21 March, 2012

Who's the enemy?

afghanistan (Photo credit: The U.S. Army)
I've known for some time that NATO and the United States are not, let us say, on the best of terms with the people and government of Afghanistan.  But even I have been surprised by the most recent numbers.  Since the first of the year sixty NATO troops, mostly American, have been killed in Afghanistan.  Of those, thirteen were killed by Afghan security forces.

Twenty-two percent of fatal casualties were inflicted by the people we are supposedly training, our allies.

General Allen, NATO commander in Afghanistan, told Congress in testimony the killings "were motivated, we believe in part, by the mishandling of religious materials."  There's a lot more than that going on. The Quran burning is symbolic of larger issues: cultural insensitivity, imperialism, warlordism, ethnic conflict, arrogance, fundamentalism (on all sides).

We are not going to make Afghanistan safe, or a reliable partner, and an essential test of a strategy is that the goals are achieveable.  The minimal victory conditions (Taliban deposed, Bin Laden on the run) were met long ago.  The maximum goals are beyond reach.  It's long past time to "declare victory" and go home.

Related articles

13 March, 2012

The Iranians are rational

At least as much as most people.

(And probably more than some of the Republican presidential candidates, if we are to judge them by their rhetoric.)

First of all, the "Iranians" are not a monolithic group, any more than "Americans" or "Israelis" or "Muslims" or "Science Fiction Geeks."  The fact that so many commentators seem to present them as speaking with a single voice is suspicious in itself.

English: TEHRAN. With Ayatollah Sayed Ali Kham...
Image via Wikipedia
Second, not all voices are equally authoritative.  President Ahmadinejad, despite the title, is no where near the summit of Iranian power.  I'd put him around number thirteen (or less) on a list of politically influential Iranians.  If you want to talk to the real power, find Ayatollah Khamenei.  And his statements are a lot less scary.  In 2009 the supreme leader said
They falsely accuse the Islamic republic’s establishment of producing nuclear weapons. We fundamentally reject nuclear weapons and prohibit the use and production of nuclear weapons. This is because of our ideology, not because of politics or fear of arrogant powers or an onslaught of international propaganda. We stand firm for our ideology.
So what--that was 2009.  How about 2010?
We have said repeatedly that our religious beliefs and principles prohibit such weapons as they are the symbol of destruction of generations. And for this reason we do not believe in weapons and atomic bombs and do not seek them.
Ok, ok.  But that was still years ago. How about last month?
The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.
Does this sound like madness? 

So how do we make sense of the Iranian program?  In part, it may be just what they say it is, a program to develop their energy infrastructure.  The fact that they can be harmed by an embargo on gasoline sales (the Iranians have little ability to refine their own oil) is reason enough to persue this.  Besides, they know better than most what their future oil production is likely to be, and what the global market will look like.

Do I buy that?  Not entirely.  I suspect they want the ability to produce a bomb quickly, as a deterrent, without actually producing or deploying the weapons that might trigger Israeli premption. And it's not just me, sitting in Pennsylvania.  More and more Israelis are willing to come out with a similar view.  Mier Dagan, the head of the Mossad for eight years, has described the regime in Iran, including Ahmadinajad, as "a very rational regime."  The fact that he talks in public at all is impressive.  That he came out to say that is remarkable.

So why the drum-beats for war?  Is it simply the obsessions of Netanyahu and some personalities?  American campaign rhetoric?  A chance to manipulate oil prices?  Or to sell advanced weapons?  To be sure, these are governments that are not going to be friends any time soon. Khamenei still refers to Israel as a "cancerous tumor."  All of this is probably part of what's going on, but in the final analysis it doesn't matter: the picture of the Iranians and the Iranian program does not reflect reality, and a policy based on those illusions is an invitation to failure.  Maybe catastrophic failure.

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Yet another case of overreaction

The governor of Virginia recently signed legislation which required an ultrasound--in almost all cases by vaginal probe (although the text of the legislation is careful to obscure that)--for any woman who has a abortion.  This is in spite of her desires, or those of her doctor.  Whatever you think of abortion, this is a clear violation of any principle of self-ownership.  So I suppose we shouldn't be surprised when (a) people protested, and (b) a state which has no regard for people in any case called out the storm troopers.
At least it made for some visuals, courtesy of http://militantlibertarian.org and Style Weekly.

Now all they need is a tank.
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10 March, 2012

Fighting the hidden war

SOCOM II .308 (Photo credit: ~Steve Z~)

The Long War is far from over.  It is, however, being fought differently. And despite whatever you may have heard, it's expanding.  In a year, American forces have conducted "engagements in more than 100 countries worldwide."

