John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt codified the strategy that helped the United States overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They believe that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida could still prevail if they got hold of weapons of mass destruction, and the US and its allies must prevent that acquisition. To do so, the US will have to change the nature of warfare.

San Francisco, California, June 1st 2002

We are all familiar with the decisive role played by small groups of special forces in Afghanistan, in radio contact with bombers capable of raining massive firepower on mobile targets. It was these mobile units that made the difference. But they owe victory less to the sophisticated hardware at their disposal than to a recent military doctrine. The theory of “swarming” was developed by John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate College in Monterey, California, and David Ronfeldt, a researcher at the Rand Corporation in Los Angeles (1).

Swarm is a hacker term evoking images of a beehive-like concentration of insects, and a sudden unexpected assault by a massed group. The military version of swarming means the deployment of small groups of soldiers communicating among themselves and with air forces. Swarming “took advantage of two trends that have been underway for nearly a hundred years,” explains Arquilla. “The first is the growing destructive power of the small group. And the second is the increasing accuracy of weapons. We have effectively decoupled range and accuracy. We now have weapons that can go great distances and go right through the window of a building. This is what enables us to swarm our opponents.”

This has not been a costly revolution, given that almost 60% of the bombs dropped on the Taliban and al-Qaida forces came from B-52s “twice as old as their pilots”. The recipe for victory is a handful of men, old bombers and ultra-sophisticated communications and remote control devices, inspired by a specific concept. As Arquilla explains, “All the new technology in the world, if it is not properly informed by a good doctrine and an appropriate form of organisation will simply lead to disaster. This is what happened to America in Vietnam.”

Arquilla is a former marine, now a professor in a US military academy. He works closely with some of the top people at the Pentagon (2). And he finds it fascinating “that there is a determined effort to learn the wrong lessons of the campaign.” That, he says, is what the US military are doing when they spend vast amounts of money on equipment designed to fight yesterday’s war against Red Army divisions invading Europe or intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

In the new war on networks, he says, you need “the best story rather than the biggest bomb”. The outcome of conflicts depends increasingly on intelligence and communications, which facilitates a flexible response and “favours and strengthens network forms of organisation while making life difficult for hierarchical forms” found in conventional armies. Arquilla estimates that 90% of the current US military effort is invested in dealing with “state actors”. This reflects archaic military thinking, dating from the days of the Soviet threat, but it does not meet the needs of a war against a network. It is the easy way out. He adds: “It almost becomes the case of when you don’t know what to do, you do what you know. We know how to deal with nation states very well. We don’t know how to deal with networks so well.”

The wrong war?

That prompts the question of whether the US won the wrong war in Afghanistan, crushing the Taliban nation state, but allowing the al-Qaida network to slip through its grasp. It would be all the more serious for Washington if it turned out that by destroying one of al-Qaida’s main sanctuaries, it had in fact created more problems for itself. “When I think of an all-channel network operating in a sanctuary I want to leave it right there,” says Arquilla. “If I take the sanctuary, then it is going to hide in places I may never find. Simply, we must be looking around the world.” Some members of al-Qaida may have taken refuge, for example, in west Africa (Guinea, Mali, Senegal) where no-one seems to be looking for them.

Fortunately several US allies have already had to fight networks. Singapore has been fighting pirates threatening the sea lanes off Southeast Asia, the British have been fighting the IRA, the Italians the mafia, the French the Algerian Islamists, and Spain the Basque organisation ETA. “There is a world of networking experience out there from which the US can and must learn,” says Arquilla.

But al-Qaida is a particularly complex organisation, halfway between a sect and a medieval military order. It is a network of networks. Which is where David Ronfeldt, the networks specialist, comes in: “Al Qaida mastered the art of making contacts with these other groups and tying them together and even starting to tie some people of one group with people of another group in a particular operation.” It provides them all with technical and doctrinal guidance, as well as funds. But will the destruction of al-Qaida reduce international terrorism, we ask? “For a while,” Ronfeldt replies, “and it is certainly a worthwhile target. But by then a lot of these groups will get … accustomed to intergroup networking. And something else will reassemble, just as the break up of the largest Colombian drug cartels did not end the smuggling of drugs out of Colombia. They dispersed out in smaller groups and learned how to interact with each other” (3).

There remains the question that delights mathematicians and keeps the heads of anti-terrorist organisations awake at night: how many nodes must be destroyed to paralyse a network? Arquilla replies that according to conventional military thinking, “when you get to the 30% range you simply don’t function efficiently anymore. And military cohesion breaks down.” But Arquilla and Ronfeldt estimate that a network can continue functioning with twice as many losses, “in part because in a distributed network some nodes are not even aware of the damage. They don’t feel, they don’t see the loss to others. And so the psychological effect of attrition is not the same.”

