Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Measuring success in Afghanistan and "proving a negative"

At some point in your life, you have probably heard the phrase, "you can't prove a negative."  Bad phrasing, and I don't like to talk about proofs except in the context of math.  If you are one of my students, I have probably hassled you about improper use of the word, "proof."  Still, the old joke is as follows:  I have a pen in my pocket.  (In fact, a Fischer space pen, as everyone should carry!)  I have never been mauled by a zombie ice bear while carrying my Fischer space pen.  Therefore, my Fischer space pen repels zombie ice bears.  Take that, Thoros of Myr!  The pen is mightier than the flaming sword!

You can't prove that my pen doesn't repel zombie ice bears!

Yeah, that's obviously bullshit, and it is the core of the "you can't prove a negative" aphorism.  Of course, if there were zombie ice bears, we could set up a proper test, but that's a separate matter.  I'm just trying to demonstrate the illogic of the syllogism.

So, Trump made his big-boy speech last night, and we are re-escalating in Afghanistan.  No nation-building, just terrorist-killing.  How do we measure success?  Well, we can count the number of terrorists killed, presuming they carry Al-Qaeda/ISIS/Taliban membership cards which give them discounts at the local markets.  Odds of that?  Um... not good.  For the high-ranking members, we can probably identify their corpses, depending on how badly we obliterate them, and how mixed up their body parts are with the... collateral damage.  Other than that?

It's about the number of terrorist attacks prevented.  It's about what doesn't happen.  We haven't had a big, coordinated strike on US soil since 9/11, except for the anthrax attacks, which are... still kind of a mystery.  Yes, that counts, for all those idiots who want to say that Dubya kept us safe and nothing happened after 9/11.  Nope!  The rest of what has happened have been lone-wolf types of things.  Single shooters, single drivers, single bombers (or brothers...), and the other types of things that don't need any real coordination from any leadership.

Reality check:  lone wolf attackers are almost impossible to stop.  We can only prevent attacks through intercepted communications and other forms of human intelligence gathering, and lone wolf attackers aren't doing preparations by communicating, so they can't be stopped.  Deal with it.

Coordinated attacks can be stopped, and we haven't been hit with a big attack in a while.  Other countries have.  Spain has been, multiple times now.

Why haven't we?  Um...

That's where we hit the "you can't prove a negative" problem.  We can't know if it is because of successful actions on the part of the government or lack of trying by Al Qaeda/ISIS.  After 9/11, smaller attacks would make them look weaker, so one could make the case that they needed to wait and plan for something that wouldn't be a let-down, so to speak.  Then again, we've got the NSA, the CIA and a bunch of other agencies you don't know about devoting most of their resources to tracking down and killing those shitbags, along with the fact that the military has been bombing the shit out of everywhere we think they might be hiding, so maybe we have stopped whatever attacks they were planning.

And if we had, would the government tell us?  There's the problem.  A Trump-ian government would want to brag, but the problem with doing so is that it would reveal what we know, and doing that undercuts our methods.  Earlier, I wrote a post about leaks and the issues associated with them in general, and there are circumstances in which public revelations really do undercut national security.  If the CIA and the NSA working together really did stop a set of attacks through some operation, and somebody leaked that, that would be really bad because it would allow Al Qaeda/ISIS to adjust their operations to counter ours.

So, we can't know if the fact that there have been no 9/11-style or scale attacks is because of successful operations or because they just haven't gotten it together to pull off something that won't make them look weaker.

And if the plan for Afghanistan is not nation-building, but stopping terrorist attacks, then our measure of success is bound by the same problem.

1 comment:

  1. What, they don't carry Mahalo Rewards Cards?

    And, a Trump-ian government would brag. Because it wants to. There is no filter. There is no ego or superego. There is only id.