Sunday, 12 August 2012

How to handle uncertainty

Tantawi, Morsi, Enan. Image via Reuters.

The big news: Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, announced the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the armed forces and minister of defense, as well as Sami Enan, the chief of staff. The BBC is also reporting that Morsi's cancelled a constitutional ruling issuing limits on presidential power. I don't know whether the ruling in question is the one that keeps the military independent of any real external authority, but one presumes so, given that replacing top military personnel would obviously be in violation of that declaration. (UPDATE: yep; h/t Rex Brynen)

This is a big deal: a sudden announcement that could reset civil-military relations in Egypt. If it carries through, then advantage civilian government.

A brief moment of navel-gazing. This puts punditry and commentary in a weird spot. I love trying to understand and explain things in politics, and I have a bad weakness for speculating when I don't have enough information. But in periods like Egypt is going through right now, when political rules are uncertain, I think it may be best to sit back and watch, rather than trying to explain. Morsi could well pull this off. Perhaps this was all negotiated; perhaps not. I find this doubtful, as I don't think SCAF would accept the public image of unilateral action to which they roll over. Or Morsi could spark a coup: according to Jay Ulfelder, Egypt has structural conditions that, at the outset of the year, placed it at 14th globally in coup risk, even if that risk was still, at the time, only about 3%.

Much of the outcome turns on hidden preferences and intentions, rumour and sketchy information: the ingredients of surprise. And there are no very clear rules at the moment; Egypt's politics, right now, are about setting those rules. What happens in the next few days could set Egypt down one path or another, and we can have a more or less educated guess about which path, but I think there's a very strong element of uncertainty, and I think it's important to remember it. For some, next week whatever happens will just seem inevitable. And who knows: at a certain point we might get good enough at explaining and predicting to be able to make strong judgments about what is likely in Egypt in the coming days, and to devise a compelling explanation about why. (I doubt it.) But in the meantime I think it's incumbent on analysts to remember these stochastic moments, and how they humble us.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

COIN training: the pupil becomes the master

So, the US accuses Hizbullah [NYT] of training Syrian forces:
An American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah was using “its specialized skill set and understanding of insurgencies” to aid Syria. 
Recently, also, it turns out that Blackwater Xe Academi has trained Canadian Forces as far back as 2006 in some counterinsurgency-related skillz--like evasive driving and bodyguarding--without U.S. government permission, and they've had to pay $7.5 million in fines for breaking U.S. law in this and other matters.

I guess they've learned on the job.

The very existence of private military organizations like Hizbullah and Academi--oh, they'll love getting lumped together--means a limit on the state's monopoly of the use of violence. That's well known. But this phenomenon of non-state actors training state armies in warfare perhaps goes a touch beyond that. Usually in training missions we think about government-to-government (say, the current Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan) or government-to-non-state-actor (say, the U.S., Soviet Union, and South Africa during the Cold War--or, frankly, Hizbullah itself). Government as tutor, given its specialized knowledge; non-state actor as pupil. But this is the reverse.

It's certainly not without precedent. Non-state actors have trained each other, and in some cases have become state armies through victory. For example, several leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Front--the rebels in the 1990-94 civil war and genocide--honed their skills with the National Resistance Army in Uganda, fighting alongside them during the NRA's 1980-86 civil war. I wouldn't be surprised to see past instances of non-state actors training state armies in some military tasks; mercenary war in early modern Europe comes to mind. But this is definitely a role reversal in terms of conventional wisdom.

This sort of transaction also seems to go a bit beyond training armed forces in what are, in the first instance, civilian skills--like local knowledge, law, civil engineering, or logistics. Instead, it's a "specialized skill set", but a directly military one--not a non-military skill set applied to a military context. We sometimes refer to the state as a "specialist in violence" (see, e.g., here), and this is what I mean.

That Academi violated U.S. law in training CF personnel without permission suggests an effort on the part of the (American) state to control not just violence but knowledge and skill in its use. (It's still a state-centric logic in that the objectionable thing seems to be that the recipient was a foreign military, rather than a citizen; my friend Mike could teach you how to drive evasively if you really wanted to know.)

Now the logical extension of a non-state actor as a specialist in violence is that they can train others in it. In this vein it's worth noting that insurgency and counterinsurgency are pretty low-tech, at least in equipment terms. In fact, using vehicles in COIN is actually a poor idea, as Syria may be finding out. What really counts, it seems, is experience--that is, something Hizbullah and Blackwater have a fair amount of. There would be a steeper curve for an NSA to learn, for example, how to fly fighter planes and be able to teach someone else. (There is an additional political dimension for Hizbullah--if in fact they are supporting Syria, one assumes it is out of a perceived strategic and not strictly financial gain.)

The question is more on the other side, the state recipient of training. Why not train internally--why outsource your training? Can a government buy out an NSA like this or establish its own capacity? When would it try, and when would it keep with a market transaction? Firm theory from economics might have some insights here, but I'm also interested in the politics, especially in light of the apparent use of outsourced training in small wars. In particular, I wonder whether this is just another case of military resistance to being specialists in insurgency and counterinsurgency. If armies become good at COIN over the long term, then they may have to do more of it--which many don't want to. For example, the COIN debates in the U.S. military have very much revolved around training for COIN wars and how much they should bother--consider that setting up counterinsurgency school at Ft. Leavenworth and producing a new field manual on counterinsurgency were two of the key accomplishments of the pro-COIN crowd.

The key question, of course, is whether Academi and Hizbullah use godawful powerpoints.