American polymath Jared Diamond, in his seminal work on history of continents, Guns, Germs, and Steel, argued that geographical determinism is a major factor in decoding why certain regions of the world have flourished more than others in the last 13,000 years. Economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson complemented this through their book, Why Nations Fail?, theorising that the success or failure of a nation state has more to do with the political and economic institutions envisioned and augmented by its citizens.
David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert, considers both geography and institutions while hypothesising that conflicts in future will be fought in densely-populated coastal cities of the developing world. His book, Out of the Mountains, which emphasises replacing the traditional ‘nation state’ with the ‘modern city’ as a unit of analysis, could as well have been titled ‘Why Cities Fail?’
Kilcullen feels that we need to think of the city as a process and not as a chunk of territory that remains constant. He says that as cities get densely-populated along the coastlines, they will also become highly-connected, and as a consequence, the grammar of warfare will undergo a paradigm shift. Battles will get increasingly asymmetrical, with information playing a major part. It will not always be a state-to-state war but will involve non-state armed actors, operating in the city’s underbelly.
Who are these non-state armed actors? Kilcullen defines them as those having armed capabilities which is not always state-sanctioned. They include organised criminal networks, fundamentalist groups and, at times, paramilitary forces.
He considers them ‘conflict entrepreneurs,’ those who provide certain stability to areas where state presence is weak. As the state struggles to keep up with the rapid growth of its cities, there is less predictability in the lives of those at the margins. In such a situation, these groups gain loyalty and support of local population by providing them with assistance in the form of welfare; rule-bound ‘governance’; and most importantly, a reward-and-punishment system.
After considering examples of such groups in cities like Mogadishu, Kingston and Mumbai, Kilcullen formulates a ‘theory of competitive control’. He says that when a non-state actor assures the local population that it will be able to establish a “predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative system of control”, it gains the population’s attention, respect, and most importantly, is able to inspire fear in people’s minds.
Kilcullen gives example of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, considered by some researchers as the “most dangerous city on the planet”, as a microcosm of his asymmetrical battle zone. Located in a region where narco-trafficking is widespread and state apparatus and infrastructure are weak, it provides fertile breeding ground for non-state actors. This arises from what Kilcullen terms ‘failure of its urban metabolism system’, the city not being able to handle the large inflow of money, material and labour and hence degenerating into an anti-city.
Doesn’t this apply to India’s economic hub, Mumbai, a city where, while 60 per cent of population lives in slums, the country’s richest person has built a multi-storied mega mansion? Kilcullen looks at the 26/11 Mumbai attacks through his competitive control prism. The attacks may have been the handiwork of terrorist groups but weren’t the conditions already propitious for such a tragedy?
The terrorists who infiltrated the city and held it hostage for more than three days were exploiting the lacunae in the city’s law and order apparatus. They did not have great difficulty because they could easily identify themselves as one of ‘them’ — those living in slum clusters along the coast where many other non-state actors already dominated. The unsuspecting slum dwellers would have misidentified them to be local smugglers. In terms of explaining threats experienced by modern cities, Kilcullen relies on strong evidence. However, while suggesting solutions, he becomes constricted by his militaristic outlook. Though he feels that disciplines like urban planning, systems design and public health are likely to play a key role in conflict management, the solutions he offers are premised on a highly-militarised state, including one equipped with weapons like remote-controlled drones.
As quoted by Kilcullen, Mike Davis did say that the world is becoming a ‘planet of slums’ with more than two lakh slums. However, his theory of competitive control, at best, helps in providing a post facto analysis of why non-state actors flourish and will continue to proliferate in such areas. It is not able to answer what causes their presence in the first place. It is here that geostrategy needs to pass over the baton to economics. In 2012, National Geographic had used various metrics to derive the features of the ‘most typical person’ on earth. It said that the person will be a 28 year-old man named ‘Li,’ having a cell phone but no bank account and earning less than $12,000 dollars per annum.
Currently, there are nine million of them, many of them in one of the coastal shantytowns of China that Kilcullen considers likely hub of future conflicts. Assuming that the state is able to ‘manage’ conflicts in those regions, can we say that the root cause has been addressed?
What Kilcullen omits to mention is the lure of conspicuous consumption, the fact that the ‘Li’s are not always disillusioned because of lack of order, or absence of opportunity but because of their inability to enjoy an affluent lifestyle. The current model of free market capitalism fosters a winner-takes-all attitude, which is bound to result in perpetuation of the biggest driver of conflict in modern societies -- income inequality.
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond talked about evolution of governance systems from egalitarian chiefdoms to a centralised system of government. What enabled state apparatus to retain power under centralised system was its commitment to redistribute wealth. This is a factor many modern day politicians, in essence glorified kleptocrats, are unable to comprehend.
The current crisis is not just a crisis of counter-insurgency but a crisis of order premised on the ‘greed is good’ mantra. This is only exacerbated by the threat of global warming which threatens to devour entire low-lying coastal cities. Will Kilcullen’s solutions work then? How can we use global as well as local knowledge to make the limitless needs of a man flexible? Questions we need to address as we move out of the mountains toward the peri-urban space.
This article has been corrected for a factual error.