It’s all in the Network…

Besides the words “freedom”, “democracy”, and “terrorism”, the word “network” has become one of the most ubiquitous terms in the English language.  We are certainly living in a much more complicated and interconnected world than any of our parents could have imagined.  We talk about things like the global telecommunications network through the internet, the rapid growth of cellular and wifi technology, and twenty-four hour television and news stations.  We have secure networks, unsecure networks, and halfway secure networks.  We use social networking tools to keep in touch with friends all over the world and are constantly updated on the lives of those in very different places and societies.  We share information through our own blogs, message boards, and personal interest and professional networks.  Back in the day, the Pentagon talked about using “network-centric warfare” to defeat our future enemies…to their surprise though, we find ourselves going to war with networks of human beings more often than using them to technologically defeat our adversaries.  We are engaged in combat with the Al Qaeda network and all its affiliates which has grown into a greater Takfiri Islamist network, the Haqqani network, the Quetta and Peshawar shuras, and various degrees of complex local and tribal networks which have risen in this land over centuries of armed conflict.  And with the rise of global networks our violence, despite our growing military superiority, we seem unable thus far to dislodge and disrupt their operations regardless of how much money and resources we throw at solving our problems…

In order to understand our own network-centric world, we must first take the time to break down and fully comprehend just what it is we are looking at.  In its essence, a network is simply a somewhat organized and halfway coherent collection of human activity.  It involves various types of transactions and interactions spread across varying degrees of space and time.  Just like neurons firing within our own human brains, these transactions and interactions are somewhat random, yet follow generally logical and well-established pathways.  At the key intersections of these pathways, we find hubs and nodes of various sizes.  In real terms, these hubs and nodes will take the form or human organization centers, channels of commerce, stores of knowledge and information, and super-empowered individuals and charismatic leaders.  Each exerts influence from its various interactions with sub-nodes and greater hubs of power and authority.  Since the connections passing through all have various methods and routes to choose, no single hub or node can achieve total system dominance as each is inherently replaceable through various sources…however while none is omnipotent within itself, numerous hubs working together can exert a considerable amount of influence through the system as a whole…for an example, look at Chinas network dominance of its internet structures where sites like Facebook and Google are almost entirely censored or outlawed outright…

While there are ways to exert considerable influence on the system as a whole, the great problem we seem to be having is our inability to gauge and anticipate the effects any one of our actions will have amid the context of a coherent grand strategy.  Every time you begin to operate in another part of the world among a well-established foreign network, you become a node and a player in the system yourself.  Thus, influence is only based on the transactions and interactions you can achieve with other already established nodes and hubs within that system.  While you can certainly engage several key players and have an effect, without an effective understanding of the system your influence will be severely limited to much smaller advances.  It is only through a proper understanding of the various nodes and centers of influence as well as your own capabilities and limitations that you can begin to create real, lasting change within the system.

Technology can be a great tool in helping to map out a complex network and create a sense of coherence out of the chaos that surrounds so many human interactions.  However, its greatest problem is not lack of data but rather the abundance of it.  There are simply too many data points to be gathered, too many interactions to be measured within any human system to make it accurately coherent.  Thus, great care must be taken to sift through the data and develop accurate trends measuring the key aspects of any organization and bringing coherence to the system in order to effectively allocate resources and track results.  While the rise of technology shows great promise for future endeavors, at the point we are simply just not good enough at turning our data into information and actionable intelligence.

Also, no amount of technology can help discover and solve our complex human problems without quality human experts on the ground who possess the necessary local knowledge and expertise to break down the complex systems and pick out key centers of gravity worthy of leverage.  While the US has spent millions of dollars in developing its technological intelligence capabilities, it appears to still be lacking, despite 10 years of complex human conflict, in its capability to develop human intelligence assets.  It still fails to adequately leverage and listen to local experts with years of experience working in foreign environments.  Without being able to access and pay attention to the level of local expertise that exists in these areas, our government will continue to be several steps behind the pace as it attempts to develop lasting change within networks it barely understands.

