Monday, April 6, 2009

Unknown unknowns

"There are known knowns. These are the things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are the things we don't know we don't know."
- Donald Rumsfeld

I can remember when Rumsfeld made that quote - seems he took a lot of flak for it, though I really don't understand why. I recently stumbled across the quote in a book I'm reading and thought it might provide a useful framework for writing about what it is that I do for a short time every month.

When I'm not out patrolling with the Afghans, I'm often working with their officers doing other things; our job being to try to come up with theories about enemy activity and the local populace that would be useful in planning future operations. To do this I often discuss the things we know with my Afghan counterpart (the known knowns) and then move on to the information we would like to know but don't know (the known unknowns). This information can often be summarized with the 5 W's: who are the bad guys? where are they? what type of activities are they conducting? etc. You can then apply these ideas to all the different aspects of conducting guerrilla warfare and ask yourself things like, "where do they get their money? who do they get it from? where do their supplies come from?, etc. We then can apply this framework to the other side of the coin in COIN (counter-insurgency) operations, the population, and ask ourselves what kinds of things we would like to know in order to influence the populace in a positive way.

Once we finish with the known unknowns we're pretty much done asking ourselves questions and can then start figuring out how to answer them. The problem with all of this is the unknown unknowns and a subset of the unknown unknowns, the unknown knowns, which is where I would group a lot of our information because I'm not sure it's actually correct. The Afghans love to surmise things and believe a lot of second-hand information. They'll often come up with estimates on things that are not quite believable. But on the other hand, this is their country and their culture, so they should be able to get a feel for what's going on out there a lot better than we ever could. At any rate, I characterize a lot of the information we do have as unknown knowns because we think we know things that we don't have good solid proof of.

And as for the unknown unknowns, I would characterize these as things that are beyond the scope of our thought processes. No doubt we're potentially faced with many unknown unknowns for two reasons: because insurgencies and terrorists are inherently unbound by rules and unpredictable; and because none of us in the area are conducting enough operations and getting out among the people to really know what's going on out there. You conduct operations partly to get information to use for planning future operations. When you're not operating, guys like my Afghan counterpart and I are kind of in the dark and are left to conjecture and surmise instead of analyze facts - leading to less and less situational awareness of the battlespace and more unknown unknowns.

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