Saturday, August 18, 2012

Assam, Sun Tzu, SMS, and the geography of conflict

The economic violence occurring in Assam (due to land disputes), though labelled ethnic (between Bodos and Bengalis, the latter who are also noted as Muslim), and the violence now gripping other urban areas in India where, according to reports, Muslim groups are targeting those who look "Northeastern."  Retaliatory strikes on a group for violence done elsewhere in the country is nothing new, but the geography of conflict is represented in the way these attacks were organized using SMS and MMS messaging services.  Mass text messaging had (has) such an important role in the organizing of riots targeting "northeasterners" in the cities that Delhi announced a 15-day ban on 18 August.

But that's not the end of the story, in addition to this revelation of almost instantaneous transmission of photo- and video-graphic evidence from conflict zones hundreds if not thousands of miles away (a concept which most governmental and military types have trouble grasping), some percentage of the photographs and videos distributed by text were fabricated.  And it seems that some of these "altered"/"morphed" photos and videos were uploaded in Pakistan.

Taken together this is a very dangerous development for internal social stability, particularly in free media societies. Perhaps Indian Muslims are more inclined to read and get news from Pakistani websites, but where does one draw the line between honest mistakes (uploading the wrong photo or typographical errors) and disinformation/propaganda, where does these altered photos and videos fall? It seems that Government of India considers them to be the latter.

I don't know the whole story (obviously) but one question is - are these websites run by or associated with the Government of Pakistan? If so, then the implications are even more significant - it would amount to officially sanctioned information warfare. Even if these websites are run and maintained by concerned citizens with no ties to the government the overall affect of the disinformation is the same in India - riots, killings, and an environment of instability.

Consider: if you enemy is too busy fighting himself, then you probably won't ever have to. And that, dear readers, is Sun Tzu at his finest.

So what does this mean for the geography of conflict? The ongoing Assam 2012 conflict case is instructive.  How do we bound the conflict? Where is it taking place? Certainly not only in Assam, it has now spread to urban areas throughout India. In addition, the number of actors has expanded and the nature of the conflict is even more complex. An economic conflict over land rights continues and now runs alongside urban riots targeting a racial community, basing its information (and its subsequent actions) on disinformation partially coming from an inimical neighbor. The Army is involved in the former, while the police (presumably) are involved in the latter. Then there is the media and political groups confounding the voting public with their own narratives for the conflict, calling it ethnic, religious, or because of immigration.

Thinking more deeply about this case, the basis for conflict seems fundamentally unchanged - there is still the Clausewitizian trinity of goverment, people, military. However, as I just demonstrated we sometimes forget the importance of the interlocking relationship between these three actors during conflicts. Americans forgot the lesson in Vietnam, when an astute enemy remembered and won. Democracies are probably most sensitive to the People portion of the trinity, take the public will in a democracy out of conflict and you win. The U.S. typically separates the military and civil side of conflict (much to its detriment) but as the Assam case clearly shows, you cannot.  The Assam conflict is much more than its roots, which is (again) LAND DISPUTES.

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