Dwight Stephens

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The Post-Cold War Era of “Guerilla Entrepreneurs”: John Robb’s Analysis suggests that it’s time for a Copernican-level rethinking of our approach to the war on terror.

May 20th, 2007 · No Comments

On Friday, David Brooks observes that the war on terror has ruined the reputations of the Bush administration, the Blair government, Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel and al-Maliki’s government in Iraq and predicts that it will ruin those countries’ future reputations as well. He finds an important understanding of what today’s nation-states are up against in the analysis of John Robb, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and Yale.

Mr. Robb has a new book, “Brave New War,” and has been studying the behavior of what he calls “guerilla entrepreneurs.” He knows what he’s talking about, having worked as a special ops counterterrorism officer and a software executive. As summarized by David Brooks, Mr. Robb observes that “modern terror groups are open-source, decentralized conglomerations of small, quasi-independent groups. There are between 70 and 100 groups that make up the Iraqi insurgency, and they are organized, Robb says, like a bazaar. It’s pointless to decapitate the head of the insurgency or disrupt its command structure, because the insurgency doesn’t have these things. Instead, it is a swarm of disparate companies that share information, learn from each other’s experiments and respond quickly to environmental signals.”

Again, as summarized by David Brooks, today’s global guerillas “specialize in what Mr. Robb calls systems disruption. They attack the networks that support modern life. In one case, Iraqi insurgents spent roughly $2,000 to blow up an oil pipeline in Southeast Iraq. It cost the Iraqi government $500 million in lost revenue. For the insurgents, that was a return on investment of 25 million percent.”

So what is their objective? “These new groups are not seeking to take over their countries the way 20th-century guerillas did. They have a prenational, feudal mind-set to go along with their postnational Silicon Valley-style organizational methods, so they can prosper in the lawless space created by collapse of law and order. That way the groups don’t have to construct anything or assume responsibility for anything. In fact they’ve learned, as Lawrence of Arabia learned decades ago, that it’s better to weaken target governments, but not actually destroy them. When nations don’t feel existentially threatened, they don’t mobilize all their resources to defeat their foes. They try to fight wars on the cheap, and end up in a feckless semibelligerent state somewhere between real war and nonwar.” Ring any bells? This certainly seems to describe Afghanistan, Iraq and virtually every other place where guerilla insurgencies are currently operating.

More insights can be found on Mr. Robb’s blog Global Guerillas where he wrote in 2004 that “[t]he long history of warfare is dominated by military entrepreneurs. That dominance was overturned only recently (within an historical context) with the rise of the nation-state and its ideologically motivated armies. However, the trend is going in the other direction, and quickly. Military entrepreneurship is again on the rise. We can see the adoption of military entrepreneurs by the coalition in Iraq. Private military companies (PMCs) field the second largest military force in Iraq, after the US — the UK is a distant third.

“This shift towards military entrepreneurship is even more pronounced in the insurgency in Iraq. Almost all of the guerrillas we are currently fighting were formed through this process. This should come as no surprise to readers of history (and particularly readers of this author, since it appeared here first). Arab warfare, until late in this century, was driven entirely by entrepreneurship. For example: Lawrence of Arabia, the father of modern guerrilla warfare, used combinations of direct payments and the promise of loot to build his forces. Faith played a major part, but it was almost always secondary.

“Recent reports from US military analysts confirm the financial nature of the open source bazaar in Iraq.”

According to Mr. Robb, “unlimited amounts” of “violence capital” is flowing into Iraq for guerilla entrepreneurs from ex-Baathists, Saddam Hussein’s relatives, and bin Laden. Given how little capital it takes to cause enormous disruption to the infrastructure, the long term prospects in Iraq look bleak for this reason alone. The Bush administration’s prediction that Iraq’s oil money would fund the reconstruction of Iraq appears particularly ill informed and naieve.

As Mr. Robb explains, “[t]he financial dynamic we see in action in Iraq is a hallmark of global guerrilla warfare. It also creates its own dynamic. The destruction of the pillars of globalization through attacks on systems (both infrastructure and markets) serve to keep Iraq a failed state. As a failed state, Iraq is unable to provide economic alternatives to the insurgency. Further, even though Iraq is a failed state, it is awash in money. Fortunes will be made through the perpetuation of its chaos (as we see with the Narco warlords in Afghanistan, who combined generate $2.5 billion a year in revenue). Given this trend line, we will likely see more advanced forms of this in the future, particularly market-derived financing.” Particularly disturbing and certainly credible, Mr. Robb believes that guerrilla entrepreneurs “will use prior knowledge of attacks to generate revenue from global financial markets.”He opines that “this fits the strategy of fourth generation warfare — it turns the strength of an enemy into a weakness. He believes that such financial efforts will include assaults on individual corporations, particularly oil infrastructure, which will influence the oil market. He concludes that billions could be made through this process. Along these lines, he believes that global guerilla methods make it possible for the rise of a “shadow OPEC” with all of the financial leverage that entails.

Mr. Robb’s analysis and many of his warnings make a lot of sense. Most importantly, they suggest that we should give our whole view of the war on terror that is our 21st Century reality a Copernican-level re-thinking. As part of that re-thinking we should rationally, objectively, comprehensively and immediately determine what the effect would be of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq–the effect in Iraq, the wider Middle East and the war on terror. At a minimum, Mr. Robb’s analysis should be part of the discussion and should help inform our own financial policies concerning where and how to best deploy our anti-terror money. While some may disagree, it certainly appears that the billions of dollars pouring into Iraq seem to be very wide of the mark.

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