Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Wonder If They've Herd Of This?

As a subscriber to National Geographic magazine, I get the new issue each month about a week ahead of the newsstand release. I say all this because I can't link to the article I'm going to use today, but as I was reading the news this morning, I came across a story that suddenly made it all very relevant.

You're aware that many animals engage in "swarm mentality." Ants and bees are of course the best known swarming creatures. Ants swarm to find food, bees swarm to find food and new nesting locations. Many small birds flock, small fish school, even larger animals like zebras and wildebeest swarm in order to minimize the ability of predators to attack. Swarms and herds present confusing, swirling targets. Indeed, some animals have taken it to an art form, such that they will have some animals lag a little, like the threads off a worn curtain, then collapse those threads into the herd again, leaving the predator gasping for breath as he can't quite focus his efforts on one beast.

An individual animal is dumb, but collectively, animals can be pretty intelligent, right down to the ants that can create bridges across a chasm in order to attain food.

I could go into the mechanisms behind this but that would be plagiarism and probably boring. Suffice it to say that a man is smart, but people are dumb, and you get a sense of how swarm behavior doesn't really work for people. Let a hungry lion loose in a crowd of humans, and he'll eat his fill.

There was one notable swarm behavior scenario that gets little notice in the media, but was wildly successful when it occured: during the demonstrations at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle a few years back, a relatively small number of protestors were littered throughout the crowds with walkie-talkies and cell phones, and were able to apprise groups ahead of time of police countermeasures and forces, so that they could disperse and regroup elsehwere.

Swarm mentality relies on reliable communication, you see. Word of mouth, well, you've played the game "Telephone," I'm sure.

There's the backdrop to my morning, and I find this article waiting for me at Reuters:
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military deployed 10,000 soldiers backed by attack helicopters in a big offensive against al Qaeda north of Baghdad on Tuesday as a truck bomber struck in the capital, killing 75 people near a Shi'ite mosque.

The offensive against al Qaeda around the city of Baquba in Diyala province, a stronghold of the Sunni Islamist group, is partly aimed at taking down car bomb networks that cause carnage in Baghdad and other regions of Iraq. It is one of the biggest military operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

One witness said a suicide bomber driving a truck rammed his vehicle into the Shi'ite Khilani mosque in Baghdad, destroying one of its walls and badly damaging the rest of the structure.
Send 10,000. Send 100,000. It won't matter, so long as the replacement rate of terrorists exceeds the kill rate.

Using the swarming model, if a school of baitfish senses a shark, say, nearby, it will automatically go into swarming behavior, creating a tight baitball. So long as it is able to maintain the baitball at a critical mass, the school as a whole will survive.

One shark will not succeed in decimating the school, nor two sharks. Add some dolphins, seals, and seagulls to the mix, and you've got a chance, but even then, enough baitfish will get away to propagate their DNA.

Similarly, Al Qaeda and the other terrorist groups in Iraq have been working a similar strategy: make the allies chase them all over Iraq, exhausting supplies, manpower and wasting energy chasing them where they used to be. When the allies move in on one town, the insurgents pack up quickly and scatter, picking yet another place to open up shop.

In other words, this car bomb shop in Baquba is long gone already. The insurgents, no doubt, left enough people behind to fight a rear guard action, and to keep the allied troops engaged long enough for them to resettle someplace else. Meanwhile, hundreds more Iraqis will die, and dozens more American troops.

To be precise about all this, there are only two ways to stop the insurgency. First, we can realize that we're pushing a boulder up an eternal hill, sit down and talk things out with them. Second, find out how they are communicating, and put an end to that.

10,000 troops will never accomplish that. Nor will torturing hundreds of random Iraqis in the hopes you'll find one person with knowledge. And given this administration's blatant incompetence in the intelligence arena, their bumbling, blind mishandling of all things intel, I don't see where they will engage the one tool that will allow them to infiltrate Al Qaeda, or at least its footsoldiers in Iraq.

This will require leadership, and Bush is fighting his own rear guard action.