Archive | January, 2015

5 Pieces on Trends in Violence and Contentious Politics

16 Jan

These five (well really seven) articles were the most eye-opening for me in the past year.

1. Edward Carpenter – The New Blitzkrieg and Keith Somerville – Ivory, Insurgency, and Crime in Central Africa: The Sudans connection

While these articles take on different topics, together they offer up a few lessons about the nature of modern warfare. In his article, Carpenter notes the high recent incidence of mobile rebel groups taking vast territory quickly in under-populated areas. These groups tend to operate by using Toyota pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and operate as networks, rather than the top-down hierarchies favored by yesterday’s rebels. These rebel groups have proved difficult to combat because they’re both physically and organizationally agile, and even when superior air power halts their advance, they tend to disperse even further, launching well-entrenched rural insurgencies.

Somerville’s article examines similar types of groups, but instead of focusing on their military tactics, he highlights the ways in which they involve themselves in illicit economies across borders. Armed groups from Darfur to Cameroon trade in ivory, and this trade is both based on a long history of trading between semi-nomadic groups and the more recent rise of armed groups on the margins of weak states. Somerville’s research demonstrates that these armed groups have both deep local roots and an international reach. Particularly in the Sahel, vast spaces do not have strong government presence, providing ample opportunities for networked groups to sustain themselves. Any solutions have to take this reality into account.

2. Jay Ulfelder – The Political Power of Inertia

The dynamics Jay describes in this piece are not new, but their historical lack of recognition, particularly among the NGO community, makes his argument a worthy inclusion. When we think of how to lessen the potential for violence in sub-Saharan Africa, we tend to think in terms of big, explosive events: mass atrocities, wars, and political transition. All of these, however, are very rare events. The vast majority of analysis predicting dramatic political change turn out to be wrong.

This bias of always predicting or imaging how to produce sensational change belies that for the most part, change is subtle or doesn’t happen at all. And when they do happen, they often prove to be momentarily blips that quickly recede and the status quo ante re-entrenches. Bureaucratic logic prizes stasis over change and humans tend to be creatures of habit. All of this means that while it is not futile to plot how to make change, we have to be aware that it very rarely happens (at least in the way we imagine). If there is one upside here, it is that violence will likely not emerge in most countries not currently experiencing it. If Jay’s right, and inertia is an underestimated political force, then working to achieve un-dramatic change in countries teetering on the brink is an advisable course of action.

3. De Waal et al. – The epidemiology of lethal violence in Darfur: Using micro-data to explore complex patterns of ongoing armed conflict

In their analysis of violence statistics in Darfur, de Waal and his fellow researchers come to a surprising conclusion. While the conflict had traditionally been portrayed as one between an Arabizing government and African tribes, they found far more complexity. Some of their most interesting findings were that the Sudanese Armed Forces engaged in armed confrontations with every other armed actor, including other government agencies and allied Arab tribes during the studied period. The Arab tribes, generally portrayed as aggressors against the Fur and Zaghawa, actually had more casualties caused by inter-tribal fighting than all the African tribes combined. While the violence did have some patterns, like that it tended to have clear high and low intensity periods, it appeared somewhat random. It looked much less than political violence and more like banditry, where every armed actor sought to take advantage of every other through violence.

While de Waal et al. are careful not to overclaim, it is not unreasonable to expect other warzones to exhibit similar patterns. While Darfur, admittedly, may be an extreme case because of the lack of formal governance and the sheer number of armed actors, it’s possible scholars of violence have traditionally overstated the degree to which identity and ideology affect the execution of violence. Warfare may in fact largely follow the logic of violence, rather than the logic of politics. If this is true, violence prevention strategies have to focus more on preventing the conditions that allow violence to happen (poor governance, illicit economies, poverty, etc.) than getting combatants to strike political deals.

