Fragmentation and Stalemate: Speculating on Conflict

“Strategic stalemate: when force correlations approach equilibrium and guerrilla warfare becomes the most important activity.”
Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army Commander, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center
Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM3-24, MCWP 3-33.5 (2006)

“For when the mind is taken up in vision and fixes its view either on any real object or mere spectre of divinity, when it sees, or thinks it sees, anything prodigious and more than human, its horror, delight, confusion, fear, admiration or whatever passion belongs to it or is uppermost on this occasion, will have some­ thing vast, ‘immane,’ and (as painters say) beyond life. And this is what gave occasion to the name of fanaticism as it was used by the ancients in its original sense, for an apparition transporting the mind.”
The Right Honourable Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury
Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711)

The fanatics have drawn us in, for such is their strategy. In the absence of dialogue, debate, reason, or any semblance of humanity, the coercive religious ideology of Daesh has metastasised into a rudderless violence necessitating urgent and unwavering action. While the conventional wars of the past few decades have repeatedly led to growing domestic and now international insurgencies, embodied most recently by the pervasive spectre of Daesh, we have slid into a political torpor in which offensive military action has become ever more necessary, while military solutions to complex geopolitical issues ever less certain. For ours is an age of perpetual war, defined by an absence of viable solutions.

The proliferation of insurgent groups and their nebulous international networks, often with the backing of major global or regional actors, has limited both the effectiveness of multilateral diplomacy and military action, and the once pervasive feeling that decisive victory against such groups is possible. If it feels as though we’ve been drawn into a strategic stalemate – an unconventional correlation of forces leading to a perpetual sense of insecurity – despite possessing overwhelming military superiority, then surely there must be a political solution. Yet for Daesh, detente will never be a policy option, as the moral ambiguity with which it prosecutes its vision of a global caliphate cannot be replicated by those who seek to curtail its atrocities. The Clausewitzian imperative that “war is merely a continuation of policy by other means” no longer holds.

In an insecure world, hollow conceptions of the good or just war might placate fearful publics, yet they undermine the very sense of community they are designed to protect. Conflict, by its very nature, is disruptive. It also has unintended consequences. The oversimplification of conflict into forces of good versus evil has a long and disingenuous lineage, serving mainly to embolden political actors, while undermining the security of civilian populations.

Trump and Cruz - Carpet Bomb ISIS
Republication presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Ted Cruz vow to carpet bomb Islamic State.

For it is easy to speak of carpet bombing evil from a distance. It is far more difficult to live with the results.

Drone Footage of Homs, Syria, in early 2016Drone footage of Homs, Syria, in early 2016 (click for video)

It was in reaction to such an affront to public rationality that the political philosopher Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, first deployed the term fanaticism as we now use it. Railing against the religious fanatics, the political ideologues, and the enemies of reason, he promoted the pursuit of an enlightened, just society governed by universal values and liberal, humanist sensibilities. And he did so in direct opposition to the extreme visions of the religious multitude. Today, the fanatics have a powerful voice, and a broad array of platforms from which to preach.

The leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. There had previously been reports on social media that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would make his first public appearance since his Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) changed its name to the Islamic State and declared him caliph. The Iraqi government denied that the video, which carried Friday's date, was credible. It was also not possible to immediately confirm the authenticity of the recording or the date when it was made.05/07/2014 IRAQ-MOSUL /AY-COLLECTION_1445.09/Credit:AY-COLLECTION/SIPA/1407061450 (Sipa via AP Images)
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Mosul, July 2014 (Associated Press)

But it is the failure of such enlightened reason to guide public discourse, seen by many as rooted in imperialist traditions of rational global governance in service of the metropole, that has led to the devolution of global security. While this fragmentation was partly of our making, and exacerbated local divisions and grievances, assigning blame to any single cause is the purchase of partisans. For there are no longer any metanarratives to guide weary publics. The protracted conflicts which have engulfed the Middle East and North Africa are the result of a wide array of factors: authoritarian rule and the public perception that the postcolonial nationalist order has failed to procure material gains; sectarian divisions and religious ideology, amplified by the spread of Wahhabist doctrine from Saudi Arabia; the politics of blame, by deferring all responsibility to the historical faults of the colonial powers or the Zionists; the US invasion of Iraq and the instability generated in its wake; spiritual alienation and social disillusionment among the youth, who increasingly turn to the internet or informal networks for information – a new commons in which powerful rhetoric and potent images often count for more than truth.

Envisioning a more progressive social order free from violence relies on political strategies which both map the symbolic space of the social, and craft novel ways of envisioning the future. Images act as a catalysts for action, and the seemingly banal and commonplace can have a profound emotional and symbolic resonance.

Jordanian Royal Family
Royal family of Jordan, 2016, via the Twitter feed of Queen Rania of Jordan:

Where politicians see a dichotomy of civilisation and barbarism, rather than a nuanced and perpetually evolving historical challenge, subtle solutions and multilateral partnerships become increasingly untenable. If the binary of autocrat and freedom fighter holds significance in the public imagination, the one callously gripping on to power while the other seeks self-determination, it does so in an utterly imagined and historically overdetermined manner. The enemies of our enemies are rarely our friends. In a world of VBIEDs and barrel bombs, no side can claim the moral high ground.

Few in the CIA’s Afghan division, operating clandestinely out of the embassy in Islamabad throughout the 1980s, could have predicted that their pact with the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate under Prince Turki al Faisal and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to arm the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets would come back to haunt them.

Robert Nickelsberg - Afghanistan - May 1988 - Soviets Leaving Afghanistan
Robert Nickelsberg. Afghanistan: A Distant War. Munich: Prestel, 2013. 18-19.

