Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Not the kittens!

I have just finished reading The Stones of London: A History in 12 Buildings. Not a gem by any means – far too much broadbrush Tory-ish and not much of an edge – but I did think he had a couple of good points. One was in the chapter on Keeling House and Denys Lasdun, in which Leo Hollis makes the very good point that the Brutalists specifically didn’t want to impose international style modernism on everyone but the reverse – they wanted to adapt modernism to the peculiarities of sites, communities, materials, and projects. It’s quite possible that trying to be enormously localist and consult everyone is a great way to get things drastically wrong, eh, Pickles? There’s no such thing as a Wharfedale shipping container.

In fact, some of Lasdun’s remarks he quotes would probably please Prince Charles if only he didn’t know who said them, and you might even think that part of the problem was the silly name. Although, I guess they said that about Operation KITTENS.

As a result, I guess I’ll have to denounce comrade Hatherley as a right-deviationist.

Another one was about the fate of Victorian houses in London, and specifically the way that people buy them and immediately set about ripping out the interior walls, dragging the kitchen forwards from its kennel in the back garden, and building – essentially – an open plan, white-walled modernist interior inside the brick skin.


slight return: coup plot

As a relief from all the Murdoch/Met filth, what about a slight return to last week’s coup plot? One of the oddest things about Technique of the Coup d’état is Malaparte’s judgment of individuals. The most famous example is the chapter on Hitler, who he thinks was too soft. Seriously – he argued that he lacked a genuine revolutionary aim and was obsessed by remaining at least roughly within the law. He also predicted that there would be more and more tension between the SA and the broader Nazi Party as the first wanted a revolution and the second increasingly cozied up to the establishment.

This was good as far as it went, although most of his predictions can be put down to a case of where-you-sit-is-where-you-stand. Most of the people he interviewed were SA members. No surprises there – he was a fascist who swung to the Left, was fascinated by paramilitarism, and did we mention the slightly gay touch? Not surprisingly, therefore, he got the story on the SA being increasingly alienated from the Party. And his point about Hitler getting closer to the Establishment was a good one, although he expected the Establishment to swallow Hitler up rather than vice versa. Neither did he spot that in fact, Hitler would be quite capable of carrying out a violent coup once he was in charge, in order to get rid of the SA leaders and terrorise the Establishment.

Few people did, though.

Another odd personal assessment is his take on Lloyd George, who he glosses as a boring bourgeois moustache rather than the radically modern and excitingly crooked politician surrounded by spin doctors and intelligence-administrative technicians who was occasionally thought to be a potential putschist himself.

Owt else? Nothing much, except it strikes me that his ideal putschist is a sort of heavily armed flaneur.

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.

Apple’s internal security team may be scary – and especially the name (Worldwide Loyalty Team). But they are as nothing, in terms of creepiness, to this Microsoft web page, which provides the criteria against which MS employees are assessed for their use of humour and the targets they are given to improve. You will not be able to unread this.

In fact, it’s the kind of thing for which the only valid response is to pretend to take it seriously. Why not print out a copy and carry it around? Score your friends against this fine 4×4 matrix chart!

Via this comment, it turns out that the program is based on the ideas of a 70s cult leader who fell out with the Scientologists in a dispute about intellectual property – how very Microsoft of him – and who reconverted his organisation into the management consulting industry. (I’ve often thought a terrorist group should try that one some day.)

The Wikipedia article on the dispute is very funny – two blind men fighting over a comb doesn’t really do justice to the full absurdity of it, as two cult/hucksters duel over the rights to the kind of ideas that shouldn’t be treated so much as property as like toxic waste, or one of those weird codicils that occasionally force some poor swing-voter to fork out for a new church roof. If they were sane, they’d be fighting to get rid of this stuff; but then they wouldn’t be there.

But the really interesting thing is that Werner Erhard’s ideas have already killed one of the great computer-development groups, Doug Engelbart’s Augment Lab at SRI, which dissolved into a stew of project failure and ego wars under their influence. Here’s the money quote, from What the Dormouse Said:

A woman who Bob Albrecht, the People’s Computer Company guru, had been involved with went through the training and came back transformed into a very un-Zen-like creature. She no longer believed that everything was interconnected, but rather had decided that she wanted it all for herself and would do anything to get it.

