Predictability in Complex Environments – Cognitive Bias Codex

April 20, 2021 I wrote a blog post “Futuretelling” on occasion of media informing about the report “Global Trends 2040”, a product of the collective of American intelligence agencies, issued then on occasion of a new Presidential administration (the Biden administration) taking the helm. I’d like to revisit the issue, almost one and a half years later.

“Global Trends 2040” revolves around five core assessments:

Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report stated that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assessed the pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.

Fragmentation flows from the predicted transnational or global challenges. Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex breaking apart, or threatening, globalisation.

Disequilibrium was the third theme of the report. The report focusses on its effects in a widening gap between what societies, communities, and individuals expect from governance and services, and what they can deliver. Doubts in the benefits of democratic governance, the profound inability of systems of international order to provide peace, security, and other important challenges to the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations create a perfect storm.

Contestation was the fourth theme. Wealthy societies pump their reserves into handling the crisis, and into the race of getting out on the other side in the best position for competing, on economical and power levels. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on more developed societies. In a way, this amplifies fragmentation and antagonisation.

Adaption being the final theme, it means that profound changes will ultimately end in a new equilibrium. The question is how such a new system state may look like. Or, how much of our current one is left, and what will be the new reality.

To me, the core statement of “Global Trends 2040” is that we are passing through a phase of profound global system change, or paradigm change.

That was spring 2021. “Global Trends 2040” was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, so it was somewhat easy for the authors to qualify an existing pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II“. Then, summer 2021 brought the catastrophic events around the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taleban, and a crushing defeat of the West’s ambitions for Afghanistan over two decades. Spring 2022 saw the beginning of a war of aggression by the Russian Federation against the Ukraine. Motivation and publicly voiced rationale by the Russian President went, from the outset on, far beyond his claims related to the Ukraine, and related to overthrow the Ukrainian government. From the West’s perspective it is an attack against the West, it’s systems and it’s values. The Russian President describes this as a threat against Russia, claiming to act in self-defense. Of course, I have a clear position here joining those who state this is a brazen and aggressive move attempting to overthrow an existing order, and violating fundamental principles enshrined in international treaties. But on various occasions since then I have also acknowledged that it depends on where people live, and which cultural and historical ties they have grown up with, whether they join this assessment, or blame the West. This is a war on multiple levels, including information warfare, a war of systems against each other, a war of economies, a war of dogma how to prevail, and to govern. The physical battlefields are local or regional, information warfare happens in cyberspace, and the conflict is ultimately global.

So I wonder how the events of 2021 and 2022 would have been reflected in the wording of the report issued in spring 2021, if these events would already have been on the books of history by the time of writing. If already the pandemic posed the greatest disruption since WWII, it has only gotten worse since then.

With lightning speed, the World is continuing to change. Nobody would have anticipated, even in early spring 2021, that the situation went so haywire in summer 2021 in Afghanistan. And after that, if someone would have asked “What’s next?”, I doubt many people would have anticipated the developments in the Ukraine bringing us closer to World War III. May be, many years in the future, historians will assess that we already were in WW III. Because, even the forms and shapes of warfare have changed. Some of it started in 2001, when we began to see consequences of asymmetric warfare. And at that time, people would have found it unimaginabe that we would see conventional armies battling each other, on European soil, 21 years later.

What else do we know about battlefields of such larger warfare? I could go on about Asia and the ever increasing tension between China and Taiwan, just recently blowing up again on occasion of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, bringing likelihood of yet another massive conflict into the equation. I could refer to how we all, internationally, after 9/11/2001 made critical assessments related to terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants. Now we are finding ourselves in a situation where Russian military forces conduct their attacks using the biggest nuclear powerplant in mainland Europe as a shield. Of course, following the same logic as outlined above, two sides accuse each other of being responsible for it. From a perspective of the threat being real, and grave, even this mutual accusation, being part of information warfare, adds to how scary the situation has become.

The Doomsday Clock has, once again, moved closer to 12, with the UN Secretary General telling us August 07, 2022, that the risk of nuclear confrontation is back after decades.

I could refer to the many developments in Africa, and since I am not a paid professional analyst with own staffing resources, my list of critical developments in the World would be highly selective, and certainly biased. Of course, it would include a whole chapter on instability in the Western Balkans, where I spend much of my time.

So, what can be said about “What’s next?” now, mid summer 2022?

The almost natural reflex is about looking around and to assess specific situations, specific countries or regions, and to attempt making predictions about how things may remain stable, or not. But more often than not, previous developments have taught us that destabilisation, system change, conflict and war occur almost to the surprise of professional analysts, and intelligence systems. The short term developments may be subject to correct analysis, like intelligence organisations unequivocally warned about Russia being serious about invading the Ukraine, once there was enough evidential data. But that was a short-term prediction, being put out into the public domain only from end of 2021 onwards, also in order to convince those who still, until February 23, 2022, doubted that Russia would follow-through on building up her military power alongside the borders of the Ukraine. Did we have enough data to predict this already, say in April 2021, at the time when “Global Trends 2040” was issued? From what I know through publicly avalable information, I would doubt it. So, this is not about “I told you so”.

The same will be the case related to anything up in the future, any new conflict development, where we then, again, will ask ourselves with hindsight whether we would have been able to predict it. In a highly complex and unstable environment, the fault-lines of where conflict arises next, and which physical or virtual dimension it takes, are difficult to predict medium-term, and impossible to predict long-term.

However, this makes the highly abstract level of “Global Trends 2040”, which I summarised above so profoundly valuable. Because, whilst we cannot be sure about “What’s next?”, we can be reasonably certain about that we have not reached rock-bottom. “Global Trends 2040” predicts a fundamental paradigm change and a war of systems, not a state of “rock bottom” from where things might recover to an old or only slightly changed equilibrium.

One of my favorite Youtube channels is called “Veritasium”. The channel is run by Derek Muller. Veritasium is covering a broad range of subjects, based on scientific evidence. According to its own website, “Veritasium is a channel of science and engineering videos featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science.” You will find a vlog as of August 2, 2022 there, called “The 4 things it takes to be an expert“. This piece is amazing:

In attempting to answer the question which experts have real expertise, the vlog includes a long list of references related to scientific evidence for its statements. The four things that make somebody a real expert, in ANY field of expertise, are based on long and ardous training, the vlog talks of a rule of thumb of 10.000 hours. In order to become an expert, one has to go through many repeated attempts with feedback. At one point of the video, Veritasium refers to a sample of 284 people who make their living on offering analysis or commenting on complex issues related to politcal and economic trends. These people were followed and questioned over two decades. The results, in a nutshell, are sobering. Any so-called expert with only education, but without extended feedback loops, was doing terribly. These “experts” were not significantly better in their predictions than non-specialists.

Watch the vlog. But what is the issue here? At least, that we have to be very careful in attempting to make predictions. And secondly, that we need to have a healthy and limited expectation in relation to what pundits will tell us. In my own self-assessment, I would certainly qualify for the 10.000 hour rule in relation to my own field of expertise (peace & security). But it would not make me believe that I would be able to find anything more than short-term answers to the question “What’s next?”.

Something which is called “cognitive bias” adds to the problem. This is what is behind the picture attached to this blog, and you can find the picture in wikipedia’s list of 188 cognitive biases, grouped into categories and rendered by John Manoogian III. In essence, according to the website teachthought, “a cognitive bias is an inherent thinking ‘blind spot’ that reduces thinking accuracy and results inaccurate–and often irrational–conclusions.” The graphical summary is listing 180 (!!) of them.

With having said that on our limitations to predict the future reliably, I will finally come back again to “Global Trends 2040”. What I, in sum, subscribe to, is the general statement about a time of system change which “Global Trends 2040” has, in my view correctly, deducted from available assessed information, which we call intelligence.

After President Nr 45 of the United States of America took power, I would find it comparatively easy to anticipate the scenarios that were possible to happen, and my worst case scenarios were pretty much along the lines of what we witnessed, until including January 06, 2021, and what we see coming up as a continuing threat for democracy in the United States, until today.

But compared with the complexity of fragility which we experience, this prediction was a piece of cake, since it was largely based on a psychological analysis of a person with multiple personality disorders, adding perhaps some deeper understanding about American society because I was embedded there for five years and listened and learned a lot.

Asking the question “What’s next” related to what we experience since then, I only know it will get worse, but I don’t know how, meaning “What’s next”. This is not a Doomsday attitude. Rather, it is a personal statement about the gravity of the situation we are finding ourselves in, these days.

