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How the Middle East Responds to Wikileaks

One thing that media and Middle East watchers will want to keep an eye on in the coming days is the way that news outlets in the region, especially independent satellite giants such as al-Jazeera, cover the Wikileaks scandal. Wikileaks is being covered extensively in the West, often from a US-centric perspective, but it threatens to be a big story for several Arab regimes that are mentioned repeatedly in the leaked State Department cables as well. Given the potentially embarrassing nature of some of the stories, one might expect the state controlled “official” outlets to downplay or even ignore the Wikileaks stories that deal with their respective regimes. Similarly, what opposition press exists in a given state can be expected to praise the stories. But what will (relatively) independent outlets do? Al-Jazeera is the gold standard for Mideast media, but is less than a decade and a half old and has never confronted a story like this. Its detractors have long accused it of taking direction from Qatar, where it is based, and at the very least the network clearly directs the bulk of its coverage, so stinging toward nearly everyone else, away from the tiny Gulf state. Will this delicate balance be compromised, forcing Jazeera to either compromise its independent reputation or call out its hosts?

Without access to al-Jazeera’s newsroom, it is of course impossible to know for sure why the network chooses to cover what it does, but there is always tension in the news business between shaping public opinion and responding to it, and Jazeera is a particularly intriguing outlet. Whether it is being critical of Israel, the US, or America’s Arab allies, is al-Jazeera doing so because it is catering to an audience that is already angry, or reporting in an aggressive and often adversarial manner in an effort to lead public opinion? Wikileaks will introduce another set of data points to help observers analyze the station.

So far, I would suggest that al-Jazeera seems to be under-playing the Wikileaks story. It has reported modestly on the parts of Wikileaks that include Qatar, mentioning for example that State Department cables say Qatar’s security forces have been “reluctant to act against terrorists.”[1] But story number one on aljazeera.net at the moment is about the Iranian nuclear scientists who were attacked this morning,[2] and story two is about demonstrations in Upper Egypt in the wake of Parliamentary elections.[3] Would Wikileaks be merely the third (and fourth and fifth) most popular story if the “Arab Street” knew all the details? I would guess that it would be first, and it would indisputably be ahead of Egyptian elections.

The next few days should be fascinating. How al-Jazeera deals with Wikileaks involving Qatar, especially the ruling Royal Family, compared to leaks involving other Arab or Gulf states will be critical. And if Saudi funded, rival satellite station al-Arabiya goes after any Wikileaks story, Qatar-related or not, watch al-Jazeera’s response: it will hopefully prove enlightening.

[1] http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/FCA7D659-38FD-476A-AEBC-BA956AD8BDF1.htm?GoogleStatID=1

[2] http://aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/A1938B7E-C84A-48E0-8C22-14DB59C9FB8A.htm?GoogleStatID=1

[3] http://aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/7250D237-4E28-4F77-BD81-CC8911D3D122.htm?GoogleStatID=1


Bowen and Biddle: Corruption Causes COIN Complications

On November 2, 2010, the Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University hosted a panel on corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In attendance were Stuart W. Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and Dr. Stephen D. Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy and the Council on Foreign Relations.  In his prepared remarks, Bowen pulled no punches on the importance of defeating corruption.  He referred to it as “the second insurgency” in Iraq, and said “corruption has like a cancer spread” in the country.  Iraq’s oil and gas resources are government owned, allowing only a privileged few to benefit, and to skim profits off the top.  He pointed to a lack of services and corruption as the major reasons Iraqis lack confidence in their government.

Dr. Biddle discussed corruption as it relates to Afghanistan and emphasized the role of the US to combat it.  When Afghan farmers are being preyed upon by corrupt government leaders and see the US aiding the government, they often turn to the Taliban as the only body that will protect them from corruption.  Biddle emphasized good governance as key to successful counter-insurgency, and characterized corruption as the “hydraulic fluid” making the machine of Afghan government run.  He proposed a pragmatic middle-ground solution in which corruption would not be defeated completely but rather brought down to a “reasonable” level.