But the military do not have the only answer to combating networks that feed on world poverty. Ronfeldt believes we should attack the root of the problem and also intervene with massive economic aid. “I think that terrorism can be diminished through economic solutions that address poverty and other forms of deprivation.” He believes the current Islamist movement does not have a great deal to do with poverty. Bin Laden and his friends are driven by a feeling of “utter disaster. And this disaster is not simply economic and social. It’s also political, military, strategic. They see their own world as being trampled upon, not only by external forces like the US, but also by parts of their own society.” Although Ronfeldt is confident that US foreign policy can confront poverty and deprivation, he is not sure “it can alleviate, at least not easily, this sense of utter disaster.”

No scope for dissuasion

Arquilla has other reasons for concern about the difficulties involved in destroying this network of networks. He says: “If al-Qaida acquires nuclear weapons, it will win this war. One detonation would end any sense of American superpower, or world leadership – in America and around the world.” We cannot rule out the possibility of nuclear blackmail.

What is entirely new is that there is no scope for dissuasion. “We don’t care that Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads because we can retaliate against the Russians,” says Arquilla. “A non-state network, on the other hand – one with cells and nodes spread all over the world – simply can’t be nuked in return.” With no possibility of reprisal the notion of dissuasion disappears. Yet just one small bomb, the sort that fit in a nuclear suitcase, would be enough. Such weapons are not carried by missiles “with a return address,” but can enter the US in one of the thousands of containers that arrive every day without being inspected (4).

“This is why preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist or criminal networks must be seen as our top war aim,” Arquilla insists. But, unlike the US government, he advocates negotiating with Saddam Hussein: “Iraq must assure the world beyond any doubt that it has no weapons of mass destruction, [that it is not trying to acquire any] and that it will allow full, thorough and continuing inspection to keep us assured.” In exchange, the US and its allies would assure Saddam that no attempts would be made to overthrow him. “This is a hard choice to make,” continues Arquilla, “but I believe it is a strategic error to confuse Saddam being in power with the issue of weapons of mass destruction.” Allowing Saddam to stay on as president would only be a minor concession, given that he is already in power. On the other hand, if Saddam is overthrown, “the West would have to occupy Iraq for an indefinite period of time, no doubt measured in decades.” With something to gain from negotiation, at last, Saddam would accept such a proposal immediately.

So – how to find a way out of the conflict? Strategic experts should always have several in reserve. But when Arquilla asks top US policy makers, they reply: “The only exit from this war is the death of all the terrorists.”

Emphasising that he is arguing from a strategic standpoint, Arquilla suggests that there are three possible ways out: first, total US victory, which would be “highly problematic particularly in the light of events in Afghanistan”, as Bin Laden escaped and al-Qaida is regrouping elsewhere; second, victory by al-Qaida if its members succeed in obtaining weapons of mass destruction; and, third, a world in which there might be a dozen al-Qaida type networks, linked in some cases to nation states.

As a way out of this dead-end situation Arquilla proposes to focus more attention on “non-military strategies towards non-state actors [and] explicitly engage civil society actors to try to be the interlocutors of a peace. … It seems to me that the NGO’s are in a unique position to respect both sides and act as a clearing house for communication between them.”

This is the least convincing (though the most attractive) part of their strategy. It is based on a complete theory presented by Arquilla and Ronfeldt in one of their books (5). They propose the theory of “noopolitik” inspired by Teilhard de Chardin and his “noosphere”, or sphere of consciousness. This has nothing to do with the cyberworld, computers and cables, explains Ronfeldt. He adds: “Noopolitik is foreign policy behaviour for the information age that emphasises the primacy of ideas, values, norms, laws and ethics – it would work through soft power”. With others, such as Joseph Nye, Arquilla and Ronfeldt define soft power as “the ability to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion.”

But this must be consistent with other actions, Ronfeldt points out. “The more we use military force in an indiscriminate way, the harder it makes it to create a cooperative network to fight against the non-state actors. That, I think, is the great strategic challenge of this war against terrorism.”

(1) See their most recent book (with a foreword added since the events of 11 September), Networks and Netwar, RAND, Los Angeles, 2001.

(2) For an account of the various currents of opinion inside the Pentagon, see “The Fighting Next Time”, The New York Times Magazine, 10 March 2002.

(3) The Colombian authorities have identified no fewer than 162 new organisations involved in drug trafficking out of Colombia linked to 40 international crime syndicates. El Tiempo, Bogota, 25 March 2002.

(4) The Economist, London, 6 April 2002, revealed that 90% of world trade is carried in containers (with 15m in circulation), barely 2% of which are inspected by customs or police.

(5) The Emergence of Noopolitik, Toward an American Information Strategy, Rand, Los Angeles, 1999.

Translated by Harry Forster

This article has been published by Le Monde Diplomatique

J’enquête, je suis et j’analyse les technologies de l’information et de la communication depuis la préhistoire (1994). Piqué par la curiosité et l’envie de comprendre ce que je sentais important,...