Perception – Seeing Does Not Equal Knowing – Part 3

Three – How Groups establish Common Frameworks of Perception

Too close for comfort? No, I’ll let you have a little peek view into my neighbourhood, when I’m in Belgrade:

At my favourite neighbourhood cafe, with a view towards my local grocery store, picture taken by the author, 05.05.2022

I am trying to get the finishing touches on Part 3 done from a campsite close to Bucharest in Romania. My vanlife has given me the opportunity to meet so many people from different walks of life. I just offered a coffee to a young German man who is traveling in a small van, with his partner, her daughter, and a dog. Have you ever listened to somebody who feels alienated, ostracized, craving for acknowledgement, and trying to make sense of his or her personal life story? The intensity with which they argue, the words they choose for making their cases? His story about a little group of travelers trying to keep life together, seeking a place to live in Romania, dropping out of regular life also as a consequence of the pandemic and personal circumstances, it offered a practical example for how perceptions develop, and how they lead to reinforcement processes. This person, whilst clearly not there yet, is on his path sympathising with “Reichsbuerger” identity, living at the fringes, and I don’t know whether much more has to happen to him before there is a path towards delusionial viewpoints, and radicalisation. All the time I was listening to him, I was thinking how I can interact with his attempt of making sense of the world, instead of myself just apologising, stopping communication, and staying in my worldview. Because this is what happens: A negative self-fulfilling prophecy about all the things which make this world un-just to oneself is leading to less communication outside of the group one feels to belong to. The more extreme the divide in fundamental assumptions, the more likely is that any communication with somebody who does not share a similar narrative of the world will not happen. We feel uncomfortable facing such extreme differences, at least. We may feel being upset, angry. We may react with hypocrisy, cynicism, open verbal confrontation. Or we may just walk away, and then it is about that the perceptions of two people engaging in a conversation were so fundamentally different that they did not fit into the reference framework they each feel comfortable in.

We see this all over more recently. Radicalisation of views is related to narratives that diverge extremely. Either a fringe view is colliding with mainstream views. Or several radically different mainstream views exist: The great divide between Democrats and Republicans which grows ever deeper, or the smaller fringes that we try to address in order to not see them growing into mainstream divergence, it’s all the same. All people on all sides believing in their version of perception, judging, or even condemning those who hold different views.

Wherever my international work and life has taken me, I always made it a habit to live in a local neighbourhood. Not those fancy Expat-areas, rather I feel most comfortable when I am a guest, and a neighbour, in a typical local hood. Sipping a coffee with very local people hosting me as a guest in their country, I learned so much, in Pristina, in Gracanica, in Brussels, Sarajevo, Brooklyn, Naples/Maine, Berlin, Belgrade, or so many other places. Since I started part-time Vanlife, on my campsites in Germany, or roaming the countries in the Western Balkans and around, or anywhere where I stop near the road for the night, I enjoy the same experience.

Not only that my cat friend Tigger is making new acquaintances all over Europe, it happens to me too. So, in that picture above you also see my local grocery store in Belgrade. There is a man inside, very friendly, selling fruits and vegetables, often talking about his love for German soccer clubs. More recently, he looked at me with a scared face and spoke, in broken English and German, about the war in the Ukraine.

When I recently cleaned my van, a very old and fragile neighbour, certainly in his late eighties, stopped by. Turned out to be a very nice and open minded person with a lot of curiosity. After a few comments about my mobile home he asked me about my opinion about what’s going on in the Ukraine. He asked me whether this would have been caused by NATO.

When I walked Tigger on 01 May, neighbours invited me to their open barbecue. Guess what came up? Fear about the war in the Ukraine. “Don’t go there”, one of them told me. “Well”, I replied, “You never know.”

When I’m in Germany, conversations will immediately turn to the developments in the Ukraine, too. As one might imagine, there the question will not be about NATO’s role starting it, but about NATO’s response to actions for which the Russian President will be damned. At least within those circles I relate to. But on campsites I will also meet other people. Like 2020, when a conspiracy theorist took me by surprise. Or as it just happened this morning.

When I’m in Romania, I will hear the local context, which, again, is entirely different from Serbia, and Germany. When I am in Bosnia&Herzegovina, I will get three different versions of the context in which the Ukraine war is being perceived. If I would listen in Albania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, or Poland, everywhere I would get a local and different perception on the same war, and the fears which are related to it. The common denominator is profound fear. The context will be explained differently, with nuances, or starkly. And all people truly live and believe their perceptions, no ordinary person on the streets will tell a fake story truly for manipulative reasons. Those people who do this on intent, they are very different, I feel their malice, and some, if not more than a few, are leaders.

The huge diversity of opinions based on culture and history and belonging, that’s Europe. Literally. It always is so hard to understand for people outside Europe, like those who say “Does the European Union have a telephone number”, those who may call for a strong unified European Union voice. In a true democracy view, the diversity of opinions on this continent is, of course, very hard to capture and to transform into more than the least common denominator. The alternative is autocratic attitude, and we have some of those, too. But believe me, no autocratic Europe would be more homogenous, compared to the Europe holding on to democracy. Rather, autocratic attitude is a recipe for intolerance, violence, and war. Just look back into Europe’s history of the last millennium, and especially the last century, and you will see that coercion into one identity only works temporarily. After Tito’s death we witnessed it again, more recently. The answer can only be tolerance for others and enthusiasm for diversity.

But, back to perception:

Those who I sometimes label “pied pipers”, they can be seen on a global level, and they seem to gain influence. They are those who scare me, because they operate on the opposite to tolerance and diversity. They are responsible for unfathomable suffering of many. And they could not do this without the considerable number of others who willingly buy in into distributing distorted versions of reality, or fake constructs of reality, for many different reasons, all of these reasons being motivated by selfishness.

From there, manipulation of reality permeates into the minds of who I would call, with all respect and compassion, “ordinary people” who try to explain themselves in relation to what life is throwing at them. Everywhere there are these wonderful local neighbours who struggle to make sense of what they see, fear, and are being told.

I am not wishy-washy, I have a very pronounced opinion, including on the war in Ukraine and the larger threats, and my core is torn into pieces because I believe that we need to do what, for example, Germany is participating in. All the way long, cold-blooded, decisive, but with great compassion and with healthy fear about escalation getting out of control. Doing whatever we can to avoid that the cauldron is exploding, but being very clear and very tough in saying “No way that we are going to allow this blatant attack on all values we have fought for since the end of the last World War.” But it is about how these values are being established, and what that then means to the competition of value frameworks.

I can not write this without a heartfelt word to my Ukrainian friends: I am sorry for your suffering beyond words, and you have all rights to be upset with the world, since you need, and deserve, the most decisive and best help possible. I just hope that we keep the balance in finding ways to ease, and to end, your suffering, without creating even more suffering. But your perception of what is going on, it needs to be, and is, at the core of everything we consider. We need to bow in front of you.

I am very privileged by having the opportunity to experience so many different neighbourhoods, cultures, nations, beliefs, countries. That is why I put this at the core of Part 3 of this writing. Because I am allowed to see this diversity in perceptions. People who live an entirely local life, they probably are more challenged by the need to be aware of, and tolerant to, other worldviews. I see very friendly people with great hospitality all over. Whether in Europe, or any of those conflict-ridden countries in Africa I have been spending time in, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Haiti, to name but a few. I don’t meet them in that proverbial mediterranean beach resort I was mentioning in Part 2. Not in holiday-mood, not with booze. But just very real, in day-to-day life.

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari makes for absolutely fascinating reading. As do his other books. I directly quote from Wikipedia when saying that Harari is dividing “Sapiens” into four main chapters:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of agriculture).
  3. The unification of humankind (c. 34 CE, the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
  4. The Scientific Revolution (c. 1543 CE, the emergence of objective science).

Much of my rambling is influenced by Harari’s explanation about communication between groups, tribes, communities, and especially when large meta-groups comprised of smaller communities come into play. His book is a fascinating journey connecting the evolutionary development including the brain of Homo Sapiens and its ability to form concepts that have no representation in the real world, and to communicate these concepts through language. The book seriously enlarged my appreciation for how we are able to form societal cohesion on a scale above relatively small groups of individuals.

At the beginning, in Part 1, I focused on how a representation of the environment is being put together from sensoric input. That’s the neurophysiological view. But already there perception is the result of an interpretation based on previous experiences through memory, and hugely influenced through emotions that accompany the sensoric input, or have influenced previous situations.

In Part 2 I have referred to neurophysiologist David Eagleman and his statement that brains need other brains for communication. Once communication comes into play, the result of perception becomes different because individual members of a group of living beings who communicate establish a joint, a common, perception. Communication allows for team-work. Orcas hunting as a group, they communicate what their individual group members see, perceive, and do. The same is true for wolf packs, or many other examples of collaboration. One way or the other, collaboration requires communication, and an ability to communicate what I see. Walk with me under a tree with ravens or crows on it, telling all other animals about the presence of my cat friend, and you will agree.

Reading Harari was a revelation for me in my understanding aspects of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, 70 millenia back in time. I can only be selective in explaining here, but he maps out in detail what we know in relation to the cognitive difference which set us, Homo Sapiens, apart from ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. It is related to brain development, allowing for much more complex perception, and understanding, and more complex language. But the single most defining difference appears to be our ability to imagine things which have not one single reference in the physical world around us, which we see. We can come up with virtual realities since 70.000 years, and not just since Mark Zuckerberg hopped on the metaverse-ideology.

