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postwar reconstruction

Seeing Like A State (into the Future of War)



For over a decade, the non-state actor has held the world captive. Non-state actors can take many forms. Militant groups, criminal gangs, and drug cartels have risen to power in fragile states though rarely — if ever — with the intent to replace the role of state. They have generally pursued other interests. Some urban and conflict experts predicted that the erosion of the state by non-state actors will set the path for future wars. But at some point, state-like forms of organization are prone to emerge as these groups conquer larger territories and appropriate capital to such a degree that they must now take responsibility in generating new capital. The specific intent to formulate and replace the state will emerge out of sheer necessity. There is no other path for the non-state actor once the state has eroded.

Perhaps while the late 90s and early 2000s were the era of the non-state actor, the world is now witnessing the emergence of new state models in which geography is secondary to technology and the traditionally disruptive elements of governance such as religion and migration will serve as the corner stones. The components often ignored by governments as valuable, such as the activities informal economies and social relations, are the key components of a new political order. The new state is the government of outliers. ISIS might have territorial control to assert power, but it acquired this territory by distributed networks of information and people.


Three Observations on the Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

1. The Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL/IS  - daeish- controls more land than the government of the UK.

2. Tens of thousands of people have migrated from around the world to join Daeish which also uses mass migration (from Libya to EU) as a threatening tactic.

3. Daeish generates at least 90,000 (perhaps even more than 200,000) social media impressions each day.

Indicators of A Changing Conflict Landscape
History is saturated with case studies of large, formal states invading and fighting fragmented assemblages and non-state, militant social groups. It never goes well. States struggle to construct an asymmetrical fighting force to engage non-state actors, and non-state engagement never permit a clear resolution. There is no one to sign a peace treaty or to surrender on behalf of all actors. There is insufficient coordination, authority, and agreement by non-state actors to conclude war with tidy endings. These systems are resilient because they are distributed.

Notably, ISIS is not an accident. It is a strategically planned institution that builds that leverages distributed networks to establish social capacity. Recently Der Speigal uncovered a collection of documents highlighting the explicit planning of ISIS by a former Iraqi Air Force Officer. This new state was not founded on Islamic values, but on identifying and structuring informal social relationships into concrete forms of land ownership and occupancy.

The founding of ISIS began with opening non-profits in targeted locations, collecting information on local families, and building small organizations than could integrate themselves into the local fabric. Alienated youth and foreigners were specifically targeted for recruitment and militarization. By building the organization into the society, traditional community assets — such as the influence of important families — could be undermined through subterfuge.


Like A State
In its formation, ISIS may have relied upon different social elements than one would expect necessary to construct a state such as a formal constitution or codified rule of law. But notably, to appropriate the concepts of James Scott in “Seeing like a state,” ISIS has from the outset used all of the same strategies and methods of a typical, planned, and ordered society.

ISIS leverages relationships, assumptions of Islam, and private details for citizens, but at its core, ISIS is an “administrative ordering” of society. Whereas most western societies rely upon empiricism and technology to guide the organization and production of knowledge, ISIS promotes a message of religion to do the same, but in contrast mobilizes its own identity as the underpinning of social order (like a cult). This isn’t exactly high modernism (as Scott asserts), but perhaps could be considered something akin to high medievalism.

ISIS is an authoritarian state that coerces and manipulates civil society. According to normative conceptions of state building, marginal members of society must be organized into to the state, and here within ISIS, we see the state goes beyond organizing its margins so as to make them central. Alienated youth around the world are the core soldiers of ISIS.

