Antifragility: the crack in the Middle East

M.E. black

Three men – 30, 60, and 90 years old – are strolling by their city garden until they are stopped by an upset migrant from Kabul. He curses at them in broken English and asks why “in the hell” they are bombing Afghanistan.

“To stop religious fascists from taking your country,” the 30-year old explains politely.

“To stop Godless communists from taking your country,” the 60 year-old explains politely.

The 90 year-old waves away with his hand and grunts, “It’s what you people get for forcing your way of life on us!”

The absurdity of modern war, as most modern absurdities, is disguised by familiar vocabulary and attitudes. This is as true in national discourse, where fear of non-state actors would have one believe they were nuclear superpowers, as in the academic realm, where IR textbooks use the broad term “war” to describe both the ancient clashes of Greek armies, and a president’s aimless crusade on a formless ideology.

What was “war” in the days of Thucydides? A simple, brutal game: one state pits its people against another until it surrenders or disappears. This was a rule that survived several edits and additions to the gamebook, notably from Karl von Clausewitz in the age of European multipolar conflict. Suddenly, the Soviet Union collapsed, interstate fighting nearly vanished, and a War on Terror replaced its dominance in the public consciousness. Yet, as Mary Kaldor would claim, the theories continued to lag.

In her 1999 “New Wars” theory, Kaldor argued for a need for new policy to address non-state networks, identity politics, population control tactics, and “the war economy” for those who profit from continuing violence. Where she concedes that new wars are not strictly “new” in that they have historical precedent, I believe they are indeed new in their relation to technology, globalisation, US hegemony and Democratic Peace Theory. New wars are a consequence of eroding the state monopoly on violence from above, from the pressures of international law, and from below, due to globalisation enabling the private funding of militias across borders. Whether due to popular revolution, separatism, Jihadism or drug trade, the conflicts all involve the disintegration of a state, rather than “state building” or expanding one into the other. In this way, they differ structurally from traditional or Clausewitzean war.

Therefore old approaches are not only defunct, but dangerous.

This brings us to Nassim Taleb, the risk analyst who famously prepared for the 2008 financial crisis. If Taleb had one word for new wars, I have no doubt it would be “antifragile”.

Fragile systems are not necessarily weak, but are damaged by shocks and stressors. As there is no exact opposite to fragility, Taleb coined antifragility to describe a system that is not necessarily strong, but grows from exposure to shocks and stressors. Kaldor states that “whereas old wars tended to extremes as each side tried to win, new wars tend to spread, persist or recur as each side gains in political or economic ways from violence rather than ‘winning’”. Yet standard realist policy originates from a time when belligerents in traditional state-to-state warfare attacked the enemy as fragile, due to the material nature of states. War against a state involves a clear target (the capital), a set number of soldiers, and visible infrastructure. If a small island changed hands between one empire and the other, the inhabitants would likely carry on with their identities intact, and that would end that phase of the war.

In new wars, however, non-state actors take on an antifragile nature, particularly if decentralized (in which case targets are fluid). Almost by definition, non-state actors are reliant on a powerful identity – elsewise, they cannot have emerged in the first place. Few citizens would take the initiative of challenging their military, unless they fundamentally disagreed with the identity the state has imposed upon them. As it exists in the minds of members, this non-material aspect at the core of insurgencies could only perish if all its members did simultaneously. A state dies when its institutions do; a non-state actor survives long after.

On that note, fragility finds a shining example in the Implosive States of Iraq and the Levant. It is easily forgotten that Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, etc. were never actual states. They were colonial inventions drawn up in London in 1916, with no regard to the ethnic, religious, sectarian, or political affiliations of their people. It would be enough to say that these fragile borders were born from sheer ignorance, and not Machiavellian intent. Yet, as British diplomat Lawrence “of Arabia” wrote of the people he led to battle: “the states [Sharif Hussein] would set up to succeed the Turks would be … harmless to ourselves… If properly handled [the Arabs] would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion”.

This worked.

Skip through a century of instability to the War on Terror. From the 2003 destruction of Iraq came its branch of Al-Qaeda – and from the defeat of Al-Qaeda came ISIL, numerous times stronger, richer, more expansive and more ruthless in their ideological pursuit. Indeed, Al-Qaeda’s motives for the September 11 attacks, America’s impetus for invading Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, are cited as a series of Middle-Eastern involvements. Fueling the conflict on the other side is the military-industrial complex Kaldor criticizes in depth. While a non-interventionist policy regarding Al-Qaeda in 2003 might have made the United States appear weak, it would have avoided the mobilisation of tens of thousands of additional Muslims seeing the invasion of their countries as a personal threat. Even when an alien democratic regime was attempted in Iraq, it became suspect to “Black Swan” events, as fragile states are – i.e. its existence traded short-run stability for long-run catastrophe. To allow Middle-Eastern conflicts to occur internally, subject to organic stresses and (crucially) organic resolutions, may have allowed the region to progress in recent decades rather than regress. In short, Jihadist movements are antifragile to foreign stressors, states are not, and any state concerned with the security of its citizens has that to lose from engaging it in long-range war. If any degree of foreign involvement can prove to end jihadism in all forms, it has yet to be found.

Santayana’s famous aphorism reads, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. This is rarely true. The brunt of history is not karmic, nor is it often beared by those in control. When a vulnerable people are doomed for long stretches of time, as the Irish, the people of Africa, or the Jewish people, it is because their history was in the hands of those with no reason to learn it. Such is the nightmarish lot of everyday civilians in the Middle East: decades of hearing variations on “we have to do something” blared from foreign TV channels, hearing their far-off consequences ascribed to far-off actions, with no interest in far-off opinions nor any pressing reason to learn far-off history. Until these lessons are learned here, they will be doomed to repeat it there, again and again.