Tag: insurgency

Kajaki and Power Politics

Like the ancient Greco-Buddhist colossi of Bamiyan, the High-Modernist era Kajaki dam is a product of foreign influences and has been a mute witness as well as an occasional victim of domestic political disarray and failed attempts to integrate and incorporate Afghanistan into contending spheres of influence. Each alternate modern (i.e., capitalist, communist, islamist, praetorian) or anti-traditional/utopian fundamentalist (i.e., Deobandi) ideology has attempted to inscribe the future of Afghanistan on this palimpsest.

The dam was built from 1946 to 1953 as part of what became known as the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) project in Afghanistan.  It was funded initially by King Zahir Shah and later, as funds ran low, from loans by the United States (Washington Post 8/7/2011). The vast project was obviously modeled on the  Great Depression era Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project. The belief in the High Modernist era of development planning was that massive infrastructural investment was the key to setting off a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing economic growth. Although that model of development is highly discredited today for environmental and political as well as practical reasons, the dam, irrigation canals, and highways associated with the project did eventually help to transform the landscape into a fertile valley. By the mid-seventies, the dam had two Westinghouse 16.5 MW turbines to generate electricity for the entire valley. This project was for its time, one of the most expensive US foreign assistance projects in history.

With the Saur Revolution, insurrection, Soviet invasion, and civil war the dam naturally fell into a brief period of disrepair. The occupying Soviet forces prioritized linking Kabul directly to the Soviet power grid. However, they also built gas turbines and diesel generators in several other Afghan cities and towns. Czechoslovakia was given the task of restoring the dam and they provided much of the equipment to “modernize” the Kajaki dam and increase its irrigation capacity. By 1982, the dam’s power lines were restored and power flowed once again to Alexander’s city, Kandahar, in the neighboring province. Not surprisingly, the dam soon attracted several Mujahedeen attacks on Soviet and PDPA soldiers guarding the site. With the Soviet withdrawal and the warlord period, the dam and associated infrastructure again fell into disrepair.

By the late nineties as order returned across much of Afghanistan, the Taliban expressed hopes that their increasingly warm friendship with the US (which seemed all too willing to overlook Taliban abuses toward women and minorities at the time) would mean that Americans would return to Helmand to once again fix the dam’s power generating units and particularly the silted irrigation canals (Philadelphia Inquirer 1/19/1997). The irrigation canals associated with the HVA were now vital to the production of the world’s largest supply of opium and Afghanistan’s main export, even though the Taliban had officially announced plans to stamp out the crop.

When US assistance for the dam did not materialize a few years later, the Taliban turned to Pakistan and China for assistance.  The Pakistanis, who increasingly saw Afghanistan as a colony or at least a “gateway to Central Asia” after the Soviet withdrawal and collapse, were committed to restoring electricity and promoting a modicum of stability and development in order to consolidate the gains of their Taliban client regime. Under the Lahore Agreement, Pakistan planned to build a high voltage transmission line to connect the Afghan city of Jalalabad directly to Pakistan’s own electricity grid. In Helmand, the Pakistanis proposed to build new sluice gates to increase the power generation and irrigation capacity of the dam.  These plans obviously came to a screeching halt in September 2001.

During the initial US invasion of Afghanistan, the dam’s power station was deliberately targeted by American forces (Guardian 12/20/2001).  Once the US occupied Afghanistan, the teams switched sides and the dam became the target of the Taliban while the US played defense.  In 2003, a force of sixty Taliban were captured after firing three rockets at the dam — all of which missed the target (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/3/2003).

In 2006, the US gave $1.4 billion to two private contractors to increase the amount of power generated by the Kajaki dam by adding a third turbine and also repairing a large power plant in Kabul.  Adding the third turbine to the dam entailed a famous 2008 mission, Operation Kryptonite, in which 3,000 British troops protected 100 vehicle convoy as it hauled a gigantic turbine across a 180 km of insurgent dominated areas. Apparently between 15 to 200 insurgents were killed (depending on which account one believes) during this Hollywood style “Wild West” stagecoach mission.

