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Article in San Fransisco Chronicle

The following was in the San Fransisco Chronicle, on May 1

Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists Anonymous

For a barbaric movement grounded in early Islamic apocalyptic prophecies, what is perhaps most striking about the rapid rise of the Islamic State has been its use of modern technology. Leveraging the open nature and global reach of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Islamic State has used social media to recruit young would-be jihadis, to build a global network of sympathetic followers, and to intimidate Western audiences with its brutality.

The scale of this digital propaganda network is vast. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that in late 2014 there were at least 46,000 Twitter accounts used by Islamic State supporters, with an average of 1,000 followers each.
But why has the United States, which has at its disposal vast cyberwar capabilities, an ever-expanding surveillance state and significant leverage over, and goodwill of, the American companies that are hosting this content, proved unable to quiet the online reach of this network of insurgents?

One answer is that the open nature of the Internet, combined with the constraints that democratic states face engaging effectively within it, has limited the capability of the United States to fight back. And this tells us a tremendous amount about the shifting nature of power in the digital age.

In the absence of effective state action against the Islamic State online, Anonymous has taken up the digital war. Already this ad hoc network of hackers and activists has downed scores of Web pages and hacked into dozens of Twitter accounts that allegedly belong to Islamic State members. Much like in the early days of the Arab Spring, where hackers provided online assistance and offered protection to activists, Anonymous is stepping in where the state has limited capacity.
This has recently led to calls for the United States to partner with Anonymous to launch cyberattacks against the Islamic State, and even paying hactivists in bitcoin. This sounds audacious, but plausible. Western governments have long collaborated with unsavory actors with the aim of larger strategic goals — as it is said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
In theory, such a partnership could allow the Defense and State departments to overcome the constraints of their slow-moving, hierarchical, command-and-control systems. It could allow them to act more like a nimble startup than a legacy industrial corporation.

And it could be effective — we know that Anonymous hackers have been successful taking on a wide range of both established and emerging powers. In practice, however, there is substantial risk. As the failure of the clandestine USAID program to build a fake version of Twitter in Cuba to foster dissent demonstrates, states often stumble when they step into the murky world of online power.

But I would suggest there are other, more fundamental reasons, why the U.S. will never partner with Anonymous. This is because, at its core, Anonymous is different than the other perceived bad actors that government is more than willing to collaborate with. Anonymous represents a new form of decentralized power that challenges the very foundations of the state system.

First, the power structures that Anonymous embodies represent a fundamental threat to state dominance in the international system. The challenges that the state system were designed to solve — a lack of structure, instability, decentralized governance, loose and evolving ties — are precisely what makes groups like Anonymous powerful.

Legitimizing the type of decentralized, collaborative and anonymous power that Anonymous represents, therefore poses a threat to the hierarchical and state-led international system that the nation state depends on. This new form of power scares governments — so much so that they are willing to exert significant control over the network itself. As was revealed in the Snowden National Security Agency documents, the government wanted to collect it all, process it all, exploit it all, partner it all, sniff it all, know it all.

Second, over the course of modern history, we have placed tremendous power in the state. Whether it be through the justice system, the social welfare state or the military, government has been the primary enabler of collective action in our society. In exchange, we have put in place systems of accountability and laws to hold this power to account. For states seeking to fight new online powers, these norms of behavior make functioning effectively online at best difficult, and at worst counter to the expectations and laws governing their activities.

Third, the state is ultimately faced with a paradox — that the very attributes of the Internet that enable the Islamic State also enable the free enterprise and expression that make it arguably the most liberating technology in human history. The very real risk governments face is that in seeking to stop perceived nefarious actors online, they will also shut down the positive ones. Efforts by the NSA to break encryption, for example, won’t just help it fight illegal crypto-currencies, or Islamic State fighters using secure networking tools, but would also threaten the security of the online commerce sector. These efforts risk breaking the Internet.

For the U.S. government, partnering with Anonymous and legitimizing its structure is simply a bridge too far. And this limitation represents a crisis for state power in the digital age: One that curtails its ability to fight the online propaganda of a barbaric jihadist movement taking to Twitter to build its caliphate.

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Why governments must embrace the new global digital reality

The essay below was in the Globe and Mail on April 10th.

On Jan. 28, 2011, in the middle of a popular uprising, the president of Egypt turned off the Internet. This striking display of state power is well known. Less well known is how the Internet was turned back on.

Around the world, hackers and activists who belong to a collective known as Telecomix began to re-establish network connections in Egypt. They arranged with a hacker-friendly French Internet service to provide hundreds of dial-up modem lines, sought out amateur-radio enthusiasts to broadcast short logistical messages, faxed leaflets to university campuses and cyber cafés explaining how to get around the blackouts, and used the same tactic to get news out of Egypt.

Telecomix is one of a new breed of actor taking part in international conflict. When the Arab Spring moved to Syria, this new breed included hackers from Anonymous who took down government infrastructure, crisis mappers who crowd-sourced the analysis of tank locations, citizens who streamed the bombardment of cities to YouTube, and networks of amateur experts who used these videos to trace the origins of munitions.

These groups do not fit comfortably in traditional categories: They are not nation-states, formal institutions or rogue individuals. Instead, they share characteristics and capabilities that are fundamentally technology-enabled.

