Category: Afghanistan

It’s nobody’s fault and nobody is sorry.

OK, a book. British Generals in Blair’s Wars (Military Strategy and Operational Art), available from the book company. Recommendation from Tom Ricks.

I’ve not finished the book yet, but the big stand-out issue here is: Why is nobody responsible? Hardly anyone sees Iraq as anything other than a disaster. Meanwhile, the British armed forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for 12 years and are preparing to draw-down by 2015, and what has this achieved? Isn’t all this somebody’s responsibility?

We hear a lot of stuff about the importance of Phase IV and of the pre-conflict phase, about multinational coalitions, and that the complex crises that characterise the post-cold war world are both ones where politicians call on the military because they turn up, being able to deploy into odd places, support themselves there, and defend themselves, and also ones in which the utility of military force is not obvious.

Of course if you wanted to know that you could have read Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force in 2005, eight years ago. It was also fairly commonplace a year earlier when I was an IR student. Today, it is glib cliché.

We also hear that Tony Blair was a weird guy and that the Americans shagged the dog. Right.

However, a lot of the people most involved seem to also think everything was going great when they handed over and rotated back to the UK (like the MNDSE commander, Stewart) or that despite being involved in the disastrous Phase IV nonplan, it was none of their responsibility (ORHA deputy, Tim Cross).

Cross, for example, got the hospital-pass of being the British deputy to Jay Garner. This was as bad as it sounds, but the British side could take more criticism. We didn’t select Cross because he was the army’s authority on postconflict reconstruction, or peacekeeping, or counterinsurgency – he was picked because his original mission to set up a logistical line of communication from Turkish ports up to the border for the 1st Armoured Division and the US 4th Infantry Division fell through when the Turks so wisely backed out, leaving him hanging about as a spare part. His main directive from the prime minister was to make sure no specific British zone might be set up for reconstruction purposes, because that might lead to the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. He was grateful for the loan of a spin doctor from Alistair Campbell’s staff, though.

Of course, the CPA did indeed set up a regional structure aligned with the military command structure, and then there had to be a British zone. In that zone, we find Stewart, division commander, who is pleased with himself for acting as the “sheikh of sheikhs” and who seems to think everything was pretty much OK in mid-2004 when he handed over, and who spent much of his time crisis-managing reconstruction.

He also tells the story of the Italians in Nasiriyah at the beginning of the Shia rising – their commander was constantly summoned to the videoteleconference room to answer to Silvio Berlusconi in person, who usually wanted to check he wasn’t taking any risks. On the first night, the Sadrists occupied the crucial bridges and set up their roadblocks without interference. The Americans, without their convoys and on half rations, badgered Stewart to clear them. Stewart called the Italians. Berlusconi did so too. This went on for a week. Eventually Stewart began scraping together British troops and said he would retake the bridges himself. Berlusconi reversed course, and the Italians proceeded to win without more fuss.

Interesting, but it was still Iraq! in 2004!

The reputedly more cerebral commanders are the worst; they have more words to hide behind.

Kiszely deploys a reinforced division or so of them to discuss the history of Western interest in the operational level of warfare, going so far as to assign credit for the US Air-Land Battle doctrine to the British in the form of the 1970s Soviet Studies Research Centre. He keeps on about operational art, mission command, and the manoeuvrist approach, and discovers that his role as deputy to George Casey at MNF-I in 2004 was precisely at the operational level, oddly enough.

Unfortunately he can’t find any example of this affecting anything, and talks quite a bit about how much time he spent having meetings with other British, US, and allied officials. And…it was the second half of 2004 in Iraq! But is he sorry? Is he responsible? Not in the slightest.

He also says that in most British operations of the time, the crucial operational level was to be found at Permanent Joint HQ, except when he was in the field when it was him. He doesn’t ask if this was a bit distant from the fighting or a bit close to the politicians and MOD Main Building. PJHQ was originally meant to be deployable, but it has never done so, and as he claims to be its architect he surely ought to ask the question.

Richards recounts his triumph in Sierra Leone and explains how he’s going to win Afghanistan with the assistance of “Reid Groups” to co-ordinate civil and military action. That’s as in John Reid. It was 2006.

