Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Renovations & Rightsizing: Blog Changes

I’ve decided to merge VeepCritique into TerrorWonk because if there is one thing we should all learn from GM, it is that too many brands can kill you. In theory, it would be great to have a blog focused on terrorism and a blog on the research for my thesis on the role of the vice president in national security process. But for a blog to be any good, it needs almost daily posting. I am having enough trouble with weekly posting and by having two distinct blogs, I am barely posting monthly on each.

I am also hoping to merge in my old blog that used to live at Profiles in Terror.

I never hewed strictly to just terrorism as a topic and national security process issues are not unrelated to terrorism issues. But now the blog’s range has expanded to pretty much anything I am interested in – although that will mostly be linked one way or another to international affairs.

TerrorWonk is a good name and it has served me well. But I will try to develop a moniker that better reflects the diversity of things I like to write about – without being so general as to leave casual browsers wondering what this blog is all about.

But most importantly, for my regular readers – I will strive to post more often.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Modeling Terrorist Group Behavior: Hamas & Hezbollah

In my day job at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics I work with a team of computer scientists and socials scientists to build models of terrorist group behavior. As the in-house TerrorWonk my role is to “interpret” the results and see if they yield any useful insights. I’ve co-authored papers on both Hezbollah and Hamas ( only the abstract is posted online).

The models use a system called SOMA (Stochastic Opponent Modeling Agents) that calculates probabilities of a group acting in a given way in a given situation.

Obviously, we hope that our models can achieve a high level of prediction accuracy. But, regardless they can often reveal facets of an organization’s behavior that were not previously evident. Just as military experts say, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything,” I heard one speaker at a conference say, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Following are short summaries of the findings.

Hezbollah: The Model Holds

On hearing the news that rockets had been fired from Lebanon into Israel yesterday morning, I was surprised as the single clearest rule about Hezbollah behavior was that they do not like to target Israeli civilians during election years – and Lebanon has parliamentary elections coming up in April. Hezbollah even kept their rocket attacks down for 1998’s local elections. It turns out the model held, Hezbollah quickly distanced itself from the rocket launch and did not reply to Israeli counter-fire.

Extrapolating, this trend indicates how highly Hezbollah values its legal and political standing in Lebanon and its recognition that this standing is damaged when it is held responsible for provoking Israeli strikes. This provides a working explanation as to why Hezbollah had not renewed hostilities with Israel in the past few years – Lebanon’s presidential selection crisis, while not exactly an election, had some similar dynamics.

Beyond some utility for predicting (on an annual basis) when Hezbollah might launch rocket strikes, it provides real insight into Hezbollah and even a possible counter-strategy. While Hamas’ rhetoric remains stridently anti-Israel, the group is pressed by its need to satisfy its domestic constituency, the Lebanese Shia, who are a bit tired of being the Muslim world’s spearhead against Israel.

Military efforts against Hezbollah have not been effective, but these findings raise two related questions: how popular is Hezbollah really among its constituents and could political efforts against Hezbollah be successful at marginalizing them. It is worth noting that Hezbollah receives something like $100 million annually from Iran and the Lebanese Shia population is only about 1.5 million people, so these resources would buy a great deal of influence. Other Lebanese Shia groups do not possess comparable resources.

Hamas: Anything but Resistance is Futile

The results of our Hamas model were very different. Strategic decisions to reduce violence were not in evidence. The key driver appeared to be capability. First, the likelihood of suicide bombings (the data set does not include rocket attacks) increased after Hamas came into contact with Hezbollah in 1993, and received training in suicide terror. The other factor, which increased the likelihood of suicide attacks was Hamas’ provision of social services (which would seem counter-intuitive – but as Matt Levitt shows, the social services infrastructure is also a critical part of the terror network.)

Interestingly, when Hamas was participating in the Palestinian democratic process they were also very likely to carry out suicide attacks on Israel. However, the sample size was relatively small and capability seemed like a likelier explanation.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was that certain attacks, such as kidnappings and property attacks on Palestinians, tracked with internal Palestinian conflict. Although it occurred after the data was collected, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit occurred during the Hamas-Fatah civil war. Another round of Hamas-Fatah fighting is likely in the West Bank, so more of these kinds of actions should be expected.

It could be argued that the 2006 war in Lebanon was a relative success – Hezbollah has kept that border quiet since. The likelihood of a similar modus vivendi with Hamas is Gaza seems less likely based on the model and also based on Hamas rhetoric. In an interview given just days before Hamas began launching rockets the deputy chief of Hamas’ Damascus wing stated:
[Your] question implies that the Tahdiah [truce] is a central issue behind [our] decisions, consultations, and mediation attempts. However, the opposite is true… [for us,] resistance is the main [element] in the relations between the Palestinian people and the Zionist occupation.
Reducing Hamas’ desire to commit violence does not seem possible, it is essential that Israeli strategy reduce their capability. In that regard, cutting the Hamas supply lines of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt (and attacking the broader smuggling network) is critical.

