Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Anthony Alfidi Assesses Afghanistan - Singular Dispatch

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
- Rudyard Kipling, "The Young British Soldier"

I recently concluded a lengthy engagement with Afghanistan. I will spare my readers the mundane details of what I was doing. Only the big picture matters now. Vladimir Nabokov would ask memory to speak. I shall speak while my memory is fresh.

Afghanistan is one of the hardest countries in the world to govern. The World Bank's description of Afghanistan's development reads like a litany of slow progress that can easily be undone. Problems with corruption and economic freedom make that progress very tenuous. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as 166 out of 168 on its Corruption Perceptions Index. They can only beat North Korea and Somalia in transparency. The Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom does not even rank Afghanistan because of the country's poor data quality. It keeps country with Libya, Syria, and other failed states.

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The global macro data only tells the modern chapter of Afghanistan's sad tale. The rest of the story starts in antiquity when the region was known variously as Ariana, Khorasan, and other fanciful names. The most glorious chapter was the Durrani Empire, when the coincidental weaknesses of both the Safavid and Mughal empires allowed the Pashtuns of Central Asia a period of relatively unmolested consolidation. The Durrani Empire's decline, and the partition of the British Raj into India and Pakistan, left the Pashtun people divided and restless.

Afghanistan never accepted the Durand Line. Kabul's recognition of that British-imposed border would abandon dispossessed Pashtuns to the permanent control of Pakistan, arguably the final Mughal successor state. Pashtun agitation for a unified homeland is an existential threat to the Punjabi ruling class holding power in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Pakistan's military elite has every nationalist incentive to keep its restive Pashtun population focused elsewhere. Pathan assimilation into the mainstream of life in the Indian subcontinent is more a historical legacy than a modern trend.

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The Pashtun division, India-Pakistan rivalry, and near-constant civil conflict since the late 1970s have shredded Afghanistan's social fabric. A destroyed society is a fertile field for a totalitarian eschatology offering simple, firm answers to life's hard problems. The Taliban's mix of Pashtunwali warrior ethos and Deobandi Sunni theology offers a potent solution to Afghans and Pakistani Pashtuns who have nowhere else to turn.

Western strategists come up short when they try to explain the Taliban strain of Islamic militancy in purely nationalist terms. Central Asia's non-state and proto-state actors are not mere set pieces in some immutable Cartesian layout. Consider the problem through the frame of living systems. The Taliban exist because they can parasitically inhabit a host body, i.e., a safe haven in Pakistan where their Quetta Shura leadership can plan and resource military campaigns. The Taliban are a living system that ingests nutrients (recruits, financing) and expels waste products (expendable fighters). Pakistan would be severely destabilized if it could not expel its most violent Pashtuns into the meat grinders of conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

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A conclusive strategic defeat of Islamic militancy in Central Asia, including the Taliban and other destabilizing forces, requires terminating all sources of oxygen and nourishment for the parasitical organisms. Anything less comprehensive will allow sanctuary where militancy flourishes inside weak nation-states. Modern studies of insurgency illustrate how an insurgent movement with unmolested sanctuary in a third country can regenerate combat power indefinitely. Tolerance for insurgent sanctuaries acquiesces to the movement's survival, and eventual victory.

The United States and its NATO-led Coalition partners have made a worthy effort to defeat Islamic militancy in Afghanistan since 2001. I added my own contribution to this effort in 2016 and 2017. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has published volumes of documentation on whether this effort has been worthwhile. Suffice it to say that doing more with less and throwing good money after bad are not enabling victory.

I have more personal stories to share about my time in Afghanistan. I will share them at appropriate times in the future, My personal reflections are in no way indicative of official US government policy.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Haiku of OSINT for 01/25/16

Multifaith talking
Much holiness all around
Not much for action

From Interfaith Dialogue To Multifaith Polylogue

I learned a new phrase today at the Commonwealth Club: "multifaith polylogue." It's the hip new trend sweeping the interfaith dialogue community. Look for it in the Parliament of the World's Religions as participants broaden the discourse. Theologians have talked across faith divisions for millennia. Talk is cheap; deeds are worth more than words.

People of different faiths can discover that they share interests in mundane things like sports and the arts. More importantly, the Abrahamic religions all share narratives emphasizing charitable works toward strangers and the less fortunate. The Noahide Laws offer Gentiles a path to righteous recognition in Judaism. Other faiths should be so generous.

