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19 April 2007

The illusion of negative proof in incomplete operational demonstrations

We have in the past cited John Robb’s earlier works with interest, as it was clear he was attempting to piece together an understanding of the complex dynamics within modern sub-state and non-state networks involved in many of the key conflict areas around the globe. For these contributions to the literature we are indebted to him, even as we may productively argue with specific points.

We have been less enamored of his recent writings, however, but have been willing to leave the task of debating “multi” generation warfare (4GW, 5GW, et al) to those among the many excellent writers specializing in such military theory - who also not coincidentally offer a better turn of phrase on matters which we consider to very nearly border on combat theology, but for whose efforts we remain grateful.

However, Robb’s recent writings on “negative proof” to evaluate the effectiveness of current surge counterinsurgency operations in Baghdad demand a response. The logical fallacy of seeking to establish indicators for the operational and even strategic picture from single tactical incidents is bad enough. Although we believe in the strategic corporal, and have seen repeatedly the effects of major “turning point” incidents in Iraq (such as the bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra), we have also seen far too many events designated by the pundits as the karmic keystone of the entire conflict – and just as quickly forgotten.

We are particularly concerned by Robb’s selection of recent events which form the basis of his “proof”. The enemy gets a vote in operations, and the success or failure of an effort is not judged on the actions the OPFOR takes in casting that vote, but rather are weighed in the net assessment of both sides’ effects. The strategic estimate is not merely a first draft of history, but the Choosing specific symbolic incidents such as the April 2007 complex attack on the Iraqi Parliament, or random protests (many of which consist of paid agitators), as meeting some threshold defined as “significant enough”, is deeply problematic. This is the essence of satisficing, and carries with it both the weight of cognitive bias, and also in no small measure elements of an analyst perhaps over-attached to his personal theory – with attending loss of objectivity.

The enemy understands well the non-kinetic effects of specific tactical actions, and chooses to utilize those that have information operations aspects without regard to the longer term efficacy of the options. One has but to witness the emergence of the red-on-red incidents between AQI and Sunni insurgents in Al Anbar to identify strong evidence of a mixed scorecard in the longer term assessment from what were seen as early “significant” events, such as the temporary seizing of built up areas.

Analysts should always be mindful of the necessity to rely upon rigorous analytic tradecraft, and in particular robust counter-deception practices, in order to prevent their work from being tainted by adversary IO themes – particularly when those themes are pursued through a pattern of kinetic operations rather than mere rhetoric.

The success or failure of current strategies has yet to be weighed. Perhaps the effects will be better measured in another Friedman unit… but it is more likely that the political debate will have moved the goalposts for the assessment by that point in time, and the then current discussion will be dominated instead by another transient issue that fails to reflect the grand strategic picture.

Closely related to this discussion is the troubling lack of awareness of enemy IO and political warfare operations and tactics, and the effects of these behaviors on analysis. These issues are not limited to any one pundit or thinker, but rather broadly impact many of those otherwise bright minds attempting to tackle difficult problems.

Fortunately, the academy has responded with at least one individual’s effort to remedy this otherwise widespread ignorance. Dr. Michael Waller has authored an excellent overview, building upon his earlier work countering Soviet and insurgent aktivny mera operations in previous conflicts. We are fortunate to count the gentleman among our influences, and highly recommend his instruction at the Institute of World Politics.

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