Thursday, June 11, 2009

How Non-State Actors Learn and Teach by Douglas Farah

One of the fascinating things about a spate of recent articles is that they point to how non-state armed actors acquire information and new, ever-more sophisticated techniques. Two examples are the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the more sophisticated of the Somali pirates.

This shows that these groups talk and learn from other groups, have networks to transfer technologies and "lessons learned" and greatly accelerate the speed of their learning curves. Unconstrained by laws, acquisition regulations and budgetary considerations, these groups can rapidly acquire whatever they can afford. Thanks to the fact that dozens of shipping companies have paid tens of millions of dollars to the different Somali clans and sub-clans that carry out the piracy, they are cash flush.

The Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) says the pirates, until recently, had attacked during the day and were relatively unsophisticated in their tactics. Now, however, "pirates have attacked vessels at night and have conducted attacks far off the eastern coast of Somalia," the CMF said. Using "mother ships" as staging platforms and night vision technology, they are able to operate much further from the Somali coast than before.

This means that extra territorial actors are providing the pirate groups with what they need, in a space that has had virtually no functional government for more than a decade. Just as the RUF, deep in the bush in Sierra Leone, could be found by U.S. European and African diamond merchants and weapons purveyors, the pirates can find the market or the market can find them.

The Taliban is also showing increasing sophistication in their attacks.

Two commando-style assaults in Pakistan in the past two weeks show militants can now pierce the iron-fortified gates, concrete barricades and cordons of armed guards that are meant to secure hotels, housing compounds and even police stations across the country.

The level of organization and sophistication of the attacks has been rarely seen in Pakistan. They are designed to send a message that if the military launches an offensive against the Taliban's stronghold near the Afghan border it will face a highly determined and well-prepared enemy, analysts say.

"It is an improvement in their tactics; they are trying to enter the target through use of force," Mahmood Shah told The Associated Press. "It appears that they are in a hurry and they are becoming more aggressive."

One can trace the evolution of these tactics to the cross training, both on the ground and in cyberspace, that the Taliban has shared with other militant groups, including al Qaeda and Hezbollah. The terrorist organizations have the express intent of sharing tactics, strategies and lessons with each other, and spend a great deal of time in doing that. They have money from poppies and private donors that allows them to dedicate time and resources studying, sharing and acquiring the best off the shelf products, with no need for competitive bid contracts and the like.

But, as David Ignatius writes in today's Washington Post, our side seems to be somewhat fixated on internal wars and turf fights in a system that has not grown more streamlined since 9-11.

While there are some efforts put into transmitting lessons learned on the U.S. side, those efforts are sporadic and almost never cross over to those of lessons we could learn from our allies. One of the most interesting things in watching Latin America is how little the Colombian efforts against the FARC have been studied and taught.

Non-state actors have a built in advantage because they are not accountable to anyone, have no use for transparency and are not slowed by the niceties of democratic debate. And, as Ignatius notes, "There's a world of scary people out there, and the country can't afford this turf war any longer."

No comments: