Cognitive limitations that better education could avert are to blame for our difficulty in foreseeing that something like the Islamic State would follow naturally from the thoughtless Mideast policies of the major state actors, both in and outside of the region.
People, including policymakers, tend to have tunnel vision, which is great for spying lurking tigers but disastrous for forecasting tipping points resulting from the chance interaction of multiple causal dynamics, and that is why the explosive force of the ISIS insurgency was a surprise. Several causal dynamics combined this summer to drive the sudden success of ISIS: the steady growth in ISIS military influence in Syria over the previous year, the on-going post-U.S. invasion frustration of marginalized Iraqi Sunnis being discriminated against by Baghdad, and the very complex self-organizing rivalry among jihadi factions.
Three distinct trends happened to intersect this summer: ISIS battlefield success suddenly resonated with relatively secular but very frustrated Iraqi Sunnis at a moment when al-Baghdadi had developed an effective strategy combining rapid military attacks with efficient state building. The result of the chance intersection of these three separate driving forces was a tipping point in Mideast influence away from traditional states toward the ISIS insurgency. It would be hard enough for most people to project three separate lines starting from distinct points and moving at different rates moving toward a tipping point, but to foresee the sudden success of ISIS, one would have had to have in mind a trend line curving up (battlefield success), a steady but already very high line (Sunni anger), and a complex-adaptive self-organizational process of constant experimentation to discover more effective jihadi tactics over the past two decades from Al-Qua’ida to al-Zarqawi to al-Baghdadi. That’s tricky, especially when the steady level of Sunni anger was essentially off everyone’s radar in the West and almost no one in government even thinks in terms of complex systems in the first place.
To spell out just a bit more the technical issues here from a cognitive perspective, this discussion involves both system dynamics and complex-adaptive systems. The former is very familiar – one or more smooth, but not necessarily, straight trendlines (e.g., the exponential growth of bacteria in potato salad at a picnic plus rising temperature as the day warms). The latter–beyond our mathematical comprehension and ignored by most educational curricula—concerns developments so complicated and uncontrolled that they really cannot be visualized or forecast with precision. Thus, the outcome of dozens of jihadi factions all doing their own thing cannot be predicted. What can be predicted is that if such a complex-adaptive process of experimenting endlessly with one tactic after another is allowed to function endlessly, eventually we will all get a nasty surprise. In other words, it was extremely irresponsible of policymakers to walk away from the very well known problem of Baghdad’s political discrimination against Sunnis. It was also very dangerous to sweep under the rug a fourth causal dynamic—the rising tendency of Ankara to look the other way at if not actively sponsor jihadis in Syria with so little thought about what might happen if those “pet jihads” actually succeeded in dethroning Assad. It appears that Ankara and other regimes failed to think through exactly how state-sponsored jihadis might act once in power.
All those causal dynamics–once kicked into gear by tossing around military aid, invading countries without taking responsibility for fixing what one smashes, discriminating against ethnic minorities, cultivating fundamentalist educational systems—don’t just stop functioning because some outside actor stops looking. Chickens come home to roost; forest fires keep burning…unless they run out of fuel. An insurgency fire can also run out of fuel, but to make that happen requires understanding where the insurgency got its fuel in the first place.
System dynamics and complex-adaptive systems are two distinct ways of analyzing complicated phenomena. These methods are normally employed by different researchers and considered alternative ways of representing processes. In reality, however, they merge: there is no reason to expect that in a real situation, an interesting or frightening tipping point in behavior will occur as the result only of 1) the interaction of mathematically expressible smooth curves (i.e., the growth rates, delays, feedback loops of system dynamics) or 2) unanticipated emergent behavior at one level (e.g., group) generated by behavior at another level (e.g., individual) in a system of semi-independent, co-evolving substructures displaying self-organization. Real tipping points, the stuff of history, are created by a very confusing combination of causal dynamics displaying features artificially separated by the methodological disciplines of system dynamics and complex-adaptive systems. Not only are the two hardly ever applied to world affairs, they are hardly ever even considered together in a theoretical context.