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Friday, January 21, 2005

The text messaging war and the price of noncompliance 

Much has been made of the power of networks in the war between the United States and its allies and the jihadists. Al Qaeda and its affiliates use the anonymity of the net to communicate securely both internally and with the rest of the world. The United States uses networked combined arms to bring fire down on insurgents from all available battlefield resources. But networks are also being used by civilians. For example, Iraqis sympathetic to the government are using text messaging to bring the Iraqi National Guard down on the bad guys.
The tip came in fast, telegraph-terse, and discreet. Maj. Mohammed Salman Abass Ali al-Zobaidi of the Iraqi National Guard scrolled down to read it: "Black four-door Excalibur. Behind cinema."

From cell phone screen to local authorities: Acting on the recent text message tip to the Iraqi National Guard commander, police in a nearby town tracked down a black car behind the theater, and arrested the driver for suspected links to insurgent attacks....

"Many, many people tell us about the terrorists with this," al-Zobaidi said, tapping his black cell phone and thumbing down to show more messages.

"All the time, I hear his phone — beep beep beep beep, beep beep beep beep," said Sgt. Eddie Risner of Ocala, Fla., part of a Marine contingent working with guardsmen to try to block attacks and put a credible Iraqi security force on the street.

Counterinsurgency has often been less about winning "minds" than about winning "hearts" -- that is, the insurgency and the government each try to coerce the population to its side, and the more effective side will gain a huge advantage in the war. This is not to say that "hearts" cannot play a role in effective coercion, but most people caught in the middle will do the smart thing for their safety and that of their family, regardless of their political sympathies.

Insurgencies and governments alike coerce by punishing cooperation with the other. Insurgencies often have an advantage in this because they usually have better local intelligence than the central government. This means that insurgencies will punish non-cooperators more accurately than the counterinsurgency. More accurate punishment translates into more effective coercion, because the civilian caught in the middle will always decide that it is better to cooperate with the party that is more certain to punish him if he doesn't cooperate.

Text messaging -- at least in a chaotic cellular system such as Iraq's -- allows an informant to cooperate with one side without fear of being caught by the other. The informant can substantially conceal his identity from everybody, and in any case conceal it from the enemy that he is informing on. The informant's cost of noncompliance goes down as his anonymity increases. As a result, the insurgency's historical advantage in identifying non-cooperators vanishes. The playing field thus leveled, the insurgency will no longer be able to punish more accurately than the counterinsurgency, so it will lose the one edge that it has in the struggle to coerce the civilian population.

6 Comments:

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Sat Jan 22, 10:01:00 AM:

Nice Post, Jack. Cell phone text messaging may be the easiest way to build an on-the-ground intel network in the New Iraq. It's full of potential for error, of course, but what better technology/strategy exists for involving Iraqi citizens in the counter-insurgency?

Naturally the insurgents have cellphones, too.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Jan 22, 10:50:00 AM:

Indeed they do, Screwy, but the point is that text messaging allows civilians to avoid cooperation with the insurgents without the same risk of punishment. If the insurgency can no longer identify cooperating civilians, it will lose its ability to punish efficiently. Once that happens, the counterinsurgency erases its historical disadvantage in the competition to coerce the civilian population stuck in the middle. That insurgents also have text messaging may make their operations more efficient in other ways, but it will not recapture their ability to identify the civilians that aren't cooperating with them.  

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