Center for Strategic Communication

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book,  Antifragile . It’s a highly intriguing book and I will give it a full review soon, but Taleb’s core concept of antifragility is important  and lends itself to wide application. Here’s Taleb on what constitutes “antifragility” – things that gain or improve with disorder – which he was careful to distinguish not just from “fragility” but also from “robustness” and “resilience”:

Almost all people answer that the opposite of “fragile” is “robust”, “resilient” , “solid”, or something of the sort. But the resilient, robust (and company) are items that neither break nor
improve, so you would not need to write anything on them – have you ever seen a package with
“robust” stamped on it? Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. It’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed. [31]

Italics in original.

Taleb uses a number of metaphors – the Phoenix, the Hydra – as well as examples to get across the point that an antifragile entity overcompensates in reaction to stress/damage/disorder by becoming better, growing stronger, more powerful, adaptively improving itself. Think of the effects of weight training in building muscle or a wildfire spurring bountiful growth in an ecosystem. There’s more to Antifragile than this but the gist is sufficient for now.

Which brings me to the question, “Are insurgencies antifragile?”

The study of insurgency, terrorism and revolution, while important and useful tend to suffer from several drawbacks. One is compartmentalization and academic specialization. As Robert Bunker pointed out in Narcos Over the Border,  a problem like “criminal-insurgency” attracts very different reactions from Law enforcement, intelligence analysts, the military, counter-terrorism officials and other experts (to say nothing of politicians) which makes consensus over a common analytic framework very difficult. Sometimes even defining the problem across domains is frustrating. As a result, many studies are too narrow and the few admirably ambitiously broad ones are deeply stamped in the political lens of the era in which they were researched and written – i.e. imperialist Small Wars, the Cold War, the War on Terror, Pop-centric COIN of Iraq and Afghanistan wars etc.  It is a subject that requires both more (and more intellectually creative) scholarship and a greater degree of synthesis.

In the meantime, I’d like to offer some speculation in an effort to answer the question:

  • The characteristics of “antifragility” in terms of at least some kinds of insurgency bears a striking resemblance to that of “wicked problems“, which has also been used to categorize some enduring irregular conflicts. Particularly in the sense of not having natural stopping points , manifesting complex interdependencies and resistance to simple, silver bullet solutions that could destroy it.
  • Moreover, most successful insurgencies are not, contrary to Maoist theory, autochthonous  – they draw many resources from external sources – black globalization, foreign patrons, legitimate trade, fundraising – and from the very state waging counterinsurgency warfare against them. The Afghan Taliban would be a much poorer military force without the vast amount of American aid passing through the hands of Pakistan and the Karzai regime
  • An insurgency’s claim to being “antifragile” may rest as much or more upon the general political and socioeconomic environment being relatively chaotic than on the nature of the insurgent organization itself.  The Chinese, Russian and Lebanese civil wars, Mexico’s narco-insurgency, West Africa and Afghanistan in the 1990′s, the Congo basinand Iraq in the 2000′s all had polycentric and disorderly environments that allowed  irregular groups to rapidly rise and fall on a local and regional basis. By contrast, “bilateral” insurgency vs. state dynamics can stabilize conflict for decades
  • An insurgent organization may lose antifragility as it restructures itself over time to become either more robust (ex. –Hezbollah) subnational entity or to accept greater fragility in order to acquire state-like hierarchical advantages ( political discipline and specialization). Note that “fragile” does not mean “weak”, it means “vulnerable”. States can be very strong and concentrating massive amounts of resources and coercive force, yet be strangely vulnerable to internal coups, popular uprisings, economic collapse, strategic myopia or even natural disasters. One of the great dangers today are complex systems that combine epic power with extreme fragility – small disruptions by irregulars yield huge ROIs.
  • States might be able to seek a strategic advantage over insurgencies by improving their robustness and smother the relatively ineffectual kinetic attacks of guerrillas or terrorists with inertia, refusing to “feed” the growth of an antifragile insurgent opponent, starving them of material resources and political oxygen. India has trucked along with something like seventeen ongoing insurgencies and episodic acts of major terrorism for decades without the Indian state remotely being in jeopardy of being overthrown by, say, the Naxalites, Sikh extremists or Kashmiri Islamists. Compare that with the rapid collapse or retreat of the state in places like Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Syria and so on.
  • The effects of globalization and information technology, the ability to have  John Robb’sopen source” decentralized, fast-evolving, insurgencies, give an an impetus to insurgencies becoming antifragile. At a minimum, it improves the odds.
Comments welcomed