Sunday, December 12, 2010

Labyrinth: Flawed simulation of a conflict that's difficult to simulate

[Cross-posted at Boardgame Geek.]

After three solitaire games of GMT's new wargame Labyrinth, I’ve had enough experience under my belt to write a review -- not about Labyrinth as a game, but as a simulation of the United States’ clash with Islamist terrorist groups since 2001. Based on what we already knew about counterterrorism before the 9/11 attacks, and the many hard lessons since then, Labyrinth is a flawed simulation in many ways:

  • It misrepresents terrorist groups.
  • It misrepresents terrorist goals.
  • It misrepresents terrorist methods.
  • It misrepresents counterterrorism.
  • It reduces counterterrorism to its military elements, at the expense of its diplomatic and intelligence components.
  • It overlooks many important aspects of Middle East politics that have had a direct impact on US counterterrorism elements.
  • It creates a cartoon version of US foreign policy options.

At the same time, Volko Ruhnke deserves credit for being the first to dive into one of the most difficult topics for a wargame. Counterterrorism is so different than conventional warfare that traditional wargame conventions would have to be radically changed, and in many cases discarded. Since wargame designers haven’t explored this topic before, the question of which elements are essential, and which can be discarded, are very hard to answer. In addition, nine years after the 9/11 attacks, popular conceptions of terrorism still contain many of the flaws that existed before counterterrorism became the #1 national security objective for the United States.

While there’s plenty of room for overlooking the flaws of the first major game on this topic, Labyrinth gets many of the critical aspects of counterterrorism wrong. To be fair, there’s room for debate about a few of the elements I’ll criticize in this review, so I’ll try to be clear where there’s more of a question mark than an exclamation point hanging over a particular design decision.

The designer’s notes start with a quote from Thomas Friedman, which is a very bad way to start. Friedman’s factual mistakes and bad predictions about national security matters are infamous. Friedman’s track record on Iraq was so bad that he inspired a new term, Friedman units (abbreviated to FUs), which became an icon for bad predictions about that conflict. Friedman is also famous for his “Suck on this” comment during a Charlie Rose interview, when he defended the invasion of Iraq as a “good idea.” Friedman’s argument was, even if we invaded a country not involved in 9/11, we needed to take a big stick to the backside of some Middle Eastern country. Any one would do. (“It could have been Saudi Arabia...”)

Of course, the last several years have shown that distinctions in the Middle East are very important, especially given the high cost of mistakes. The invasion and occupation of Iraq did not have the "demonstration effect" that its architects intended, either with enemies or allies. Because of Iraq, the United States has had fewer tangible and intangible resources for dealing with these other players. And, of course, it pushed Americans into a shooting war with people who did not attack the US in 2001. If distinctions matter in these actual conflicts, they also matter in simulations of them.

Which brings us to the central storyline of Labyrinth, a conflict between the United States and “jihadists.” There are no distinctions among those little black pieces you push from one part of the map to another. In the real world, while collaboration does occur among terrorist groups, their differences far outweigh their commonalities. Al Qaeda’s goals are not those of the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf. Not only is their daylight between Al Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf, but Abu Sayyaf isn’t the only Islamist, separatist group in the Philippines. As in many internal wars, multiple factions are fighting the regime, and sometimes each other. The agenda, methods, and base of the Moro National Liberation Front, one of these other groups, are not the same as Abu Sayyaf’s.

To its credit, Labyrinth does include event cards that highlight this division. Unfortunately, those event cards are a small nod to these divisions, in a game that has core mechanics that blur them. The idea that, as often happens in Labyrinth, a cell in the Philippines would hop on a plane to carry out terrorist attacks in a random country (Sweden? Canada? Lebanon? India? Who can guess?) is ludicrous. Most of the groups represented by Labyrinth’s little black tokens are focused on local objectives, not transnational ones.

In fact, a major element of any grand strategy for defeating terrorist threats is exploiting these divisions. Al Qaeda mutated into a “franchise supplier” for local terrorist groups, so defeating Al Qaeda requires separating it from the Abu Sayyafs around the world. Treating them as one monolithic terror network is counterproductive, just as ignoring the split between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China was, until the Nixon Administration, a missed opportunity to deal more effectively with both communist adversaries.

The nomenclature these groups adopt sometimes confuses the differences among them. Just because a group has Al Qaeda in its name ("In Iraq," "In The Arabian Peninsula," etc.) doesn’t make it a wholly owned subsidiary of the Al Qaeda that attacked the US in 2001. They may have adopted the name because they are fellow travelers that work closely with Al Qaeda. Or, they may have adopted the Al Qaeda name because of its brand, and have little to do with the real Al Qaeda.

