November 30, 2006
A Red Harvest in the "Conflict Ecosystem"
The good news - and, unfortunately, the bad news - is that Iraq is not in a state of civil war in the textbook sense. If it were, our military and political mission would be easier.
In a civil war, you have clearly defined sides struggling for political power, with organized military formations and parallel governments. You know who to kill and who is empowered to negotiate with you. You can pick a side and stick to it.
Unleashed, our military could smash any enemy in an open civil war. Even our diplomats would have trouble preventing an American victory.
But the violence in Iraq comes from overlapping groups of terrorists, militias, insurgents, death squads, gangsters, foreign agents and factionalized government security forces engaging in layers of savage religious, ethnic, political and economic struggles - with an all-too-human lust for revenge spicing the mix.
There is a genuine problem here: The ever-accelerating pace of change since the end of the Cold War has left us with an inadequate vocabulary. Words literally fail us. We don't know what to call things. No military lexicon offers a useful term to describe the situation in Iraq.
Who's the best counterinsurgency theorist you know? I guarantee the best you've never heard of is David Kilcullen, an Australian, currently serving in the US State Department. Kilcullen led Aussie infantry units in East Timor and went on to get a PhD in the history of insurgency in Indonesia. Since the war in Iraq began he's written several articles describing the differences between classical counterinsurgencies and the one we face today. One article, Counterinsurgency Redux, contains this tidbit:
In modern counterinsurgency, the security force must control a complex "conflict ecosystem" -- rather than defeating a single specific insurgent adversary.That's the term that Peters is looking for: conflict ecosystem. Not only does it view things in organic and biological terms, but it allows for multiple actors pursuing multiple goals.
Classical counterinsurgency focuses on securing the population rather than destroying the enemy. But it still fundamentally views the conflict as a binary struggle between one insurgent (or confederation) and one counterinsurgent (or coalition). Modern insurgencies belie this binary approach, since there are often multiple competing insurgent forces fighting each other as well as the government, and the "supported" government's interests may differ in key respects from those of its allies. Hence we might conceive of the environment as a "conflict ecosystem" with multiple competing entities seeking to maximize their survivability and influence. The counterinsurgent's task may no longer be to defeat the insurgent, but rather to impose order (to the degree possible) on an unstable and chaotic environment.
And not only that. Robert Kaplan famously wrote in 1994 of "The Coming Anarchy":
The degree to which Van Creveld's Transformation of War complements Homer-Dixon's work on the environment, Huntington's thoughts on cultural clash, my own realizations in traveling by foot, bus, and bush taxi in more than sixty countries, and America's sobering comeuppances in intractable-culture zones like Haiti and Somalia is startling. The book begins by demolishing the notion that men don't like to fight. "By compelling the senses to focus themselves on the here and now," Van Creveld writes, war "can cause a man to take his leave of them." As anybody who has had experience with Chetniks in Serbia, "technicals" in Somalia, Tontons Macoutes in Haiti, or soldiers in Sierra Leone can tell you, in places where the Western Enlightenment has not penetrated and where there has always been mass poverty, people find liberation in violence. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, I vicariously experienced this phenomenon: worrying about mines and ambushes frees you from worrying about mundane details of daily existence. If my own experience is too subjective, there is a wealth of data showing the sheer frequency of war, especially in the developing world since the Second World War. Physical aggression is a part of being human. Only when people attain a certain economic, educational, and cultural standard is this trait tranquilized. In light of the fact that 95 percent of the earth's population growth will be in the poorest areas of the globe, the question is not whether there will be war (there will be a lot of it) but what kind of war. And who will fight whom?Kaplan's incredible vision, nearly 12 years old, has come to pass. But where he sees an anarchy that betrays attempts to tame it, Kilcullen sees an ecosystem -- and ecosystems merely appear chaotic. In actuality, they are highly ordered, reflecting a sort of emergence that many complex systems display.
[ . . . ]
Also, war-making entities will no longer be restricted to a specific territory. Loose and shadowy organisms such as Islamic terrorist organizations suggest why borders will mean increasingly little and sedimentary layers of tribalistic identity and control will mean more. "From the vantage point of the present, there appears every prospect that religious . . . fanaticisms will play a larger role in the motivation of armed conflict" in the West than at any time "for the last 300 years," Van Creveld writes. This is why analysts like Michael Vlahos are closely monitoring religious cults. Vlahos says, "An ideology that challenges us may not take familiar form, like the old Nazis or Commies. It may not even engage us initially in ways that fit old threat markings." Van Creveld concludes, "Armed conflict will be waged by men on earth, not robots in space. It will have more in common with the struggles of primitive tribes than with large-scale conventional war." While another military historian, John Keegan, in his new book A History of Warfare, draws a more benign portrait of primitive man, it is important to point out that what Van Creveld really means is re-primitivized man: warrior societies operating at a time of unprecedented resource scarcity and planetary overcrowding.
