Robert Steele & Anonymous: Most Analysis Software Sucks — And Story of How Steele Correctly Called BSA Not Being Signed in Afghanistan

IO Tools
Robert David STEELE Vivas
Robert David STEELE Vivas

ROBERT STEELE: I have been re-kicking the tires on the obvious aspiring analytic software packages, and find all of them unworthy for multiple reasons ranging from an inability to ingest data to an obscene amount of training being required to extract data to a general uselessness at making intuitive leaps. I asked one of the absolute masters what they thought, and below is the answer they gave me. Following this deeply critical commentary from someone I look up to, I provide the short story on how I appear to have been the only person in the US system that understood the Bi-Lateral Agreement (BSA) with Afghanistan would not be signed. No software was involved in any way.

The question as I posed it: is there any analytic software out there that might be a candidate for a fresh start against the eighteen CATALYST functionalities? Is there any analytic software out there that is worth a damn, apart from sources, analysts, context, and smart commanders that will entertain doubts, anomalous thoughts, and best guesses?

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Click on Image to Enlarge

ANONYMOUS: I wish I had a good unchallenged answer to your question. The fact is that all analysis software is basically useless unless the analyst has a good handle on what is actually going in (imported) and what is going out (exported). I worked with Analyst Notebook from the very beginning (infancy) to its maturity, with all the bells and whistles attached, but the ultimate analysis comes from the analyst and even then making predictions with the analysis is still shoddy. I have also used CrimeLink, which is almost a clone of Analyst Notebook, and the same goes for that piece of software: it will only provide information, not intelligence, in a nice to use format (same as Palintir) that the analyst still has to massage in order to create intelligence.

Sometimes my thinking is that analytic software is better suited for the strategic environment where predictions (economic, foreign policy, etc.) are long term and can be changed as new information is received and no one is really hurt. However, try it at the tactical level where a battlefield commander needs intelligence “now” and his worry is about protecting his soldiers from some possible ambush. The software is not going to tell you where the ambush exists, that’s still the analyst’s job.

I still remember the days of acetate and colored grease pencils. All the information was posted on the acetate and quickly accessible to everyone in the analysis and production section. A quick glance at the board and you knew exactly where the enemy and friendlies were located. Nowadays it goes into the analytical software and you tend to forget about it because it is not readily visible. When the information is visible and you’re constantly looking at it the brain is continually making assessments (predictive analysis) as new information is received and posted. That is not possible when the information is simply inputted into the software. And it makes it much worse when dealing with asymmetric warfare. Too much reliance on technological tools could possibly cheat the analysts from thinking creatively on their own because of falling into the “buttonology” trap. In other words, the analyst becomes too dependent on what he/she thinks the software is saying will happen. Does that make sense?

All I keep seeing are more bells and whistles (apps) being added to the software to make it easier to handle the massive amounts of data and present it in a nice format but they all still fall short on predictive analysis. And of course there’s always the marketing aspect for any piece of analytical software, and I doubt if we will ever have just one analysis toolkit that is common throughout the services.

To follow up on the marketing aspect. I remember several years ago when a group of individuals, military types, put together a superb briefing on a piece of analytical software they had used in Iraq and briefed the Commanding General (CG). The CG was so impressed with it that it was ordered that we start using it immediately and money was invested. I even got to go to California for training on it and so did others. The other piece of software we had been using got the boot and this one got the hoot. Simply because of a single rip roaring brief. The software we had been using could accomplish the same thing and was far cheaper. So now we had a problem! What about the analysts we had trained on the booted software who were now out in the field? Well, you guessed it. Possible retraining (or worse, no training at all) and more cost to the government, either financial or in opportunity cost of unused software and handicapped analysts.

Now here’s the real kicker. The company that owned the newly adopted software wasn’t real happy that the instructors were getting smart on the software package and instructing students on it. They wanted to have their own personnel come and train the trainers and basically certify them. I’m not real sure what happened after that.