There’s a key cultural inflection point right there. And I bet Linus Torvalds doesn’t make sure to check that

Do I ever encourage a near party atmosphere because of my comfort with using humor?

always returns False, or worry about finding his personal brand.

This Crooked Timber points to a column in the Economist about interns on the Bush campaign carefully hand-writing a range of fake homemade signs, confiscating the ones their positively vetted audience had brought along, and issuing them to the crowd for the media to wow over their rural authenticity. Well, not surprising. And the Economist guy was clearly so shocked he almost said something.

At the moment, however, I can’t help but think of this touching scene in terms of signalling and secret communication. The problem is Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How criminals communicate, which recently attracted attention because of its section on the vital importance of mediocrity to some Italian academics. I’ll do a formal review of it later, either here or at AFOE, but before we do that, let’s try putting it in practice.

He argues that much behaviour among criminals is driven by the problems of communicating things like group membership, reputation, and availability of goods or services in an environment where it is both easy to fake it and impossible to signal openly. Therefore, members of the Mafia never use the word “mafia” or indeed any specific term to refer to the organisation – what could be harder than trying to convince your mark that you are part of a mighty criminal society whose name you don’t know? – and they operate a sort of web of trust, in which two mafiosi who don’t know each other can only meet if one who knows them both mutually vouches for their identity.

A crucial element is the creative use of biological signalling theories, which revolve around the insight that an identifying signal needs to be cheap for a real user to produce, but expensive for a faker, or at least, that a signal needs to represent a real commitment of resources to be credible. In this sense, I think I can see the purpose of those signs – we know, after all, that the canned crowd were willing to be relieved of their own signs and have others thrust into their hands. Would you put up with this treatment?

I suspect if you’re reading this, you would probably find both the reality of the censorship, and the aesthetic horror of the fakery, quite offensive. But then, you’re also unlikely to want to be part of a canned crowd for George W. Bush….unless you were trying to fake it for some reason. Clearly, one of the effects of this procedure was a form of cost-discriminating signalling – the organisers demanded that their activists signal certain things that fakers would find difficult to mimic. You had to demonstrate that you were willing to abandon your stated opinions and wave ones they gave you instead.

As far as I can see, the qualities this process selected for would be obedience to authority and tolerance of ugly kitsch. Does anyone doubt that these would indeed qualify you to wave a sign behind the former president? This is an example of using costly signalling to communicate with people who score highly on the indices of social authoritarianism; as well as the political implications, it’s probably true that staging a preplanned media photocall with a crowd of people selected for their obedience to authority is just easier.

This is something which comes up occasionally in Gambetta; it’s possible for communication to evolve independently of intention. Even if our man the Bush ’04 intern was trying to stop the rent-a-mob turning up with 666 – TAKE A CLOSER LOOK!!! or OSAMA BIN KERRY signs, the way he did it had the secondary or unconscious effect of selecting the kind of person who would appreciate them most.

Over time, such effects could come to determine the culture of an entire political movement. Obviously, people who go to rallies are likely to be the same people who take part in all the other forms of campaigning, so if this (and other practices with similar effects) are common, it would likely tend to help boil down the base to its stinking, bitter, toxic, sticky residue.

O.K. Enough beating about the Bush. A practical example with David Cameron. The thing to grasp here is that whatever he’s apparently saying, or not saying, may be better understood as a way of identifying and communicating with like-minded people on a secure side-channel. Here, he’s saying that we don’t need to do anything, plus a whole lot of implied ideological justification. The obvious corrolary of not needing to do anything is to suggest that nothing is wrong. But what is the cost investment here?

Just to finish off this gruelling series, I wanted to flag Kilcullen’s take on Afghanistan and opium. In short, his argument is that counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics in Afghanistan are identical; the poppy mostly grows where the Taliban are, it provides something up to 50% of the movement’s income, and it is anyway impossible to do anything about it without fighting the Taliban. This is true.

However, he is almost immediately caught in a dilemma; if fighting the Taliban and the poppy are part of the same struggle, isn’t destroying the poppy crop pretty much the antithesis of counterinsurgency? As a survival-oriented civilian, the survival of your crop – i.e. your entire annual income and your capital – only takes second place to the survival of your neck.

