The Meaning of Colonialism

Just for the record, when an imperial state needs to use its regular armed forces to keep the peace in a colony, its colonial adventure is in real trouble. That is not how colonialism works. The idea is for the army to conquer and as quickly as possible turn the colony over to a lackey regime, which will maintain domestic peace with its police force on behalf of the imperial ruler. Imperial troops mostly leave the colony altogether! And the rest (this is a secret), return to their barracks and stay out of sight (that’s the secret part, as in ‘they secrete themselves away out of sight). An alternative approach is for the imperial power to recruit locals into its army and post them, with imperial officers, to maintain local control. Still another approach is to put a minority in control, since, being the minority, it will be totally dependent on the imperial power to maintain its authority.

Perhaps the above was unclear. Let me make the case in different words: the movement of imperial forces off the streets of the colony has nothing to do with returning sovereignty. On the contrary. It is precisely about institutionalizing the colonial adventure.

The last thing a great global imperial power can afford is to have its army mucking around fighting battles against its colonial subjects. Battles can be fought – but by mercenaries, not by the imperial forces. The imperial forces will inevitably be needed for new wars (e.g., against still independent countries on the borders of the colony).

The withdrawal of imperial troops from conquered cities to distant rural outposts of a colony constitutes a critical victory for the empire and a defeat for the colonial people, who will lose their target without gaining their freedom.

Of course, the above is just the theoretical musings of a political scientist. You figure out whether or not it bears any relationship whatsoever to any real-world events!


Manufacturing an Islamic Political Fault Line

H. Nayyar and Zia Mian begin their highly useful essay “Pakistan and the Islamist Challenge” on the Foreign Policy in Focus website with the pointed words:

Ten years ago, the political thinker and activist Eqbal Ahmad wrote that “conditions for revolutionary violence have been gathering in Pakistan since the start in 1980 of the internationally sponsored Jihad in Afghanistan.” He argued that “revolutionary violence in Pakistan is likely to be employed by religious and right-wing organizations which have not set theoretical or practical limits on their use of violence.” He then warned that Pakistan “is moving perilously toward a critical zone from where it will take the state and society generations to return to a semblance of normal existence. When such a critical point of hard return is reached, the viability of statehood depends more on external than internal factors.”

Their conclusion does not suggest that either Pakistan or the West has learned much in the horrible decade since Eqbal Ahmad made the above-quoted remarks:

Put simply, to effectively meet the Islamist challenge, the Pakistani state must finally accept and fully exercise its responsibility to maintain peace, provide justice, foster democracy and participation, and make available in an equitable manner the resources necessary for economic and social development.

Pakistan’s neighbors and the world will need to help rather than compound the problem. The threat of use of military force by India, yet more U.S. missile attacks or commando raids into Pakistan’s tribal areas, and deepening or widening the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as U.S. military leaders and President-elect Obama have proposed, will only make things worse.

Whichever organizations Ahmad had in mind a decade ago in his reference to “religious and right-wing organizations which have not set theoretical or practical limits on their use of violence,” he got it right, and it is important, if we are ever to start going down the road to resolving the crisis laid out so concisely in the conclusion of the Nayyar-Mian article, to understand that those words are not at all synonymous and to understand that the operative words concern the limits they set on the use of violence. So-called “left-wing” organizations (remember when they existed?) sometimes used to have the same addiction to violence, and it was no less bad for being left-wing.

The real import of this valuable article, however, lies not in its review of conditions in Pakistan, though that, given the ill-considered plans of the Obama Administration, more than suffices to make it an important piece for all U.S. decision-makers to read. The real import of the article is that both its introductory quote of Eqbal Ahmad and its concluding recommendations for resolving a problem that has only gotten steadily worse since Ahmad’s remarks a decade ago apply not just to Pakistan but to the whole Western confrontation with Islam.

Can a better statement of how to resolve the Gaza problem be written than:

Put simply, to effectively meet the Islamist challenge IN GAZA, THE ISRAELI [changed by WM] state must finally accept and fully exercise its responsibility to maintain peace, provide justice, foster democracy and participation, and make available in an equitable manner the resources necessary for economic and social development?

And what about Iraq and Somalia? Consider:

Put simply, to effectively meet the Islamist challenge IN IRAQ AND SOMALIA, THE AMERICAN [changed by WM] state must finally accept and fully exercise its responsibility to maintain peace, provide justice, foster democracy and participation, and make available in an equitable manner the resources necessary for economic and social development.

Madam Secretary of State, if you are confused about Somalia, you could start by reading the above sentence.

The comment also applies to others:

Put simply, to effectively meet the Islamist challenge IN KASHMIR, THE INDIAN [changed by WM] state must finally accept and fully exercise its responsibility to maintain peace, provide justice, foster democracy and participation, and make available in an equitable manner the resources necessary for economic and social development.

The following remarks I made in 2007 about an emerging Islamic political fault line are unfortunately even more true today, despite the departure of the Bush Administration, decline in Iraqi conflict, relative quiescence of bin Laden, and retreat of America’s Ethiopian proxy army from Somalia.

An Islamic political fault line is forming from Bangladesh to Somalia. If a unified upheaval does in fact erupt from one end of this region to the other simultaneously, it will present a far more serious threat to the global political system than anything we have seen since the end of the Cold War. Those who dream of a clash of civilizations could, in that case, get what they want.

The threat to the global political system is two-fold: first, instability per se, which will generate all manner of suffering for those immediately involved and financial harm to people everywhere; second, undermining of civil liberties and good governance everywhere, both in regions of violence and even in those Western countries that may be fortunate enough to escape violence within their territory. Populations will panic, governments will overreact, politicians will exploit the fear to gain personal power, and democracy everywhere will fall under attack.

The vicious little invasion of Gaza only underscores the general point. It may well be that certain individuals understand all this perfectly well and are delighted that they have, by refusing to “maintain peace, provide justice, foster democracy,” caused a level of chaos that they find profitable. Whether, in any specific case, that is true or not, it remains the case that for those of us who do not seek profit from chaos, an understanding of the causal link between social conditions and violence is the first step toward a solution. General recognition of this linkage in the West could very quickly cut the ground out from under bin Laden and all the other advocates of violence.

South Asian Marshall Plan

EXCERPT: A “South Asian Marshall Plan” would be a more reliable route to security for both the West and the South Asian region than the current approach of endless war. The current attempt to defeat terrorists through violence plays into the terrorists’ hands, costs a great deal, and fails to address the issues that generate the violence in the first place.

NOTE: Thanks to Media With Conscience for publishing the original version of this essay.

TEXT: Although thinking Americans always found the trickle-down theory of wealth (let the rich get richer and enough will trickle down to satisfy the “lower classes”) highly insulting and detrimental to American democracy, the U.S. and the rest of the West have long practiced trickle-down toward the developing world. The revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the spread of civil war in tribal Pakistan, and the “canary-in-the-mine” terrorist attack against anyone and everyone within range in Mumbai (not to mention the disastrous rise in the price of grain) together suggest that perhaps conditions are now getting so bad in South Asia that it is time for the West to accept that it must replace the convenient concept of letting drips of Western wealth trickle down to the “developing” (or, today, in some cases—thanks to Western behavior–“declining”) world with a policy of helping them catch up.

Such a “Manhattan Project for the Poor” or “South Asian Marshall Plan” policy of self-discipline and generosity on the part of the West could of course be phrased in moral terms, but my argument rests on security.

The West today is spending enormous sums to defend its interests in South Asia. The Afghan War has cost the U.S. an estimated $184 billion. NATO allies are spending additional billions, with Canada alone having already spent an estimated $18 billion. The conflict is costing Pakistan itself $6 billion per year—this for a country whose inability to fund government services for its poverty-stricken border regions is one of the primary causes of the war in the first place. According to a Pakistani Ministry of Finance official, “the loss of lives and economic cost imposed by the war is now rising to an unbearable level.” With both the Taliban and Washington intent on expanding the conflict, the costs can only go up. Indeed, British costs are symptomatic, seeing a 50% rise in 2008, to an annual cost of $3.5 billion.

One can only imagine the social stability that could be achieved by using such sums to provide economic security to the people of South Asia. One cannot know if this would work, but it is very clear that the alternative—a rising tide of war against all those who protest current conditions—is not working. Rather, it is visibly worsening both local conditions and the security of the West itself. As for local conditions, 60% of FATA’s several million residents (population estimates vary widely) live below Pakistan’s poverty line. And that figure was derived before Pakistan’s brutal August military offensive in Bajaur Agency that left several hundred thousand people homeless. In the words of researcher Ahmed Humayun, who recently returned to the U.S. from the region, “Refugees are scattered across NWFP and eastern Afghanistan, desperately seeking shelter in improvised camps with no electricity or running water. Women find it difficult to maintain veiled segregation, a deep affront to conservative tribal sensibilities.” As usual, despite the approach of winter, funds are being channeled to the military rather than the refugees. What impact this will have on future Taliban recruiting can only be imagined. As for Western security, the Mumbai tragedy speaks for itself.