Building on Scott’s concepts, we can make some assumptions about the future of ISIS:
  1. If ISIS continues to expand using a local grass roots model of expansion, so as to always give the impression that its territorial control emerged locally, it will persevere.
  2. As long as ISIS continues to localize and centralize the peripheral actors to function at its core, it will continue to advance rapidly.
  3. As long as ISIS lacks a state-like objective — such as agricultural productivity — it will not be crippled by the necessity to build robust institutions. Note that in the 1990s, the Taliban was able to rise to become a government by means of informal channels, but it struggled to operate as a state (at least in the way most nation states are measured externally).
Long Term Horizons
In general, an organized military is designed to engage in state-to-state classical warfare. With the rise of the non-state actor, there have been attempts to transform military organizational structure into agile units, relying extensively on special forces and similar specialists, to engage distributed actors. This strategic shift to agile teams has given States the ability to win battles but not to win wars.
States, in contrast to insurgencies, are conquerable. A state can be engaged symmetrically, it can be modeled, and it can be undermined. In consequence, perhaps the key to defeating ISIS is to wait for it to grow up.

Maybe the most efficient way to defeat ISIS, unfortunately, is to waif for it to mature. This sounds counterintuitive because a more stable ISIS means it will have more robust supply chains, resilient command structures, and organizational capacity. It is risky. But as a state, it is also aligned to the capacities of global militaries. When the US invaded Iraq to defeat Saddam Hussein, it was able to take control of the entire country within only 6 weeks. The bigger problem is then what? 

Themes of Future Wars
Future conflicts will be distributed systems (like today's global war on terror), but concentrated foremost where digital urban infrastructure spatially correlates with vast gaps in wealth and hindrances to social mobility.  This exemplified by the strategic locations in which ISIS was able to gain a foothold, as social capital provided local leverage while technological connectivity provided a unique mix of autonomy and organizational structure. By slamming these two oppositional forces into the same space, we can identify immense pressures on a digital urban interface.

The significance of in geography in has forever been proportionate to the ability or inability to communicate, operate, and interact across distance.  For example, Genghis Khan was successful because he used a system of fires to distribute messages vast distances very quickly.  Or in more recent decades he US military has struggled to supply fuel to FOBs in challenging terrain, whereas the cost of fuel distribution is generally far higher than the value of the fuel itself.

Likewise the creation of the internet has revolutionized economies who no longer need to focus on industry or exports, but rather can focus on pure brainpower (such as found in India's thriving BPO industry).  For centuries whoever held Afghanistan controlled the world because it was the link between the East and West, but today it doesn't matter because we can send an email from one side to another. Everyday, the role of physical geography grows smaller.

Regarding the development of conflict, distribution of small groups will initially be affected by physical geography, but it becomes secondary to the virtual geography. If the process of actor clustering and distribution is fast enough, the physical geography melts away to leave intact high-speed, highly-connected, sprawling digital networks of semi-autonomous groups (like ISIS). The resulting threat levels are relative to the organizational capability of the group to manage these networks. Some will succeed and many will not. If you start a terrorist group, make sure to have a strong IT support team.

Predicting The Location of Future Conflicts
I suspect that in 30 years, a city like Lagos, Nairobi, or Mexico City is more likely to confront a civil war than Mogadishu. The physical terrain is completely irrelevant to the location of the conflict, thus Syria is the preview of future wars. Syria was by all means a nice country with decent infrastructure and extreme polarities between classes, though enveloped by an oppressive government. It had the right mix of technological capacity, social tension, and political corruption/ineptitude to ferment into blazing war. Syria will not end soon.

A key component of what I describe — but easily overshadowed — is that the physical distribution of the advanced communication technology is essential to undermine the value of geography. There is a strange interaction here… build a robust IT infrastructure and the typical concerns of physical geography (roads, industry, mountains) fade away. Yet this robust the IT infrastructure but be locally integrated, because if the virtual geography is inaccessible to economies of scale, the more you will find non-state actors will emerge, distribute, and virtually cluster.

Notably infrastructure distribution does not exist in a vacuum, but is determined by the logistical advantages/disadvantages of geography, which will also impose a degree of irregularity on the time-scale of the distribution. For example, with only one horrendous road linking Mombasa to Burundi, the distribution of mobile phones, towers, and routers is hindered. They become concentrated in Nairobi and Kampala. The virtual geography only leaks into the hinterlands. In the meanwhile, extreme gaps in wealth and opportunity are also found in Nairobi and Kampala. Consequently we see an emergence of conflict within the urban centers, but as the IT infrastructure expands to supersede wealth and geography gaps, the volatility of the conflict actors is reduced. A big question is ‘can the skills to leverage the technology for social mobility expand at the same rate as the physical infrastructure?’ Obviously not — and the grounds for militarization emerge.

