Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Back from MWC. Heavy cold. Browser queue jammed with stuff. I’m going to do a brief succession of link posts to clear up. (Happenings last week; huge Leveson revelations, James Murdoch out, King Mob abolished workfare, horse, Borisbus fiasco, debate on Daniel Morgan, even more Leveson..)

This one deals with everyone’s favourite global geo-political region, the Middle East. Anthony Shadid died, and Angry Arab thinks the obits weren’t tough enough on the Israelis. Alyssa at ThinkProgress has a list of 20 of his best dispatches and only one covers the Palestinians and tangentially at that. Really?

Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner provides some history of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria and its repression by President Assad’s dad President Assad. Worth noting that by the time the Syrian army began its infamous destruction of Hama in ’82, the struggle had been going on since 1976. Just because the rebels have kept it up so long – which is astonishing and a demonstration of extreme courage – shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are going to win in the end.

Colin Kahl, writing in the Washington Post, points out that the Osirak raid in 1981 didn’t slow down Saddam Hussein’s effort to build the Bomb, in part because it hadn’t really started before the raid. However, the attack convinced him to make a concerted effort, and also caused Iraq to abandon the power reactor-reprocessing-plutonium route in favour of the highly-enriched uranium route, which is much easier to conceal and also to distribute among multiple facilities and which turned out to have a entire black market supply chain.

He also links to this piece on planning considerations for Israel, which highlights their air-to-air refuelling tankers as a key constraint. Kahl also points out that in the event of an Israeli raid, their air force would probably be needed at home immediately afterwards.

The Americans, for what it’s worth, don’t think a strategic decision has been taken to get the Bomb.

Bizarrely, the IAEA inspectors have discovered that the fortified enrichment plant at Fordow in Iran contains 2,000 empty centrifuge cases but not the centrifuges themselves. Is it a bluff of some sort? Is it a decoy target? Is it just a very odd way of going about building an enrichment plant?

Binyamin Netanyahu memorably described as “carrying both Anne Frank and the entire IDF around in his head”, presumably in between the bees in his bonnet and the bats in his belfry. It is argued that he won’t attack Iran because the settlers won’t like it, or possibly that he’s bluffing about Iran to draw attention away from them.

Ultima Ratio is down, but you can read their excellent (French) review of Syed Saleem Shahbaz’s posthumous book Inside Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in the Google cache. Fans of “Kashmir is still the issue” will be interested by the argument that Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri and ex-Pakistani officer Haroon Ashik introduced a new strategy aiming to bring about more conflict between Pakistan and India, in the hope of alienating Pakistani leaders from the alliance with the US. Apparently they were planning something against an Indian nuclear site when Kashmiri was droned in June 2011.

This Afghan news item is telling.

me>Mr. Hasas’ seven-mile road construction project went so awry that his security guards opened fire on some of the very villagers he was trying to woo on behalf of his American funders.

Mr. Hasas was a point man in a $400 million U.S. Agency for International Development campaign to build as much as 1,200 miles of roads in some of the Afghanistan’s most remote and turbulent places.

Three years and nearly $270 million later, less than 100 miles of gravel road have been completed, according to American officials. More than 125 people were killed and 250 others were wounded in insurgent attacks aimed at derailing the project, USAID said. The agency shut down the road-building effort in December..

The project was managed by an NGO, IRD, which managed to set a record for the price of road construction per mile, cause serious political tension, hire its own militia, fire with live ammunition into a protesting crowd, fund an Afghan flower-arranging project, and pay its executives one-quarter of the $269 million funding provided by USAID. Like our own dear A4E, it was mostly a “non-profit” organisation by virtue of considering the money its founders got paid to be salary rather than a dividend.

This is important. As the piece points out further on:

Officials at USAID and IRD say that the Afghanistan Strategic Roads Project wasn’t a roads program in the usual sense. They said building roads was, in many ways, a secondary goal; the main objective was spreading jobs and money to win over rural communities that harbor insurgents.

