Changing the Game: How Analytics Can Help Defeat Violent Extremism

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by Doug Samuelson

As the political debate rages on over how to defeat terrorism, a thoughtful, deeply experience-based analysis by a retired Special Forces officer offers a new perspective: “They’re all wrong.” What we need, he says, is a change in focus from conventional force, applied in support of national governments, to Village Stability Operations (VSO), emphasizing developing local leadership and building from there.

Scott Mann (Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, retired) should know. In his 22 years of service, he led VSOs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Leading U.S. experts labeled his and others’ efforts along these lines as “the game changer” in Afghanistan in 2010-2012. In his new book, titled Game Changers: Going Local to Defeat Violent Extremists, he outlined the VSO approach in four steps:

  1. Get yourself surrounded. Move in with the locals, get to know their concerns first-hand and on a day-to-day basis, let them get to know you.
  2. Meet them where they are. He explained in his book, “For VSO to work, we must embrace local realities. That means working with what is already there, and not with what we want to be there. In Nangahar, it took two successive teams of Special Forces to identify all of the local grievances standing in the way of village autonomy and connection to the Afghan government. Only when these Green Berets started to help locals address their own local problems did they persuade them to stand up for themselves.”
  3. Connect through extreme collaboration. He wrote, “It takes more than a village. It takes a network to empower that village.” He added, “Let’s not forget our own organizational complexity, tensions, and self-induced feuding as our second enemy in defeating violent extremism.
  4. Tell a story that sticks. “The side that tells the most compelling story, and backs it up with meaningful action, is the side that wins,” he asserted. In Nangahar, he added, it took about two years for the “master narrative of local clans standing up for themselves, supported by their government, against an oppressive and unwanted group of violent extremists” to take hold. The narrative spread to other communities in the area. “This expansion was possible largely because of a compelling narrative and well-told stories,” he added.

“We’re losing now,” Lt.Col. Mann told Analytics in a recent interview, “because we keep trying to find a national government we can work with, top-down, applying massive conventional force. We’ve been in this conflict for fifteen years, we ought to be adapting, and we’re not.”

He went on, “There’s nothing new in this approach, it’s just that nobody’s listening. We had a coordinated program called FID, Foreign Internal Defense, to apply all our instruments of power in fragile countries. It’s run by the embassy country team, coordinating defense, law enforcement, and economics. We’ve been doing it for decades, and we’re good at it. We did it in Colombia, El Salvador, and the Philippines. But after 9/11, we abandoned it and went back to COIN, counterinsurgency, and it was as much a failure in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had been in Vietnam.”

He cautioned, “It takes a long time. At this point we’ll have to punch our way back in, but then we need to conduct long-term FID, position our talent at both bottom-up and top-down, looking for stability inhospitable to violent extremists at the local and national levels.”

“Everything was in place after the surge [in Iraq],” he said, “but then we needed to implement FID. In these places where violent extremists set up shop, 80 percent of the land is tribal, outside national control.” Hence, he elaborated, “we have to learn to exploit an honor-based society to create the opportunities we want.”

He commented that the current political rhetoric, from all sides, is “ridiculous,” and it’s reinforcing the narrative our enemies want to spread. “What ISIS wants to do is divide us against Muslims and exploit gaps within our communities about trust.”

The success of extreme political rhetoric, he hypothesized, is a response to a general vague sense of unease about the current situation. “Americans see that it’s not working, and they’re primed for something new, ready for some leadership,” he stated. “I’ll say this in a very apolitical way. We just need to understand what works and do it. And we’re not.”

What we do need, he offered, is a reexamination of the authorities Congress gives to Special Forces to “get outside the wire” and work with local leaders, particularly to work with irregular forces along with the regulars. In Syria, he asserted, the authorities were so narrow and restrictive that they impeded what might have been effective. “If we had had persistent presence out there, we would have teams building community presence and maintaining fire bases. But it might take more than a decade – Colombia took forty years.”

Many of the same principles apply to what is known within the U.S. as “community policing.” Asked about this, Lt.Col. Mann replied, “Yes, I’d say pretty much the same approach would work in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, too.”

This also means that American national leaders need to have a much better understanding of the problems. “We Green Berets took nine years to arrive at the VSO program in Afghanistan. Jeffersonian democracy, targeted aid, and targeted killings all failed. We need to step back and reframe.” And that in turn, he emphasized, means that “the days of outsourcing local leadership are over. You have to dive in. You don’t just get handed some talking points right before walking into some place to give a speech.”

This is where analytics comes in. It is hard to document the benefits and problems of VSO succinctly and convincingly, especially to senior leaders caught up in a perpetual cycle of PowerPoint briefings. There is some movement in the senior levels of DoD away from OR back toward wargaming, based on a recognition that more flexibility is needed in depicting and evaluating possible courses of action. Still, in this reporter’s experience, stability operations actions in wargames tend to be portrayed in ways that require numerous assumptions about feasibility and effects – better than ignoring such actions entirely, but not convincing to anyone who has strongly held differing views.

However, creative analytics can generate substantial benefits. Nearly six years ago, a small team of OR-trained but creatively oriented analysts in the Joint Improvised Explosive Devices Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) came up with a clever way to combine statistical methods and geospatial mapping to generate density maps (also known as “heat maps”) of where tribes were, based on contact reports. General Petraeus complimented these (unnamed) analysts at the time for the useful support they had provided. The demonstration that a hostile tribe’s stronghold was also heavily populated by a friendly tribe, intermingled, could convince a commander not to apply massive force, wiping out much of the hostile tribe but also removing the friendly source of information – and turning their survivors unfriendly. Lt. Col. Mann mentioned these maps as one of the more useful tools available in theater, and confirmed that they are still being generated and used.

As in any other problem of measurement and analysis, it is vital to start with a clear objective and good metrics of whether that objective is being met. “We need a point of departure of what relative stability looks like [in the locale of interest], then we need to shape goals by what is possible,” he elaborated. “We need a definition of relative stability that is agreed upon by all levels of power, and we shouldn’t go to war without it.”

Metrics of such stability might include, for example, observations of whether locals tell the police where the criminals are or tell the criminals where the police are; or observations of what people do when they have a grievance (do they trust local government and law enforcement to work through those channels?); or observations of what happens to new economic development (in unstable regions, promising new facilities get blown up.) Creative, sensible analytical approaches, not unduly restricted by prior assumptions, and backed and informed by close contact with the people with deep experience, can greatly advance getting the policies right.

VSO, he concluded, “is not the silver bullet, but it’s the best approach we’ve got.” The challenge for analytics is to assess, in terms senior decision-makers will readily grasp, how right or wrong this conclusion is, and how it might be shaped to be more effective.



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