McColl badmouths the troops, saying that the Americans have more pride, and doesn’t really say anything else of any interest whatsoever.

Jackson gives us his detailed version of the Wesley Clark incident in Kosovo – it’s worse than we thought, with Clark accepting the original decision not to fly paratroops into Pristina, but then, after the Russians arrived, changing his mind and wanting it done, onto the runway with them in occupation – and trots out a lot of stuff about no postwar planning and coalitions. But why didn’t he insist on it? He was the chief of the general staff and he’d already told the Americans to bugger off twice!

In fact, he left the final bugger-off to Dannatt – when Clark came knocking the second time, Jackson suggested it would be even more impressive to put tanks on the runway, rather than helicopters, and referred the issue to Dannatt’s 4th Armoured Brigade knowing they would refer it back to London. The French were also asked, and also said no.

Irwin confines himself to talking about Northern Ireland, and specifically whether a campaign plan was something that could have existed in that context. He makes sense.

So far, the pick is Barney White-Spunner, who compares the now thoroughly forgotten mission to Macedonia in 2001, which he led, and the first ISAF deployment to Kabul in 2002, which he also led with the rest of a hard-worked 16 AAB headquarters.

He concludes that the biggest difference between the two missions was that “in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no European dream”, i.e. no political aspiration that the people most concerned shared and no credible path to economic development, and strongly implies that the big problem with Iraq was that it just wasn’t in the national interest to do it. He notes that at one point, he was asked to take 16 AAB HQ to Afghanistan without any troops of his own under command at all, a Reid-class idea he refused strongly. He also remarks on the excellent condition of Albanian rebels’ pack animals despite a shortage of forage.

Kam Air

Remember Kam Air, fabulous Afghan airline, repeatedly blogged here? Sure you do.

The U.S. military has blacklisted Afghanistan’s largest private airline, alleging it is smuggling “bulk” quantities of opium on civilian flights to Tajikistan, a corridor through which the drugs reach the rest of the world.

Kam Air was barred this month from receiving U.S. military contracts by U.S. Central Command chief Marine Gen. James Mattis, according to U.S. military officials…

Inventing the mujahideen

Erik Lund has an interesting post on the high, Kipling era of the North-West Frontier and how it essentially got that way due to technology. Longer-ranged rifles meant that the forts the British and their client rulers relied on were over-watched from the hills, and that the numbers of troops needed to manoeuvre up the valleys were much greater because the area the flank guard had to cover was so much bigger.

As a result, people adopted a cultural identity that made sense of being able to see off the government, the governing classes bought into it through literature, and the government pursued a policy of leaving them alone and recruiting a lot of them into the army. There, of course, they acquired skills which reinforced the whole process, to say nothing of substantial quantities of government property. Eventually, the political accomodation was made formal, by drawing the so-called “administrative border” between the frontier and the rest of India.

The interaction between the centre, the periphery, and the landscape is mediated by technology and has consequences for politics and culture.

Now, let’s do a look forward to 1948, where Pakistani irregular forces are busy invading Kashmir. The government of the new state can’t use its army because it doesn’t really exist yet as something separate from the British Indian Army’s structures, and also because it’s still full of British officers who may object. Also, it’s hoping that it can portray the military operation in Kashmir as something separate from the state of Pakistan, a popular rising that will speak to the idea of self-determination, and perhaps spare them any retaliation.

These people are sometimes described as mujahideen or even jihadis, and we’ll meet them again and again between now and 2012. On this occasion, the people involved are recruited out of the pool of army manpower. In the future, though, in 1979 and 1992 and 1996 and 2006, they are increasingly going to be foreigners. They’re still based in the debatable lands and they’re still doing much the same thing.

So what’s happened? One of the things that you traded off in exchange for the government leaving you alone is being a citizen of the new state of Pakistan. (People up there still aren’t now, in the year of our Lord, 2012.) The cities are growing, hugely. It’s time to renegotiate the deal, and there’s no obvious technological fix from the government’s side.

But causality doesn’t have to go only one way. Culture and politics can influence facts on the ground. Hence, the invention of the international jihadi – a cultural identity based on rejecting the city and everything that goes with it (Osama’s Messages to the World is full of this stuff), devised specifically to draw people back the other way and to constitute a new frontiersman serving Pakistani policy goals in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Anyway, that’s a story about how people try to control space and to contest that control, as Erik says. Here’s one about how they try to control time. NYT report on Syrian rebels and their EFPs, and C.J. Chivers’ exegesis, which forecasts the rebels’ eventual victory.

