Monday, April 03, 2006

Virtual Baghdad


You could call it SimSurgency.

In “Purdue students map out ‘Virtual Iraq,’” AP’s Caryn Rousseau describes the efforts of Simulex, a West Lafayette, Ind.-based defense contractor, to create a computer model of Baghdad’s neighborhoods. Far beyond a mere map, this simulation will contain an almost absurd amount of detail and may even give the DoD a limited ability to predict future outcomes:

Hypothetical: Department of Defense higher-ups want to infiltrate a certain area of Baghdad with hopes of breaking up a growing insurgent stronghold. But before they do, they’re wondering how the local neighborhood will react. Do they have sympathizers at a nearby bakery? Has the man living in the apartment upstairs been accused of making bombs?

Answers will soon be at their fingertips thanks to a Purdue University assistant professor and her students. They’re researching real day-to-day life details about Baghdad and its residents and inputting those facts into databases to create a kind of war game the military can use to foresee outcomes of possible actions and plan more strategically.

“If you plug in something like – this insurgency group takes over this bank – what are the options for coalition forces?” says Stacy Holden, an assistant professor of history.

The goal is to create the most realistic picture of Baghdad possible using uncompromised sources, she says. And just knowing that a particular city street is working-class Shiite isn’t enough.

“We want to be able to get into the head of the regular Iraqi person in Baghdad,” Holden says. “We don’t want to just stick with looking at what this or that political leader says.”

And are they doing this by going to Baghdad? Actually, they mostly seem to be using the Web thus far. Purdue assistant professor of history Stacy Holden says the program is designed to broaden coalition forces’ options outward from military force:

“The purpose of this simulation is to create a range of choices for coalition forces,” she says. “Things like, we can do more public diplomacy. We can increase food subsidies.”

Holden says she wants her students’ work to help the military understand the nature of urban insurgency – and they want to know everything – down to who’s reading what newspapers and where they live.

“As I go through information about different quarters or neighborhoods, any time I find a description of any resident I mark it down,” she says. “We want to get down even further and say we know, for example, there are three veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who are receiving government pension and one of them lost a leg in that war. Or a lot of people work in mechanic shops there. Whenever we can find an individual who is in a specific place, we want to mark him down.”

And find out what’s important to Baghdad residents, Holden says. “Because maybe ideology isn’t important to him,” she says. “Maybe food supply is important to him. Maybe a new public school in this or that neighborhood is important to him.”

This is focus-grouping and simulating on a grand scale, but it will have to go beyond college students surfing the Web in Indiana. I hope DoD and other federal agencies are feeding useful information to Holden’s group from their eyes and ears on the ground, because a tool like this has a lot of promise—even if I doubt it would have the predictive power advocates might claim.

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