The Passing of the State, Part 47 — It’s Not Just the Talib, Folks

It’s obvious to everyone now – except, of course, the usual Washington ‘patriots’ and lotus eaters – that the fat lady is singing in Afghanistan, and the US is down to looking for a political frame to cover its defeat and departure. As shocking as that may be to those who still believe in the absolute sovereignty and power of nation states, it’s just the most visible example of a trend US policymakers – and governments at large – refuse to acknowledge.

The ‘Other Guys’ are winning.

The simple fact is that the days of nation states fighting and winning wars is just about over. Modern wars, such as Afghanistan, are far more likely to be between states and non-state entities than between/among states. And, if we’re willing to look at it objectively, we can see that the OGs (gangs, tribes, sects and all those miscellaneous ‘post national’ groups that constitute ‘Other Guys’) have a very good chance of winning those wars.

Here’s why.

First, ‘winning’ is defined differently by OGs. Different crews have different goals and different metrics for success. It might be to seize the levers of state power. Or it might be a ‘picador’ model – just enrage, bleed, weaken and limit the options of the beast, whether for profit, payback, or so it can’t effectively interfere with you. Or a ‘Baghdad Bazaar’ model – create a ‘sinkhole’ where your crew can control a given resource, such as electricity, diesel fuel, water, security or even property rentals as a means of livelihood. While states play for power and control, OGs play for autonomy and enterprise, and their ‘profits’ include belonging, fun, prestige and group security as well as livelihood.

Second, the ‘evolution of lethality’ means states no longer have a monopoly on violence, nor exclusive access to/control of deadly technologies. It’s open source and anybody can play. Today, the great levelers are small arms and IEDs which, as Mexico and dozens of other examples demonstrate, allow OGs to resist and even defeat state forces to assume local control. As reverse engineering, ‘fab labs’ and 3D printers proliferate. However, OGs will be able to field state of the art weapon systems, including highly effective man-portable anti-air and anti-armor missiles. With that kind of ordnance, conventional military units offer OGs a target rich environment.

Strategy and tactics have developed and distributed, too. Anyone, almost anywhere, can now go online and download training materials from the US Army and a plethora of other players. From Sun Tzu to small unit tactics, mortar gunnery and weapon-specific guides, everything you ever wanted to know about warfare is accessible and free.

Third, the ‘porosity’ of globalization means there are lots of boundaries, seams, edges and overlaps where OGs can live, hide and thrive. One consistent characteristic of successful OGs is access to safe havens for respite and refit. Think Cambodia for the North Vietnamese, Venezuela for the FARC and Pakistan for the Taliban. Those boundaries and seams also provide access to resources, and markets for OG entrepreneurs.

Fourth, a growing percentage of the global population – in developing and industrialized regions – has legitimate grievances that, left unresolved, provide sympathy, support and recruits for OGs. Just as Mao spoke of guerillas swimming in the sea of the people, OGs survive and thrive among a population that resents the state – whether for acts of omission or commission. As life gets worse for the majority of the planet’s inhabitants – and even more important, their hopes for a better future fade – OG habitat expands.

Fifth, ROI is on the side of the OGs. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to be the opposition than the state. Credible estimates suggest that pulling off the 9-11 attacks cost Al Qaeda somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000. Contrast that with the fact that the US has spent on the order of $3 trillion since that time with its various reactions, and you start to see the advantages of the OG approach.

Or consider the near meltdown of the Washington, DC area a few years ago when the sniper was doing his thing. One lunatic, with nothing more than a confused kid for a companion, a beater Chevy and a Bushmaster XM-15 currently available online for $1,250, virtually shut down the area. Contrast that investment, plus a couple dozen rounds fired, with 10 dead and millions of dollars lost through averted economic activity and direct intervention / mediation costs.

Now imagine what might have happened if the sniper had intention beyond pathology and was part of a capable network. That kind of return on investment is easily available to OGs, and nation states cannot begin to respond in a cost-effective way.

Sixth, traditional state methods of suppression are both inefficient and insufficient. You can’t fight ideas and information flows with firepower. Success in a complex social system comes from strong identity, networking and relationships, which states are increasingly unable to provide. And while states actually have to redress issues to prevail, OGs only have to relentlessly point them out and exploit them. Most critically, states have to win. OGs only have to not lose.

In this volatile environment, stability and success – within and among states – can only come from forging ‘mutually assured security’. Nation states must move beyond their legacy thinking derived from colonial roots and Cold War paranoia, and begin to build mutually beneficial relationships that foster genuine security, equity, justice and well-being for all.

If not, they’re headed for the dust bin of history – sooner rather than later.