Archive | January, 2016

2016 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

25 Jan

In Friday’s post, I evaluated my predictions for 2015. In sum, I improved a bit on 2014, but still had some shortcomings.

I define a mass atrocity as 1,000 deaths caused intentionally by a discrete combatant group against another discrete noncombatant group in a calendar year. My predictions are not designed to highlight cases where a new case is likely to start, but simply where I think a combatant group will intentionally kill 1,000 civilians.

  • Iraq (95%)
  • Syria (95%)
  • Nigeria (90%)
  • Afghanistan (70%)
  • South Sudan (70%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Yemen (50%)
  • Sudan (40%)
  • Cameroon (40%)
  • Mexico (35%)
  • DRC (30%)
  • Pakistan (25%)
  • Burundi (25%)
  • Gaza (25%)
  • Central African Republic (20%)
  • Libya (10%)
  • Egypt (10%)
  • Rwanda (10%)
  • Somalia (10%)
  • Zimbabwe (10%)
  • Ukraine (5%)
  • Lebanon (5%)
  • Chad (5%)
  • Kenya (5%)
  • Ethiopia (5%)
  • Burma (5%)
  • Eritrea (5%)
  • Mali (5%)
  • Uganda (5%)
  • Venezuela (2%)
  • Republic of the Congo (2%)

The top 5 are all fairly obvious. Yemen, after its deadly 2015, jumps up to 50%. Cameroon too doubles in risk, partially due to some indications that Boko Haram may have killed more than 1,000 civilians last year, but also because the Nigerian offensive against the group is likely to push it into Cameroon.

Burundi is a major climber in the list following a lengthy political struggle. I’ve been fairly optimistic about Burundi over the last year, however the beginning of armed attacks by the opposition bodes very poorly. However, it’s still far from clear opposition forces have the ability to launch a sustained insurgency, which from my reading of the situation, is probably necessary to provoke the government to committing a mass atrocity in response. Any unrest in Burundi may spill over into the DRC or Rwanda. Both countries are also facing the build-up to national elections, and while Kagame maintains a much tighter grip than Kabila, a collapse would be much more deadly in Rwanda than the DRC, even if it is considerably less likely in the short-term.

Israel seems to assault Gaza about every other year, and while one may not happen this year or lead to a mass atrocity, the probability is still reasonably high. In the Central African Republic, the situation is certainly better than in 2013, but sectarian violence in September demonstrates that the risk is not gone.

Despite ongoing armed conflict, I see the risk of a mass atrocity in Ukraine and Burma as fairly low. Eastern Ukraine’s conflict is petering out, but Russia certainly has the capability to re-ignite it. Still, the conflict has not shown signs of either side intentionally targeting large numbers of civilians. In Burma, low-level violence will likely continue, but it seems unlikely any counterinsurgency will become much more violent. As for the Rohingya, the awful discrimination will continue, but without government support, a mass atrocity is unlikely, and I don’t see the new government committing one.

I added three new countries to this year’s list: Uganda, Venezuela, and the Republic of the Congo. Uganda gets the nod due to next month’s Presidential elections, which are likely to produce significant repression, if not mass violence. Still, Museveni’s electoral victory is not absolutely guaranteed, and any sign he’s losing will likely prompt a vicious reaction from his allies in the security forces. Venezuela is in the throes of a political crisis and Maduro’s government is increasingly erratic, making the chances of a mass atrocity possible if still very unlikely. Finally, like many other countries in Africa, the Republic of the Congo is in the midst of a term-extension crisis, and opposition to the extension of Sassou-Nguesso’s rule could spark a backlash.


How’d I Do on My 2015 Mass Atrocity Forecasts?

22 Jan

For the third year running, I took a stab at predicting which countries would experience mass atrocities in 2015 (defined as 1,000 noncombatant intentional deaths caused by a discrete group in a calendar year) last January. 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 I’m not willing to hazard a guess based on insufficient data, I’ve put a “?”.

  • Nigeria (95%) YES
  • Iraq (95%) YES
  • Syria (95%) YES
  • Pakistan (75%) NO
  • Afghanistan (70%) YES
  • South Sudan (70%) YES
  • Sudan (65%) NO
  • Mexico (55%) ?
  • CAR (50%) NO
  • North Korea (50%) ?
  • Somalia (30%) NO
  • DRC (30%) NO
  • Libya (25%) NO
  • Gaza (25%) NO
  • Cameroon (20%) NO
  • Ukraine (10%) NO
  • Rwanda (10%) NO
  • Lebanon (10%) NO
  • Burundi (5%) NO
  • Yemen (5%) YES
  • Chad (5%) NO
  • Guinea (5%) NO
  • Kenya (5%) NO
  • Ethiopia (5%) NO
  • Burma (5%) NO
  • Eritrea (5%) NO
  • Zimbabwe (5%) NO
  • Mali (5%) NO

Going forward, if you’re interested in looking at the numbers or the analysis, then read the whole thing. If you’re just interested in basic conclusions, read only the MAIN TAKEAWAY portions.