“As a grant, this was never intended to be a major road construction project,” says Jeff Grieco, a former USAID official who now serves as communications director at IRD. “It was intended to be a capacity building program. We have dramatically improved Afghan capacity to build roads and to do community development work.”

This now sounds like whistling past the flowers, abandoned building materials, and of course the graveyard. However, it was a genuinely important idea – David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla is full of roads, notably in eastern Afghanistan. Armies have always tried to control the landscapes they operate in, and in this case road-building was meant to alter the terrain in several different ways.

Hard surfaces and wide cleared shoulders would make it harder to place (respectively) on-route and off-route IEDs, and easier to find them if they were placed. Better roads would change the economy of mobility, letting Afghan troops and police in light vehicles move around quickly where before, coalition forces had to use helicopters and medium armour the Afghans would never be able to afford.

It was hoped that better transport would lead to economic growth, of course. And the process was meant to be important. Beyond just spending money, it was hoped that the negotiations regarding road projects would be an opportunity for traditional leaders and Afghan officials to demonstrate that they had influence, a way of improving the government side’s mobility in social terms.

All this activity though, was embedded in a wider context – the economy of the Afghan & Iraq wars, a huge and dubiously policed zone of opportunity on the borders of the US government, its contractors, and the NGO world. Fertilised with money, this swamp blossomed all kinds of strange flowers, and in this case, IRD seems to have recapped the Iraq war on a small scale.

Ajab Noor Mangal, a local construction-company owner hired to work on the project, said Mr. Hasas alienated the community by only hiring workers from two of the five local clans.

Afghans excluded from the project looted Mr. Hasas’s construction sites and stripped them bare. At one point, Mr. Hasas said, four men affiliated with the project were kidnapped, killed and dumped in public with a warning note signed by insurgents. The deaths brought construction to a halt. “We couldn’t find a single person to work on the road,” Mr. Hasas recalls.

Under the IRD contract, Mr. Hasas and the other Afghan firms working on their roads were responsible for providing their own security. So Mr. Hasas said he cobbled together nearly 100 gunmen and armed them with rented rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

Things reached a nadir in the fall of 2010, when around 100 angry Afghans, including a small number of suspected insurgents, tried to storm the construction site, according to Messrs. Hasas and Mangal. Mr. Mangal, who was in Kabul at the time, says he ordered the contractor’s gunmen to open fire on the demonstrators, including some armed protesters who he said shot at the security team. Mr. Mangal says he is still paying for the wounded villagers’ medical treatment.

Villagers who took part in the demonstration told a different story. Two men involved in the protest said IRD security sparked a larger confrontation after opening fire on a dozen unarmed men protesting IRD’s refusal to move staff from an office overlooking homes where outsiders could see into private family compounds—a major slight in the conservative culture.

Con “WMD” Coughlin’s piece in the Torygraph is worthy of close reading. You’ll note that this:

Whitehall was caught off guard by the seriousness of the situation in Helmand province, where British troops were deployed in Nato’s reconstruction programme. Most Labour ministers supported the view of John Reid, the defence secretary at the time, that “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot because our mission is to protect the reconstruction”.

Intelligence assessments conducted in southern Afghanistan concluded that they would receive a hostile reception.

isn’t actually sourced to either General Richards, who is the ostensible subject of the piece, or to Sandy Gall’s book mentioned later in it. Also, the piece contains extensive quotes from Richards that turn out to have been dug out of Gall’s book, when a over-rapid look at the piece might give you the impression Coughlin spoke to Richards.

Reid’s remark has gone down in the annals of stupidity, but the notion that “most Labour ministers” agreed with him isn’t sourced to anyone at all. In fact, the policy was repeatedly re-debated and altered, as I blogged here over the winter of 2005-2006, which doesn’t suggest everyone agreed on it. Further, it’s news that “intelligence assessments” accurately forecast what would happen – especially as any assessment carried out before the deployment would have been an assessment of the original plan, not the plan as it was radically altered in the field.