The solution to this is to hold to the principle whilst stalling the implementation, a tactic everyone knows and loves. He is sensibly enough opposed to mass eradication, on the grounds that as well as being wildly unpopular, the only effective form is to physically tear the plants out, and that this anyway requires control of the poppy-growing territory, so that counterinsurgency is the precondition of counternarcotics.

He is opposed to the Senlis Council option of buying the poppy crop and using it for medical morphine, after “extensive analysis”; unfortunately he doesn’t share the extensive analysis, confining himself to a couple of paragraphs. These state, roughly, that much of the drug money that goes to the Taliban is collected via transport, interest on loans, and taxes, so they would continue to make money from it, and that buying the crop wouldn’t reduce the acreage under poppy.

Well, the obvious objection to the first is that this is true for any and all crops and economic activities so long as the insurgents are in possession. In fact, it only tends to confirm the first part of his argument; that the Taliban are the problem, not the poppy. But they would still be the problem if Afghanistan grew carrots. And the second is irrelevant; if the crop is being used for medical purposes, it doesn’t matter if more of it is planted.

In fact, it would be nothing but good news. The people would be in a position where growing as much of their most productive crop as possible would no longer be a dangerous and illegal activity. As James Wimberley points out, there is potential medical demand equivalent to several times Afghan production. Can they fill the whole demand? Well, let’s find out. I agree the Common Agricultural Policy is crap, but it’s a small price to pay for London’s 64th year with zero V2 rocket strikes.

And Kilcullen concedes that the link between the Taliban and the poppy originates in the drugs war.

He argues that there is an implicit social contract at work – you grow poppy (which is in any case the most productive crop you can grow, especially as the limiting factor is the water supply) and pay the taxes, we’ll keep the government from taking your crops. Well, yes.

Further, there is the question of whether it is even possible to reduce the heroin supply at source. We’ve been trying since 1971 with an unbroken record of costly failure.

Imagine that, by a heroic effort, the government managed to destroy, or prevent planting of, 30 per cent of the poppy crop. Well, assuming for simplicity that 100 per cent of it goes through Taliban hands and that 50 per cent of their revenue comes from it, that would add up to an absolute maximum 15 per cent cut in their funding. I would suspect that the annual variance of the Taliban’s income isn’t much less than that. And I would suspect that such an effort would consume essentially all the forces and budget available for discretionary operations in Afghanistan. It’s not worth it.

I had the feeling that the extensive analysis may have contained the phrase “shit, this is far too politically sensitive”.

A lot of The Accidental Guerrilla concerns ideas of terrain, space, and time. In fact, quite a bit of it could be considered an architectural approach to counter-insurgency. This is not surprising; a major theme is the idea that the conflict environment – the state of being at war or potentially at war, the disrupted social and political structure, the faltering infrastructure, the global black market – is the enemy. After all, it is one of the reasons people seek survival through certainty by calling on the deliberate guerrillas to influence their other political relationships.

One example of this is the one I’ve already written up – the armoured patrol vehicle as urban submarine, a self-defeating machine that itself divides the counter-insurgents from the people in an ironic reversal of their own thinking.

Kilcullen goes almost New Urbanist on this; discussing the Iraq experience, he argues that a huge flaw in the US strategy was that they had to commute to the battle, travelling in monster armoured vehicles, without contact with the civilian population, but still vulnerable to IEDs and ambushes on the over-predictable road routes between their camps and their areas of operation. The answer was to redeploy into the cities and move into positions that let them walk to work; I tell you, Richard Florida got nothing on him.

Similarly, a major aim of his campaign plan was to control access to Baghdad, counterattacking the NOIA encirclement strategy and preventing insurgent “commuters” from the Sunni semi-urban belt getting into the city. You could almost call it a critique of suburban warfare.

This concern with space is also a major theme of the case study on Kunar and road building. The construction of a road was intended to get access and control of the narrow flood plain at the bottom of the valley, which is where everyone lives, rather than up on the mountains. Nothing much grows on the tops and it’s tough to get up there or back down, so the only important places up there are a few tactically important hilltops.