Amongst all living beings on this planet, our communication has evolved into language and other forms of formal representation of concepts (such as mathematics) allowing for highest levels of sophistication in representing the world, describing the world, communicating what we see in the world, doing this in oral and written form, and to establish concepts that have no representation in the physical world. Harari’s example of legal personae within the field of law is brilliantly told. And the same is true for religion, concepts of governance such as democracy, ideas like human rights, the rule of law, so much more. They are extremely relevant and some of them belong to my core values, but the important thing is to understand that we, Sapiens, are able to establish concepts which have no physical representation in the world. Harari is so convincing in explaining that this is the single defining difference which allowed mankind to form means of communication and cohesion that allow to operate on levels far beyond small groups, bands, or tribes. It is this evolutionary step which enabled mankind to form cohesion, and control, on societal level, it allowed for modern States, it allows for identities, like those of faith, which keep billions of people in one framework. Religions serve as means for societal cohesion, including through control. That’s why they also can, despite their mystical core, develop into instruments of brutal suppression, creating suffering. Whether it is about terror from Sunni extremism against Shia, or whether it is about overturning abortion rights by the U.S Supreme Court, in all this there is the ugly face of control, for reasons of enforcing one framework of belief and impressing it on others. With structural force, or physical violence, the motivation is the same.

Thus, these non-physical manifestations of concepts compete, and often don’t go well with each other, they sit behind the clashes of groups, nations, religions.

But when I sit in neighbourhoods and I listen to people, respecting their different frameworks of identity, I see wonderful individuals, all of them with inner beauty.

So what’s my final point?

The diversity of frameworks which ultimately, and inevitably, form the basis for how I perceive the world, it is a fact of our reality. There is no ultimate solution, and sure as hell happiness of people is not a direct function of democracy. Individual life can be fulfilled and happy in East and West, South and North. And whenever I reach a point in my reflections where I try to identify at least a few common denominators that allow all of us to thrive, and not to kill this world, not many core values are needed. Human rights belong to it.

But here is what I feel relevant in the current context: The invasion of the Ukraine has been identified as a fundamental violation of the Charta of the United Nations. This needs to be acknowledged. Then, only, we can also have a discussion about whether others have done the same before. That introspection won’t be easy, because a decade ago we believed that we had found a principle called the “Responsibility to Protect”, overriding under certain conditions the sovereignty of States. It literally hurts to see the Russian President establishing a fake reality of oppression of peoples in the Ukraine to justify and cover up his unprecedented aggression.

If we loose the achievement of the Charta of the United Nations, we are in really big trouble.

On Coherence of International Assistance

Elements of successful strategic assistance measures

This outline of considerations is based on personal experiences and lessons learned in a specific professional context, and it is based on many years of work in various international capacities. I have recently put this into a specific context and the following is the de-sensitized version which I hope is useful for a more general reflection on international assistance efforts.

  1. Any form of international assistance to domestic, national or regional development of governance happens in different societal and cultural contexts, has to be framed within a specific and complex historical and political environment often including various and very complex stages of post-conflict states of affairs, and depends on political and strategic motivations of (a) States receiving assistance, (b) involved regional and international organizations and (c) donors. There are only limited blueprints available, and no copy/paste strategy works.
  2. Situational ambitions and motivations by all involved actors are driven by the momentary situation and need to be used for, and reconciled with, the requirements forming the basis of long-term strategic and sustainable development based on a vision, a strategic framework, its operationalization, its measurability, and constant evaluation. There is no successful strategic development if it fails to deliver immediate operational impact, nor will quick-impact-projects without an evolving framework of flexible strategic commitment, robust enough to sustain itself in rapidly evolving political and security contexts, be more than piecemeal.
  3. “Local/domestic ownership” and “assistance” are crucial terms. However, they are vulnerable to becoming lip service. Thus, the DNA of any strategic assistance must hard-wire the commitment of all who assist to put beneficiaries into the driver seat and to demonstrate this in all actions. Since growth of confidence, capacity and capabilities of domestic governance are inherently a fundamental objective of such assistance, constant dialogue on all levels needs to mitigate the different motivations of all involved actors, putting the beneficiaries front and center. This requires a high-level agreement of beneficiaries, implementers and donors prior to any development of a concrete assistance strategy. The agreement needs to reflect motivation, commitments, and limiting conditions of all parties involved, and it should be subject to regular proactive evaluation on a high level, bringing all partners in this joint exercise together. In order to get there, operational kick-starter activities need to demonstrate visible commitment to partnership and transparency.
  4. Strategic assistance, if successful, attracts many who are interested to participate. Coherence of efforts must be robustly built in from the outset on, an accountability framework must bring all actors together. It works better if the capacity for growth is built in early. It is particularly relevant to include beneficiaries as partners: If unguided, donors and implementors can develop a mindset based on exclusive talking. This can be very subtle, allowing for claiming that domestic ownership is fully implemented, and the differences only been seen by insiders, but especially being felt by beneficiaries. Donors need constant reminding of what “assistance” means, and implementors will benefit from a larger accountability mechanism which helps them to mitigate their genuine motivation to assist (thus, to work at taking themselves ultimately out of the equation) with their business models (they need to generate projects because it is part of their raison d’être and they have payrolls to serve).


Identify Champions

Beneficiaries with a strong interest in identifying needs on a strategic level and a commitment to implementing governance processes and institutions committed to international principles and standards and resilient against undue political interference and corruption;

International/Regional Organizations with an ability to reflect and integrate regional political and security aspects and a willingness to establish, or significantly contribute to, and politically support, a technical steering process for all aspects of assistance to beneficiaries;

Donors with a willingness to be trailblazers in a partnership approach within a long-term political commitment, bolstered by the ability to significantly contribute to financial funding, political support, and being ready to deploy long-term advisers into the regional context.

Map a path into structured dialogue, based on principles of strong partnership

Champions on the side of international organizations and donors to generate a technical dialogue leading into high-level ministerial support, visibly owned by political stakeholders of beneficiaries.

Use kickstarting assistance in order to establish visibility and demonstrated immediate commitment

On basis of a preliminary needs assessment, from the outset on empowering representatives of beneficiaries, to identify quick-impact projects.

Tie kickstarting assistance into a political dialogue encouraging to express long-term intent and readiness to establish a roadmap

It allows for regional cooperation amongst those who are ready for it, and design a draft roadmap with vision, objectives, first-level operationalization, and benchmarking.

Identify the coordination mechanism which involves stakeholders from all sides allowing for what is needed most: Growing technical dialogue on basis of an understanding of equal partnership. This then is the basis for political operationalization, using these examples as successful templates for stating: “Cooperation works”.

On the rule of law and trusting it in times of misinformation and manipulation spread using social media

I finished my reading of the book “How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them”, written by Barbara F. Walter (Crown, 2022, Ebook ISBN 9780593137796). I wrote about it in my article “Anocracies – And Thoughts on International Efforts Related to Conflict Prevention“. There I said that I was impressed with the detailed historical account on the many civil wars, and what political science learned about their predictability. I also said that I will comment less on the second part of the book, where the author is applying those experiences on the current state of affairs in the United States of America. But here is a brief personal impression:

Purely from an emotional perspective, the first part of the book felt gripping, the second part felt like something was missing. Because the first part tells the story of not only why things went haywire, but also how they went haywire. The first part of the book talks about catastrophies that happened. Because the current situation in the U.S. is troubling, and partly deeply concerning, but has NOT led to a worst case scenario (yet?), the book is speculative in this regard, because, simply, it has to.

The author attempts to come up with a future scenario of how a descent into civil war in the U.S. could look like. When I read it, it felt incomplete. It had to. I believe the scenario had to necessarily stay away from including a potential role of individual actors which brought us to the brink of that abyss. Otherwise the book would have become speculative and politically antagonizing. The role of “Number 45” is being described in how the U.S. witnessed it’s downgrading from a starling democracy into the field of anocracies. But the book’s scenario on possible further descent stays away from involving contemporary individual actors. An that is why the scenario feels hypothetical. The absence of this link allows for concluding that we are, perhaps, far away from seeing one of the most stable democracies of the world itching closer to internal chaos. Which we are not, as I believe.

Here are two recent news articles which may make you better understand where my concerns are, still allowing me to stay out of the same trap. Make your own conclusions on whether the future may bring us closer to worst-case, just by reading and thinking about this one, and this one. We are a far cry away from being out of trouble. The mid-term elections in the U.S. are coming up, I feel we are in for a very bumpy 2022. From a European perspective, the current stabilisation of transatlantic jointness is extremely fragile, depending on future development.

At one point I was wondering what would happen if a future presidential candidate would claim his right for using Twitter back. It feels like “You’re damned if he is allowed, and you’re damned if he is not”. The claim of the far-right that it is fighting a corrupt, even pedophile global cabale, including depicting the free press as the enemy of the people, it will see a new and even more intense replication: The next round of racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, male domination, conspiracy theories challenging the efforts to fight the pandemic, and global warming, attempting to establish a narrative fighting Western democracies, it is just coming up. And the use of social media will be pivotal for those who attack, and those who defend.

