When U.S. Special Forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, Facebook didn’t exist, the iPhone had yet to be invented, and “A.I.” often referred to an NBA star. Seventeen years later, American special operations forces continue to ride horseback in rural Afghanistan, but information technology has advanced rapidly. Recent breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) have captured the popular imagination and prompted sober talk of an impending AI revolution. Yet surprisingly little of that talk has touched on the small wars and insurgencies that have dominated U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century.
The definitive work on emerging technology and insurgency has yet be written, but two recent books offer suggestions for how the era of big data and AI will affect the United States’ modern conflicts. Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict, by Eli Berman, Joseph Felter, and Jacob Shapiro, offers few musings about the future of insurgency, but lays out a compelling theory about the ways in which information shapes insurgent violence. By contrast, Paul Scharre’s excellent new book, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War, offers little in the way of counterinsurgency strategy, but is wholly concerned with how artificial intelligence will reshape armed conflict. Taken together, they begin to sketch out a vision for how AI and big data might alter insurgent dynamics.
The core insight of Small Wars, Big Data is that insurgencies are ultimately competitions over information rather than territory or ideology. Since insurgents can readily blend in with their surrounding populations, regime forces cannot defeat an insurgency unless the local population identifies who and where the insurgents are. The challenge for the state is thus to convince local civilians to provide that information, while the challenge for insurgents is to persuade them not to. In Berman, Felter, and Shapiro’s telling, just about everything that happens in an insurgency—from building schools and hospitals on the one hand, to the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians on the other—can be read as an attempt to coax or intimidate civilians into divulging or withholding what they know.
Small Wars, Big Data is by no means the first to offer that argument. But it is unique in terms of the breadth and depth of the empirical evidence it marshals. From the pioneering research of Stathis Kalyvas in the early 2000s on, political scientists from Lisa Hultman to Laia Balcells have compiled an extraordinary body of empirical workon the “micro-foundations” of insurgent and civil war violence. As leading contributors to that literature themselves, the authors do an admirable job of surveying its findings.