Decentralized militant organizations have disadvantages that prevent them from reaching their theoretical potential. Ideally, they are dispersed and still able to coordinate attacks to bring down a nation-state. This does not happen very often.
There are balancing mechanism that are subtle and decentralized that hold these militants in check. The balancing factor? Other decentralized militant organizations.
Decentralized insurgents and terrorists have key advantages:
-Can disperse and evade when attacked
-Ability to attack critical weakpoints in a nation-state economic and political system.
They list goes on, but that covers the major military advantages They have some major downsides.
First, they cannot create an effective economy of scale. Hierarchies are excellent at moving and controlling large masses of men and material. Networks lack this mechanism. Their economy will be smaller and less connected.
Second, they cannot control all members of their own groups because they are decentralized. This leads to factionalism and in-fighting.
Third, they are very vulnerable to attacks by other decentralized militant organizations run by rivals.
The second and third points act as balancing mechanisms. Multiagent game theory helps show why the lack of centralized command is a major disadvantage.
Every individual militant the insurgency has a different preference order. They may value global ideological objectives, local political objectives, economic objectives, or may just be psychopaths. If we take 1,000 agents and list their orders of preferences and expected utilities, we will almost never see a single unitary course of action. This is a very difficult coordination game. The chances of thousands of different actors, acting autonomously, completely coordinating their actions is mathematically improbable.
Hierachies simplify the coordination game through command and control. Every member of the hierarchy obeys the leader clearly – several leaders can more easily coordinate. 3 Agents can look at their expected utilities in a coordination game, negotiate, and act in sync.
A mass of multiple agents cannot coordinate in high-stakes games where there is low-trust – even if they are ideologues. They will fight over money and resources, over goals and objectives, over when to attack and when to run. As time goes on, coordination breaks down.
This leads to internal friction. Tribes, criminal gangs, radical true believers, nationalists, and reluctant soldiers do not get along in the first place. As time goes on, each agent or small group has a different critical point where they defect from the insurgency.
There are also other rivals in the game. Decentralized militants threaten all of society, so vigilante groups form to retaliate.
In Colombia, the Medellin cartel led by Pablo Escobar destabalized the Colombian Government, but was also harming other organizations like the communists and the Cali Cartel. “Victims” of the Medellin Cartel formed a decentralized organization called Los Pepes. Los Pepes assassinated, terrorized, and destroyed the Medellin Cartel.
Today in Mexico, the “Drug” war also has a strange balancing mechanism. The two major drug cartels once waged war against each other. They created paramilitary organizations that over time became independent. Significantly, the cartels declared a ceasefire and turned on the rogue paramilitaries. The so-called “New Bloods” are a new Gulf Paramilitary group created to fight the Zetas – the old group. The Sinaloan Cartel sent out its paramilitary squads, La Gente Nueva, to attack Los Zetas. The Mexican Military is just attacking everyone. The rise of the Zetas caused a panic by all other players, so they have
In Iraq, the friction between domestic and foreign insurgents reached critical mass in the fall of 2006. Since then, Sunni tribes and nationalists attacked the foreign insurgents led by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Anbari Tribes and the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades are now waging their own decentralized war against AQI.
The same dynamic is appearing in Palestine as Hamas and Fatah fight their Civil War. In Thailand, Buddhists gave up on the government and have formed vigilante squads to engage in tit-for-tat retalitation against Islamist terrorists.
As a decentralized organization grows more powerful, rival groups form and tear it back down to size. This was the fate of the Madellin Cartel, Los Zetas, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The key to winning a decentralized war is to let other decentralized militants destroy each other.