Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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.

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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.

I’m Not That Great a Forecaster: Looking back on my past predictions and learning how to improve

2 Jan

In early January of 2013, I wrote two posts that outlined six conflicts to watch for civilian protection advocates in the coming year.  Without any concrete methodology, I picked out Sudan, Afghanistan, Mali, Kenya, Syria (specifically violence in a post-Assad Syria), and Central Asia.  Arguably, I was wrong in five of the six cases if the criteria is that the violence had to get significantly worse from 2012 to 2013 in the manner that I predicted  (it gets even worse when you think about all 2013 conflicts I omitted; Nigeria, Egypt, CAR, and Iraq all experienced episodes of mass killing that have intensified since 2012).  I’ll briefly outline how I did country by country, address what I did wrong, and because it’s that time of year again, propose predictions for 2014.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, feel free to skip to the bulleted predictions.

Sudan had a turbulent year, but it’s nothing really out of the ordinary for the troubled country.  #SudanRevolts returned in September and October and prompted a fairly superficial cabinet reshuffle, but not much else.  Violence continued to rage in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.  Although violence increased in Darfur and perhaps South Kordofan, it was not a radical departure for 2012.  In my last sentence of my Sudan section, I briefly mentioned South Sudan.  While the violence in Jonglei between the Lou Nuer and Murle ebbed slightly in 2013, any progress made in the country was obliterated by the crisis that began on December 15th and has enveloped the country.  It’s unclear how many people have died, but it probably constitutes a mass killing. Mali has certainly experienced some violence in 2013, but there is no way that it was worse than 2012.  The French-African intervention was fairly successful at expelling the jihadist-Tuareg alliance from Northern Mali.  Fairly successful elections went ahead and the leader of the initial coup, Amadou Haya Sanogo, has been arrested and will be put on trial.

Afghanistan is probably the only case I got right.  Civilian casualties increased in the first half (and possibly the second) of 2013, marking a reversal in 2012’s trend.  For every success there’s a failure, and Kenya is that failure.  The March elections went off smoothly, and so I was really wrong.  I was right to predict that 2013 would be worse than 2012 for Syrians, but it didn’t happen in the way I thought.  At the time, it seemed very likely Assad would fall, initiating a mass killing of Alawites in and around Latakia.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, massive violence continued against civilian populations throughout Syria mostly with the exception of Latakia.  Finally, like Kenya, I really got Central Asia wrong.  There was not significant violence in any Central Asian country (excluding Afghanistan) this calendar year.  Regime change could have potentially caused conflict, but those pesky autocratic regimes just won’t go away.

So how can I improve?  First, it would have helped if I had had a concrete measurement for what constituted conflict.  Second, it would have made sense to have had a constant metric for assessing why I thought conflict would occur in certain places.  Figuring out what my predicted conflict zones had in common and why they were different from other potential conflict zones would have improved my methodology, even if creating a model from a hunch isn’t the best social science (if someone wants to pay me to blog I promise my methodology will be more robust).  My analysis also would have improved if I had laid out specifically what changes I was looking for and how they fit into a larger historical narrative.  For example, while there was both a history of and a potential for political instability in Central Asia, my only data points were the 2005 massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan and the 2010 violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

So moving into my predictions for 2014, rather than creating a complete methodology of my own, I’m going to borrow two of Jay Ulfelder’s crowd-sourced forecasting projects as points of reference.  The first is the Center for Genocide Prevention’s online opinion pool (password needed).  The opinion pool aggregates the opinions of currently fifty individuals interested in atrocity prevention to create averaged probabilities about the likelihood of a particular event.  The questions are generally phrased like this, “Before X date, will an episode of state-led mass killing occur in Y country.”  The second is a wiki survey also originating from the Center for Genocide Prevention.  The results demonstrate how much more likely any particular country is to experience an episode of state-led mass killing than other countries during 2014.

In order and with percentages, these are the countries that I think are most likely to experience a mass killing (defined as more than 1,000 civilian deaths) in 2014:

  • Syria (95%)
  • South Sudan (85%)
  • Iraq (85%)
  • CAR (75%)
  • Sudan (60%)
  • Afghanistan (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Mexico (35%)
  • Nigeria (30%)
  • Burma (20%)
  • DRC (20%)
  • Egypt (10%)
  • Mali (5%)
  • Venezuela (5%)

My predictions are largely based on the crowd-sourced forecasts from Jay’s two projects, aren’t identical.  I’ll explain why, country by country, below.