The jury is out how this unfolds. And then there is the nutshell of Barbara F. Walter’s point how a fragile and unstable further descent into becoming an anocracy can be turned around. Here, the author refers to a piece of work she was commissioned with in 2014, for the World Bank. Like other scholars, the author found three factors standing out by far as being critical for preventing descent into conflict and chaos, including civil war: (1) The Rule of Law; (2) Voice and Accountability; (3) Government effectiveness. So, we will have to think about how we translate these fundamentals into concrete action allowing people all over the world to trust the form of governance which we say is the best of all alternatives we have been able to come up with so far.

So, here we are again. It is why any effort getting us collectively out of the currently very troubled waters must look at the rule of law, which Walter describes as “the equal and impartial application of legal procedure”. I stick to the definition of the rule of law as adopted by the United Nations: “For the United Nations (UN) system, the rule of law is a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness, and procedural and legal transparency.

However, my experience entails that in order to establish any rule of law, there needs to be a large consent of the respective society in how this principle is applied, and this consent must go beyond any larger factionalisation in that society. Any large faction of a society must accept this larger principle, rather than challenging the application of a rule of law as being biased, being imposed on them by other factions. Those who stir conflict for advancing their own objectives, they always will establish a narrative that there is no justice for their constituency. They will portray the rule of law as being a weapon wielded by their enemies against them. What these individuals do is to undermine the trust of their followers in a rule of law applied to their society as a whole. Which points to a second invisible feature of any successful establishing a rule of law: Trust.

It is about trust accepting the specific rule of law, for myself, and others, for the powerful and the less powerful. And it is about trusting that justice will always attempt to prevail, no matter how long it takes. Because very often, it can take a long time. And still, after many years, cases may be unresolved, often are. A society at large must trust the course which justice takes, even if individual members experience pain because their grievances are open and festering wounds for many years, before closure is possible, or sometimes even never.

For me, this challenge can be seen nowhere else with all clarity than in situations where I contributed to the efforts to re-establish a rule of law in a society where it had broken down. May be I will write more about a few of those experiences. Here it would be too long, because I want to finally focus again on the critical role of social media. Here is just one example:

There were two main ethnic factions in Kosovo before and after the violence ending in 1999. Under the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 Kosovo found herself with a majority and a minority faction, no form of own governance at all, and no rule of law beyond what UNSCR 1244 tasked us with. The Old had broken down and had to disengage. The New was not there. It was to be established, and being part of the international community engaging in assisting in finding a new New, I was representing the international interim police.

Whilst, on a technical level of developing policing, and helping a new Kosovo Police to emerge, being more and more successful, we found ourselves in a classical “Catch-22-situation”: All factions involved were blaming us not being able to provide security, and justice. Each side would accuse us to act on the interest of the other side’s agenda. And practically it meant that in case of any evidence of a severe crime which would allow us to make arrests, and prosecute suspects of grievious crime, there would not be a societal consent, or trust beyond factions. At least at the beginning. During those early years, any action by us leading to an arrest would be perceived by one faction as a biased, if not politically motivated, action in favor of the other faction. I have many examples for both factions.

I believe that, over time, some trust could be instilled. Not only that the Kosovan society at large moved forward towards healing from own wounds. Not only that our persistent sticking to a common rule of law for All slowly helped in setting some foundations for trust. Not only that the real success story is the work on the credibility of the Kosovo Police itself, establishing itself as a trusted actor within an emerging rule of law. But any development until today also shows how fragile this trust is. Including in recent times, operational situations can demonstrate how quickly old tensions, mistrust, and biased interpretation of events can break up. But what I want to demonstrate here is exactly that: That any rule of law is critical for peace&security in a society, and that this does go way beyond the technical application of such a principle.

It requires acceptance of that rule of law by a majority of all constituencies in a society, and it requires a sound trust in the equal application and adjucation of that rule of law, beyond personal grievances, and existing factions.

As said earlier (in my first blog article on this book), this holds true both for a society moving towards a rule of law, and it applies to a society where the efforts of trusting a rule of law are heavily undermined by the spreading of misinformation and fake news. Whether the society moves into a positive direction or a negative direction, it is the middle zone between the Old and the New which makes the situation most volatile.

All three factors mentioned by Barbara F. Walter, (1) The Rule of Law; (2) Voice and Accountability; (3) Government effectiveness played into any descent into chaos I have personally witnessed.

In 2022, the means to disrupt by using manipulative voice and amplifying non-accountability are a global challenge: Social media has become a bull-horn for those who know how to exploit fragility, and to further it.

So, how to translate Barbara F. Walter’s message, that civil wars can be avoided, into practice?

By taking responsibility for own action, and making our voices of reason being heard, day by day. Neil Young requested from Spotify to remove his music from the platform because Spotify is hosting “The Joe Rogan Experience”. Neil Young did not want to be on a platform which prominently features a protagonist for this type of spreading misinformation, lies, and manipulation, including wildest conspiracy theories about some mass-hypnosis being used by a global cabale enslaving citizens. Joni Mitchell followed suit, and she is not the only one.

This fight is taking us on a long haul, it is far from being over. Every personal contribution matters.

Under The Hood

Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.

This entire blog is about peace and security, trauma and reconciliation. It is my chosen overarching theme since I began writing.

Ultimately, in order to sustain lasting peace and security in a society, the society needs to be at peace with itself. The impact of traumatic situations and the societal ability to heal these, through reconciliation, is directly affecting the cohesion which is also often referred to as a “social contract”. The less cohesion in a society, the more likely the foundations of that agreement erode.

I pre-ordered “How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them”, written by Barbara F. Walter (Crown, 2022, Ebook ISBN 9780593137796). I read an article in the New York Times discussing this book and was immediately drawn to it. Of course, much attention is given to such topics because January 06, 2022 we also looked back on what happened one year earlier: The attacks on the U.S. Capitol by violent crowds, incited by an angry former U.S. President ready to rip everything into pieces and to burn the house to ashes when facing his power coming to an end.

I am specifically interested in understanding the author’s methodological approach. To quote from the New York Times article: “As a political scientist who has spent her career studying conflicts in other countries, she approaches her work methodically, patiently gathering her evidence before laying out her case. She spends the first half of the book explaining how civil wars have started in a number of places around the world, including the former Yugoslavia, the Philippines and Iraq.

So I began this blog entry by looking at my four terms “Peace, Security, Trauma, Reconciliation” with a focus on the January 06, 2021 Capitol riots:

There was no peaceful event, there was no security, there is massive traumatisation of an entire society, and there are huge challenges when it comes to reconciliation. The fabric of the U.S. society is critically wounded. Many, including the current President of the United States, have made that clear on occasion of the commemoration events. Others have blamed them for saying that, accusing them of dividing the very society they have undermined themselves. No matter on which side of the aisle one is, the fact of deep divisions in the society of the U.S. can not be disputed by anyone, because they all participate in it, blaming the respective other side.

Currently in every open society the fabric of consent appears to be at threat. We experience attacks from the outside and from the inside, and we have a large-scale public discourse about that. Attacks and covert efforts in a cyber-information-warfare do point back to actors from inside authoritarian systems, but not only: They include actors from within open societies, in an effort to overturn the systems of governance as they have been set up on grounds of the respective societal contract, enshrined in the relevant basic laws of these societies, their constitutional law. There is a blurry spider web of people and interest groups out there, networking on a global scale, who seem to diligently work on that.

We see societies with authoritarian leadership, heavily applying coercion, and whereever deemed useful, heavy violence against own constituencies. Whichever legitimacy, or sheer power, sits behind coercion into cohesion in those societies, the number of current examples of authoritarian regimes quelling opposition and unrest is considerable. Instability, public unrest, violent coercion of populations by a ruling structure, whether Central Asia, Africa, the Near, the Middle, and the Far East, the Americas, there are many examples.

We see societies with illiberate structures of governance that appear to be stable, sorts of. Big ones, and smaller ones.

We do speculate about the stability of the bigger ones, we suspect, or bluntly see them being in a game of stabilising themselves by dominating spheres of influence, and coercion, whilst at the same time being engaged in efforts destabilising opponents on the side of what we call open societies, including the so-called “West”.

We see smaller societies on their path to illiberate control that position themselves by jockeying for alliances, keeping options open, attempting to take advantage of being friendly to the one or the other, being ambigous.

That is how I came to suspect that the common denominator for all, on a global level, is about societal cohesion. On this level of analysis it is not about attacks of authoritarianism against democracy. It appears to be that notwithstanding the form of governance in many societies, we all struggle with societal cohesion. We all have the same problem, we only differ in how we deal with it.

With that in mind, I revisited my blog entry “Futuretelling” from April 2021. There I had written about the latest report published by the collective of American intelligence agencies: “Global Trends 2040”. The report “finds that the pandemic has proved to be “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II,” with medical, political and security implications that will reverberate for years. That’s not sturm und drang. It’s the prologue to a far darker picture of what lies ahead.”