I suspect Coughlin is talking the secret services’ book here, and they are fighting the real enemy – the uniformed services’ Defence Intelligence Staff, which would have been responsible for such an assessment. Further, DIS was notoriously right about Iraq (if you believe Brian Jones’ telling) and this is inexcusable to the spooks (who weren’t) or Coughlin (who wasn’t, and who culpably published their nonsense).

Further, does this quote sound convincing to you? For an American general, he sounds a lot like a British journalist trying to sound tough.

Sir David also recounts a heated argument between Brigadier Ed Butler, the first British commander in Helmand, and an US general who took exception to him. “I nearly punched that damn Limey’s [Butler’s] lights out, he was so arrogant,” the US general said.

Everyone’s linked to Mark Perry (of Conflicts Forum/Alistair Crooke fame)’s piece on Israeli spooks running around Baluchistan posing as the CIA already, but I will too as it’s very interesting indeed. I’m not sure what their bag in this is, other than the notion of “always escalate” and hope to profit from the general confusion.

But what’s really interesting is what the story is doing out there now. Here’s Laura Rozen’s write-up, which introduces the suggestion that they may have represented themselves as being from NATO and notes that a leader of the organisation said as much on Iranian TV before being executed. Meanwhile, the Iranians write to the Americans accusing the CIA of being behind the assassination of another nuclear scientist.

On Twitter, she suggests that the scientist wasn’t killed by the Americans (i.e. presumptively by the Israelis, or by people working for them wittingly or otherwise), and that this was staged specifically to queer the possibility of reviving the Iran-Turkey uranium swap deal. (You do wonder what George F. Kennan would have made of diplomatic tweeting.) Further, we know that a back-channel has been set up.

Disclosing information about the Israeli operation in Baluchistan might be a smart way of establishing trust between the US and Iran. Obviously, information about terrorists running about blowing stuff up and killing people is of value to Iran. Information that it’s the Israelis is obviously congenial to Iran. Crucially, burning an Israeli spy network is costly to the Americans and not something they would do lightly (the Perry piece is a monument to important people trying all they could to do nothing). In that sense, it is a meaningful signal – much more convincing than mere words. Presumably, Perry’s role at Conflicts Forum and with Arafat makes him a convincing postman into the bargain. And third-party spies are just the sort of thing that enemies can bond over. I recall reading about the IRA and the UVF staging a joint investigation to find informers in the early 1970s.

Another dose of speculation – if Baluch rebels were meeting with people who they thought were from NATO, was this plausible because NATO was in fact paying them off to leave the Karachi-Quetta-Kandahar supply route alone?

Is there a drone bubble? It’s not clear whether this is more like the .com bubble, when a lot of useful stuff was built but a couple of years too early, or more like the housing bubble, when a lot of stuff was built in the wrong places to the wrong standards at the wrong prices and will probably never be worth much. It’s the nature of a bubble, of course, that it’s precisely at the top of the bubble that the commitment to it is greatest.

One of the things the RQ-170 incident tells us about is some of the operational limitations of the drones. Typically, they are piloted in the cruise from locations that may be a long way off, using satellite communication links, but when they land, they do so under local control via line-of-sight radio link from their base. This allows us to set some bounds on how much of a problem link latency really is, which will take us circling back to John Robb’s South Korean gamers.

Gamers are famous for being obsessed with ping-times – the measurement of round-trip latency on the Internet – because it’s really, really annoying to see the other guy on your screen, go to zap’em, and get zapped yourself because it took longer for your zap to cross the Internet than theirs. Typically you can expect 40 or so milliseconds nationally, 60-80 inter-continentally…or several hundred if a satellite or an old-school cellular operator with a hierarchical network architecture is involved. A sat hop is always clearly identifiable in traceroute output because latency goes to several hundred ms, and there’s a great RIPE NCC paper on using the variations in latency over a year to identify the satellite’s geosynchronous (rather than geostationary) orbit as the slant-range changes.

On the other hand, roundtrip latency across an airfield circuit a couple of miles wide will be negligible. So we can conclude that tolerable latency for manoeuvring, as opposed to cruising, is very little. Now, check out this post on David Cenciotti’s blog from January 2010. Some of the Israeli air force’s F-15s have received a new communications radio suite specifically for controlling UAVs.

