Confessions of an Xbox General

Can a computer game teach the Army how to defeat the Taliban?

I'm no strategist. I might beat a paper bag at chess if somebody Tasered the bag first. But fighting the Taliban? America would end up speaking Pashto.

Yet I write frequently about the U.S. military and video games. And when I had a chance to play an Army game on counterinsurgency -- COIN, to the cognoscenti -- I couldn't resist. What happens when the world's dumbest armchair strategist tries his hand at quelling an insurgency?

UrbanSim is a U.S. Army game that teaches COIN to battalion commanders. Where most Pentagon computer simulations look like spreadsheets and are just as fun to play, UrbanSim, which came out in 2009, resembles the kind of strategy game that many of us enjoy at home. That's probably because it was developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies, an innovative University of Southern California center funded by the Army and with deep ties to Hollywood and the video-game industry. But though it looks like a militarized version of SimCity, UrbanSim is actually a sophisticated simulation that incorporates factors such as economic conditions and social networking ties, and analyzes how these factors sway the population to back the government or the insurgents.

This is new ground for the U.S. military, which has traditionally been most comfortable with computer simulations rooted in the empirical. How much armor can a cannon shell punch through? How many MiG-29s could an F-15 shoot down? Such Cold War-era models weren't always accurate, but at least they could pretend to be based on science. COIN, on the other hand, is all about mushy intangibles -- psychology, sociology, political science. And if the social scientists can't agree among themselves how to quantify these things, how can a computer game do it?

The military's own simulation experts laugh at the notion that commanders will ever be able to click a mouse and have a computer tell them the perfect strategy for destroying the Taliban. Yet a computer game might at least give them a sense of how officers' decisions have consequences. Repairing the local sewer system is like casting a stone in a pond; the ripples shift the population's mood, which in turn changes support for the insurgents, which affects the number of attacks from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- and could eventually alter the course of the war.

Colonel Noob Takes Command

My unit is the 1st Battalion of the 303rd Cavalry regiment, which I have redesignated Task Force Noob. We are assigned to the Iraqi city of al-Hamra, a mostly Sunni town with some Shiites and Kurds. I am the battalion commander, and I've got eight platoons, a Civil Affairs detachment, and a Quick Reaction Force at my disposal. It sounds like an impressive force to impose the will of Noob, but it's not. I have to cover 15 neighborhoods, each with a level of coalition support from zero to 100 percent, plus a smorgasbord of decaying infrastructure, venal tribes, and leaders who often hate each other. The game lasts 15 turns. How well I do will be measured by several metrics, including six "lines of effort" or LOEs (civil security, governance, host-nation security forces, information operations, essential services, and economics), plus the Population Support Meter. Did I mention that five of the six LOEs start at less than 50 percent success, while the Population Support Meter says that 44 percent of al-Hamra wishes I would disappear in a puff of black smoke? Colonel Noob feels like Colonel Custer.

Colonel Noob's Iron Fist

Forget hearts and minds. Task Force Noob will win this war by kicking butt. We will aggressively root out the insurgents, leaving the population free to express its natural affection for us. Several districts are rated at 25 percent or less coalition support. The game won't let me use carpet-bombing, so I'll settle for assigning each problem neighborhood an American platoon that will conduct cordon-and-search and checkpoint missions on alternate turns. Another platoon will patrol Shiite neighborhoods, but otherwise I'll leave them alone. I'm not going to waste my Civil Affairs detachment on drinking tea with the locals; they're assigned to repair the airport. The Quick Reaction Force (QRF) will remain in reserve, while I offer my expertise to Iraqi Police Colonel Bashir.

OK, there goes Turn 1 and ... what? I've lost support in some neighborhoods. An IED has gone off in the north. And what happened in Nahiyat Ayadh? Despite the patrols, my intelligence officer reports that the insurgents are now politically active there, and support has dropped to 58 percent. On top of this, my troops accidentally killed an Iraqi cop.