Obviously, the chances that a mass killing will happen in Syria are very, very high (the wiki survey is definitely wrong in placing Syria 6th).  However, the opinion pool’s average probability that there will be a mass killing of Alawite civilians in Latakia province stands at 43%.  I think this is too high, and the real probability stands nearer 15%.  For a mass killing of Alawites to happen, the Assad regime would have to collapse or severely weaken.  Demonstrated by my false prediction of his doom in early 2013, Assad has proven surprisingly durable.  Civil wars tend to last a long time, so especially with the increasing fragmentation of the opposition, it’s doubtful Assad will be defeated anytime soon.

South Sudan, Iraq, and CAR all have ongoing conflict that will almost certainly include a case of mass killing, committed either by government or rebel forces, in 2014.  Iraq and CAR definitely experienced a mass killing episode in 2013, and South Sudan probably did, but the concrete numbers to confirm it don’t exist.  I pegged the chances of a future mass killing as slightly lower in CAR only because of the combination of the peacekeeping force and the higher potential for resolution than in South Sudan.

Jay Ulfelder, in his review of mass killing in 2013, wrote of Sudan, “…where the uncertainty is not whether the regime is engaging in mass killing but in how many parts of the country at once and targeting how many different groups.”  He’s right, and unfortunately civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile will likely continue to suffer in 2014.  In the opinion pool, a question asks the probability that Sudan will carry out a mass killing of anti-government activists will occur in 2015, and places the average at 31%.  I think this is far, far too high.  Despite significant anti-government protests, the body count has always remained low.  The Sudanese regime is intelligent in this respect, instead opting for mass arrests of protest leaders.  The scarcity of bloody street confrontations decreases the potential of igniting the paradox of repression.  It is also telling that the bloodiest anti-government protest this year happened in Nyala, South Darfur.  Khartoum is happy to take the fight to enemies in the periphery, but remains wary of the threat from the center.  If the government were to significantly weaken, there’s an increased chance it would unleash lethal violence against anti-government activists.  However, despite increasing organization from the political opposition and calls that the regime was about to fall, the NCP remains in power.

Afghanistan probably experienced a mass killing with the Tailban as the perpetrators in 2013, and there aren’t a lot of positive signs for the future.  In North Korea, it’s basically impossible to tell how many people are dying each year in giant concentration camps.  50% is simply a wild guess.

Drug violence in Mexico is out of control, but I’m hesitant to peg a high probability of a mass killing because it’s unclear what share of civilians vs. cartel members are killed in drug violence (in a tweet, Jay confirmed that cartel members count as combatants).  Bottom line: a lot of people will die in Mexico in 2014, but it may or may not constitute a mass killing.

Nigeria experienced a classic case of a counterinsurgent mass atrocity last year, and despite some international attention on the issue, there is still a decent chance it happens again.  Nigeria is 14th on the wiki survey for the chances of state-led killing (too low in my opinion) for 2014 but doesn’t appear as a question in the opinion pool.

Burma is a country that is very much in the news for people interested in atrocity prevention, but I’m more optimistic than other analysts about the prospects for 2014.  Burma’s counterinsurgencies against ethnic-minority armies are long-running, but have recently had quite low body counts.  I see no reason for that trend to stop.  The opinion pool predicts there is a 35% chance of a mass killing of Rohingya in 2014.  No single rioting incident has yet escalated to widespread killing (the Meiktila incident killed dozens, not hundreds).  Despite the massive persecution the Rohingya face, the levels of lethal violence have remained relatively low.  Without an obvious trigger, I think more slow-motion ethnic cleaning is far more likely than a full-blown mass killing in 2014.

DRC placed fourth in the wiki survey.  Perhaps this is a bit excessive, but not completely unwarranted.  The combination of a country in transition from autocracy to democracy, the prevalence of armed groups in the Kivus, and intrusive neighbors means the risk of a mass killing in the DRC remains relatively high.

Egypt also suffers from an unfortunate history.  Last year, the government undertook a mass killing in response to pro-Morsi demonstrations.  A similar scenario could repeat itself, violence in the Sinai could rapidly increase, or even less likely, a civil war that involves mass killing could erupt.  All of this is plausible, if not incredibly likely (Egypt is 15th in the wiki survey).

