"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


Alex de Waal has a fascinating post on the way technology is making the Darfur war more efficient. Much in the way that the development of the Gatling gun and the development of nuclear weapons completely changed the nature of warfare, new technology is making it easier for commanders in the field to coordinate actions, negotiate, and transfer resources, while simultaneously impeding the ability of those at the top to control what their subordinates do.

In the Darfur case, the culprit is the Thuraya satellite phone:
Desert warfare, as practiced by the Chadians and Darfurians, is based on mobility and surprise. The Landcruiser is the basic unit of military force. The possession of a Thuraya elevates a commander into a potential leader.

Tactical coordination is key to a successful operation. Before the Thuraya phone, guerrilla operations needed tight discipline and extremely careful planning. More often, the commanders gambled on surprise and the momentum of battle, relying on their prowess in combat to carry the day. Today, with the Thuraya phone, commanders in distant theatres can coordinate their actions. Or they can assemble forces from different places at very short order. They only need to agree on that day’s operation—tomorrow’s can be planned tomorrow.

A commander with a handful of Landcruisers and a Thuraya is essentially autonomous at a tactical level. It is possible for commanders who formally belong to different factions to coordinate a joint operation at very short notice. Their superiors can do little about it. And it happens.

Airtime is a precious commodity and can be transmitted from one Thuraya to another. Money can be sent too. Instant communication can be backed up by instant resources. Hierarchical command and control over a dispersed force becomes difficult.

Warfare in these places is also a livelihood and a means for political bargaining. Before telecommunications, political bargains had to be negotiated face to face. And once a bargain was made, say between a tribal leader and a provincial governor, it was difficult for the chief to renegotiate or to seek out another patron. The pace of political renegotiation was slow. The Thuraya has revolutionalized the bargaining process, and allowed the chief, or rebel commander, to conduct several negotiations in parallel. He can monitor the marketplace, weigh up his options, and renegotiate his deals rapidly.
If only the advantages of better communications and coordination could be used for more productive tasks.


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