Well, great commanders must be resolute. By Turn 5, 51 percent of al-Hamra's population is now against me, with the new haters mostly drawn from the neutral bloc. Intel enables my QRF to target a Shiite bomb factory and nail a sniper. But IED attacks have soared to 10 per turn. For some reason, Colonel Bashir has indicated that he is tired of my advice.

By the end of the game, popular support is stuck at 51 percent against. Instead of three Sunni neighborhoods with zero coalition support, that number is now five. IED attacks have soared to 28 per turn. Half my LOEs have declined. My interpreter says the shoes the population are throwing at me aren't really gifts. Could I be doing something wrong?

Colonel Noob's Velvet Glove

Task Force Noob will now try the soft approach. No raids, checkpoints, or patrols. We're going to be so sweet that the locals will call us Task Force Sugar.

As battalion commander, I will move from local honcho to local honcho, dispensing small gifts. I'll start with Mayor al-McCheese -- sorry, Mayor Anwar Sadiq -- a Sunni who only supports the coalition 15 percent. Butter him up with token cash gifts, then work my way through the Sunni notables and tribes, and finish with the Shiites.

I'd like to put the entire U.S. force on repairing infrastructure, but I don't have the cash. I start with $260,000. After I fix two battered hospitals and the airport, I'm down to $30,000, with another 20 structures needing repair. Because I can't fix most of them, I assign one platoon to offering medical care to the population, two more to recruiting additional Iraqi soldiers and police officers, a couple more on "information engagement" with the locals, and one platoon plus the QRF as a reserve.

The good news is that by Turn 8, all LOEs are up, except for Iraqi security forces. The bad news is that there were eight IED attacks, and intel says the insurgents are successfully recruiting new fighters. Ebrahim Hafiz, a big Sunni merchant, says he will put in a good word for us if we scratch his back. My staff says his particular itch is getting us to repair the al-Hamra bazaar in the market district. Good thing I saved some cash. Another report comes in that a Black Hawk helicopter has been downed by a rocket-propelled grenade over the northern district. Staff recommends we send patrols to the area, and the QRF responds. Intel has also identified Shiite death squads, weapon caches, and safe houses in Nahiyat Artet. But the area is pro-coalition, they're not giving me any problems (I think), and I have my hands full with the Sunnis. What's really perplexing me is the Population Support Meter: Anti-government is down to 36 percent, pro-government is down to 23 percent, but the neutral bloc has swelled to 45 percent. So the more I do, the more they decide they neither love us nor hate us? Is that good or bad?

By the end of the game, Sunni insurgents and infrastructure are sprouting like measles in the northwest. My LOE results are mixed, and IED attacks are up to 18 per turn. Yet anti-government sentiment is down to 32 percent. I'm winning their hearts, but their minds are busy planting roadside bombs. The Velvet Glove seems to work somewhat better than the Iron Fist, but still not well enough.

Colonel Noob's Velvet Fist

Colonel Noob may be determined, but let it not be said that he is inflexible. This time, Task Force Noob will try a mixture of carrots and sticks. I'll take advantage of the social science display. The diagram shows that Rushdi Kaliq, the Sunni chief of the city's water and power department, is connected to a lot of bigwigs, including the not-so-friendly Mayor Sadiq. (I guess when you can turn off the water and electricity, everybody wants to be your friend.) I'll butter up Kaliq by handing him cash and fixing the water and sewage treatment plants. Hopefully, he will bring his buddy Sadiq around. I'm also going to assign a platoon to a political support mission for Sadiq and Kaliq. I feel like I'm backing Boss Hogg, but I'd rather go with the existing power structure.

For the carrot, I still have enough cash left to repair the two hospitals, which might help win over the general population. Assigning a platoon to pay cash to all the tribes may help, too. For the stick, the worst Sunni neighborhoods -- those at zero coalition support -- will get lots of searches, checkpoints, and patrols to keep a lid on insurgent activity.

