The Open-Source War

NY Times Op-ed by John Robb,
software executive and former Air Force counterterrorist operative. By
an open source war he means, among other things, that one side is
hierarchical with top-down management while the other side, the
insurgents, are networks of overlapping groups with no centralized
structure. A definitive book on this is Networks and Netwars, available free as a pdf from The Rand Corp.

attacks have been increasing steadily since the invasion, and the
insurgents’ methods are growing more sophisticated. American casualty
rates remain high despite an increasingly experienced force and
improvements in armor. The insurgents have also radically expanded
their campaign of violence to include Iraqi troops, police officers,
government officials and Shiite civilians. Since the American
military’s objective is to gain a monopoly on violence in Iraq, these
developments indicate that it has sustained the commercial equivalent
of a rapid loss in market share.

Despite this setback, the military
and the Bush administration continue to claim progress, though this
progress appears to be measured in the familiar metric of body counts.
According to the military, it kills or captures 1,000 to 3,000
insurgents a month. Its estimate of the insurgency, however, is a mere
12,000 to 20,000 fighters. Something is clearly wrong. Simple math
indicates we have destroyed the insurgency several times over since it

Sounds like the Pentagon is making shit up again, eh? Just like they did during the Vietnam War.

Iraq’s insurgency is much larger than the Defense Department has
reported. Other observers estimate that up to 20 percent of the two
million former Baathists may be involved in the insurgency. This
estimate would partly explain the insurgency’s ability to withstand
high losses while increasing its market share of violence.

Robb has a PDF detailing
his estimate of the size of the Iraq insurgency, which he puts at about
163,000 hardcore participants, far higher than Pentagon estimates..

other likely explanation is one the military itself makes: that the
insurgency isn’t a fragile hierarchical organization but rather a
resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups. This means that
the insurgency is virtually immune to attrition and decapitation. It
will combine and recombine to form a viable network despite high rates
of attrition.

Thus the insurgency is a classic example of a networked organization.

Body counts – and the military should already know this – aren’t a good predictor of success.

Given this landscape, let’s look at
alternative strategies. First, out-innovating the insurgency will most
likely prove unsuccessful. The insurgency uses an open-source community
approach (similar to the decentralized development process now
prevalent in the software industry) to warfare that is extremely quick
and innovative.

There are few visible fault lines in
the insurgency that can be exploited. Like software developers in the
open-source community, the insurgents have subordinated their
individual goals to the common goal of the movement.

What’s left? It’s possible, as
Microsoft has found, that there is no good monopolistic solution to a
mature open-source effort. In that case, the United States might be
better off adopting I.B.M.’s embrace of open source. This solution
would require renouncing the state’s monopoly on violence by using
Shiite and Kurdish militias as a counterinsurgency.

In fact, it appears the American military is embracing it.

If an open-source counterinsurgency
is the only strategic option left, it is a depressing one. The militias
will probably create a situation of controlled chaos that will allow
the administration to claim victory and exit the country. They will,
however, exact a horrible toll on Iraq and may persist for decades.
This is a far cry from spreading democracy in the Middle East.
Advocates of refashioning the American military for top-down
nation-building, the current flavor of the month, should recognize it
as a fatal test of the concept.

The Pentagon desire for ‘top-down
nation-building’ is also known as imperialism, as in, let’s invade
other countries, colonize them, and steal the resources.

John Robb has a personal blog at Global Guerillas
, a site I believe he started. Check out both. They aren’t political in
the common sense, and personal views on the Iraq War, as far as I can
tell, are never
stated. Plus, the ideas they discuss are fascinating.

Update: Robb blogs this follow-up

should probably write a follow up editorial about how Iraq’s open
source war will go global. Like the Spanish civil war before WW2, the
outlines of the new conflict are visible today in Iraq. The most
disturbing trend is the exponential growth of systems disruption. It is
still in the early exponential phase and is often obscured by the noise
in the conflict. However, when it does break out on the vertical climb
we will be in for a world of hurt.