They are formless. You can’t join them, because they are not organizations; you can’t lead them, because there is no leader; and most engage while cloaked in encryption and pseudonyms. All this stands in direct contrast with the hierarchical structures that give traditional institutions strength.

So how are we to understand those who have strength without structure? First, by realizing that they gain power because of, rather than in spite of, being decentralized and non-hierarchical.

Also, in a networked model, new actors require no one else to attain status – action, not affiliation, produces credibility and authority. Their identities derive from what they do and from the impact they have. As Swedish academic Jenny Sunden puts it, on the Internet, one “types oneself into being.”

We are so used to equating organization with hierarchy that it comes as a surprise that disparate groups are even capable of joint ventures. But new forms of ad hoc governance are emerging to regulate collective behaviour, including the Pirate Party’s notion of liquid democracy and the way in which Anonymous uses chat rooms to mobilize and co-ordinate its members.

In fact, the way power is exercised in the digital space presents a crisis for the state. First, states no longer have a monopoly on the ability to shape the behaviour of large numbers of people.

Second, while governments have all the legacy burdens of other hierarchical 20th-century institutions (lethargy, waste, layers of bureaucracy, slow adaptation), unlike private companies, they cannot simply go bankrupt. When Tesla disrupts Ford, we may end up with better cars, but when governments are challenged, we risk losing the collective social goods they were built to ensure.

Third, because groups like Anonymous are empowered by lack of structure and other “problems” the modern nation state was designed to overcome, the result is a misalignment of the norms and institutions that govern the international system and the mechanisms that increasingly create power.

Finally, what empowers digital players that are perceived to be nefarious is the same as what leads free expression, knowledge creation and economic development to flourish online. By targeting the Internet and digital networks, states also risk shutting down all the positive benefits that they allow: They risk breaking the network itself.

One of the central challenges of this century will be determining whether the norms of behaviour, democratic processes and mechanisms of accountability through which we give the state legitimacy will thrive in this new international ecosystem. This will require leadership from governments themselves.

Our current global institutions were designed by, built for and are run by those who had power in the 20th century. But what would an international organization look like that included those with power in the digital world, such as Anonymous and Telecomix?

States also must work to protect the notion of a single Internet. The social and economic good that comes from an open, secure and free Internet far outweighs the actions of perceived enemies. This means scaling back the rapidly growing surveillance state and rethinking actions that threaten the very capacity of the online system, such as efforts to break encryption. Rather than treating the Internet as a battlefield it must control, the state should be working to support the very technologies that empower and protect so many.

This will entail accepting new norms of self-regulation and network governance and determining effective ways of bringing the values of the democratic nation-state into these new processes, rather than seeking to control them.

There remains an alternate temptation, however: seeking absolute control of the digital ecosystem. This mentality underlies much of the Canadian government’s proposed counterterrorism law, Bill C-51. By giving sweeping new surveillance powers to both security services and domestic police, these policies not only threaten the network infrastructure that benefit so many, but risk suffocating the spaces for dissent on which social and political progress are built.

The Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, ended almost a century of instability and conflict between disparate empires. Once absolute ruling powers, these empires were losing control over both their territory and their citizens. By legitimizing the state rather than the crown as the primary sovereign unit, the treaty created order out of chaos.

We face a similar moment today. Yet to be seen is whether a digitally enabled world can undergo a similar restructuring without the loss of the chaos, messiness and disorder that generate its power.

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The promise and peril of digital diplomacy

The following oped was in the Globe and Mail last Friday.  It is a response to the news of a new digital diplomacy initiative at the Munk School of Global Affairs funded by the Canadian Government. While i think the intention of the program and likely many of the initiatives it will produce are to be lauded, it really must be evaluated alongside the wide range of often contradictory digital foreign policy initiatives. The core argument below is drawn from a chapter on Digital Diplomacy in my forthcoming book.

 

The Promise and Peril of Digital Diplomacy

At 5 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, five Canadian diplomats stationed in Tehran quietly left the country. After years of increasing tensions and rhetoric Canada cut all diplomatic ties with Iran.

But as Canada was cutting its formal diplomatic ties with Iranian officials, a separate team within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was working with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto to build an online platform where Iranians could discuss their upcoming election. If Canadian diplomats could not speak to Iranian officials, they were going to help Iranians speak to one another.

This week’s announcement of an expanded digital diplomacy initiative based at the Munk School of Global Affairs is being positioned as an expansion of this “public square” initiative. And as an extension of the traditional public diplomacy once practised on TV and radio (think Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and BBC World Service) onto the Internet.

But it is, in fact, a far more assertive act, one of making foreign policy rather than simply communicating it. Such programs are part of a growing attempt by the state to remain relevant in a world of increasingly decentralized power.

Whereas states were once the primary means of incentivizing collective action and asserting power on the international stage, they are now being challenged by a wide range of individuals and groups who are using digital technology to organize, protest, report, aid each other, trade, and at times attack. Whether they be hackers, digital humanitarians, cryptocurrency innovators, activists, citizen reporters, or terrorists, the Internet allows people to take on the institutions that once held a monopoly on power.