We may find ourselves in direct conflict with these groups. They may hate us for everything we stand for. We may never be able to make peace with them. However, they may lack the ability or desire to attack the United States, and they may not be as closely allied to Al Qaeda as their names suggest.

Other wargames provide a model for depicting the splits among revolutionary groups that Labyrinth omits. Brian Hill’s excellent game about the Chinese Civil War, Battle For China, divides the anti-communist side into multiple bickering factions, without overly complicating the game. Factionalism is a major part of Triumph Of Chaos, which covers the Russian Civil War. It’s not only possible to make factionalism a part of a wargame design, it’s necessary if you’re going to do justice to many conflicts.

Labyrinth smears these distinctions further in the victory conditions for the game. While a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack on the United States would be a genuine catastrophe for the United States, it is not necessarily a victory for all terrorists. Prior to 9/11, Al Qaeda split over the question of whether it was more important to attack the “near enemy” (Middle Eastern governments, in particular Egypt’s) and the “far enemy” (the United States and Western Europe, which support these regimes). While Osama bin Laden may have won that internal debate, his ideological opponents have grounds to say, “I told you so.” The American government’s decision to aggressively pursue counterterrorism at an unprecedented level hurt Al Qaeda. The United States did not stop its aid to Middle Eastern regimes. Other terrorist groups, now in the American crosshairs, have reason to complain about bin Laden’s decision.

If anything, Labyrinth shows how dangerously facile the phrase “war on terror” is, when trying to describe a conflict with specific opponents with varying objectives, some of whom menace US interests in only the most indirect ways. The United States has a hierarchy of threats, with another attack on domestic soil at the top of the list. It is fighting specific groups that may plan that kind of attack again. Other revolutionary groups may be terrorists, they may be Islamist, and they may menace other American interests, but they rank lower on the ladder of threats to national security.

You may have noted a slight change in the language I was using to describe the combatants. “Terrorist” accurately describes the little black cylinders in Labyrinth -- but only to a point. If they are meant to represent the Taliban (on either side of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border), Hezbollah, Jaish al-Mahdi, or similar groups, they are not terrorists per se.

On occasion, these groups may use violence to terrorize opponents. They may be actively working against American interests. They may pursue ideologies that are opposed to our beliefs. They may be enemies on all these scores, and then some. But they are not the same type of adversary as Al Qaeda in 2001, or other distinctly terrorist groups, such as the IRA in its heyday. From a strategic and operational perspective, Osama bin Laden has more in common with Timothy McVeigh than Moqtada al-Sadr.

So what are they, if not terrorists? In some cases, a more accurate term would be guerrilla or insurgent. In others, militia might describe them more accurately. The methods used to fight each category of opponent differ. To defeat insurgents, for example, we apply the principles of counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency is not counterterrorism. The two are related, because in both cases the target is a revolutionary organization. However, since insurgents (the Viet Cong, for example) don’t organize, recruit, or operate in the same way as terrorists, the approach to fighting them has to be different.

Nation-building, for example, is a necessary part of counterinsurgency. It is not necessarily part of counterterrorism. Therefore, Labyrinth’s link between counterterrorism and nation-building is false. Many counterterrorism campaigns, such as the British government’s long war with the IRA, resemble a struggle with organized crime  -- not surprising, since in both cases, the adversary is a small, secretive, violent organization. In no way did the British government need to “nation-build” to end the war in Northern Ireland. In counterterrorism, force plays an impoertant role, but intelligence, deception, and diplomacy are equally important tools.

The context in which the United States is fighting terrorist organizations complicates this picture. For example, the Taliban in 2001 was providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda, so the US and its NATO allies had to fight the Taliban to get to Al Qaeda. The alliance between the two groups continued after the invasion.

The Taliban is a genuine enemy of the United States. Its ideology and methods are odious. However, its organization and methods are not the same as terrorist groups like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, or the tiny Islamist cell in Spain that executed the 2004 Madrid train bombings. And if you think this is a distinction without a difference, consider the “governance” level for Japan and Spain. Does Labyrinth’s narrative, in which terrorism is both a product and a cause of bad governance, make any sense?

Labyrinth’s version of terrorist strategy follows a simple formula: terrorist attacks lower a regime’s ability to govern. At a certain point in the balance of forces between the terrorists and the regime (plus the regime’s foreign allies), the terrorists carry out a final push that ousts the regime, replacing it with an Islamic republic. There are several problems with this picture.

First, this strategy owes a lot more to Mao Tse Tung than Osama bin Laden. This sequence of events describes a classic guerrilla strategy, in which the revolutionaries build momentum through political recruitment and military attacks. Eventually, the conflict reaches a point where the besieged regime can no longer defend itself against the guerrillas’ expanding political and military organization. In a big final push, the regime falls.