First, look at the numbers: tell me your budget, and tell you what you care about.  With that in mind, here's the numbers, courtesy of Defense Industry Daily.  Although the Army has the greatest reductions in funding for combat operations (logical, figuring the drawdown from Iraq), its baseline spending does surprising well in relation to the other armed services.
DoD FY12 vs FY13, by Department

And how about by function?  Again, the numbers tell a story.  Oddly enough, although overall military personnel spending is down, it shows an astonishing increase under OCO, as does the ever-popular "Other".  The increases are more than balanced by cuts in OCO operations, procurement, and R&D, so the total under OCO hides an important story.  Clearly something is going on here.

 DoD FY12 vs FY13

So what is it?  My first guess is (a) Special Operations Forces, and (b) drones.  It fits the numbers, and recent public statements.  Anyone have a better idea?

There are other reasons to focus on a growing SOF budget. Special Operations Forces, like drones, allow an administration to run a war with minimal visibility.  Big armies are expensive--not only in terms of money and lives, but in terms of political risk.  Politicians would rather mobilize and use the Leviathan Force (to use a term coined by Thomas P.M. Barnett) as a last resort.  It's so much better to send robots, or small teams of SOF.
Emblem of Air Force Special Operations Forces ...
Image via Wikipedia

Besides, we have word of those who know.  Admiral McRaven, commander of SOCOM, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week on what the Special Operations Forces are doing:
The direct approach is characterized by technologically-enabled small-unit precision lethality, focused intelligence, and interagency cooperation integrated on a digitally-networked battlefield…. Extreme in risk, precise in execution and able to deliver a high payoff, the impacts of the direct approach are immediate, visible to the public and have had tremendous effects on our enemies’ networks throughout the decade.

However, the direct approach alone is not the solution to the challenges our Nation faces today as it ultimately only buys time and space for the indirect approach and broader governmental elements to take effect. Less well known but decisive in importance, the indirect approach is the complementary element that can counter the systemic components of the threat.

The indirect approach includes empowering host nation forces, providing appropriate assistance to humanitarian agencies, and engaging key populations. These long-term efforts increase partner capabilities to generate sufficient security and rule of law, address local needs, and advance ideas that discredit and defeat the appeal of violent extremism.
What I find most interesting, though, is his statement that SOF are engaged in "more than one hundred countries worldwide."

Think about that for a second.  There are 193 member states of the United Nations.  Call it two hundred countries.  American SOF, "throughout the year... conducts engagements in more than 100 countries worldwide." They are operating, one way or another, with or without the permission of the local government, against some perceived threat to American interests in over half the countries on earth.

And for the most part, people either don't know or don't care.  That's part of the point of using those kinds of forces.  But if there are that many enemies mobilized against us, in so many places, is it inappropriate to ask the question: could we be doing something wrong?

09 March, 2012

Does Liberty require free will?

Is there "free will" in heaven? What...
Is there "free will" in heaven? What about "free will" in life?
 (Photo credit: Zombie Inc. Wholesale Zombies for Over 25 years)
Ah, the eternal question.  Expressing an opinion affirming existence of free will, as a recent article in the Economist's sister magazine, Intelligent Life does, is to open the floodgates of dogmatism.  That can be fun, and a bit mind-stretching, but often seems to deteriorate into a "conversation" where people are actually talking past one another.  Yet political philosophers--especially libertarians--seem to need some kind of assumption of moral agency for their speculations to have meaning.  How can it make sense to talk about "liberty" if humans have no capacity for independent choice?

Does it even matter?  If to feel that one is free is to be free, isn't that enough?  That leads us down some dark paths.  Brains can be manipulated, and so can perceptions.  As the technologies of social control grow more effective, it's conceivable to live as a community of happy robots, each convinvced it is free, each acting according to plan.