Digital diplomacy is therefore part of the state’s attempt to remain relevant and to assert power in the digital space. And while the goals of any one initiative might be lauded (as this one can), we need to view and ultimately assess it as only one component of a wider suite of digital foreign policy actions. Taken as a whole, digital foreign policy is fraught with challenges and hypocrisies.

First, such seemingly innocuous initiatives often backfire. Take, for example, USAID’s elaborate scheme to create a Cuban version of Twitter with the goal of fostering dissent and promoting regime change. While an innovative and audacious use of digital technology to achieve a (however misguided) State Department objective, the revelation of the program tainted the reputation and hurt the effectiveness of USAID as a whole.

Second, the platforms and tools being built through initiatives like the Iran Dialogues, replicate or use the very anonymizing capabilities that our national intelligence agencies are simultaneously seeking to break and undermine. The ability to communicate anonymously empowers perceived nefarious and legitimate actors alike, whether they be terrorist, black market commerce sites, domestic protesters, or dissidents in Iran. Programs seeking to break encryption will ultimately negate any well-intentioned digital diplomacy initiatives.

Third, digital foreign policy is increasingly being outsourced. Governments distance themselves from acts of hacking or cyberwar through the use of arm’s-length organizations. Whether it be the Syrian Electronic Army, the recent North Korea hack, or the U.S. and Canada using think tanks to build digital tools, it is getting increasingly hard to attribute online action and to hold it accountable.

Finally, the same governments that are seeking to enable free speech in countries like Iran are at the same time rapidly expanding the surveillance state. Thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden we now know how the state has chosen to respond to this new space of digital empowerment. Like a traditional battlefield, they are seeking to control it. To, as they themselves claim, “know it all.”

And herein lies the central tension in the digital diplomacy initiative. By seeking to control, monitor and undermine the actions of perceived negative actors, the state risks breaking the very system that positively empowers so many. And this will ultimately harm those living under autocratic and democratic regimes alike.

The answer, unfortunately, is not as simple as many critics of digital diplomacy assert. Simply returning to traditional in-person diplomacy ignores the global shift to decentralized digital power. Digital diplomacy is a well-intentioned attempt to participate in this new space. However, it is one that is both ill-suited to the capabilities of the state, and is negated by other digital foreign policy programs.

We are at the start of a reconfiguration of power. Navigating this terrain is one of the principal foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.

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New Virtual Reality Journalism Project

Cross posted on www.towcenter.org

Long a figment of technophile imagination, a confluence of technological advances has finally placed in-home virtual reality on the cusp of mainstream adoption. Media attention and developer interest have surged, powered by the release of the Oculus Rift to developers, the anticipated launch of Samsung’s Gear VR, rumored headsets from Sony and Apple, and a cheeky intervention from Google called Cardboard; a simple VR player made of cardboard, Velcro, magnets, a rubber band, two biconvex lenses and a smartphone.

We now have the computational power, screen resolution and refresh rate to play VR in a small and inexpensive headset. And within a year, VR will be a commercial reality. We know that users will be able to play video games, sit court-side at a basketball game and view porn. But what about watching the news or a documentary? What is the potential for journalism in virtual reality?

Virtual reality is, of course, not new. A generation of media and tech researchers used both cumbersome headsets or VR ‘caves’ to experiment with virtual environments. Research focused mostly on how humans engage with virtual environments when the mind tricked them into thinking they are real.  Do we learn, care, empathize and fear as we do in real life?  Do we feel more?  This research is tremendously important as we enter a new VR age; out of the lab and into peoples’ homes.

In addition to the headsets, a second technology is set to transform the VR experience. While initial uses of the Oculus Rift and similar devices have focused on computer generated imagery (gaming) and static 360° images (such as Google Street View), new experimental cameras are able to capture live motion 360° and 3D virtual reality footage.

The kit is made from 12-16 cameras mounted to a 3D printed brace, and then stitched onto a virtual sphere to form a 360 degree virtual environment. While 360 cameras have been around for years, these new kits are also stereoscopic, adding depth of field. They are not yet commercially available, but several are in production, including one by startup Jaunt and another by NextVR that uses six extremely high resolution Red Epic Dragon cameras. We are working with the media production company Secret Location who have also built a prototype, pictured below.

This new camera technology opens up a tremendous opportunity for journalists to immerse audiences in their story and for audiences to experience and connect to journalism in powerful new ways. And this is the focus of a new Tow Center Research project studying and prototyping live motion virtual reality journalism

The project is a partnership between Frontline, The Secret Location, and the Tow Center.  James Milward, the CEO of the Secret Location is leading the production, Raney Aronson, the Deputy Executive Editor of Frontline is leading the field experiment and shoot, Dan Edge is taking the camera into the field, and I am leading the research.  Together, along with Pietro Galliano, Sarah Moughty and Fergus Pitt, we will be running the demo project and authoring a Tow Brief to be published in partnership with MIT documenting the process and lessons learned.

The project recently won a Knight Foundation Prototype Grant.

In short, this project explores the extension of factual film making onto this new platform. Unlike other journalistic VR work, such as the pioneering project by Nonny de la Pena, which has relied on computer-generated graphics, this project will be centered on live video, delivering an experience that feels more like documentary and photo journalism than a console game. There are few examples of this type of journalism. The one that comes closest would Gannett’s recent project for the Oculus Rift called Harvest of Change.

