Who Needs Thomas Barnett’s Discarded Theories?

by Joshua Foust on 5/9/2008 · 1 comment

Remember that terrible Laura King piece in the LA Times, where she proclaims the wonder of realizing Afghans like their cellphones, too? (Kayumars found much else to mock at the LA Times as well, over their relentless exotification of brown-skinned people.) Beyond her silly argument, there was the issue of the Taliban strategy to destroy cell towers.

I never focused on the cellphone story because it was so clearly a bluff—the Taliban would see its own operations seriously curtailed if a significant number of cell towers were destroyed. So they would just take down one or two here and there, creating just enough of a ruckus to gain a great deal of attention and create enough fuss without putting in danger the very same infrastructure on which they rely. Meanwhile, the threat of blowing up a tower serves as a handy extortion tool as opium prices drop.

Now we see a second-order effect: the locals got pissed at the insurgents for going too far. This is inevitable as the Taliban, just like NATO, searches for its “happy center” where the ops tempo accomplishes the mission without jeopardizing it.

Why bring up Barnett? He linked glowingly to this piece, explaining it is, “about as emblematic as you can get in this war of Connectors v. Disconnectors.”

This doesn’t make any sense—rather than “this war” (I don’t think he was limiting it to Afghanistan) being between blood thirsty Orcs who hate telephones and noble Inmarsat users with lilly-white skin, it is a war of ideologies with an asymmetric use of technology. Frankly, seeing the Taliban groups hesitate to demolish either most of Afghanistan’s cell network, which is easily within their capability given the numbers of bombs they plant, or even a regionally-limited node, which is possible given the high centrality of Afghan’s communications networks, is a much more interesting story. The key piece missing here is that the Taliban are as reliant on those cell towers as civilians are, and destroying them all would be deeply counterproductive.

I tried to leave this point as a comment on Barnett’s blog earlier this morning. I didn’t even link back here to hype Registan.net. But, as with many other attempts to engage him in a skeptical discussion of his theories of endless war, it was never approved by his moderator (or Barnett himself).

Update: Barnett’s assistant/associate/whatever acknowledged that I disagreed with him. He reduces this post to a plea to be taken seriously and a deep confusion of tactics vs. strategy. I’ll let readers here decide what it really is. I have no desire for him or his associates to take me or this blog seriously, however—rather, I take pride in being mocked by his ilk: I don’t have any pet theories to defend against, you know, reality.

For a look at how both of Barnett’s books demonstrate an appalling ignorance of the world he wants to reduce to a sentence or two, see here and here. And let’s not forget his mad scheme to annex Cuba.


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This post was written by...

– 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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{ 1 comment }

Michael May 13, 2008 at 6:49 pm

Do you have a TypeKey account? If so, log into it before posting a comment; that’ll get you in more-or-less automatically.

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