Terrorists don’t pursue this timeline. In fact, it’s the opposite of what they try to do, remaining small and secretive to maintain their ability to execute terror attacks.

Second, the one Islamic republic in existence today didn’t start this way. The Iranian revolution followed a much different course, in which the Islamist factions capitalized on wide-spread disaffection with the Shah’s regime. In the same fashion as the Russian Revolution or French Revolution, once a broad coalition of anti-regime forces ousted the old regime, the most radical among them carried out a second seizure of power. The timeline for the Taliban’s rise to power resembled neither this model, nor the one depicted in Labyrinth.

Third, terrorists are largely indifferent to the level of governance in the countries where they operate. Many countries that have suffered terrorist attacks -- for example, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, and Israel, to name but a few -- are hardly failed states. Failed states can provide convenient bases, but the terrorists’ targets are often very successful regimes.

Fourth, the terrorists are usually indifferent to the quality of governance in these societies. More often than not, they are trying to coerce regimes into policy changes (releasing terrorists, removing troops from Saudi Arabia, etc.), not regime or even leadership changes. And in a few cases, such as the Baader-Meinhoff group, their strategy is to goad the regime into a greater level of policing and control, with the aim to inspire a backlash from the over-policed population. (This strategy never really worked, but that was the plan.)

At bottom, terrorism as a method uses ruthless, dramatic, and well-communicated acts of violence to intimidate regimes into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do. This approach gives the tiny group of terrorists power way out of proportion to their size, or the tiny percentage of the population that might actually support them. Because the vast majority of citizens vehemently disapprove of these methods, and the regime is not a failed state, terrorists remain small and secretive. In other words, it’s a very capable level of governance, in Labyrinth’s terms, that convince sthese groups to adopt terrorist methods and organization in the first place. (Unlike insurgents, who have more political and military space in which to organize and fight on a larger scale.)

To fight this kind of adversary, governments cannot rely solely on military force. Nor is nation-building the primary stage for counterterrorism, since “governance” isn’t really the issue. (Counterinsurgency, on the other hand, does depend a great deal on improved governance.) The effort to find, fix, and finish terrorist groups is a long, patient process in which human intelligence, signal intelligence, and infiltration are as important to “disrupt” terrorist cells as Predator drone strikes and “kick down the door” raids.

Labyrinth, on the other hand, depicts counterterrorism as a predominantly military exercise. By deploying troops to a country, you gain the ability to disrupt terrorist cells there. Otherwise, you’re pretty much helpless, except for a small number event cards (Special Forces, for example) that let you remove cells where you don’t have troops.

If intelligence is part of this design, it’s so abstracted that it’s invisible. Diplomacy is also missing from the picture. The US works constantly with other governments to develop and share intelligence, even though some of these governments may not be our allies. In fact, the US government occasionally communicates with adversaries like Syria, and rivals like Russia, when a particular terrorist group is a mutual concern. Sometimes, the United States acts on this intelligence; in other cases, US officials count on other governments to take action. In no way, however, is the American counterterrorism dependent on troop deployments in the way that Labyrinth depicts.

As focused on the Middle East as Labyrinth is, the game misses many key aspects of the Middle East that are critical to US counterterrorism strategy. The Sunni/Shia split, a fracture line that crosses politics across the region, is almost an afterthought in the design. A few cards allow actions to occur in countries with a mix of both sects, but that hardly captures the dramatic importance of this division. Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia, for example, worry as much about a Shi’ite uprising as they dream of Islam's return to the doctrinal purity of the first four caliphs. Since the Shi’ite uprising is a much closer possibility, they are willing to support Sunni terrorist groups as a counterbalance against potential Shi’ite threats. On the other side of the sectarian divide, Iran capitalizes on Shi’ite outrage, funding its own set of terrorist proxies to advance its interest in the region.

The sectarian divide, as intermingled as it is with the interests of regional powers, leads to the kind of unexpected and seemingly bizarre results that are hallmarks of Middle Eastern politics. For example, rising Iranian power has prompted a collaboration between Israel and Saudi Arabia that was unthinkable a decade earlier.

Labyrinth glosses over these distinctions in a way that makes the game hard to swallow as a simulation of Middle Eastern politics. The US decision to tilt in the direction of the Sunnis, both in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, did not go unnoticed by Shi’ites who are keeping score about the balance of power between the two sects. Nor did it failed to go unnoticed by regimes whose power and influence depend on the state of affairs within Islam. Alliances should shift, based on US actions, in a way that opens some possibilities and closes others.