The first phase of the Tow Center VR project has several components.

First, we are testing the equipment needed to capture live motion virtual reality footage.  This includes a prototype 360/3D camera and surround sound audio recording. We recently held a training session for the camera at the Secret Location Toronto office.

 

Twelve Go-Pros mounted in a 3D printed brace.

Twelve GoPros mounted in a 3D printed brace.

The 360° stereoscopic camera, with directional microphone.

The 360° stereoscopic camera, with directional microphone.

Second, we are deploying this video and audio equipment to the field on a story about the Ebola outbreak being directed for Frontline by Dan Edge, a renowned documentary film-maker. This phase will test how the camera can be used in challenging environments. But crucially, it will also explore new journalistic conventions. How do you tell a story in VR? What does narrative look like?  Dan is currently in Guinea with the camera and he will be traveling to Liberia and Sierra Leon in early 2015.

Third we will then be testing new post-production VR processes, including the addition of interactivity and multimedia into the VR environment.

The demo will be launched in the spring alongside the release of the feature Frontline documentary and with an accompanying report documenting the experiment and what we have learned. We will also be hosting apanel on VR journalism and this year’s SXSW featuring James Milward, Nonny de la Pena, and head of Vice News, Jason Mojica.

We are all acutely aware that this emerging practice, while exciting, presents some challenging questions.

For the practice of journalism virtual reality presents a new technical and narrative form. It requires new cameras, new editing and shooting processes, new viewing infrastructure, new levels of interactivity, and can leverage distributed networks in new ways. In addition to these technical innovations, an emerging scholarly discourse is exploring how virtual reality also challenges traditional notions of narrative form. Virtual reality, combined with the ability to add interactive elements, changes the positionality of the journalists, breaking down the fourth wall of journalism. Storytelling is pulled from its bound linear form, and moved to a far more fluid space where the audience has new (though still limited) agency in the experience of the story. This changes how journalists must construct their story and their place in it, and challenges core journalistic assumptions of objectivity and observation.  It also changes how audiences engage with journalism, bringing them into stories in a visceral experiential manner not possible in other mediums.

CBC The Current Interview on Virtual Reality Journalism with Taylor Owen and Nonny de la Pena

More conceptually, virtual reality journalism also offers a new window through which to study the relationship between consumers of media and the representation of subjects. Whereas newspapers, radio, television and then social media each brought us closer to being immersed in the experience of others, virtual reality has the potential to further break down this distance. A core question is whether virtual reality can provide similar feelings of empathy and compassion to real life experiences. Recent work has shown that virtual reality can create a feeling of ‘social presence,’ the feeling that a user is really there, which can create far great empathy for the subject than in other media representations. Others have called this experience ‘co-presence,’ and are exploring how it can be used to bridge the distance between those experiencing human rights abuses and those in the position to assist or better understand conflict.

It is our hope that this initial project, as well as a planned larger multiyear research project, will begin to shed light on some of these questions.

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Twitter as public space, and related problems

Last weekend, the Globe and Mail published two articles on Twitter, both of which were dismissive of the platform and were written by authors who do not actively use it. In short, “What Twitter is, and isn’t,” and “Will Twitter Change Politics?” by Konrad Yakabuski and Tom Flanagan respectively, informed us that Twitter and its users are trite, and liberal, and that its value should be judged by its ability to “change” elections.

Twitter has real advantages and limitations, but neither were spelled out. While it is encouraging to see public debate about this emerging form, it deserves a more nuanced discussion.

Twitter is used in a vast number of ways. For some it is a means of following friends; for others it is a source of links to news and articles. It increasingly serves as a collective fact checker for traditional media. Many use twitter as a newspaper or magazine, providing links to both breaking news, and longform journalism and reporting. During the Libyan revolution, citizens and revolutionaries used it to communicate with the outside world. The manhunt for the Boston bombers was live-tweeted, and twitter was used to corroborate the police scanner. During sporting events and awards shows it forms a collective second screen community. It is a place for snarky commentary, gossip, and breaking news. Some people tweet all day, others just watch.

The point is, any list of how twitter is used, will itself be trite. Users engage with Twitter in diverse ways for diverse reasons, just as they do with newspapers and TV.

For me, Twitter is a way of actively immersing myself in the communities in which I work and engage: international relations, digital technology, politics and journalism.

Using Twitter, I can actively participate in a 24-7 real-time collective conversation in each of these communities. In each, I follow and engage with academics, politicians, journalists, activists, technologists, and a wide range of citizens from all backgrounds and professions interested in the same subjects as me. Herein lies the real power of the form. Twitter is not an extension, or supplement to public discourse, it is a public discourse. And, compared to other media, a remarkably accessible form of it.

When people ask whether twitter can be democratizing, they usually ask, as Tom Flanagan did, whether it can shape elections. This is an attempt to prove relevance only via instrumentality, which to me is the wrong metric. Twitter has broken down the barriers of entry to public discourse. This, in itself, it it’s democratizing effect. We value free speech and newspapers for more than their instrumental effects, and so we should Twitter.

