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Nathniel Flick And The Limits Of Social Networking

Jonathan Stray, an energetic blogger, has constructed a social-network chart detailing the connections between the so-called Counterinsurgents. It has some errors — I’m assuming ‘Nathniel Flick’ is Nate Fick of the Center for a New American Security — and as Abu Muqawama says, “a better graph than the one this dude came up with would have been far more extensive and incestuous.” But a few rounds of crowdsourcing from the comment threads of AM or Small Wars Journal can probably fix that.

Still, there’s kind of a broader question: what does a social-network chart really tell you?

Here’s what Stray says he found:

The resulting network shows that the Obama administration is relying heavily on the talents of a group called the Center for A New American Security (CNAS), which has close ties to the authors of the most recent US Army counterinsurgency manual. This means that Obama is unlikely to break with the current military strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan — but even if he wanted to, could he?

That just doesn’t follow.

First, it presumes that there’s anything approaching a counterinsurgent consensus about what to do about Afghanistan. (Let’s leave Iraq aside for the moment.) Some people in the chart, including the aforementioned Flick/Fick, have some ideas; but even if you asked this crowd, “Should we get all counterinsurgenty up in Afghanistan?” you would still have obscured more than you’ve clarified.

Some argue that the biggest COIN principle to follow in Afghanistan is attention to local concerns; others privilege specific tactical approaches. There’s not much of a consensus about what to do going forward. (I guess adding more troops is an exception, but that’s anecdotal.) Furthermore, there isn’t much of a “current military strategy” in Afghanistan, as the war has heretofore been defined more by drift than design, so it’s hard to see the COINdinistas arguing for more of the same. (If the effect is the same, it’ll probably indicate that Afghanistan is hopeless more than anything else.)

And then there’s a further concern. What does it really reveal to note that Colin Kahl has been palling around with Nathniel Flick? Eli Lake of The Washington Times has been palling around with Spencer Ackerman for six years, but it hasn’t made him, for instance, favor withdrawal from Iraq. You can’t really overlay areas of policy agreement based on frequency of contact. One of the most inspired parts of Bart Gellman’s book, “Angler,” is where he notes that if you thought that way, you’d probably have to conclude that former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had worked together for more than 20 years, were bureaucratic allies instead of bitter rivals.

I don’t mean to pick on Stray. The truth is that the military and intelligence apparatuses use these kind of org charts frequently when trying to map terrorist networks or tribal ties. And it’s never been clear to me why, or even indeed whether, the social cartographers really have faith in such a flawed model or if, instead, there’s a recognition that the social networks operate as a placeholder for actual information about the different nodes on the chart. I’m also not saying that it’s a mistake to try to understand the counterinsurgents as a distinct cohort — that would be pretty stupid and hypocritical of me. All I’m saying is that viewing the Network itself tells you deceptively little.

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