What Swarming Means for Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 7/15/2007

One of the latest trends in war planning is swarm theory. Think of a hive of bees: each one is individually very dumb, and quite easy to kill. However, the way their relatively simple behavior stacks up and multiplies results in incredibly complex group movements—making the hive itself smart. Put differently, it is emergent, collective intelligence: adaptive and unpredictable but based on simple rules.

This kind of behavior has seen tremendous successes in Iraq, where dozens of small militias, each with limited resources and goals, have seen enormous multiplying effects on joint projects. They are, in a sense, black smart mobs, spontaneously organizing and dispersing to achieve simple or small scale objectives. Not only has their behavior become incredibly difficult to counter (traditional insurgencies set up shadow governments and control territory), but they’ve become incredibly smart about targeting: rather than confronting US troops head on, they hit an oil pipeline here, a power station there.

For an example of what this would do in a more normal country, look at Karachi: a series of power outages resulted in absolute madness and violence. And that wasn’t even deliberate. By attacking the infrastructure of society, rather than its political leadership, these new insurgents systematically undermine the central authorities, and in a way negate the existence of the state itself, apart from its designation as a bounded territory on a map.

It has increasingly become the norm in Afghanistan as well. A look at how the insurgency has played out in the Great Surge of 2007 reveals some troubling statistics: suicide bombings are up, Afghans themselves—police, politicians, security forces—are the primary target yet 3/4 of the casualties are civilian, and the Taliban’s media drive has proven particularly effective. In short, the whole thing is teetering on the brink.

That’s not to say we’re about to lose. Far from it, in fact. But discontent is at an all time high. A combination of constant underinvestment—in both security and more importantly development—has created the feeling that the foreigners are not there to protect or help the people. Meanwhile, the Taliban annoint themselves as holy warriors against the infidel foreigners, and have gained significant traction that way in the south.

Combined with the country’s endemic corruption, it is no surprise an insurgency has found fertile ground. It is similarly no surprise that the highly effective tactics worked out in Iraq (which has turned into something of a think tank and proving ground for both sides of the war) have made their way to Afghanistan. But they’re not all there yet: the Taliban remain a relatively cohesive entity, and in this case Afghanistan is actually helped by having such bad infrastructure—there is nothing to target, and it’s much harder for a unitary organization to employ swarm tactics. In Iraq, a $2000 investment in a bombing operation by a few militia groups brought about around $500 million in lost oil revenue, an action that goes right at the heart of the government’s legitimacy (just as similar attacks on power stations have kept the electricity off). In Afghanistan, most infrastructure attacks have been against schools, which tends to be self-defeating: you never win an ideological struggle by murdering children.

That is why the recent swing toward attacking police, politicians, and local security forces is so worrisome: it goes right at the heart of why the U.S. and NATO are there. And while the Taliban remain a unitary enemy, there is no easy, or simple way of defending against them with the forces we have on hand, especially if the chaos such attacks breed becomes self-sustaining. So what do swarms—particularly the possibility of the Taliban becoming a more cellular structure—mean for Afghanistan? Absolutely nothing good.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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