Spengler, the pseudonymous columnist for the Asia Times, once wrote that the best strategy for the US in Iraq would be to adopt the philosophy of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, a nameless private detective, who in the novel Red Harvest, orchestrates a gang war, then sits back to watch. Spengler quotes the Continental Op:
"Plans are all right sometimes ... And sometimes just stirring things up is all right - if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you'll see what you want when it comes to the top."Spengler elaborated:
Americans want their tough guys to have a heart of gold. In the Kurosawa-Leone-Hill adaptations, the Toshiro Mifune-Clint Eastwood-Bruce Willis characters take great risk to aid a lady in distress. Hammett's Op cares neither about lady nor risk. His object is the mutual destruction of the contending parties, which he arranges with humor and enjoyment.And explained:
At one point the Op arranges "a peace conference out of which at least a dozen killings ought to grow ... pretending I was trying to clear away everybody's misunderstandings ... and played them like you'd play trout, and got just as much fun out of it ... I looked at [the police chief] and knew he hadn't a chance in a thousand of living another day because of what I had done to him, and I laughed, and felt warm and happy inside."
Fortunately for the United States, there still exist a few of the genuine article. In the 1920s, Hammett's character worked for the Continental Detective Agency. Today, he might be a contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations.That's the trick isn't it? The US electorate may occasionally be asked to send their sons to die for democracy or their own freedom. But what if the truly necessary acts are simply the inducement of, and thriving upon, chaos? For that it takes a cynic, and cynicism doesn't well rally the public.
Instability is his natural element. He acts unpredictably, even quirkily, to keep the other side off balance and to discover openings. The point is not so much that he despises authority, but rather that it is meaningless to give him orders. The more textbook counterinsurgency fails, the more responsibility will devolve to him. Frustrated military commanders will whisper, "Take care of this for me, and don't tell me how you did it," and let slip this particular dog of war.
All of this is a far cry from the idea pummelled into our minds for nearly four years: the absolute necessity of "a plan" for the war. Yet in a conflict ecosystem, the law of the jungle may well apply instead of the law of the operations order. Perhaps anarchy is our best friend.
Posted by Chester at November 30, 2006 11:39 PM
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Enjoy your thoughts. Keep 'em coming.
Posted by: palladin at December 1, 2006 9:21 AM
I don't know, I fear the CIA (like the country in general) is full of people like Valerie Plame who have no taste for such such stuff. And even if the will were there I doubt the competence is there to pull it off. I mean they all got royally played by Ahmad Chalabi and the Iranians and that oaf, Muqtada al-Sadr has been breathing for entirely too long now.
We'd like to think we're still leading the parade and will listen to anybody that suggests that is still possible. But I think our enemies are content to walk behind our backs, mixed in with the carnival, following our blood trail.
Posted by: ryoushi at December 1, 2006 9:54 AM
Mmmm, not sure about this. The problem with anarchy is that it has a way of biting you in the ass. You cant trump the law of unintended consequences by embracing it, it just cooks up an even bigger surprise to screw you over with.
If more people listened to Van Crevald, we would be in much better shape. In the long run we have no hope of imposing our will on Iraq- but in the short run with a magnificently professional military it is possible to accomplish some things and hope the Iraqis themselves decide to embrace what we are selling. The problem is we've been pissing away time and resources we can never get back. The clock is ticking.
I like the econo system analogy, but i dont like the idea of letting chaos reign in the hope that we can shape it to our benefit. It neutralizes the areas we are strong in and maximizes the areas our enemies (Iran and Syria and AQ) are strong in who are playing the same game against us. We just cant compete with Iran in the game of fermenting chaos in order to gain influence, they are the grand masters.
The lesson we should learn is that with sufficient resources, order can be imposed, at least for a limited time. In fact there have been such periods in Iraq. Just not long enough, and with not enough accomplished. In fact i would argue, the ONLY thing that can combat us untlimately failing our interests in the face of this kind of downward spiral of anarchy is to artificially end it via force. The newly minted thermodynamacists that claim you cant shut down this kind of sectarian hatred are wrong- it has been done time and time again by stronger powers. It doesnt always take or last forever, but its certainly not impossible. People still have interests that can be fed, and a self-destructive war is only really appealing if all other interests are bleak. Thats one reason we cant compete- AQ and Iran have no problem craeting that bleakness with car bombs and suicide vests, we wont do that. We cant win at their game.
Posted by: Mark Buehner at December 1, 2006 10:52 AM
Chester, you are correct. But so are Ryoushi and Mark Buehner.
The West will continue to intervene in the Arab/Islamic world because the West has crucial interests there. But the conflicts in that world will continue to be disorganized and chaotic, as Chester describes.
And it is true that the U.S. currently lacks either the sensibility or the competence to be a smart player in this sort of world, as Ryoushi suggests. And trying to be a player in such chaos will likely lead to unintended consequences, as Mark says.
But what we are sure of is that it will be completely futile for the U.S. to try to impose order in these situations. The U.S. would have more success trying to stop the sun from setting in the evening.