Demand for Proactive Socio-technical Alignments
ISIS is a socio-technical response to problems of governance, capitalism, and cultural alienation. It is possible to defeat ISIS by permitting it to mature into a formal State, and thus it takes on the tropes that make states sluggish. But for now, while it remains agile and distributed — disconnected from the geography which it dominates — it will continue to thrive.

The most important question is not how to defeat ISIS, rather the biggest question is how to prevent the next iteration. It might sound simplistic, but education is the critical piece of the puzzle. High technology infrastructures are permeating the globe at a faster rate than people can learn to utilize them for social mobility. While the issue of militarization is more complex than social mobility and alienation, these are well known components of the mix than can be better accommodated. Notably these alignments need to come from both supply and demand sides of the equation. People need to be educated to better use and integrate with new technology, but new technologies must be designed with the responsibility to better and integrate within society and social context. This isn’t a new idea, in fact, one country has already taken measures to do this.

Scaling Tools and Hacking Methods for Urban Development and Reconstruction



Case 1:
Last year an organization analyzing tribal conflicts in the Pashtun belt hired an outside consultant.  He had never been to Afghanistan before, had no familiarity with the issues, but had instead spent a lifetime studying patterns of gang violence in South and Central America.   I was optimistic about his role in the project as I hoped he would bring some keen insight and a new point of view that would revolutionize everyone's understanding of systematic violence in Afghanistan, creating a pathway toward viable solutions.   In contrast, the consultant made a series of irrelevant observations but charged a hefty sum, and left behind only a drained budget and a frustrated research staff.

Case 2:
In the latter years of Albert Einstein, he became obsessed with discovering GUT, the "grand unified theory" that will provide a scientific basis to create a total explanation for everything.  He approached the problem by trying to fuse theories on electromagnetism with relativity.  Not only did he fail in this endeavor, but his pursuit of it made him removed from the newer discoveries of his discipline, in particular the new field of quantum physics.  


The Pursuit of Universal Solutions
I mention these two examples as a consequence of a conversation I had last week with a professor from Columbia University. At this moment I'm loaded down with some deadlines over the next few days so I have little time to spare, but with  a new project on the horizon, I called her hoping to find the cliffs-notes version on relevant industry toolkits and best-practices to save time and ensure success.  Surprisingly, she didn't really have any answers for me.   

Initially I was annoyed, as I'm one forever interested in particular issues rather than specific geographies, and thus have a compulsion to study broad trends to glean useful cross-disciplinary and cross-geographic kernels of knowledge.  I too would likely have hired the Latin American violence expert for the project in Afghanistan.  In my own practice, I make a point to not be geographically specific in my abilities.  Yet over the last few days, my ideology has begun to shift.  Universality is a myth.  

Institutions are forever trying to build toolkits to bolster resilience, establish sustainability, or ensure economic development.  Development interventions, such as technology and business incubators for economic growth are often formulaic.  Certainly these projects can succeed, but how often and under what conditions?  While these are valuable tools, one of the first rules of carpentry is to use the right tool for the job, so we must ask, are these the best tools available?  If they are the only tools, then we need to modify the tools we have to better fit the tasks at hand.

When I was a graduate student, I spent years examining the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for shelter creation within protracted refugee settlements.  Sphere outlines methods for disaster relief and reconstruction, making it a fairly useful tool for cross-coordination among stakeholders and relief organizations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  At the time, I questioned if it was well suited for upgrading in displacement camps that had been in place for decades since the tool is also used in that manner by some ngos.  After conducting extensive field work in Dadaab Camps of eastern Kenya, I learned that Sphere failed to fully account or accomodate the complex socio-economic mechanisms that developed overtime within the camps.  Consequently interventions crafted with Sphere, when applied to long-term settlements, were foreign and arbitrary to the matured local systems.  

