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.
November 19, 2006
In defense of "Adaptation"
Phil Carter, a well-respected blogger and Captain in the US Army Reserves, recently returned from a year in Iraq, takes issue with my article, "Adaptation" in the Weekly Standard's Daily Standard, in which I argued that through engagement in Iraq, the US military is slowly adapting to fighting irregular warfare. Phil offers several critiques [emphasis in the original], which I'll respond to one at a time:
November 16, 2006
Adaptation: What the US military is learning in Iraq
I've written an article for the Weekly Standard's online edition arguing that the US military is learning in Iraq how to adapt to irregular warfare. Check it out here.