4. Nils Gilman – The Twin Insurgency

Gilman’s article is the most theoretical on this list, but it still provides concrete ways to better understand trends in contentious politics. Gilman’s main argument is that the modern state is facing a “twin insurgency”. From above, the state has to deal with an emerging class of plutocrats who feel they have no duty to pay taxes or otherwise act in the interest of any state. For this select but powerful group, the ideology of nationalism is unimportant and states only exist to be wielded for personal profit. Even more insidiously than disengaging, they actively use their economic power to limit the ability of governments’ to collect revenue from its citizens. From below, “comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires.”

The implications of Gilman’s theory are enormous. In countries like Nigeria, it is not just the peculiar economic impact of oil has created elites uninterested in service-delivery, but that these elites are part of a global movement. Even the upper limits of successful institutional reform may not be enough to limit the corrosive power of internationally-connected plutocrats. The implications are similar for the insurgency from below. While globalization generally connects licit businesses and activities, it’s underbelly is an increasingly connected illicit world that makes it harder and harder to compartmentalize and attack. The lines will begin to blur between criminal enterprises, rebels, and terrorist groups, and these amalgamations will have increasingly internationalist goals (though not in the way Marx envisaged). Neither insurgency is a formal entity with the goal of capturing the state as 20th century insurgencies were, but both seek to keep the state at arm’s length. Without pushing it away entirely, both insurgencies seek to exploit the state’s power to achieve particular goals while carving, “out de facto zones of autonomy”.

5. Krasner and Risse – Well-governed failed states? Not an oxymoron!

Krasner and Risse write, “Failed states are supposed to be safe havens for terrorists, where anarchy, violence and chaos reign. This is the conventional wisdom.” They go on to explain why the conventional wisdom is wrong. They start with a theoretical point, nothing that pretty much all countries (with the possible exception of Denmark) have areas of limited statehood. By this they mean there are areas of the country where the state has less than complete (violent) authority. Therefore failed states are very rare (maybe only Somalia and DRC), while most other states have some degree of limited statehood.

Additionally, Krasner and Risse find that there is no link between service-provision/governance and the degree of statehood/government capacity. In short, there are well-governed failed states, where non-government entities, from NGO’s to civil society to kin networks, step in to provide services to residents. Furthermore, they argue there are three conditions that make service-provision more likely: legitimacy (acceptance by population of governing actor), task properties (simpler tasks are more likely to be completed), and institutional design (the strength of connection between external and local actors).

Krasner and Risse’s research has two central implications for peacebuilding work. First, increasing state capacity is not necessarily the most effective route to improving the lives of citizens, especially when states can be predatory actors themselves. Second, working with communities requires acceptance and a good working relationship with local elites. Finally, in states that are truly failed, and no indigenous capacity exists, it is advisable to perform relatively simple tasks that only require a few partners, and larger projects without indigenous partners are much less likely to succeed.

6. Honorable mention: Duncan Green – What are the big trends on conflict and fragility? Some great presentations at DFID

2015 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

12 Jan

In my last post, I looked back on how my predictions fared in 2014. While there are a couple different ways to measure success, all in all I was a little under 50%.

Here are my predictions for 2015. Like last time, I’ll not do a simple yes/no, but rather a percentage of how likely a mass atrocity is to happen. By mass atrocity, I mean 1,000 deaths caused intentionally by a discrete combatant group against another discrete noncombatant group. I’m including more countries than I did last year, and hopefully this will offer more accurate forecasts.

  • Nigeria (95%)
  • Iraq (95%)
  • Syria (95%)
  • Pakistan (75%)
  • Afghanistan (70%)
  • South Sudan (70%)
  • Sudan (65%)
  • Mexico (55%)
  • CAR (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Somalia (30%)
  • DRC (30%)
  • Libya (25%)
  • Gaza (25%)
  • Cameroon (20%)
  • Ukraine (10%)
  • Rwanda (10%)
  • Lebanon (10%)
  • Burundi (5%)
  • Yemen (5%)
  • Chad (5%)
  • Guinea (5%)
  • Kenya (5%)
  • Ethiopia (5%)
  • Burma (5%)
  • Eritrea (5%)
  • Zimbabwe (5%)
  • Mali (5%)

