By Dr. Robert D. Lamb & Melissa R. Gregg1

(Re-published from US Institute of Peace Fragility Study Group Policy Brief No. 7 | October 2016) The United States and its partners have not been unambiguously successful in most of the conflicts they have been engaged in since 9/11. In some cases, conflicts that had seemed settled erupted again under different guises. Combatants that had appeared defeated emerged under different names. Partners that had seemed reliable turned out to have different agendas. Successful operations have rarely led to strategic success. In short, tactics, alliances, motives, and players shift so quickly now that existing analytic “conflict lenses” sometimes make today’s conflicts look more kaleidoscopic than focused – shift your perspective just a little and the whole picture seems to change.2

“We consider a conflict to be complex if it involves more than two sets of direct combatants, uncertain or unstable alliances between them, fragmentation within at least one of them, involvement by external supporters who themselves are global competitors, and opacity in the motivations and objectives of at least one major combatant group.”

In the face of this complexity, how should the U.S. government organize and position itself to protect its interests and contribute to a stable international order in the future? Some scholars and practitioners have suggested the answer lies in finding ways to be more adaptive and innovative – more like startups and venture capitalists than government bureaucracies.

But what does that mean in practice? What are the systemic challenges the United States would need to overcome to prepare adequately for conflicts that realistically are not likely to be susceptible to normal planning?

Conflicts as Complex Systems

This policy brief – based on a year of research, including a literature search, expert consultations, a focus group, and a simulation exercise3 – addresses these questions and recommends some experiments and investments that can be made early in the next administration to position U.S. institutions for the longer-term reforms that will be needed to engage more intelligently and strategically with complex conflicts (at all stages) in the future.

Evidence is accumulating that conflicts are increasing in complexity (even as they are arguably decreasing in number). Today’s wars tend to involve more uncertainty, more volatility, and more actors with domestic, regional, or international affiliations. Parties to conflict are increasingly likely to be highly fragmented, use interconnected social networks (proximate or distant), and engage in competitive alliances out of expediency or necessity, rather than ideological alignment, trust, or a desire for power sharing. Even after rates of violence fall, the instability of these alliances can increase the likelihood of conflict recurrence and disrupt the transition to peace. In complex wars, it can be unclear what winning might even look like.4

Fragility has a similar complexity. The “absence or breakdown of a social contract between people and their government,” as the Fragility Study Group defines the term,5 is generally reflected in a lack of consensus over the system of governance that different populations within a defined territory would consider legitimate. When a governance system suffers from “deficits of institutional capacity and political legitimacy that increase the risk of instability and violent conflict and sap the state of its resilience to disruptive shocks,”6 the result is that different political groupings find ways to fend for themselves – allying with other groups when convenient, competing with others for resources and influence, carving out their own safe spaces where possible, partnering with outside patrons when necessary, and communicating different narratives to different audiences to maximize whatever benefit can be achieved. In a sense, fragility is a complex conflict that has not yet turned violent.

“Conflict systems are like ecological, electrical, and biological systems. They absorb inputs that can change the status of the system and generate outputs.”

For the sake of this brief, we consider a conflict to be complex if it involves more than two sets of direct combatants, uncertain or unstable alliances between them, fragmentation within at least one of them, involvement by external supporters who themselves are global competitors, and opacity in the motivations and objectives of at least one major combatant group. Fragile environments are complex if, instead of combatants, politically significant population groups interact with similar degrees of uncertainty, instability, and opacity. More formally, we consider fragile and conflict environments to be systems, and complex ones to be complex systems.