The situation is not absolutely analogous to the DRC’s, but Mali also suffers from a somewhat unstable post-major conflict environment.  The opinion pool average for a state-led mass killing rests at 13%.  I think this is too high (probably suffering from the bias that comes from forecasting rare events) because of the progress Mali has made since 2012, but not terribly so.  In the wiki survey, Mali is 3rd, which strikes me as overly pessimistic.

Finally, Venezuela is a bit of a stretch, but I decided to include it anyways.  Few atrocity prevention advocates are paying attention despite the high political instability and absolutist rhetoric coming out of the Maduro administration.  Though Venezuela appears 82nd on the wiki survey and isn’t in a region of the world that has been prone to mass killing recently, I think a political crisis resulting in a government mass killing is plausible if still very unlikely.

Correction: Jay Ulfelder wrote this in a comment, “One point of clarification about Syria and some of the other cases you discuss: in both the statistical modeling and the wiki survey, we’re looking at the risk that a *new episode* of mass killing will start, not the risk that the one(s) we’re seeing now will continue. So Syria could hypothetically get a very low predicted probability or rank if the models or crowd deemed it unlikely that the state would begin deliberately killing large numbers of civilians from a discrete group it isn’t already targeting now. Hence the question in the Syrian case about Alawites but not one about the groups the regime is killing in large numbers now.”  I didn’t realize that when I wrote the post.

The Conscientious Nation-Builder’s Dilemma

6 Nov

Why do state-building efforts fail?  It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  To address the limitations of state-building, I want to use the perspective of the “conscientious nation-builder”: a well-educated and well-meaning foreigner working within the bureaucratic apparatus of a governmental organization undertaking a nation-building effort.  This framework problematizes the notion that nation-building is fundamentally a technical exercise and helps explore the contradictions and paradoxes faced by nation-builders that not even the most nuanced solutions can solve.

An assumption made by most political scientists and nation-builders is that most states carry out governance evenly in their territories.  Risse et al. in Governance Without a State challenge this notion, arguing that in most states in the world, state power is severely limited beyond cities.  In place of state power, local governance structures operate.  These structures interact and negotiate with the state.  This is even more true in states such as Somalia, the DRC, and Afghanistan which have undergone extended nation-building attempts.  If many developed states cannot effectively exert their power on rural areas, attempting to recreate this model in states already suffering from a severe lack of capacity presents obvious problems.  Risse’s volume argues that nation-building attempts should work with existing state-local partnerships rather than working toward an ideal-type state.

Nation-building operates on the implicit assumption that there are inherent, concrete benefits in nation-building.  Ariel Ahram, in Proxy Warriors, argues that this isn’t always the case:

“The problem is that so many efforts to strengthen states and eliminate militias have proven quixotic if not counterproductive.  Existing policy options do little to alter the fundamental incentive structure that allow leaders in most developing countries to continue to rely on localized, informal militia forces.  Peace building and international trusteeship are susceptible to subversion by both their sponsors and their recipient or target states.  Reenacting Europe’s blood-drenched history by allowing strong states to weed out the weak is dubious on both practical and moral ground.”

Similarly, Rory Stewart argues that the presence of the state is not always necessarily better than its absence in Can Intervention Work?:

“It is true that there were no police and civil servants in the villages of central Afghanistan, and there had not been for over twenty-five years.  Yet I walked entirely safely alone and unarmed for three hundred miles through them without being robbed or murdered, because the area was generally densely controlled, in a way that had little resemblance to the descriptions or prescriptions of the international community.” 

While Ahram argues that states do generally provide security more effectively to their people, he also posits that attempts to assert a state’s monopoly on violence in areas where it doesn’t exist may only further endanger the population’s physical security.  If militias are often no worse than states, and attempting to implement state primacy has negative effects, why do nation-building attempts seek to do just that?  I think there’s an element of control: it’s easier for outsiders to understand states as Westphalian, rather than dealing with local rulers, structures, and customs.  If states do not fit this blueprint, international actors have more difficulty interacting and negotiating with non-state actors that practice governance.

