What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The net value of network theory

Slate has a series of looong articles on network theory's application in rolling up the Saddam Hussein-centred part of the Iraqi insurgency once that declaration-of-victory thing turned out to be slightly premature - that was one network out of so many that eventually fought there (here is the link to the first part of the series). It is so long you might not want to risk finishing it by the time the "long war" already ends, so I will sum up what I think is its essence for you, with this one paragraph quoted from the third part (out of five):
"... instinct alone, no matter how well-supported by a link diagram, is not a very solid basis for organizing a raid and putting American soldiers in harm's way. Maddox had to earn the trust of the special-ops commanders with proof that his diagrams reflected behavior on the battlefield. Maddox did make his share of mistakes—recommending raids that turned up no one and opposing raids that did. But as interrogations continued to confirm what the network had predicted—who was important, who wasn't—the team's commander and analyst began to take greater risks based on the network. Eventually, Maddox became a part of the team that planned and executed raids."
In other words, using scientific (and not merely intuitive) network analysis, calculating "betweenness" of nodes for example, not just doing what even ordinary policemen do all the time when connecting the dots (when they also, at least instinctively, apply the concept of networks), was important to: 1) avoid casualties in unproductive raids; 2) speeden things up.

But even that sort of use of network theory comes with caveats, discussed in the last part of Chris Wilson's series which is most worth reading (if you are not primarily interested in Iraqi history or in examples of U.S. military successes per se). That is where Marc Sageman's insightful remarks sum up for you some of what I would have put down in my own words to reflect on network theory's use in the Afghan/Pakistani borderland.
"Sageman is a natural skeptic who insists that counterterrorism scholarship is reliant on anecdotes rather than data. When I showed him a copy of the Saddam network, he was dismissive, saying he needed more information about how it was compiled. Under Sageman's "blob" theory, connections between players in terrorist groups evolve far too rapidly for a network diagram to keep up with. Expressing all relationships in terms of nodes and edges, he further argues, cannot account for the nuances of how people are really connected. Sageman believes social network analysis might be useful for drawing conclusions after the fact, when information about a terrorist group is more complete. He remains unconvinced of its utility as a battlefield tool.

While Sageman is one voice in a crowded field of terrorism experts, his point about the pace at which networks shift is a valid one. In Tikrit, players were captured, killed, and replaced at a low enough rate that the network was able to cohere. The churn rate is likely much higher in an extremist group like al-Qaida.

Saddam Hussein's network was also fairly rigid: The connections the dictator made throughout his decades years in power were not going to disappear overnight."

In Afghanistan/Pakistan, of course another problem is that you may turn up links between people, but sometimes those links will lead into the sovereign territory of neighbouring countries where you cannot go (and do a raid for example). And you could still highlight more major deviations from this "Iraqi precedent," but this definitely ought to be kept in mind. Especially as long as Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are over on the other side of that border.

Plus here is some intellectual whining from me, too - of the kind that can make some whine in response. But I think it is important, with a long-term perspective, and so I will not hold back.

The use of network theory, gaining knowledge about networks that can help destroy them, still fits a military-centred approach to world politics "bloody" well. Hunting down network members in often lethal raids may seemingly substitute for persuasion, and more carefully devised, long-term-oriented policies. Counterinsurgency may be the graduate level of war, but when one needs to do it, it is usually after failing an "exam" in politics in one way or another; and network-hunting is no population-centric way of acknowledging that failure. Network-centric can still be enemy-centric and narrow-sighted, if not complemented by other measures.

Investigating networks may also give a false sense of knowledge and power to the one who applies this method. Like in general when intelligence as smartness and sharpness is confused with intelligence as collecting a lot of information... Even Chris Wilson, the author of the article series, could not avoid getting comfortable referring to the various people hunted after here as the "mafia" (not to mention another analogy from the article; that of people passing on sexually transmitted diseases). Somewhat inevitably everyone looked at in this big search for pieces of the puzzle becomes likened to criminals (whether or not that person may have rather been motivated by nationalism or family loyalties). "They" want to hide and conspire unbeknownst to "us;" "we" are the legitimate side and slowly but surely "we" overcome "their" resistance, uncovering "their" (dirty) little secrets along with "their" whereabouts... these being the motives driving a process of Othering.

Finally, it is also - by now - almost hilarious to see an author start out saying,

"Who should the coalition have been going after? A careful study of Iraq's tribal structure, particularly around the Tikrit region where most of Saddam's top men were from, would have uncovered an entirely different cast of troublemakers..."

to then come to note, quoting an officer,

" 'Just because two guys are in the same tribe doesn't mean they're buds,' explains Brian Reed. "

Yep. Same tribe, yet often no buds, and with different ideas.... Even in Iraq.

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