The mission “succeeded” in reaching the forward operating base but repairs and installation of the new turbine was painstakingly slow – the third turbine has never been unpacked. Repairs to the dam were supposed to be finished by 2008. By mid 2009 auditors were complaining that the two plants (Kajaki and Kabul) combined were only generating 12MW instead of the originally contracted 140MW (USA Today 11/11/2009). Plans for adding the third turbine were deferred indefinitely after a Chinese subcontractor abandoned the site. US taxpayers have since paid a $1 million per month to guard the dam while the program was suspended to look for another subcontractor and to make the road to the dam “secure.”

In the interim, US and ISAF forces performed annual surges to tame the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.  An inattentive and uncritical American and European public was repeatedly told by blatant propaganda that this time the province had finally been secured, only to witness a repeated need for a surge of troops and bribes the next year. Despite these surges, ISAF soldiers soldiers openly admit that their influence does not extend beyond 500 meters of their security bases (see Daily Mail 10/8/2011).

The electricity grid once again became a priority issue for American generals during a surge in the neighboring province of Kandahar in 2010, when the generals realized that restoring electric power was critical to winning over the civilian population and defeating the Taliban. They took $106 million dollars in discretionary funding to pay for new generators and all the diesel fuel necessary to power the grid for four years (Globe and Mail, 7/11/11). No provisions were made for the Afghan government to restock the fuel after four years and the government lacked the staff to monitor or repair the system.

Finally, having failed to stabilize the province, much less fix the electricity supply, ISAF forces have simply declared victory and they have begun to hand over responsibility to ill trained Afghan Security Forces in preparation for a withdrawal in 2014.

In November 2011, it was reported that water levels in the reservoir had dropped by 20 meters over several months endangering the ability of the dam to generate any electricity if another 5 meters were lost (Shamsad TV, 11/23/2011).  The electricity generation which had reached 20MW was now back down to 12MW. The drop in water also threatened the agricultural capacity of the valley which was already threatened by drought.

This week (12/13/2011) with a 50% cut to the USAID budget, the US is considering permanently deferring the installation of the third turbine and instead calling it a day after simply refurbishing the existing two turbines, power lines, and substations.  What was once seen as essential to winning hearts and minds is now on the chopping block of a cost-benefit analysis.

Thus, the dam remains a symbol of false promises and failed efforts to reorient decisively Afghanistan’s future. But even if the dam were made operational, it would still remain problematic. Somewhere in the many struggles to “modernize” this modern dam, it became an end rather than a means to development. The broader failings of an unsustainable infrastructure-led development model were never unpacked and thought through. The dam represents a desperate hope that there is a short cut to development, prosperity, and peace.

[Cross-posted from Humanyun]

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#Insurgency: Warring Over Somalia….On Twitter

Al-Shabaab, the Islamic insurgency wreaking havoc in Somali, appears to have joined Twitter. The @HSMPress (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen press office) feed has a trickle of followers and posts today that offer some fighting words on the AU’s peacekeeping efforts and the Kenyan military intervention, and laud al-Shabaab’s cause and martyrs.

@HSMPress with the rising economic burden of operation Linda Nchi, the much-hyped #Kenyan invasion has faltered quite prematurely.

Reports are that Kenyan troops, who are retaliating for al-Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, have gained ground. But critics question the legitimacy of the intervention, are concerned about regional spillover, and warn that the foreign incursions of the both the AU and Kenya play into al-Shabaab’s propaganda. Kenya announced today that it will be integrating troops into the 9,000 strong AU forces in Mogadishu.

Not to be outdone, the Twitter propaganda machine has a Kenyan side.  A Kenyan military spokesman has a Twitter account under @MajorEChirChir and regularly tweets about impending and successful attacks on al-Shabaab under #OperationLindaNchi.

