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The Taliban, not the West, won Afghanistan’s technological war

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The Taliban, not the West, won Afghanistan’s technological war


For the coalition, things were quite different. Western forces did have access to a wide range of world-class technology, from space-based surveillance to remotely operated systems like robots and drones. But for them, the war in Afghanistan was not a war of survival; it was a war of choice. And because of this, much of the technology was aimed at reducing the risk of casualties rather than achieving outright victory. Western forces invested heavily in weapons that could remove soldiers from harm’s way—air power, drones—or technology that could speed up the delivery of immediate medical treatment. Things that keep the enemy at arm’s length or protect soldiers from harm, such as gunships, body armor, and roadside-bomb detection, have been the focus for the West.

The West’s overarching military priority has been elsewhere: in the battle between greater powers. Technologically, that means investing in hypersonic missiles to match those of China or Russia, for instance, or in military artificial intelligence to try outwitting them.

Technology is not a driver of conflict, nor a guarantor of victory. Instead, it is an enabler.

The Afghan government, caught between these two worlds, ended up having more in common with the Taliban than the coalition. This was not a war of choice but a fundamental threat. Yet the government couldn’t progress the same way the Taliban did; its development was hobbled by the fact that foreign militaries provided the main technologically advanced forces. While the Afghan army and police have certainly provided bodies to the fight (with many lives lost in the process), they have not been in a position to create or even operate advanced systems on their own. Western nations were reluctant to equip Afghans with cutting-edge weapons, fearing that they would not be maintained or might even end up in the hands of the Taliban.  

Take the Afghan air force. It was provided with, and trained on, fewer than two dozen propeller aircraft. This enabled a modicum of close air support, but it was far from cutting edge. And working with the US meant that Afghanistan was not free to look elsewhere for technology transfer; it was, in effect, stuck in a stunted phase of development.

So what does this tell us? It says technology is not a driver of conflict, nor a guarantor of victory. Instead, it is an enabler. And even rudimentary weapons can carry the day in the hands of motivated, patient humans who are prepared—and able—to make whatever progress is required.

It also tells us that the battlefields of tomorrow might look a lot like Afghanistan: we will see fewer purely technological conflicts that are won by the military with the greatest firepower, and more old and new technologies fielded side by side. It already looks that way in conflicts such as the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the pattern is one we may see more over time. Technology may not win wars anymore, but innovation can—particularly if one side is fighting an existential battle.

Christopher Ankersen is clinical associate professor of global affairs at New York University. He served in the United Nations across Europe and Asia from 2005 to 2017 and with the Canadian Armed Forces from 1988 to 2000. The author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Civil Military Cooperation and The Future of Global Affairs, he holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mike Martin is a Pushtu-speaking former British army officer who served multiple tours in Afghanistan as a political officer, advising British generals on their approach to the war. He is now a visiting war studies fellow at King’s College London and the author of An Intimate War, which charts the war in the south of Afghanistan since 1978. He holds a PhD from King’s College London.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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