Should the West support the rebels in Syria?

Brave journalists have finally begun embedding and covering the rebels in Syria.  Four great reports provide a variety of media describing differing factions of the Free Syria Army (FSA) and emerging jihadi groups.

Watch U.N. Monitors Exit Syria, Failing to Stop Bloodshed on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

  • Next, the New York Times provided an interesting perspective on the composition of the Syrian opposition in their article, “Life With Syria’s Rebels in a Cold and Cunning War.
  • His fighters are a cross section of a nation at war with itself. They include a real estate agent, several farmers, construction workers and a nurse who owned a short-order restaurant. These men fight side by side with a cadre of army defectors, who say the government they once served must fall.

  • The third post of value is the NPR interview with Lee Anderson of The New Yorker entitled, “In Syria, Factions Gain Strength Amongst Chaos”.

Overall, Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War has put together the best compilation of analysis on the FSA entitled Syria’s Armed Opposition.

So, here’s today’s question, should the West back the Syrian resistance? What do you think? Vote here and see what everyone else is saying?

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Foxes, Hedgehogs & Confidence – Part 2

Last week, I posted on Daniel Kahneman’s NYT article explaining how confidence and accuracy appear to have little correlation when it comes to forecasting.  Kahneman noted that his forecasts of soldier leadership ability generated from the personal observations of his assessment team were only slightly more accurate than random guessing.

Kahneman’s notion echoes the research of Dr. Philip Tetlock; author of Expert Political Judgement and the basis for much of Dan Gardner’s book Future Babble. Over 20 plus years, Dr. Tetlock surveyed more than 100 experts on a host of different issues building a database of more than 27,000 predictions.  Armed with this data, Tetlock conducted a thorough analysis of expert opinion and, like Kahneman, generally found highly confident experts commonly cited in the media were less accurate than random guessing on any given prediction.  Tetlock labeled these confident but off-based forecasters “Hedgehogs”.  Meanwhile, Tetlock found the more accurate predictors of future outcomes tended to have lower confidence in their predictions.  Tetlock labeled these less confident but more accurate experts “Foxes”. Dan Gardner explains in Future Babble that “Foxes”:

“had no template. Instead, they drew information and ideas from multiple sources and sought to synthesize it. They were self-critical, always questioning whether what they believed to be true really was. And when they were shown they had made mistakes, they didn’t try to minimize, hedge, or evade. They simply acknowledged they were wrong and adjusted their thinking accordingly.  Most of all, these experts were comfortable seeing the world as complex and uncertain—so comfortable that they tended to doubt the ability of anyone to predict the future.”

I believe Tetlock’s research provides valuable perspective for both policymakers and policy advisers.  Policymakers often seek the counsel of experts and routinely put faith in expert analysis depending on the level of confidence expressed by the adviser.  Yet, by Kahneman’s admission and Tetlock’s research, those advisers most confident in their predictions and prescriptions may in fact be less accurate than random guessing.  Likewise, for policy advisers (so-called experts), they often feel pressured to appear aggressively confident when making their predictions to ensure the respect of policymakers and to sustain their status amongst other experts.  Essentially, when policymakers turn to experts, they are seeking certainty about an expert prediction as much or more than the content of the prediction itself.

I’ve lamented many times at this blog my disdain for “Hedgehogs” vaguely predicting every potential scenario with high confidence. I’ll follow up soon with a part 3 related to the polling conducted here in May. Meanwhile, FORA hosts a great series of segments where Tetlock presents some of his findings and I’ll embed his introduction here below.

Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs from The Long Now Foundation on

Gladwell’s Story of Military Innovation & Drone Reference

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest TED Talk tells the story of the Norden bomb sight.   Gladwell paints a fascinating portrait of military technology innovation and acquisition before and through World War II.  This same story could easily describe any of a number of military acquisitions in U.S. history. He masterfully transitions this story into parallel discussions on SCUD hunting in Iraq and drone operations in today’s counterterrorism campaigns.

Gladwell’s ability to turn a boring topic into an intriguing story endures. Likewise, his ability to string concepts together and simplify complex dynamics results in overstated conclusions.  Five things came to mind as I listened to his presentation:

  1. The most expensive acquisitions rarely turn out to be the most useful – Gladwell notes that the $1.5 billion Norden bomb sight (cost in 1940 $) failed to achieve its promise.  The rapid development and issuing of the MRAP vehicle in Iraq shows how sometimes a lower cost, more simple technology solution trumps the expensive, ‘advanced’ system constructed over decades.  As a commander in the Army’s first Stryker brigade in 2000, I recall being mandated to go watch the first drone aircraft assigned to an infantry brigade slowly fly in a circle around the airfield.  Turns out the big, slow and noisy remote control airplane quickly became the most valuable weapon platform in the miltiary.
  2. Intelligence remains the key for successful drone operations – Gladwell accurately points out that drones are incredibly accurate at hitting their target, but the real challenge is identifying the right target.  Intelligence operations remain the key to successful implementation of drones in warfare.  U.S. intelligence continues to improve but will never be perfect.  No matter how accurate a weapon system might be the risk of collateral damage will never be fully mitigated.
  3. Gladwell strongly overstates/oversimplifies his “drones lead to increased violence” correlation – Gladwell concludes that more drone strikes have brought more violence against the U.S.  This is horribly simplified in my opinion.  In less than five seconds I could name five other reasons there has been a spike in suicide bombings, IEDs and overall attacks on Americans in Afghanistan.  I could probably identify many more reasons.  Unfortunately, Gladwell’s leap to link his excellent story into a relevant point misleads the audience.  He undermines his drone narrative by taking it just one step too far.
  4. Gladwell may have taken a slight jab at his critics – In his discussion of gadgets (at minute 10:12), Gladwell references people “making websites that will allow people to be free”.  I’m guessing this is a reference to his critics who hammered him during the Arab Spring for his “Small Change” article and criticism of twitter revolts.  I love it!  Nice subtle jab embedded in a story – “Blink” and you’ll miss it, or will you?
  5. Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” – This guy sure has an audience.  I watched the video at lunch and there were 358 views of this video.  By the time I write this, it’s over 58,000!  Incredible bounce for Gladwell videos and I wonder when he hit his “Tipping Point” as an author and speaker.

Despite the overstatement on drones and not addressing that the Atom bomb may have saved more lives in the long run than it took in the short run, Gladwell provides another excellent presentation and I’m sure I’ll buy his next book.

Here’s the video.

The Loss of “Jobs”

Interesting that while the news has been saturated with discussion of “creating jobs” we have suddenly lost Steve Jobs.  For some reason, I got quite sad reading that Steve Jobs passed away today.  The first time I watched him speak was on iTunes when he gave the now famous 2005 Stanford graduation speech.  I found it surprisingly inspiring considering I come from a military background and I wasn’t used to hearing business leaders say much that interested me.  Here is a great quote from Jobs 2005 speech:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future,” he told Stanford University graduates during a commencement speech in 2005. “You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

In counterterrorism work, “Connecting the Dots” is a constant mantra and yet here Jobs advocates intuition rather past trends to create unprecedented innovation.

I’ve heard both good and bad stories about Jobs.  However, the bad stories never eclipsed the fact that his vision and commitment to excellence has led me to type this post on a MacBook laptop while my iPhone sits 6 inches away on a coffee table as I watch AppleTV.  So thank you Steve Jobs for creating great things and inspiring others to achieve great things with your innovations.  Be thou at peace!

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Address from Will Forsythe on Vimeo.


Rory Stewart’s Afghanistan TED Talk

I’ve been taking a face-first beat down from a guy named Murphy lately (translation= busy yet achieving little).  However, I did get some time during an airplane flight to watch Rory Stewart’s recent TED talk and wanted to pass it on to those that might be interested.

Rory’s tales of personal adventure in Afghanistan (The Places in Between) and Iraq (Prince of the Marshes) gave me an excellent and contrasting perspective during my transition from government service.

As a student of security and development, I find Stewart’s presentation and perspective enlightening in an era dominated by advocates of counterinsurgency doctrine.  I strongly doubted in 2007 that a COIN surge in AFPAK would achieve the intended results.  I doubted even further that the costs of COIN were in line with the gains that could be achieved.

Stewart’s question is “why are we still in Afghanistan?”.  He makes some interesting points on how we arrived in our tenth year in Afghanistan.  His discussion illustrates why Western dynamics led to our arrival in Afghanistan, our shortcomings in achieving our goals, the logic behind our persistence to stay in Afghanistan and why the West has a hard time letting go. I highly recommend everyone watch Rory Stewart’s discussion and take note of his points on strategic interests and the challenges of policy implementation.

The only part I didn’t like of Stewart’s discussion is his repeated quoting of each military and political leader advocating their year in Afghanistan as “decisive” (Minute 8:40 ish).  Stewart did this to entertain his audience and I respect the need for this dynamic in punchy TED talks.  However, Stewart should recognize from his experience that leadership is about inspiring subordinates as much as managing processes.  Does Stewart really think a senior policy leader would best serve his organization and subordinates by saying, “Yeah, this year in Afghanistan isn’t really important, I think my year in command will be particularly inconsequential, Iraq has sapped our resources, in fact, I’m not sure this is worth our effort.  Everyone take Friday off, you know what, take half of Thursday off too, Let’s just drag our feet through this year and hand off our problems to our replacements in 12 months.”  Come on Stewart, I like you, I realize you need to play to your audience but be careful, as your fame grows, you will likely find yourself saying things you’ll be called to answer for later when things don’t progress as you predicted.