@MajorEChirChir #OperationLindaNchi KDF bombed 2 Al shabaab camps south of Afmadow town, killing several Al Shabaab & destroyed technical vehicles.

(There is also a Facebook page for the Operation, in case you feel inclined to “like” it).

Reports are that Kenyan troops, who are retaliating for al-Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, have gained ground. But critics question the legitimacy of the intervention, are concerned are regional spill-over, and warn that the foreign incursions of both the AU and Kenya play into al-Shabaab’s propaganda. Kenya announced today that it will integrating troops into the 9,000 strong AU forces in Mogadishu.

@MajorEChirChir and @HSMPress are not following each other…yet. As others have noted, to follow is not to endorse.

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Terror, Counter-Terror, and Insurgency in Harry Potter, or Why Harry Won

In the waning days of classes, one of my colleagues asked a student if she’d been among those celebrating outside of the White House the night that President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin-Laden. “Of course,” she responded, “I mean, they got Voldemort!”

For many readers who aged along with its titular hero, the Harry Potter series inextricably intertwines with the war on terrorism. This connection stems from more than a mere accident of timing. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) provides readers their first glimpse of the Death Easters as they carry out a terror attack against the wizarding’s greatest sporting event, the Quidditch World Cup. The Goblet of Fire also expands upon themes first introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999): state policies of arbitrary detention, torture, wrongful imprisonment, star-chamber style justice, and the use of all four by officials to advance their careers.

Such tropes surely already resonated in the United Kingdom—the “Good Friday” accords were, after all, signed in 1998—but they took on new dimensions with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Bush Administration’s policy responses. Indeed, for those inclined to see Harry Potter as, at least in part, a parable for terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the flawed responses of the state, the Goblet of Fire’s sequels—Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2003) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2006)—do not disappoint.


In Order of the Pheonix we find the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, refusing to accept that Voldemort has returned. This denial extends to Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to discredit and vilify Harry Potter. These failures of leadership allow Voldemort and his Death Eaters to wage a low-level campaign of terror, murder, and intimidation. Although fans disagree about whether or not the Death Eaters retain their cellular organization from the previous conflict, the only evidence to the contrary concerns Voldemort’s inner circle. It is clear, however, that power and authority among the Death Eaters is highly centralized in Voldemort’s hands.

As is so often the case in politically unstable environments, Fudge worries most not about the possible threat posed by Voldemort, but that Dumbledore seeks to replace him as head of the Ministry. Given Dumbledore’s own political views, particularly with respect to the treatment of sentient magical creatures, Fudge’s attitude made a certain amount of pervese sense. Rowling’s account of the politics of the wizarding world suggest that the Death Eaters’ ideology—essentially one of wizard racial supremacy over muggles and muggle-born wizards and witches—is, in some ways, less revolutionary than that of Dumbledore’s embrace of radical inter-species equality. And, of course, Dumbledore does lead a clandestine paramilitary organization: the Order of the Phoenix.


The Order operates as a secret counter-terror squad determined to stop the Death Eaters even without help from the Ministry. Its structure is, in fact, rather similar to that of the Death Eaters. Through both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, the two groups fight a shadow war that extends into the ranks of the ministry itself. The Order’s main advantage in this struggle involves superior intelligence: that provided by Severus Snape and by Dumbledore’s investigations. Indeed, the film version of the Half-Blood Prince’s (2009) main contributions to advancing the series’ arc center on Harry’s and Dumbledore’s efforts to gain intelligence necessary to defeat Voldemort—the nature, existence, and number of his horcruxes.