Some actions allowed in the game should be a lot harder, or involve some kind of trade-off. Even if Pakistan were an ally, it’s weird to be able to station troops there without repercussions. Playing Labyrinth is an odd experience, in which US actions don’t seem to have effects where they should. (In contrast, Twilight Struggle gave the US and USSR unmerited control over world affairs.)

At other times, some actions carry consequences that seem crazily unpredictable. In my second game, the US not only lost a great deal of prestige for the invasion of Afghanistan, but in the same first turn, the Election card triggered a sudden shift against such “hard” methods. While any game like this should have some unpredictable elements, the idea that, in October and November 2001, both the US electorate and world opinion would turn vehemently and immediately against the US invasion of Afghanistan strains credulity.

One aspect of the Middle East where Labyrinth is, arguably, a mixed success is Iraq. You can easily play the game without invading Iraq, which is by no means a scripted event. Iraq represents an expensive distraction, as you try to keep Afghanistan on its feet, block the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and unravel terrorist plots in Europe. The only downside of Labyrinth’s depiction of Iraq is the significant number of event cards that simulate events in the history of the Iraq invasion and occupation (Anbar Awakening, Saddam Captured, etc.), which imply a greater significance for Iraq in the game than seems to be the case.

Finally, the game has a very strange attitude towards Iran. The regime that has been supporting revolutionary groups across the Middle East, investing heavily in WMDs, influencing post-invasion Iraqi politics significantly, and otherwise throwing its weight around the entire Middle East feels like, in Labyrinth, a minor player. Weird.

The role of Iran, however, points to what could be better material for a future wargame.The cold war between the American and Iranian governments from 1979 to the present would be a good basis for a Twilight Struggle-like game. Instead of pitting the US against a largely fictional foe (“the terrorists,” in the most generic sense imaginable), the other side would be a solid player in Middle Eastern politics. While it’s not the only axis around which US interests in the Middle East turn, the shadow war with Iran’s theocracy has occupied a lot of the American government’s attention. There would be clear phases to the conflict, played out across the Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, etc.), and across multiple battlefields (terrorist attacks on allies, espionage, threats against oil exports, etc.).

While superficially the game suggests that the US player could easily choose either a “hard” or “soft” posture, the game clearly rewards the “hard” approach. Certain event cards (for example, Libyan WMD and Iraq WMD) depend on the US having a hard posture. Disrupt operations affect two cells when US policy is hard, and only one cell when soft. Military intervention (a.k.a. “regime change”) is only possible when the US stance is hard. Other than getting a +1 bonus on War of Ideas rolls when the rest of the world is also in the Soft column, there’s no benefit, in game terms, for being anything but Hard.

This is a caricature of the choice between hard and soft power, which is more an emphasis than an exclusive choice. The Bush Administration could have depended more on soft power than it did, after the invasion of Afghanistan. A direct military action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban did not dictate that the US would deal with all future threats in the same way. In fact, the US often takes a very hard posture against some adversaries, such as North Korea, because of the nature of the conflict. These strategies are persistent from one presidential administration to another, even if the occupants of the Oval Office are as different in their approach to world affairs as Clinton and Bush.

Circumstances dictate the choices among hard and soft power implements as much as the umbrella foreign policy that the US government pursues at any particular moment. As hard as the policy has been towards the Taliban, the experiment with negotiating a separate peace with some Taliban factions started during the Bush Administration, not Obama’s. Labyrinth’s hard/soft mechanic is a cartoon version of foreign policy that borders on something that even the most ardent neoconservatives would see as absurd.

I have other nits to pick with Labyrinth. For example, why should the number of Islamic republics automatically hurt US prestige? Instead of making the US seem like a paper tiger, another Taliban-like regime might make more governments rally around American power. However, I’ve probably said more than enough by now in this very long review to make my major point: as a simulation of the conflict that has defined the last decade, Labyrinth falls very short of the mark.

[One final note. The United States and its allies are fighting many wars along many dimensions of conflict. Whether or not a particular opponent is, strictly speaking, a terrorist organization is in no way diminishing the importance of defeating that foe. Nor is drawing a distinction between Al Qaeda and another terrorist group a way of saying that there is ipso facto no real point to defeating them. The US also has other national security priorities, such as the stabilization of Iraq, that may have little or nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Drawing these distinctions does not diminish the efforts of American and allied personnel who are working hard, at extreme risk, to defeat our enemies. Quite the opposite: we should appreciate what they do, every day, in fighting one of the most many-faceted and vexing conflicts in our history.]

1 comment:

  1. A fantastic review! Although I must admit your review has made me want to play the game, even though it gets so much wrong.