Road access meant that it was easier to force the Taliban to go quiet, either by climbing into the mountains or by going underground. More importantly, it made it possible to keep them there, and to deliver economic benefits. But perhaps the biggest changes it provided were as follows:

Firstly, it changed the topography so that the government side were in the villages, looking out, and the Taliban were outside, looking in. The US or Afghan government fire was outgoing; the Taliban’s, incoming.

Second, it made it worth arguing where different groups’ authority ended; without the road, it was bounded by the difficulty of travel. Once they had to argue about it, the government or the traditional authorities could be called in to arbitrate the dispute, boosting their authority and making them useful. In a sense, the Kunar case study is all about creating a demand for government, or at least competing with the Taliban to supply it.

An interesting question, though; the whole paradigm of The Accidental Guerrilla is based on experience in places where the state is absent, illegitimate, or never established. But many of the same phenomena happen in places where the state, or the structure of traditional authority, once existed but has broken down.

Further, the international jihadis are trying to move (as Kilcullen says) from expeditionary terrorism, where their operations are set up in the home base and carried out remotely, to a guerrilla model where they are set up by sympathisers recruited in the target state. This implies that the process will have to take place in an environment where the state exists here and now.

I’m less convinced by his arguments regarding this; obviously, the naked city has as many possible base-areas as it has people, but as Daniel Davies pointed out, the current European takfiris seem to have less access to firearms than a typical criminal gang, and one of the most worrying possibilities in this line is indeed that they cross-fertilise with ordinary decent criminals. Kilcullen’s practical recommendations in this line are mostly commonsensical, although he is very keen on Cold War analogies with efforts to start non-communist unions and the like, and the other activities of the Blearsministerium.

However, despite the technological implications of auto-immune warfare, he also believes that “biometric reconnaissance” is a strategically important capability. I rather suspect that we’ve already been seeing the effects of this advocacy without knowing what was behind it.

David Kilcullen describes the cycle of violence at the end of the last post in biological terms; we are apparently faced with “infection”, “contagion”, “intervention”, and “rejection”. Usually it’s wise to be really suspicious of anyone who talks biology in politics, unless they are talking about actual bacteria. However, this metaphor covers a very important strategic point.

Specifically, the grand strategy of Al-Qa’ida can be thought of as auto-immune warfare; Kilcullen leaves the phrase to the very back of the book, but the idea is inherent right from the beginning. The aim is to provoke and manipulate the enemy until their reactions create many more zones of dubious authority where they can move in, and eventually until the West is exhausted economically.

The reason why biology should get dragged in here is that we are to be destroyed by the over-reaction of our own security system, just as auto-immune diseases turn the immune system on the body. This is a crucial concept, and it is one whose implications cascade through all kinds of other problems, from grand strategy down to airport security measures.

Specifically, auto-immune war is a strategy, but its tactical implementation is the creation of false positive responses. Security obsession gums up the economy with inefficiencies. Terrorism terrorises the public; security theatre keeps them that way. As Kilcullen points out, every day, millions of travellers are systematically reminded of terrorism by government security precautions. Profiling measures subject entire communities to indignity and waste endless hours of police time. Vast sums of money are spent on counterproductive equipment programs and unlikely techno-fixes. National identity cards and monster databases are the specific symptoms of this pathology in the UK, just as idiotic militarism is in the US.

(Yes, I’m dragging him into my own political battles. See what I did there?)

In its most extreme form, this strategy helps to trigger destabilising intervention, which damages existing social and political structures and therefore creates the guerrilla zones of tomorrow. Donald Rumsfeld was not wrong when he spoke of catastrophic success in Iraq; merely lacking in self-awareness.

The symmetry between insurgency and counter-insurgency is very clear here; according to Kilcullen, the Taliban has recently adopted a variant of the focoist strategy associated with Che Guevara and (of all people) Regis Debray, which is apparently now official ISI doctrine (the paper he cites is here).

The main-force guerrillas’ role is to stage spectaculars, which provide propaganda of the deed, create chaos, and intimidate or chase off the representatives of the state or of traditional authority. The other elements of a classic guerrilla system – the clandestine administration, and its part-time local guerrilla force – then step in. Meanwhile, the strike force moves on to other battles or melts back into hiding.

