Real Networking

Stanley McChrystal on networks:

“Like all too many military forces in history, we initially saw our enemy as we viewed ourselves. In a small base outside Baghdad, we started to diagram AQI on white dry-erase boards. Composed largely of foreign mujahideen and with an overall allegiance to Osama bin Laden but controlled inside Iraq by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI was responsible for an extremely violent campaign of attacks on coalition forces, the Iraqi government, and Iraqi Shiites. Its stated aim was to splinter the new Iraq and ultimately establish an Islamic caliphate. By habit, we started mapping the organization in a traditional military structure, with tiers and rows. At the top was Zarqawi, below him a cascade of lieutenants and foot soldiers. But the closer we looked, the more the model didn’t hold. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s lieutenants did not wait for memos from their superiors, much less orders from bin Laden. Decisions were not centralized, but were made quickly and communicated laterally across the organization. Zarqawi’s fighters were adapted to the areas they haunted, like Fallujah and Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and yet through modern technology were closely linked to the rest of the province and country. Money, propaganda, and information flowed at alarming rates, allowing for powerful, nimble coordination. We would watch their tactics change (from rocket attacks to suicide bombings, for example) nearly simultaneously in disparate cities. It was a deadly choreography achieved with a constantly changing, often unrecognizable structure.”

This is ultimately the heart of what John Robb, John Arquilla, and others have been writing about for some time. It’s often striking how militaries in the 1990s struggled to become network-centric, but other organizations achieved it at a fraction of the cost. Of course, networking did not bring AQI and others strategic success. It only was perhaps effective on the tactical and operational level.

This perhaps points at the problem with networking in military operations. With the exception of John Arquilla’s recent monograph (not available online, see Naval Postgraduate School for a copy) on what a netwar against al-Qaeda would look like, the writing about networking and military operations is overwhelmingly tactical and operational. Thus the risk is that would-be netwarriors get trapped in tactics and operations while neglecting the strategic whole.

There is a similarly here between Shimon Naveh and other writers’ discussion of “blitzkrieg” (I hesitate to use that term because of its ahistorical nature–the Germans never called it that) as a tactical system that provided a basis for operational imagination but was overwhelmingly focused on the smallest of levels.


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