Turn 1 and ... hmmm. Anti-government sentiment jumps to 51 percent. Was this because of the stick or the carrot? I have a feeling it's the stick at fault, so I'll call off the cordon-and-search and rely on patrols. On the positive side, Mayor Sadiq is thrilled by the infrastructure repairs. Is Sadiq really helping to win over the Sunni tribes, or is it just a ploy to keep me handing out suitcases of cash?

Friendlier or not, the insurgents are growing fast enough by mid-game that my QRF is threatening to become professional whack-a-mole players. We are constantly striking Ansar al-Sunnah Army and al-Qassas targets, and we successfully neutralize the Kurdish raiders. Iraqi Army readiness is down sharply, so I repair its brigade headquarters and increase recruitment.

Like any honest COINdinista, I'm still not sure what the best strategy is. My best guess, however, is that breaking down doors is a death kiss for winning over the population. It's tempting to roust entire neighborhoods, but smarter to wait until insurgent groups are identified before using force and combine this with information operations and medical aid for the population.

By the end of the game, most of the LOEs have improved, and there are only seven IED attacks per turn. Best of all, anti-government sentiment has dropped to 29 percent. That's as close to a victory as I've come.

Colonel Noob's Final Thoughts

You can learn a lot about people from the games they play. Twenty years ago, the military might have dismissed a game like UrbanSim as wussy social science. That the Army now uses it to train its next generation of leaders says volumes about how far the military has come toward embracing "soft" concepts like social networking.

So how did this armchair strategist fare at COIN? Probably better than the U.S. military in the first years of the Iraq occupation, but possibly not as good as in the years following the "surge." I'm still not sure what I learned from UrbanSim. Like many an army commander before me, I never had a firm sense of how my decisions created consequences. Many hidden assumptions lie underneath UrbanSim's hood, and a simulation can only be as accurate as those assumptions.

But accurately simulating the dynamics of an insurgency wasn't the goal. The point was to begin to understand them. What staggered me was the almost infinite number of possible decisions and consequences in UrbanSim. I could kick down doors, bribe local leaders, smash insurgent cells, and fix sewer lines. But I didn't have enough resources to do everything, nor could I foresee how each action would help or hinder the other actions.

Tomorrow I will probably read about a battalion commander struggling to simultaneously fight the Taliban, build schools, and establish a rapport with villagers. I can't fully sympathize with his plight because I have never walked in his shoes (a fortunate thing for all concerned). But I can now understand his dilemma a little better.

If the Army were smart, it would make a game like UrbanSim available to the general public. It won't change anyone's mind about the war. But it will give them a greater appreciation for the challenges of counterinsurgency. Believe me: Colonel Noob can use all the help he can get.


Do Muslims Really Care About Somalia?

If they do, here's how they can save the country from famine.

A young, rail-thin, and gaunt Somali woman, cradling her starving child in her arms, looks straight into the camera. Her eyes are dead; she has seen too much suffering. "Where are the Muslim countries?" she asks. "We are dying."

The image is haunting, and her words keep coming back, though they were broadcast on the BBC a few weeks ago now. Her plea is real. The richest Muslims in the world live just across the waters in the Gulf states, where billions of dollars are spent on indoor skiing facilities, artificial islands to host luxury hotels and water parks, and frolicking in yachts and faux European villas. There is never a dearth of funds for magnificent mosques, but when it comes to alleviating the mass starvation of a people, Muslims are coming up short.

The only head of state or government to have visited Somalia since the famine began is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As if to emphasize the need to show support, he brought along his wife and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Erdogan also demonstrated that instability is no excuse for not aiding Somalis; he presided over the reopening of Turkey's Mogadishu embassy after two decades of its being shuttered. Other Muslim leaders, however, are conspicuous by their absence, ignoring the Quranic command to show charity and compassion to the poor and needy.