Twitter has been successful because it has become a part of the public and personal discourse, not because it overthrows dictators. The question driving the debate over what Twitter is and isn’t, therefore, shouldn’t be whether twitter will change politics, because twitter is politics. A gossip-mill or an accountability mechanism – just like any other political system, it is a reflection of the people who use it.

The fact that Twitter has become a de-facto public space poses real challenges. But these are not whether people have trouble finding useful information, or are overwhelmed by the pace, or don’t enjoy short videos – the problems depicted by Flanagan and Yakabuski. These are simply projections based on personal tastes, like saying I don’t like newspapers because they leave ink on my fingers, or they take too long to read.

The real challenge of Twitter, and social media more generally, is that we need to think carefully about what it means to devolve the public space to private companies. There are a wide range of challenges that stem from this. Here are four.

First, just as more newspapers go behind paywalls, and cable TV replaces broadcast, more and more of our public debate costs money. So far, Twitter has remained free. But with increasing pressures to commercialize, and the increase of social marketing, we will pay in some form or another. This payment will undoubtedly have an effect on Twitter’s democratizing role.

Second, we need to think as a society about how our individual and collective information (or “Big Data”) is being used by the private and public institutions that collect, sell, and trade it. In particular, who owns the data we leave behind as we engage online, or our “data exhaust”. The EU is grappling with these tough questions head on, and has recently proposed a right to erasure and deletion.

Third, Twitter needs to decide whether it is a publishing platform or a media company. Increasingly, Twitter, like YouTube and Facebook, is making editorial decisions about what content is allowed on their platform. Tweets to the videos of the killing of a child in Syria would be allowed, for example, whereas those to the mass shooting of a group of children in the United States would surely be taken down. Why, and how are these decisions being made? Twitter and Google both now issue transparency reports detailing their editorial decision making, as well as government requests for data. But these only provide a very limited glimpse.

Finally, what is the nature of free speech on privately owned platforms? Over the course of the twentieth century, we developed laws, regulations, and norms around public communication on TV, radio, and in print. Few of these have transferred to the new public squares, which are almost wholly owned by increasingly monopolistic private companies, in varying degrees of contact and partnership with national governments.

Twitter is many things to many people, and its uses present a vast array of opportunities and challenges. Let’s seriously debate the changes it represents in the way we communicate and interact, not dismiss it as a trite fad.

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Two books on Human Security

I have two books on human security coming out this year, which have both just gone to production.  The first is a Sage Major work on Human Security, which is a four volume best-of the human security literature.  I choose 75 articles that I think should define the field, and prefaced the set with an introduction article.  The book is meant for libraries.

The second is the Routledge Handbook on Human Security, which I edited to Mary Martin.  This one is made of up new articles on human security from some of the top statesmen and academics in the field, including: Amartya Sen, Mary Kaldor, Lloyd Axworthy, Javier Solana and Sadako Ogata.

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Have the Taliban Changed their Tune on Women’s Rights?

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I find that the subject of women’s rights in Afghanistan is a difficult one to engage with. To some, the shocking standard to which women were treated under the Taliban represents a key reason for our presence there. To others, the goal of gender equality is a PR front for the actual reasons we intervened. To still others, modest improvements are a positive bi-product of a complex mission.

While on my trip in Afghanistan, we had five briefings that focused on women and gender issues. Each left me with a different feeling, from disgust to frustration to awe. There is no doubt that the lives of many have been improved by our presence. And as I felt in Northern Iraq several years ago, it is tremendously difficult to argue with the logic of someone who has been liberated. But the fact that one group in one region has been freed, should not blind us to the consequences of this liberation for others. With this in mind, these were my five encounters.

First, one evening we had a formal dinner at the Serena hotel, one of the few international hotels in Kabul. Our group was seated along one side of a long table, and a delegation of various Afghan think tankers and university professors were on the other. Seated across from me were an Afghan woman and a young male Afghan, who worked for NATO HQ. For the first half hour or so, the woman was very quiet. Her English was not very good, and the men around her, particularly one who was a cousin of Karzai, were dominating. But when we figured out a way for the young Afghan man beside her to translate, she opened up, and her story was incredible. She was 20 when Taliban fell. Until then, she had spent her teenage years being taught in secret schools for girls. One of her teachers had been killed by the Taliban. In 2001, she went to law school, got the best marks in the school and now is a law professor at Kabul University. I’m sure there are many women with similar stories, and I feel somewhat hesitant recalling it, as if I’ve been had by NATO TOLA planners, but she really was nothing short of remarkable. Watching and listening to her and the young guy both helping to translate and telling his own story, which was impressive in its own right, I saw pretty clearly that there is a new generation waiting in the wings in Afghanistan. They are frustrated, impatient and when they get a chance, it’s hard to see how they will not do better than the current crowd in charge. I only wish we could empower them sooner.

