Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Open-Source War

The Open-Source War
New York Times
Published: October 15, 2005

IN September, the Defense Department floated a solicitation for a company to build a "system of metrics to accurately assess U.S. progress in the war on terrorism" and make suggestions on how to improve the effort. As a software executive and former Air Force counterterrorist operative, I began thinking: how would I build this system and what would I recommend?

My first task would be to gauge our progress in Iraq. It is now, for better or worse, the epicenter of the war on terrorism. By most measurements, the war is going badly.

Insurgent 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 started.

Perhaps 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.

The 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. 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. New technologies and tactics move rapidly from one end of the insurgency to the other, aided by Iraq's relatively advanced communications and transportation grid - demonstrated by the rapid increases in the sophistication of the insurgents' homemade bombs. This implies that the insurgency's innovation cycles are faster than the American military's slower bureaucratic processes (for example: its inability to deliver sufficient body and vehicle armor to our troops in Iraq).

Second, 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. This has been borne out by the relatively low levels of infighting we have seen between insurgent groups. As a result, the military is not going to find a way to chop off parts of the insurgency through political means - particularly if former Baathists are systematically excluded from participation in the new Iraqi state by the new Constitution.

Third, the United States can try to diminish the insurgency by letting it win. The disparate groups in an open-source effort are held together by a common goal. Once the goal is reached, the community often falls apart. In Iraq, the original goal for the insurgency was the withdrawal of the occupying forces. If foreign troops pull out quickly, the insurgency may fall apart. This is the same solution that was presented to Congress last month by our generals in Iraq, George Casey and John Abizaid.

Unfortunately, this solution arrived too late. There are signs that the insurgency's goal is shifting from a withdrawal of the United States military to the collapse of the Iraqi government. So, even if American troops withdraw now, violence will probably continue to escalate.

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. This is similar to the strategy used to halt the insurgencies in El Salvador in the 1980's and Colombia in the 1990's. In those cases, these militias used local knowledge, unconstrained tactics and high levels of motivation to defeat insurgents (this is in contrast to the ineffectiveness of Iraq's paycheck military). This option will probably work in Iraq too.

In fact, it appears the American military is embracing it. In recent campaigns in Sunni areas, hastily uniformed peshmerga and Badr militia supplemented American troops; and in Basra, Shiite militias are the de facto military power.

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.

John Robb is working on a book about the logic of terrorism.