One of the reasons roadside bombs are quite so important in the wars since 2001 is that they have a distinction in terms of time between the attack and its consequences. They are placed, and go off, but by then the attacker hopes to be long gone. States try to control these kind of threats by finding out who’s doing it, and then killing or arresting them. That, of course, has a time factor as well.

People find the state useful enough to sign up to its cultural, political, and technical solutions. In this case, some of them are willing to support the troops, or more to the point, the police by informing on the guy with the roadside bomb. Until they’re not, at which point the state is going to collapse.

Here’s another attempt to fix it, or rather to create it in the first place. I note that their results do seem to agree with Antonio Giustozzi’s account of history. Also, I’m amazed this hasn’t been on B&T yet.

depressing

Spencer Ackerman is depressed about the response to this piece about the MIT Fab Lab team in Jalalabad with their 3D printing of WLAN extended range antennas. Now the funding’s been cut off and the satellite backhaul is going to go down. Well, more to the point, there never was any funding, and the whole thing was running off someone’s credit card.

It was only ever an alliance commitment; not a bad epitaph. Even if it is more to the point for Britain.

Middle Eastern Links

Back from MWC. Heavy cold. Browser queue jammed with stuff. I’m going to do a brief succession of link posts to clear up. (Happenings last week; huge Leveson revelations, James Murdoch out, King Mob abolished workfare, horse, Borisbus fiasco, debate on Daniel Morgan, even more Leveson..)

This one deals with everyone’s favourite global geo-political region, the Middle East. Anthony Shadid died, and Angry Arab thinks the obits weren’t tough enough on the Israelis. Alyssa at ThinkProgress has a list of 20 of his best dispatches and only one covers the Palestinians and tangentially at that. Really?

Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner provides some history of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria and its repression by President Assad’s dad President Assad. Worth noting that by the time the Syrian army began its infamous destruction of Hama in ’82, the struggle had been going on since 1976. Just because the rebels have kept it up so long – which is astonishing and a demonstration of extreme courage – shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are going to win in the end.

Colin Kahl, writing in the Washington Post, points out that the Osirak raid in 1981 didn’t slow down Saddam Hussein’s effort to build the Bomb, in part because it hadn’t really started before the raid. However, the attack convinced him to make a concerted effort, and also caused Iraq to abandon the power reactor-reprocessing-plutonium route in favour of the highly-enriched uranium route, which is much easier to conceal and also to distribute among multiple facilities and which turned out to have a entire black market supply chain.

He also links to this piece on planning considerations for Israel, which highlights their air-to-air refuelling tankers as a key constraint. Kahl also points out that in the event of an Israeli raid, their air force would probably be needed at home immediately afterwards.

The Americans, for what it’s worth, don’t think a strategic decision has been taken to get the Bomb.

Bizarrely, the IAEA inspectors have discovered that the fortified enrichment plant at Fordow in Iran contains 2,000 empty centrifuge cases but not the centrifuges themselves. Is it a bluff of some sort? Is it a decoy target? Is it just a very odd way of going about building an enrichment plant?

Binyamin Netanyahu memorably described as “carrying both Anne Frank and the entire IDF around in his head”, presumably in between the bees in his bonnet and the bats in his belfry. It is argued that he won’t attack Iran because the settlers won’t like it, or possibly that he’s bluffing about Iran to draw attention away from them.

Ultima Ratio is down, but you can read their excellent (French) review of Syed Saleem Shahbaz’s posthumous book Inside Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in the Google cache. Fans of “Kashmir is still the issue” will be interested by the argument that Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri and ex-Pakistani officer Haroon Ashik introduced a new strategy aiming to bring about more conflict between Pakistan and India, in the hope of alienating Pakistani leaders from the alliance with the US. Apparently they were planning something against an Indian nuclear site when Kashmiri was droned in June 2011.

fighting the real enemy

Con “WMD” Coughlin’s piece in the Torygraph is worthy of close reading. You’ll note that this:

Whitehall was caught off guard by the seriousness of the situation in Helmand province, where British troops were deployed in Nato’s reconstruction programme. Most Labour ministers supported the view of John Reid, the defence secretary at the time, that “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot because our mission is to protect the reconstruction”.