I wonder whether faith conversations travel across civilization's fault lines. One civilization axis for Judaism / Christianity / Islam can find links between the Torah, Bible, and Quran with little difficulty because they all originated from the Middle East's mystery cults and wisdom traditions. Another axis for Hinduism and Buddhism could account for the syncretism of Asian traditions. Taoism and Stoicism developed independently but their modern adherents may be astonished at their similarities.

Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion is modern syncretism's call to action. All it needs are some colorful icons and it will be as compelling for contemplation as the Sistine Chapel's frescos. The compassion movement also needs some archetypal characters like the ones in the Star Wars saga. I would suggest myself as such an archetype because I express compassion for the poor, unfortunate souls who cannot operate at my high level of morality.

Pascal's Wager for the existence of God does not overcome the Epicurean paradox of why an omnipotent deity would tolerate the problem of evil. Theologians of many faiths are welcome to polylogue themselves over this quandry until the cows come home. Compassion activists will meanwhile be busy walking sacred labyrinths, accepting mindfulness, practicing yoga, and drinking masala chai tea (organic and fair trade certified, of course). All of these efforts will garner the usual results in human history, namely political upheavals and wars as Fourth Turning generational crises run roughshod over everyone's best intentions. We all certainly meant well. It's the thought that counts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Haiku of OSINT for 11/11/15

Secret agent man
Unbelievable movie
Really popular

Assessing The James Bond "Spectre" Film

I have never before watched a James Bond film in a theater. I now know why after seeing Spectre today at my local cineplex. I paid to watch an uninformed fantasy about intelligence work. Once is okay, because I learned enough. Here comes the first ever movie review on Third Eye OSINT.

We can begin with elements that would never make sense in the real world of intelligence. Geopolitical differences between rival powers somehow become irrelevant (the "Nine Eyes" sharing arrangement between the Anglo-West countries and presumably the BRICS bloc). Field agents and agency principals display a stunning naivete about pervasive digital surveillance (Bond, M, and Moneypenny discussing background research). Operatives discuss sensitive policy matters out in the open in unsecure areas in front of uncleared people (Bond and Q at the Austrian hotel with Dr. Swann). Technical specialists plug away on sensitive projects using computers whose displays are visible to anyone in a public area (Q typing while on the ski lift). Small caliber handguns can hit targets at enormously long ranges (the speedboat chasing the helicopter) and also blow up facilities the size of a city block (the hotel at the beginning, the desert facility at the end). All manner of vehicles are conveniently placed for a quick getaway (Bond's plane in snowy Austria, his helicopter at the desert facility, and his speedboat on the River Thames), and of course our hero always knows how to operate them. Our hero also always uses his real identity and is never under an assumed cover. He wastes no time getting under the covers with his female leads while their lives are obviously in danger. Yeah, find me a real intelligence system that operates this way.

The standard Bond film tropes are everywhere. The world's most famous secret agent wrecks his very expensive car, defeats a larger man in a fistfight, easily shoots multiple assailants without reloading, and saves his favorite woman just in time. The evil leader always reveals his entire sinister plan to Bond, and Bond gets away without breaking a sweat. It's great that Bond's women are becoming increasingly competent fighters in their own right. Female moviegoers need strong heroines, but the heroines still show glaring emotional weaknesses and need to be rescued from very improbable dangers. Dr. Swann inexplicably leaves the London safehouse to wander away from Bond, only to be captured for display. A truly competent operative would have either stayed at the safehouse during the operation's most crucial phase, or volunteered to go with Bond as backup. Alas, the plot always needs a traditional resolution, and the damsel in distress must always end up as the plot device motivating Bond's final heroics.

Monica Bellucci made an indelible impression while conducting the necessary exposition in Rome. She proves that desire knows no expiration date. Kudos to the producers for casting an older woman in a seductive role. Ms. Bellucci is much closer in age to Daniel Craig (Mr. Bond) than Lea Seydoux (Dr. Swann), so the romantic chemistry of an age-appropriate couple makes more sense. I also think Dave Bautista is getting typecast as the heavy who goes light on dialogue. I wouldn't want to fight the guy. Bond fought the guy on the train without getting a scratch or even getting the carnation dislodged from his jacket's lapel, but that's why he's Bond.

The James Bond franchise is great, mindless fun. Many American men who entered adult life without surrendering their adolescent imagination must see Bond as a role model. He always gets disciplined, suspended, or fired but somehow retains access to all of the resources he needs to do his job. The magical Bond narrative is great escapism for anyone who can't escape a boring life or defeat a petty tyrant at work. I overthink a lot of Hollywood product that isn't aimed at me.

Thursday, October 22, 2015