Erdogan has also put his money where his mouth is. In contrast with Saudi Arabia ($50 million), Kuwait ($41.4 million), and the United Arab Emirates ($40 million through a recent telethon), Turkey has raised $300 million and secured an additional $350 million in pledges from countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even traditionally generous countries like the United States have been lukewarm in their assistance (about $130 million). This money, and more, needs to be sent without delay, as the United Nations requires $1 billion for the most immediate needs. With seasonal rains approaching, more funds will be needed as aid groups struggle to fight disease in addition to starvation.

Although this Somali woman may ask where the Muslims are, we can ask where the world is. Are we deaf to this mother's cry and blind to her dying child? Despite a steady stream of international media reports reflecting the direness of the situation -- the U.N. estimates that some 750,000 Somalis will face death in the coming months -- the world's response has been woefully inadequate. In the United States, media attention has waned substantially.

The paltry response and lack of interest can partially be explained by Somalia's negative image in the United States and around the world, including in some Muslim countries, as a terrorist- and pirate-infested, anarchic "failed state." Although Somalia has problems with terrorism and piracy, the overall perception is false -- it is ahistorical, apolitical, and acultural. We must not allow it to contribute to the destruction of a people.

The truth is that Somalia is not a "failed state" because in order to be "failed" it must first exist, and a state, as it is popularly conceived, has never existed in Somalia. The world's failure to understand the real sources of power and influence in the country has only contributed to its ongoing misery. In more than 1,000 years of history, the traditionally nomadic and independent Somalis, split into opposing clans and subclans that trace their descent to a common ancestor, have never fully submitted to the writ of central rule for any substantial length of time.

The millions of Somalis who have been absorbed into surrounding countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia due to European colonial policies have similarly proved difficult for their central governments to administer and integrate. Complaining of marginalization and seeking autonomy, Somalis have fought extended insurgent wars in both these countries and today face famine.

And yet Somalia is not a nation of anarchy. Somalis have a sophisticated locally administered system of tribal law called xeer that resembles democracy, in which elders (every adult male, though those with age, charisma, and valor are more influential and respected) collectively decide issues of clan concern according to ancient traditions. Their code of behavior emphasizes honor, hospitality, and revenge.

Although tribes and tribal law may seem quaint and even primitive, tribes are a reality in the Muslim world as are proud nations and provinces named after them -- Saudi Arabia is named after the Al Saud, Afghanistan after the Afghans, Baluchistan after the Baluchis, and Waziristan after the Wazir. Tribes tend to disdain hierarchy, which is why they are so persistent in resisting central rule. They are perhaps the most egalitarian people in the Muslim world today. Somalis, named after their mythological ancestor Samale, are one of the most tribal peoples on Earth. It is precisely for this reason that it has been so difficult to institute top-down rule in the country, as Somalia functions from the bottom up.

This system has remained in place for the last millennium in spite of the vagaries of European imperialism, a nascent but flawed democracy in the 1960s, and Mohamed Siad Barre's military dictatorship. Siad Barre, like others before him, attempted to curb tribal law in favor of a central state, but it imploded due to tribal resistance and the collapse of law and order. Yet tribal law proved resilient, and elders took advantage of the 1991 fall of Siad Barre's government to build a "bottom-up" state in the northern Somaliland region. Today, the area is a comparative oasis of calm, and despite its being more arid and inhospitable, famine conditions are not nearly as severe as they are in the south.

Overlapping with tribal law -- and sometimes opposed to it -- is Islamic law, which has been historically administered in coastal sultanates like Mogadishu but seldom in the interior. The exceptions are times of great crisis and social breakdown, in which religious leaders can consolidate and extend their authority over a large area. This has only happened a few times in history, and it is occurring today with the rule of al-Shabab, a religious group that was radicalized in the chaos following the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation in 2006 and 2007 -- a war conducted in pursuit of just three al Qaeda suspects. In contrast with the area's traditional mystical Sufi Islam and the sophisticated Somali sultans of the past, al-Shabab seems to be implementing the most violent and cruel aspects of its understanding of Islam. Far from uniting the Somali people, the group has now itself become a catalyst for further death and destruction.