Even after indisputable proof of Voldemort’s return at the end of Order of the Phoenix costs Fudge his job, the Ministry remains, at best, an uncertain ally of the Order. The Ministry proves unwilling to take concerted action against a number of likely Death Eaters—not out of a concern for due process, but rather an unwillingness to overly antagonize powerful members of the community. Instead, it engages in ineffectual “security theater,” including incarcerating innocent wizards and witches as suspected Death Eaters. The film version of the Half-Blood Prince drives the resulting fear and uncertainty home by adding a scene in which two of Voldemort’s most powerful lieutenants—Belatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback—attack the Burrow, lure its defenders away, and then burn its upper floors to the ground.

The Ministry’s preference for counter-terror show over substance allows the Death Eaters to subvert it from within. The nature of the conflict changes radically in The Deathly Hallows, Part I (2010), and not simply because of Dumbledore’s (willing) defenestration at Snape’s hands. Voldemort, through his agents, seizes control of the British wizarding government. His followers turn the Ministry’s coercive and propagandistic capacity—augmented by their own equivalent of brownshirts, the Snatchers—toward suppressing opposition to their new order. Taken together, the two parts of the Deathly Hallows films chart a government crackdown on dissent, a growing insurgency waging asymmetric warfare against the state, and Voldemort’s personal Stalingrad, i.e., the Battle of Hogwarts.

As much as I enjoyed The Deathly Hallows, Part II, there’s not much in the way of international politics in the film; it deals almost exclusively with the final stages of the second Voldemort war. From this perspective, Part II involves three major events of concerns to scholars of international security:

  • The raid on Gringott’s to seize a crucial enemy resource (a horcrux) that nearly ends in disaster for the resistance;
  • The clandestine incursion to seize another horcrux that unexpectedly prompts an open revolt in Hogwarts; and
  • Voldemort’s attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all in a single battle.

Harry’s, Hermione’s, and Ron’s attack on Gringotts reflects the tactics they perfect over the courses of the series; these tactics fit squarely within the tradition of guerilla and asymmetric warfare. They rely on stealth and deception; they operate as a small mobile strike team. The three show no remorse about using the imperious curse—one of the three “Unforgiveable Curses”—to forward their goals. When detected, they exploit a weakness in their enemy’s defenses: they liberate an imprisoned dragon and use it as a means of escape. In their efforts they are aided by a network of supporters, including Aberforth Dumbledore, who conceals them in Hogsmeade, and, unbeknownst to them, Snape, who, in Part I, goes so far as to provide them with an important weapon—the Sword of Gryffindor and, in Part II, passes on crucial intelligence even as he lies dying.

Behind their success lies the superior intelligence and planning of the Order, and of Dumbledore in particular. Although Dumbledore’s role in the Order appears superficially comparable to Voldemort’s in the Death Eaters, Dumbledore takes extensive steps to ensure that his followers retain operational capability after his demise. He prudently conceals his plans by parceling out information among his agents, and by often encrypting that information to render it unusable by their enemies. He encourages Harry to share key intelligence with Ron and Hermione. Indeed, his efforts to guide the three since their arrival at Hogwarts wield them into a proficient covert operations teams. In the Order of the Phoenix, he does nothing to prevent Harry from training an army of students; “Dumbledore’s Army” provides one of the major fighting forces in the Battle of Hogwarts. In sum, Dumbledore builds an organization capable of surviving decapitation, and one that proves willing to fight on even in the face of Harry’s (apparent) death.

These advantages in intelligence and motivation are not, in of themselves, enough to overcome the Death Eater’s superior firepower, experience, and numbers. But the Death Eaters themselves suffer from a number of weaknesses. The Death Eaters’ problems, in fact, partially overlap with those we often associate with failed counterinsurgency campaigns.

First, Voldemort places far too much strategic emphasis on, and faith in, technological fixes—most notably his horcruxes and the Elder Wand. The former fail, the latter betrays him. Harry, on the other hand, seeks strength in the loyalty of his allies and the force of his cause.