The logic of this argument rests on the assumption that violence comes from resentment, which in turn comes from a degree of injustice that is both significant and visible. Of course, it is most convenient for the lucky (i.e., Westerners) to pretend that those committing violence against the West and its proxies and allies “come out of the blue,” as some thoughtlessly claimed after 9/11. Despite the hard lessons of the last seven years, wishful thinking seems to continue. In an individual case, that could theoretically be true: one individual might choose terror because of mental instability or some personal grievance. But those who self-servingly make the claim that the West bears no responsibility because terrorism comes out of the blue have never been able to explain why leaders advocating such violence (whatever their personal motivations may be) are finding such an endless supply of recruits willing to give up their lives. Until such Westerners can come up with a plausible argument, it seems reasonable to go with the obvious one: they volunteer to die because they are angry and desperate.

Now that we are past that issue, the challenge becomes one of understanding what makes them angry and desperate. In South Asia, the answer is a bit complicated (i.e., you have to be aware of several different things at the same time), but it is not really all that hard and is certainly no secret.

Many volumes have already been written about the details and more should be, but those details are not critical. The basic message (whether you, dear reader, happen to be just a taxpayer or a president-elect) is that the following are the components (ALL of which must be considered simultaneously [to the attention-challenged, my apologies, but this is the way the world works; if you don’t like it, go to the mall and let someone else make decisions in Washington]):

  • Self-Determination for Kashmir, whose people were cheated out of promised self-determination by Nehru and have been victimized ever since;
  • Economic Security – rapidly declining throughout the region over the last two years because of the rising price of grain (in great measure as a result of Western desires to use valuable agricultural land to produce biofuels);
  • Ethnic Nationalism – thanks to the very conscious British colonial decision to split the Pashtun people up, some going to Pakistan and the rest to Afghanistan; (An estimated 7 million Pashtuns live in the FATA, in addition to 28 million in the Northwest Frontier Province [NWFP] and 15 million in neighboring Afghanistan.);
  • Religious Nationalism – thanks to colonial British policy, exploitation of Hindu nationalism by Indian politicians, Pakistani military exploitation of Moslem nationalism;
  • Poor Governance of Pakistan’s Tribal Regions – due to lack of interest by Pakistani regimes in providing good governance and economic security for its Pashtun tribal people that it has nevertheless insisted upon retaining within the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state.

That’s about it. Those are the basic issues that need to be addressed. Yes, of course, al Qua’ida is in the region, taking advantage of all the above for its own purposes. Indeed, given all the above grievances, how could it resist? Yes, of course, the West is in the region interfering with local agendas as it pursues its own agenda. Yes, of course, Indian and Pakistani politicians exploit regional tensions, inciting communal hatred for personal gain and, perhaps, out of genuine concern over security; India makes matters worse with its uncompromising treatment of Kashmiris, and Pakistan makes matters worse with its insistence on resolving the Kashmir issue through force. South Asia is, despite India’s admirable record of democracy and recent Pakistani steps in that direction, a black hole of injustice that sucks in every troublemaker in the universe.

I intend no disrespect whatsoever to all the admirable people of the region who are clearly aware of the problems and doing everything they can to address them; quite the contrary. I am making the point that the existence of this degree of injustice generates an irresistible gravitational force attracting both troublemakers and those willing to put their lives on the line in the struggle for justice. Indeed–as is true precisely in the case of Lashkar-e-toiba, which has helped victims of natural disasters, fought for Kashmiri freedom, and no doubt committed acts of terrorism, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish the one from the other.

To evaluate the utility of a particular government policy (e.g., a Predator attack by Washington, an army campaign by Pakistan in its tribal regions, an Indian military strike on “terrorist training camps”), ask how it addresses these five basic issues. If it does not address them, then it probably makes the situation worse, i.e., it probably decreases the long-term security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and the West.