Nowadays I question if the very essence of Sphere, as a framework designed for widespread and global application is perhaps entirely flawed upon conception.  While a tsunami will wreak the same kind of damage anywhere in the world, the levels of preparedness, the available social capital, and the legal structures in place will differ dramatically.  Within the current Sphere guidelines, it informs actors to examine and utilize local laws and customs but it does not explain how to do so.  How does this guidance, which is painstakingly obvious, actually helpful?  Rather than construct a universal Sphere, why not begin crafting Sphere guidelines at the country-level, so that all laws and mechanisms can be accounted and introduced in greater detail?  This will not work perfectly and an iterative process is also necessary on the ground, yet it will likely work better than the Sphere guidelines we have at the present.

Rather than focusing on the universality of our outcomes, we can better ensure our outcomes by refining the precision of our tools.  Are all intervention and research methods applicable anywhere?  One might initially think so, given that these methods are empirically designed.  Yet I would say otherwise.  Hence one cannot effectively conduct standard social research in hostile landscapes.  Due to the limitations imposed, the tools can become diluted to the point of uselessness.  For example, In Afghanistan, I would go so far as to say that all social research is flawed on account that it is "perception-based," which is nothing but a delicate phrase to describe indeterminable validity.   

Researchers working in Kandahar and other regions cannot carry any mobile technology to assist in data collection.  Nor can they probe deeply in local issues (at risk of becoming part of the problem) or maintain strict oversight of the data-collection staff.  Individuals who are paid to provide responses have no incentive to be accurate or tell the truth.  Notably, people are often questioned on issues to which they have no direct knowledge or experience, so they can only provide assumptions or guesses as answers.  

Conflict is not the only variable that shapes the effectiveness of our research tools and methodologies.  Language, social conventions, and insider-outsider relations all shape our abilities to do our jobs as researchers, planners, or policy-makers. This isn't new information.  These are typically the concerns discussed with an "Intro to Anthropology Class," but it is essential to question the foundations of our disciplines so as to avoid the pitfalls of chasing after a grand unified theory when the data itself is evident of something entirely different.  

Reinventing the Urban Interface: Service Design for Post-Conflict Cities and Landscapes

Police Checkpoint on Ashura Holiday in Kabul, Afghanistan
Sutika-Sipus 2012
Wars have never had simple, neat, clean endings.  We like to envision that they have, but after the signature of nearly every historical treaty there remain scattered battles and acts of aggression by those who refuse to accept defeat or had yet to hear the news.  Today, the lingering aftermath of war is more obvious, as it is a given that wars never end but continue to trickle onward indefinitely.  Cities such as Kabul, Juba, Mogadishu, and Bagdad are rebuilding, but are not safe or stable.  

There are many reasons for their continued instability and lots of research out there to understand why contemporary wars have no ending.  Current research as investigated the problem from diverse perspectives such as  psychology, natural resourcesepidemiology, or even the notion that conflict simply creates more conflict.  But amidst all the efforts there has been little to no examination of the physical city and its role in promoting or reducing conflict.

Unfortunately traditional methods of security greatly undermine the health and function of cities.  Giant blast walls, police and military checkpoints, and steel guard shacks hinder processes socio-economic and cultural production by disrupting the spatial pathways and linkages necessary for their distribution and replication.  

Here are some examples of how contemporary security will hinder post-conflict urban reconstruction:

  • Detours caused by road blocks force the redistribution and retarded delivery of capital  causing unnecessary losses and social inequities.  For example, the guy who collects and sells firewood must pull his heavy cart an excessive extra distance before getting to his customer base, or because he cannot access his customers, he must compete against another firewood salesman in a more accessible neighborhood, reducing profits and potentially causing territorial conflict.
  • Lack of identification among citizens and the frequency of police checkpoints disrupts the flow of goods and people, and further causes new touchpoints for conflict occur.  In developing countries, most people do not have a birth certificate let alone a license or photo identification.  Just as often the police are illiterate and after long work hours are impatient and tired.  While checkpoints are important for security, they also create points of friction in the community and can inspire new conflicts.
  • Most neighborhoods were founded and grew around tightly defined tribal identities.  Over time these tribal concepts began to deconstruct, yet the emergence of social conflict will re-inspire tribal allegiances   When communities are heavily segregated by tribe, cross-tribal interaction is more likely to motivate suspicion and hostility than friendship and commerce. When physical barricades disrupt the movement of people, it prevents opportunities to again break down tribal allegiances.