Second, the Death Eaters reliance on fear as a tool of rule gives their regime, like those of Middle Eastern despots, an underlying fragility. Although they quash most dissent, they remain vulnerable so long as resistance continues. Thus, Harry, Ron, and Hermione remain potent symbols of opposition. Events at Hogwarts highlight the fragility of the Death Eaters’ regime, particularly in pockets of ideological opposition. There, Harry’s open defiance of Snape encourages the remnants of Dumbledore’s staff to rebel; previously unaligned students affiliated with Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw immediately follow suit.

Indeed, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved, and councils rulers to inflict their injuries at the outset so that they can appear beneficent later, this advice fails miserably for Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy’s betrayal of Voldemort—a consequence of his cruel treatment of her family for Lucius’ failures—ensures that Harry survives to defeat him. Voldemort’s overtures to the students of Hogwarts after they believe Harry dead provoke resistance rather than capitulation. Or, to paraphrase Rowling, Voldemort does not understand the power of love, only of fear and hatred.

Third, Voldemort’s egocentrism and overdeveloped will-to-power lead him to build, in direct contrast to the Order, an organization that cannot function in his absence. After the end of the first war, his supporters scatter, renounce him, or go into hiding. In the second war, his iron-fisted rule, unwillingness to cultivate replacements, and generally poor people skills ensure that the Death Eaters cannot outlive him. Voldemort’s death shatters the Death Eaters because of their lack of organizational resilience—a direct consequence of their over-centralized leadership structure and reliance on Voldemort’s personal ability to inspire terror.

Voldemort compounds these problems by committing a major strategic blunder: he actively participates in a direct assault on a well-fortified enemy position, one in which his adversaries enjoy superior local knowledge. These are common mistakes made by fictional tyrants. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV allows himself to be lured to Arrakis where the Fremen, led by Paul Maud’Dib, defeat his supposedly invincible Sardukar; Emperor Palpatine, placing far too much faith in his so-called “Death Star,” engineers a final battle in which his forces fall before the rebels and their newfound indigenous care-bearish allies.

Palpatine’s death at the hands of his chief adjutant one might argue, stems from his inability to appreciate the power of love and compassion.

In the books, the tide of battle is turned by the intervention of magical beings, including Centaurs and the House Elves—both of which lack civil and political rights in wizarding society and face an even worse time from Voldemort’s regime. This omission from the film raises questions about the Death Eaters’ defeat. In the real world, insurgencies almost always lose when they attempt to transition to conventional warfare. Only those guerilla leaders that wait until they have state-like manpower and resources (for example, Mao Zedung, Fidel Casto, and Ho Chin Minh) succeed. This does not seem to be the case for Harry and his allies: the students, teachers, and members of the Order at Hogwarts are significantly overmatched by the Death Eaters and their auxiliaries. Whether in the books or the films, the Battle of Hogwarts is a near thing; we should not assume that Voldemort’s defeat was preordained.

Especially in the absence of third-party intervention on behalf of our heroes, Voldemort’s best course of action is straightforward: allows his forces to crush resistance, or at least settle in for a long siege, while he watches from safety. But his reliance on a fearsome reputation to hold his coalition together, combined with his narcissism, compel Voldemort to face Harry himself. Indeed, Harry only survives numerous confrontations with Death Eaters because of Voldemort’s unwillingness to delegate key tasks to his subordinates. And here, again, we see the superiority of Dumbledore’s and Harry’s approach to leadership, let alone their specific command decisions.

If audiences can merge Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden as embodiments of evil, this becomes more complicated once the Death Eaters achieve military superiority. Their terrorism ceases to be that of a weapon of the weak; it takes the form of state terrorism—directed against the state’s own citizens. The most obvious analogy here, both with respect to ideology and to style, is with Nazi occupation governments. But we might also draw parallels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or, in fact, with what an Al-Qaeda inspired regime in the Middle East might look like. For their part, once Harry and his friends find themselves reduced to the position of insurgents, (and branded as terrorists, no less), they prove willing to adopt some of their opponents’ tactics, including the use of Unforgiveable Curses.

