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COIN: The Gravity Well

For reasons that must be clear to everyone, some of the best minds of the living generation have turned recently to the question of counterinsurgency warfare (COIN).  I've heard them referred to here as "Jedi Knights," which may be an accurate description.  There are some genuinely brilliant people turning out some extraordinary thinking on the subject.  Between them, they have built a new model for thinking about how the current Global insurgency is organized and operates.

The problem is that, being brilliant (and often technical), they sometimes forget that their thoughts have to be understood by the rest of us -- whether combat soldiers, or civilians who have to discuss (and vote on) the issues.  As a result, I keep encountering wonderous arguments framed in horrible terms:  "emergent systems," "insurgent ecospheres," "inputs/outputs/throughputs of insurgency," "organizationally closed," "energetically open," and so on.  I've been thinking of a good way to explain all this to 'the rest of us.'

Give me ten minutes, and I'll tell you everything you need to know to understand this new model of insurgency.  Plus, I have a little addition of my own -- a way to visualize David Kilcullen's "disaggregation" (discussed here at length).

Ten minutes, and you'll both understand how the Global insurgency works, and how to fight it -- even in those times and places when we have no combat troops to devote to working it. 

The only concept you need to understand this comes from your high school physics class.  I'll repeat everything important about it here. 

The concept is the "gravity well."  You can read the Wikipedia article about it here, if you like, but you  need not.  The point is that space is like a soft mattress or pad, a really big one.  Planets, stars, and the like are metal balls set on top of that space.  These metal balls cause the pad to sag where you've set them, creating a "gravity well."  That is, more or less, Einstein's explanation of gravity -- things fall toward the "well" because the pad is sagging towards the big object with lots of mass.

Here's a picture to help you visualize what this looks like (which I took from this site):

20040525gravityprobelg The Earth "sits" in its own gravity well, drawing other objects (like the space probe) towards it.  The closer they come, the more likely they are to fall into its well.  If they do, they add to its mass -- it becomes that much heavier, and its gravity well becomes that much deeper.

Now that you're thinking about that, I'm going to show you a model from John Robb's "Emergent Communities Dedicated to War," posted at Global Guerrillas.  Robb comes closer than anyone yet at explaining in simple terms what an "emergent community" is:

Valdis Krebs, an extremely talented social network analyst (listen to interview with Valdis), sent me a diagram of this type of community (see attached graphic, click for greater detail). He points out that this pattern is routinely found in emergent communities he has mapped. The diagram depicts four types of nodes:


  • Yellow nodes: leadership. These people are the core leadership of the organization. "They have denser connections to other leaders" and other main network nodes. They keep everything together as the group's connectors.
  • Red nodes: active members. Active members are tightly connected to the leadership nodes (yellow). They, in combination with the yellows, are what people refer to as the "group."
  • Blue nodes: people actively seeking membership. These people aren't formally connected to the core group. They are actively working on ways (relationships, credibility, etc.) to connect to the "group."
  • Green nodes: lurkers and potential members. People in this category are not active members of the group. They may or may not undertake actions that are in line with group goals.

This is the core of the idea that the Jedi Knights have come up with to explain how the Global insurgency works.  There are lots of these groups working together, a few in Iraq, a few in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, and so forth.  They don't really have a leader in many cases -- it's a social network.  You knock out some of the "yellow nodes," and some of the "red nodes" move in.  Meanwhile, the blue and green nodes drift around it, always capable of being used to replenish the membership that is killed or captured.

Now, here's my addition.  I want you to think of these things as gravity wells.  That yellow-red clump in the center is a planet or a star.  The blue nodes are objects circling the star, in its orbit, trapped in its well.  The green nodes on the outside are slowly slouching towards it, as they are far enough away from the center of the well that the pull is still slight.  They may not even be slightly interested in being insurgents -- they may just be local boys who see the insurgents swaggering around and hear their bragging, or whose families are terrorized by them at night, or who otherwise just have to accept that they are inside the insurgent's sphere of influence -- their well.

Like the space probe, or any other piece of drifting matter, if they get pulled into the well they will only add to the "mass" of the insurgency.  If these green objects drift closer, they may be pulled into the orbit and become active blue.  If they are pulled closer still, they may become red or yellow nodes, the insurgency becomes that much stronger, and able to affect that many more of those drifting green objects. 

The measure of an insurgency's gravity well is its drawing power:  its gravity.  This takes two forms.  It's the form of the people under the threat of insurgents at the end of the day, as Kilcullen noted when he said that insurgents won when, "the Sun goes down and the insurgents show up saying, 'If you’re not on our side, we’re going to kill you.'" 