You might now be able to guess why even drone pilots are going through basic flight training. Also, this post of Cenciotti’s describes the causes of six recent hull losses, all of which are classic airmanship accidents – the sort of thing pilot training is designed to teach you to avoid.

That said, why did all those drones get built? The original, 1980s UAV concepts were usually about the fact that there was no pilot and therefore the craft could be treated as expendable, usually in order to gain intelligence on the (presumably) Soviet enemy’s air defences by acting as a ferret aircraft, forcing them to switch on the radars so the drone could identify them. But that’s not what they’ve been doing all these years.

The main reason for using them has been that they are lightweight and have long endurance. This is obviously important from an intelligence gathering perspective, whether you’re thinking of over-watching road convoys or of assassinating suspected terrorists (and there are strong arguments against that, as Joshua Foust points out). In fact, long endurance and good sensors are so important that there are even so-called manned drones – diesel-engined, piloted light aircraft stuffed with sensors, with the special feature that they fly with intelligence specialists aboard and provide a much faster turn-around of information for the army.

Their limitations – restricted manoeuvre, limited speed and payload, and high dependence on communications infrastructure – haven’t really been important because they have been operating in places and against enemies who don’t have an air force or ground-based air defences and don’t have an electronic warfare capability either. Where the enemy have had man-portable SAMs available, as sometimes in Iraq, they have chosen to save them for transport aircraft and the chance of killing Americans, which makes sense if anti-aircraft weapons are scarce (and surely, the fact of their scarcity has to be one of the major unreported news stories of the decade).

But then, the war in Iraq is meant to be over even if the drones are still landing in Kurdistan, and the US may be on its way to a “pre-1990″ military posture in the Gulf. This week’s strategic fashion is “Air-Sea Battle” and the Pacific, and nobody expects anything but the most hostile possible environment in the air and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And the RQ-170 incident is surely a straw in the wind. Also, the Bush wars were fought in an environment of huge airfields in the desert, and the ASB planners expect that the capacity of US bases in Japan and Guam and the decks of aircraft carriers will be their key logistical constraint. (The Russians aren’t betting everything on them either.)

I think, therefore, it’s fair to suggest that a lot of big drones are going to end up in the AMARC stockpile. After the Americans’ last major counter-insurgency, of course, that’s what happened. The low-tech ones are likely to keep proliferating, though, whether as part of the Royal Engineers’ route clearance system or annoying the hell out of Japanese whalers or even playing with lego.

The fact that a majority of this year’s graduates from USAF basic pilot training are assigned to drone squadrons has got quite a bit of play in the blogosphere. Here, via Jamie Kenny, John Robb (who may still be burying money for fear of Obama or may not) argues that the reason they still do an initial flight training course is so that the pilot-heavy USAF hierarchy can maintain its hold on the institution. He instead wants to recruit South Korean gamers, in his usual faintly trendy dad way. Jamie adds the snark and suggests setting up a call centre in Salford.

On the other hand, before Christmas, the Iranians caught an RQ-170 intelligence/reconnaissance drone. Although the RQ-170 is reportedly meant to be at least partly stealthy, numerous reports suggest that the CIA was using it among other things to get live video of suspected nuclear sites. This seems to be a very common use case for drones, which usually have a long endurance in the air and can be risked remaining over the target for hours on end, if the surveillance doesn’t have to be covert.

Obviously, live video means that a radio transmitter has to be active 100% of the time. It’s also been reported that one of the RQ-170′s main sensors is a synthetic-aperture radar. Just as obviously, using radar involves transmitting lots of radio energy.

It is possible to make a radio transmitter less obvious, for example by saving up information and sending it in infrequent bursts, and by making the transmissions as directional as possible, which also requires less power and reduces the zone in which it is possible to detect the transmission. However, the nature of the message governs its form. Live video can’t be burst-transmitted because it wouldn’t be live. Similarly, real-time control signalling for the drone itself has to be instant, although engineering telemetry and the like could be saved and sent later, or only sent on request. And the need to keep a directional antenna pointing precisely at the satellite sets limits on the drone’s manoeuvring. None of this really works for a mapping radar, though, which by definition needs to sweep a radio beam across its field of view.

