Critique of John Robb’s ideas about open source warfare

iraqi insurgents

From Reason, February 2008:

What most of the global guerrilla groups have managed so far is to not lose. It’s a truism of counterinsurgency that “guerrillas win by not losing,” but successful guerrilla movements eventually win by winning. It’s much harder for global guerrillas to “win” than Robb thinks, because most of these groups have larger goals than he acknowledges.

This oversimplification relates to another of the book’s conceptual problems. Robb refers to the damage a global guerrilla attack causes as its “return on investment”: Spend $2,000 to attack a pipeline, as MEND did in one of Robb’s examples, and get a “return” of $50 million in lost revenue to Shell. But this isn’t really a return on investment as the term is used in economics, because the attackers don’t have $50 million when they’re done. Shell has lost $50 million or so, and the insurgents clearly have increased their utility somewhat; they obviously wanted to destroy that pipeline more than they wanted the $2,000. But it seems implausible to value their increased utility at anything close to $50 million. It’s a perfect illustration of the Australian economist John Quiggin’s dictum that war is a negative-sum game. The combined MEND/Shell system is worth a lot less after the exercise than it was worth before.

This point matters because the relative unattractiveness of open-source insurgency may prove more limiting than anything senescent nation-states do to combat it. Global guerrillas have proven they can keep weak states from functioning but not that they can forge strong states of their own. Iraq’s Sunni insurgents are depriving not just the country’s Shiites of electricity and potable water but themselves too.

Reason: Open-Source Warfare


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