Monday, November 28, 2005

Reading :: Networks and Netwars

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 22:19:13

Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy

by John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt

Although I was not that impressed with Hugh Hewitt's Blog, I was intrigued by his references to John Arquilla. Arquilla works (or worked?) for RAND, where he developed the concept of "netwar," a type of low-intensity conflict made practical by new information technologies:

To be precise, the term netwar refers to an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age. These protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed organizations, small groups, and individuals who communicate, coordinate, and conduct their campaigns in an internetted manner, often without a precise central command. Thus, netwar differs from modes of conflict and crime in which the protagonists prefer to develop formal, stand-alone, hierarchical organizations, doctrines, and strategies as in past effots, for example, to build centralized movements along Leninist lines. Thus, for example, netwar is about the Zapatistas more than the Fidelistas, Hamas more than the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the American Christian Patriot movement more than the Ku Klux Klan, and the Asian Triads more than the Cosa Nostra. (p.6).

And, it might be added, about al Qaeda. In fact, bin Laden makes several appearances in this volume, which was written before September 11 but published shortly afterwards; the editors include an afterword discussing the attacks. And reading this volume has helped me to understand both al Qaeda and the US military response much better. The netwar strategy places a premium on decentralizing control, capability, and decision-making, and that decentralization is made possible by pervasive "internetting" or intercommunication among nodes. Think in terms of Afghanistan, where US special forces were authorized to infiltrate in small bands, keeping constant communication with air cover and authorized to negotiate with locals. Or think in terms of how the Iraqi army immediately dissolved when US forces reached Baghdad, leaving the invading forces with the problem of building security forces from the ground up while insurgents conducted irregular, improvised attacks. "Many ? if not most ? netwar actors will be nonstate, even stateless. Some may be agents of a state, but others will try to turn states into their agents. Also, a netwar actor may be both subnational and transnational in scope" (p.7).

In their introduction, the editors describe various network topologies. Smugglers may arrange themselves in a chain; a franchise or cartel might arrange itself in a hub with actors tied to a central node or actor; and militant peace groups may arrange themselves in an all-channel network in which every node is connected to every other (pp.7-8). The third is the most difficult to organize and sustain, but also the most powerful, as it offers "no precise head or heart that can be targeted" (p.9). In addition, organizations may form hybrids of these basic types. And, the editors caution, hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks (p.15). They helpfully outline prominent cases of netwar, from the Zapatistas to Chechnya to the Battle for Seattle (p.17); most of these are examined in subsequent chapters.

The rest of the book consists of case studies with interesting implications. In "The Networking of Terror in the Information Age" (pp.29-60), Michele Zanini and Sean J.A. Edwards argue that combating terror networks must involve monitoring changes in IT use (p.52) and targeting information flows (p.53). In "Transitional Criminal Networks" (pp.61-97), Phil Williams likens criminal networks to "boundary spanners" (p.77) that cross borders and markets. He identifies several different business roles, including organizers, insulators, communicators, guardians, extenders, monitors, and crossovers (pp.82-83). In "The Emergence and Influence of the Zapatista Social Netwar" (pp.171-199), David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla examine the Zapatista insurgency in Mexico, leading with the intriguing thesis that "social newar is more effective the more democratic the setting" (p.171); they demonstrate that the Zapatista insurgency's success rested on its ability to network with sympathetic NGOs that helped to turn the public's sympathy their way. They also call the Zapatistas the world's first "postmodern" insurgency.

Perhaps the most intriguing case study is of the "Battle for Seattle," the protests that occurred in that city in conjunction with the WTO summit in 1999. In "Netwar in the Emerald City: WTO Protest Strategy and Tactics" (pp.201-235), Paul de Armond dissects the conflict in detail, demonstrating how an all-channel network organized itself, constructed a strategy and tactics, and outflanked the Seattle response at every turn.

One of the most interesting overview chapters is Luther P. Gerlach's "The Structure of Social Movements: Environmental Activism and its Opponents" (pp.289-310), in which the author argues that networks are segmentary (composed of diverse groups), polycentric (having multiple, often competing leaders), networked (with mutiple linkages) (pp.289-290). Part of what makes these organizations so effective is that leaders may be charismatic and compelling, but they do not carry a movement on their own; movements are loosely affiliated but split and divide based on affinities, leading them to spread like kudzu (or, if you prefer, rhizomes). Interestingly, groups are interlinked through personal relationships and sustained by "living links" such as "traveling evangelists" (p.296) ? something that I certainly have seen in large organizations. The looseness and leaderlessness of these organizations lead to system reliability: organizations can both learn from and disavow failures, leading to relatively low-risk, high-yield development of the organization as long as the narrative is skillfully managed. Disavowal and emulation result in a sort of trial-and-error learning (p.305).

Let's sum up. What strikes me is that the all-channel communication model, the confusion of boundaries and peripheries, the headless/leaderless organization, and the devolution and distribution of authority and control, sounds a lot like some of the more ambitious new economy work. If you read Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy, for instance, they push the idea of small, flexible federations that come together temporarily to serve one customer's need, then disperse. Some of the "new economy" work in activity theory goes in this direction too. That wouldn't surprise Arquilla, who thinks that netwar is a precursor of larger changes.

Something to watch out for, though, is that the nodes of these networks don't seem to be well theorized. One problem that actor-network theorists have encountered is that their work is read as if "nodes" = human beings; their idea was that nodes were actors, which could be humans, nonhumans, or combinations; the idea was to leave the unit open in an ontological sense. I don't think that's how Arquilla and Ronfeldt are using the term; I think their nodes really are humans and/or aggregations of humans. And that means that the nodes are relatively fixed, closer to an activity network than an actor-network. Yes, it makes a big difference theoretically. >

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