Saturday, December 20, 2008

Complexity Theory & Conflict on the Pakistan-Afghan Border

EXCERPT: The conflict in Tribal Pakistan between the West and radical Islam is characterized above all by confusion and misperception. Complexity theory offers an array of concepts that can call attention to critical questions that must be asked if we are to find our way out of this dangerously intensifying crisis.

TEXT: The conflict in the Pakistani-Afghan border region seems characterized above all by misunderstanding of reality. One key to understanding is asking the right questions. Confusion about what actions to take to achieve national goals is rampant; the effects of actions taken are appalling; the outcomes of policies repeatedly prove harmful to the very actor who adopted the policy. It is evident that mankind needs to view global affairs in a new way, to ask deeper questions in hopes of opening doors to obtaining more helpful answers.

Complexity theory offers a rich array of concepts that can help us ask deeper questions. Taken together, these concepts argue for viewing world politics increasingly as a group of tightly bound actors evolving together, characterized more by context than their innate nature, vulnerable to surprise from new groups whose members decide independently to organize themselves in new ways and for new purposes. These concepts argue further for assuming that substantive consequences can arise, sometimes rapidly, from initially minor conditions and that organizations and countries will have a dangerous tendency to push themselves to limits beyond which catastrophe is almost unavoidable.

The resultant picture of the 21st century world of high technology, instant communication, dense international connectivity at all levels of society, and universal education is one of a political world not only constantly evolving but evolving more rapidly, where actors can change course abruptly, policies that worked can suddenly fail, and success will go to the nimble. To understand the political world now coming into being, we need to learn how to use these new analytical tools from complexity theory (interdependence of parts, criticality, adaptation, co-evolution, self-organization, nonlinearity, criticality, and emergence). This post will launch a new series considering how various concepts from complexity theory apply to the conflict currently under way in the region comprising the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that may for simplicity be referred to as “Tribal Pakistan.”

Interdependence of Parts. When pushed, we may all recognize that everything has at least some influence in world affairs on everything else, but typically most people assume their own country has a fixed nature independent of the rest of the world. Most people also all too easily slip into the assumption that all parts of a foreign country share a set of defining characteristics. Complexity theory’s concept of interdependent parts sets a different baseline: unless you happen to have specific evidence to the contrary for a given case, assume all components in a class are the same.

Interdependence in the Tribal Pakistan Conflict System
Taking the high-level perspective, consider the complex system to be defined as encompassing all actors involved in the socio-political system of Tribal Pakistan, i.e., including al Qua’ida, Western military forces, India. Interdependence tells us that all components will change as a result of their involvement. This raises questions some may find troubling, e.g., not just how will the military confrontation between al Qua’ida and Washington change Tribal Pakistani society but how will American pursuit of military victory in Tribal Pakistan change America?

Co-evolution. The conventional perspective denies that "we" can be influenced by the enemy. The complexity perspective sees actors adapting to respond not only to others but to their perceptions of how others will adapt.

Co-evolution in the Tribal Pakistan Conflict System
Co-evolution differs slightly from “interdependence” in that it emphasizes not just the linkage among components but the potential for joint evolution in a particular direction. Without involvement in a war against Islamic radicals in Tribal Pakistan, the U.S. might evolve, say, toward improved middle-class democracy, while Tribal Pakistan might evolve toward greater integration with the rest of Pakistan or perhaps remain in stasis, unaffected by the outside world.

With such involvement, on the other hand, the two may form a new two-body system with its own “gravitational momentum” that propels the two in some new direction, e.g., mutually antagonistic religious fundamentalism plus rising acceptance of a new social norm that approves of increasingly unrestrained violence against enemies. In other words, a vicious cycle will be generated in which violence by A may provoke violence by B, and therefore further violence by A, with both societies ending up reaching some psychological, cultural position that neither intended or, in the beginning, would have considered morally acceptable.

The co-evolution may alter the nature of each side; it may also alter the perception each side has of the other. One result of a subtle co-evolutionary process (almost a redundancy since I would suggest that any co-evolutionary social dynamic is highly likely to be a very subtle process) that alters mutual perceptions is the creation of a Twilight Zone conflict in which each side perceives itself to be battling against a monstrous enemy that in reality does not exist. The fact that the enemy is not as perceived of course in no way minimizes the expense of fighting; it just makes the fight pointless. This is obviously an unfortunate situation: innocents or neutrals are killed in the mistaken perception that they are dangerous enemies. As they are killed, their deaths--perceived as useful--are counted as achievements when they are in fact just more gasoline poured on the flames.

To summarize this point, two dangers exist. First, the two sides may in fact be unaware that they are truly themselves turning into dangerous monsters that must be slain as the result of the conflict itself, not due to any fault in their original nature. Second, the two sides may mistakenly perceive each other to be so evolving. The fiercer the combat, the harder it is to stop and take an honest look at the situation--at the nature of the enemy, at the causes for the enemy’s nature, and at the behavior of oneself.

In each society there will no doubt be certain actors who consider such an evolution highly desirable: al Qua’ida hoping to gain political ground for one, some members of Western military-industrial complexes hoping to profit economically from the chaos for another. Broader society should think carefully about the fact that complexity theory predicts the danger of such an unintended co-evolution into new territory, consider which actors on each side benefit from it, and ask if such a co-evolutionary path is a price worth paying.

Many questions that need to be asked about the conflict flow from the above theoretical discussion:

  • Is the conflict creating a new society that the world may find much more problematic than the current one? A simple answer would be, “Yes – Tribal Pakistan is becoming fractured, deprived, and radicalized.” That is an assumption on my part. How might we test this assumption? Would a series of polls of the political attitudes of the some 400,000 refugees from the fighting in Bajaur be a worthwhile investment?
  • Might some change in tactics positively impact such an evolutionary process? Would a massive aid program to ensure that those refugees have warm tents before the already on-coming winter save the world from a new flow of recruits for al Qua’ida next summer?
  • Are these questions so sophisticated that decision makers simply cannot understand them or do decision makers know perfectly well that their military approach to conflict “resolution” provokes chaos and are them perhaps using those tactics intentionally, in pursuit of some hidden agenda (e.g., the extension of military bases to control international oil routes)?
  • Are the youth of Tribal Pakistan joining extremist groups because al Qua’ida propagandists and the rain of Predator missiles is convincing them that Washington is some sort of non-existent monster? If so, how might Washington convince them of their mistake?
  • Is Washington battling a mythical enemy with its relentless insistence on calling all opponents in Tribal Pakistan “the Taliban” as though all were part of a single organization composed of uniform individuals? There is plenty of evidence that the group of people willing to take up arms against Western or Pakistani forces contains a wide variety of groups, from those true monsters who throw acid in the faces of young girls to unemployed men who have no source of income but robbing military convoys. Might it be beneficial to make such distinctions? In the field, exactly how might one do this? NATO is already paying protection money to “the Taliban,” according to press reports. That is certainly one answer. Are there better answers?

Complexity theory does not provide answers; it does, however, offer a rich framework for identifying critical questions that otherwise can all too easily be overlooked. Watch for further posts on additional concepts from complexity theory that address aspects of the conflict in Tribal Pakistan that desperately cry for attention.

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