To the extent that the comparison continues to instruct, it does so in two ways. On the one hand, the series of events that climax in The Deathly Hallows, Part II stand as a powerful indictment of the worst excesses of the war on terrorism. Rowling’s deliberate condemnation of the repression she worked against while at Amnesty International resonates with recent experiences of arbitrary detention, torture, and incarceration of political dissidents. On the other hand, we can only hope that the Death Eaters’ pathologies are those of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. In the real world, however, few leaders prove as indispensible to a violent movements’ persistence as Voldemort. Given our tendency to personalize and personify our enemies, we would do well to remember that the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is, in the final analysis, just a movie.

This is a different stab at an international-affairs discussion of The Deathly Hallows. Be sure to read the other attempt.

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On The Ecology of Human Insurgency

Charli highlighted the recently published work of Sean Gourley in Nature on the patter of frequency and magnitude of attacks in insurgencies, so I wanted to cross-post my critique of this work to initiate a discussion here at Duck.

nature08631-f4.2.jpgThe cover story of this month’s Nature features the work of a team of researchers examining the mathematical properties of insurgency. One of the authors is Sean Gourley, a physicist by training and TED Fellow, and this work represents the culmination of research by Gourley and his co-authors—a body of work that I have been critical of in the past. The article is entitled, “Common ecology quantifies human insurgency,” (gated) and the article attempts to define the underlying dynamics of insurgency in terms of a particular probability distribution; specifically, the power-law distribution, and how this affects the strategy of insurgents.

First, I am very pleased that this research is receiving such a high level of recognition in the scientific community, e.g., Sean tweeted that this article “beat out ‘the new earth’ discovery and the ‘possible cancer cure’ for the cover of nature.” Scholarship on the micro-level dynamics of a conflict is undoubtedly the future of conflict science, and these authors have ambitiously pushed the envelope; collecting an impressive data set spanning both time and conflict geography. Bearing in mind the undeniable value of this work, it is important to note that several claims made by the authors do not seem consistent with the data, or are at least require a dubious suspension of disbelief.

In many ways I reject the primary thrust of the article, which is that because the frequency and magnitude of attacks in an insurgency follows a power-law distribution this somehow illuminates the underlying decision calculus of insurgents. Without belaboring a point that I have made in the past, the observation that conflicts follow a power-law is in no way novel, and I am disappointed that the authors failed to cite though I am encouraged that the authors did cite the seminal work on this subject (thank you for pointing out my errata, Sean). The data measures the lethality and frequency of attacks perpetrated in the Iraq, Afghanistan, Peru and Colombia insurgencies, but the connection between this and the strategy of an insurgent is missing.

The authors’ primary data sources are open media reports on attacks; therefore, their observation simply reveals that open-source reporting on successful insurgent attacks follows a power-law. There are two critical limitations in the data that prevent it from fully answering the questions posited by the authors. First, there is some non-negligible level of left-censoring, i.e., we can never attempt to quantify the attacks that are planned by insurgents and never carried out, or those that are attempted by fail (defective IEDs, incompetent actors, etc.). Although they do not inflict damage, these attacks a clearly byproducts of insurgent strategy, and therefore must be present in a model of this calculus. Second, while the authors claim to overcome selection bias by cross-validating attack observations, this remains a persistent problem. Consider the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan; in the former most of the attacks occurred in heavily populated urban areas, garnering considerable media coverage. In contrast, Afghanistan is largely a rural country, where the level of media scrutiny is considerably lower, meaning that media outlets there are inherently selective in what they report, or most reports are generated by US DoD reporting. How do we handle the absence of attack observations for Afghan villages outside the purview of the mainstream media?

