Archive for September, 2010

now you tell us

This Clinton person is making sense, on Israeli politics, on settlements, and on this:

Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.

“It’s just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that,” said Clinton.


iterative post mortem

Theo Farrell has published a new paper on the British Army in Helmand, which makes some more progress in explaining just how it went so wrong.


Elsewhere: how the Lib Dems learned to love Nemesysco’s fake lie detector and outsourcing to Crapita. Yes, really.

OK, so let’s remind ourselves of the rising chatter about a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan from a couple of months ago. We know that there was some evidence of Hezb-i Islami cooperating with ISAF. The first group targeted as part of the diplomatic effort were the Haqqani network.

Since then, we’ve learned about the build-up of US reconnaissance in Afghanistan. As a result, the drones strike more and more often. Here’s Sean Naylor on what seems to be a broader offensive against the Haqqanis. Note that this also refers to even more reconnaissance and intelligence assets being deployed, transferred from Iraq. (Looking at this, a subplot of getting out of Iraq seems to have been getting better at data analysis in the field.)

Noah Schachtman’s piece does connect this with the negotiating track, but not in the way I think they are related. This reminds me of two things – one of them is the IRA concept of the Tactical Use of Armed Struggle, from the 1990s. The basic idea was that the main effort was the negotiations, and the violence was intended to support their negotiating position. The other one is, yet again, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which the Russians often carried out operations that were intended to put pressure on particular warlords to get on side.

Armchair Generalist has interesting quotes from the IISS’s recent report on Afghanistan:

A tripartite dialogue between Afghanistan, India and Pakistan is desirable; not least to diminish risks that enduring conflict could escalate to civil-war proportions. Central Asian states, Russia and Iran will have competing concerns in Afghanistan that will have to be reconciled, but a less ambitious coalition military posture in Afghanistan should be used to make this possible.

This is close enough to my line to make no difference, although I do suspect that the key factor in this will be good old low expectations.

Meanwhile, Joshua Foust would like everyone to know that Turkey has no possible advice to offer on fighting separatist guerrillas or transitioning from a military dictatorship towards democracy without achieving a 626% electoral turnout, and Indonesia knows nothing whatsoever about a complex, sometimes violent polity with radically different levels of development and a tradition of guerrilla activity.

I add this merely to remind myself that the Pajamas Media brand retains significant value as a counterindicator.


Arising from this, it struck me that there is something very important about continuity in politics. In many ways, it’s a habit – the group of professional rightwing publicists who invented “teabaggers” in late 2008 were clearly very well aware that a movement survives by acting out its emotional rituals and internalised skills. Whether it’s accurate to say that they looked at the new organising models and styles of the 2000s and installed them onto their wetware, they got the trigger-movement right. (This is roughly what I was thinking of at OpenTech a couple of weeks back – even if most of the people who signed up for Democracy Club would drift off after the elections, the ones who didn’t would be the ones you’d need for the next election. It’s a kind of neural Darwinism.)

So I reckon Labour is recovering, while the Lib Dems have just discovered the joy of doing the exact opposite of whatever party conference votes for.

If I hadn’t been fiddling with file permissions to get WordPress running last Sunday, I’d probably have been writing about the Haystack saga. I’m a bit gestört by some of the coverage of it – Evgeny Morozov, typically, has been doing good work in the general war on bullshit, but I’m less convinced of his broader conclusions. See here.

What stands out about Haystack isn’t so much the technology – which we can’t really make statements about, because they kept everything secret until it all fell down, and the implementation is apparently so awful nobody wants to release the code in case someone tries to use it – but the meta-technology. As this post makes clear, perhaps the biggest problem was that it was half-open, half-closed. The code wasn’t released, so it was impossible for anyone to review it, but it was circulated widely enough that the core development team had little or no idea how far it might have spread. In fact, some people who did have the source code thought it would be a good idea to compile it, package it, and share it with people who might need it.

And although there is apparently a client-server element in it, the server was allowed to accept connections from the wider Internet. So they’d accidentally allowed the unfinished and untested project to start operating in production.

The Guardian is mocked; John Graham-Cumming is right (and check out the remarks about Tor in comments) and points out that Haystack’s crypto was reliant on a source of random numbers that, well, isn’t random. The EFF has good advice.

Now, this week has another superspy Iran story, Stuxnet, the worm that apparently attacks a Siemens SCADA application. Here’s JGC again, being sceptical. There’s a rundown at Alliance Geostrategique. The author of the theory that it’s an attack on the Bushehr nuclear power plant is self publicising here – I, for one, am not convinced that the fact they hadn’t got some software licence key in 2009 is great evidence, especially as the Windows .lnk exploit involved wouldn’t care either way. It’s the one from July in which Windows will execute code packed into the icon file for a desktop shortcut on a USB stick, so how pleased the Business Software Alliance is with the Iranians is here or there.

And it also seems to target Indian and Indonesian systems. Maybe its authors are protesting against Eat, Pray, Love.