Even if it was difficult to acquire it on radar, then, it would have been very possible to detect and track the RQ-170 passively, by listening to its radio emissions. And it would have been much easier to get a radar detection with the advantage of knowing where to look.

There has been a lot of speculation about how they then attacked it. The most likely scenario suggests that they jammed the command link, forcing the drone to follow a pre-programmed routine for what to do if the link is lost. It might, for example, be required to circle a given location and wait for instructions, or even to set a course for somewhere near home, hold, and wait for the ground station to acquire them in line-of-sight mode.

Either way, it would use GPS to find its way, and it seems likely that the Iranians broadcast a fake GPS signal for it. Clive “Scary Commenter” Robinson explains how to go about spoofing GPS in some detail in Bruce Schneier’s comments, and points out that the hardware involved is cheap and available.

Although the military version would require you to break the encryption in order to prepare your own GPS signal, it’s possible that the Iranians either jammed it and forced the drone to fall back on the civilian GPS signal, and spoofed that, or else picked up the real signal at the location they wanted to spoof and re-broadcast it somewhere else, an attack known as “meaconing” during the second world war when the RAF Y-Service did it to German radio navigation. We would now call it a replay attack with a fairly small time window. (In fact, it’s still called meaconing.) Because GPS is based on timing, there would be a limit to how far off course they could put it this way without either producing impossible data or messages that failed the crypto validation, but this is a question of degree.

It’s been suggested that Russian hackers have a valid exploit of the RSA cipher, although the credibility of this suggestion is unknown.

The last link is from Charlie Stross, who basically outlined a conceptual GPS-spoofing attack in my old Enetation comments back in 2006, as a way of subverting Alistair Darling’s national road-pricing scheme.

Anyway, whether they cracked the RSA key or forced a roll-back to the cleartext GPS signal or replayed the real GPS signal from somewhere else, I think we can all agree it was a pretty neat trick. But what is the upshot? In the next post, I’m going to have a go at that…

By the mid-2000s the minimal cost-to-serve a mobile phone user had got down to the point where it was worth Roshan’s while to put base stations in places where British soldiers broke down 105mm light guns to carry them piece by piece up a cliff, in order to fire from the hilltop next to the base station and get additional range.

It’s fairly well known that the Taliban weren’t entirely pleased about this, especially when ISAF started publicising their tip-off hotline and people did just that with their new second-hand Nokias. And they started destroying base stations until the operators agreed to shut down for part of the day. An uneasy settlement was arrived at – after all, Talibs use the phone too, and so do their families and friends. Like the old pattern of the insurgent owning the roads during the night and the government during the day, the insurgent owned the 900MHz band during the night and left it to the government during the day.

(However, their control of radio spectrum is purely negative, as if they were to use it themselves, the government could spy on them doing so, direction-find the transmitters, traffic-analyse the network to find out who is important, and sic drones, attack helicopters, or commandos on them. They can intimidate other people out of using it, but they can’t use it themselves without very careful security precautions.)

So I’d like to recommend this really excellent article.

It seems that this shaky modus vivendi has broken down. Not only are the Taliban destroying more sites, they are doing so more thoroughly.

A typical problem for an emerging-market GSM operations engineer is the security of diesel fuel. Some operators in Africa are their countries’ biggest electricity generators. This is fiendishly expensive – not only do you have to buy the diesel, you have to pay people to fill up the tanks on thousands of remote cell sites. And other people will steal it, or even steal the whole generator, which is why some of them are half-way up the tower although that means the structure must be much heavier and stronger and more expensive. Highway robbery is a better payoff than burglary as you get the whole truckload and the truck to move it, so you also have to pay for protection. That might mean protection as in guards, or protection as in racket, and quite often the distinction is far from clear.