Intelligence assessments conducted in southern Afghanistan concluded that they would receive a hostile reception.

isn’t actually sourced to either General Richards, who is the ostensible subject of the piece, or to Sandy Gall’s book mentioned later in it. Also, the piece contains extensive quotes from Richards that turn out to have been dug out of Gall’s book, when a over-rapid look at the piece might give you the impression Coughlin spoke to Richards.

Reid’s remark has gone down in the annals of stupidity, but the notion that “most Labour ministers” agreed with him isn’t sourced to anyone at all. In fact, the policy was repeatedly re-debated and altered, as I blogged here over the winter of 2005-2006, which doesn’t suggest everyone agreed on it. Further, it’s news that “intelligence assessments” accurately forecast what would happen – especially as any assessment carried out before the deployment would have been an assessment of the original plan, not the plan as it was radically altered in the field.

I suspect Coughlin is talking the secret services’ book here, and they are fighting the real enemy – the uniformed services’ Defence Intelligence Staff, which would have been responsible for such an assessment. Further, DIS was notoriously right about Iraq (if you believe Brian Jones’ telling) and this is inexcusable to the spooks (who weren’t) or Coughlin (who wasn’t, and who culpably published their nonsense).

Further, does this quote sound convincing to you? For an American general, he sounds a lot like a British journalist trying to sound tough.

Sir David also recounts a heated argument between Brigadier Ed Butler, the first British commander in Helmand, and an US general who took exception to him. “I nearly punched that damn Limey’s [Butler’s] lights out, he was so arrogant,” the US general said.

a short telegram, or a very long tweet

Everyone’s linked to Mark Perry (of Conflicts Forum/Alistair Crooke fame)’s piece on Israeli spooks running around Baluchistan posing as the CIA already, but I will too as it’s very interesting indeed. I’m not sure what their bag in this is, other than the notion of “always escalate” and hope to profit from the general confusion.

But what’s really interesting is what the story is doing out there now. Here’s Laura Rozen’s write-up, which introduces the suggestion that they may have represented themselves as being from NATO and notes that a leader of the organisation said as much on Iranian TV before being executed. Meanwhile, the Iranians write to the Americans accusing the CIA of being behind the assassination of another nuclear scientist.

On Twitter, she suggests that the scientist wasn’t killed by the Americans (i.e. presumptively by the Israelis, or by people working for them wittingly or otherwise), and that this was staged specifically to queer the possibility of reviving the Iran-Turkey uranium swap deal. (You do wonder what George F. Kennan would have made of diplomatic tweeting.) Further, we know that a back-channel has been set up.

Disclosing information about the Israeli operation in Baluchistan might be a smart way of establishing trust between the US and Iran. Obviously, information about terrorists running about blowing stuff up and killing people is of value to Iran. Information that it’s the Israelis is obviously congenial to Iran. Crucially, burning an Israeli spy network is costly to the Americans and not something they would do lightly (the Perry piece is a monument to important people trying all they could to do nothing). In that sense, it is a meaningful signal – much more convincing than mere words. Presumably, Perry’s role at Conflicts Forum and with Arafat makes him a convincing postman into the bargain. And third-party spies are just the sort of thing that enemies can bond over. I recall reading about the IRA and the UVF staging a joint investigation to find informers in the early 1970s.

Another dose of speculation – if Baluch rebels were meeting with people who they thought were from NATO, was this plausible because NATO was in fact paying them off to leave the Karachi-Quetta-Kandahar supply route alone?

RQ-170 upshot, part 2: the bubble

Is there a drone bubble? It’s not clear whether this is more like the .com bubble, when a lot of useful stuff was built but a couple of years too early, or more like the housing bubble, when a lot of stuff was built in the wrong places to the wrong standards at the wrong prices and will probably never be worth much. It’s the nature of a bubble, of course, that it’s precisely at the top of the bubble that the commitment to it is greatest.