Five themes are identified in that assessment: (1) Global Challenges, (2) Fragmentation, (3) Disequilibrium, (4) Contestation, and (5) Adaption. I won’t repeat how I summarized the report in my previous artcle, but I do quote the following: Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report states that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assesses the current pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.“

That’s huge, and overwhelming. So, what can each and everyone do, in our circles of life?

I am coming back to the basic motivation which I had when I began writing this article. Because it has not been reflected in any of the above, but I believe it is the essence of any individual contribution to finding new ways into cohesion. Lasting cohesion requires some form of consent. Which can only be achieved by talking to each other, and not at all by talking about each other. Talking about each other contributes to dissent. Often we see the dissent manifesting within a public discourse, and all our new contemporary mechanisms of discourse, especially social media, are designed to reinforce messages which achieve large public attention. Those messages are fueled by rage and anger. It is how these systems are set up.

They also function by establishing closed networks. Friends, followers, open or closed chat groups. The opposite to talk with each other is possible there. Stalking, mobbing, bullying, that all adds. Because any dissenting voice within such groups will be yelled at. Can even happen to Ted Cruz, by Tucker Carlson, recently. You stray off the party line, you will be punished.

We can not talk about divisiveness in divisive terms if we genuinely want to address it. Those who do, they purposefully do that in order to solidify it, rather than reverting back to consent. They want to impose a new consent, by manipulation and force.

In everyday life, this is difficult. Like all of us, I have concrete examples: I do not know anti-vaxxers in my circle of friends. Because I have begun to separate myself from any of those. Neither they want me to be part of their circle of friends. And once one enters into those social media groups where attitude to an issue is the polarizing theme, a subtle brainwashing is going on. If I stay, I have to have the same beliefs. They reinforce, and they isolate from any dialogue with others. Over time, own positions and beliefs will radicalize the longer one stays in these groups and circles. As if we would not know how this works. Have we forgotten about how sects do this, how people have difficulties getting out of the prison of Scientology, how difficult it is to de-radicalize people who have been caught in the web of ISIS? There is little difference in the psychology behind all this.

This, again, is happening “under the hood”, and that’s why I have chosen this title. We see the open manifestations of societal dissent. It is hard to quantify and qualify to which extent the invisible divisive lines have already permeated societies. It is fair to suspect these lines of division run much deeper than we see, or acknowledge.

So, I will be interested to see what Barbara F. Walter has to say on that. Because over the last two decades I have been living in societies which at some point broke into open conflict. Or I have been dealing with working for peace in countries which all of a sudden, and often to the surprise of the international community, experienced relapse into conflict and war.

This time, I get a sense it is increasingly about all of us, not about a country far away from us.

How can we identify the threat-level? But notwithstanding that, I firmly believe that nurturing the ability of individuals to listen to others with a dissenting opinion, in an effort to understand the other, rather than subjugating the other under the own doctrine, will be key.

That’s why this will be a momentous task for generations to come.

On Responsibilities of German Public Servants and on Covid-19 – An Open Letter to Hans-Georg Maaßen

Sehr geehrter Herr Hans-Georg Maaßen,

Die digitale Ausgabe der “Tagesschau” berichtet heute, am 03.01.2022 (Link hier) zu dem Umstand, dass Sie auf der sozialen Mediaplattform GETTR ein Video mit der Bildunterschrift “Bewegender Appell von Prof. Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi zur dringenden Notwendigkeit eines Covid-Impfverbots” geteilt haben. Die “Tagesschau” ist fuer ihre faktenbasierte und neutrale Berichterstattung so anerkannt, dass ich auf weitere Verifizierungen dieses Berichtes hier verzichten darf.

Das Video, das Sie demzufolge weiterverbreitet haben, wurde urspruenglich am 22. Dezember 2021 von dem emeritierten Mikrobiologie-Professor Bhakdi auf der Plattform “Rumble” veröffentlicht. Der oben erwaehnte Bericht der Tagesschau leitet in eine detaillierte Schilderung und Bewertung dieses Videos wie folgt ein: “Es traegt den Titel “Der Beweis ist da: Impfung zerstört Immunsystem”. Bhakdi beginnt seine Ausführungen in dem Video mit dem Appell, sich nicht mehr über Details zu streiten, vielmehr lägen die Fakten auf dem Tisch. Alle genbasierten Impfstoffe, gemeint sind mRNA-Vakzine, verursachten das gleiche Ergebnis, so Bhakdi. Das Immunsystem des Körpers werde zerstört. Basis für diese Behauptung sollen Proben aus 15 Obduktionen sein, die der Pathologe Arne Burkhardt untersucht habe.

Professor Bhakdi erklaert in diesem Video: “Sie töten unsere Kinder” […] “Ich halte das nicht aus”, fährt er fort – und kündigt an, “aus diesem verdammten Land” flüchten zu wollen, damit nicht auf “unseren” vierjährigen Sohn “geschossen” werde.”

Der faktenbasierten Berichterstattung der “Tagesschau” ist hoch anzurechnen, dass sie die zugrundeliegenden unbelegten Behauptungen und die vollstaendige Unserioesitaet der angeblichen Beweise, dass m-RNA Impfungen das menschliche Immunsystem zerstoeren, ausfuehrlich in diesem Bericht widerlegt.

Gleichfalls erlaeutert der Bericht, dass sich der fuer den pensionierten Pathologen Arne Burkhardt zustaendige Fachverband, die Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Pathologie bereits vorher von Erklaerungen von Herrn Burkhardt distanziert hat, ebenso wie auch die Universitaet Mainz bezogen auf Herrn Bhakdi. Schlussendlich moechte ich hier erwaehnen, dass die Bildungsministerin Schleswig-Holsteins, Karin Prien, die zugleich Mitglied im Bundesvorstand der Christlich Demokratischen Union CDU ist, sich als Folge dieser Ereignisse fuer den Ausschluss von Ihnen, sehr geehrter Herr Maaßen, aus der Partei CDU ausspricht.

Sehr geehrter Herr Maaßen, nicht jeder kennt Sie, und mein Blog, auf dem ich meist in Englisch schreibe, wird weltweit gelesen. Daher darf ich hier kurz erklaeren, dass Sie in der Zeit von August 2012 bis November 2018 das Bundesamt fuer Verfassungsschutz geleitet haben. Sowohl waehrend Ihrer Amtsausuebung als auch in Ihrem spaeteren politischen Leben sind Ihnen eine Reihe hoch kontroverser Aeusserungen und Stellungnahmen zuzurechnen. Sie werden in Ihrer politischen Orientierung dem sehr rechten Fluegel der CDU zugerechnet. Sie scheinen erhebliche Sympathien in politischen Zirkeln zu geniessen, die rechts vom rechten Fluegel der CDU stehen. Die Verfassungskonformitaet mancher dieser Gruppierungen scheint ebenso erhebliche Fragen aufzuwerfen wie deren Naehe zu Verschwoerungstheoretikern und Covid-Realitaetsverweigerern.

Uns verbindet daher beinahe garnichts, allerdings eins: Wir beide sind Beamte. Sie sind politischer Beamter (im Ruhestand), ich bin Berufsbeamter (im Ruhestand). Vor Ihrer Zeit als politischer Beamter waren Sie im Uebrigen auch Berufsbeamter, einschliesslich in herausragenden Funktionen des Bundesinnenministeriums. Fuer mich gelten die in der Verfassung der Bundesrepublik Deutschland verankerten “hergebrachten Grundsaetze des Berufsbeamtentums”. Sie beinhalten die Pflicht zum inner- und ausserdienstlichen Wohlverhalten, im ausserdienstlichen Bereich gilt dies fuer mich auch im Ruhestand. Fuer mich gilt die Pflicht zur politischen Neutralitaet, fuer Sie als politischer Beamter vielleicht weniger. Aber eine generelle Wohlverhaltenspflicht kann sicherlich sowohl fuer Berufsbeamtinnen und -beamte wie auch fuer politische Beamtinnen und Beamte abgeleitet werden. Diensteide muessen ja auch von beiden Gruppen geleistet werden.

Zu dieser Wohlverhaltenspflicht gehoert ohne Frage, von der vorsaetzlichen oder grob fahrlaessigen Verbreitung evidenter Falschinformationen abzusehen, die zu schweren Fehlentscheidungen anderer Mitbuergerinnen und Mitbuerger mit fatalen Konsequenzen fuehren koennen. Je prominenter das -ehemals-bekleidete Amt und die damit gegebene “Prominenz” bzw. Gelegenheit zur oeffentlichen Einflussnahme auf Meinungsbildung, umso mehr ist Ihnen als Amtstraeger in herausragendendsten Funktionen diese Verpflichtung zuzumuten, und umso schwerwiegender der Vorwurf, wenn Sie es nicht tun.

Mit Ihrem Verhalten tragen Sie zu erheblichen Zweifeln und Aengsten in der Bevoelkerung bei. Sie schueren ohne jegliche Tatsachengrundlage Aengste, die zum Widerstand gegen Covid-19-Impfungen fuehren. Das ist verantwortungslos und sicher ein Grund fuer die Forderung von Ministerin Prien, obwohl auch aus ihrer Perspektive nicht allein wegen dieser Ereignisse, sondern eher ein Ausdruck der Haltung “Das Mass ist voll”.

