2009 April 08 Wednesday
Insurgency And Social Networks In Iraq

Noah Shachtman has written a good piece in Wired about war in Iraq entitled How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social — Not Electronic.

Cebrowski and Garstka wrote about a different kind of power, one that came when connected troops started to share information in ways that circumvented, and bypassed, the Industrial Age military chain of command. But that helps only if troops can connect in the first place. It can take up to a week for them to wrangle their laptops into updating the biometric databases that track who gets in and out of Fallujah. Intelligence reports can take even longer. The people best equipped to win the battle for people's minds — US troops on the ground, local policemen, Iraqi Army officers, tribal leaders — are left out of CPOF's network. It's a bandwidth hog, and the soldiers and marines fighting these counterinsurgencies aren't exactly carrying around T3 lines. Only recently did infantrymen like the ones in Fallujah even get their own radios. The Pentagon's sluggish structure for buying new gear means it can take up to a decade to get soldiers equipped. (Though to be fair, CPOF was purchased and deployed years ahead of schedule.) In Fallujah, the marines of Fox Company, based in an abandoned train station, mostly use their CPOF terminal to generate local maps, which they export to PowerPoint. Their buddies in Fox Company's first platoon, working out of a police precinct, have it even worse. When they want to get online, they have to drive to the station.

The military built an expensive top-down computer network that doesn't address the biggest problem in Iraq: the relationships of the people. The military's network is still useful. But understanding the Iraqis and interacting with them successfully requires a lot more people skills.

The number of people on the military network is far too small for the network to contain useful info about Iraqi social networks.

As for Iraqi access, while CPOF technically isn't classified, all of the data on it is. Locals can't see the information or update any of those databases with their own intelligence. A key tenet of network theory is that a network's power grows with every new node. But that's only if every node gets as good as it gives. In Iraq, the most important nodes in this fight are all but cut off.

The insurgents are using technology with a more bottom-up approach.

Meanwhile, insurgent forces cherry-pick the best US tech: disposable email addresses, anonymous Internet accounts, the latest radios. They do everything online: recruiting, fundraising, trading bomb-building tips, spreading propaganda, even selling T-shirts. And every American-financed move to reinforce Iraq's civilian infrastructure only makes it easier for the insurgents to operate. Every new Internet café is a center for insurgent operations. Every new cell tower means a hundred new nodes on the insurgent network. And, of course, the insurgents know the language and understand the local culture. Which means they plug into Iraq's larger social web more easily than an American ever could. As John Abizaid, Franks' successor at Central Command, told a conference earlier this year, "This enemy is better networked than we are."

Lower tech approaches are more efficacious.

So Colabuno started spoofing the insurgents' posters instead. He put a logo similar to that of the terrorist Islamic Army at the top of a simple black-and-white sheet. "A young boy died while wearing a suicide vest given to him by criminals," one flyer read. "You should remember that whoever makes lies about Allah should reserve his seat in hell." The extremists went nuts — screaming at shopkeepers and locals who posted the flyers, blaming other insurgents for defaming their good names. All the while, Americans watched the action through high-powered surveillance cameras. Consequently the marines knew who to question, and who to capture or kill. "We know where you are and what you are doing," another poster proclaimed. "Who will you trust now?"

The whole article is a good read. It brings to mind US Army captain Stuart Herrington's book about his time in Vietnam: Silence Was A Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages. Human relationships are key in an insurgency. Weaponry matters far less.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2009 April 08 10:44 PM  MidEast Iraq Military Needs

Anonymous said at April 9, 2009 9:30 AM:

This begs the question: What do I care about Iraq when my state, and the whole USA are being turned over to the Third World as a settlement colony ?
Answer: Nothing. Nothing at all. I have contempt for the whole Iraq adventure.

You can read the Iraq boosters on FreeRepublic.com. Read their glowing reports about how this or that Iraqi province now has a new school built by the troops. Meanwhile the whole USA is going 3rd World. Third world president. Third world population. Third world economy. But wow... you built a new school in outer Barfistan. I'm impressed.

evil suprasentiencenormativist said at April 9, 2009 4:08 PM:

I don't know about what their average IQs are in Iraq, but it does sound like those insurgents know what they are doing. Now, what are the average SAT scores of West Point plebes? How about of all those high ranking officers actually running Iraq now? Something tells me that with smarter amateurs we could have done A LOT better. I mean, where are those young arrogant Corsicans when you need them most...

Luke Lea said at April 9, 2009 11:24 PM:

So what do you predict will happen when we leave?

Anon said at April 10, 2009 10:25 AM:

"So what do you predict will happen when we leave?"

Lots of bodies and great liveleak video...

Randall Parker said at April 10, 2009 12:55 PM:


My guess is the Baghdad government will maintain control. What I'm unclear about: Are the US and the Iraqi leaders going to systematically bribe Sunni leaders to accept mostly Shia rule? Also, will the central government try to invade the Kurdish region? I've got to look for reports about what is going on at the elite level in Iraq between the factions.

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