To put it another way, I think we’re under a cyberattack from a sinister network of chancers and self-publicists who have glommed on to the whole issue as a way of getting their faces in the news and their hands into the till. As our occasional reader Bos puts it:

When you say “weapons-grade cybermunitions developed by nation states”, I hear “this patchwork of consulting gigs won’t cover my coke bill.”

Meanwhile, what’s going on in Iran? In many ways, this is much more interesting. Way back in 2006, I blogged about how the Iranian government was putting impressive resources into aid to Afghanistan. One facet of this was that they had laid a fibre-optic cable from Iran to Herat; another was that the cybercafe in Kabul with the most bandwidth and the least censorship was the one in the Iranian cultural centre.

Now, it looks like the Iranian wholesale telco monopoly, DCI (Datacomms Iran), is becoming a significant transit provider to networks in Iraq, specifically Kurdistan, and Afghanistan, including the Afghan Government. As the good people at Renesys point out, this is perfectly sensible for the Kurdish operators – they’re getting rid of their expensive and slow VSAT links, and diversifying their sources of transit – but this is dependent on actually diversifying, rather than just replacing.

The Afghan government’s network, it turns out, has recently started to show up through DCI as well as through Pakistan and an Uzbek provider. For a while, all the Afghan prefixes were being routed via either Iran or Uzbekistan and Russia, after a fibre cut on the route to Pakistan.

You can certainly see why the Afghans might not want to pass all their traffic through Pakistan. But treating this as a political issue does have a point. Back in the summer of 2009, the Iranian state found an elegant way to use DCI as an instrument of political power – rather than turn everything off, as in Burma, or call out the troll army, as in China (although they do have that capability), they rate-limited everyone down to about 20% of the typical throughput. As all Iranian ISPs have to use DCI for transit, this meant that a lot of hostile Internet activity will just not have happened, although the really determined would get through.

They are, of course, the ones you want to catch. Squelching down the bandwidth also probably meant that the traffic was reduced to a level where their lawful-intercept infrastructure* could capture and process it all. Almost certainly, they can do the same to any of their downstreams, or continue to pass customer traffic while squelching their own.

It is impressively ironic that a few router configuration rules can mean freedom in Herat and tyranny in Tehran.

Admin Notice: Migration

You may have noticed that the blogspot version of TYR looks funny. The news is that we’re moving – with luck, our national nightmare of blog bifurcation and manually maintained archive links (there’s a reason the ones on TYR classic haven’t been updated in years) will be at an end.

Before this happens, though, I’d like to thank whichever bloody idiot at Google has broken the Blogger Data API, so that Blogger-Wordpress exports no longer work. This has made my life a misery for the last week or so. I’ve so far tried – the official, server-to-server migration, which doesn’t work, the horrible hack of trying to server-server import the Blogger blog into a temporary blog, then dump the WordPress export file, then upload that (12MB over a crappy ADSL uplink topping out below 100Kbps), the even worse hack of dumping the Blogger export, then uploading that to, the same thing having “converted your template to New Blogger” after Blogger refused to give me the dump file, etc, etc.

And no migration. Also, it turns out to my utter horror that the thing about not liking anything with a <script> tag – like Google Maps (although they have finally and grudgingly accepted that one) or IBM ManyEyes – exists in an independently hosted WordPress install, too. Apparently there’s a plugin. Seriously – a third party extension to stop it mangling my stuff. Shouldn’t this just be a config option so I can just turn it off? So I’m actively considering binning WP and installing Movable Type instead. Such, such were the joys.

So I’d like to apologise to anyone I’ve been grumpy towards as a result. And the blog will soon be back, better, stronger, more orange, and 50% less bifurcated. If you link to us, you will soon be notified of the new URI, and I will chase you up. Once the Neo-Ranter is operational (technically it’s operational now, just there’s nothing in it), I’m going to close comments on the other versions and eventually shut them down, once I’ve SQL-d the links so that they all point within the new blog.


I was about to comment on this Jamie Kenny post about the blackly comic way that 10 years after the 11th September attack, the US or at least its media-political complex is in thrall to some book-burning nut in Florida who got thrown out of Germany for helping himself to the communion plate. Then I realised I couldn’t remember the Bruce Sterling quote I wanted exactly. Here it is, for the record and to make the original point:

The American national character really wasn’t suited for global police duties. It never had been. Tidy and meticulous people such as the Swiss and Swedes were the types who made good cops. America was far better suited to be the World’s Movie Star. The world’s tequila-addled pro-league bowler. The world’s acerbic, bipolar stand-up comedian. Anything but a sombre and tedious nation of socially responsible centurions.

The amusing thing is that, before I gave up and grabbed my copy of Distraction, I googled for Bruce Sterling American world policeman diva. Which is a near-SHA1 hash of the content of that paragraph, no? The fifth result for that search is part one of my response to the UK Strategic Defence Review as a Blog.