Both Bowen and Biddle advocated greater unity of effort in the US government to fight corruption.  Bowen called for unifying anti-corruption agencies.  Biddle urged “cooperation among a variety of government sectors,” noting that this is “unusually hard in COIN” because of the complex environment.  Nonetheless, Biddle pointed to the cooperation during the Iraqi troop Surge of 2007 between Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus as a successful model of the unity of effort.

Both speakers hit on a key point, which is that support (which includes the perceptions) of Iraqi and Afghan citizens are critical in America’s ability to win the fight in both theaters.  Counterinsurgency is not only a military campaign for security, but a political campaign for confidence and trust.  The appearance that the US is indifferent to or complicit with regard to corruption activities not only damages morale, but is a strategic liability in the war effort.  As Dr. Biddle succinctly put it, “If we fail in this…we lose the war.”

One lingering question after the event, however, is the role that cultural differences play in this issue.  Many practices considered here in the US to be corrupt are well-accepted as legitimate in counterinsurgency theaters.  These are cultural differences with which commanders on the ground are forced to pragmatically deal.  Achieving the kind of tolerable corruption which Dr. Biddle advocates will require understanding the cultural norms surrounding corruption in COIN theaters, and dealing with them in ways that most successfully enable our troops to accomplish the mission.


First Impressions of Afghanistan

I recently traveled to, and spent two weeks in Afghanistan.  I am going to repost my first impressions of the country on this blog and if you are interested in reading more, you can read all about my other experiences on my personal blog: www.mrkd.us

Do you ever wake up in the morning slightly confused about where you are? Well I just woke up to the sound of the daily prayer over loudspeakers, dogs barking, rooster’s cockadooddling and cars honking.  It took me a minute to place where I am, which is in fact the compound in which I am staying for the next 10 days.

I kept meaning to write yesterday, but I was kept so incredibly busy.  I will do my best to give a run down of everything I did.

OK let’s start at the airport.  So when I walked off the plane in Afghanistan I immediately knew that this place was going to be unlike any other place I have been previously.  I could just tell from the air.  It definitely had a funk to it, which was, as I found out later, all of the pollution in the city.

Stepping off the plane in the Kabul Airport

So I walked off the airplane, down the stairs onto the tarmac and then into a bus, which took all of us to immigration.  Immigration itself wasn’t too bad, but I soon started realizing how Afghans are very quick to try to get you to pay them money.  It started when a young boy asked me for my bag stub, and already being pretty overwhelmed I gave it to him. He ran about 10 yards and got my bag then demanded that I give him money and then got irritable when I only gave him one dollar.

So once I finished with my immigration papers, I started walking out and was ambushed again by a little middle-aged man who insisted that he carry my bag.  I tried to convince him that I was more than capable of carrying my own stuff, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  So I let him carry it just so I could get out of the airport. I still wasn’t particularly thrilled because my goal of not sticking out wasn’t working too well with a little Afghan carrying my stuff.

We finally reached my colleagues out here, pay the man off, and proceed to get into the 4runner. So this is where it starts to sink in about where I am.  My first instinct once I got in the back seat was to put my seat belt on. The seat belt was stuffed behind the seat and as I’m struggling with it, Nick (who is delightfully British) says, “you won’t need that mate, it’s best not to wear seatbelts in case we have to jump out of the car quickly.” Oh, well that’s practical.

Anyway, we set off, and I am quickly wishing I could wear my seat belt.  Cliff later told me this theory about driving in Afghanistan: If you see a hole in traffic you better fill it because if you don’t, an Afghan will.  Nothing made this statement truer than when we went through a round about (by the way there are no stoplights, painted lanes, and most of the roads aren’t paved).  So not only are 4 “lanes” of traffic trying to go around this circle, but there are people walking with their carts full of beets, donkeys carrying carts full of pomegranates, people commuting on bikes, and children running all on the same street. It’s utter chaos. Somehow we make it through and head on our way.  The final roundabout move we need to make (and by the way our driver is a local Afghan) is to go all the way around in order to go the opposite direction on the road. Now as a product of a country with traffic laws, this would mean just going all the way around the circle, so that’s what we were going to do right? False, we just pull a U-turn into the on coming traffic in the circle and continue down the road in which we came. (I’m sure my mom is freaking out as she is reading this, especially because I am not wearing a seatbelt.) So I asked cliff about how safe it was driving in Afghanistan, and he said that it’s actually very safe.  The truth is that you never get above more than 25 mph and everyone is very aware that if they wreck their car, they will not be getting it fixed anytime soon. Anyway, we finally made it to the compound.