The other form is when people who are not under threat of the insurgents are drawn to them, because they think the insurgents are the wave of the future, or the forces of right.  These people don't have to join the insurgency out of fear.  They do it willingly, because they want to fight America.

The measure of the gravity of an insurgency is those two things added together.  We want to reduce that gravity.

So, we want to do two things.

1)  We want to lessen the mass of the yellow-red "star," and therefore decrease the size and power of its gravity well.

2)  We want to pull the green and blue objects away from it.

How do you do it?

Goal One:

The first goal is the province of military and clandestine/covert intelligence operations.  You have to build intelligence on where the insurgents are, who they're dealing with, and so forth.  The clearest model here is how we captured Saddam.  Our military engagement allowed us to start gathering intelligence.  We put every scrap of intelligence into a database, not just on what we knew, but on how people we encountered were related to each other.  We were building a map of the gravity well.

Once we had the map, we found Saddam.  He was, you might say, right at the center of it.

Where we engage the enemy directly, whether with military or civilian intelligence forces, this is the method.  You map the insurgency with databases of this kind.  Once you begin to have a clear picture, you start breaking up the mass.  Killing and capturing yellow/red nodes is part of this.

But it's not the only part.  Yellow nodes are easily replaced with red ones; red ones can be replaced with blue ones.  More important than killing the members is breaking its myths.  Organizations like this are built on stories:  powerful stories, that everyone around it believes.  Stories like, "America is weak and decadent, and the faith of the pure will defeat her Marines."  Break those stories, and you radically decrease the mass of the insurgent star. 

Do that, and its pull becomes weaker.  It gets smaller, it weakens, it starts to die away.

Goal Two:

If an object is in the gravity well of a star or a planet, you can pull it away.  You just need an object with a much deeper gravity well.   You need a competitor.

Imagine if we had a star a whole lot bigger than the sun, a lot denser.  We can pick it up and move it around.  Let's say we set it down on the mattress, right by our solar system, so that it sank in deep.

What would happen is that all the objects currently in orbit around the sun would begin to drift in its direction.  They would start rolling that way.  If our huge star was big enough, and close enough, it would even tear off the outer layers of the sun.

There are many places in the world where our enemies might go for shelter, and try to set up new networks.  In those places, we need to build opposing, competing gravity wells. 

What would these look like?  Probably they would already exist, and therefore have an in-built legitimacy.  They would be Muslim organizations for the most part, because the insurgency is so heavily committed to Islam.  They would be able to reach out to the networks of young men who might otherwise be drawn into terrorism. 

Maybe they would look like the Nahdlatul Ulama.

The NU is a gigantic Muslim organization in Indonesia.  It has fully forty million members.  While it is religiously conservative, and therefore able to speak to the deeply religious Muslims that might be drawn into al Qaeda or Jemmah Islamiyah, it is not hateful.  It even has a paramilitary organization, the Banser, that defends Christian churches on Christmas Day, and at other times they seem in danger of attack by radicals.

Just as we want to cut the mass of the insurgent "stars," we want to increase the mass of organizations like the NU.  We want to make them more powerful, able to drag more of those drifting greens and blues away from the insurgents.  If they get big enough, strong enough, they may even tear away some of the reds.

This is what disaggregation means, in those areas where we have the Global insurgency fighting but we can't engage them with military or intelligence forces.  We have to make these organizations stronger.

How?  Exactly the opposite of the way that we break down the mass of insurgent "stars."  We can encourage friends and those with whom we have influence to endorse the organization and its message.  We can offer gifts -- not just physical gifts, like aid, but the gift of recognizing the organization as important and taking the trouble to respond to it.  If the organization is seen as being able to influence America, its gravity well will grow in power.

The other way we can influence its power is to reinforce its stories.  We should pay attention to its claims and, insofar as we may, help them to come true. 

We should do what we can to show the Muslim world that these organizations are the ones that matter.  If they want to change the world, they will be drawn -- not to al Qaeda -- but to places like the NU.


I think if you hold that one thing in your head -- the idea of the gravity well -- you'll know everything you need to know about the great developments in modern COIN theory.  If you want to know more, there is more, and this grounding will give you the ability to engage it.  The ways of the Jedi Knights are open to you  now.

COIN warfare is the challenge of our day.  If we are able to master it, the world will become a calmer, better place.  If we are not -- if it defeats us in Iraq and elsewhere -- other groups with bones to pick will adopt it.  It is no lie to say that 'the insurgency will follow you home' -- it will.  Even if the insurgents in the sands of Iraq stay there, others will hear the sound of their victory.  If we would have peace, we must learn to wage this war.