General Odierno and Bayes Law

In mathematics a priori data is generally considered an excellent thing.  Im encouraged to see Army Chief of Staffs Gen. Odierno actually understands Bayes Law.  For fellow mathheads here is a Wolfram refresher— here is the layman version for the rest of you.  Its interesting to me that some humans actually think in equations– not just as shorthand for verbal knowledge.  Probably Gen Odierno is not an equation thinker– but he does have some pattern recognition skills.  That is apparent from this statement–

Odierno is particularly qualified to discuss the prospect of success and failure in Iraq, given that he’s spent six years in the region. For two of those years, from 2008 to 2010, he served as head of all foreign troops, CS Monitor reports.

“We went in and fixed it once,” Odierno said, according to CBS, during a Thursday appearance. “It took us a while — it took us longer than we wanted it to — but we fixed it. The security was good, the economy was growing. We handed it off to them, and here we are three, four years later, and ISIS has been in control, has really had an impact on the security of the Iraqi people, and is now threatening the region in a much greater way.”

“I could put 150,000 soldiers on the ground and defeat ISIS? Yes. But then what?” he added. “A year later it would be right back to where we are today.”

How has Gen. Odierno arrived at his conclusion?  Bayes Law and pattern recognition.  I’m pretty sure Odierno reads Atwan, who is easily the best analyst out there on the Islamic State.

As the US ramps up airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Raqqa—the self-styled Caliphate’s capital—and the UK mulls further military involvement, it is surely time to ponder the effectiveness of bombarding densely populated areas, causing civilian deaths and casualties and laying waste to homes and infrastructure.

After fourteen years in Afghanistan and ten in Iraq (not to mention the drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan), isn’t it obvious that a military solution is impossible and that, in terms of ‘hearts and minds’, such missions are counter-productive, often propelling ‘moderate’ Muslims into the arms of the extremists?

The evolution of ISIS has not sprung from nowhere. It is the latest evolutionary step in the Salafi-jihadi movement, specifically the global jihadi, anti-American tendency introduced by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1996. This strand has an explicit goal of re-establishing the Caliphate and expanding it through the Middle East, parts of Africa, much of Asia and southern Europe.

Much as we would like to think so, this is not empty rhetoric. Nobody in the west took Osama bin Laden seriously…until 9/11. The approach to IS displays a more culpable nonchalance when its soldiers have seized whole cities like Mosul, Raqqa and Ramadi, when oil installations and major dams are under their control and when they have effectively dissolved the Iraq-Syria border by establishing new wilayats (provinces) which straddle it.

The response is always the same: bomb the hell out them. But the assumption that military superiority will win the day has not only been proved wrong, it is arguably directly responsible for the evolution of IS.

Al Qaeda used to have one address—the caves in Tora Bora (where I spent three days with Osama bin Laden in 1996 as detailed in my first book, The Secret History of al-Qaeda). When the US wanted to retaliate for 9/11, it knew where to find the leaders, and their daisy cutter bombs all but annihilated the organisation.

As Atwan points out, the evolution of IS is directly attributable to US intervention in the form of the OIF and OEF invasion and occupations.  Atwan also notes the origins of  AlQaeda are rooted in the Algerian coup.
This fear of Islamism has created both the space and the appetite for extremism—the same thing happened in Algeria when Islamists won the 1990 elections but were violently prevented from taking office by the army, abetted by France and Washington. Civil war ensued, eventually producing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The reason the US doesn’t have a strategy is there is no strategy.  Like Odierno says, continued repression of islamic government in majority muslim nations will only result in more extreme and more viscious adaptive versions of jihadi-salafism.  We can say, fitter versions of IS.  IS is beautifully adapted to an environment where US is trying to exterminate it– bombing it makes it better.  Mathematically, IS is an antifragile hydra, a distributed insurgency that gains from disorder.  Atwan again.

and order. Today, in Iraq and Syria, where central government has all but collapsed, those who have not fled advancing IS troops have extended a wary welcome, and IS enjoys considerable support from influential and warlike Sunni tribes in both countries.

We cannot ignore the feebleness of the national army in Iraq (for reasons we have outlined above), whose brigades simply run away when IS attacks. The government and its western backers have been relying on Shi’a militias to battle the extremists—but they are just as vicious and prone to committing atrocities as IS; Kurdish forces have also been deployed, but their agenda is essentially separatist.

Despite official declarations to the contrary, there is a lot of support for extremist groups among the elite in major US/UK regional allies Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This presents London and Washington with something of a dilemma, hence the focus on ‘moderate’ Islamist groups and the flagging up of internecine fighting between, say, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and IS or the Taliban and IS.

So here is where Bayes Law comes in– like General Odierno says, crushing IS will just result in the evolution of a super IS– more adaptive and exploitive, more extreme and hardened.  It has happened before (a priori data) in Algeria, in Iraq and Syria, and now in Sham and Libya and Nigeria and Somalia.
Maybe the only strategy that can work is to allow Sunni muslims self government?
Stay tuned for my next posting– the Islamic State in the Iterated Game

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