The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on orders from Donald Trump has many people asking: could this mark the beginning of World War III? I think it’s the wrong question. I was born into a world reeling from the trauma of World Wars I and II, and throughout my lifetime, people have been looking for the flashpoint that might ignite World War III. Would it be Israel/Palestine? Would it be India/Pakistan? In fact, World War III has already started; it’s been underway for a while. We didn’t see it coming and we don’t see it now because we’ve been looking for it
with twentieth century eyes: trying to fit the events we’re seeing into templates familiar from our past.
In the 20th century, world wars were titanic clashes between organized social monoliths locking horns in struggles for territory and trade advantages. These combatants demolished infrastructure and stamped millions to death until one side had rendered the other incapable of functioning. Back then, victory and defeat were definable because, in the 20th century, a World War was, by definition, a clash of titans.
In 200l, when those hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of New York, everyone knew something really big had happened, but what this meant to most people was: clash of titans. So experts set to work trying to identify the titans. This explains why the Bush Administration almost immediately began to speak of “state-sponsored terrorism.” On the face of it, they were saying something really ominous had just happened. Actually, 9/11 marked the start of something much more ominous than “state-sponsored terrorism”. It was non-state-sponsored terrorism. That was its real significance.
“State-sponsored” was comforting because it denoted a problem one state had caused and another state could solve by going to war, if necessary. The Bush Administration accordingly declared a “War on Terror,” which involved sending troops to Afghanistan. This war couldn’t just be with terrorism, however; the enemy had to be somebody specific, someone with a name — someone a military force could defeat. The name most readily at hand just then was Taliban, so that became the standard shorthand for America’s military goal in Afghanistan: to defeat the Taliban.
The trouble was, the Taliban as such did not exist. The first brief burst of violence wiped them out. Within months, the U.S. gained what was, in 20th century terms, a complete victory. After that, what America faced in Afghanistan was not some state-like force with a cadre and a command structure. Its real enemy was not a group but a narrative. It wasn’t the Taliban but “Talibanism.” This was a narrative born in the smoking rubble of a tribal, rural world that had not vanished gradually long ago but had ended catastrophically within this lifetime for most Afghans. As soon as this narrative was born, it was looking for soil in which to grow, and not surprisingly, it found such soil among rural Afghan survivors of wars and refugee camps.
The Taliban was not a government; it’s what emerged instead of a government,
in response to chaos.
Twentieth-century wars raged until one side lost all ability to function as a state. That’s how victory was defined. Afghanistan had already lost this ability by the time the Americans arrived. It had been through a long war of all against all which had so unraveled the social fabric, no functional state could gain traction.
The Taliban was not a government; it’s what emerged instead of a government, in response to chaos. Nothing a military power could destroy would weaken its narrative. Chaos was the monster’s food. And Afghanistan was not alone. The term “failed state” gained currency around that time for a reason. Failed-state was not some fleeting curiosity of that moment but a modern condition beginning to spread.
Early on, to be sure, savvy policymakers understood that the responsibility for winning the war in Afghanistan ultimately fell to civilian forces. Only re-development could beat the real enemy here. Trillions of dollars were spent in Afghanistan to make this happen. A governing framework crafted in the West was dropped over the country. Surely this would transform this area into a stable, healthy society like America. But the mechanisms of government only work if they fit the social realities of the governed. But the imported narrative didn’t fit the shredded remnants of Afghan society. The two narratives would not blend into one, could not co-exist. Instead of Afghanistan becoming more like America, it was America that became more like Afghanistan. America’s red-state/blue-state phenomenon, for example, proved to be an eerie echo of the rural/urban divide that had launched the fragmentation of Afghanistan.
The failed-state phenomenon was just one aspect of a wider drama. When 9/11 broke, Samuel Huntington’s phrase “clash of civilizations” gained a grip on the public imagination. It was embraced by historians and political scientists looking at the world through 20th century eyes. They felt a rising tide of unrest and assumed it meant that titans were moving into position for combat. Quite reasonably, they tried to discern who the titans were. Terrorism, they said, signaled an upcoming struggle between Western civilization and Islam. Within this framework, it made sense to pour intellectual energy into a search for the particular connections between terrorism and Islam.
Looking at terrorism through this lens was misleading, however. It obscured the fact that terrorism wasn’t particular to Islam. By and large, Muslims were just as much the victims of terrorism as its perpetrators. Yes, in 2015, a wave of murderous attacks by Muslim jihadists claimed at least 130 lives in Paris; but one day earlier, a nearly identical wave of terrorist attacks took the lives of 43 people, mostly Muslims, in Beirut. If you didn’t know who was killing whom, in what city, for what purported reason, you’d have seen essentially the same event.
In looking at the ideology or political goals of terrorists, we were failing to notice the structural similarities between terrorist attacks, no matter who was committing them. And all sorts of people were committing them. In structural terms, when Al Qaeda destroyed the Twin Towers , they were doing the same thing Tim McVeigh did when he bombed the Oklahoma City courthouse. Structurally, there was no difference between Omar Mateen’s slaughter of 49 random people partying at a nightclub in Orlando and Anders Breivik’s murderous attack that killed 79 people, mostly children, at a summer camp in Norway. Their ideologies differed but so what? The distinction between terrorism and crime was blurring out. Stephen Paddock killed or injured nearly 900 people at a Las Vegas concert by firing 1100 rounds of bullets from a hotel window, and he had no ideological motive at all, so far as anyone knows.
If we’d given serious attention to these structure similarities, we’d have seen terrorism for what it is: a thing-in-itself, coming into existence in the world, able to attach to pretty much any ideology. What’s growing here might not be a war between Somebody and Somebody but the early stages of a new kind of World War III. What we’re looking at might not be a clash of titans, but a global pandemic of local violence in which it’s never exactly clear who is fighting whom and for what. We already saw the War-of-All-against-All in Afghanistan, we’ve been seeing it for a while now in Syria, and there’s every reason to think we’ll see more of it as time goes on.
World War III is not about one state wanting what another state has. This is a prairie fire stemming from a global unraveling of social fabric that is making states as such non-functional everywhere. The mechanisms of government, the institutions of order, must fit the social reality of the day and those are changing more pervasively and more profoundly than ever before in history. The old mechanisms, the old institutions, no longer fit. The killing of Qasem Soleimani will not, I think, prompt Iran as a state to go to war with America as a state.
What the assassination of Soleimani will do is heat up the war already in progress: a massacre here, a truck bombing there, a food riot someplace else. In the 20th century, the aim of any state at war with another state was to undermine its enemy’s internal order, its cohesion. That’s already happening, both in the United States and in Iran. For America, the long-term effect of this assassination will be precisely what an enemy state would have hoped to achieve. It will erode the coherence of our narrative, making us more vulnerable to the real enemy stalking us all: non-state sponsored terrorism, an enemy whose basic goal is not to bring about this or that order but to advance the cause of civil disorder itself.
Tamim Ansary is the author of Games Without Rules, the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan, and The Invention of Yesterday, a 50,000 Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection, in which these ideas are elaborated more fully. To make a comment about this article, CLICK HERE.