What should the U.S. do? Accept the chaos and attempt to use it against its opponents. In order to accomplish this, the U.S. needs to reorganize its military and para-military capabilities. The U.S. has already established a foreign military advisor academy at Fort Riley. It is attempting to expand its Special Forces. It is requiring more autonomous decision-making from its junior military leaders. It is likely expanding and empowering the CIA's Clandestine Service. These are all necessary tools for playing the chaos game.
The war in Iraq has shown the steep limitations of conventional military operations in the Islamic/chaotic environment. Even traditional COIN theory has hit a barrier.
Practical necessity has created an opening for innovation. More and more policy-makers in the U.S. will now accept the need for this innovation, when they resisted it in the past. It's all a part of adaptation, a concept Mr. Kilcullen would recognize.
Posted by: Westhawk at December 1, 2006 11:42 AM
I am writing a book about a Marine Rifle Company in Iraq. I have posted some of the interviews for the book at www.lima37.com. Any comments?
Posted by: JW at December 1, 2006 1:02 PM
I read Kaplan's article some years back. What's wrong, in a place like Iraq, with the idea of turning off the Internet, the cellphone grids and telecommunications generally, and use the local government to lock out the electronic media ? If the G's want the 14th century, let them have it, and attack their ability to employ 21st century means of communication and mobilization at all.
Posted by: El Jefe Maximo at December 1, 2006 5:40 PM
The U. S. military has been studying chaos theory for quite a while now, using computer models to help understand conflict. Have they learned anything yet? Perhaps.
Van Creveld is a "must read". Even when I disagree with him, he is very thought-provoking, and I always learn from his books and articles.http://www.d-n-i.net/creveld/the_fate_of_the_state.htm
Posted by: Bob at December 1, 2006 7:02 PM
This brief report from the Australian begs the question: If Saudi Arabia might forcefully intervene in Iraq in the future to prevent a Shi’a (particularly Iranian) dominated Iraq, what has the Kingdom been doing to that end since 2003? How much Sunni recalcitrance may be attributed to explicit or implicit Saudi support?
Posted by: allen at December 2, 2006 4:01 PM
All the steps Westhawk describes above are good ones, and need to be taken...but without our POLITICAL willingness and ability to see the world in this manner, all we are accomplishing is to make Titanic sink in a more orderly, efficent and organized fashion. What do we do with the 30 percent plus of our population that, politically speaking, refuses to engage with this sort of world; and alternatively engages in assuming we can enjoy the fruits of being top dog without paying for them, or else things that letting somebody else (or nobody) run the world won't damage us that much.
We can turn out all the net-centric, non-hierarchial strategic corporals we want, who can quote VanCreveld in their sleep, but it won't do us much good if we can't work around the ACLU and other members of the no contract with reality brigade.
Posted by: ElJefeMaximo at December 2, 2006 5:13 PM
Once you unleash criminal (guerilla) warfare - I call it criminal because criminals make the best guerillas - it is hard to get a country back under control.
Guerilla warfare in France was a feature of WW2. France did not have stable governments for 40 years after.
Same thing in Spain after the anti-Napoleon wars. Only that disorder lasted 180 years.
Chaos may be useful for winning wars. It makes post war governance impossible.
Posted by: M. Simon at December 3, 2006 5:19 AM
"Once you unleash criminal (guerilla) warfare - I call it criminal because criminals make the best guerillas - it is hard to get a country back under control."
And this has been the precise strategy of Saddam for countering the US invasion. Remember the release of 80,000 criminals from Iraqi jails?
Al Qaeda are following the Dashiell Hammett strategy of stirring up trouble between parties.
So I don't know why anyone is suggesting these as new approaches that the US should follow, when they are already being used so successfully.
Posted by: Don Cox at December 3, 2006 6:40 AM
I disagree with ryoushi in that I believe that perhaps no group is better prepared to work in and use chaos to its benefit better than the U.S. Some historians credit our victory over the Soviets in the Cold War to the fact that they believed that we "trained in chaos" while they depended on a top down centralized structure. I think that ultimately you will find that the Islamofascists are from a society that knows nothing but a centralized top-down way of living and fighting. Chester's "conflict ecosystem" is a very positive way to analyze the current environment. If we can master this analysis, I believe that we can introduce a level of chaos that they are ill-equipped to combat.
Posted by: noprisoners at December 3, 2006 4:17 PM
New to this site, puzzled at absence of Barnettian references. So, here's one: The "enemy" is not persons, but a condition - disconnected (paraphrasing TPM Barnett). "Shrinking the gap" between connected and disconnected resembles the "chaos theory" comments above, i.e. GWB and Co. 9/11 response laying The Big Bang on the Muslim world has established chaos in the ecosystem --acquiring Sysadmin, ad hoc coalitions of New and Old Core states, and a better informed public opinion may empower the willing to connect, and quarantine the unwilling in some holding pond of the "conflict ecosystem". Some see Kaplan and Barnett as diametric. I see them as dialectic.
Posted by: mike jacobs at December 4, 2006 10:00 AM