One of the things the RQ-170 incident tells us about is some of the operational limitations of the drones. Typically, they are piloted in the cruise from locations that may be a long way off, using satellite communication links, but when they land, they do so under local control via line-of-sight radio link from their base. This allows us to set some bounds on how much of a problem link latency really is, which will take us circling back to John Robb’s South Korean gamers.

Gamers are famous for being obsessed with ping-times – the measurement of round-trip latency on the Internet – because it’s really, really annoying to see the other guy on your screen, go to zap’em, and get zapped yourself because it took longer for your zap to cross the Internet than theirs. Typically you can expect 40 or so milliseconds nationally, 60-80 inter-continentally…or several hundred if a satellite or an old-school cellular operator with a hierarchical network architecture is involved. A sat hop is always clearly identifiable in traceroute output because latency goes to several hundred ms, and there’s a great RIPE NCC paper on using the variations in latency over a year to identify the satellite’s geosynchronous (rather than geostationary) orbit as the slant-range changes.

On the other hand, roundtrip latency across an airfield circuit a couple of miles wide will be negligible. So we can conclude that tolerable latency for manoeuvring, as opposed to cruising, is very little. Now, check out this post on David Cenciotti’s blog from January 2010. Some of the Israeli air force’s F-15s have received a new communications radio suite specifically for controlling UAVs.

You might now be able to guess why even drone pilots are going through basic flight training. Also, this post of Cenciotti’s describes the causes of six recent hull losses, all of which are classic airmanship accidents – the sort of thing pilot training is designed to teach you to avoid.

That said, why did all those drones get built? The original, 1980s UAV concepts were usually about the fact that there was no pilot and therefore the craft could be treated as expendable, usually in order to gain intelligence on the (presumably) Soviet enemy’s air defences by acting as a ferret aircraft, forcing them to switch on the radars so the drone could identify them. But that’s not what they’ve been doing all these years.

The main reason for using them has been that they are lightweight and have long endurance. This is obviously important from an intelligence gathering perspective, whether you’re thinking of over-watching road convoys or of assassinating suspected terrorists (and there are strong arguments against that, as Joshua Foust points out). In fact, long endurance and good sensors are so important that there are even so-called manned drones – diesel-engined, piloted light aircraft stuffed with sensors, with the special feature that they fly with intelligence specialists aboard and provide a much faster turn-around of information for the army.

Their limitations – restricted manoeuvre, limited speed and payload, and high dependence on communications infrastructure – haven’t really been important because they have been operating in places and against enemies who don’t have an air force or ground-based air defences and don’t have an electronic warfare capability either. Where the enemy have had man-portable SAMs available, as sometimes in Iraq, they have chosen to save them for transport aircraft and the chance of killing Americans, which makes sense if anti-aircraft weapons are scarce (and surely, the fact of their scarcity has to be one of the major unreported news stories of the decade).

But then, the war in Iraq is meant to be over even if the drones are still landing in Kurdistan, and the US may be on its way to a “pre-1990″ military posture in the Gulf. This week’s strategic fashion is “Air-Sea Battle” and the Pacific, and nobody expects anything but the most hostile possible environment in the air and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And the RQ-170 incident is surely a straw in the wind. Also, the Bush wars were fought in an environment of huge airfields in the desert, and the ASB planners expect that the capacity of US bases in Japan and Guam and the decks of aircraft carriers will be their key logistical constraint. (The Russians aren’t betting everything on them either.)

I think, therefore, it’s fair to suggest that a lot of big drones are going to end up in the AMARC stockpile. After the Americans’ last major counter-insurgency, of course, that’s what happened. The low-tech ones are likely to keep proliferating, though, whether as part of the Royal Engineers’ route clearance system or annoying the hell out of Japanese whalers or even playing with lego.

The RQ-170 hack and the drone bubble

The fact that a majority of this year’s graduates from USAF basic pilot training are assigned to drone squadrons has got quite a bit of play in the blogosphere. Here, via Jamie Kenny, John Robb (who may still be burying money for fear of Obama or may not) argues that the reason they still do an initial flight training course is so that the pilot-heavy USAF hierarchy can maintain its hold on the institution. He instead wants to recruit South Korean gamers, in his usual faintly trendy dad way. Jamie adds the snark and suggests setting up a call centre in Salford.