Mein Argument kommt allerdings auf die von mir aufgefuehrte offenkundige Verletzung der Wohlverhaltenspflicht zurueck: Sie schueren Aengste, die sehr konkret zu Impfverweigerungen fuehren. Die Zahlen und Fakten sprechen fuer sich: (a) Die mittlerweile milliardenfach durchgefuehrten Impfungen sind sicher; (b) Impfungen reduzieren signifikant das Risiko, an Covid-19 zu erkranken und auch die Wahrscheinlichkeit der Transmission; (c) Impfungen reduzieren in erheblicher Weise das Risiko, Opfer einer schweren Erkrankung zu werden. Ersparen Sie mir, diesen offenen Brief mit endlosen Fussnoten zum Nachweis meiner Darstellung zu verlaengern. Vorsaetzlich falsche Aussagen wie die von Ihnen verbreiteten Behauptungen von Professor Bhakdi tragen also sehr konkret zu Krankheit, schwerem Leid und Tod anderer Menschen bei.

Daran moechte ich Sie hier erinnern.

Ich schliesse mit der Bemerkung, dass sich gerade in den letzten Tagen in meinem persoenlichen und beruflichen Umfeld erneut tragische Todesfaelle ereignet haben. In Anbetracht dessen, dass trotz intensivster Hygiene- und Schutzmassnahmen nun auch meine Familie in Kanada von Covid-Erkrankungen heimgesucht wird, kann ich nur dem Umstand danken, dass Alle vollstaendig durchgeimpft sind. Ich hoffe, dass Erkrankungen mild ablaufen.

Sehr geehrter Herr Maaßen, meine eigene Verpflichtung zum Wohlverhalten legt mir auf, diese oeffentliche Aussage zu Ihrem Verhalten in angemessener Form darzulegen. Ich denke aber, es ist mir auch zugestanden, Ihr Verhalten als unerhoert, inakzeptabel und in schaerfster Form verurteilungswuerdig zu qualifizieren.

Stefan Feller, Leitender Polizei/Kriminaldirektor a.D.

On Weapons, Ammunition and Explosives – An Afghanistan Threat Assessment

20 August 2021, Christoph Heusgen, former permanent representative of Germany to the United Nations, and former longtime foreign and security policy advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, found clear words. In an article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations headlined “Germany and Afghanistan: Time to ditch bad governments, not good governance“, he draws a comparison of the engagement in Afghanistan with the situation in Mali, West Africa. He begins with stating “After Afghanistan, countries such as Germany should reconsider their presence in Mali, unless the ruling class commits to good governance and democratic principles.”

In the above article he talks about “good governance”, not only about “democratic principles”. He carefully lists both terms connected with an “and”. They stand separate from each other. And he talks about “the ruling class”. I will come back to “good governance”, conditionality, but also moral responsibilities, towards the end.

At the time of this writing the new Emperor is dressing into governmental clothes: The Taleban are in a process of forming and announcing a new government. When the insurgency had reached Kabul’s outer perimeter, the former Afghan government imploded, literally, after the former President fled the country. In an earlier article on Afghanistan developments I wrote that the difference with this implosion of governance is that we were observing it being on the inside, not on the outside. And in my last piece as of September 02, 2021 I wrote about a country being “armed to the teeth”. This because, amongst many other, the implosion has extraordinary consequences for the amount and type of military and police equipment, weapons, ammunition, and explosives.

Roughly, my questions related to future threats are:

  • Is this gear now subject to new governmental control, and to which extent, and how?
  • What will this gear be used for in Afghanistan by those who claim legitimacy for their governing the country, or just do rule it without any process resembling legitimacy?
  • Will the new Emperor (so to speak) undertake a comprehensive effort to secure large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition before even more will disappear into dubious, criminal, and terrorist channels as for sure is the case already right now? And how will this be done, concretely looking at possible new faultlines of terror and organised crime, by creating new generations of people being subjected to cruelties?
  • Which consequences come from the implosion preceeding the victory? Where are soldiers, police officers, commanding officers of any rank, organisational structures? We hear stories of individuals hiding, of entire units fleeing into neighboring countries together with the equipment they were carrying. We don’t know who will partner up with warlords. We don’t know who will end up on the side of terrorist organisations. And by the way, we do hear about the hostility between IS and the Taleban. We do hear about disappointed Taleban joining the ranks of ISIS-K, who are historically hostile to the Taleban, and who are extremely radical in their religious beliefs. What does this mean for weapons being readily available? Which threats come from extremism and terror in the region, for other parts of the world, including, but not only, Europe?

I am not even pretending this list is complete. Neither I would make a comparison in detail about what happened in other country situations where governance imploded, such as in Libya. Except for the numbers of weapons out of control after Libya’s implosion which were ending up fueling the conflict cycles which haunt us in addition to Libya, thereafter. I talk about Mali and what I witnessed there throughout my travels 2013 and the following years. Today, nine years after the initial crisis in Mail, the fire which we try to extinguish is burning in neighbouring countries, and beyond.

What I say is that we have serious reasons for working on a profound threat assessment. In my conversations, I hear all sorts of opinions. Some would be on the cautious side. Others would say “There won’t be much happening”, or they would say “There is not much that will be a threat for Europe, Afghanistan is too far away”, or, “I am not interested”. The last one being something I heard very often when I listened to people on the streets.

If the catastrophic failure of all collective assessments of intelligence, diplomacy and politics led to the circumstances which we witnessed in July and August, with many voices likening it with an embarrassing “defeat of the West”, what more do we need as a wake-up call that we need to wrap our minds around everything which could be a potential threat for humanity, peace, and security? For the citizens in Afghanistan, in Afghanistan’s neighborhood, in countries closer to the European Union, and the EU itself?

There is no time for complacency any longer.

Just a recap: Until recently, we fought a war against the Taleban, considering them insurgents at least, but we would put them close to terrorism, or we would consider them committing acts of terror. We have, until now, all indications for Taleban forces being responsible for atrocities, for countless crimes against humanity. We have not only withdrawn from a war against the Taleban, with international forces fighting against the Taleban. Rather, the Afghan military and the Afghan Police apparatus has been built, trained, staffed, and equipped. With huge amounts of military and police gear.

This has not been an isolated U.S. endeavor. The U.S. was involved on their own, and being part of NATO. NATO, and NATO member States were in this, together with the United States. The European Union was in it, amongst many other topical areas the EU, and EU Member States, provided large financial contributions to what is known as LOTFA, the Law and Order Trust Fund. Throughout two decades, Afghanistan’s military and policing capacities and capabilities were defined through often mainly international decisions, and when the capacities were stood up, they were dependent on everything, including salaries, equipment, and training. We are talking about an entire Army, and an entire Police setup. From everything I know from public sources, there wasn’t much sustainable development at all if the entire security apparatus depends on salaries being paid through international trust funds, capabilities being generated as donations, with huge dependencies on foreign contractors working on maintenance and supply chains, and constant ongoing training.

Even in a “best case” scenario, I have difficulties imagining anything like a smooth transition of what we call a “chain of command” from one government to the next. It feels almost cynical to name it like that. Rather, I anticipate that sheer power of coercion by the Taleban, may be combined with tribal play which we hardly understand, will compete with resistance, dissolution, and the panic of individuals who fear for their life, and that of their families. There are news about the Taleban not living up to what they publicly claim, that they hunt and execute former police and military officials. What does this mean for weapons control, and for the fate of armed people who are desperate, and need a living at the same time?

Within days in August, the Talban took control. A short while later, the last U.S. airplane being part of the international evacuation and rescue effort, now hailed by the U.S. Secretary of State as the biggest air bridge ever, left Kabul 30 August, 23:59 hours. With that, the U.S. declared the war in Afghanistan being over. Already before, we froze all international aid, by far not only the humanitarian side of it. Who is paying salaries for soldiers and police, right now?

International attention, and attention of the general public, often has a short breath. I can already feel that some may say “Alright, we have lost that war, let us move on.” For twenty years, we were with the Afghan people. Like everyone else in Afghanistan, our military and police colleagues grew friends with us. Fought with us, risked their life for their people, and trusting our promise that we would not leave them alone. Afghan police and military were the ones who took unimaginable casualties (the police even more than the military), and won’t forget the civilian casualties from two decades of war, either. After all, the victims were family, or friends.

Thus, further instability may not only depend on how the Taleban act when delivering on what they claim: That they are different now. It also depends on whether we are able to create new trust amongst those who feel they have lost everything. This means that we can not only think about threats from Afghanistan we may have to contain in the closer and larger neighborhood. We have to seek ways how we can establish a dialogue inside Afghanistan as well. Here, conditionality will be critical.

Apart from any moral assessment of this, which has its legitimacy in its own right: From a pure threat assessment perspective we need to think about a situation where former friends may feel that we have handed them over to former enemies. Where does this lead us to? Our own actions decide about whether this points to future enemies, or scenarios of cooperation. I stop there, the humanist in me wants to, of course, think of even more.