How to resolve all these issues may not be obvious or simple, but the first clue lies in the word “simultaneously.” Much could be said about the fluidity of a complex adaptive system. To keep things simple, imagine that each of the above five issues is a balloon; the five balloons are connected and floating; you are standing on those balloons and realize they are all slowly losing air. Fortunately, you have the ability to pump air into the balloons. All must be pumped up simultaneously because otherwise the whole system will destabilize and you will tip off into the water.

Back to reality, a statement condemning attacks on India might be coupled with a statement condemning repression of Kashmiri civil liberties and condemning neglect of governance in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Backing for the maintenance of the arbitrary international borders that happen to exist might be combined with calls for local autonomy for, say, Kashmiris and Pashtuns. Aid might be offered on a regional basis in a way that required regional cooperation for all the most neglected areas rather than on a state-to-state basis as a reward for kowtowing to whatever arbitrary, short-term policy the donor state happened to have dreamed up.

The bottom line, then, is that the above five issues need to be addressed simultaneously to resolve the problem. It does not matter whether you define “the problem” as injustice for the people of South Asia or as terrorist attacks that hurt the West: same problem, same solution. The world has become so small and so aware of injustice that injustice in South Asia equals insecurity in the West.

Follow-Up: Dialogue and Research

The goals of this essay were to offer a treatment both balanced and simple, in hopes that this would provoke dialogue. Comments on imbalances or over-simplistic treatment of the issues will be warmly welcomed. Data to explore further will be even more welcome. If readers want a more formal dialogue than provided by comments, I would be happy to moderate it, perhaps on this blog. But much more is needed…

Determining how intervention of various types impacts this delicate situation merits significant research. A potentially valuable first step would be rigorous consideration of complexity theory concepts such as self-adaptation and emergence to provide an intellectual foundation for conducting a well-grounded scenario analysis. The facile but currently popular conclusion that since seven years of war has failed, the solution must be to have more war, seems somehow to miss the mark.

The Global Political Patterns of Violence

How can we evaluate the real impact our country’s behavior is having on global developments?

The habit of identifying patterns, looking for the causal dynamics that generate those patterns, and considering the conditions under which those patterns can be expected to continue into the future constitute key steps. Although we may all “know” that this makes sense, whether at the level of daily discourse or at the highest reaches of policy-making, this basic advice is all too often ignored. Good luck, better tactics, a change in parties, great leadership, or faith in the curious American belief that the future is bound to be better than the past are thin reeds on which to place one’s hopes in the face of underlying dynamics that push events where they will.

To get a handle on the future, look first not at who is in charge or what events are occurring but at the enduring patterns of behavior that constrain future choices: population dynamics, trends in education, willingness of the current generation to conserve for the benefit of the next generation, quality of governance, attitudes toward common goods (e.g., air, oceans), cultural openness, degree of tolerance toward opponents, and degree of sympathy for the weak.

Whether “you” are president of the United States or Joe the Plumber, you probably do not have time to follow every important detail of what is happening in the world. So, to make the job feasible, try snapshots. Can you take the time to look at three shapshots right now? OK, here they are:

1. SNAPSHOT ONE – After years of Soviet occupation back in the 1980s, Afghan insurgents were recognized to be slowly tightening a noose around Kabul.

2. SHAPSHOT TWO – A report just released portrays Afghan insurgents slowly tightening a noose around Kabul again…after years of U.S. occupation.

3. SNAPSHOT THREE – Pakistani media are now portraying the Taliban as doing much the same to border city Peshawar.

This simple analytical technique gives you two patterns with real significance – a pattern of insurgent warfare defeating a stronger military power that repeats over time and that repeats over space. No mass of detail you don’t have time to memorize; just disturbing patterns to think about.

Stop here if you are busy; if you have another five minutes, let’s go into a bit more detail…

In terms of the troubled relationship between the West and Islam, the patterns are sobering.

Whatever reasons Moslems may have had to be angry with Western governments in September 2001, by 2008 those reasons had become amplified and intensified. The most fundamental reason may be the sudden global crisis in the cost of grain, which has put the core of human diet out-of-reach of much of the world’s population, indicating a basic breakdown of the West’s pet project of globalization. Beyond this non-negotiable need for food are Israel’s barbaric economic war against the population of Gaza, the dramatic rise in the frequency of U.S. missile strikes on Moslem countries with which the U.S. was not at war, a highly menacing U.S. campaign against Iran, the combination of U.S. support for friendly Moslem dictators combined with coldly unsympathetic and blatantly intolerant behavior toward Moslem actors taking independent stands, and the final pulverization of already stateless Somali society by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian army. Coming on top of the deepening Moslem-Western confrontation of the last seven years, the events of 2007-8 make highly probable an intensified level of Moslem resentment and resistance over the next seven years. Such resistance can be expected to radicalize, fragment, and destabilize Moslem states, undermining moderates and empowering extremists.