And come to think of it, it’s actually quite relevant, although the fact AFOE links to Troubled Diva probably has something to do with it.

A thought, while writing the last post. Thinking about international politics invariably involves a lot of rational-choice stuff, or rational-choice at one remove. Although this may not make sense in a platonic game-theory way, how do so-and-so’s interests, preferences, and meta-knowledge of their own situation have to differ from yours to make it work? They’ve been arguing about this over at Crooked Timber for some time.

It struck me, anyway, that this is a lot like the notion of “fitness” for biologists, which is famously problematic. Everyone’s heard of “survival of the fittest”, but what is “fit”? Clearly, it means something like “able to survive”. So we’re talking about the survival of the survivors, which is not very useful. Survivors survive. No shit, Sherlock. Similarly, how do we know that some actor did something on the basis of a rational judgment? Because if it didn’t fit their preferences they wouldn’t have done it!

There’s another issue here, too. The statement that the survivors survive is tautologous, but it’s not a stupid statement. Reflect on the survival of survivors, and you will actually learn something about evolution – that it is driven by chance, that it is without aim, that it is not teleological or value-laden. Ug’s genes were conserved because the cave didn’t collapse on him. We are full of hacks and errors that continue to exist not so much because they helped our ancestors survive, but because at some crisis in the past they were irrelevant and therefore not selected out. Survival itself is often a matter of chance.

We look around and see rational choices, but we’re afflicted by enormous survivorship bias – however irrational your choices, if they didn’t lead to total failure, they will be justifiable in hindsight as rational on some terms. In the same way, people wonder how the architects of the past built such great buildings. The answer is that the bad ones fell down. Now, the biologists eventually got rid of the survival of the fittest, and biology as a science gained immensely from unpacking the idea. Rational choice has something else in common with the survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer probably didn’t mean the phrase as an exact statement of theory, but as an elegant popularisation. And rational choice is a bit like that, too – the very simplicity of the idea explains why it survives.

Adam Elkus has a piece out entitled The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare, in which he criticises what he sees as a tendency to over-rate the power of guerrillas in the light of the 2006 war. Having read it, I think the real question here is about expectations and goals. Hezbollah didn’t defeat the Israelis and hold a victory parade in Tel Aviv, but then nobody least of all them expected or aimed for that. The outcome of 2006 can only be understood in the light of a realistic assessment of the conflict parties’ capabilities, interests, and priorities. A score draw is a much better result for Stoke City against Manchester United than it is for Manchester United against Barcelona.

For Hezbollah, the first and overriding goal was surely survival – as it is for everyone, it’s even the title of the IISS Journal – followed closely by survival as a force in Lebanese politics, survival of their capability to maintain their self-declared insecurity zone in northern Israel, and finally, inflicting casualties and costs on the Israelis in order to create a deterrent effect. In that light, the result of 2006 was surely just as good from their point of view as they made out – they came away still in the field, still firing rockets, and with their status in Lebanese politics enhanced.

For Israel, well, perhaps one day they’ll work out what their strategic aims were.

Elkus argues that the tactical situation at the point when the UN ceasefire went into effect was favourable for Israel, and that had the war gone on they might have done better. This is possible. However, it’s also very common for wars to end like this. The Israelis’ campaign in 1967 was designed, once they got the upper hand, to get to the Canal and onto the Golan before the UN blew the whistle – one of Ariel Sharon’s frequent blind-eye manoeuvres in 1973 was also intended to complete the encirclement of the Egyptian 3rd Army before the UN ceasefire went into effect. The Indian plan for the 1971 war was explicitly intended to take Dhaka before a ceasefire was imposed. More recently, the Russian operation in Georgia was subject to a similar deadline. International intervention is part of the environment, and only fools wouldn’t take it into account as a planning assumption.

An interesting sidelight on this, also from Elkus, came up in a parallel blog debate about “network-centric warfare” – he pointed to this gung-ho but good piece about the action in northern Iraq in which John Simpson was blown up. What struck me about it, however, was more that it was an example of this kind of thing – which should certainly make you think about 2006, especially in the light of this.

Tangentially, Sean Lawson’s essay on the history of “network centric warfare” is well worth reading, especially for the way so many US officials in 2001-2006 seem to have been competing to see who could validate all the most extreme stereotypes of themselves the fastest, and more broadly on the way a basically sensible idea can become a sort of gateway drug to really insane strategic fantasies.

Cebrowski talked of a “booming export market for…security” and warned those who would resist, “If you are fighting globalization, if you reject the rules, if you reject connectivity, you are probably going to be of interest to the United States Department of Defense” (Cebrowski, 2003c).

Measured against the sort of capabilities the NCW thinkers knew they had, and the kind of goals they dreamed on the basis of them, what possible results wouldn’t look like failure? Compared with the enormous arrogance of this vision – they really did want everyone who thinks the CIA wants them dead, dead – what resistance wouldn’t look like success?