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The Promise and Peril of Constructivist Strategy

Over at his blog, Stephen Pampinella continues a long-running series of reflections on the intellectual implications of current strategic concepts. Pampinella correctly notes that much strategic thought on counterinsurgency is constructivist in nature, an oddity in the usually realist US defense community. Constructivist thought views identity as fluid, contingent, and complex. Actions are not necessarily guided by material factors, institutions, or a static group identity. The essence of constructivist thought is best captured by international relations theorist Alexander Wendt, who famously attacked the realist insistence that an anarchic world system makes states behave according to rational calculations of interest by arguing that “anarchy is what states make of it.”
      Pampinella ties this into David Kilcullen‘s counterinsurgency theory:

“[C]ounterinsurgent success requires winning the hearts and minds of the people, then doing so necessitates persuading the people to identify with counterinsurgents and overcome any hostile perceptions of threat or enmity. It also requires that counterinsurgents realize that their own security practices can in fact contribute a popular perception that they are a threat. In this way, counterinsurgents must actively reflect on their own practices and understand them from the point of view of other social actors. Only then can counterinsurgents develop new practices that protect the population according to its own definition of security, thereby leading to counterinsurgent legitimacy.”

      In a later article, Pampinella provides an example of this process in the operational brilliance of Captain Travis Patriquin:

“As an Arabic speaking officer in Col. Sean MacFarland’s BCT, Capt. Patriquin served as a crucial broker whose weak ties between tribal sheiks and Col. MacFarland enabled them to jointly mobilize Sunni tribesmen into the Awakening. Thus, on both levels (mass and elite), social interaction permitted the emergence of a common schemata that drove the self-organization of Sunni tribes into a counterinsurgent network, thereby defeating al-Qaeda. Once McFarland, Patriquin, and their BCT made it known they were seeking partners in cooperation (and were willing to pay for cooperation), they initiated a reinforcing positive feedback loop leading to the system’s self-organization.”

      Pampinella ties this practice of network-building to the current nonlinear sciences of complex adaptive systems. These systems are extremely sensitive to initial conditions and are constantly changing with new information and feedback. That’s why adaptive networks built through social mobilization are fluid and contingent–and can easily collapse. Additionally, acknowledging that identities are socially constructed does not necessarily imply that they can be easily changed. Perhaps Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups are the best example of this, as they fight to restore a largely imagined past and advance an oddly postmodern interpretation of Islamic law. But they will fight to the last man to achieve their goals, however ridiculous they may be.
      What Pampinella suggests about the unpredictability of nonlinear systems and current social theory derived from chaos science also demonstrates why counterinsurgency must remain an inherently operational, as opposed to strategic, approach. A truly global counterinsurgency means focusing our blood and treasure on building adaptive networks from scratch in all manner of failed and failing states–networks that can easily fall apart or turn against us. An operational focus on providing foreign internal defense assistance that Kilcullen advocates is a more tenable goal–but even this becomes problematic in the absence of a larger framework.