It means that, concretely for the topic at hand – large amounts of weapons, ammunition and explosives – we need to look into long term strategies, waiting for opportunities and avenues allowing the support to containment, control, and demolition inside Afghanistan, and immediate strategies allowing to help in establishing conditions for networks addressing SALW control in Afghanistan’s neighborhood.

Weapons – Ammunition – Explosives – On Afghanistan – Numbers first and what we do not know

In my previous blog article I wrote about the core of my current line of work: Advising the German Federal Foreign Office on aspects of assistance related to systematic control of what is known as Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW). The categorization “Small Arms and Light Weapons” can be somewhat misleading, because of the attributes “small” and “light”. Like, light weapons being weapons requiring not more than three people carrying them. We don’t talk about toy weapons. We talk about everything including pistols, rifles, submachine guns, machine guns, and sorts of equipment capable of destroying tanks, or gunning aircrafts down, as long as this stuff can be moved around easily.

We talk about some of the most lethal gear which can be used in asymmetric warfare, organized crime, insurgency, violent extremism, and terrorism. If you want to binge, go to Youtube and look up those gun nerds who run channels where they use this type of weaponry on firing ranges for smashing just about everything, because it creates huge numbers of people watching it. Some of those people don’t only smash things, but also explain the weapons and ammunition in a very detailed, very professional way. Veterans of various wars, having found a retirement business model.

Just to set the record straight about the type of stuff I am looking at in the following paragraphs.

Since every assessment in my line of work starts with a threat assessment, I began to wonder about what we know about the amount of SALW which we can expect to be in Afghanistan after the takeover by the Taleban, and also, where this gear is from. I have no intention to go into a comprehensive research, but I would like to use some publicly available figures as an example, and some simple logical conclusions, in order to at least point into the direction of a staggering dimension of weapons we are talking about.

Let me begin, therefore, with a few things which we know, and a few things which we do not know much about, at least publicly.

We do know that the Taleban themselves have lots of weaponry. Perhaps we do not really know, or only have confidential knowledge about the numbers, and the type of weaponry. For making my argument this is less relevant. We do know that they have enough weapons, ammunition, and explosives which allowed them to fight an entire army and a set of police organisations in a warfare where the Afghan military and police were only able to hold their ground, still loosing control over significant swaths of Afghan territory as long as the international military campaign provided superior capacities and capabilities, meaning for example air support, reconnaissance, drone firepower, specialised ground forces, and a whole international supply chain enabling the Afghan defense against this insurgency. Yet, the Taleban had enough military capability to conduct their insurgency, carrying out horrible atrocities along the way. They had and have an own supply chain, and they had and have an own financial and logistical structure for this supply chain. BBC’s report “Afghanistan: How do the Taliban make money?” gives you a sense.

How many weapons do we talk about which never were under Afghan governmental control and not under control of the Taleban, meaning, weapons in the hands of ordinary citizens, criminals, and terrorists such as ISIS-K? For future analysis, also this question will be relevant. From every experience in other zones of conflict and war it is self-evident that weapons circulate for all kinds of self-defense purposes, criminal purposes, and as instruments of terror. The situation of Afghanistan being a core area of the world’s poppy cultivation, opium production and trade, and heroin production and trade adds. There is simply no way to discard the amount of weapons which never were under any form of organisational control, be it the previous government, or the insurgency. In itself, this amounts to significant amounts of weapons which should be under control, because they are a threat.

How many weapons were left behind by hastily leaving international forces? We simply do not know. We do know that the international military had huge amounts, of course, and hopefully took as much of this gear out as possible. There is, however, indication that not everything was taken out. Here is an example for large weapons stockpiles which were simply burned to the ground, in order to make them unusable: Taleban video footage which was gained by the New York Times, indicating how the CIA burned down own facilities in Kabul before leaving. Those weapons in that video footage seem to be destroyed, however, we also know, at least in relation to some type of military gear, that the advancing Taleban took control of it. There is a lot of coverage about Taleban posing in military gear obtained from former military bases of the international coalition.

How many weapons, how much ammunition, how many explosives were in the possession of the Afghan military and security apparatus before the Taleban took over? Here we may, at least, come up with some figures about what the international community donated to the security apparatus. Whether we do have oversight about the Afghan security forces own procurement processes, I don’t know. I’m a pessimist, I doubt we know much. And the knowledge about what type of gear came from international aid, it may be kept as sensitive information, may be also because of some shame we may feel. But here are two links to professional investigative research on this topic, and here they only serve as examples, proper work requires much more: (1)Staggering costs – staggering numbers”, a Forbes magazine attempt to look into military equipment and weapons left behind in Afghanistan because the equipment was donated to Afghan military and security; (2) “Afghanistan: Black Hawks and Humvees – military kit now with the Taliban”, BBC reporting also attempts to identify how much heavy military equipment now is under Taleban control. For starters, they list 43 MD-530 helicopters, 33 C208/AC208 planes, 33 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 23 A-29 light attack air planes, 32 MI-17 helicopters, and 3 C-130 Hercules military cargo planes known as useable in-country as of 30 June 2021. They go on with staggering numbers of vehicles, including 3012 Humvees, and 31 Mobile Strike Force Vehicles. They also list at least 3598 M4 carbines. Like everyone else, BBC scrambles all qualified guesswork attempting to estimate how much of this equipment is in country, and unter Taleban control. Taken together, it is really not difficult to assume that the amount of Small Arms and Light Weapons which were part of the internationally donated equipment over twenty years will be in the milions.

These questions and examples are enough to make my point. We are talking about a country armed to the teeth.

Importantly, the next question relates to how much control there is over these weapons, and by whom. This leads to an attempted threat assessment, and I put that out in my next article.

Weapons – Ammunition – Explosives – A way how to assist in controlling them

I began my day by reading a guest essay in the New York Times by Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. In “Afghanistan Was a Wake-Up Call. Europe Needs to Step Up.” the Union’s Foreign Policy Chief dives into security issues on a strategic level. Because, the situation in Afghanistan and its wider context is confronting us with a gargantuan collection of challenges which we only begin to understand. Of course, security implications require the same attention as the humanitarian suffering already does.

I want to focus on one specific aspect: Weapons, ammunition, explosives.

On Afghanistan I will do that in my next article, but before doing that I want to spend a few sentences on how we support a comprehensive initiative in the field of weapons, ammunition, and explosives, in the Western Balkans. We do this since several years together with France, increasingly with the European Union, and many others. Good news stories often go unnoticed when facing the onslaught of catastrophic news. So, before looking at something strongly appearing to be a big mess, here a positive story first.

My current work revolves around advising the German Federal Foreign Office on German assistance to systematic efforts of governments and societies controlling all aspects of what is known as Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), their ammunition, and explosives. It is a very holistic approach, and here is a good entry point on global aspects of SALW.

What does our support mean? Here some examples:

  • It means to help partners in improving meeting international and European standards on how to regulate trade and export according to international treaties;
  • It is about how to ensure safe use, storage, and transport of such items both in the military and the civilian realm;
  • It is about prevention of diversion of legally owned weapons, ammunition and explosives into criminal channels;
  • It is about fighting the use of weapons for criminal purposes, about detecting and deterring organised criminals and terrorists trafficking in weapons or using weapons;
  • It is about prevention of crime, about addressing domestic violence, and violence against women, children, and vulnerable groups;
  • It is about strengthening the role of women in policymaking related to how societies and States want to control all legal aspects on SALW, and to fight all illegal aspects.

That’s already a long list, and more often than not the topic only catches the attention of the general public when there is a horrific terror attack, such as the Paris attacks of 2015. Since two weeks, the situation in Afghanistan is drawing increasingly attention to it.

The key principle is assistance to efforts coming from States and societies themselves. In the case of the Western Balkans it concretely means the joint efforts of six jurisdictions (I will refer to Kosovo with reference to UN Security Council Resolution 1244) Albania, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North-Macedonia and Serbia. With assistance, they have developed a systematic regional roadmap. These jurisdictions have given this roadmap to themselves, their legislators adopted it.

It began as an exercise where the Western Balkans appreciated help, and it developed into an endeavor that now brings partners in the Western Balkans and in the European Union ever closer together. Germany invests a lot of political support, expertise, and a significant financial contribution, into a coordinated support of donors and international implementing organisations who work together under a specific umbrella of coordination. Assistance is implemented by the United Nations Development Programme UNDP, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation NATO.

In a very comprehensive and coordinated way this goes beyond, but critically includes, the work of law enforcement and criminal justice within the six juridictions of the Western Balkans, and their cooperation with Interpol, Europol, Frontex, and others. Moreover, we now see partners acting in a joint interest, less and less as neighbors, more and more as being part of something joint. If you are interested in details, you will find an entry point into this whole universe of comprehensive assistance here, any quick web research will give you tons of more resources. And watch out for more news. There is a high-level conference coming up early September, taking stock half-way through the intitiative. I will post public statements here in my blog once I am authorised to do that.