This also becomes a typical first world GSM operations engineer’s problem as soon as a big storm knocks over a few hundred towers and outs the electricity, as some bright spark inevitably notices the backup generator running.

Although you can buy solar and wind-powered base stations, there are still a lot of diesel ones out there. Now, if your objection is not merely financial, this means it’s easy to destroy the infrastructure – you force open the valves and set it on fire. Interestingly, though, the Taliban have moved on from just starting a fire to breaking into the equipment cabinet and soaking it with the fuel, then setting that on fire. Thus multiplying the cost of repair and the downtime by an order of magnitude at least.

Alternatively, they sometimes dig a hole and blow the whole thing up with high explosive, wrecking the civil works (budget for quite a bit more including the labour) and demonstrating their aggression to everyone in earshot.

It also looks like they’ve realised that the backhaul links from the base stations to the switching centre are point-to-point microwave ones, and that the network has a hierarchical structure, with multiple base stations linked by microwave radio to a base station controller (or radio network controller in 3G) site which has a microwave link to the switch, and where there may be a variety of other equipment depending on exactly how the network is designed. As all that suggests, this is a crucial node and therefore a target. It is suspected that they have expert advice.

So the operators shut down service, and then the Afghan government and NATO yell at them to turn it back on.

And this is where it gets interesting. NATO has been installing macro-cells – big high power base stations – on its outposts as well as the private, ruggedised femtocells I wrote about with regard to Mr. Werritty. The idea was that if the commercial network was down, the phones would roam onto the backup network. Take that, forces of Islamofascism! But there’s a problem. The commercial operators won’t let the new network be in the list of permitted roaming networks on their SIMs, because they fear that if they shut down and service is still available, the Taliban will blow up even more of their stuff and perhaps start murdering engineers.

The government network could run like an IMSI catcher, masquerading as all four networks to capture their subscribers but forwarding everything – but I get the impression the operators don’t want to interconnect with it, so calls would have to be routed out of the country and back in via the international gateway and it probably won’t work very well.

And as a result, NATO has created the exact opposite of a successful emerging market GSM operator. Rather than cut-down low-power small cells cunningly distributed in the landscape, it’s got big expensive pigeon fryers placed whereever seems safe or rather less unsafe. You’d think the same sort of place would do for a radio station as would do for a fort, but radioplanning is far more complicated than just picking hilltops and often deeply counter-intuitive. Rather than rock-bottom cost-to-serve, it’s thought to be the most expensive phone network in the world per-user.

It’s possible, thinking back to Rory Stewart, that a network designed along the lines of the kind of wireless-mesh broadband system his mates are building for the Penrith area might be more robust against such an attack. The Mexican Zetas seem to think so. Even staying in GSM, the BSC functions can be forward-deployed to the cell sites, and more of the backhaul could be point-to-multipoint rather than point-to-point, and more of the sites could be interlinked, thus getting more redundancy at the expense of worse efficiency. But that would only reduce the number of critical nodes. GSM remains a fundamentally hierarchical network architecture, and some would inevitably be much more important at the system level than others.

And finally, they could still just destroy towers, only with rather less efficiency. Putting more equipment at the cell site might just make it more vulnerable. Also, a problem with mesh networks is that they are more effective the more nodes there are – but the places where we usually want them because other networks are impossible tend to be sparsely populated. It would also make the whole issue personal. Owning the device would make you a target.

In the final analysis, fire remains an effective technology of rebellion.

Eh, Charlie Stross’s blog is a machine for destroying time. Anyway. This post is going to be so wonkish it’s to not come back from.

An occasional theme on this blog has been the intersection between the Bush wars and the mobile phone industry. In fact, looking back, that’s not been so much an occasional theme as more of an obsession, and I’d have written more if I hadn’t been subject to non-compete clauses.

