February 11, 2008

Markets of COIN

Effective human intelligence is the cornerstone of effective counterinsurgency. The Army and Marine Corps have dealt with the need for effective human intelligence by declaring "every soldier and Marine a sensor" and pretty much leaving it at that. The best units have developed somewhat effective debriefs and tactical human intelligence teams, short in number, have been pushed down from the echelons above reality that they resided up until 2005 or so. That said, there still remains little reward (except, perhaps, survival, which is admittedly a big reward but one who's fruits are difficult to appreciate in that day-to-day slog) for garnering effective intelligence.

Another foundation of effective COIN is that local leaders need to be empowered. That means pushing assets and control down to the lowest level. Among widely dispersed forces, particularly in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, company commanders, platoon leaders, and even squad leaders often have the best grasp of what will work and fail in their areas of operation.

As the presidential election field narrows in the coming months and the congressional contest heats up, expect to hear much on the power of markets as predictors (for instance here and here). In major corporations, prediction markets have been introduced as ways to garner the collective knowledge of workers to understand whether sales will go up or down or whether projects will be finished on time.

While DARPA's innovative idea for a counterterrorism futures market was shot down by some unimaginitive congresspersons (admittedly, great ideas aren't always great politics), such a futures market would have great value in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, even if only accessible over secure networks. Allowing soldiers to bet on events and mission success and rewarding good prections, preferably monetarily, would allow commanders to identify likely success or failure in advance as well as identifying and rewarding the most effective prognosticators. Soldiers could also ideally propose future sales on events they feel important that the command might not otherwise recognize.

Ideally, such a market would be open not only to the military but also to the State Department and other players, particularly Coalition soldiers and international contributors in Afghanistan. Truly innovative would be to open up the market to select academics, reporters, non-governmental actors and others so as to incorporate as wide a view as possible.

At the end of the day, such a market seems a relatively low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff opportunity, especially as DARPA must have done much of the foundational work. Such a market might also help overcome some of that natural stovepiping that occurs between the different executive agencies, e.g., State, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.

It would be great to see the government give it a try.