One method to figure out how successful I was is to see each case for which I put forward a prediction as containing 100 points. If an atrocity happened, I get the percentage I predicted that an atrocity would happened, and if no atrocity happened, then I get the result of that percentage subtracted from 100. For example, I’ll get 95 points for Burundi but only 5 for Yemen.

Using this method, I get 2035 out of a possible 2600 (this excludes Mexico and North Korea for which I couldn’t make a judgement.) Initially that sounds pretty good, coming in at 78% accuracy, while in 2014 I was 68% accurate. However, my numbers are of course padded by the high probability countries and the low probability countries. If I only look at countries between 90%-10%, I’m 68% accurate, whereas if you look between 80%-20%, I’m only 62% accurate. Regardless, I still improved on my 2014 forecasting, where for between 80%-20%, I was 47% accurate. This bears out something I highlighted last year: it’s really easy to predict the high and low risk countries, but it’s the ones in the middle that are difficult. MAIN TAKEAWAY: I’m getting better at forecasting, and while my level of forecasting does have some value, it still lacks the sort of predictive ability that I would like or would be obviously useful for policymakers.

Another thing I looked at last year was whether I was too optimistic or pessimistic about whether atrocities would occur. I’m interested in this because of the forecasting bias that makes people more likely to over-predict the likelihood of rare events and under-predict the likelihood of frequent events. Mass atrocities, of course, are extremely rare events. To do this, I’ll see about how many atrocities should have happened by adding up the percentage points I predicted. For example, in two cases, if I predicted a 95% likelihood in one and 5% likelihood in another, then out of the two, I predict one will happened (now I understand statistically this probably isn’t technically correct, but it’s close enough).

MAIN TAKEAWAY: If I do all that, I come up with a predicted atrocity total of 8.25, while there were 6 actual atrocities. So I over-predicted the likelihood of atrocities worldwide, but not terribly. I considerably under-predicted in 2014.

Before I conclude a few notes on several countries and measuring techniques. First, and perhaps most importantly, is how I determined whether a mass atrocity occurred. For many, like Syria or Zimbabwe, it was a no-brainer. For the ones I had any doubt about, I scoured the internet for figures, made some judgment calls when the figures weren’t clear or comprehensive, and then used my knowledge of the situation to determine whether the deaths were intentional. In short, my judgments are far from perfect, but so is the data. For some cases, there were UN or other reports with credible casualty figures, but I largely relied on ACLED. The problem with ACLED is it counts deaths conservatively, which means, for example, it lists the Janjaweed as only having killed about 4,000 civilians over the last 13 years in Darfur. One of the question marks I had, especially concerning the ACLED data was over Cameroon. ACLED listed 345 Cameroonian civilians killed by Boko Haram in 2015. That number seemed too low, especially considering there were reports more than 500 died in Fotokol alone. However, data from the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research put the number at 422, while the Center for Complex Operations’ Hilary Matfess said that 1,200 people total had been killed in the conflict, but that included combatants. With that information at hand, I made the call to mark it a no.

For the second year running, I’ve been unable to determine whether a mass killing occurred in North Korea and Mexico. The Early Warning Project determines an ongoing mass killing perpetrated by North Korea against political opponents, but the information wall means I have no way to determine whether 1,000 died this year. As for Mexico, it’s too hard to know who counts as a civilian and whether any single cartel killed over 1,000.

Clearly, my biggest failing for this list was Yemen. I didn’t foresee the rapid advance of the Houthis and the resulting Saudi intervention that has resulted in thousands of deaths. Definitely a country to watch in 2016. On the other side of the spectrum, Sudan looks like a failure on my part because no atrocity occurred despite a 65% predicted probability. However I should note it’s quite hard to figure out exactly how many civilians government forces killed across Sudan. I couldn’t find enough evidence to determine with enough confidence that more than 1,000 people died across Sudan, but regardless, there was significant violence. In Pakistan, I also considerably overestimated the ability of jihadist groups to launch attacks in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre.

My forecasts for next year will go up Monday (assuming DC has not experienced the snowpocalypse).

The Left and Policing in Burns, Oregon

6 Jan

The takeover of federal property at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon is a most unwelcome development. Personally, I think violent protest is tactically and morally problematic, but I’m less worried about a couple dozen angry white men who think America’s ripe for a conservative revolution than the ramifications of the response, particularly on the Left. I say this because America has been down this road before, with horrific and far-reaching consequences.