Explaining my forecast for each of the 28 countries here would be tedious and probably unnecessary, so I’ll skip it. However, I’ll select a few countries where my risk prediction doesn’t generally line up with the consensus in the atrocity prevention community.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has probably already committed a mass killing in 2015, and across the border in Cameroon, Boko Haram is also active, though the chances of a mass atrocity are lower if not insignificant.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are not countries on the traditional atrocity prevention agenda, but that has more to do with uneasy relationship between anti-atrocity advocates and the U.S. military than the countries’ risk. Their respective Taliban’s both committed atrocities last year, and it seems likely that trend will continue.

In Mexico, it’s never a question of absolute casualty figures but how those casualties are categorized. Because there aren’t clear numbers on how many cartel members die as opposed to civilians, it’s hard to know whether more than 1,000 are killed by a specific drug cartel, even if thousands will almost certainly die in 2015.

In the DRC, like Mexico, more than 1,000 are highly likely to die. However, the splintered nature of armed groups in the country’s east means I think it’s more likely than not no single group will kill 1,000 civilians. The situation’s not dissimilar in Libya, where there is rampant violence, but it is committed by a myriad of militias.

Israel probably committed a mass killing in Gaza last year, and while confrontations between Hamas and Israel seem to operate on two or three year cycles, there’s still a decent chance Israel ‘mows the grass’ again this year.

While Rwanda is often praised as one of Africa’s most efficient governments, this sheen of good governance masks a political powder-keg. Whenever the elite coalition Kagame has built fractures, the struggle to fill the resulting power vacuum will likely result in mass violence. The same principle applies in Zimbabwe and Eritrea.

Finally, Burundi and Burma are two countries that have been high on the atrocity prevention agenda that I rated at only 5%. In Burundi, it seems the government has repressed the opposition enough that ruling elites are unlikely to be threatened during the 2015 election. There are some parallels here with Burma. While the treatment of the Rohingya minority is horrendous, it seems Burma’s elites have settled on forcing emigration rather than initiating a mass killing, which would be more politically risky.

Looking Back on My 2014 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

2 Jan

A year ago, I took a stab at predicting which countries would experience mass atrocities in 2014 (defined as 1,000 noncombatant intentional deaths caused by discrete group). My predictions were fairly accurate, if not perfectly so. Here’s what I predicted. I’ve put “YES” next to places that did experience atrocities and “NO” next to the countries that didn’t. For the countries where it’s simply too hard to know, I’ve put a “?”. I don’t want to get too in-depth into how I determined whether atrocities occurred, but I have some explanations in the footnotes for countries that are hard to judge one way or the other.

  • Syria (95%) – YES
  • South Sudan (85%) – YES
  • Iraq (85%) – YES
  • CAR (75%) – YES [1]
  • Sudan (60%) – YES
  • Afghanistan (50%) – YES [2]
  • North Korea (50%) – ? [3]
  • Mexico (35%) – ? [4]
  • Nigeria (30%) – YES
  • Burma (20%) – NO
  • DRC (20%) – NO [5]
  • Egypt (10%) – NO
  • Mali (5%) – NO
  • Venezuela (5%) – NO

To judge how accurate I was, one measure is to see each case as containing 100 points. If an atrocity did happen, then I get the number of percentage points that I predicted (for example, I get 95 out of 100 for Syria) and if one did not happen, I get the result of subtracting the number of percentage points I predicted from 100 (for example, I get 80 out of 100 for Burma). Because my predictions were not just yes/no, this method helps account for the probabilistic aspect. Measuring this way, I did very well, receiving 920 out of a possible 1200, excluding Mexico and North Korea because of the inconclusive judgments. However, that score should really be 920 out of 1400, because civilian deaths in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas conflict constitute a mass atrocity. Similarly, the Pakistani Taliban committed a mass atrocity. A mass atrocity may have occurred in Somalia, but the numbers don’t seem high enough to definitively say for sure.