The role of the media is central to the decision model proposed by the authors, which is illustrated in the figure above. Again, however, this presents a logical disconnect. As the figure describes, the authors claim that insurgents are updating their beliefs and strategies based on the information and signals they receive from broadcast news, then deciding whether to execute an attack. For lack of a better term, this is clearly putting the cart before the horse. The media is reporting attacks, as the authors’ data clearly proves; therefore, the insurgents’ decision to attack is creating news, and as such insurgents are gaining no new information from media reports on attacks that they themselves have perpetrated. Rather, the insurgents retain a critical element of private information, and are updating based on the counter-insurgency policies of the state—information they are very likely not receiving from the media. The framework presented here is akin to claiming that in a game of football (American) the offense is updating their strategy in the huddle before ever having seen how the defense lines up. Without question updating, in football both sides are updating strategy constantly, but it is the offense that dictates this tempo, and in an insurgency the insurgents are on offense.

This interplay between an insurgency and the state is what must be the focus of future research on the micro-dynamics of conflict. From the perspective of this research, a more novel track would be to attempt to find an insurgency that does not follow a power-law; but rather a less skewed distributions, such as the log-normal or a properly fit Poisson. Future research may also benefit from examining the distribution of attacks in the immediate or long-term aftermath of a variation in counter-insurgency policy. After addressing some of the limitations described above, such research might begin to identify the factors that contributed to why some counter-insurgency policies shift the attack distribution away from the power-law. The key to any future research; however, is to connect this to the context of the conflict in a meaningful way.

Again, congratulations to Sean and his team, I hope their piece will initiate a productive discussion in both academic and policy arenas on the methods and techniques for studying the micro-dynamics of conflict.

Photo: Nature

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Speaking of Fatality Data…

A physicist named Sean Gourley has created a model that he claims explains the power law distribution of deaths in insurgencies across a range of country contexts. Just published in Nature. The abstract is here. Check out his presentation on his original correlational findings from last May:

Q&A about his new model here. I’m not sure I understand it well enough to comment, but I figured Duck readers would find it interesting, and I’m asking myself how I can get my hands on his data to look at whether it’s broken down by category of victim…

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The Mathematics of War, Revisited

A few months back I wrote a post discussing Sean Gourley’s TED talk on the Mathematics of War; specifically, noting that his finding (a power-law distribution of attack frequency and severity in Iraq) was—well—old news. This set off an excellent discussion on Sean’s work, my comments, and more generally how the social and hard sciences can clash. More recently, Tom Ricks of The Best Defense blog revisited Sean’s talk with his own skepticism, which induced a response from Sean, and further skepticism by Ricks. In defense of his work, Sean responded to Tom’s post with the following:

With this new approach we can do several important things that were not possible before. We can understand the underlying structure of an insurgency i.e. how an insurgency ‘decides’ to distribute its forces (weapons, people, money etc). Further, we can explain why this kind of insurgent structure emerges in multiple different conflict zones around the world. We can estimate the number of autonomous insurgent groups operating within a theatre of war. We can monitor and track a conflict through time to see how either sides strategies are affecting the state of the war. Finally we can compare the mathematical patterns of current ongoing wars with past wars to estimate how close they are to ending.

I think Sean’s work in extremely important, as in many ways our research interests run parallel and this project has great potential. That said, his response leaves me with more questions than answers, therefore, with Sean’s response in hand I would like to revisit the mathematics of war.

First, I have serious doubts as to the connection between the distribution of attack frequency and severity and the underlying structure of an insurgency. Power-law distributions can provide a categorical approximation of a network’s underlying structure because in these cases the distribution in question refers to the frequency of edge counts among nodes, a structural measurement. Even for networks, however, the actual underlying structures of networks following a power-law can vary wildly. Attack frequencies, on the other hand, have nothing to do with structure. In what way, then, is this metric valid for measuring the structure or distribution of insurgent forces?