There’s a lot of history that’s relevant to this incident, but from what I’ve read, the story largely begins in Waco, Texas in 1993. The Branch Davidians, a fundamentalist religious group, began a standoff with federal agents after refusing to allow them to serve a search warrant. After an initial attack was fatally repulsed, the FBI launched a second assault that started a fire and killed 76 people, including many children.

Considering the massive death toll, Waco should’ve been an example of the dangers of militarized policing, but in fact the exact opposite happened. Fear, that was not totally unfounded, of far-right domestic terrorism prompted tougher terrorism laws and an increase in the adoption of military tactics and equipment by police forces (which is excellently and extensively detailed in Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop). The perpetrators of attacks like Oklahoma City were white reactionaries, and in response, the most strident supporters of tougher anti-terrorism forces, like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), were liberals. Joe Biden, for example, was a major proponent of increased police militarization. However, the effects of policies originally designed to target conservative extremists were mainly felt in low-income, minority communities in the middle of the Drug War. Because terrorism is rare and drug raids are not, police and other federal agencies with an armed component mostly utilized the anti-terrorism tactics and equipment on drug raids and in everyday policing. It wouldn’t be a stretch to tie what happened in Ferguson to laws and government programs pushed through by Democrats in the 1990’s.

The current episode in Oregon is largely a result of anti-terrorism politics in the mid-90’s, though relations between ranchers and the government in Western states has also played a role. The federal government owns vast tracts of land in rural areas of the West, but allows ranchers to graze their herds on much of this land for a small fee. The Hammonds, the father and son duo at the center of Ammon Bundy’s protest movement, are one such pair of ranchers, who fell foul of the law after setting fires on their property, which then spread to federal land, for what they claim were legitimate reasons. Now federal prosecutors disagree, but regardless, the fires did not injure anyone. However, a law passed in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, mandates five-year minimum prison terms for those that cause fires on federal land. There are two major problems here. First, lighting fires on one’s own land, for potentially legitimate reasons such as fighting invasive species, is being dealt with by an anti-terrorist law. That’s absurd. It’s quite a testament to the growth of the national security state, and also legitimates a reactionary narrative that decries federal tyranny. Second, the mandatory minimums in this case are too harsh. Mandatory minimums as a concept, of course, was championed by liberals in the 70’s and 80’s as a way to prevent racial bias in sentencing, but have instead produced mass incarceration. Armed protest may be the wrong way to demonstrate displeasure, but when Ammon Bundy says that federal government is treating the Hammonds unjustly, he’s right.

As this situation progresses, I think those on the Left need to be especially careful with how they frame recommended responses. There is no option worse than an armed crackdown (though fortunately this outcome seems unlikely). It would likely create more support for Bundy’s reactionary fringe and lead to the loss of significant life. I think few Leftists truly hope for a crackdown (though they do exist), but some comparisons between how the government is currently acting and how it would act if the occupiers were not white make me uncomfortable (for reasons Jamelle Bouie powerfully explains). There is no disputing this truth, and there is also real value in identifying the double standard. However, it is a moral and political imperative to support a better status quo rather than calling for a lowest-common-denominator approach. There is certainly a leftist argument to be made against state violence here, but more importantly, laws that allow for more state violence will ultimately unleash it primarily on those who have the least privilege and influence. Measures aimed at violently suppressing white extremism will be used more forcefully on Muslims and the extra equipment given to police forces will be unleashed against racial minorities in the Drug War. The real power to inflict harm lies not in the hands of Bundy’s few dozen men, but in government agents tasked with responding to terrorism long after the current occupation ends. Therefore, those on the Left must be more consistent in their convictions on responding to violent extremism.

A final note on how we can understand the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, as they’re calling themselves: There’s been some dissonance between how those on the Left are characterizing these men and the best methods I know for evaluating violent groups. To generalize, many on the Left see Bundy’s men as violent terrorists driven by a sense of white privilege, or even a perfect example of American white supremacy. I think that’s the wrong approach. First of all, they can hardly be classified as terrorists, a word that has the remarkable ability to stifle critical thought. They have not committed any violence against civilians, or even threatened it. They have, however, indicated a willingness to violently confront the government, and therefore they can be classified as rebels or insurgents. But more than that, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom should be taken seriously as political actors with complicated ideologies, even if we find those ideologies abhorrent. For example, seeing them merely as a manifestation of white privilege misses how the historical relationship between Mormons and the government plays a role or the origins of the struggle in federal land management. Digging deeper into this conflict not only presents a more accurate picture of who the insurgents are, but also highlights some problematic political dynamics. Now accepting that right-wing insurgents occupying federal land have legitimate grievances might be uncomfortable, but it can only lead to better politics.