Monday, July 23, 2007

Iraq: Resolving the coercion/intelligence dilemma 

If true, this is good news:

Fed up with being part of a group that cuts off a person’s face with piano wire to teach others a lesson, dozens of low-level members of al-Qaeda in Iraq are daring to become informants for the US military in a hostile Baghdad neighbourhood.

The ground-breaking move in Doura is part of a wider trend that has started in other al-Qaeda hotspots across the country and in which Sunni insurgent groups and tribal sheikhs have stood together with the coalition against the extremist movement.

“They are turning. We are talking to people who we believe have worked for al-Qaeda in Iraq and want to reconcile and have peace,” said Colonel Ricky Gibbs, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which oversees the area.

It is fashionable to identify and decry blowback against American foreign policy, in part because it is often obvious. Blowback happens to the other guy, too. Fine. The real question is whether this story is evidence that the United States is finally resolving the "coercion/intelligence dilemma."


To some significant degree, intelligence and firepower substitute for each other. From "The Possibilities For Clean Counterinsurgency," your blogger's undergraduate thesis written in the 1982-83 academic year, when I was 21:
In order to destroy something -- be it an object, a person, or an institution -- it is necessary both to know the relevant characteristics and location of the target, and to be able to damage it. To a certain extent, an aggressor may compensate for deficiency inone item by increasing the other. If I wish to kill a man in a house, but do not know which room he is in or how he is armed, I may certainly kill him by flattening the entire building under a barrage of artillery. If, however, my only weapon is an ice pick, I can still terminate him by discovering when he sleepsand attack him only then.

The man-in-the-house game is contrived, but it illustrates the nature of the exchange between intelligence and firepower. It is much cheaper and quicker for me to murder the man with my ice pick, and I do far less collateral damage (the house still stands for my own use) than if I expend money, time, and ammunition destroying the building. In short, the intelligence that enabled me to use my ice pick (i.e., knowing when the man slept) greatly increased the efficiency of my action.

In war between insurgents and an authority, a small increment in intelligence affects considerably the destructive capability of either fighting force. Early in the conflict especially, the insurgency will not have firepower to take the place of intelligence; a young rebellion thus depends utterly upon good information. The counterinsurgency, on the other hand, usually enjoys a tremendous advantage in firepower, but faces great difficulty obtaining good information about the whereabouts of its enemy. It is as if the man were hiding not in one house, but in an entire village of houses, any of which might be boobytrapped.

The problem for the counterinsurgency is that excessive application of its firepower (because it is at an intelligence disadvantage) will further increase the intelligence advantage of the insurgency. I (and undoubtedly others before me) called this the coercion/intelligence dilemma. Twenty-one year old me again (quoted passages footnoted to sources in the original):
Revolutionary theorists like to claim that guerrillas are but the military arm of a population at war with the controlling power. If that were true, many of the wars of the last forty years would have been much shorter than they were. In fact, most insurgencies begin with a nucleus of determined activists, and they usually confront a government that represents but a small fraction of the population (or a demographically discrete plurality or majority). In between the two groups lie the masses of the people, who rarely want anything more than to grow their food and say their prayers.

Neither side needs the love or loyalty of the population nearly as much as its cooperation. The insurgent must have nondenunciation so that he may carry on his war against the authority from the midst of the people. The counterinsurgent needs information, so that he may determine the nature, power and membership of the insurgency. Because a credible threat of sanction (death or torture, for example) frequently outweighs love or loyalty, the side that imposes stiff penalties for noncompliance will often win the cooperation of the people away from the side that inspires merely moral support for the merits of its cause. To the extent that cooperative action and the support of opinion among the population differ, there has been effective coercion.

Coercers fall into two general camps. The first would seek to cow a population through a combination of ferocity and caprice. One might, for example, terrorize a population into complying with one's wishes by randomly burning down villages... The capriciousness can help to convey the impression of power; if however, the level of caprice is so high that compliance seems as dangerous as resistance (or noncooperation), the population will cooperate with the side it prefers. When that happens, coercion fails by definition.

The second sort of coercer seeks to create a language of force, through which coercion takes the form of an articulate expression of severity and regularity. The coercer establishes and communicates a well-defined list of desired actions, and punishes noncompliances in a manner closely and explicitly associated with infractions. The object is to gain cooperation consistently without sacrificing the support of the population, which may understand and accept the need for violence that it knows it can avoid by complying.