Continuing Strategic Ripples of Mumbai Attacks

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the chief minister’s Conference on Internal Security earlier this week was primarily focused on the nuts and bolts of internal security. But it also harshly criticized Pakistan, stating “there is enough evidence to show that, given the sophistication and military precision of the attack it must have had the support of some official agencies in Pakistan.” Although this assertion remains publicly unproven (the dossier about the attacks submitted by India to Pakistan does not support it, and it is debatable whether the attack’s sophistication required state sponsorship) Singh’s statement showed that, beyond the carnage, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s assault on Mumbai had another victim – the Indian-Pakistan peace process. Singh is a pragmatic and capable politician who had been open to improving relations with Pakistan. But Singh faces domestic hardliners (and, given the ISI’s long history of links to LeT and other Islamist groups in Pakistan, their suspicion is not unwarranted.) Now, in the wake of the Mumbai massacre, Singh will be unable to make even the smallest concessions. This is not merely a local problem. Pakistan is a geopolitical timebomb, and key to defusing it is improving relations with Pakistan and India.

Pakistan, which provides the key routes into Afghanistan, is a nuclear-armed state on the verge of a financial meltdown, while fighting a major Islamist insurgency. However, the Pakistani leaders, military and civilian (see this report on a recent interview with the ISI chief), have recognized that a better relationship with India is essential to stabilizing Pakistan. The conflict in Kashmir has vastly distorted Pakistan’s development, and been a driver in the rise of radical Islam (including Lashkar-e-Taiba – which the ISI fostered as a proxy for fighting in Kashmir) in Pakistan.

An immediate consequence of the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan post-Mumbai was Pakistan’s shifting troops away from the Islamist insurgency in the tribal areas to face an Indian troop build-up. (In fairness, Pakistan continued extensive operations against the Islamists in the tribal regions.) But the real impact of Pakistan’s conflict with India is much deeper. Pakistan is outmatched by India in quantity (India is about six times more populous than Pakistan) and in quality as India’s economy is growing faster. Worst, Pakistan has long borders with little strategic depth. In an effort to compensate for these disadvantages, an inordinate amount of Pakistan’s national wealth has gone to the military. This has robbed crucial sectors such as economic development, infrastructure, and education. This has contributed to the growth of radical madrassas, high levels of unemployment, and a creaking infrastructure in which major cities experience regular blackouts.

In this unstable environment, a group like Lashkar-e-Taiba can flourish. While a stable and prosperous Pakistan – which has placed its rivalry with India on a backburner – is an anathema to the radical Islamists. Vice President-elect Biden is currently visiting Pakistan (in his capacity as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – where he spearheaded the Biden-Lugar plan to provide $15 billion in aid to Pakistan over the next 10 years). This is a strong indication that South Asia will be front and center for the incoming administration - as it needs to be.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gupta as Surgeon-General: Vice President of Health

The Surgeon General is a position not unlike the vice presidency. It has prestige and profile, but not much power – beyond that of the bully pulpit.

In that light, appointing CNN correspondent/neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta would be an interesting move. It is obviously an effort to revive the role as a spokesperson on national health issues, a la C. Everett Koop. Gupta, as a TV journalist already has the skills for this role. He also has a dash of Washington experience, having done some writing for Hillary as a White House Fellow. No doubt Gupta hopes to play a substantive policy role as well, he is supposed to sit on the Daschle led healthcare reform commission.

Gupta, having risen to the top of two very difficult professions, is obviously blazingly smart, focused, and capable. But will that translate into his being an effective policy player – as opposed to primarily being a spokesman? Being smart often is not enough, Bill Frist, a Harvard and Princeton-educated cardiac surgeon was less effective as Senate Majority Leader than former Ole Miss cheerleader Trent Lott.

More important to playing a substantive role, is the reality that the Surgeon General has no institutional base. His role is symbolic rather than administrative. (He heads the Public Health Service Commission Corps, which employs over 6000 medical professionals that perform duties in various federal agencies but is not really an agency in its own right.) On a panel with heavyweights like HHS Secretary Tom Daschle (who is also technically his boss) he might not be able to play much of a role. Gupta’s high public recognition might give him some base of influence, but that has to be wielded carefully. Floating trial balloons and advocating inside positions via the media can be effective strategies – but insiders who play those cards too often will soon find themselves outsiders.

Or, like most Vice Presidents, could Gupta use the Surgeon General position as a steppingstone? There isn’t much upward mobility for a neurosurgeon-TV star (astronaut maybe?) But if he catches the politics bug, Gupta is young enough, and capable enough that a political career is possible and he could conceivably go far. John Adams said about the Vice Presidency, “In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” For a Surgeon-General Gupta a more apt line might be, “In this I’m not much, but I could become anything.”

