15 June 2009

Conflict Horizon -Issue #2

Having endured the tensions of a long Cold War, the world seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Today, most analysts believe that we are unlikely, at least in the near future, to experience a great war between major nations. Another sigh of relief. But an end to conflict? Don't hold your breath.

Though citizens of our globalized community may no longer need to lay anxiously awake in their beds at night, wondering if the world will be there in the morning – perhaps the current climate of disorder will create death by a thousand paper cuts.

Futurists, historians, warfighters, strategists have filled volumes with informed speculation about the future of global conflict – pondering what we are likely to see for the remainder of the 21st Century, but as Colin Gray says, the danger of spending too much time pondering the future is that we may forget we are not experts on the subject. The prognostications of even the greatest minds often fail in forecasting the future. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try or plan for it.

Michael Moodie has written an article in the most recent issue or Joint Forces Quarterly that is worth a read. Though he highlights a couple of new-ish ideas, it's worthwhile, I think, simply because it presents a clear and brief description of the issues of consensus and debate in forecasting future conflict. Of particular interest, perhaps, is the fact that the article summarizes a chapter Moodie wrote for a forthcoming book, edited by Neyla Arnas: “Fighting Chance: Global Trends and Shocks in the National Security Environment,” (NDU Press/Potomac Books). Looking forward to that one.

I'll highlight some of Moodie's main points, though many will be familiar to those who have studied the topic. Moodie even begins the article acknowledging:

It has become a cliché to argue that the major challenges today are instability and conflict fostered by regional and local tensions stemming from such diverse sources as historical animosity; ethnic, religious, or other forms of communal hostility; control over resources; and attempted regional hegemony. These conflicts frequently have little or no politically ideological character and can erupt in unexpected places and ways.
His analysis is framed around three questions: what will be the nature of conflict, why will it occur, and and how will it be waged.

On the nature of conflict, Moodie – as a career WMD analyst – believes that the key game changers that make the new conflicts.. well, “new”, are CBRN availability and emergent technology. People debate about whether extremists and armed groups are willing and able to use CBRN weaponry. Moodie's argument is that the bad guys – unlike the military - don't need to have sophisticated deployment technology, it just has to be “good enough.” They can probably do something, even if not on a grand scale. That fact, combined with increased availability of knowledge and materials means that they may try it – not after a long deliberate strategic calculus- but simply because they can. He notes that:
The challenge posed by the combination of curiosity and capability has been identified by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research as proliferation “latency”—possibly the greatest conundrum confronting those responsible for addressing proliferation.
This is an interesting notion that blends more traditional concerns about proliferation with more contemporary concerns about “disorderly” conflict. On this latter point, Moodie gives a nod to Phil Williams' reference to the “growing number of increasingly disorderly spaces” across the globe, spaces that are geographic, functional, social, economic, legal, and regulatory.

Like others, Moodie characterizes this upheaval as a morass of community conflicts, some of which are connected, some not, but most of which share some common features:

  • They involve failed/failing states or anocracies (“regimes between democracy and autocracy that have an incoherent mix of the characteristics of each”). In fact, about 3 out of every four post Cold War international crises have involved failed or failing states, and such states are two and a half times more likely to experience instability and violent conflict.
  • They are unlike conventional wars because (a) they involve a wider range of participants, like competing militias, warring ethnic groups, warlords, and informal paramilitary organizations; and (b) they are ridden with brutal indiscriminate violence unbounded by conventional “laws of war.”
  • They tend to drag out, are difficult to end, and it is difficult ever to determine when they are over or who won. Most will go on for more at least five years. Their enduring character is due, in part, to the indiscriminate nature of attacks, which seek to break the will of the adversary by destroying homes, institutions and infrastructure. This breeds a “never forget” mentality. Also, factions may have either little choice or desire to end the conflict. Some want it to continue because it provides to them power, status, or money that would diminish in the absence of conflict (“greed rather than grievance”). Some continue just because it what they have always done. Child soldiers are increasingly coopted, creating a generation that knows only how to fight and has virtually no other skills, experience, opportunities, or prospects. They fight because that's all they know how to do – they drive what is often called “supply-side war.”
  • They are “localized,” though the community maybe global or transnational ( as al-Qaeda has done).
As for why these conflicts emerge, the causes seem to represent a complex intermingling of political, economic, social, psychological, and environmental elements. He points to several schools of thoughts on the “why” of contemporary conflict, including Philip Cerny's “neomedievalism” accelerated by modernity; the notion that conflicts are more “psychological” manifestations of (and driven by) basic human needs such as identity, belonging, dignity, and self-respect; and competition to control and protect vital resources, such as diamonds in Africa, timber in Borneo, and perhaps even water.

Finally, as to the tactics of contemporary community conflicts, Moodie suggests – not surprisingly - they are driven largely by the capacities of the combatants. This results in a preponderance of low-tech battles fought by non-professional soldiers using small arms and light weapons, enhanced by the intermittent use of explosives (IEDs), sometimes creatively deployed for strategic and tactical effect.

Moodie also raises concerns that evolving technology (driven more by the private sector than by government) will eventually catch up with these disorderly community conflicts creating tactics of greater devastation. He is particularly worried about the implications of advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology,directed energy weapons, advanced information systems, and cheaper and more reliable space-lift systems. Perhaps I don't know enough of these technologies to be as anxious as he seems to be, but it does seem to have longer rather than nearer term implications.

Moodie also seems troubled by the prospect that targets may also shift. One category of worry is infrastructure and objects of financial stability and order, such as communications. Another is symbolic targets designed to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the adversary. And a third is an increasing trend toward intentional targeting of civilians and populations, especially through brutalities like rape, assaults on medical personnel, food supply attacks and violence at refugee camps. This latter point seems to me to be most consistent with the character of these current community conflicts and perhaps a more urgent and pressing concern.

His final point on the “how” addresses enabling factors – particularly the connection between combatant groups and illicit or “dark networks” that traffic drugs, people, and weapons. Operating largely out of gray zones and lawless “no-go areas,” combatants mingle with criminals in activities that fund the conflict, but also provide an infrastructure of operational and logical support. This oft-discussed nexus between crime and terror has become an urgent global priority.

In conclusion, Moodie notes that his article is about “trends related not to war but to conflict, albeit conflict involving often intensive and extensive violence.” An interesting distinction in itself that should cause us to reflect on our current obsession with “terrorism,” (though not to lose sight of its threat) and the next “big attack”, and to keep an eye on disorderly, ungoverned spaces; the evolving character of armed groups and nonstate collectives; and the erosive – but insidious – damage rendered to global security by the “paper cuts” of community conflict.