Ahram and Risse et al.’s functional approach to states and state-buildings is refreshing, but they miss an important point in their policy prescriptions.  People generally want states for the same reasons nation-builders do.  Even if states are abusive, they provide order and predictability that may or may not be provided by the non-state actors that fill the void.  For the conscientious nation-builder, this presents a puzzle.  While the end goal of a state monopoly on violence will likely be popular, the road to that point is littered with barriers that may make the enterprise counterproductive.  Even if the target state does achieve a monopoly on violence, human security may be no better than it was previously, and many people may have died along the way.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State argues that authoritarian high-modernist attempts to remake society are destined to fail.  The logic of the state revolves around ordering complexity, or what Adam Elkus would call “binning“.   However societies tend to resist this attempt at uniformity.  Individual interests clash with bureaucratic logic, and local social structures do not all function in the way that the state finds easiest to control.  Therefore there is a fundamental tension between the state (order) and society (disorder) that authoritarian high modernism finds itself unable to overcome.  It is simply impossible for a state to regulate society without conceding to the society’s culture, history, and structure.  The project of nation-building can be conceived as authoritarian high modernism.  For example, Rory Stewart argues that state-building attempts in Afghanistan, and in particular a national development strategy, failed to adapt to the specifics of the Afghan situation:

“This specialized language–drawn from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy before being inserted into the multilateral policy-drafting process–was bewildering…Among the sixty-nine separate tables and charts in this 137-page plan, including ones on “predicted teledensity” and “status and accomplishment, national police and law enforcement,” the following words did not appear: Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance, and consent.  Were you to delete the word Afghanistan and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking.”

All of this puts the conscientious nation-builder in a difficult position.  Nation-building institutional culture prioritizes addressing and implementing abstract concepts, such as the rule of law and accountable governance, over deep country-specific expertise and an ability to adapt to local situations.  This isn’t a new problem: Scott notes that well-intentioned officials in 19th century Germany failed to successfully codify local forestry practices.  Even if the conscientious nation-builder wishes to get local input on nation-building plans and work with existing social structures, they face two significant impediments.  First, securing physical access to local populations can be impossible in conflict zones.  Nation-builders in Afghanistan spent almost all their time in compounds and needed enormous security details to move beyond those walls.  Second, it’s very possible these ideas that cut against the grain of nation-building culture won’t receive any support from higher-ups (akin to Ferguson’s concept of ‘development discourse’).

The conscientious nation-builder has to deal with the myth of internal sovereignty, the potential harm caused by nation-building, and an institutional culture that leans toward implementing formulaic solutions, but all these may yet be surmountable.  However, the last challenge, that of societies that stubbornly refuse to move away from non-liberal forms of local governance, may be a bridge too far.  Working with these local forms of authorities clash not only with the belief in state primacy, but also with the democratic consensus that permeates nation-building projects.  Rory Stewart again:

“There had been many regimes in the last thirty years, backed by Americans, Soviets, Saudis, Pakistanis, and now the UN mandate: royalist, nationalist, Marxist, Soviet, theocratic, and pro-Western, with many constitutions.  But there always seems to be one power in Kamenj.  Mohsin’s [the local strongman] was not the state that the international community or indeed many Afghans wanted–it was conservative and patriarchal.  But did the international community understand it, or have the formula to transform it?”

Even the conscientious nation-builder is simply not equipped to deal with this problem.  Working with rather than removing people such as Mohsin challenge the very intent of the nation-building enterprise, but so does not working with him.  Instead, as many nation-builders have done before, the conscientious nation-builder may well work with Mohsin and attempt to persuade him to liberalize his rule and surrender to state power, which he will likely agree to do without following through.  The conscientious nation-builder then has arrived at a policy destined to fail with only the best of intentions.

What is the conscientious nation-builder to do?  The problems in this post are not resolvable, but their negative consequences can be dampened.  First, the conscientious nation-builder should place the physical security of a population above everything else, and should work toward diffusing this norm within their institution.  Second, they should elicit and privilege advice from locals and country specialists who have seen previous nation-building attempts fail.  Finally, the conscientious nation-builder should be aware of the limits of the nation-building enterprise.

*A special thanks to Sara Fitzpatrick for editing and to Shervin Malekzadeh for helping me come up with these ideas.

“No War in Syria”: A Response to the Anti-War Left

17 Sep

Debate over intervention in Syria has raged across the blogosphere with particular intensity since President Obama’s announcement that he would seek congressional approval airstrikes on Syria’s military infrastructure.  Fortunately, that potential disaster was averted by the recent chemical weapons deal.  During this debate, one strong voice against intervention came from the anti-war far left.  Though I agreed that the administration’s plan was an atrocious idea, I was seriously disappointed by these arguments; they were generally sloppy, simplistic, and sometimes even downright racist.  However, I saw few mainstream commentators or even bloggers I read take on this issue.