On the other side, the “political manoeuvre” operations Kilcullen describes in Kunar province, Afghanistan, and under his own command in East Timor bear a nontrivial resemblance.

The counter-insurgents arrive in the battlespace with considerable surprise, speed, and shock action, forcing the guerrillas to take to their rear base (whatever form it may take). They then establish themselves in the centres of population and production, and recruit the population into the government or the traditional authorities’ network by providing security, economic aid, and dispute resolution, and challenge the guerrillas to attack them, in order to get back into the public eye. Having seen them off, they they move to replace themselves with their own local recruits – local counterguerrillas, recruited to protect their (non-clandestine) administration. As a plan, it’s also reminiscent of the “diplomatic-military operations” idea in Gwyn PrinsThe Heart of War: Power, conflict, and obligation in the 21st century.

After all, the deliberate guerrillas are trying to achieve their political goals by recruiting, co-opting, propagandising and providing technical assistance and military advice to their local recruits, and their organisations often extend into political and economic action as well. Like one of these or these. Kilcullen’s prologue describes meeting a group of international takfiris in the backwoods of Indonesia; as he says, it is surprising to encounter a group of Yemenis claiming to be students in this environment. (Perhaps it is not as surprising now, in 2009, as it was in 1996.)

The first question they asked him was: so what about the Israelis and the Palestinians? It’s almost comforting; survive a plane crash in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, and you can be fairly certain of knowing which political issue the locals will want to know your opinion on. And what a popular answer is likely to be.

But this was certainly no stranger than finding an Australian paratrooper major studying for a PhD asking leading questions about an underground political party, smoking a Cohiba cigar, in the same circumstances. They were, as he said to them, both learning from their Indonesian brothers. You could say that.

Reading the literature on the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies of the 1950s and 1960s, one thing that stands out is that – as you’d expect from practitioners of what the Chinese used to call bandit extermination – there is very little agency attributed to the people. Yes, it is necessary to – here we go with the cliches – win their hearts and minds, but they aren’t credited with very much of the latter.

David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla could easily have slid into this; even the title would suggest it. But the titular guerrillas are only accidental in that their role as guerrillas fighting in a global struggle is accidental; this is, Kilcullen argues, a role that has been imposed on them by the forces of order and also by the forces of Al-Qa’ida International and its local franchises, in a sort of unconscious conspiracy to recruit them into the war both sides want to fight.

Instead, their aims are local and rational. They want above all to survive, to pursue their interests, and to be left alone to maintain their primary identities. So far, this sounds a lot like the mythic peasant who sides with the strongest party; but Kilcullen’s “survival-oriented civilians” (which really ought to be the name of a band) are far more active, activist, and intelligent than that.

The problem in understanding this is that politics is frequently the study of hierarchy; but in reality, humans operate in multiple social networks at once, using their role in one system to influence another. You might offer mates’ rates in business to get support in politics, or call in favours from your extended family to pack a committee. I recall that a Labour Party chairman of my acquaintance took delivery of a huge donation of wine coolers in order to further his campaign to get onto another regional committee; he was already on several at different levels.

Their aims in this are more than the crude Hobbesian ideas we tend to project on them. It’s not enough to side with Leviathan; survival requires certainty. It is intolerable to live in an environment where there are no rules that you can follow to avoid being killed. The response of the intelligent human being is to either find someone who does have such a set of rules and join them, or else to sign up enough people with suitable connections to establish your own. Arguably, Kilcullen’s view of insurgency and counter-insurgency is something like two processes of state formation operating in close proximity.

Kilcullen cites the work of several anthropologists who argue that this phenomenon of “interhierarchical roles” is especially important in societies where traditional forms of government or of self-government are changing; it is exactly these debatable lands where the wars he described have been fought out. In these zones, the arrival of the global guerrillas just means the creation of another option in the routine business of business, politics, and religion.

They settle; they start businesses, they get elected, they marry. And then the government or the Americans or some similarly alien force comes after them; at which point people who were cooperating with them to get on find themselves recruited into a global war on terror, as the intervention becomes an attack on the whole society. This cycle of provocation, intervention, and reaction spins faster and faster, separating out the elements of society into false “pro-western” and “jihadi” factions while corpses pile up.

coming up…

Just to say that next week we’ll be reviewing David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla.