By John Robb
I've been reading several books on warfare and terrorism lately because I'm interested in the network organizational structure used by some terrorist organizations and advocated for components of our own military. Networks, as I've noted in other reviews, are also being adopted in knowledge work (my current focus), and looking at conflict as a parallel case helps me to think through implications for knowledge work. And vice versa - as John Robb demonstrates in his book Brave New War, which characterizes the organizational structure of the Iraqi insurgency as "an open-source community network" (p.4). Brave New War lays out, lucidly and in terms that the general readership can understand, what such organizational changes mean to the future of security, focusing primarily on the Iraqi insurgency up to the publication date (2007). Although it's repetitive at times, and although it doesn't predict the post-Surge (relative) calm in Iraq, this book does a great job laying out the changes in the security landscape and their implications for national security.
In a nutshell, Robb argues that "we have entered the age of the faceless, agile enemy" (p.3). Our military is still tuned to fight state-to-state wars (p.7), but our most next-generation enemies are now stateless, without a recognized center of gravity, and thus nearly immune to conventional military force (p.4). Such enemies have organized in innovative and agile ways that promote much faster decision-making cycles and much more distributed decision-making, similar to software companies (p.4). And rather than turning to conventional weapons and targets, they turn to
systems disruption, a simple way of attacking the critical networks (electricity, oil, gas, water, communications, and transportation) that underpin modern life. Such disruptions are designed to erode the target state's legitimacy, to drive it to failure by keeping it from providing the services it must deliver in order to command the allegiance of its citizens (p.5)He predicts "the rise of global virtual states" that "will rapidly undermine confidence in our national-security systems" (p.6). New conflicts, he says, will be substate, fought by "superempowered groups" who can leverage technological advances and pinpoint systemic weaknesses of states (p.8).
In subsequent chapters, Robb details how such groups work. He argues that this new method of warfare focuses on delegitimizing the state, leading to weakened or failed states, by "derail[ing] the key drivers of economic globalization: the flow of resources, investment, people, and security" (p.14). Such groups look for high return on investment for their attacks. Such "global guerillas have atomized into loose, decentralized networks that are more robust and learn more quickly than traditional hierarchies" (p.15). These networks form a "bazaar of violence" (p.15) in which loosely affiliated or unaffiliated groups, often with differing ideologies, can share information and resources and "coordinate their actions to swarm vulnerable targets" (p.16). Such networks want failed states (p.17): the feudal vision of the Caliphate is "the hollowing out and failure of the nation-state" (p.18). Again, he points to the Iraqi insurgency, in which Baathists, al-Qaeda, and criminals all wanted a weakened state for their own purposes (p.18).
Such networks are vanishingly small. Of course, the apparatus of the state is also vanishingly small, although it claims the entire territory. "This new organization," Robb warns, "once established, is now in competition with the states as an equal and not as a successor" (p.21). And it is at an advantage in that no one expects such networks to provide services, stability, or protection in the same way that a state does.
Most of the United States' recent "wars," Robb points out, were actually interventions in failed states: Afghanistan, Somalia, Kosovo (p.26). Indeed, conventional warfare has been almost eliminated due to Mutually Assured Destruction on one hand and global economic and social integration on the other (p.25). Under these pressures, as the Cold War wound down, proxy guerilla war became the primary means of wars between states (p.27). Such fourth-generation warfare (4GW) "was seen as a way to waste the strength of the strong - to bleed the target state dry morally and economically. The result is an eternal war that typically ends with the target state's inevitable defeat" (p.27). 4GW turns states' strengths into weaknesses (p.28). And the latest development has been that "guerilla and terrorist movements, which were once the proxy puppets of nation-states, became autonomous" (p.30).
Here we return to Iraq, the centerpiece of Robb's argument. After the Gulf War, Robb argues, Saddam Hussein knew that Iraq could not win a conventional war with the US. So his planning team decided to plan a 4GW, establishing the irregular Feyadeen Saddam in 1995, stashing weapons in the countryside, and selecting an urban swarming strategy that focused on systemic disruptions (something they learned from the pinpoint infrastructure bombing carried out during the Gulf War) (p.44). When Gulf War II started, the forces simply melted away and began their 4GW: a 4GW that grew to include hundreds of small groups (p.73) that "range from a small family group to large ideologically motivated groups measuring in the thousands" (p.74). The groups are united by a common enemy and more or less by tactical approaches, but not by a common strategic objective.
In this emerging landscape, Robb argues, the state is stretched to the breaking point - not just the US, but also China, where rapid economic growth has outstripped the government's ability to control it (p.86). In such conditions, paramilitary forces and ad hoc militias develop; Robb points to China here (p.86), but also mentions the proliferation of SWAT teams and the rise of the Minutemen in the US (p.87). He expects private military companies to gain ground (p.91).
Robb turns to the analogy of open-source warfare, arguing that in OSW, a spectacular attack functions as an alpha release. Other networks can take the basic architecture of the attack, tweak it, fork it, and release their own versions (p.116). The promise of the attack draws people with differing motives but the same objective, the attack (p.116). In such an environment, coordination consists not of centrally directed activity, but of stigmergy:
Stigmergic systems use simple environmental systems to coordinate the actions of independent agents (each with their own decision-making process). These signals are used to coordinate scalable, robust, and dynamic activity. This activity is usually much more intelligent than the actions capable by the individual actors ... (p.124)Based on the analysis above, Robb argues that we must turn away from solutions that rely on the nation-state as the primary actor (p.162). Security, he argues, must be affordable, efficiently allocated, broad-based and participatory; the state cannot deliver this sort of security well in the face of 4GW, he says (p.163). Instead, he says, "the only way to ensure security in the future will be through survival and decentralized resilience" (p.164). Let's rethink the state, he says, transitioning from a nation-state to a market-state (p.165); that would entail moving the legitimacy of the state from a provider of its people's welfare to "maximal 'opportunity' through the use of market mechanisms" (p.166). (To some, I note here, this might sound like destroying the state in order to save it.)
Since I've been reading a lot of this literature lately, Brave New War doesn't seem as fresh or radical as it might to many. But it's a well written book, lucid, smart even when it goes where few will want to follow. As I said earlier, it's a bit repetitive and perhaps a bit alarmist. But it is such a daring book that transcends these weaknesses, and it made me think about things differently even when I disagreed with it. Especially if you haven't read about netwar before, take a look at this book.