Second, when we were in Mazar e Sharif, we had a meeting with the Gender Engagement Team. Led by a young female Swedish soldier, the team was made up of three Afghan women in their twenties. It’s hard to overstate how courageous these women were. They are essentially conducting psi-ops for RC-N, coming in and out of the base on a daily basis and reporting on what people think about ISAF. What is particularly amazing is that their friends and family now know that they work for ISAF. As insurgent violence picks up in the north, they are at significant risk. At one point during our two hours with them, they got very angry with the German and American commanders in the room over the night raids. I will post on this issue separately, but the strength with which they rebuked the ISAF line that night raids are essential because they reduce civilian casualties was remarkable. Even if the raids do reduce casualties, the team argued, they also are a humiliating experience. Men descend on their villages at night, breaking down doors, and see them, particularly the women, at their most vulnerable. The disconnect between the cold rationalism of the ISAF argument and the aggressive push back from those actually affected was bracing.

Third, in Herat, we met with two Provincial Councilors, both of whom were female. The meeting was clearly intended to demonstrate the progress being made in local governance, in particular the mandated 50% female quota. What we got was both tragically and wonderfully different. With the Italian PRT contingent watching on, and the more jingoistic members of our party somewhat disgruntled, the two women clearly and articulately disagreed with virtual every assessment we had heard of Herat to date. For two hours they made it abundantly clear that, while considered the most secure and developed region of the country by ISAF, the west has a very long way to go. They spoke of villages that support the insurgents in order to get NATO aid (if considered safe, they are ignored), of the problems with narcotics trafficking, particularly the widows created by arrested or killed husbands who took up trafficking to make a living, of the rising violence levels, of how even elected women remain shut out, and of the power of the mullahs. They were confident and impressive. I was left hoping but doubting that the rest of the councilors compared.

Fourth, immediately following the meeting with the councilors, we were escorted to the Italian PRT’s signature project in Herat, a women’s center. When we pulled up to the modern three story building, we were greeted by a shocking display of Italian military force (I know there is a joke here). There were three armored trucks each with a high caliber gunner on top, a couple of dozen fully kitted out soldiers, and our escorts, another half dozen men. They had closed part of the street, the heavy guns were pointed at the neighbouring buildings, and there were soldiers guarding the door of the center. We were rushed into the building to find 20 or so visibly stunned Afghan women. For the next hour, we were paraded around what can only be called a model of tokenism. The women were selling textiles and saffron in a series of brand new shops. It was entirely unclear who might shop there, other than PRT guests, as there are few tourists in Herat, and surely locals don’t need a gift mall to buy Afghan textiles. In fairness, the center does function as a community center of sorts for women, with a gym, and classrooms. But there was no mistaking the reason we were there, and it made me sick.

Finally, on our last day in Kabul, we had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation with a senior UNAMA official. When asked about the status of women in the country, he got visibly frustrated. The idea that women lead significantly better lives in most of the country, he said, needs to be dismissed. Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Islamic state. It has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. And in wide swaths of the country, women are treated in a brutally oppressive fashion. The Taliban, he argued, were particularly appalling, because they codified this treatment, but it is still occurring on a widespread scale.

Coming back to the future, and to the Taliban, the same UN official made an interesting point, which I hadn’t heard before. The Taliban, he stated, have recently softened their position on women. More politically savvy than when they were in power, many Taliban leaders now recognize the political importance the international community places on the rights of women, and wanting to be part of the political process, their views are evolving. This is a fascinating quirk in what is too often portrayed in a simplistic narrative – the Taliban are bad because of their treatment of women. Now this softening of doctrine may not be true, but if we are welcoming them back into positions of power, as our reconciliation policy would suggest, then let’s hope the Taliban find it politically expedient to treat women in a less brutal fashion. In many ways, these small victories may become big markers of the mission’s lasting impacts.

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More on the Integrity of the Comprehensive Approach

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I just had a conversation regarding my last post with a NATO Public Diplomacy official. In short, my argument was that in RC-N the ANP appear incapable of holding villages so that the building can take place, and that there are vastly more resources focused on the military component on the mission.

The response I received was that NATO itself is neither nation-building nor implementing all aspects of the comprehensive approach. What is really meant by the comprehensive approach, I was told, is that NATO is a participant in the comprehensive approach with other organizations who are doing the governance and development components. As an example of this, the point was rightly made that NATO countries have refused to task the alliance with a rule of law mandate, as member states feel that this would go beyond their military focus.

This, however, is simply not how we have been briefed over the past week, nor how the mission is explained to domestic publics, at least in Canada. Some of the PRTs are clearly part of the NATO mandate, while others are member country run, and at virtually every briefing we have received, we have been told of the importance and details of governance and development projects. Indeed, the briefings we have received from Senior Civilian Representatives (SCRs) at all levels, have focused exclusively on non military NATO tasks. Here is where I agree, though. I don’t think NATO should be doing all of these tasks, but as states participating in this conflict we have not properly equipped and funded the orgs that should be– i.e., the IOs, NGOs and local groups who should be doing way, way more.

Perhaps the military should be doing the initial targeted tactical assistance during the hold phase of COIN, but this absolutely must transition to a civilian project almost immediately. This civilian operation would need security, but this should likely be done by Afghan and/or private security. If civilian orgs as currently constituted aren’t willing to take this risk, then I think we may need not rethink either the rules governing government civilian orgs, or whether we should be attempting these tasks at all.