There is also a large element of context that is not captured in this analysis. To get to Sean’s question on why different types of insurgencies occur in different parts of the world, with varying lethality and effectiveness, one must account for the inherent variance in ability among insurgents and insurgent organizations. We know that people vary in their abilities to perform any task, which of course includes insurgency; therefore, we must control for any exogenous or endogenous factors that could contribute to this variance as to avoid inserting into our analysis the belief that all insurgent are created equally. Once a reasonable number of theoretically justifiable control variables are identified, we may be able to get at this question at both a micro (insurgent) and macro (insurgency) level. A present, the data used in Sean’s analysis accounts for this variation.

Next, there has been quite a bit of research on the duration of wars, including state-on-state, civil and insurgency. For this research, a critical hurdle has always been how to overcome bias in the data collection and reporting when attempting to approximate how various factor contribute to the curation of a conflict. Sean uses open-scource media accounts of attacks to develop his data, and because most of these media outlets are primarily motivated by profit it is difficult to view this data as unbiased. This problem, however, can be dealt with by various sampling techniques and control varaibles. Of greater concern are the eventual conclusions drawn by attempting to match conflict patterns in this manner. With Sean’s data, we might ask what factors contribute to ending conflicts following a power-law. Unfortunately, as previously discussed, all manner of conflicts follow this pattern. If two conflicts have a near identical power-law distribution when observed in the long term, but upon examination we find that one is an insurgency and other a state-on-state conflict, what insight have we gained? This categorical approach, therefore, may be significantly limited in its explanatory value.

Finally, I must point out that I have a very superficial perspective on Sean’s work, as I have only been exposed to the TED talk, and the discussions that have followed from it. There are likely many elements of this research that I am missing, and as such all of the above concerns may have already been addressed. I am interested in your take on Sean’s response, my position, and where you see the value in this research? To quote Tom, “Smart, statistically-comfortable readers: Do you see support for these claims?”

Photo: Chart of distribution of attacks with magnitude from “Variation of the Frequency of Fatal Quarrels with Magnitude,” by Lewis F. Richardson.

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Film class — week 7

Film #7 “Red Dawn” (1984). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Hashim. Ahmed S., “Iraq: From Insurgency to Civil War?” 104 Current History, Jan 2005. pp. 10-18. Link requires subscription.

Kaplan, Fred, “How Do We Win in Iraq?” Slate, September 9, 2005.

Krepinevich, Andrew, “The War In Iraq: The Nature of Insurgency Warfare,” Backgrounder, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, June 2, 2004.

Those who have seen it know that “Red Dawn” is not an especially good movie. So why did I select it? Well, I wanted a film that highlights the great difficulty of counterinsurgency warfare — and I wanted a movie that would make students sympathize with the insurgents. Obviously, “The Battle of Algiers” is a better movie with similar themes and plotlines.

In recent weeks, the class has been viewing films about liberal idealism and humanitarian intervention, all from the point-of-view of the great power(s) or their proxies involved in the situations. Though the protagonists in “Red Dawn” are American, they are the victims. The Soviet Union and its Cuban allies have attacked and a small Colorado hometown is under occuption (as part of a larger war). The film focuses on the nationalist impulses that motivate the high school student insurgency.

The readings, obviously, are about Iraq and they are all a bit dated. Of course, the publication year really does not matter much for the Krepinevich piece. It provides an excellent summary of the basic dilemma faced by the US counterinsurgency effort in Iraq. While the US needs to win both the hearts and minds of the Iraqi civilian population, the insurgency really only needs to win their minds. If the general population becomes convinced that it must live in fear, because the US military and the Iraqi national government cannot provide even basic security, then the insurgency has won their minds.

Machiavelli famously asked in The Prince “whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?” He continued:

It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

Sure, this is a simplification, but it seems apt.

Does the US have any hope in Iraq? Kaplan works through several suggested plans for winning, but none seem particularly promising now.

Hashim addresses the broader problem if the US fails to defeat the insurgency — what happens if the insurgency spills over to civil war? Should US forces remain in Iraq to help one side or another fight a civil war?

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