The Streets of Kabul

So after I get settled in, take a shower, and have breakfast, I do some work for a couple of hours (not blog worthy)

Around lunch we head out again to meet with one of Nick’s old friends. So we drive back out into the city and along the way get shaken down by, as Cliff puts it, “the little girl mafia,” who run along side of our truck until we give them money. I tell Cliff he is being an enabler, he agrees (he’s just too nice of a guy), and we finally park where we are going to have lunch. Now, I’ve had to deal with bouncers in the past, but never ones carrying AK-47s.  So we go into a holding cell, get patted down (Cliff, has to surrender his side arm) and walk into the restaurant. On the inside you would have no idea that we were in Kabul.  All the tables were in a courtyard under umbrellas with the smell of hookah in the air. To be honest, I felt like James Bond for a little bit, going to a secret location to talk business.

After lunch we left and went to the ISAF headquarters, which is a huge military base.  Honestly that wasn’t particularly exciting except I got to sound like an idiot again when I asked if that huge blimp in the sky was some sort of weather balloon.  “No,” Nick politely told me, “someone’s always watching”

So finally we return home and I try to do some work but at this point I am completely exhausted from jet lag, as I have probably slept 6 hours in the last 48. So I take a nap and wake up just in time for us to go to dinner.

Now this place was again pretty secure, as it had more guards who were controlling which cars came in and out.  One reason that I found out why this is, is because it’s to keep the Afghans out of the restaurants because of the alcohol which is served there. So crazy.

Afghanistan is certainly very foreign to me, but so far I really like it.   I feel completely safe and I am learning more here than any book could ever tell me.  Anyway its time to get out of bed and see what new and crazy things I will be doing today.  I will also try to bring my camera with me so when we do stuff I’ll have some pictures to better explain.

-originally posted on September 29, 2010

Photos of the trip can be found here:


Web 3.0 and Beyond: The Semantic Web

Reposted from Strategic Technologies By Oleg Svet

“You can’t unread this sentence.”

I remember seeing that on a website once, after spending hours on the computer researching a topic, mostly through open-source search engines like Google.  Ironically, I was researching the positive sides of Web 2.0, trying to see what products the next wave in the frenzied gold rush of Web 2.0 will bring to our society.  Through applications like Facebook and YouTube, Web 2.0 has given users the ability to upload and share their own unique products (videos, music, writing, and so on) onto the Internet.  Easier access to a greater pool of information has its obvious benefits, from bringing about innovative technologies to providing users with greater varieties of entertainments.  Individuals have unquestionably been empowered by these technologies.

But Web 2.0 has also had its costs.  I do not mean this in the sense that Web 2.0 applications can be as easily used by nefarious actors as anyone else (although that is also a problem.)  I’m talking about the cognitive costs imposed by these new applications: a user researching a topic on-line runs into the potential problem of cognitive overload.  Much (if not most) of the information that users come across is useless, which brings me back to the first line in this blog:  “You can’t unread this sentence.”  All of that information that consumers read and digest on-line stays in their brain.  We sit for hours at our desk, taking in countless bytes of information from countless sources, and store it in our brain.  The cognitive burdens of this process lead us to develop mechanisms by which we don’t miss any of the headlines, so that we do not stay out of the loop or miss something really important.  The unfortunate consequence is that we don’t necessarily get any depth, and we develop attention deficit disorder.  Because of the cognitive overload imposed by the Internet on our brain, our attention has been reduced to 140 characters on a Twitter feed.

