February 22, 2008

Text-message Massacres

This week has seen some good reporting on the ongoing unrest in Kenya.

Excellent journalist, bleeding heart liberal, and R2P advocate (who Kip believes actually walks the walk) Nick Kristof writes an excellent article in yesterday's NY Times describing the violence in Kenya.

He claimed that he was Kikuyu as well, but the suspicious mob stripped him naked and noted that he was not circumcised, meaning that he could not be Kikuyu. That’s when his attackers held him down — smashing his arm when he tried to protect himself — and performed the grotesque surgery in the street to loud cheers from a huge throng.

The crowd shouted war cries and was preparing to decapitate Robert with a machete when the police arrived and rescued him. Doctors did some repair work and say he will recover physically, but as he sat in a church shelter for the displaced here in Kisumu in western Kenya, he seethed with hostility that may never heal.


If Mr. Kibaki does not back down, Kenya will completely blow up. Kofi Annan is working heroically to broker a compromise, and a power-sharing agreement is possible in which Mr. Kibaki remains president for a couple of years and Mr. Odinga serves as prime minister.

But so far, Mr. Kibaki hasn’t been willing to make necessary concessions.

“If the talks collapse, there will be an explosion countrywide,” Mr. Odinga said in an interview, adding: “It will be bloodier than before.”

For anyone who has read Jared Diamond's excellent Collapse, you will be aware that among many other problems in Kenya, it is among the most densely populated country's in Africa with population densities approaching those of Rwanda at the time of its genocide.

Two days ago, NPR ran an excellent story on the use of SMS (text messaging) to stir up violence and also to try to stabilize the situation.

Kip believes the US military has been way behind in understanding the power and uses of text messaging. SMS offers the ability to do everything from effective information operations, to paying Iraqi or Afghan police in ways that are more difficult to corrupt (if you're interested in this, look into the CelPay disarmament program in Democratic Republic of Congo), to secure and simple communications between members of a third world army, to tips hotlines where insurgent movement can be reported at little risk to the informant.

In Afghanistan, where police are still paid by officials who steal most of the money on the way (and which is not going to change with the new Focused District Development plans unless Focused District Development is going to include developing the country's banking system) and we are trying to impose difficult radio technology, the commands are missing excellent opportunities. Cell phones can be encrypted with off-the-shelf technology and a smart ID card, and text messages systems designed creatively into a cell phone can allow quick and easy reporting even among an illiterate police and military force. Cell phone coverage extends to far more of the country than the banking system and offers excellent opportunities to allow cell phone payment of soldiers and police; such a system would also allow remittances to family without desertion.

And we are missing excellent opportunities for information operations. Not once while Kip was in Afghanistan did he receive a text message indicating (in any language) where he should call to report insurgent activity or reminding him of all the great things the government was doing for him or reporting terrible things that the insurgents had done.

Taliban, meanwhile, us text messaging to take credit within minutes of attacks and to intimidate local populations.

When the Kenyan government is more adaptive to technological change than ISAF, this is truly cause for concern.