My summary as I see it. All analytical software is great if you want fancy charts with timelines and graphics connected by lines showing relationships reproduced in a powerpoint slide. However, the analyst, as far as I’m concerned, is the only person that can create intelligence from all the information. The only thing the software does is package it for the analyst in a nice format.

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Click on Image to Enlarge

I’m sure everyone remembers the following slide and General Stanley McChrystal’s comment: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” I have to admit I don’t know how the information on the slide was generated but only use it as an example. It may well have been all powerpoint by an individual.

ROBERT STEELE: I arrived in Afghanistan on 20 August 2013 and was using M3 and doing standard analyst tasks in the MISTF-A J-2 on 21 August 2013. By mid-September I was sensing that the BSA would not be signed. This is my account of how I came to that conclusion, one I felt very solid on by November, at which time I was told that I could not possibly be correct, as everyone else (Dunford’s staff and the Embassy) was saying it absolutely would be signed.

CLUE #1: Almost immediately I learned from orientation reading that President Karzai had forbidden the Afghan armed forces to ever call for ISAF air support. ISAF air support was supposedly a “lifeline” service without which the Afghan forces would collapse in the face of all 3,000 or so Taliban over-running the country (but mostly operating in Pashtunistan). I understood this FACT at multiple levels: strategically, absolute enmity and deep anger; operationally, ISAF not really needed; tactically, ISAF more of a problem in its collateral damage than a solution in its responsiveness and effectiveness.

CLUE #2: It quickly became clear, within a few weeks, that the justification for ISAF in Afghanistan (the equation of Al Qaeda with the Taliban, a mistake not corrected until we we eleven years into the war, i.e. in 2013) was non-existent, and that the Taliban was a) totally indigenous and b) relatively modest in numbers. This augmented my view that Karzai was correct in his assumption that he did not need ISAF and that ISAF was fueling the on-going internal conflict. As I was leaving in December I learned that Karzai and Rassoul had spent two years negotiating treaties with a number of countries that can only be described as a brilliant post-ISAF non-ISAF safety net — never mind that the French and the Turks always play both sides. Today we know that Russia will be training and equipping Afghan forces going into the future, with India as its partner. Iran has bought Herat and owns Afghan trade with India via the port of Chabahar, which beat out the very corrupt and inefficient Pakistani port of Gwadar. It is also clear that China is clamping down on Pakistan in relation to Kashmir and its formenting of instability in Afghanistan.

CLUE #3: Although I arrived in Afghanistan with a good education that included an understanding of Afghan antipathy for all foreign forces — and a marvelous send-off briefing from Milt Bearden whom I have known for two decades — by October it was clear to me that the Taliban had softened considerably on its conditions for reconciling, and that the departure of foreign forces was its “capital demand.” According to Milt, and all my subsequent information supported this, the Taliban welcomed a US military advisory group (MAG) focused on training and equipping Afghan forces, but demanded the departure of all shooters. Today I am not sure the MAG would be welcome, we appear to have blown the window for transitioning, which will hurt both military sales and mineral rights.

CLUE #4: Karzai kept trying to negotiate with the Taliban, and everyone he was negotiating with kept getting killed — which elevated rash youthful leaders and complicated matters.  In one instance, according to open sources, US forces kidnapped the Taliban emissary from an Afghan government convoy.  Not cool at all. In the overall context of all that I was reading (with high marks for CIA/OSC being within a day on Afghan sources in Dari and Pashto, five to ten days late on Afghan sources in English), it was clear that Karzai placed vastly more importance on getting the Taliban to rejoin the government than on keeping ISAF in Afghanistan.

CLUE #5: This was the kicker. In early November, reading a Taliban website in English, I understood two key points being made by the Taliban. First, that Afghanistan was wealthy and did not need ISAF-related donations; and second, that Afghanistan should never again subject itself to another Treaty of Gandamak. Looking it up — I was not familiar with it at the time — I learned this was the treaty in which Afghanistan signed itself over to the British and became a vassal state of the British empire. That did it for me.