On the other hand, before Christmas, the Iranians caught an RQ-170 intelligence/reconnaissance drone. Although the RQ-170 is reportedly meant to be at least partly stealthy, numerous reports suggest that the CIA was using it among other things to get live video of suspected nuclear sites. This seems to be a very common use case for drones, which usually have a long endurance in the air and can be risked remaining over the target for hours on end, if the surveillance doesn’t have to be covert.

Obviously, live video means that a radio transmitter has to be active 100% of the time. It’s also been reported that one of the RQ-170’s main sensors is a synthetic-aperture radar. Just as obviously, using radar involves transmitting lots of radio energy.

It is possible to make a radio transmitter less obvious, for example by saving up information and sending it in infrequent bursts, and by making the transmissions as directional as possible, which also requires less power and reduces the zone in which it is possible to detect the transmission. However, the nature of the message governs its form. Live video can’t be burst-transmitted because it wouldn’t be live. Similarly, real-time control signalling for the drone itself has to be instant, although engineering telemetry and the like could be saved and sent later, or only sent on request. And the need to keep a directional antenna pointing precisely at the satellite sets limits on the drone’s manoeuvring. None of this really works for a mapping radar, though, which by definition needs to sweep a radio beam across its field of view.

Even if it was difficult to acquire it on radar, then, it would have been very possible to detect and track the RQ-170 passively, by listening to its radio emissions. And it would have been much easier to get a radar detection with the advantage of knowing where to look.

There has been a lot of speculation about how they then attacked it. The most likely scenario suggests that they jammed the command link, forcing the drone to follow a pre-programmed routine for what to do if the link is lost. It might, for example, be required to circle a given location and wait for instructions, or even to set a course for somewhere near home, hold, and wait for the ground station to acquire them in line-of-sight mode.

Either way, it would use GPS to find its way, and it seems likely that the Iranians broadcast a fake GPS signal for it. Clive “Scary Commenter” Robinson explains how to go about spoofing GPS in some detail in Bruce Schneier’s comments, and points out that the hardware involved is cheap and available.

Although the military version would require you to break the encryption in order to prepare your own GPS signal, it’s possible that the Iranians either jammed it and forced the drone to fall back on the civilian GPS signal, and spoofed that, or else picked up the real signal at the location they wanted to spoof and re-broadcast it somewhere else, an attack known as “meaconing” during the second world war when the RAF Y-Service did it to German radio navigation. We would now call it a replay attack with a fairly small time window. (In fact, it’s still called meaconing.) Because GPS is based on timing, there would be a limit to how far off course they could put it this way without either producing impossible data or messages that failed the crypto validation, but this is a question of degree.

It’s been suggested that Russian hackers have a valid exploit of the RSA cipher, although the credibility of this suggestion is unknown.

The last link is from Charlie Stross, who basically outlined a conceptual GPS-spoofing attack in my old Enetation comments back in 2006, as a way of subverting Alistair Darling’s national road-pricing scheme.

Anyway, whether they cracked the RSA key or forced a roll-back to the cleartext GPS signal or replayed the real GPS signal from somewhere else, I think we can all agree it was a pretty neat trick. But what is the upshot? In the next post, I’m going to have a go at that…

The world’s most expensive mobile network

By the mid-2000s the minimal cost-to-serve a mobile phone user had got down to the point where it was worth Roshan’s while to put base stations in places where British soldiers broke down 105mm light guns to carry them piece by piece up a cliff, in order to fire from the hilltop next to the base station and get additional range.

It’s fairly well known that the Taliban weren’t entirely pleased about this, especially when ISAF started publicising their tip-off hotline and people did just that with their new second-hand Nokias. And they started destroying base stations until the operators agreed to shut down for part of the day. An uneasy settlement was arrived at – after all, Talibs use the phone too, and so do their families and friends. Like the old pattern of the insurgent owning the roads during the night and the government during the day, the insurgent owned the 900MHz band during the night and left it to the government during the day.

(However, their control of radio spectrum is purely negative, as if they were to use it themselves, the government could spy on them doing so, direction-find the transmitters, traffic-analyse the network to find out who is important, and sic drones, attack helicopters, or commandos on them. They can intimidate other people out of using it, but they can’t use it themselves without very careful security precautions.)

