Friday, November 23, 2007

Open Source Chaos

In addition to a wave of Stateside optimism, the Anbar Awakening in Iraq has also given rise to a gathering new meme about how to address counterinsurgency, the War on Terror, and the challenges facing failed states in a globalized world. According to this new line of thinking, exemplified by this John Robb post and this Robert Kaplan essay, nation-building -- characterized by establishing democratic institutions and top-down political reconciliation -- doesn't work, especially in quasi-autonomous tribal societies like Anbar province in Iraq and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.

According to Robb, "Politics and populations in our new global environment fragment faster than they can be assembled into cohesive entities." Robb's answer to "temporary autonomous zones and open-source insurgency"? What he calls "open source militias": Spontaneous, local militia movements that arise in reaction to the inevitable excesses of the initial insurgencies. These militias we do little to shape, supporting them only once they've taken form.

Kaplan limits his argument to the Iraq and Pakistan theatres, but it's easy to see how easily it might be generalized to apply to any location where kinship bonds trump national identity and local tribal loyalties take precedence over allegiance to a distant central government. In such areas, pragmatic opportunism dictates that we align counterinsurgency efforts with local tribal power structures, regardless of the implications for a broader democratizing agenda. For Kaplan, "Progress...means erecting not a parliamentary system, but a balance of fear among tribes and sectarian groups."

Now I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong here, although it's ironic that Kaplan uses a principle of progressive social science (cultural relativism) to justify a principle of reactionary colonial rule (divide and conquer). But what's significant about their approach, which is sure to gain traction, is that it represents a sort of glum, post-9/11 pessimistic version of the euphoric, post-Cold War optimism that heralded the end of the nation-state and the coming of a harmonic global order. In Robb and Kaplan's vision, instead of being surpassed through supra-national agglomeration or reconfigured on the molecular level through direct NGO action, the state has been effectively put out of reach through a process of controlled atomization. Here's Robb:

The use of a plethora of militias to fight a global open source insurgency from Nigeria to Mexico to Iraq to Pakistan is effective within a grand strategy of delay (it holds disorder at bay while allowing globalization to work). Most beneficially, it eliminates the need for nation-building, massive conventional troop deployments, and other forms of excess.

That's about it in a nutshell: a grand strategy of delay. Needless to say, Robb's oblique reference to "allowing globalization to work" is the key to understanding the argument.

As I said, I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong. To begin with, there are areas in the world where the writ of the national government is a legal fiction. Beyond that, their vision corresponds to the practical necessities of American foreign policy in its current interventionist formulation. But it's important to remember that the two counterinsurgency wars we're currently fighting, in Iraq and in Afghanistan/Pakistan, are wars that we created. In Iraq, as a direct consequence of removing a non-democratic but functioning state, and in Afghanistan/Pakistan as an indirect consequence of our Soviet-era Afghanistan policy, which instigated the very sort of contained chaos that gave rise to Al Qaeda and which both Robb and Kaplan now suggest we try to manage. (To his credit, Robb does raise the caveat of whether we'll be able to manage "something this complex or this messy".)

As importantly, local populations delivered up to globalization are very often exploited like just another raw commodity. In the absence of nation states to defend their interests, that's how globalization "works". Which is why I'd argue for a middle ground between euphoric post-nation state utopianism and Machiavellian failed nation state pragmatism, one that defends the centrality of the nation state, reinforces its effectiveness, equips it to provide the basic needs and services for its constituents, and encourages it (as much as is reasonably possible) to respond to their grievances and reflect their aspirations.

All of these interventions take enormous effort, strong and effective mult-lateral institutions, and time -- in short, the "forms of excess" that Robb seeks to avoid. But in the long run, they offer a better chance for building a sustainable international order, capable of dealing with the existential, strategic and ethical challenges we have no choice but to overcome if we as a species are to survive.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   Iraq   Pakistan   

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