Holding Still

By Sebastian Sprenger / December 1, 2009 at 5:00 AM

In an interview last week, a senior Joint IED Defeat Organization official told us trying to figure out extremist networks Afghanistan is particularly difficult because the makeup of these networks often changes within days.

"I can map . . . the topology of the network as we envision it today, a Wednesday," Kenneth Comer, JIEDDO's new deputy director for intelligence, said. "By Sunday, the topology of that network is going to change substantially."

The situation in Afghanistan is different from the counter-IED fight in Iraq, where social network analysis techniques provided officials with a decent understanding of bomb maker networks, Comber said.

We asked Naval Postgraduate School professor John Arquilla, who has studied the idea of network-against-network warfare, how he views the situation.

The key point, as I observe these networks, is that change, though continual, is not continuous. There are periods of stasis, and it is during these periods that we must strike at them before they morph.

Once they shapeshift, we face a steep learning curve again, the goal being to learn enough to hurt them before they change yet again.

Tough, but it's a key characteristic of netwar, this organizational dimension. What I call "the organizational race" that has, to some extent, replaced the cold war-era arms race concept.

JIEDDO's goal with its social network analysis program is to bring about the "collapse" of bomb maker networks so they no longer pose a danger, Comer explained. This could entail killing or jailing network members, but it could also mean removing Taliban influence over some network members who might not partake in the IED business were it not for intimidation or enticement, he said.