Conflict systems are like ecological, electrical, and biological systems. They absorb inputs that can change the status of the system and generate outputs. In conflict systems, inputs can include weapons, money, recruits, knowledge, diplomatic cover, and other resources that come from outside the system. Status variables, which measure overall changes in the system, can include levels or types of violence, control of territory, changes in power and legitimacy, and other dynamics of concern. Outputs can be whichever status variable is of greatest interest – for example, which combatant controls the most territory, or how many civilians are being killed – or can include externalities such as refugee flows, the risk of uncontrolled disease outbreaks, or geopolitical tensions that spill over beyond the conflict.7

To understand complex systems, it helps to learn how different factors (variables) affect each other and how their interactions affect the outcomes of interest (i.e., status and outputs).8 In other words, it helps to understand the components of the system and the linkages between them. In conflicts, components can include combatants, legitimacy, finances, resentment, extremism, social networks, rumor, population subgroups, territory, and anything else that affects the conflict. The linkages between these components can be simple, as in a transfer of funds that increases the resources available to purchase weapons. Linkages can also be very complicated. Complications can include negative feedback loops (which counteract the effects of certain inputs), positive feedback loops (which exponentially amplify outcomes), multiple causality (in which one variable is affected by a lot of different variables in a lot of different ways), and delays between causes and effects.

Because of these complex internal dynamics, inputs can create cascades of effects (second- and third-order or higher) that make it extremely hard to predict what effects they ultimately will have. Large inputs can have no discernible effect. Small inputs can sometimes have very large effects. Multiple inputs can increase a system’s unpredictability exponentially. In short, anything one does in a complex conflict can have unexpected consequences – or none at all …

Read the full report here.

Bob Lamb is a visiting research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College and an adviser on strategy and policy through his consultancy, RD Lamb LLC. Melissa R. Gregg is a Ph.D. student in criminology at Simon Fraser University with a research focus on international criminal law and violence against women.

The Fragility Study Group (FSG)  is an independent, non-partisan, effort of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for a New American Security, and INSCT collaborator the United States Institute of Peace. INSCT Faculty Member David Crane is an FSG Senior Advisor. The chair report of the study group, U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility, may be accessed here.

This brief is part of a series authored by scholars from the three institutions and others who advised the effort, that build on the chair report to discuss the implications of fragility on existing U.S. tools, strategic interests, and challenges. The complete list of policy briefs may be accessed here.


1 Bob Lamb and Melissa R. Gregg are advisers to the International Peace and Security Institute (IPSI), an applied-research and experiential training organization based in Washington, D.C., through which much of the research for this project was carried out. This policy brief is a preview of a longer monograph being prepared by the authors and others. The authors would like to thank Kevin Melton for his collaboration on this research as director of IPSI’s Kaleidoscopic Conflict Project.
2  David Crane, a lawyer and international prosecutor whose research is focusing on a potential war-crimes case against Bashar Assad, coined the term “kaleidoscopic conflict” to describe the complex war in Syria and the likely trajectory of warfare in the future. The authors are grateful to him for initiating the project through which this research was undertaken. 
3 References for evidence presented in this paper will be provided in the authors’ forthcoming monograph.
4 For example, the Syrian regime and the Islamic State group are fighting each other. The United States opposes both, so it supports, for example, Kurdish fighters, who also oppose both. But it also supports a regional power that opposes both the Islamic State group and the Kurds – and it is therefore only a slight exaggeration to argue that almost anything the United States does in the Syrian war can
end up both supporting and opposing its adversaries and opposing and supporting its partners.
5 William J. Burns, Michèle A. Flournoy, and Nancy E. Lindborg, “Fragility Study Group: U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility” (United States Institute of Peace, Center for a New American Security, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2016).
6 Ibid.
7 Whether any particular variable is considered an output or a status depends mainly on what questions are being asked about the system and how it is being modeled. Status variables are usually called “state” variables by scholars, but status is used here because, among policymakers, “state” generally implies a political unit in the international system (e.g., “fragile states”) and the authors want to strongly encourage readers not to think of conflict systems as being coextensive with (political) state borders. A good introduction to complex systems in the context of conflicts is Giorgio Gallo, “Conflict Theory, Complexity and Systems Approach,” Systems Research
and Behavioral Science, 30 no. 2 (2013), 156–175. For a discussion of the “standard approach” to modeling complex systems, see James Lyneis and James Hines, “The Standard Method for System Dynamics Modeling,” Worcester Polytechnic Institute, class handout for SD554 Real World System Dynamics, Spring 2007.
8 System dynamics modeling, political economy analysis, control (or cybernetic) theory, and design thinking are all useful approaches to understanding complex systems and identifying paths through them to achieve some future objective.

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