So I’d like to recommend this really excellent article.

It seems that this shaky modus vivendi has broken down. Not only are the Taliban destroying more sites, they are doing so more thoroughly.

A typical problem for an emerging-market GSM operations engineer is the security of diesel fuel. Some operators in Africa are their countries’ biggest electricity generators. This is fiendishly expensive – not only do you have to buy the diesel, you have to pay people to fill up the tanks on thousands of remote cell sites. And other people will steal it, or even steal the whole generator, which is why some of them are half-way up the tower although that means the structure must be much heavier and stronger and more expensive. Highway robbery is a better payoff than burglary as you get the whole truckload and the truck to move it, so you also have to pay for protection. That might mean protection as in guards, or protection as in racket, and quite often the distinction is far from clear.

This also becomes a typical first world GSM operations engineer’s problem as soon as a big storm knocks over a few hundred towers and outs the electricity, as some bright spark inevitably notices the backup generator running.

Although you can buy solar and wind-powered base stations, there are still a lot of diesel ones out there. Now, if your objection is not merely financial, this means it’s easy to destroy the infrastructure – you force open the valves and set it on fire. Interestingly, though, the Taliban have moved on from just starting a fire to breaking into the equipment cabinet and soaking it with the fuel, then setting that on fire. Thus multiplying the cost of repair and the downtime by an order of magnitude at least.

Alternatively, they sometimes dig a hole and blow the whole thing up with high explosive, wrecking the civil works (budget for quite a bit more including the labour) and demonstrating their aggression to everyone in earshot.

It also looks like they’ve realised that the backhaul links from the base stations to the switching centre are point-to-point microwave ones, and that the network has a hierarchical structure, with multiple base stations linked by microwave radio to a base station controller (or radio network controller in 3G) site which has a microwave link to the switch, and where there may be a variety of other equipment depending on exactly how the network is designed. As all that suggests, this is a crucial node and therefore a target. It is suspected that they have expert advice.

So the operators shut down service, and then the Afghan government and NATO yell at them to turn it back on.

And this is where it gets interesting. NATO has been installing macro-cells – big high power base stations – on its outposts as well as the private, ruggedised femtocells I wrote about with regard to Mr. Werritty. The idea was that if the commercial network was down, the phones would roam onto the backup network. Take that, forces of Islamofascism! But there’s a problem. The commercial operators won’t let the new network be in the list of permitted roaming networks on their SIMs, because they fear that if they shut down and service is still available, the Taliban will blow up even more of their stuff and perhaps start murdering engineers.

The government network could run like an IMSI catcher, masquerading as all four networks to capture their subscribers but forwarding everything – but I get the impression the operators don’t want to interconnect with it, so calls would have to be routed out of the country and back in via the international gateway and it probably won’t work very well.

And as a result, NATO has created the exact opposite of a successful emerging market GSM operator. Rather than cut-down low-power small cells cunningly distributed in the landscape, it’s got big expensive pigeon fryers placed whereever seems safe or rather less unsafe. You’d think the same sort of place would do for a radio station as would do for a fort, but radioplanning is far more complicated than just picking hilltops and often deeply counter-intuitive. Rather than rock-bottom cost-to-serve, it’s thought to be the most expensive phone network in the world per-user.

It’s possible, thinking back to Rory Stewart, that a network designed along the lines of the kind of wireless-mesh broadband system his mates are building for the Penrith area might be more robust against such an attack. The Mexican Zetas seem to think so. Even staying in GSM, the BSC functions can be forward-deployed to the cell sites, and more of the backhaul could be point-to-multipoint rather than point-to-point, and more of the sites could be interlinked, thus getting more redundancy at the expense of worse efficiency. But that would only reduce the number of critical nodes. GSM remains a fundamentally hierarchical network architecture, and some would inevitably be much more important at the system level than others.

And finally, they could still just destroy towers, only with rather less efficiency. Putting more equipment at the cell site might just make it more vulnerable. Also, a problem with mesh networks is that they are more effective the more nodes there are – but the places where we usually want them because other networks are impossible tend to be sparsely populated. It would also make the whole issue personal. Owning the device would make you a target.

In the final analysis, fire remains an effective technology of rebellion.