The “No War on/in Syria” rallying cry really irked me.  There is already a war in Syria and on Syrian civilians, a war in which over 100,000 people have already died.  Arguing from the “No War on/in Syria” starting points espouses a US-centric point of view and general ignorance.  It’s also important to differentiate Obama’s proposed plan from how we conceive of ‘war’ generally.  The mandate and timeframe of the intervention were both explicitly limited, and there would have been no American troops on the ground.  Another problem with the left’s aversion to intervention was criticized well by Ari Kohen, “The idea that staying out of the Syrian conflict is so obviously good “for humanity” is just as monstrously foolish as the idea that shooting missiles at Syrian targets is so obviously right and good. But Madonna and so many thousands of others are absolutely certain that humanity is obviously best served by sitting idly by while so many people are killed.”  Many among the anti-war left would hold the respect for human life as one of their dearest values, but simply arguing against any type of intervention at-large without understanding the potential impacts is a direct contradiction of those values.

The knee-jerk reaction from the left against the Obama administration’s plan distorted and essentialized the Middle East.  The American interest in Syria was assumed to be somewhere between oil and imperialism, forcing Obama to state that Syria would not be ‘another Iraq or Afghanistan’.  This line of argument has become well-entrenched post-2001, but it couldn’t really be farther from the truth in Syria.  Yes, Obama’s decision to go to Congress for authorization was a political decision, but it was not an attempt to please the military-industrial complex, conquer foreign peoples, or any of the other false narratives anti-war groups propagated to score political points.  Another well-known trope hijacked by those opposed to intervention in Syria was the terrorist bogeyman (this is not to say that extremist groups do not play a major role in the Syrian opposition).  Ironically, the anti-war left had fought against dehumanization and Islamophobia since 9/11, but were more than happy to reproduce these racist stereotypes and partner with the far right or even Bashar al-Assad to improve its visibility on a hot-button issue.

None of this is to say that intervention in Syria was a good idea.  Intervention would likely increase civilian casualties, close off diplomatic avenues, and do little to change the facts on the ground.  In my opinion, those are the right arguments.  As I noted on facebook, there is nothing more frustrating than people that agree with you but delegitimize themselves by making poor arguments.  The anti-war left heroically and persistently fought against America’s follies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have let themselves and their supporters down on Syria.

When Reasonable Lungs are too Tired to Shout Anymore: On Arming the Syrian Rebels

15 Jun

After months of stumbling toward some sort of military intervention, the Obama administration has finally fallen across the finish line and decided to arm the Syrian rebels.  This decision, for the most part, initiated a massive collective groan in the American foreign policy community, and once we’d all come to terms with the stupidity of the decision, we, as nature dictates, started to argue about why it happened.

The reasons for the collective groan are obvious, and there have been no shortage of voices that have sketched out in vivid detail why arming the rebels (or other proposed military options) is a boneheaded idea.  Firstly, there isn’t a long-term game plan.  Arming the opposition will moderately augment the rebels’ military strength, but not enough to topple Assad.  According to past experiences with arming rebels (Afghanistan), these arms will eventually get into the wrong hands.  Other proposed options, such as a no-fly zone (NFZ), or cratering government runways, similarly won’t do enough to topple Assad or stop the slaughter of civilians.  No one’s seriously talking about military intervention, which is the only option with long-term logic, even if that logic is also fatally flawed.  Secondly, all of these “strategies” point back to the larger issue of what the goal of American policy in Syria is.  There are three possible options: civilian protection, toppling Assad, or intensifying a proxy war that taxes Iran and Hezbollah at minimal cost.  It’s obviously not the first.  And it’s not the second for the reasons explained above.  Daniel Drezner has argued it’s the third, but that explanation falls short too.  If Obama really saw Syria as the perfect place to engage in a proxy war with Iran and Hezbollah, why didn’t he do it earlier?  Why wait until chemical weapons use is impossible to deny (it was clear as day in April)?