This is not something inherent in the internet itself.  It is, rather, a product of Web 2.0’s relative youth.  Today we are witnessing the frantic gold rush of Web 2.0, but with time, the Web will mature.  My guess is that Web 3.0, and whatever the next phase in the evolution of the web is (some call it “The Semantic Web”), will narrow down all of that information so that the user does not have to face today’s cognitive overload.  Information will be narrowed down and simplified.  Web 3.0 will smooth out the rough edges of Web 2.0.

Web 3.0

EPN, a Dutch think tank that studies the impact of information technologies on society, released an interesting video on the evolution of Web 1.0, Web 2.0, and Web 3.0.  According to EPN,  in the next step in the evolution of the web, technologies will become invisibly present in every day appliances; for example, as you will be travelling in your car, different bits of information — traveling times, GPS locations, multiple itineraries, restaurant sites, and weather information—will all be synchronized in real time.  Those appliances will communicate with each other through the web to meet our individual needs (they will not form an all knowing, omniscient computer that surpasses human intelligence.)  In some ways, this version of Web 3.0 is already happening, although in the next step of the Web development, less human direction will supposedly be needed.  For example, I recently purchased an iMac, and with it got a wireless printer.  The printer is completely disconnected from my computer (as is my wireless key board and my wireless mouse.)  However, any document I create on my computer can be sent wirelessly to my printer.  Both my iMac and my work laptop can send documents to be printed out on it.  In the world of Web 3.0, there will be more appliances like that, and they will probably be able to communicate and recognize each other more easily.  The web will become more present in every day appliances, augmenting our reality, but it will also be less visibly present.

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, delivered an interesting response when asked what Web 3.0 means.  Schmidt couldn’t define precisely what it will be, but he gave the following characteristics of what he thinks Web 3.0 will look like: applications will be pieced together; applications will be small; data will be stored in the cloud; applications will run on any device (PC or mobile phones); applications will be fast, and customizable; and applications will be able to be distributed virally (sent from person to person).  Perhaps we will start trading products on-line (e.g. Kindle users will be able to “loan” on-line books to friends.)

Professor Abraham Bernstein, a professor at the University of Zurich who explores natural language processing through the web, delivered a Google TechTalk in which he described how these new technologies can be used to make web technologies more accessible.  His vision of the Semantic Web is a place where semi-structured information can be processed in a machine way, using inductive and deductive reasoning to get somewhere.  Bernstein’s notion of the Semantic Web is simple yet complex: rather than putting out pages of information (as you did on Web 2.0), on Web 3.0 you will be putting out different assertions or statements, and complex algorithms will piece those assertions together to create a cognitively simple and factually correct product.

Many technologists call the step after Web 3.0 the Semantic Web, predicting the year 2020 as the year in which the web took the next step in its evolution.

The Semantic Web

First off, what is meant by “Semantic”?  As a short and useful YouTube video on Semantic Web points out, syntax is how you say something, whereas semantic is the meaning of what you say.   Both are parts of communication.  For example, the statements “I love technology” and “I Heart technology” have different syntax, but similar semantics.  Though said differently, they share the same meaning.  Reading both statements on a Twitter post, a human will be able to recognize that both mean the same thing.  However, we have not gotten to the point where a computer can pick up the semantics of statements.

The internet gave a medium for computers to communicate with each other, but computers merely mimic human communication.  Computers were not designed to teach human beings what the information means, only provide them with a tool to share that information.  The Web created a storage and withdrawal database for us to quickly retrieve information, using HTML as the syntax.

So how are the Internet, the Web, and HTML related to the Semantic Web?  Wikipedia defines the Semantic Web as “a group of methods and technologies to allow machines to understand the meaning – or ‘semantics’ – of information on the World Wide Web.”  So the Internet allowed us to communicate with each other, the web lets us store and retrieve any document, and search engines created a way to retrieve that data.  Computers don’t understand the meaning, they only understand the syntax.   The semantic web will, in theory, make our lives easier by helping computers get us what we want by developing complex algorithms that account for human factors.

Accounting for human factors will undoubtedly make our lives easier, much in the same way as ergonomics has enabled the development of car seats that are better for our back.  The semantic web will never fully account for human differences, but it will simplify the process of storing, sharing, and using information from the Web, making our lives easier.