Everyone who reads this blog probably knows that Afghanistan got GSM coverage very quickly after 2001, with Roshan and the Afghan Wireless Communications Company or AWCC in the lead. Things went so fast that for a while there were four operators with licenses and a good half-dozen pirate networks. The explanation of this is pretty simple – in the early 2000s the mobile industry had developed a whole package of technology, business models, methods, and personnel that made it possible to unfurl a GSM network pretty much anywhere and make an absolute killing.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s career is a case in point – who knows how a Royal Thai Police colonel raised the money to come up as the holder of a GSM licence, but he did, and there were consulting engineers and contractors who would build the network and equipment vendors who would supply the parts with 100% vendor finance. Once it was up, it rained money and he was off to the races.

Of course Thailand is nothing like Afghanistan – a solid middle-income, industrialising economy with the kind of institutions that function by corruption rather than failing because of it. By 2001 there weren’t so many plums like that one to pluck and the buccaneers who were first in were beginning to think about cashing out.

On the other hand, the gear kept getting cheaper and the success-stories made it easier and easier to borrow from the World Bank or other friendly local multilateral financial institution, as at this point it looked like about the only development success in 40 years or so. Thanks to people like Mo Ibrahim and the rest at Mobile Systems International, the level of average revenue per user that made it viable to build a GSM network was driven down until now we’re operating below $5/month and there is no country that doesn’t have at least a little bubble of coverage around the capital city.

So that’s why it happened. There was a reliably deployable package of technology and economics and legalities, with a global workforce of Sven-units with frequent flyer points on every-damn-thing, and a set of reliable sources of capital. As well as the Aircom or Ericsson Professional Services guys who would design the network, and the contractors who would recruit the people who dug the foundations on the knolls and warps in the landscape that the radio planners made obscurely significant, there were others who would write the formal licence proposal to fit through the newly established bureaucracy of “regulators” and public procurement systems redesigned to please the IMF and other princes of the Washington consensus. No doubt there were people who specialised in operating the other, informal procurement systems. If you know what I mean. There was a product that sold and that, once sold, became one of the markers of modernity and status. The wheel of capital intensification kept turning, recapitulating the development of the Grand Banks fishery in the 1500s. Or something like what Erik Lund would say.

Of course, there were some problems with the package. Most of all, it structurally favours creating a new operator over extending an existing one’s network, which is why Uganda has six mobile phone networks (and two WiMAX DSL-substitute not-officially-mobile networks) when a lot of people who ought to know think the UK only needs three. The turn-key vendor contract is meant to give you all the bits you need to call yourself an operator; the MFI funding is released when the licence application is accepted; the money starts flowing when the 15% or so of the cells that carry 50% of the traffic are on line. Increasing population coverage is mostly cost, which is why a coverage requirement is typically laid down in the licence.

And that’s why supposedly (and that should be a big “supposedly”) Kabul has better mobile service than Rory Stewart’s constituency. Rory may need to consider what kind of mobile service places that stand in the same relation to Kabul as Penrith does to London get, and we’re going to discuss this (and some other stuff) in the next post.

Thinking about the political castration of Ken Clarke and the fact that not even the Treasury in its most R.G. Hawtrey-esque mood seems to be able to stop the expansion of the prison industry, it struck me that the political class’s attitude towards the public service known as justice is fundamentally different to its attitude to all the others, including defence and policing.

Since the mid-1980s and the rise of the New Public Management – possibly an even more pernicious intellectual phenomenon than New Classical economics – it’s been a universal establishment consensus, shared by all parties, that any public service can be improved by giving bits of it a pseudo-budget to spend in a pseudo-market. Playing at shops is the defining pattern language of post-80s public administration. (This chap wrote at the time that the whole thing was remarkably like the 1960s Kosygin reforms in the Soviet Union, and perhaps we can induce him to post it up on his blog!)

For example, the 1990s Tory government wanted “fundholder” GPs to buy hospital services in an NHS internal market. Now they want to do something similar again, but more, faster, and worse. All sorts of local government services were put through a similar process. Central government agencies were ordered to bill each other for services vital to their operations. The Ministry of Defence was ordered to pay the Treasury 6% a year of the value of all its capital assets, such as the Army’s tank park, reserve stocks of ammunition, uniforms, etc. As a result, the MOD sold as many vehicles as possible and had to buy them back expensively through Urgent Operational Requirements when they had to fight a war. Supposedly, some vehicles were sold off after Kosovo, re-bought for Afghanistan in 2001, sold again, re-bought for Iraq in 2003, sold again, and UORd in a panic in 2006.