ANALYTIC CONCLUSION:  Forbidden ISAF air support + Taliban demand for departure of foreign forces + persistent efforts to negotiate with Taliban while US did everything possible to undermine + wealth + Treaty of Gandamak as a marker = do not sign the BSA. This would have the dual advantage of forcing ISAF out by the end of 2014 and be the one thing that Karzai would deliver with authenticity not just to the Taliban, but to all Afghans who hate foreign occupying forces.

SIDE NOTE: There are many beholden to ISAF, or the ISAF-bubble, and while I respect the fear and the financial motivations in favor of signing the BSA, the math is not there for me. ISAF is a negative. What I find really interesting is the amount of equipment that will NOT have transfer memorandums in place and is likely to simply be abandoned — this is a financial opportunity for a properly prepared Afghan government, and an indictment of a command and control system that could not “hear” its one anomalous analyst.

There are many other factors, including Pakistan being the primary enemy of Afghanistan as well as US interests in the region, but someone else can address those.

For myself, I observe with interest that Ghani (a former Finance Minister and the probable victor of the run-off election), is deeply familiar with the corruption of the international donor process that results in less than 10% of all assigned aid actually being spent in Afghanistan. He KNOWS that he can get more aid to the average village by pursung an independent strategy including one that creates bank accounts for each village and connects primary donors directly to those villages.  Although Ghani has said he will sign the BSA, Ghani may find that he will be a stronger President — ideally with Abdullah as Prime Minister — without the BSA. The circumstances have changed completely. Afghanistan is surrounded by intelligent countries that — with the exception of Pakistan — see huge value in creating regional accommodations for agriculture, energy, mining, telecommunications, trade, and water. It will be rough going, but the FOCUS is on creating wealth NOT on chasing an Al Qaeda fantasma. In my view, the USA has wasted a year during which it could have been developing a Plan B that was strong on MAG, commerce, laying down an Internet infrstructure, and helping electronic banking progress on all fronts (this helps small businesses in the rural areas and reduces corruption at the same time). Instead everyone refused to listen to the one analyst that got it right, and sat around waiting for their pre-ordained outcome to materialize.

As I did once before on Burundi, then before the entire Aspin-Brown Commission, I beat the entire US “system.” I did this with my brain and open sources. No software was involved. Perhaps more to the point, I failed to make a difference. Sometimes it is not about sources or methods, it boils down to leadership. Will junior leaders listen to anomalous analysis and convey that anomalous analysis to senior leaders? Will senior leaders be open to the possibility that both the Department of State and the entire US Intelligence Community as now trained, equipped, and organized, might not have a clue? Education of leaders and analysts, not software tools, is where I would invest my next billion.

NOTE: SILOBREAKERDeep Web Technologies, and CrisisMappers are three offerings I hold in high regard. Many other bits and pieces are found here under IO Tools. There are discussions going on about how best to create a clean-sheet open-source conglomeration of sources, softwares, and services that are affordable, interoperable (i.e. geospatially-attributable at the datum level), and scalable. Anyone thinking they have part of the answer, please do get in touch: robert.david.steele.vivas [at] gmail [dot] com.

NOTE: Any analytic software that proposes itself as a solution to “big data” has no idea what big data really means. To better understand big data, see Big Data @ Phi Beta Iota.

See Especially (on Analysis):

2014 Robert Steele: Appraisal of Analytic Foundations – Email Provided, Feedback Solicited – UPDATED

Mini-Me: US Army DCGS-A Failures — and Palantir Keeps Trying to Over-Sell Its Shallow Pit

Analysis @ Phi Beta Iota

See Also:

Afghanistan @ Phi Beta Iota

Bi-Lateral Security Agreement @ Phi Beta Iota

1989+ Intelligence Reform

1976+ Intelligence Models 2.1

1957+ Decision Support Story