The power of coercers of the second variety varies directly with the consistency and predictability of the sanctions they threaten. In order to achieve consistency, a coercer needs to know who has been naughty or nice. "The point is to be as implacable (in the case of disobedience) as one is restrained (in that of compliance), having rendered oneself, in the first place, well informed about who has behaved how." It follows directly that the would-be coercer will strive for increasingly accurate information, which in turn depends on an ever more effective intelligence apparatus.

To a great extent, then, the capacity to coerce effectively parallels the quality of one's intelligence. Two implications spring from this realization. First, the coercer confront a coercion/intelligence dilemma, for the quality of one's intelligence very frequently depends itself upon effective coercion. If one must coerce in order to collect intelligence that will facilitate coercion, one might risk the excessive caprice warned against above and alienate the population before there is any possibility of damaging most of the guilty and few of the innocent. If the counterinsurgent cannot break out of the coercion/intelligence dilemma he will find himself trapped in a cycle of deteriorating credibility, in which he will punish capriciously (for lack of intelligence), lose sources of information as a result of his caprice, and then punish more capriciously. The coercion/intelligence dilemma is therefore a central obstacle to clean counterinsurgency, and central to the war for information.

Second, the problem of collecting sufficient intelligence to coerce effectively (or, for that matter, to inflict damage of several varieties) is especially acute for a counterinsurgent, and doubly so to a foreign authority, neither of which can rely on proximity alone to furnish them with information. Cultural, racial, religious, and geographical barriers can cripple efforts to gather intelligence of quality. Even when the counterinsurgent wants to coerce, he may believe that the pursuit of good intelligence is doomed to failure (i.e., how is it possible to separate the compliant from the defiant within a faceless population?). Or, he might believe that the rebels and the people are so close that good intelligence is unnecessary. In either case, the counterinsurgent fails to establish the intelligence apparatus that would facilitate coercion, his ultimate goal.

Coupled with the less difficult but still formidable tasks of communicating both the desired conduct and the connection between noncompliance and sanction, the coercion/intelligence dilemma makes it very difficult for the counterinsurgent to coerce effectively, yet ineffective coercion will contribute to illegal violence toward noncombatants...

More concisely, a noncombatant will cooperate with the side that punishes noncooperation with the greatest specificity. If one side punishes capriciously, most rational noncombatants will decide that they are better off cooperating with the other side. Why? Because the more capricious side -- lacking good intelligence about who is and is not cooperating -- may punish noncombatants whether or not they cooperate with the other side. The side that punishes accurately, on the other hand, will only punish genuine noncooperation. Therefore, the smart noncombatant cooperates with the side that neither punishes too many actual cooperators or fails to punish too many actual non-cooperators, because he reduces his risk of punishment by the side that punishes efficiently without altering his risk at the hand of the side that punishes capriciously.


The Iraqi insurgency in all its elements is complicated, but I have long thought that the portion of it known as "al Qaeda in Iraq" -- the Sunni jihadis who promoted and implemented beheadings and the killing of children and mass casualty car bomb attacks -- was particularly vulnerable to traditional counterinsurgency tactics. Al Qaeda's methods of punishing noncooperation struck me as capricious; car bombs kill even more indiscriminately than American air strikes, so a noncombatant is at risk of dying from them whether or not he cooperates with al Qaeda.

The linked story suggests as well that al Qaeda's brutality has widened the gap between the desires of the noncombatants among whom al Qaeda lives and operates and al Qaeda's requirements for that population. That is, al Qaeda has to coerce a higher percentage of the population into cooperating, because they are less willing to coopoerate willingly.

At the same time, modern technology may have made it easier for informants to cooperate with the counterinsurgency without risk of detection by the insurgency. See, for example, my now long-in-the-tooth post on the text-messaging war.

Finally, it is crucial to remember that noncombatants measure relative caprice, efficiency, and brutality in punishment according to their perceptions. If one side is perceived as more capricious than the other, fewer noncombatants will cooperate with it. If one side is perceived as more brutal than the other, more noncombatants will have to be coerced into cooperating with it -- that is, the side that is less popular because of its perceived brutality (and other considerations of popularity) will have to coerce more successfully in order to achieve the same level of cooperation. To some important extent, therefore, perceptions become reality.