That list of patterns that seemed–in my opinion–to be visible by the middle of 2008 is of course debatable. One might argue that the list is biased by omission or flat-out wrong. No doubt plenty of folks might compose a different list and come to different conclusions. How do we resolve such disagreement? That’s a hard question to answer, but a good approach is the obvious one of seeing how the above list of patterns sheds light on current events.

Think of the hubris with which Washington invaded Afghanistan and then quickly turned its focus and its resources toward Iraq, leaving the social crisis in Afghanistan unresolved. Seven years later, the re-emergence of the shattered Afghan Taliban should come as no surprise. Think of the lack of progress in integrating Pakistani border regions with the rest of the country since 9/11. The spread of the Afghan insurgency into Pakistan should come as no surprise. Think of the failure of all who are involved to provide the Kashmiri people with hope for a decent future after half a century of being forced to take orders from outsiders. The repeated occurrence of violence between India and Pakistan should come as no surprise.

Given the decline in living conditions resulting from the unsustainable rise in food prices for the poor of South Asia, we can only anticipate even more instability and violence in the future. It does not require detailed information about this or that fundamentalist Moslem or Hindu or Jewish or Christian group, or about this or that expansionist regime, or about this or that rogue intelligence agency or rogue retired intelligence operative to make the prediction that violence will continue. All it requires is recognition of the patterns and the background conditions. Yes, it is very interesting to talk about who did what when. But what is really important to understanding our world is to observe the patterns that are generated by various background conditions. What is really important to improving the world in which we live is to change those background conditions.

Commentary on Historical Context of Mumbai

Following up on my recent post about the Mumbai terrorist attack, see also the commentary noted below by Alvaro Vargas Llosa that puts the attack in a balanced historical context of both international and, especially, domestic Indian events.
India—The Other Side of Glory
MWC News – A Site Without Borders – – Sunday, 07 December 2008

Provoking the Clash of Civilizations

Yesterday, I quoted the short history of U.S.-Palestinian relations from 2006 until today so pointedly written by Uri Avnery. It portrays Washington as provoking precisely the outcome it presumably least wanted: the empowerment and further radicalization of its most feared opponent (in the case of Palestine, Hamas).

This raises some very important questions for those concerned about U.S. national security and the possible emergence of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West:

1. Is this a pattern seen more broadly in relations between the West and Islam? (The rise of al Qua’ida in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, the strengthening of Ahmadinejad’s circle in Iran, the exacerbation of militancy in North Waziristan, the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a result of Israel’s 2006 invasion, and the war in Somalia come to mind as examples with considerable face validity.]
2. To the extent that it is indeed a pattern characterizing post-9/11 Western interaction with Moslem societies, is the West moving toward acknowledging it and learning how to overcome it, or are we fated to live with such a pattern for the foreseeable future?
3. Can the world “muddle through” in the face of continuation of such a pattern or is it likely, if it continues, to spread and intensify, provoking the emergence of an Islamic political fault line (which might be seen as a fault line between Islamic and Western societies and/or a fault line within Islamic societies)?
4. To the degree that such a fault line is emerging within Islamic societies, is it likely to push committed reformers into the arms of violence-prone extremists, making hopes of compromise with the West increasingly remote?

Pakistan: Ominous Political Trends

Continuing the analysis of Pakistan’s future
on the basis of a model of political violence

Taking an initial, fairly high-level look at the Pakistani political situation, if we group political actors into three broad groups – the military, Islamic activists, and democratic forces, out of the eight original scenarios in the model of political behavior discussed yesterday, only two (Violence and Cold Steel) currently seem relevant. All three of these groups are very broad and include institutional and individual actors representing a wide spectrum of attitudes and behavior, but it is at least possible to say that the military, Islamic activists, and even democratic foreces include significant components displaying behavior fitting into the Violence Scenario; that is, components exhibiting a preference for force rather than compromise to achieve their goals and that have a high degree of ideological commitment.