(Off topic, if you’re either a reporter hunting a story or a dealer in secondhand military vehicles, watch closely what happens to the fleet acquired under UORs for Afghanistan in the next few months.)

But there is one public service where the internal market is unknown. I refer, of course, to criminal justice. For some reason, it is considered to be normal to let magistrates and judges dispense incarceration, one of the most expensive products of the state, as if it were as free as air. The Ministry of Justice is simply asked to predict-and-provide sufficient prisons, like the Department for Transport used to do with motorways. Like motorways, somehow, however hard the bulldozers and cranes are driven, it never seems to be enough, and the prison system operates in a state of permanent overcrowding. Interestingly, the overcrowding seems to prevent the rehabilitative services from working, thus contributing to the re-offending rate, and ensuring both the expansion of the prison industry and the maintenance of permanent overcrowding.

The new public managers bitch endlessly about “producer interests” – they mean minimum-wage hospital cleaners, but somehow never GPs – but you never hear a peep about our bloated and wasteful criminal justice system. In fact, now that we have private jails, this producer interest is vastly more powerful as it has access to the corporate lobbying system and a profit motive.

Clearly, the problem here is that the gatekeepers to the system – the courts – have no incentive to use taxpayers’ money wisely, as they face neither a budget constraint nor competition. There is a rhyme with the fact that a British Army company commander in Afghanistan has a budget for reconstruction of $4,000 a month, which he must account for meticulously to the Civil Secretariat to the Helmand Task Force, but in each section of ten riflemen under his command, at least one of them can spend $100,000 on destruction at any moment, by firing off a Javelin anti-tank missile, every time he goes outside the wire. As once the thing is fired, he no longer needs to tote the fucker any further, you can see that a lot more is spent on Javelin rounds than reconstruction, and indeed the task force was getting through 254 of them a month at one point.

But it’s not a precise match. The military do, indeed, have to worry about their resources, as do the police. Only the courts can dispense public money without limit.

What if we were to give every magistrates’ court a Single Offender Management Budget, out of which it could buy imprisonment, probation, community service, electronic tagging, etc in an internal market? This would make it obvious to the magistrate how much cheaper non-custodial interventions are than jail. It would force them to resist the temptation to jail everybody out of risk-aversion or political pressure. If a court was to start off the year handing down 16-month sentences for stealing a packet of fags, and end up in queer street by Christmas, well, that will teach them to waste taxpayers’ money.

In fact, we could go further. Foundation courts would be able to borrow, if necessary, to tide themselves over to the end of the year, although of course they would have to make efficiency gains next year to repay it. It would be possible for a foundation court to go bankrupt and close. This, of course, will drive up standards. Perhaps we could even introduce an element of choice, letting defendants choose which jurisdiction they are prosecuted in.

I am, of course, joking. But not entirely.

Did you know ISAF has been carrying out air missions to destroy Taliban radio towers? You do now, thanks to Thomas Wiegold’s blog. Specifically, Task Force Palehorse includes UAE Apache Longbow attack helicopters and American Kiowa Warrior reconnaissance helicopters, plus (according to comments) German ELINT specialists. And they go out and identify Taliban radio networks, and kill them.

There’s much interesting stuff for German-speakers in comments, notably that the technologies include old fashioned VHF, pirate GSM, and possibly other systems as well, that the relays are often solar-powered, and that the Taliban are significant users of IMSI-catchers – fake GSM/UMTS base stations used to monitor mobile phone activity.

So are the Germans, in order to prevent leakage from their own camps. The British have been using ruggedised, highly portable small cells for some time to stop soldiers using the Afghan GSM networks, for fear both of security leaks and also that (as in Iraq) their relatives in the UK might get nasty phone calls.


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