McChrystal took the fight to Bin Laden

Media perspectives following Bin Laden’s death have been good, bad and ugly.  Many great organizational and individual efforts have been forgotten or overlooked with regards to their contribution in getting the world’s top fugitive.  I’ve decidedly avoided being overly political or military in my blogging, but today, I’ll take a brief moment to discuss an unsung hero in this week’s events.

General Stanley McChrystal brought the world’s greatest military unit, Joint Special Operations Command, to the pinnacle of its existence.  Over the past ten years, U.S. Special Operations Forces have dominated every battlefield they have touched.  While GEN McChrystal bore the brunt of what appears be unfounded allegations in Afghanistan, he should be recognized for developing an unprecedented military capability in world history.

Common narratives of the Iraq “Surge” paint a picture of nation building and cultural engagement leading to stability.  I argue instead that the decisive point (tipping point for civilians) in the Iraq campaign was McChrystal’s annihilation of terrorist and insurgent networks.  McChrystal’s JSOC dismantled al Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups providing the operational space for the more commonly known counterinsurgency strategy to take root.

GEN McChrystal enabled the force that executed this week’s legendary raid on Bin Laden.  The techniques discovered during his tenure allowed JSOC to continually improve and achieve the most daunting mission.  His leadership transcended his tenure and for this the United States should be forever thankful.

I began this post two week’s ago after watching GEN McChrystal’s TED Talk on leadership.  I watched the video on the way to work.  By the time I got off the train, I was prepared to quit my job and reenlist.  GEN McChrystal didn’t dwell on his recent fate, throw himself into politics or take this public opportunity to vindicate himself.  Instead, he did what he has always done: inspired the next generation, provided an example for others to follow and led the way….gallantly prevailing this time for a new audience.

So, today, a shout out to GEN McChrystal for being a key leader in one of our country’s greatest victories.  In the military, officers often seek to emulate certain famous generals storied in TV and print media.  I, however, found my greatest inspiration in the quiet professionals.  While I no longer serve in uniform, I am still inspired in my current profession to emulate those that make transformational change by empowering their subordinates.  I never wanted to be Eisenhower.  I wanted to be a GEN Downing or GEN McChrystal.  Thank you for inspiring me and so many others.

So here’s Friday’s inspirational video from a person that deserves his due….

Tribal Stages & Countering Violent Extremism

David Logan’s TED talk on “Tribal Leadership” provides some interesting points for countering violent extremism (CVE).  Logan describes “tribes” as a, “group of about 20 to 150 people” where all individuals conduct their work and societal interactions.  Logan describes how tribes operate at five different levels.

Logan’s examination of Stage 1 and Stage 2 tribes offers some insight into how violent groups might be countered.  Logan explains how Stage 1 tribes consist of groups such as gangs, prisons and probably terrorist groups.   Stage 1 tribes, “sever relations from other functional tribes and pool together with people who think like they do.”   In this “Life Sucks” Stage 1 tribe, terrorist groups cut themselves off from society and within these insular groups reinforce their ideology and commitment to each other; resulting in violence.

Logan explains that “as people see the world, they behave.”  Thus in Stage 2 tribes, people see the world in a negative light and then behave negatively.  Members of a Stage 2 culture, “will do anything to survive, to include undermining other people.”

Logan’s message essentially asserts the best way to deal with lower stage tribes is not to counter them, but instead work to move those groups forward through the five stages.  Essentially, engage with Stage 1 & 2 tribes to move them along the stages of tribal development in order to alleviate their violent intentions.

Many CVE approaches focus on breaking up the group or reinforcing to the group why they are “wrong”.  While many find the “antagonize terrorists” approach appealing, antagonizing Stage 1 tribes (terrorists groups) only solidifies their exclusion from other tribes and reinforces their inward focus further strengthening justifications for violent extremism.

Logan’s research and discussion emphasizes the engagement of Stage 1 and 2 “tribes”. Current events in North Africa may provide the West a new opportunity to engage vulnerable communities and the Stage 1 terrorist tribes residing within them.  Additionally, Logan’s approach may be particularly helpful to those designing CVE approaches in the U.S. involving terrorist groups of all types; AQ, white supremacists, animal rights/environmental, and isolated lone wolf youths.  Logan’s incremental tribal approach is more applicable to different groups and not as narrowly focused as most AQ CVE solutions.