Today, Somalia faces an existential crisis. The staggering levels of starvation, destruction, and dislocation have led to social disintegration of immense scale. The glue that held society together -- tribal law and the elders -- has been challenged as never before. The country is being further marginalized by both the Western-backed central government, which has more commonly relied on infamous "warlords" from the Said Barre era, and religious groups like al-Shabab, which condemn tribal law as anti-Islamic. Of the two groups, al-Shabab has proved more adept at negotiating with and gaining the support of elders, but this support can be very shallow. Indeed, al-Shabab has arrested or killed elders who opposed it.

Somalia's human tragedy is exacerbated by its status as a battleground in the war on terror. With the United States constructing what the Washington Post called a "constellation" of drone bases in the region, the conflict will likely escalate. The United States already funds and equips an imported force from other African countries under the banner of the African Union to fight al-Shabab, often through private contractors. Somalia's war-on-terror status complicates famine relief for the plethora of aid agencies working in the country, which are concerned they will run afoul of U.S. anti-terrorism laws by feeding people.

Al-Shabab is of course not blameless. Just as in Pakistan following the earthquake and last year's floods, where some Taliban figures condemned Western aid as an anti-Islamic plot, certain al-Shabab leaders have announced their opposition to and suspicion of such aid. Yet similar opposition in Pakistan did not prevent a massive American and international effort that saved hundreds of thousands of Pakistani lives. The same thing must be done in Somalia.

To deal with such an enormous social crisis, bold action and leadership are needed. The Muslim world must alter its views of Somalia and mount a colossal aid effort, heeding Erdogan's call.

Likewise, the American and international effort must dramatically increase. The United States should announce a moratorium on fighting until the famine is resolved. It needs to include a cessation of drone strikes -- the United States launched a series of such attacks on Somali targets on Sept. 25 -- as well as attacks by the U.S.-backed Somali government and African Union troops. This will build trust among all factions that have a common cause to stave off mass death. It will mean working with both al-Shabab administrators and traditional tribal elders. The Western urge to work exclusively through the central government should be put aside, as more effective authority lies elsewhere, as it always has. If anti-terrorism laws legally restrict U.S. access to any influential party, then non-American aid agencies, the United Nations, the Somali government, the Turks, or the Saudis can work with them instead.

U.S. President Barack Obama should host a fundraiser in the White House with top business and foreign leaders, and he and the first lady should travel to Somalia or at least visit the refugees in Kenya to see the situation for themselves. It is strange that Obama has traveled to Ireland and paid tribute to his distant Irish ancestors but has not returned to the land of his father that is suffering so much.

Somalia's problems are daunting, and they challenge all of the global community. But Muslim countries and international actors -- working closely with Somalis across the spectrum of society -- need to plot a new political course for the nation, which can only happen if there's an unbiased understanding of Somalia and the way this society functions. They can draw on the work and expertise of exasperated scholars who have spent their lifetimes studying Somalia and see the same wrong decisions being made time and time again. (Noted British anthropologist I.M. Lewis, for example, has slammed the West for imposing a top-down government on the independent Somalis instead of "building up a hierarchy of increasingly more inclusive local groups" -- an ill-fated choice he calls "Alice in Wonderland.")

The humanitarian crisis in Somalia is a special test for the Muslim world. While we have heard much talk about the need to come to the aid of the suffering global community of Muslims, or ummah, through jihad, they need to rediscover the more powerful notions of Islamic compassion and mercy. Especially given the tragic compassion fatigue in non-Muslim countries like the United States as far as Somalia is concerned, the Islamic world simply cannot allow this slow-motion death of an entire people to continue. Can Muslim leaders sleep peacefully at night with the words of the Somali woman ringing in their ears?