February 02, 2010

Other stuff I have been up to

I see my piece in the Conference of Defence Associations Institute periodical On Track is live (page 35 of PDF). It's a highly abridged version of some remarks I gave to that CDAI meeting back in the fall in Ottawa, but I think it still holds together. My appreciation to Col. (retd.) Pellerin and his staff for the opportunity.

Posted by BruceR at 08:31 AM

On kites and intelligence

C.J. Chivers, on the fight in Helmand:

Mixing modern weapons with ancient signaling techniques, the Taliban have developed the habits and tactics to evade capture and to disrupt American and Afghan operations, all while containing risks to their ranks.

Seven months after the Marines began flowing forces into Helmand Province, clearing territory and trying to establish local Afghan government, such tactics have helped the Taliban transform themselves from the primary provincial power to a canny but mostly unseen force.

The good news then is that the fight in Helmand in 2010 has begun to closely resemble the fight in Kandahar Province in 2007, basically the default state for insurgents facing overwhelming firepower, nothing but IEDs and small arms harassment. Hey, I didn't say "great news." The bad news is that as Kandahar shows it's possible to keep that fight going a long, long time.

The only quibble I have is with some of of the low-tech "signals" Chivers offers. One of the photo captions refers to shepherd's whistles, and the article refers to kites. This is probably an indication either Chivers or someone he interviewed has been paying too much attention to the fever-dreams of fobbits.*

Kite flying is ubiquitous in Afghanistan, but it would be a lousy choice of signal of an enemy presence, relying for success in a pinch on two fairly unreliable things: wind, and boys (not to mention daylight). Even if it worked, presumably you'd have to do something special, like fly a different kite, to distinguish it from all the other kites. Its use as a signal of the presence of troops seems to be another one of those Afghan "urban legends," a classic example of false correlation in intelligence reporting. Kite flying is fairly unusual to Westerners, so patrol reports can often mention it just as an observation. (It could also potentially indicate the presence of children in a village, so it would still be worth noting when you're trying to figure out where the local families are actually living.) Analysed in bulk away from the action, though, it's easy for someone to note a correlation between kite flying and patrols being hit when they visit a given village every couple weeks or months. Because we only observe the behaviour when we're around, it can be natural to assume it has something to do with our presence. But the baseline assumption that kites were likely also flown on all those intermediate days when there wasn't a patrol around and therefore nothing to hit can be hard to reintroduce into one's analysis. The competing or null hypothesis in this case ("Afghan kids fly really kites a lot, don't they?") is rarely rigorously compared.

The troops in the field every day figure this out quickly enough, of course. I once made the rare mistake of passing on an RFI on local kite-flying patterns along these lines from a higher headquarters to our guys uncritically. I was rapidly slapped down by one of the guys in Tacnet email for passing on a junk request, something along the lines of "the kids are flying kites around me now. They were flying them yesterday. If I walk to the next village they'll be flying there. They'll be flying them tomorrow if there's any wind... tell them to factor that into their analysis and get back to me when they have something useful to ask me."

This is not to say, mind you, that no Taliban has, ever, ever used a kite as an early warning apparatus in the history of Afghanistan. I'm sure it's been tried. But the number of those instances, compared to the number of innocuous kites in the sky on a given day, would be so rare as to only be detectable through extremely detailed observation by someone surveilling a place 24/7. You're not going to pick it up that level of subtle changes from the baseline on a standard foot patrol. Until another source of intelligence, like Humint ("that kid's dad is in the Taliban and he gets him to fly a kite when you're around.") or Imint ("our UAV noticed a bearded man with an AK flying a kite on that hill.") allows you to focus in a little, you won't be able to distinguish the unusual from the baseline, and focussing on it inordinately could lead you to miss something else or make a mistake in your tactical assessment of a situation. (Now, the guy driving down the road ahead of you honking, yeah, now him I'd stop and question.)

The real sadness here is that kite-flying, once banned by the Taliban, and which should be seen as a ubiquitous symbol of the liberation we brought, is now being interpreted by some (fortunately as I said, mostly those farther from regular contact with Afghans) as something to be regarded with suspicion... when really it's only an indicator of one's own unfamiliarity with the ways of Afghans.

*For the record, I figure I spent 40% of the waking hours of my tour outside KAF's gates and most of that was in other, very safe surroundings by Afghan standards. So I was at least three-fifths fobbit.

Posted by BruceR at 07:15 AM