I suppose I don’t blame NATO, they have come a long way since McChrystal dragged them into a COIN strategy. And in the absence of other major actors able or willing to do the development, they are stepping up to some degree. Instead I blame NATO member states who have failed to adequately fund the orgs that they should know full well should be doing the governance and development. For example, we met a WFP official who said they are $220 million short to fulfill basic food needs this year. This is in a country in which the US alone is spending a $100 billion a year.

Until we are honest about these parts of the project – parts wee claim are required for success – then we are not being serious about the comprehensive approach.

There is of course another very simple potential explanation for this, one being pushed by one of my trip mates – viz, the comprehensive approach is not actually required to meet our objectives, because our objectives are are actually far more modest than we are politically willing to admit.

It is quite likely that we are hoping to at best leave an Afghan state structure that is capable of staying roughly together, in which case, we need to secure as many villages as possible in the two and a half years remaining, hope that Karzai’s governors can hold their provinces together and leave some special forces, trainers and operational support here for a decade after. Our mission is then not one of nation building, but of basic nation stabilization. Needless to say, I am increasingly skeptical. But I’m meeting with both Petraeus and Gass in the next couple days, so maybe they will make it all make sense.

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Notes from Mazar e Sherif: Tactical Challenges, Strategic Quagmire

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I am writing this on my phone from a c160 flying from mazar e sharif to herat where we have spent the past 48hrs. This morning, we awoke to the news that last night insurgents struck an international hotel in Kabul.  This felt a world away, and frankly, neither surprises me, nor tells us very much about the state of the war.  The briefings we have received in our first Regional Command (RC) visit, however, point to some real challenges. Challenges that frankly make me question the integrity of the transition, which as I mentioned in my previous post, is the singular focus of ISAF at the moment.

The main base in northern Afghanistan, RC-N, is run by the Germans, and is meticulous. The bunks are clean, the roads and paths nicely paved, there is a beer garden and night club. What we heard though, is of a war effort disjointed from the strategic narrative being pushed by Kabul. Two specific tactical challenges point to potential fundamental flaws in the transition plan.

The strategy, as outlined by HQ, sounds reasonable and feasible. Over the next three years build the Afghan army and police so that they can take over the security role vacated by ISAF forces. This is supposed to happen in a series of tranches, whereby control of governance and security are transferred.  In RC-N here is how that is to work in reality: the Afghan National Army (ANA) supported by ISAF, takes a village, forcing out the insurgents.  The Afghan National Police (ANP) then holds the village, while a comprehensive approach is applied to the village, mainly focusing on governance reforms. As we draw down, we will have ideally left secure communities, policed and governed by Afghans, with some operational support and long term development assistance continuing. Take, hold, build.

Here are two problems as recounted by a German Colonel and his team who run the mentoring program for RC-North.  First, the ANP is incapable of holding villages once ISAF and the ANA have departed. The police force, intended to grow to 170,000 by transition, gets approximately 4 weeks of training.  They are largely illiterate, and they are principally trained to act as checkpoint guards. They are incapable of patrolling and securing villages so immediately after forces leave, the insurgents simply return. The village is then taken again.  Each time this happens, more civilians are killed, and the population stops informing on the whereabouts of IEDs, increasing ISAF casualties. In the past year, there has not been a single village held by the ANP.  This is worth repeating.  In the words of the Colonel, speaking abouf RC-N, the insurgents always come back, there have been no successful hold phases in the past year.

The second challenge is related to the governance component of the comprehensive approach. Simply put, we don’t have close to enough resources to implement the governmace reforms required. As the same ISAF Colonel put it to us,  the comprehensive approach is a headline. At a macro level, the resource imbalance is astounding. The military resources present here represent a remarkable logistical feat. Civilians, however, are almost nowhere to be seen. At a tactical level, what this means is that we don’t have the resources to mentor administrators, lawyers and judges in the communities we are trying to hold. This leads to few of the reforms that we have promised Afghans and which we have determined are required for strategic success. They see the same corruptions and abuses of power that they have lived with for so long. In short, implementing the comprehensive approach will require both additional military resources to hold the villages ourselves, but also more importantly, a massive civilian increase that we are simply unequiped to provide.

Ultimately, we are able to take villages, which is not surprising given the scale and sophistication of our force deployment. But we are unable to either hold or build. Simply put, there is a structural imbalance in our comprehensive approach strategy.

What this means in the North (and a big caveat that these observations are only based on what we have been briefed on in this part of the country, though a part that is supposed to be amoungst the most secure), is the following. A comprehensive approach is required to nationbuild, ie to achieve the overarching objectives of the transition of providing governance reforms and basic development. If we are not willing or able to provide the correct kind and magnitude of deployment, we are likely going to leave a country with wide areas back in the control of the only groups able to provide security, governance and jobs – the various warlords, and criminal groups that make up the insurgency. We can likely keep the Taliban out of power in Kabul, and al-Qaeda out of most of Afghanstan, and we will have done a lot of good throughout the country, but nationbuilding by force is tough business, and I remain unconvinced that we have proven able to accomplish it.