The more we look, the more the philosophy--and the language--get in the way.  For one thing, what is "free will"?  Does it mean an "uncaused cause," or "a nonlocal thought," or is it simply the sense that we feel we weigh and struggle with alternatives before committing to a course of action?  Perhaps the best definition I've seen comes from the comments to the aformentioned article:
A biological or AI system has free will if its future behavior cannot be predicted solely by observing its past behaviour or external communications. A stronger definition would require inability to make such prections regardless of the methods used (eg deep scans of arbitratry complexity of the brain/system). I suspect humans have free will only in the first form of this definition, though for now there probably exists no technology to refute free will of the stronger kind either. (Thomas Anantharaman).
Or how about this one?  Also from the same comments section:
While recognizing the logic of determinism, I choose (?) to invoke "freedom for all practical purposes," meaning behavior that cannot be predicted and anticipated by another agent is effectively free. The brain and its behavior are sufficiently complex that it takes as much or more effort to predict and thereby control it as to "live" it. And that means we are all practically free and that no one has the ability to control others without incurring a high cost. A sufficiently complex machine would become as free as we are, if it took more effort to control it than that effort was worth in economic terms. (Thomas Earle Moore)
The no free-will bus campaign
The no free-will bus campaign (Photo credit: morgantj)
Perhaps the best we can hope for is to be too complex to predict, too complex to plan, too complex for outsiders to control.  If that is happening, and I have the occasional power to self-modify my own habits of action and mind, that's good enough for me.  And it's more than valuable enough to preserve.  While a free will does not require a free society, a free society implies the possibility of free will.

NEURONS V FREE WILL | More Intelligent Life

06 March, 2012

Nice summary of what's been going on in Europe

Anonymous strikes again

Anonymous disrupted the website of the Greek Ministry of Justice late last month.

The message, in greek (of course) is supposed to read something like this (and note that I've taken some liberties to make the translation flow better):

Citizens of Greece
     We are Anonymous.
We watch every day as your government abolishes the constitution and institutions of the country.
We see them leading you closer and closer to poverty.
We see them pass laws that deprive you of any right to dignity.
We see them deliver the country to the IMF and the bankers.
We know about the soup kitchens in schools,
for people who are left jobless and now wait in queues for a plate of food.
We know that your country voted for ACTA in your effort to silence other Greeks.
We know everything ...
The Republic in Greece has died.
It died with a government that has not been elected by the people.
And for this reason the time for discussion came and went.
Not negotiating anything with any of those who murdered it.
You can hunt as you like, you can even capture some of us,
     But w
hen you attempt to silence us ...
or every one that will you capture 3 others will spring up. Five or ten or a hundred.
Now the Greeks are all Anonymous.
     We are millions against you and the 300.  In this war tear gas will not help you.
     To the Occupying Government of Greece
These days is going to vote for a bill that will be the last nail in the coffin of Greece.
A bill to return the country to a totalitarian rule.
To bring the country and its people in absolute poverty.
We will not allow more misery to the Greek people.
We demand your resignation immediately, and elections.
We demand that not a cent be paid to your moneylender 'friends.'
We demand the immediate withdrawal of the IMF from Greece.
Justice Department, this is only a small sample of what we're capable of doing.
ou have not seen the full wrath of Anonymous.
For each article of a bill that would shame the vote,
we will shut down the system and delete the Internal Revenue debts of Greek citizens.
Debts which requires them to pay the fascists.
The demonstrations of the Greeks have had their encounter with incredible violence,
anexelekta hitting, but the internet is our field. And we love this war.

     We are many and we will be swift.
     Citizens of Greece, Anonymous is now fighting on your side ... 
     Government of Greece, let us wait ...

     E X P E C T  U S !
     J U S T I C E  I S  C O M I N G !

The Greek police announced the arrest of three teenagers for the hack.  But the meme goes on--Anonymous has brought down the MoJ website with a DDoS attack, in retribution for the arrests.
In other news, several members of LulzSec, the group that left Anonymous to follow its own agenda--including the recent hack of Stratfor--have been arrested.  It seems that the FBI was able to get one leader to turn on his buddies.  The organization may be crippled.  That is what happens when you start moving from leaderless resistance to a collection of leaders and followers.

05 March, 2012

It sort of defeats the purpose of leaving home

English: Artists rendering of the Kuiper Belt ...
Image via Wikipedia
According to the latest number-crunching, particles trapped within the warp bubble of an Alcubierre Warp Drive (patent pending) will dissipate upon arrival, forward and back (and perhaps elsewhere), pretty much destroying the life on any planet in front of it when the starship arrives. Perhaps one can avoid it by aiming your ship slightly away from the target world when you arrive. Maybe not. I wonder if it would make sense to restrict the use of a Warp Drive to outside of the Oort Cloud? In any case, even if it's possible to avoid disaster, a less-than-friendly visitor could choose to destroy the target of his visit. Or they could just just get sloppy...

Ah, technology. It gives with one hand while it takes away with the other.

Could this explain the apparent absence of technological civilizations in our region of the galaxy?

IO9: Warp Drives May Come With A Killer Downside