Blast walls dictate all movement and transport cooridors in Kabul
Sutika-Sipus 2013
As you see, point of security are also points of disruption and thus obfuscate healthy social interaction. The question then becomes, how can governments and institutions create a viable security infrastructure while also promoting the advancement of the city?


To solve this problem, we must imagine some future possibilities:

  • What if police checkpoints could be design and operated in such a way that 10 years from now, citizens would say "remember when we had that checkpoint?  I rather miss it, that really added something to our community."

  • What if security infrastructure, such as blast walls or Jersey-walls, were created in such a way that their identity could become absorbed into the the landscape over time?  

  • What if urban security was approached as a process of customer service, and thus techniques successful in retail could be infused within security operations?  To extent we already have this, but does a visit to the police station feel like a visit to the genius bar?  Do customers have a way to provide feedback into the service experience for improvement?  Most people are afraid of security providers, how can this be changed?

Unfortunately those with the power to initiate and conduct war continue to forget the lessons forged by existing conflicts.  Take for example the swift path to victory by the French forces in Mali.  Achieving the military victory was possible, but before the militants moved in, Northern Mali was a poor and desperate landscape.  Will it return to the same sad state of affairs?  Likely, or even more likely, it will be worse as France appears to have no viable plan for the reconstruction process.  And if they rely upon the methods currently embraced by the aid/development community of the world, they wil only partly succeed, as evidenced by the lackluster reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Certainly the communities are resilient to certain issues and people will manage to survive, but resilience does nothing to prompt the radical transformation for a sustained peace and enriched development.  It is clear that a new approach is necessary, one that transforms the landscape so as to negate the conditions which facilitate conflict.  For years my company Sutika Sipus has been developing strategies and solutions to facilitate this change, but one company is not enough, others must take part in the process as well. We need to reinvent the interface between security and society in our cities, and to do so, it is essential that we redesign the relationship between security methods and the city itself.

Karte-Seh.  Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2013

After the Robot Wars: Drones, Interface Design, and Urban Reconstruction


I use Urban Planning methods for conflict stabilization and post-war reconstruction.  This focus demands that I also maintain an ongoing understanding of trends in contemporary warfare, whereas I seek to create an urban environment goes beyond physical reconstruction, but also facilitates the psychological healing of afflicted populations.

Lately I have been investigating how to apply concepts from service and interface design to conflict and post-conflict environments.  Service and UI design both are rooted in understanding user approaches and psychological impulses to craft a satisfying user experience in retail or online.  If we can craft a retail experience to facilitate greater customer satisfaction, such as how Apple uses of free-floating associates who can provide sell you an iphone at the display table, then we can apply the same steps and research methods to shape urban environments to maximize the urban experience of the citizens.  Likewise I believe we can use these steps to create opportunities for pacification, identity construction, and community healing.

But today while researching concepts in service and UI design from Carnegie Mellon University (famous for robotics), a new concept came to mind.  As drone warfare continues to escalate in use and force, the conflict cities of the future may have little evidence of human destruction.  Those initiating the war may be thousands of miles away, yet the perpetrators of war in the eyes of the local community, will become more abstract.  

I'm not claiming the future will look like the battlefields of Terminator 2 or The Matrix, but rather I have a few new questions:

Can we facilitate community healing after destruction waged by technology?

Does the identity of the perpetrator matter when reshaping a conflicted landscape to manage memory?

Does the use of high-tech, non-human weapons of war negate our ability to learn from war or overcome the resulting trauma?