Ultimately, arming the rebels is not the result any coherent, grand strategy.  Rather, it is the consequence of moral and militaristic pressures on the Obama administration.   Diverse sources, from John McCain to Anne-Marie Slaughter to the State Department, have nudged the White House to “do something”.  These calls to action, lacking any strategic legs to stand on, rely on two strategies: moral, emotional appeals and misleading statements regarding America’s credibility.  The first is the most common.  Moral appeals on Syria minimize crucial strategic concerns in favor emotional parallels with past atrocities and empty declarations on the moral necessity of action.  While less common, some conservative politicians and pundits have thrown down the credibility gauntlet: if America does not intervene in the face of such atrocities, it will lose respect among fellow nations.  This ignores the high probability that military intervention in Syria, in whatever form, will fail, and that there is a strong global consensus against American intervention in the Middle East post-Iraq.  The lack of any serious strategy means fractures within the decision-making apparatus (which exhibits some of the characteristics Pearlman describes) have produced exceedingly bad policy at an even worse time.  The future is bleak for Syria.

Conflicts to Watch in 2013 (Part I)

1 Jan

The Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy have both come out with lists of potential conflicts to watch in 2013.  Both provide good summaries of potential global hotspots, but instead of concentrating on potential geopolitical struggles, I’d like to take a brief look at the conflicts that will likely be important for civilian protection advocates.  While the conflicts in the DRC and Burma, for example, are always at the top of the civilian protection list, I’d like to focus on six conflicts that have the potential to 1) impact civilian populations and 2) take a very different form in 2013 than they did in 2012.  Here are the first three.

Sudan

The insurgencies in Blue Nile and South Kordofan are likely to continue, and the government’s heavy handed response is also likely to stay the same.  While these two issues are currently the country’s two biggest humanitarian crises, they might not even be the biggest problems in 2013.  Growing divisions within the NCP caused what appears to have been a coup attempt in November, and combined with the return of #SudanRevolts, Bashir now looks far weaker than he has in years. Jay Ulfelder’s 2013 coup forecasts puts the chances of another coup in Sudan at number two worldwide, an event which is likely to not only initiate major power struggles within the Khartoum elite, but also involve various factions fighting it out on the ground.  There is also a real danger of a low-intensity war between North and South Sudan along the border, as the North continues to bomb within Southern territory.  In South Sudan, cattle raids between the Dinka, Lou Nuer, and Murle tribes are accruing huge casualties, and there are no signs that the South Sudanese governments will seriously address this crisis.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been in the news for years as one of the most violent places in the world, but in 2013, it’s only going to get worse.  In short, U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been a total failure, and the Afghan government does not look ready to govern on its own once U.S./NATO forces begin their draw-down, and eventually leave in 2014.  Afghan security forces are ill-trained and unable to function independently, the government is impressively corrupt, the Taliban remains strong, and Pakistan continues to meddle.  All of these factors point to an uptick in violence in the coming year.  There are few positive signs for 2013.

Mali

Designating Mali as the new Afghanistan is simplistic, but like Afghanistan, Mali is a hot mess.  In March, junior officers angry at the government’s inability to properly supply soldiers fighting a Taureg rebellion in the north mutinied, and then, perhaps accidentally, seized the state.  A few weeks later, Tuareg rebels succeeded in pushing Malian forces at of northern Mali and declared the independence or a new state, Azawad.  Since then, there has been another coup against a prime minister who pulled too hard on the leash held by the original coup plotters.  Despite facades of democracy, the real power in Mali rests in Kati, an army town outside of Bamako.

In the north, things are even worse.  Following the defeat of the the Malian army, the situation in the north collapsed into yet another civil war, as the MNLA, a secular Tuareg group, battled Ansar Dine, an Islamist faction.  The Islamists eventually gained the upper hand.  The struggle for Azawad is a complex mix of ethnic and political affiliations, and this deadly, multifaceted conflict has had a disastrous affect on the civilian population.  The conflict has caused a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands becoming either refugees or internally displaced.  On December 20th, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to back the creation of the international force to retake northern Mali.  The plan, according to both Susan Rice (who called it “crap) and Daniel Drezner, has some problems, “…the Security Council has pledged to send peacekeepers on a timetable that makes academic publishing seem speedy, without any idea of how it will be funded, staffed, or operate with indigenous forces, married to vague calls for political action to lay the groundwork for said peacekeepers.”  With or without an intervention force, the lack of any real progress toward a political solution will mean a long, deadly year for northern Mali.