In the aftermath of the Brussels terror attack many will call for a military solution to the Islamic State problem. Yet the new science of Cliodynamics predicts that the long-term result of the military victory over ISIS will be the opposite of what is intended.
A decade ago I made a prediction about the aftermath of the Allied occupation of Iraq. Here it is:
Western intrusion will eventually generate a counter-response, possibly in the form of a new theocratic Caliphate (War and Peace and War, Penguin, 2005).
Why was it possible to foresee the rise of the Islamic State so long before 2014, when it suddenly showed up on everybody’s radar, rapidly expanding its territory in Iraq and Syria to proclaim a worldwide Caliphate, just as I predicted? Simply because that part of the Middle East was becoming a particular kind of place, a place with a distinctive evolutionary trajectory. It was, to use my own term, turning into a metaethnic frontier, a zone where grand alliances of multiple nations and ethnic groups—metaethnic communities—struggle for territory and survival. Metaethnic communities are the broadest groupings of people that include not only the familiar “civilizations”—Western, Islamic, Sinic etc—but other historical groups, such as Turco-Mongolian steppe nomads. These supranational collectivities are integrated by a shared ideology, such as Christianity, Islam, or Confucianism. In my work on the largest patterns of history, I have studied such zones intensively: the steppe frontiers of China and Russia, the Christian/Islamic frontiers in Iberia and Anatolia.
And even in 2005, ISIS was staring us in the face.
The basic idea of the metaethnic frontier theory is that intense warfare breeds strong states. War is destructive, but it also exerts a powerful evolutionary pressure. By destroying brittle competitors, it allows the more cohesive groups to survive and expand. War on metaethnic frontiers is particularly intense, and often even genocidal, because deep cultural divides make it easy to dehumanize the enemy. And indeed, the historical evidence has shown that strong, expansionary states are particularly likely to appear in regions in which imperial frontiers coincide with faultlines between metaethnic communities. Just one metaethnic frontier, the one between the pastoralist societies of the Great Eurasian Steppe and the belt of agrarian communities abutting it, produced a string of Great Eurasian empires in China, Persia and Russia. Together with my colleagues we developed a mathematical model of this dynamic. To an astonishing degree of accuracy, given its simplicity, it was possible to generate the observed pattern of state formation in Ancient and Medieval Eurasia between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE.
In another study I traced the metaethnic frontiers in Europe during the last two thousand years. Data showed that location on a frontier (such as the one between the Roman Empire and the “barbarians,” or between Islam and Christendom in Iberia and in the Balkans/Anatolia) predicted the subsequent rise of an empire with 86 percent accuracy (see Chapter 5 of Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall).
In other words, the metaethnic frontier theory has been translated into mathematical models, and model predictions passed the test of data.
Which brings us back to the prediction that the metaethnic frontier theory suggested in 2005 about Iraq.
Following the Allied invasion and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 the United States invested a huge quantity of treasure, effort, and human lives (both American and Iraqi) in the project of building a state in Iraq. Not the least part of this effort was the attempt to build and equip the Iraqi army. Yet at the first push from the Islamic State fighters, this army crumbled and fled, leaving its weaponry behind.
By contrast, ISIS has created a highly effective military force. It has conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, simultaneously expanding on multiple fronts against Iraqi Shiites, Syrian Alawites, and Sunni Kurds—all this despite the American bombardment from the air. It is now clear that ISIS’s advance against the Assad regime could only be stopped in the Fall of 2015 by a combination of the Russian air force together with Hezbollah and Iranian troops stiffening up the Syrian Army on the ground. The Syrian Kurds, aided by American air power, have also been able to stop the Islamic State, and indeed reconquer a significant amount of territory by the end of 2015.
Somehow ISIS managed to create in a very short time a well-organized and well-financed (if tyrannical and predatory) state. Now the Caliphate has reached far beyond its territory by striking at all of its main enemies: the Shiites in Beirut, the Kurds in Ankara, the Russians in Egypt, and the “crusaders” in Paris and Brussels.
Why was state building in Iraq by the West unsuccessful, while state building by the new Caliphate so horribly effective? The surprising answer is that, actually, state building by the West was a success, and the name of this success is ISIS.
The occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and allied forces created a zone of direct contact/conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations—a metaethnic frontier, to use my terminology. And metaethnic frontiers, as we have seen, are the breeding grounds of empires, such as the Chinese empires over the last two thousand years, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire—even the original Caliphate in the seventh century.
(to be continued)