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hitchen's Flawed Vision of New Gaza

In general I am a big fan of Christopher Hitchens and I envy the elegance, force, and clarity of his arguments. I am always impressed, even when I disagree with him, with his uncompromising stands and vast erudition. Often he provides red meat on issues where my own certainty has wavered. But his recent piece on Gaza is off – way off. While unsparing in his criticism of Hamas, but he seems to think that Palestinian elections were a key factor.
…this month is the one where new elections for the Palestinian Authority have to be called by President Mahmoud Abbas, if not actually held. Before the new year, I talked to one or two knowledgeable Palestinians who argued that, under then-present conditions, Hamas had to hope that such elections would not soon take place. Life in Islamic Gaza was not such as to induce ecstatic happiness and prosperity among the populace… It seems improbable that we'll ever know what would have happened in a free vote, but I think it's safe to say that recent events have further postponed the emergence of a democratic and secular alternative among the Palestinians. I even think it's possible that some people in Israel and some other people in Gaza do not want to see the emergence of such a force, but let me not be cynical.
Hitchens was a friend of the late Edaward Said and also of Rashid Khalidi. (The redoubtable Martin Kramer takes on Hitchens overwrought sympathy for Khalidi’s dispossession.)

Said, Khalidi, etc. have long championed the emergence of a secular, progressive Arab movement. But Khalidi has some limitations as a Middle East analyst. For example (see Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America - download it here) he predicted the first Gulf War would be long and bloody (it wasn’t) and, after being wrong on that front he nonetheless boldly predicted that Saddam’s generals would remove him from power to save themselves. Here he demonstrated ignorance of both Iraq’s military and political situation. Despite his experience with the PLO, his take on the worldview of Gaza’s inhabitants seems similarly skewed.

Leaving aside the difficulties of conducting real elections in Gaza (without having to invade to ensure the elections fairness) or the dubious merits of Hamas’ rival Fatah, the idea that the people of Gaza would be secular and progressive is not for real. Gaza is a clan-based society, not dissimilar to the rest of the greater Middle East. The lineage segmentation system that shapes these societies places a premium on personal honor and conflict. Consider this insightful essay (written in April 2000), by a (and possible the) Gaza-based psychiatrist Eyad el-Sirraj (no friend of Israel by any measure) on the role of anger in Palestinian society:
What brings a high-ranking official to beat his superior or even his minister to overrule a decision? Why does a student throw stones at his professors, or at students from another university? How can we explain an assault against a member of the Legislative Council? How can the murder of an oppressed woman be explained? And what about the popularity—[only] sometimes—of the death penalty? And, what is the common denominator between all these and the torture in the [PA] prisons?

….Searching for the reason, I do not ignore the depth of rage that was inflicted on our lives because of the [Israeli] occupation; but I do not want to hang everything on this peg, [a complaint] that is like a broken record in which Zionism, or the great imperialism, or even petty bourgeoisie, are blamed [for everything]. I want to be clear: one of the main reasons is within us, the result of the education in our homes. Aren't you, my dear reader, one of those fathers who are filled with happiness when your beloved two year old child pronounces the expression "... [damn] your father?!" Don't you dance with joy when he proves his virility by beating another child?

….Don't be surprised, my dear, if you see a student beating up his professor, an official beating up his minister, a soldier beating up his parliament member, a teenager beating his mother or killing his sister, or university students fighting with stones and clubs.

We teach our children that it is permitted to express anger with muscle; we even encourage them to do so in the belief that it is part of the meaning of courage and honor. By doing so, we forget the best part of our Arab heritage and Islamic religion, as well as all that is in Christianity: forgiveness, self-control, overcoming feelings of rage, patience, restraint, and using the mind….
Of course, on this front Hitchens has an idée fixe that religion is the root of all evil. But the clan-based social structures have proven tremendously resistant to all forms of modernity (see this article by Stanley Kurtz). Islam is the product of Middle Eastern society, and while Islam may “seal in” the clan values that dominate the region, Islam is not necessarily the origin of these values.

Many analysts, academics, pundits, and policy-makers have bet on a the emergence of a "new" Middle East. While I support this, and remain hopeful, one should carefully consider what the barriers to this reform are and how deeply they are entrenched.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt Meets his Match

Ninety years ago today, Teddy Roosevelt died at his home in Oyster Bay. He was sixty. Besides the grim reaper, there were few forces that could contain TR's energy. As VP he came face to face with two of them.

Theodore Rex did many tremendous things in his fascinating life. He authored dozens of books, was a war hero in the Spanish-American War, governor of New York, and he was an able President who won the Nobel Peace Prize while in office (for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War). With all of this on his resume, it is easy to forget that he was also vice president. He didn't really want to be, he had said,
I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than Vice-President.
Still, Roosevelt took the job figuring it would set him up for the Presidency (his plans came to fruition early when President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901.) But the Vice Presidency, boring to most politicians, was absolutely painful to a man of Teddy Roosevelt's energies. So he took a vacation during which, according to the Senate Historical Office's invaluable Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993:
The lack of pressing business as vice president allowed Theodore to spend time playing football with his sons and sparring with his tempestuous older daughter, Alice.
It is unclear if these were verbal jousts or actual fisticuffs Teddy would have preferred the latter, especially since Alice became Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the Washington society figure who famously said,
If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.
Alice clearly had her father's number, once remarking
My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.
When he became President, TR stated,
I can be President of the United States, or I can attend to Alice. I can't do both.
Fathers of daughters, from King Lear to the present can no doubt relate.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Enough Veep

At a New Year's Eve party I was talking to a few friends in the kitchen. I saw my wife standing in the doorway, about to come in. Then she heard me say, "Vice President" and she turned around and walked out.