There are a few problems with this metric for success, though. First, my numbers success rate is considerably boosted by the very high probability (the “No Shit List”) and the very low probability cases. If I remove the cases where I predicted probabilities above 80% and below 20%, and add in Pakistan and Gaza, my score comes out to a much less impressive 375 out of 800, even though by the standards of forecasting international events, it’s not bad.

The results of my projections have both optimistic and pessimistic ramifications for the ability to forecast atrocities. On the one hand, being a little less than 50% accurate in medium-risk cases is much better than the standard 65%-80% false positive ratio that’s common even in the best performing models (though it’s easier to outperform statistical models in one year than five). Additionally, with the exceptions of Pakistan and Gaza, no episodes of atrocities occurred in countries with probabilities less than 30%. On the other hand, in every case that I listed a probability that an atrocity would happen and it did, the country had been experiencing large-scale violent conflict at the beginning of 2014. One of the two cases I missed was also the one not experiencing large-scale violent conflict then.

Therein lies the problems. It’s fairly easy to predict where atrocities will occur for countries already experiencing mass violence. While it is certainly useful to predict anywhere where atrocities will occur, the real prize of forecasting is to identify the cases where atrocities will occur that aren’t obvious to the casual observer. Because mass atrocities are such rare events, that’s frustratingly difficult.

In my next post, I’ll put up my mass atrocity forecasts for 2015.

Update (1/16/15): Earlier today I realized that in analyzing my predictions I had missed the chance to analyze whether I had been overly optimistic or pessimistic about mass atrocities in 2014. I’m particularly interested to see if I avoided the bias that generally has forecasts over-predict the likelihood of rare events, which atrocities are.

I’ll do this by adding up the percentage points I predicted in total (and divide my 100) and then compare that to the actual occurrence of atrocities. If we exclude the atrocities that happened that I didn’t predict, I predicted there would be 5.4 mass atrocities in 2014. Within my prediction sample, there were actually 6 mass atrocities. So I was pretty close. My accuracy here was helped because each country that had a mass atrocity in 2014 in my predicted list also had one in 2013.

However, if I include Gaza and Pakistan (as I probably should), I was less accurate, again predicting 5.4 atrocities when 8 actually occurred. For whatever reason, I bucked the trend and under-predicted the number of atrocities that would occur in 2014.

Clarification (1/4/15): For this post, I defined a mass atrocity as 1,000 deaths in a single year. While this is partially consistent with other definitions for a mass atrocity used by The Early Warning Project and my thesis, it doesn’t clarify the conditions for when a mass atrocity continues over multiple years. The convention is that 1,000 is required in the onset year, and then if the number of deaths drops below a much lower threshold for a few years, then the mass killing episode ends. For example, by the Early Warning Project’s definition, a state-led mass killing episode continued in Myanmar last year, even though as far as I can tell, the casualty numbers were well under 1,000. For my predictions, because I’m only looking at one year at a time, I’m thinking about whether death counts will reach 1,000 each year. Neither definition is better than the other, but for the purposes of my predictions, the 1,000 threshold every year makes more sense.


[1] Though the numbers aren’t entirely clear, it seems very likely that more 1,000 noncombatants were killed by anti-balaka forces (and possibly ex-Seleka forces too) in 2014.

[2] By July, more than 1,500 civilians had already been killed, with 74% of those caused by anti-government forces (mostly the Taliban). The total number had risen to over 3,000 by November, with the Taliban responsible for 75%.

[3] Obviously, the North Korean regime isn’t releasing data on its prison camps, but investigations by Amnesty and the OHCHR makes it seem very likely more than 1,000 civilians died in 2014. However, the lack of data makes it impossible to know for sure.

[4] Like North Korea, there’s just not enough data to say. It’s not that we don’t know that huge numbers of people were killed by organized crime, but it’s unclear how many of those count as civilians (cartel members are combatants in this case). It seems likely, but one can’t be sure.

[5] While the civilian death toll almost certainly exceeded 1,000 in 2014, to my knowledge, no one single group can claim to have killed more than 1,000 noncombatants.