Because perceptions are so important in counterinsurgency, capricious acts and the publicity of those acts can actually hurt the war effort. When supporters of the Coalition and the government of Iraq object to the widespread and one-sided publicity of purported American war crimes, it is not that we think, a priori, that these events should be covered up or that we care about the political fortunes of the Bush administration. Rather, it is because we know that anything that increases the perception of the counterinsurgency as capricious will actually hurt the war effort insofar as it motivates noncombatants to cooperate with the other side. Similarly, relatively muted publicity of enemy atrocities artificially dims the perception that al Qaeda kills capriciously and brutally. Both problems would diminish if the press, which has an enormous capacity to magnify perceptions, applied the same moral standard to both sides.


By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon Jul 23, 07:42:00 AM:

"If one side is perceived as more brutal than the other, more noncombatants will have to be coerced into cooperating with it -- that is, the side that is less popular because of its perceived brutality (and other considerations of popularity) will have to coerce more successfully in order to achieve the same level of cooperation."

I would suggest a caveat to this, vis a vis the Middle East, because there brutality is not just tolerated or expected, but often admired so long as it is seen to be delivered justly. Few care if Abd al-Rahman from down the street is tortured and executed, so long as he seen to have deserved it.

This mentality helps to explain the lack of outcry over indiscriminate killings and wholesale oppression of, say, Jews, Christians, and Kurds throughout the years.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Mon Jul 23, 11:11:00 AM:

"cooperation" may be too strong a word for what a populace needs to do for an insurgency to persist. It suggests positive action.

Ambivalence is the term I like to use. They don't need to actively support you so much as largely ignore you and not drop the dime.

You're right -- this is where AQ screwed up. They made such ambivalence difficult to maintain. When they started in with the capricious killings they sealed their fate.  

By Blogger antithaca, at Mon Jul 23, 06:03:00 PM:

I would just like to say, I got a GRE question right today because of this post. The word "capricious" was in it. I blew of studying to read blogs and it totally paid off.

Thanks tigerhawk! It's the little things.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 23, 06:14:00 PM:

My, oh My.
You do go the long way round!
Nice though.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Tue Jul 24, 09:40:00 AM:

I suspect this is better stated in a different section of your thesis, but I’ll put it out as a crude analogy anyway. Using the carrot-and-the-stick example (CATS), the noncombatant measures which side to give loyalty to by “Will I get a carrot”, “Will I get a stick” and a third concept of “Which side will be here next year”. It does no good to roll into an area and promote a peaceful government with working social services if you have a proven track record of walking away and allowing the murderers to roll back in and kill everybody you worked with. This has happened before in Iraq, and is one of the reasons George H Bush is not trusted by many Iraqis.

Right now the hardest thing for our military and the Iraqis is to make the populace believe the government being set up is going to be around for a while. And it is being made a darned sight harder by the constant screeching of the Left, demanding we flee the country before it is stable.

Proposed Democratic Debate question: “As President, how do you propose that we win in Iraq?”  

By Blogger Solomon2, at Tue Jul 24, 10:45:00 AM:


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jul 24, 10:50:00 AM:

Perhaps as a corollary thought to this long essay and excerpt, we should also wonder what it will take to make American Moslems choose to support the American polity over identificatin with the worldwide Moslem Umma (trans-national religious loyalty).
This is what also precludes "peaceful and law abiding" Moslems from criticizing violent Jihad.
Again, the cost for non-co-operation at this point, with the American polity is very low, while the social/personal cost for openly criticizing the Moslem Umma 'Jihad' is significantly higher.
Islam is so hermetically sealed, so to speak, against internal dissent, that the impulse to dissent is suppressed right up to the point (and beyond) of mortal peril, as illustrated so tragically in Iraq.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jul 24, 03:43:00 PM:

It would be great if the administration actually got out there and provided specific examples of people in Iraq who said they didnt' turn over intelligence or assist the U.S. because of hearing over and over how bad the U.S. is on CNN or AP or whatever or just mentioning this possibility in a simple direct manner.

If these people in the press would just stop salivating on themselves before they went forward with another "Scott Thomas" story which they seem to come up with about once a month it would certainly help in the battle of hearts and minds over there, at least in comparison to their current method of just bombarding the world with stories about U.S. mistreatments, even when those stories aren't true.

It also doesn't help when you have a political party wedded to such stories either.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jul 29, 07:18:00 AM:

. Although, coercion is a factor in the Iraq war one must not overlook the fact that the counter insurgency must clearly state its stance and place itself in reality and in perception as retaining the moral high ground and then live up to this expectation. People don’t blow themselves up on a regular bases out of coercion they most often do it because they believe it’s the right thing. The current Iraqi government cannot do this because of its sectarian ties and outright corruption. Until this happens many people will happily blow up those in the government and those tied to it  

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