A necessary part of leveraging the assets that already exist however is first developing a coherent national strategy follows logical and realistic expectations.  Since most foreign experts we have access to within our society don’t necessarily pledge allegiance to our government and its policies (most are expats and aid workers who spend years working within their chosen areas developing key local connections along the way) we must devote time to understanding our ambitions and how they can fit into the reality on the ground.  Rather than trying to create vastly different nodes within a complex system through intervention, our time would be much better spent first listening to and collaborating with the key nodes that already exist.  This would prove to be a much smaller shock to the system and lead to more coherent results over time.  If our strategies and ambitions fail to coincide with those of our local experts on the ground, we can easily find ourselves stumbling blindly into these areas while our already established expat and development community tells us to essentially “go fuck ourselves” as they take our services elsewhere or spend their time trying to clean up our messes preparing for the aftermath following our loss of interest.

Once we adequately understand the local conditions and enlist the aid of local experts for our efforts, we must find ways to use our national resources to better effect in leveraging key centers of gravity.  In following with a coherent and operationalizable grand strategy, our institutions and organizations must be put into the system to act in ways in which they can logically have a positive effect.  If we have learned nothing else in the past 10 years, we have learned that our military is not an effective tool for nation building.  It is a tool for combat operations against a capable and determined enemy.  And while there is certainly a use for these services within the global security structure, its purposes must be kept to this task and we should not try to turn our soldiers again into statesmen, ambassadors, aid workers, and judges.  Their job is difficult enough just fighting an enemy and engaging illegitimate actors of violence, to burden them with more is simply a misuse of their skills and a danger to their effectiveness.  Still, our civilian agencies and organizations continue to lack the capabilities for sustained development work and this shortcoming must be addressed in the very near future as we develop a coherent national strategy in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan world order.  We must refine the tools at our disposal for the complex and critical tasks each will perform and we must reinstate a focus of professionalism within the ranks of our civil servants regardless of where they serve.  We have more than enough capable and talented renaissance men and women and free thinkers at our disposal, but without giving them a specific mission and task which fits within a greater strategy we cannot expect them to effectively leverage the correct nodes and hubs within a foreign system with any effectiveness, logical coherence, or unity of effort.

Ultimately, this post is not written to serve as any guide of action or even establish a coherent understanding of anything in particular.  I am simply trying to scratch the surface of a few key issues in the hope that further ideas will reveal themselves at a later time.  In order to operate effectively within a system of networks we must revamp our understanding of our own capabilities and our own resources and we must revitalize our assets for the tasks ahead.  While there is no substitute for quality local knowledge and expertise, there is also no substitute for a coherent grand strategy that can be operationalized at the lowest levels and be used to allocate adequate resources and guidance as we work independently and collectively to build the world of our dreams.  Thus far, our strategy has consisted of a lot of political jargon and clichés without any coherent message to be passed down through the ranks.  As we try to please everybody, we are effectively pleasing nobody if our rhetoric is not matched by results and actions on the ground.  In the end our success will only be measured by the leverage we can use within our networks.  Transformational change does not happen overnight and it is about time we stop expecting it to.  You have to fight the long fight, take the time to understand the environment, influence what you can, and constantly evolve to develop the sustainable systems and networks your children will inherit.

Here’ s to the awesomeness that is this complex network of human beings and human societies we call planet Earth.  May we each find our path and play our part to create the world of our dreams…



1 OCT 2011, 2030 AST, Orgun-E, Paktika, Afghanistan


About briangdonnelly

I'm pretty much a random traveler and free thinker. Right now I live and work with the Army in North Carolina. I grew up in Missouri but am from the northeast US and have traveled a lot with the Army and life in general so I can't say I really have a "home" except where I chose to catch a few hours or rack each day. Overall, life is pretty awesome and I'm looking forward to changing the world. Hit me up if you care... Peace, Brian
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