Methodological Note 1: The placements of all three groups in the graph represents their most extreme elements. A useful enhancement would be a graphic showing both the range of opinion within a group and the weight. A key question for the future of Pakistani politics, for example, is the degree of radical Islamic sympathy within the military.

In addition, this initial discussion has also already exposed a deficiency in the model: the absence of an Ideological Heterogeneity variable. To ask if a political system is highly ideological is only part of the story; I hypothesize that violence will be significantly more likely in a system in which several, mutually contradictory ideologies exist than in an ideological but united system.

In Pakistan:

  • The military is arguably divided between secular nationalists and Islamists (though one could also argue that the typical Pakistani military perspective does not see nationalism and Islamism as contradictory at all but a partnership in which the military defends Pakistani sovereignty with the Islamists both minding civil society and taking care of tactical issues on which the military prefers not to get its hands dirty). Moreover, devotion to both nationalist and Islamist feeling appears frequently to be intense.
  • The populace is divided between democrats and Islamists and, perhaps, those who will accept any government capable of improving the economy. Again, devotion to these ideologies appears frequently to be intense.


Even more ominous than the positions of key actors are the directions in which they are moving.
As violence continues and the confrontation between the dictatorship and popular demands for democracy as well as that between authority and Islamic militancy seem to be intensifying, the political environment appears to be getting increasingly challenging. U.S. pressure on the regime to attack Islamic radicals risks cloaking Islamists in nationalist garb and simultaneously making them both more extreme and more popular.

Conflict resolution strategy is also becoming more reliant on force:

  • The use of force by the Military has recently become extreme in all directions, including not only the attack on the Red Mosque and Swat Valley but Musharraf’s “coup against himself” and his blatant arrest of judiciary;
  • Source

  • Islamic militants are not only crossing the border into Afghanistan and Kashmir but now fighting against the dictatorship that sponsored them;
  • Among the elite, quintessential middle class lawyers put their lives on the line in the street even in the face of extraordinary police brutality, while both Sharif and Bhutto risked their lives by essentially forcing their way back into Pakistan.

As for the level of ideological commitment, it is hard to see signs of decline; both adherents of democracy and adherents of Islamic rule appear to be moving toward greater ideological commitment. Although the intensity of popular feeling following the return of Bhutto may fade quickly, the resilience of the judiciary in the face of government oppression has been both impressive and steady now for at least half a year. Compromises between the Musharraf regime and Islamic militants have been breaking down over the last year, as well. Moreover, Musharraf’s 1999 Kargil adventure and the sending of terrorists into Kashmir both suggest that the military’s supernationalism has been rising over the last decade.

Methodological Note 2: Tracking the trend line for each group shown in the above graphic would enhance its analytical value.

The above analysis raises a number of serious, long-term questions about the future of Pakistan that go well beyond the fate of individual politicians, instead focusing on institutional integrity and the dynamics that cause behavior.

  • To what degree will the military remain united?
  • Will the internal divisions in the military between nationalists and Islamists make the military more cautious and analytical or drive it toward internal crackdown and international adventure?
  • Will the key players be able to reverse the recent slide toward violence and find a way to minimize the increasingly dangerous and extreme ideological conflict or will the system continue what seems to be its evolution toward zero-sum conflict?
  • To what degree will the military be analytical vs ideological?
  • To what degree will the middle class become more ideologically committed to strident demands for democracy now, even at the cost of violence in the face of the regime’s lack of sympathy?
  • To what degree will Islamic feeling spread in the military and among the downtrodden poor?
  • To what degree will Islamic feeling become radicalized?
  • To what degree will all sides reach the conclusion that violence to achieve their political ends is justified?

And perhaps the most fateful question of all for Pakistan’s future:

Given that the military, Islamic radicals, and the U.S. all currently lean
heavily toward solutions based on force, can the Pakistani population resist
following suit or be a significant political player if it remains committed
to peaceful methods?

Future posts will discuss Pakistani political trends and U.S. policy options…

Islamic Political Fault Line

An Islamic political fault line is forming from Bangladesh to Somalia. If a unified upheaval does in fact erupt from one end of this region to the other simultaneously, it will present a far more serious threat to the global political system than anything we have seen since the end of the Cold War. Those who dream of a clash of civilizations could, in that case, get what they want.

The threat to the global political system is two-fold: first, instability per se, which will generate all manner of suffering for those immediately involved and financial harm to people everywhere; second, undermining of civil liberties and good governance everywhere, both in regions of violence and even in those Western countries that may be fortunate enough to escape violence within their territory. Populations will panic, governments will overreact, politicians will exploit the fear to gain personal power, and democracy everywhere will fall under attack.


