Houses of Cards: Network Theory vs. Networks in Theory

In the fall of 2010 in Kunar, as the more active period of fighting subsided, we began to take a second look at the day-to-day intelligence reports we had amassed in an attempt to better understand the enemy. We had a lot of material to sift through, as there were a number of intelligence teams operating in the area. As you might be able to tell from the picture above, we tried to have a little fun with the process as well.

We took a new deck of playing cards and wrote names of insurgents on red tape. The cards already had a system of associations (the suit) and ranks (the face value). As the playing cards seemed a little boring with just a name on them, we added some pictures from a GQ magazine. Due to the fact that we were an intelligence team directly supporting a battalion, we were more focused on the local insurgents. When we put together our networks on a large sheet of white paper, we had a lot of Jacks and high-value numerical cards and a few mid-value numerical cards. We could not assign names to the lowest cards, nor could we really justify placing many Kings or Aces on the paper as we did not have many close encounters with these more important insurgents.

Our mission was primarily tactical intelligence, so it makes sense that we would not have significant, regional players involved in our primitive assessment. And it also makes sense that we would not have many low-value cards because a low-value insurgent is not likely to be referenced frequently in intelligence reporting. What is interesting though is a cluster of Jacks and “10s”. I have blacked out their names with my sophisticated MS Paint software for obvious reasons. But, Jake Gyllenhaal’s card was known to be the brother of a more prominent insurgent. Jake’s brother had been fighting in Kunar since the time of the Soviet invasion, and he had notable associates in Nuristan, Kunar and Pakistan. These associates had ties to Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and Afghan Taliban leaders. Some of those Afghan Taliban leaders, however, were also rivals as their areas of control overlapped geographically and ethnically. We identified several others that seemed to have that same level of authority in other networks from other parts of the Kunar river valley.

More recently, it has been a busy week for AF/PAK insurgents. Drones have struck again, this time killing Hakimullah Mehsud, formerly the head of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). After several different individuals were announced as his replacement, it seems that Maulana Fazlullah (a.k.a. “Mullah Radio,” a nickname that only this conflict could bestow) has emerged as the new leader of the TTP. Fazlullah taking over for Mehsud is obviously important. The transition is another demonstration of how complex insurgent networks are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Fazlullah is a militant from Swat, with family connections in Dir, Pakistan, and he has been hiding in Kunar and Nuristan. Those districts and provinces span east to west across Pashtunistan, and are the areas of influence for a great many allies and rivals to Fazlullah and Mehsud.

He came to prominence by leading Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM). TNSM and TTP began to cooperate with each other several years ago. When we describe these militant groups and their leaders, we have a bad habit of turning what is plural into the singular — and using our own legalistic language (merge, franchise, ally, etc.). These habits can minimize the actual complexity behind these networked associations: fluid tribal rivalries, transnational financing, local criminal or smuggling syndicates, and personality clashes make for highly changeable networks.

It has been said before that “it takes a network to beat a network.” This idea has been referenced by numerous commanders including General McChrystal, who wrote about this idea almost two years ago:

But I was not alone: There were other combatants circling the battlefield. Mirroring our movements, competing with us, were insurgent leaders. Connected to, and often directly dispatched by, the Taliban’s leadership in Pakistan, they moved through the same areas of Afghanistan. They made shows of public support for Taliban shadow governors, motivated tattered ranks, recruited new troops, distributed funds, reviewed tactics, and updated strategy. And when the sky above became too thick with our drones, their leaders used cell phones and the Internet to issue orders and rally their fighters. They aimed to keep dispersed insurgent cells motivated, strategically wired, and continually informed, all without a rigid — or targetable — chain of command.
While a deeply flawed insurgent force in many ways, the Taliban is a uniquely 21st-century threat. Enjoying the traditional insurgent advantage of living amid a population closely tied to them by history and culture, they also leverage sophisticated technology that connects remote valleys and severe mountains instantaneously — and allows them to project their message worldwide, unhindered by time or filters. They are both deeply embedded in Afghanistan’s complex society and impressively agile. And just like their allies in al Qaeda, this new Taliban is more network than army, more a community of interest than a corporate structure. (Emphasis mine.)

McChrystal also discussed in this article the change in perception among commanders that was required with Iraq and Afghanistan. Commanders in the US Military were looking for an understandable hierarchy in the enemy’s operational organization. This was likely due to the way commanders were trained and also to the innate human tendency to evaluate the unknown using the known.

Understanding there is no monolithic “Afghan Taliban” always marching under the orders of Mullah Omar is important. No doubt, there has been some significant shifts in who identifies themselves as “Pakistani Taliban” now that Mehsud has been replaced by a man from another part of Pakistan. This does not mean, however, that former TTP fighters have packed up and returned to the farm.

Identifying the enemy’s composition and intent are vital to intelligence and operational planning. But, the moment you have outlined these networks, they may have already changed. They will always change the moment after you launch an attack. We understand and incorporate that to an extent in our doctrinal intelligence and operational processes. But these processes have a lot of intellectual baggage similar to what McChrystal had to overcome when shifting from a strict hierarchical assessment of Al Qaeda or the Talibans. These processes seek to isolate and neutralize enemy formations with the eventual aim of forcing enemy leaders to act more in accordance with our wishes.

Attacking the “HVIs” and killing a brutal terrorist like Mehsud are signs of success. But,this leaves the tactical commanders and most of the networks intact, and may also lead to more networks. In some cases, these underlying syndicates have been operational in one form or another for several decades now. I am beginning to question the usefulness of just decapitating a network as a long-term strategy.

Chris Zeitz is a former member of the U.S. Army who served in military intelligence. While in the Army, he also attended the Defense Language School in Monterey and studied Arabic. He has a Master’s degree in Diplomacy from Norwich University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.

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