach. This is not to say that psychological studies cannot contribute to terrorist profiling …
Terrorism is not moncausal.
The war against the Taliban / AQ is complicated, if for no other reason, then because it is inherently self-referential, contains a paradox, pushes what it pulls against. In Steve Coll‘s words:
This could not be a more complicated war. If you think about it, the United States is essentially waging a war against its own ally. The Taliban are a proxy of the government of Pakistan. We are an ally of the government of Pakistan. We are fighting the Taliban. In the end, the Taliban will be defeated strategically when the government of Pakistan makes a strategic decision that its future does not lie in partnership with Islamic extremists.
That’s a fairly simple complexity, something a loop diagram could illustrate nicely. But it’s more multifactorial than that, as National Security Adviser James Jones remarked at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February 2009:
But to move forward, we must understand the terms “national security” and “international security” are no longer limited to the ministries of defense and foreign ministries; in fact, they encompass the economic aspects of our societies. They encompass energy. They encompass new threats—asymmetric threats involving proliferation, involving the illegal shipment of arms and narcoterrorism, and the like. Borders are no longer recognized, and the simultaneity of the threats that face us are occurring at a more rapid pace …
The challenges that we face are broader and more diverse than we ever imagined, even after the terrible events of 9/11. And our capacity to meet these challenges, in my view, does not yet match the urgency of what is required. To be blunt, the institutions and approaches that we forged together through the twentieth century are still adjusting to meet the realities of the twenty-first century. And the world has definitely changed, but we have not changed with it. But it is not too late, and this is the good news …
And so we move from the complicated business of analytic understanding to the relative singularity of an individual making a decision — Steve Coll’s words again:
As with much of modern American national security as a whole, the bin Laden raid came down to a complicated decision made by one person. Only one person is asked to simultaneously weigh the certainties, manage all the various domestic, military, diplomatic, legal, and moral considerations, and make a decision Americans will live with for years to come. It is a remarkable — some might argue impractical — burden.
That’s the zoom, that’s my funnel, complete in seven quotes.
Let’s take things a bit further, and examine for a moment what has been said about the man making the decision. From The American Conservative:
To read Niebuhr is to relish these tensions, to grip the fundamental balance of the moral universe. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” he wrote. “But man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” The concepts gear together like great cosmic cogs. “Goodness, armed with power, is corrupted,” he wrote. But “pure love without power is destroyed.” Much of Niebuhr’s worldview depends on these balances.
Reading Obama yields a similar effect. In 2009, literary critic Andrew Delbanco pointed out in the New Republic that Obama’s books are populated by counterweighted sentences, for instance: “There’s the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager’s abortion.” Obama expresses his worldview, Delbanco wrote, in sentences “organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other–a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts.”
To me, that’s reassuring: the issue can still be complex as it reaches the President’s mind, even if his decision and command has to be given in a single, definitive word.
What happens if an impoverished understanding is at work, the wrong answer is given, the wrong decision taken? HL Mencken to the rescue with this dismal truth:
For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.
And finally — where are we now?
I’ll take my answer from a series of tweets Aaron Zelin made earlier today:
Al-Qaeda has never been dead, neither have they ever been resurgent. They’ve always just hovered. Nimble, patient, and exploitative. The problem is, we are always one step behind, we were fighting the AQ of 9/11 for yrs, now we are fighting the AQ of 2009-2011. As we have changed our tactics they have changed, too. AQ and its affiliates now are not the same as they once were.