The Humpty Dumpty Problem

Call of Duty: AW Seoul 

Megacities represent one of the biggest challenges for governments and citizens alike due to their size, complexity and growth. The national security community has the added challenge of trying to make sense of how to understand what kinds of risks arise when tens of millions of people live together in extremely close proximity. Peter Engelke, Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, described for the Art of Future Warfare project the three things essential to understanding megacities and the future of armed and social conflict: ungoverned spaces; low-intensity conflict; and the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ problem.

The project is holding a creative contest calling for graphic novel interpretations of megacity urban combat in the 2040s-2050s. The Atlantic Council will hold a related event on June 23 with World War Z author Max Brooks and Jon Chang, writer for the Black Powder \\ Red Earth graphic novel series.

Ungoverned spaces: What is life like in the world’s slums?

No one has precise data on the number of slums in the world, nor on the number of slum residents. But all agree that the scale is enormous. Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, believes that there are some 200,000 slums on Earth, with a billion people living in them. Within two decades we can expect to add another billion slum dwellers, primarily in the rapidly growing cities of Africa and Asia.

The core of the slum problem is not the people who live there, the vast majority of whom have the same wishes as everyone else (policymakers must resist the view that slum residents are the problem). Rather, slums are governance vacuums. The state frequently is either weak or completely absent, owing to the state’s inability or lack of desire to establish the rule of law and provide the public services that the rest of us take for granted, including public education, clean drinking water, electrical power, public sewerage, paved roadways, effective court systems, and well-defined property rights. When the state does show up, much of the time it is through heavy-handed policing and even para-military operations designed to crack down on crime and occasionally terror.

As a result, slum residents survive in a nether world, existing largely beyond the reach (or care) of the state and carving out meager existences within the informal economy. They also have no choice but to live under the rule of gangs and criminal networks. Slums provide these groups with the chance to set up shop and expand their operations outward, precisely because slums literally and figuratively are unmapped (thereby providing great opportunity for illicit trafficking) and almost always very poorly governed by the state. Inevitably, these conditions provide the setting for much violence, which spins outward into the surrounding city and from one city to another, including cities in other countries.

Low-intensity conflict: What is urban warfare going to look like?

Cities exist because, on balance, physical proximity enables people to interact, exchange ideas, and create culture, wealth, and institutions. However, this attribute is the reason why cities are so attractive to people and groups with harmful intentions. The physical density of cities—of buildings, institutions, infrastructure, and of course human beings—offers up a tempting menu of potential violence. At the same time, the city offers ideal terrain within which the terrorist or urban guerrilla can operate, their plans and actions obscured by the city’s anonymity. The denser and more chaotic the urban environment, whether narrow alleyways, unmapped street systems, dense slums, walled compounds, or poorly policed gathering places, the easier it is for the urban guerrilla to operate. For those who want to inflict violence on others, the city is a delicious weapon for use against the city.

As described in David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains, the November 2008 Mumbai terror attack showed how a megacity could be brought to a standstill by a well-planned and -executed plot by a small number of people. The terrorists took advantage of Mumbai’s network of structures and roads, plus confusion among the police and population, to blend into the city when desired and reemerge at times and locations of their choosing.

Although it is possible that pitched battles between national armies will recur in the cities of the future, urban warfare in the twenty-first century is unlikely to look much like Stalingrad in 1942. Rather, low-intensity but chronic conflict will define this century’s urban warfare. In many cities (but certainly not all), asymmetric conflict will be the norm, with non-state and quasi-state groups colliding with one another and with the state. This background of death will occasionally resemble full-scaled warfare but more often will resemble Brazil’s experience, a country that has been fighting heavily armed, well-organized, and well-funded gangs and criminal syndicates in the favelas of its big cities for decades.

The Humpty Dumpty problem: What is the toughest problem in urban conflict?

As difficult it will be for a military or paramilitary force to achieve victory in an urban conflict, the fact is that once the shooting is over, there will be a far more difficult war to be won. The same is true for cities that are hit hard by disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons. Whether caused by humans or by nature, destroyed cities require a long and difficult period of reconstruction. Such periods can be as unpredictable and often as dangerous as the conflicts or disasters that preceded them, for putting cities back together is an incredibly complex puzzle involving many parts.

As countless examples around the world have shown, the reestablishment of basic security functions (the rule of law, effective policing, safeguarding of property, etc.) is fundamental to any successful reconstruction. Given the fact that most humans now live in cities almost everywhere on Earth, and that many of the world’s rapidly growing cities are in vulnerable coastal areas, national militaries and homeland security forces should anticipate that they will be drawn into urban reconstruction schemes.

This observation is especially true for the US military. As the “world’s policeman” it engages in conflicts abroad with greater frequency than other militaries. As the world’s greatest humanitarian rescue force, it is expected to come to the assistance of disaster-stricken places, including cities, whenever and wherever they occur. Post-conflict/post-disaster assistance will necessitate that the US military become as adept at city planning and management as it is at war fighting, requiring an understanding of cities’ workings at a deep level of sophistication and agility.

Doing so will be expensive, time consuming, and difficult, but not doing so will be worse. Failure to reconstruct cities to the point where they are once again secure and well governed is a virtual guarantee of instability, insecurity, and violence.