As I mentioned on KOW a few weeks ago I was in Afghanistan recently researching ISAF strategic communications specifically and campaign strategy more generally. My assessment of the situation can be summed up in a word: bleak. My point with this post, however, is not to add to the dismal chorus on the war which you’re hearing now from practically every quarter. For what it’s worth, I see no fault with this sober assessment in Armed Forces Journal, ‘War on the Brink of Failure‘.
IF (double underline) there is any way to resolve the situation in a way congenial to our interests it will not be through conventional thinking. Fresh thinking is required, something different, unexpected. Here’s my crazy idea (reader feel free to add your own in comments).
Just before I left for Afghanistan I read Neville Bolt’s excellent article ‘The Leak Before the Storm: What Wikileaks Tells us About Modern Communication’ in the latest RUSI Journal. (It’s a subscription journal but I imagine many KOW readers have access to it. If not, why not? It’s a vital read.) Something he wrote in the paper really stuck with me throughout my trip:
Any true test of opening communications space goes beyond just expanding the number of phone-in shows in a country where radio thrives, however productive this may be. More imaginative measures are called for, such as distributing a free mobile phone and free airtime to every one of Afghanistan’s 29 million people, regardless of large numbers falling into the hands of hostile Taliban.
Crazy, no? No. Actually very clever, I think. Quite a few years ago now Marshall McLuhan (he of the aphorism ‘the media is the message’) described the emergence of what he called a ‘global village’ as a result of the rise of global communications. War, he argued, in this situation would be a ‘war of icons’ in which the belligerents would seek to defeat their rivals by the erosion of their ‘collective countenance’ with ‘electric persuasion… dunking entire populations in new imagery.’[i] He was ahead of his time, but not by much; what McLuhan saw building in the early 1960s is now a self-evident reality—just look around, according to the United Nations the chances are now one in two, wherever you are in the world, including Afghanistan, that the person next to you will own or have access to a mobile communications device.
It seems to me that Afghans, as a society, are poised on the brink between two extremes. On the one hand, they exist in a state of premodernity–poor, illliterate, superstitious; on the other hand, the dense web of interconectivity which is powering the emergence of a hyper-modern global ‘network society‘ is reaching into Afghanistan too.
So push them over it. Take McLuhan at face value; dunk the entire population in new imagery, in ‘electric persuasion’. Accept that creating a true ‘public sphere’ in Afghanistan gradually by conventional means, in the same way Western societies did, will take longer than we have patience for, if it ever works at all (which is doubtful). Take a lesson from Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser’s fictional creation, who nonetheless had more than a few persuasive things to say about Afghanistan: ‘when the going is tough, stay calm and cheat.’
Provide every Afghan who wants one a free mobile phone but require from them in return normal census-type data, ideally including biometric (i.e., fingerprint in lieu of signature)—name, occupation, address, or village, and so on. The Afghan government which has already strongly opposed the collection of biometric data should be reminded that it is effectively a ward of the international community. Alternately, as an emollient, the data, and resulting database, might be couched as a simple commercial matter—a normal contractual arrangement between phone user and provider.
In other words, create a real communications space and ‘let ideas find their own levels’, as Bolt says; it will probably not hurt us—most likely the opposite, in fact—but it will place the Taliban in a highly awkward position with respect to the population whom it wishes above all to control. Creating a wider and more open mobile phone network might give the Taliban some additional opportunities, but by and large it makes life for them difficult rather than easy. Does it deny people something which the populations of all developing countries have shown that they want very earnestly indeed, the ability to communicate with their friends and loved ones, to receive information and participate in economic enterprise which they otherwise could not? The telecom sector is the most thriving part of Afghanistan’s economy and responsible for more than 10 per cent of government tax income. And the Taliban’s technical ability to use the internet and mobile phone services to their advantage is nowhere close to that of an advanced state and unlikely to evolve much.
Moreover, this sort of communication space is something that we can really use. As opposed to the purely ‘tradcomm’ Afghan public sphere where ISAF is inherently disadvantaged by being too few as well as culturally alien and unable to speak the language, a digital communication space is something which plays to our strengths in network analysis, relational databases and sheer number crunching capability. A great deal of societal intelligence can be gleaned by simply understanding who is speaking to whom and correlating that with information on location, time and other known events. It is not necessary even to know particularly what is being talked about—the metadata associated with communications in aggregate is more than sufficiently useful, as one can see by looking at the business model of firms such as Google and Amazon, on-line retailers and search engines which build ever-more sophisticated profiles of individual with every interaction.
It also might act as a vehicle for pro-government information and propaganda. The Taliban, as Thomas Johnson and his colleagues at the US Naval Postgraduate School have analysed, has already cottoned on to the potential for mobile phones to be used as a propaganda channel both for coercion (e.g., threatening texts) and more benign persuasion (e.g., chants, music, videos and sermons lauding the Taliban and valorous resistance to the ‘infidel invader’).[ii]
And it could be used for generating ‘atmospheric’ data which ISAF, as noted above, chronically lacks. This could be done by monitoring the actual content of traffic, which surely must play some role in the intelligence picture (as it does now). But much could be accomplished quite openly. For instance, if what is required is specific atmospheric data on a particular region, or demographic, or both, since you have that data in your database already select a representative sample and interview specific individuals. As an inducement for participation in a friendly chat offer free minutes—the model is already well established by phone network providers which use the same techniques for generating market data in abundance.
Over at Danger Room I note that others are asking similar questions, see ‘Can Cellphohes Bring Justice to Afghanistan?‘ An extract:
… if a bland virtual-office tool doesn’t sound like it can turn around a deteriorating war, consider that much of Afghanistan is beyond the reach of any court, whether due to incompetence, corruption or sheer remoteness. That’s a vacuum insurgents exploit. The lawyers behind the Silk Road project, known as the Internet Bar Organization, want to pair traditional structures for adjudicating disputes that Afghans consider legitimate and match them with formal legal institutions.
The effort is just taking shape and there are a lot of obstacles to it. But the basic idea is simple. ‘People would dial in their disputes, a jirga would gather, the disputes would be resolved,’ Jeff Aresty, the Internet Bar Organization’s president, tells Danger Room at STAR-TIDES, a demonstration of next-gen tools for nation building and disaster recovery. His central question: ‘How can we add some justice structure to the communications that people are already using?’ Aresty calls the idea the M-Jirga, for Mobile Jirga.
My answer would be it’s worth a try. Let’s have more creative thinking like this because sure as anything thinking ‘inside the box’ is not going to get us out of Afghanistan with much dignity intact.
Incidentally, I heartily recommend Charles Stross’ sci-fi novel Singularity Sky which explores some of these ideas. In it a highly technologically advanced ‘trans-human’ culture subverts a lesser developed one by bombarding it with high-tech mobile phones which are essentially able to grant any user’s material wishes in return for information. A recurrent theme in the novel is that information and progress are inexorable and inseparable. In this case, the contact of the lesser developed culture with the advanced one is utterly devastating for the status quo of the former. The parallels are pretty obvious.
[i] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001), p. 370.
[ii] Thomas Johnson and Ahmad Waheed, ‘Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact’, Small Wars and Insurgencies (forthcoming).