Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jabbing a Stick into a Factional Hornet's Nest

Theoretical musings on the implications intervention in a factional dispute by an external power...

To view a political faction as an entity whose nature can be ascertained and labeled and then taken for granted, henceforth a “friend” to be helped or an “enemy” to be defeated, is to misunderstand human political behavior. Factions certainly have natures: indeed, individual members may come and go while a faction’s nature endures; individuals may also have their own natures transformed by the experience of becoming members. Nevertheless, the nature of a faction may also evolve, and the greater the evolutionary pressures imposed by a unstable and threatening environment, the more rapidly it is likely to be forced to evolve. Factions emerge out of a competitive environment via coevolution; i.e., they are all constantly adapting to each other, feeling their way toward better “fitness.” Members may believe they share a set of constant goals, but over time perceptions will shift, accommodations will be made, norms will shift, and the nature of the faction will evolve in response to evolutionary pressure.

The lessons of this perspective that sees factions as adaptive rather than static are critical to dealing effectively with a country characterized by intense factionalism:
  • Factions are primarily concerned with adapting to a new environment that is itself rapidly adapting and therefore almost certainly perplexing even for actors at home in the local culture. (A faction whose primary concern is some pure ideological goal probably won’t last very long.)
  • There may be no theoretical reason why overwhelming force won’t defeat a faction, but the practical problems pose major obstacles - 1)The high probability of having to fight in an urban environment, where military action may well provoke so much civilian hatred that every victory only raises the faction’s recruitment rate; 2) Cultural complexities that will undercut the effectiveness of every move, to the point of tricking an external actor into helping its real enemies and harming its real friends (should there be any); 3) The longer the attack by an outsider continues and the more that attack harms civilians, the more the local faction will be able to wrap itself in the flag. To the degree the faction becomes identified with the population, it becomes impossible to defeat, short of outright genocide.
  • To the degree that a faction constitutes the practical, on-the-ground local government, it will have a degree of legitimacy that will give it far more resilience than it is likely to derive from its military weapons, so it will almost certainly be far stronger than it appears to an outsider. A solidly based faction in a country whose government and society have collapsed will, for the locals, be the only game in town. Frontal attack is the least effective means of eliminating such a faction.
  • Opportunities for influencing the course of events will crop up frequently, but control will be almost impossible: the former because both the environment and all the actors will be constantly experimenting with new tactics; the latter because no one, least of all an external actor, will be able to predict the long-term impact of any change in behavior.
  • Given the inevitable challenge an external actor will face in becoming familiar with a new culture, the risk of being manipulated by self-proclaimed local allies exists;
  • Factions, as adaptive actors, are likely to be radicalized by pressure, not to mention outright attack, a self-fulfilling proposition;
  • All or nothing policies that burn one's bridges (e.g., by cutting all ties with an opponent, refusing to negotiate, labeling the opponent as evil, committing some act of evil of one's own that the opponent can never forgive) are irresponsible gambles because of the impossibility of predicting their effect and, at best, unreasonably expensive ways to achieve one's goal because any number of less expensive methods are likely to be available.

To view a political system as a complex adaptive system composed of interconnected, coevolving factions is to accept the limits of human knowledge and control. The most valuable reward to be derived from such a perspective may simply be the way it deflates hubris.

This perspective also grants one the luxury of patience: since lasting control over anything is so unlikely, one can logically step back a little; today’s defeat may bring tomorrow’s victory. The absurdity of constant motion is revealed.

Third, this perspective invalidates the argument that the ends (e.g., military security, energy security, protection of the faith, democracy) justify the means (e.g., terrorism, state terrorism, collective punishment, war on cities, preventive war). If everything is constantly adapting to everything else, not only will the extremist means necessary to achieve some goal today very possibly no longer be necessary tomorrow, but it is quite likely that one can influence the situation to one's benefit with moderate means - because there are no absolutes. The behavior of actors in a complex system is very easy to influence. Conversely, the ultimate outcome of any nudging is impossible to determine. Both points argue for cautious, incremental nudging rather than extreme, violent, "burn your bridges" approaches.

In sum, the more intense the factional competition and the more fluid the structure and rules of the political system, the greater the pressure to adapt, and, therefore, the greater the opportunity for subtle elicitation of desired behavior rather than the all-or-nothing military attack that, if less than totally successful, will exacerbate the opponent’s hostility.

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