If one draws a line from Afghanistan through the Mideast south to Somalia, that line will today go through the following conflicts:

  • Afghanistan & Pakistani Northwest Territories – rising attacks by the Taliban;
  • Northern Pakistan – new anti-government conflict with domestic Islamists;
  • Southwestern Pakistan – long-time, simmering civil war with Baluchi minority;
  • Iraq – combined insurgency, civil war, and exploitation by outside Islamic elements;
  • Palestine – struggle for Palestine independence;
  • Somalia – Islamists vs. Ethiopians.

The following new conflicts are now threatening:

  • Bangladesh – radicals filling space left by endlessly feuding political parties;
  • Pakistan – general civil disorder against military dictatorship;
  • Kurdistan – Turkish invasion;
  • Iran – U.S. or Israeli attack;
  • Lebanon – breakdown of civil order and reemergence of civil war;
  • Ethiopia/Eritrea – renewed war.

Today, violence along this “Islamic political fault line” is broken up by several regions of relative stability. Two of these regions are Iran and Kurdistan. Both have relatively stable governments that, if faced with external threats, can count on an outpouring of nationalist support from their populations. It is also worth noting that Kurdistan is the only stable part of Iraq. And these are two of the most threatened regions.

Islamic Regions of Stability: Kurdistan and Iran

There is no doubt that each part of this region has its own individual issues. Bangladeshi political instability goes directly back to the Bengali war for independence from Punjabi military control more than a generation ago and the corrupt political process that followed (which in turn opened the door to rising extremist influence. In Afghanistan, the inability of the Kabul regime and its Western supporters to provide the Afghan people with any viable means of livelihood other than poppy-growing combined with the pressures to give up poppy-growing generates mass popular frustration. Pakistan’s increasingly harsh military dictatorship is alienating the middle class that should be the core of support for the military (were it to behave as a nationalist force rather than an exploitative one). The Turkish-Kurdistan issue comes out of Turkish refusal to give consideration to the nationalist aspirations of Kurds living in Turkey. Ethiopia and Eritrea have a long-standing disagreement over their joint border.

Neither Islamic extremism nor Western interference can be held responsible for creating this fault line. The problems have a host of local causes. Nevertheless, many underlying similarities exist, and these similarities threaten to turn a long list of local conflicts into a single political quake zone stretching from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa. Both Islamist extremism and Western interference can most certainly be held responsible for exploiting and aggravating the process of merging these individual, local conflicts into a single globe-cutting political fault line.

  • Islamic extremists justify their own global violence by blaming the West and corrupt, brutal local dictators under Western protection for everything that is wrong with the Islamic world.
  • Western extremists, those politicians who use military force to control the political process in Islamic countries rather, provide a fertile field for Islamic extremism by marginalizing moderate, national forces that are trying to bring democracy and sovereignty to Islamic societies.

The danger of such a merging is obvious: failure to have genuine sympathy for the aspirations of Islamic societies creates precisely the threat of global terrorism that extremist Western politicians so loudly claim to be fighting against. But this process of merging local issues into a global Islamic issue also offers opportunities. To the degree that all the problems in the Islamic world constitute one problem, then one solution will, in principle, exist. Determining the degree to which that is true and identifying a single solution that can serve to ameliorate all the violence in the Islamic world will be among the most important challenges facing international relations thinkers and decision makers for a long time to come.

Complexity and Dynamics of Global Violence

How to comprehend the functioning and evolution of human civilization as a complex system will be one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century. A key sub-question concerns the interplay between individual human behavior and the various components of the international political system. Progress toward answering this question promises invaluable payoffs in terms of wars avoided and human aspirations satisfied.

To sketch out the nature of the problem, one can simplify to a three-lens view of international relations:

· One lens shows the familiar broad overview of events: sequence is fairly clear but causality far less so, which leaves us vulnerable to surprise.

· A more powerful lens reveals the causal dynamics. The concepts for interpreting what we see at this magnification are well developed and can even in some fields be represented by equations (because it is assumed that all actors in a given class behave the same), but culture lags behind: we are unfortunately not accustomed to thinking very clearly about the nature of feedback loops and delays in the context of international relations. We have a valuable set of interpretive tools for minimizing surprise in global affairs and for avoiding foreign policy failures that we have simply not bothered to use.