The way how this roadmap has been developed by the governments in the Western Balkans themselves, and the way how donors and partners assist them in it, has found international recognition, including inside the European Union itself, and the United Nations. Recently, the UN explicitly praised the Western Balkans roadmap inititiative as a role model that could be adapted to other situations. And Germany already supports the interest which has been raised in the Carribean, or in West Africa. Both regions make good progress in developing their own tailormade approach.

Making it clear from where I look at select aspects of what can be seen as challenges within the Afghanistan context is meant to indicate two experiences which I support:

The relevance of weapons, ammunition and explosives in a global threat environment at times goes underrated, until a catastrophe is hitting the news again. The threat is constant, and in my experience it is growing;

There are successful models on assisting countries in conflict; countries emerging from conflict; countries being confronted with conflict in their immediate neighborhood; and countries that are well advanced on their long path into building lasting peace. We have alternatives to the failed models of the past. Initiatives like the one I have described above are important examples for something that can be used in many other topical and geographical areas.

They are relevant because of the key principles of assistance, partnership, and coherence of support efforts which I have touched upon above.

The End Is Just The Beginning

On this blog entry I have been on and off. Processing so many experiences from this summer, personal, and professional, this piece of writing tries to find common issues in very different fields. Sometimes I am happy with progress expressing what wants to come out, sometimes I feel like wanting to throw it into the bin. When it pops up on my blog, a future version will have made me pushing the “Publish” button. The following is what you then will read. Hope you find it interesting.

Essentially, this is a personal reflection on change. Choosing the title “The End Is Just The Beginning”, I planned to continue writing on Afghanistan and the wider context of implications which I see. I wanted to reflect on my perception that the current development for many people appears to feel like a defeat, and an end. To me, the notion of the “end” just being a “beginning” reflects on the only eternal universal truth: Everything changes.

I arrived back in Belgrade at the same time when a long and hot summer heat wave is ending. The weather is changing. Since a few days the first signs of the fall can be sensed. Temperatures significantly down, the blue sky is often replaced with the darkish grey of rain clouds. The long summer days are now followed by shorter periods of daylight. For a while I will be switching to a more stationary routine in my apartment after three months of being a digital nomad. Well, we will see how long I can keep my itchy feet under an apartment table, mitigating the risk of restlessness and focusing on healthy aspects of constant, but somewhat moderated change.

On a larger scale, what kind of change will happen for me next? During the summer I thought about the many different places scattered around the world which form part of what I would call my “home”. Partly, “home” is about places. More importantly, “home” is about meaningful connection to the people in my life who matter to me, and to whom I matter. Everything, places, situations, relationships, everything changes over time. Like everyone else, I experience times where I embrace change, and times when I dread it, when I cling, when I try to control change. I have found during the pandemic that it is possible to nurture important relationships in my life, though they are long-distance. Using videoconferencing, voicemail, calls, texts I could find a way even deriving comfort from virtual contacts with children, loved ones, friends. But there needs to be physical contact, too. So, “home” is also about deciding where to live close to some of those who matter in my life. At the end of the summer, I could see a path forward, and change is coming up, and is being embraced by me.

Then there is a book on my reading list. Tiziano Terzani’s Book “Das Ende ist mein Anfang”, literally in English “The End Is My Beginning” (German description of the book here; English description of the movie based on it here). The book patiently waits for my being ready to read it. The subtitle reads “A Father, A Son, and the Big Journey of Life”. The son, Folco Terzano, interviews his father Tiziano, who is in his last days. The son and the father talk about the meaning of life, and about the father’s experiences as a widely traveled journalist. The book is not ready for me, yet. It patiently waits, there is no hurry, it will tell me when I am supposed to read it. It touches a nerve:

I had many talks with my father over the past months. I see his existential fear, his suffering from his ego feeling locked down in an ageing and frail body. There is a stubborn denial on his side, rejecting any notion that he might not be able to live without help at some unknown point in the future. There is despair about the meaninglessness of days now and in the future, and a strong attachment to memories of the past. Sometimes, he almost exclusively lives in his memories, when things still did have a future perceived as being meaningful. On other occasions, I saw some clarity about the inevitable deterioration, and some peaceful acceptance. Mostly though, I witnessed a heartbreaking fight against upcoming defeat, and a perceived end.

Being his son, by logic I am younger than my father. I feel healthy, which allows my vain thinking ego to tell me that I am significantly younger. My ego tells me that I can do more of the same. That my future includes further extension of external validation. That my career continues with growth of the same kind that was its hallmark for many decades.

Spending time with my father, I saw what happens when we miss a transition into a different kind of growth. A kind of inner growth that does make use of the vast accrued experience of many decades, and transforms it into learning about how I can be be useful to others. I saw, and I see in my own case, how the ego clings to control, discriminates between “me” and everything “non-me”. The Buddhists talk about the duality coming from this discrimination, Buddhism teaches non-duality. To those of us who do not get enlightened early on, working on giving up the duality view reflected in “us and them” is a lifetime assignment.

Some profound changes in my life are based on developments eight years ago. So I was able to be with my father, and at the same time to reflect on my own experiences with denial, control, and the importance of external validation for my inner own esteem. I feel great compassion for my father. And I know that I have plenty of time for learning to stop worrying about the future, any perceived “endings” and wasting time by regretting the past long gone: I have today, which is endless. It means that I accept change, that I embrace change, that I am happy with change. There have been really painful experiences in my life, including somewhat recently, on what happens when I cling, deny change, deny knowledge about how toxic a situation, a relationship, or an environment, may have become for me. The denial always sits with attempting to find external reasons for the toxidity. The acceptance of change only always came when I focused on my own contribution to the toxic situation, relationship, or environment. And always, this required to experience yet another “hitting rock bottom”.

In our individual lives we run through uncounted iterations of postponing to accept that everything composite has a beginning and an end. Through many decades of our lifetime we manage to postpone thinking about the inevitable, piling up more activities and goals giving meaning to the respective phase of life we are in. As if this could go on in eternity. So, instead of understanding also the final phase of an “individual” life as a means to achieve growth, we close our eyes, pile up more external things day after day, year after year, until we simply can not go on any longer.

Then we feel being defeated.

In the world of recovery from trauma and resulting compulsive-addictive pain-sedation, we call this process “reaching rock bottom”. It is an absolutely inevitable final point when one realizes that one has no control any longer. It is the starting point of change. When we realize that we do not have control, and only then, we are able to acknowledge that our circumstances have become unmanageable. It is the ensuing breakdown which sets the stage for the new beginning. When an individual realizes that the own self sits at the root of all misery, and not external circumstances, that is the point from when on positive change is possible. Never this happens one second before. It is what I experienced eight years ago, and I practice since then. I have seen this fundamental principle everywhere, and I am just realising that it is true for the situation we find ourselves collectively in, in Afghanistan and beyond, too.

Because, in a very similar way, I have perceived the phases of our two decades of intervention in Afghanistan. We had reasons for the beginning. We discovered reasons for why to continue. We came up with new meaning when growth wasn’t working any longer. We realized that it can not continue the same way in all eternity. At some point we did not know how to make further meaning of it, so we somehow soldiered on, without a real vision how to transform things into growth, beyond our international interventions. Means of control, and of denial, worked less and less. We blindsided ourselves in relation to the inevitable, and now we feel defeated. Very much the same way an individual “ego” feels defeated, our corporate consciousness feels the same.

How does it feel for Joe Biden having to make a decision ending a seemingly endless war, and not really having a blueprint that would best mitigate the ensuing paradigm changes? I prefer to say “paradigm change”, rather than talking about chaos, since this wrongly indicates we have no way forward. There is suffering in what was, and there is suffering in what is. Now he and his administration have to face the early, and very harsh, judgements which come in through uncounted articles, OpEds, interviews. All legit. But I sympathise a lot with the U.S. President’s decision to pull-out. Obviously, it is a chaotic, messy, dramatic, heart-breaking pull-out. There is all reason to believe that we could have done better, together. As if there only was this guy, Joe Biden, or as if there was only that messed-up negotation between Nr 45 and the Taleban. No, throughout twenty years we all carry our own share of responsibility adding to the mess, we all do good looking onto our own respective side of the street.

But at the end, I wanted to say what I began with: This needs to be understood containing the piled-up energies which explode into paradigm change. The mistakes we piled up for two decades, they did not allow for any less-explosive unfolding. That is why we need to embrace the change. Simply because it is not an end. It is a chance to do things differently, together, and in humility.

We tend to think in beginnings and endings. We think in activities, and blocks of activities. We categorize. We come up with goals, and we put them on timelines. It is a way to reduce complexity, and we attempt to give meaning to what we do. In doing so, we usually look into the future from a perspective of the past, and when we have reached a goal, it becomes part of the past, we move on, to the next goal. Often, it distracts us from seeing what there is right now, and that there is nothing else than the Now.

Zooming out, so to speak, a larger view reveals the process-nature of everything. Things don’t stop when we have done something, when we have achieved something. Or when we are defeated by something. Everything is part of processes, of constant change. Everything moves. Constantly.