Monday, July 16, 2007


Originally published as an op-ed in the New York Times:
Republished with permission of the author.

...The insurgents have ... expanded their campaign of violence to include Iraqi troops, police officers, government officials and Shiite civilians. Since the American military's objective is to gain a monopoly on violence in Iraq, these developments indicate ...a rapid loss in market share.

According to the military, it kills or captures 1,000 to 3,000 insurgents a month. Its estimate of the insurgency, however, is a mere 12,000 to 20,000 fighters. Simple math indicates we have destroyed the insurgency several times over since it started.

... observers estimate that up to 20 percent of the two million former Baathists

...that the insurgency isn't a fragile hierarchical organization but rather a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups. This means that the insurgency is virtually immune to attrition and decapitation.

First, out-innovating the insurgency will ... prove unsuccessful. The insurgency uses an open-source community approach (similar to the decentralized development process now prevalent in the software industry) to warfare that is extremely quick and innovative. New technologies and tactics move rapidly...innovation cycles are faster than the American military's slower bureaucratic processes ( body and vehicle armor).

Second, there are few visible fault lines in the insurgency ... Like software developers in the open-source community, the insurgents have subordinated their individual goals to the common goal of the movement. ... the military is not going to find a way to chop off parts of the insurgency through political means - particularly if former Ba'athists are systematically excluded from participation in the new Iraqi state by the new Constitution.

Third, the United States can try to diminish the insurgency by letting it win. The disparate groups in an open-source effort are held together by a common goal. Once the goal is reached, the community often falls apart.

Unfortunately, this solution arrived too late. There are signs that the insurgency's goal is shifting from a withdrawal of the United States military to the collapse of the Iraqi government.

What's left? It's possible, as Microsoft has found, that there is no good monopolistic solution to a mature open-source effort. In that case, the United States might be better off adopting I.B.M.'s embrace of open source. This solution would require renouncing the state's monopoly on violence by using Shiite and Kurdish militias as a counterinsurgency.

In fact, it appears the American military is embracing it. In recent campaigns in Sunni areas, hastily uniformed peshmerga and Badr militia supplemented American troops; and in Basra, Shiite militias are the de facto military power.

If an open-source counterinsurgency is the only strategic option left, it is a depressing one. The militias will probably create a situation of controlled chaos that will allow the administration to claim victory and exit the country. They will, however, exact a horrible toll on Iraq and may persist for decades.

John Robb is working on a book on the logic of terrorism. Visit his blog at:

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