With the Soviet withdrawal and the cessation of overt hostilities, the power vacuum required concrete decisions regarding whom to support, and whom to neglect. They supported the islamists, and not the royalists or moderates, much to our future detriment.

Robert Nickelsberg - Sept 1996 - Taliban Forces firing at Northern Alliance
Robert Nickelsberg. Afghanistan: A Distant War. Munich: Prestel, 2013. 84-85.

We now see a proliferation of competing and often mutually exclusive insurgencies, all vying for influence amid the insecurity, and backed by proxies in support of their political, territorial, ideological, and sectarian agendas. Amidst the cacophony, such groups have exploited the melancholic rage of youth in service of their ignoble ends. As the French scholar Olivier Roy has has recently quipped, the current violence is “more about the Islamization of radicalism than the radicalization of Islam,” yet denying the religious fanaticisms which propel such conflict is an act of politically correct blindness.

Can a diplomatic solution arise within such an unstable millieu? For Petraeus, “killing insurgents—while necessary, especially with respect to extremists—by itself cannot defeat an insurgency. Gaining and retaining the initiative requires counterinsurgents to address the insurgency’s causes through stability operations as well.” Yet stability is predicated first and foremost upon identifying and mapping the myriad causes which have led to the instability, while also drafting coherent policies and strategies to end it. In the midst of it all stand those at the front line, whose efforts towards securing the peace are so often neglected, and who are rarely given a voice as regards the implementation of policy – which, lest one gloss over it, is the strategic implementation of violence.

ANA Soldier at Garrison in Ishkashim, Badakhshan Province, Afghanista 1 April 2014
Afghan National Army soldier at the garrison in Ishkashim, Badakshan province, Afghanistan, April 2014 (Photo: James Poborsa)

Such efforts are compounded by the increasingly voluminous amount of information and data – fragments forming a minuscule part of a far greater puzzle – that intelligence agencies must analyse and interpret in service of policy. A series of declassified letters between Osama bin Laden and his associates, released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy, is a case in point. One letter from early 2007 concerns the recently established Islamic State in Iraq – a fragment among millions portending future instability – and offers insights into the difficulties of disrupting the spread not only of transnational terrorist networks, but of their borderless ideologies: “There is a group of brothers that want to join with the brothers in Khorasan. The best of them is a religious student in a European country who has wanted to join the brothers ever since things got more difficult for him in his country.” Khorasan refers both to an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria, and is the name of Daesh’s imagined province in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The frustrations generated by the fragmentation of empire have indeed resurfaced, and have been redirected and repurposed with a remarkably similar, virulent, and expansionary logic. As history has so forcefully illustrated, when the pursuit of empire eventually runs aground, as it inevitably does, what reemerges in the minds of the defeated are the unholy alliances of former times. And we become the fanatics we seek to defeat, seeing apparitions of violence in our minds.

Adam Curtis - Bitter Lake - screen grab 1-18-14 mins (Russian Subway)
Soviet Veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War, in Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake, BBC 2015. Screen shot.

The current insecurity has emboldened intelligence agencies and national governments. With France now spending 1 million euro a day on added security, and European countries reeling from a migrant crisis that is sowing ever greater internal discord and factionalism, the future seems at best uncertain, and at worst, unstable. With the increasing securitisation of the public sphere comes a concomitant withering of public perceptions of security, and increasing alienation from the very governments working to protect us. This is the logic of protracted insurgent conflict, in which a gradual destabilisation of public space, as well as the public sphere, sees the gradual withering of state legitimacy, particularly if in responding to the crisis the state is unable to retain the moral high ground.

Only by building capacity and encouraging dialogue among transnational partners, including regional combatants, while simultaneously leveraging multilateral institutions, might we escape the endless cycle of violence now gripping the region. In a situation defined by ‘complex interdependence,’ first theorised by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, in which the Westphalian system of nation states is no longer the sole determinant of geopolitical relations, and power resides at the nexus of multiple state and non-state actors, convergence requires dialogue and concessions at all levels of the diplomatic process. If rigidly defined strategic or sectarian partners refuse to cede their relative positions, the status quo ante is either further entrenched, or the quagmire further deepened.

For when the fanatics draw us into a stalemate, the politics of reason and the sensus communis slips away, and unfettered violence coupled with perpetual surveillance becomes the norm. The question, it seems, is not how to mitigate the current geopolitical stalemate, which seems almost impossible to resolve diplomatically, but rather how to limit further destabilisation, fragmentation, and human suffering. As Petraeus illuminates, “insurgents succeed by sowing chaos and disorder anywhere; the government fails unless it maintains a degree of order everywhere.” If we are to resist continued societal fragmentation, we must end the stalemate.

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited and Translated by Michael Howard & Peter Paret. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1993.

Cooper, Ashley Anthony. Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. In Three Volumes. London, 1711-1714.

Milner, Helen V. & Andrew Moravcsik (Eds.). Power, Interdependence, and Nonstate Actors in World Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Petraeus, David H. Counterinsurgency FM3-24, MCWP 3-33.5. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2006.

Rassler, Don, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Liam Collins, Muhammad al-Obaidi, Nelly Lahoud. Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined? (May 3, 2012). Retrieved at:


Cover image: Remains of a Soviet tank in Ishkashim, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, April 2014 (Photo: James Poborsa)

James D. Poborsa is a doctoral candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. His current research extends beyond the history and politics of modern China to explore the cultural politics of transnational aesthetics at the intersection of intellectual history, political theory, and international relations.

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