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First Impressions from ISAF HQ in Kabul

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I am in Afghanistan as part of a NATO TOLA tour. On Friday the six participants met in Brussels for a day of briefings at the NATO HQ, and then flew to Kabul together.  For 8 days, we are to be treated to incredible access to civilian, military and Afghan leaders.  There is no doubt we are receiving a very particular perspective on country, conflict and mission; but we are getting it in a large number of blunt, open, briefings.  In addition to time in and around Kabul, we will be doing trips to Mazar e Sharif (RC-North), and then to Herat in the west (RC-West).  I have a large number of more specific comments to make, but as an intro post, let me just make a few initial observations, based on 48hrs of briefings in Kabul.

The ISAF security infrastructure is suffocating. This is i’m sure obvious to anyone who has spent anytime here, and I certainly expected it, but nonetheless, the security within the green zone, which houses various headquarters, country bases, embassies and ministries, it a fortress like I have never seen (the only thing that come close for me is the US base in Erbil). The labyrinth of 20-30 foot blast walls, the immense rows of barbwire, the absurd amount of checkpoints, and the elaborate chambers for exiting and entering by foot, are truly incredible. Being inside it, and under the ‘protection’ of it, makes the thought of existing in the other Kabul seem impossible, even though you know that this is what many friends and colleagues do.  It feels like a catch-22, though – you are safest with either full military protection, or none.

The singular focus is on “transition”. So far, there has been only one theme of our briefings (by senior military, civilian and Afghan officials) – namely, transition. Whereas a year ago, I’m certain one would have heard about more generalized counterinsurgency strategy and tactics, now everything is about what will be in place by 2014.  The overwhelming focus of this is on training, or the NTM-A.   The training command, which only began in earnest in November 2009, has an objective of training and educating between 300,000 and 350,000 soldiers and police officers by October of this year.  While many of the early problems have been worked out (such as pay inequity, some of the corruption, 85% illiteracy), and while the program is now properly resourced ($11 billion a yr), it is still a monumental task.   What’s perhaps most concerning, though, is that the US force draw down is meant to be replaced by these new recruits.  For example, the reduction of 30,000 US forces over the next 18 months, will be replaced by 50-70,000 new ANA troops.  While there is something to be said for the argument that an Afghan soldier is in some ways more effective than a western one, the lack of training, organization, leadership, and equipment, combined with the remaining corruption, make one question this premise.   Interestingly, this is what the Canadian mission will shift to this week, and I will be visiting two places where our trainers will be based (RC-N and RC-W) this week.

The layers of bureaucracy are astounding. Several years ago I did some work on the whole of government approach that Canada was using in Afghanistan.  One of the things I took away from this research was that despite good the planning and coordination  between the military, diplomatic and development components of our mission, the overall complexity of the task and institutional responses built threatened to marginalize these efforts. And this was only in the Canadian context. The overwhelming sense I am getting through these briefings is that the layers of bureaucracy that are being created and used to tackle the incredibly challenging tasks we have given NATO are so vast and complex, that they ultimately may become unmanageable, and are almost certainly unsustainable post-transition. They feel all but certain to collapse in on themselves. Take just as one example the NTM-A. They are building a dozen military and policy schools, teaching all recruits to read and write, building an air force, training a special ops team, constituting anti-corruption programs, training officers and military leaders, and on and on.  All are positive, but they are all based on a western military and institutional model, and there is no doubt that this is am immense system being build for a country that does not have a recent institutional history. These same phenomena can be seen across the ISAF, OED, EUPOL, and UN missions.

Obama’s speech has had a real impact: It is easy to forget when one is watching politics in North America, that major policy changes are announced in what are often simply viewed as political speeches.  We arrived here a couple of days after Obama’s Afghanistan speech, in which he announced the beginnings of the draw down of the surge. The ubiquitous reaction we are getting is that while this was largely expected (Obama said when he announced the surge that he would begin drawdown in July 2011), it still has a real impact.  Much of these forces will likely be taken from non front line combat troops, but it will have a real impact. As an interesting side note, it took the US military a year just to physically fly in the 33,000 troop surge. So draw down will ultimately take a fair amount of time.

One final, perhaps minor point before I have to get some sleep:

There seems to be lots of talk at HQ that the new leadership trio of Crocker-Allan-Gass is a positive combination for the transition. It’s no secret that Patraeus and Ikenberry didn’t get along.  It was also no secret that Patraeus was the primary American voice in Afghanistan. This has served to reinforce the strength of the military as the primary voice and public face of the mission for the past two years.  While resources will of course continue to be overwhelmingly military, and there is little evidence of a shift to a real civilian surge, there is considerable talk that the balance of power will switch to the diplomats for the remaining 3 years of the mission. Crocker is a big presence and has the star power of Patraeus. And Simon Gass has a lot of experience in Afghanistan. They also get along well. It sounds like it is likely that the US embassy and NATO civilian civilian rep are about to take a lead role. Allen, less of a personality than McCrystal or Patraeus, will likely take less of a public role, as the focus shifts to polical transition and away from full scale counterinsurgency and towards training, reintegration and reconciliation.  Again, this does not necessary mean the local governance challenges are going to get the attention they require, but it is likely that this diplomatic leadership will move aggressively on high level reconciliation and pressure on Kabul.

Ok, those are a few very quick rough notes on the first 24hrs.  Will have much more to relay in the coming days.