· The third lens is still being polished; though the view through it remains murky, we need to start using it because it shows a far more accurate image of reality. This is the lens that reveals not only the actions and dynamics of a system but also the various structural components. If these components are at multiple levels (individual, group) and all are interdependent, the result is complexity. The theory of complexity that is taking shape today is designed to illuminate systems composed of multiple interdependent parts whose connections at one level (e.g., individual) give rise to seemingly counterintuitive behavior at other levels (e.g., group, national, regional, or system-wide).

The first lens shows us speeches, invasions, elections. The second lens shows the forces causing those events, which it may be reasonable to classify into political, economic, demographic, cultural, and technical. The third lens presumably should show how new behavior emerges at one level from highly complicated interactions at another. More precisely, behavioral dynamics will occur at multiple levels within each of the five sectors mentioned above and others will occur among those sectors.

Exactly how to apply these ideas to international relations is a challenge that remains to be solved. Among the specific problems that seem appropriate subjects for viewing from the complexity perspective are:

· How Palestinian infighting has emerged to undercut the Palestinian people’s long struggle for independence from Israeli colonization;

· How a peasant rebellion for justice against exploitative big landowners in Colombia evolved over half a century into a battle between guerrillas and paramilitaries, with both selling narcotics and committing atrocities against the innocent;

· How violence-addicted extremists gained ascendancy on all sides so quickly after the brief glow of post-Cold War hope, leading to the casting aside of fundamental rules for governing the international political system;

· How the Iraqi insurgency evolved into Sunni-Shi’ite in-fighting at the expense of efforts either to resist the U.S. occupation or rebuild Iraq, with the emergence of new types of behavior (e.g., blowing up holy sites).

Complexity theory sensitizes us to questions that might otherwise be overlooked.

· The interdependence of the parts of a complex system (think of the difference between giving drugs to a sick person and repairing a car) warns one to expect “side” effects. Thus, if a problem in ties between two ethnic groups appears, from the complexity perspective, one would automatically ask how that would ripple through the whole system, with implications for system stability.
· The expectation that the way the parts of a complex system interact will be affected by the context in which the system exists focus attention on how external pressures modify the behavior of actors within the system.
· The assumption of complexity theory that variation exists among individuals cautions one to pay strict attention to details. (Note that this assumption directly contradicts the assumption of smoothness that is made when viewing dynamics [the second lens, above].)

· The concept of “emergence” sensitizes us to anticipate rather than be surprised by new forms of behavior that violate cultural norms (the rise of narco-paramilitaries, revenge destruction of holy sites, intifadas, ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, bombing of cities, threats of nuclear war against non-nuclear states).

The generic complexity theory we have today sensitizes us to ask certain key questions and prepares us to anticipate surprise. There is as yet little application of that generic theory to the specifics of human civilization, much less to the field of global politics, so the theory does not—yet—tell us what type of behavioral modifications we should anticipate. It remains to be seen whether or not we can construct a “science of human socio-political complexity.” What is the next step in the direction of that vision? The development of a framework to allow us to think more conceptually about the proper ways to use each of the three above-described powers of magnification–events, dynamics, and interdependence—would be a good place to start.

Can Our Leaders Learn?

A particularly invidious psychosis plagues the world: the refusal to learn from enemies held in contempt. This very special type of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a major reason why international conflict resolution is so difficult. Whether the despised opponent lays out his conditions for compromise plainly in a speech or engages in transparent behavior, the other side will all too often make it a matter of (false) pride to learn absolutely nothing.

Almost never is a person utterly and implacably evil. Even the utterly evil get tired, and most have a price. Sometimes that price is close to paid simply by treating opponents with respect. When decision makers fail to learn from the lessons taught them (be they actions taken by an opponent or statements made by an opponent), the country is in serious trouble. Circumstances are always in flux, and no country can function very well without learning.

The critical ingredient is dissent. One can of course have internal feedback that passes up information, but in practice dissent is the critical form of feedback for a political system. The degree to which leaders pay heed to apathy, critical media, demonstrations, and violence directed against the state or people is a fundamental measure of the degree to which they are in touch with reality.

These phenomena do not come out of the blue. They result from some mix of reality and perceptions and can therefore be used as signals by open-minded decision-makers. When ruling circles ignore the message of those who oppose them, this indicates a pathology of the system. The refusal to learn is pathological.