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March 16, 2006

Our Security Future Future  Global Guerrillas

The most interesting and perceptive writing that I've seen on the future of insurgency and war in an economically globalized and networked world has been coming from John Robb, both at his personal blog and his more formal Global Guerrillas site. He's got a book in the works, and he's just published an article at Fast Company that provides a good introduction to his ideas. Excerpt:

The conflict in Iraq has foreshadowed the future of global security in much the same way that the Spanish Civil War prefigured World War II. Unlike previous insurgencies, the one in Iraq is comprised of 75 to 100 small, diverse, and autonomous groups of zealots, patriots, and criminals alike. These groups, of course, have access to the same tools we do — from satellite phones to engineering degrees — and use them every bit as well. But their single most important asset is their organizational structure, an open-source community network very similar to what we now see in the software industry. It is an extremely innovative structure, sadly, and results in decision-making cycles much shorter than those of the U.S. military. Indeed, because the insurgents in Iraq lack a recognizable center of gravity — a leadership structure or an ideology — they are nearly immune to the application of conventional military force. Like Microsoft, the software superpower, the United States hasn't found its match in a competitor similar to itself, but rather in a loose, self-tuning network.

The second insight Iraq gives us is that the convergence of international crime and terrorism will provide ample fuel and a global platform for these new enemies. Al Qaeda's attack on Madrid, for example, was funded by the sale of the drug Ecstasy. And Moisés Naím, in his new book, Illicit, details how globalization has fostered the development of a huge criminal economy that boasts a technologically leveraged global supply chain (like Wal-Mart's) and can handle everything from human trafficking (Eastern Europe) to illicit drugs (Asia and South America), pirated goods (Southeast Asia), arms (Central Asia), and money laundering (everywhere). Naím puts the value of that economy at between $2 trillion and $3 trillion a year. He says it is expanding at seven times the rate of legitimate world trade.

This terrorist-criminal symbiosis becomes even more powerful when considered next to the most disturbing sign coming out of Iraq: The terrorists have developed the ability to fight nation-states strategically — without weapons of mass destruction. This new method is called "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. Over the past two years, attacks on the oil and electricity networks in Iraq have reduced and held delivery of these critical services below prewar levels, with a disastrous effect on the country, its people, and its economy.

The early examples of systems disruption in Iraq and elsewhere are ominous. If these techniques are even lightly applied to the fragile electrical and oil-gas systems in Russia, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere in the target-rich West, we could see a rapid onset of economic and political chaos unmatched since the advent of blitzkrieg....It's even worse when we consider the asymmetry of the economics involved: One small attack on an oil pipeline in southeast Iraq, conducted for an estimated $2,000, cost the Iraqi government more than $500 million in lost oil revenues. That is a return on investment of 25,000,000%.

Now that the tipping point has been reached, the rise of global virtual states — with their thriving criminal economies, innovative networks, and hyperefficient war craft — will rapidly undermine public confidence in our national-security systems. In fact, this process has already begun. We've seen disruption of our oil supply in Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Colombia; the market's fear of more contributes mightily to the current high prices. But as those disruptions continue, the damage will spill over into the very structure of our society. Our profligate Defense Department, reeling from its inability to defend our borders on September 11 or to pacify even a small country like Iraq, will increasingly be seen as obsolete. The myth of the American superpower will be exposed as such.

Then, inevitably, there will be a series of attacks on U.S. soil. The first casualty of these will be another institution, the ultrabureaucratic Department of Homeland Security, which, despite its new extra-legal surveillance powers, will prove unable to isolate and defuse the threats against us. (Its one big idea for keeping the global insurgency at bay — building a fence between Mexico and the United States, proposed in a recent congressional immigration bill — will prove as effective as the Maginot Line and the Great Wall of China.)

But the metaphorical targets of September 11 are largely behind us. The strikes of the future will be strategic, pinpointing the systems we rely on, and they will leave entire sections of the country without energy and communications for protracted periods. But the frustration and economic pain that result will have a curious side effect: They will spur development of an entirely new, decentralized security system, one that devolves power and responsibility to a mix of private companies, individuals, and local governments. This structure is already visible in the legions of private contractors in Iraq... [Emphasis added]

Go read the rest. Robb foresees a privatized, decentralized, do-it-or-buy-it-yourself security future that will be familiar to readers of science fiction. Much of it is dark and dangerous, but he tries to end on a hopeful note:

By 2016, we may see the trials of the previous decade as progress in disguise. The grassroots security effort will do more than just insulate our gas lines and high schools. It will also spur positive social change: So-called green systems will quickly shed their tree-hugger status and be seen as vital components of our economic and personal security. Even those civilian police auxiliaries could turn out to be a good thing in the long run: Their proliferation — and the technology they'll adopt — will lead to major reductions in crime. [...]

On the national level, we'll see a withering of the security apparatus, but quite possibly a flowering in other areas. Energy independence and the obsolescence of conventional war with other countries will reduce tensions between the United States and the rest of the world. The end of oil will also force corrupt states, now propped up by energy income, to make the reforms they need to be accepted internationally, improving life for their people.

Perhaps the most important global shift will be the rise of grassroots action and cross-connected communities. Like the Internet, these new networks will develop slowly at first. After a period of exponential growth, however, they will quickly become all but ubiquitous — and astonishingly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the networks arrayed against us. And so we will all become security consultants, taking an active role in deciding how it is bought, structured, and applied. That's a great responsibility and, with luck, an enormous opportunity. Choose wisely. [Emphasis added]

Wild times ahead. Scary times. Challenging times. We no longer have the luxury of time to sit by and wait for the national government to make it all better. Government, as is becoming all too obvious, can't, or won't, in its present form, respond with sufficient agility — at least not at the national level — to cope with the ever-accelerating pace of events. We've all got to get up and get busy if we want to help drive outcomes in a positive direction. No big, centralized, top-down plan required. Find something to do and do it. Share what you learn. Learn from others. Network. Create an open-source insurgency for peace.

Update: [3/17, 11:57 AM] Here's a NYT op-ed that Robb wrote last October. A good summary of Robb's views regarding Iraq.

Posted by Jonathan at March 16, 2006 09:45 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb