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Cry #havoc! And let slip the Tweets of war


If you follow @DoDBuzz on Twitter, you saw some messages a few weeks ago about an interesting facet of the war in Libya: The Navy's famed Battle Yeoman, YN2 H. Lucien Gauthier, III, who Tweets as @surfacesailor, told us about how Libyan rebels were using Twitter to send GPS coordinates to NATO commanders in Europe with suggestions for targets. The Libyan rebels had no easy way to coordinate air strikes with alliance commanders, so they would Tweet en clair the positions of depots, strong points, or other government targets they considered good candidates for destruction. It isn't clear whether NATO ever used these Tweets in developing its air plan, but they may have confirmed information that commanders were generating elsewhere.

Fast-forward to this week, when Twitter again played a new role in warfare, as our colleague Bryant Jordan wrote: ISAF and Taliban Twitter-operators got into a 140-character duel, sparking off a battle for online advantage even as a real one took place simultaneously.

Wrote Jordan:

Maybe it was the numerous references to Americans killed, or calling them "cowards" or "invaders," but someone tweeting on the International Security Assistance Force Twitter page called out a Taliban spokesman -- "spox" -- over something he wrote about the long insurgent attack on the American embassy in Kabul.

"Re: Taliban spox on #Kabul attack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm's way?"

Now it was personal. And you can almost imagine the Tali "spox" -- Abdulqaqhar Balk, who tweets as @ABalkhi -- thinking, "oh, yeah?" According to The Guardian newspaper, which first reported the exchange, Abdulqaqhar Balk fired back across the internet, obviously hoping to show off his abbreviation and texting skills.

"@ISAFmedia i dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n 'harm's way' fr da pst 10 yrs. Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout 'harm's way'"

ISAFmedia took the exchange up a notch, escalating with statistics and a link to a 49-page report provided by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA. "Really, @abalkhi? UNAMA reported 80% of civilians causalities are caused by insurgent (your) activities"

But ABalkhi was having none of that, suggesting the report was just propaganda. "@ISAFmedia UNAMA is an entity of whom? mine or yours?"

And so went the war of the tweets, with ABalkhi even throwing in a "lol" with a tweeted reference to a CNN story quoting the Pentagon as saying the Afghan insurgency is "less effective" this year.

Unlike the battlefield, Twitter is a level playing field -- the Taliban even has access to one of the Web's deadliest weapons: "lol!"

As with any online flame war, this wasn't about these two sides trying to convince each other -- this was about convincing everyone else who might be monitoring their respective accounts. Still, for as novel as this exchange was, it may not have done much actual good:  It's hard to imagine a group of bearded fighters huddled in some mountain village, following this exchange on their cell phones, then throwing down their rifles and saying, "ISAF is right!"

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