Monday, May 4, 2009

Terrorism and Basketball?

Are terrorists good at basketball? I don't know. I can't say I've every played with one. Osama bin Laden is somewhere around 6'5" so I'd say he was a pretty handy small forward in his day. I do know this about terrorists' basketball skill - they would play full court defense the entire game. I know this because I came across this article from the New Yorker on a very good blog I follow called Abu Muqawama. The blog is written by a former Army Ranger named Andrew Exum who is an expert on the Middle East and counterinsurgency which is what his blog focues on. The article (written by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink) I found on his blog looks at how forces involved in a fight against a seemingly superior opponent come out on top - basically how David beats Goliath. It uses a couple of basketball examples, the example of Lawrence of Arabia, and a couple others and looks at how they beat much more experienced and better equipped opponents. It is a really fascinating article and I suggest you read it. The conclusion of the article is that David can beat Goliath if David refuses to play by Goliath's rules.

The article draws analogies to the way insurgents employ David-type tactics in order to carry out a successful insurgency against an invading force. They do so in two ways: 1) they exert maximum effort against the enemy; and 2) they are willing to change conventions as to how battles are fought. I think that both of these are valid points, but I think that it is oversimplifying things to say that insurgents can win based solely on effort and an ability to behave in unconventional ways. I'm going to equate insurgents and terrorists a little bit in this article even though they are not always the same thing, but I do think that both points apply to insurgents as well as terrorists.

I think that insurgent forces tend to exert maximum effort because they are fighting for their own land. Look at the insurgency that the Afghan mujahideen fought against the Russians. The Afghan fighters were able to defeat the Russian invasion despite being outnumbered and greatly outgunned. They were able to retreat to the mountains of Afghanistan and wait the Russians out while inflicting significant losses on the Russian force. In the end, the persistentence of the mujahideen played a big role in defeating the Russians. So, "A" for effort mujahideen. Well done. But, let's not chalk the mujahideen's victory up purely to persistence because they also had a great deal of material support from the U.S. and other countries. The U.S. was able to give the mujahideen anti-aircraft missiles that could take out the Russian Hind helicopters that were inflicting a great deal of damage on Afghan forces. I don't think it is too presumptuous of me to say that without the more modern and lethal weapons that other countries supplied to the mujahideen, the Russians would have won out. I think that the technology gap is wide enough now that even the most determined insurgent force will be beaten unless they can narrow that gap somehow. Look at the insurgency in Iraq. It is not gone, but U.S. military persistence, superior training, and better weapons have allowed it to quell the insurgency somewhat and prop up some sort of government.

Let's now look at Gladwell's belief that Davids can be successful because they are willing to break norms and behave in ways that are unthinkable to their opponents. I would assume the best analogy in the insurgency realm would be that insurgents are willing to blend into the civilian population and even kill civilians in order to break the will of an enemy. This was especially true in the Iraqi insurgency. While this helped them turn favor against U.S. occupying forces for years the tactic eventually caught up to them and the public turned against them. I think that behaving in especially brutal ways actually hurts an insurgency because the insurgents become the enemy rather than the heroes.

1 comment:

  1. Very good article, I just have a few pithy comments:

    1) Back in my day, I was known as the terror of the Ridley Circle Projects bball courts - so technically you have played a terrorist on the court. Why do you think they call my handle the "hand of god?"

    2) You missed a great opportunity to live blog Glenn Beck the other day when he had on an ACORN representative. He asked the guy how many republicans ACORN had supported, and when the guy said he didn't know off the top of his head, the Beckmeister sat there and was willing to give the guy a few minutes "to get into the bottom of his head" and answer the question. When this didn't suffice to provide the answers, Beck cut off the guy's mic.