The risk of war with North Korea is small, mostly because war is a very rare event in the international system. Bennett and Stam found that the risk of war in a single directed-dyad year (e.g., U.S.-North Korea in 2013) is 0.000065. Now, this current situation is much more dangerous than your average directed dyad (e.g., U.S.-Uruguay in 1996), but my guess is even if you plugged all the variables into your handy-dandy war predicting machine, you would not get much above a 2 percent risk of war onset. With that said, since the potential costs of a North Korean conflagration likely reach hundreds of thousands of casualties, the expected value of war with the Norks is unpleasantly high (let’s say, 200,000 casualties x .02 = 4,000). By comparison, there is an approximately 100% chance that 30,000 Americans will die in car accidents this year. With all of that said, I fully support anyone that wants to engage in Doomsday Prepping, because it just makes for quality television.
… if your father’s name is Robert Pape.
Friday, February 1, witnessed two notable suicide terrorist attacks in quick succession. Both were bad news for Robert Pape’s theory of suicide terrorism, which argues that suicide terrorism is almost always the result of foreign occupation, whether real or imagined. Pape finds that suicide terrorism is employed by ethno-national or religious groups that perceive themselves as being occupied by an outside group, particularly if other types of violence have failed and if the occupying force is a democratic state (see here, here, and here). This answer fits in nicely—perhaps too nicely—with realist skepticism of George W. Bush’s interventionism. Why shouldn’t you invade places? Reason #207: People will blow themselves up. As Pape and James Feldman argue in a 2008 book, “To stop and reverse the recent explosion of suicide terrorism, it is important to reduce the reliance on foreign occupation as a principal strategy for ensuring national interests.”
But why was Friday bad for this theory? While it is still too early to know why the suicide bomber detonated himself at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, the Marxist group that claimed responsibility apparently condemned Turkish support of anti-Assad forces in Syria. That sentence reads like a bad geopolitical “Mad Libs,” but it doesn’t sound like Pape’s theory. Also occurring on Friday (and in my opinion, more problematic for Pape) was yet another suicide bombing in Pakistan where Sunni extremists attacked Shi’as. This has happened repeatedly over the last few years, and whatever the poor Shi’a in Pakistan are, they are not foreign occupiers. (The same case could be made for the Barelvis and Sufis who are periodically targeted by members of the more orthodox Deobandi Sunni movement).
Pakistan was already a problematic case for Pape given its non-occupied nature and its sky-rocketing rate of suicide terrorism from 2001 to 2010. (The chart below is drawn from Pape’s Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.) Pape’s counterargument has been that because Pakistanis feel that their government is merely a puppet of the United States, the suicide bombing campaign can be interpreted as one against the “indirect occupation” of the United States. While this line of reasoning may certainly explain attacks against the Pakistani state, police, or military, it cannot explain the soaring anti-Shi’a violence. It is basically impossible to construct a narrative where Sunni extremists perceive themselves as occupied by the Shi’a minority.
I think Pape has made the mistake of treating suicide terrorism as a static phenomenon when, in fact, it is evolving. Suicide terrorism has grown much, much more common over the last twenty years, while the level of foreign occupation has remained fairly constant. While not a perfect indicator, one that I have on hand is the percentage of terrorist groups that engage in suicide attacks over time. I have modified data from Michael Horowitz to construct this suicide terrorist “market share” variable, which is just the number of groups employing suicide tactics divided by the total number of terrorist groups in Horowitz’s data.
If suicide terrorism is becoming more ubiquitous, there is no reason to expect that old predictors will remain valid. Imagine if you had a perfect model of who purchased computers in the 1960s and used it to predict consumers today. You would go out of business. The cauldron of the 1981-1983 Lebanon civil war produced modern suicide terrorism. There is no reason to assume that a phenomenon that is only thirty years old will remain the same, nor its causes stay constant over time. Friday’s gruesome attacks are a reminder of that.
Zero Dark Thirty is stuck in a proxy fight over torture. One’s view of the movie seems to be a referendum on whether you think the torture portrayed in the film was essential to the information that ultimately led to the raid in Abbottabad. But perhaps I’m naïve to think that a theme of the film is that people are people and violence is violence. (Bear with me, even as you say to yourself, tautology is tautology.)
The opening torture sequence is often lumped in with “24,” but I think it is different from similar scenes in that TV series for three reasons. First, the movie’s protagonist is deeply troubled by the torture, even as she continues her participation in it. Jack Bauer never doubted the necessity of his actions or showed any qualms. Maya (Jessica Chastain) does. Even her mentor, Dan (Jason Clark), seems wounded by his involvement in such acts as the movie progresses. Second, the tortured prisoner is not shown doing any concrete harm prior to the torture. Yes, the immediately prior scene involves 9/11, but the prisoner undergoing “enhanced interrogation” has a somewhat distant link to that trauma—a “money man,” related to a more important planner, not important in his own right. Third, and relatedly, Reda Ketab portrays the tortured prisoner with impressive humanity. Torture in movies sometimes feels like vengeance; here the audience’s sympathies lie with the tortured man. Why are the CIA agents doing this? Why do they continue? And the vindication of the torture is diffuse at best. It is unclear if the information was revealed because of the torture, or just because of the sleep deprivation. Ketab’s character, Ammar, does not reveal his information to avoid more pain or more simulated drowning. His revelation is disconnected physically and temporally from his pain. He is, in essence, tricked into revealing his information, and that information has no real effect on finding bin Laden until years later. At which point, numerous other individuals have separately provided that same information. It seems quite likely that the torture was unnecessary; the information would have come anyway. I can think of no episode of “24” with a similar equifinality with regard to torture.
Which brings me back to this theme of people being people and violence being violence. It seems a message of the movie is that 9/11 led the United States to do considerable harm in its efforts to both retaliate for the harm done and also prevent future harm. One might think the harm was justified, but it doesn’t erase pain inflicted by the United States. The film doesn’t shy away from demonstrating that U.S. efforts are not always “clean.” The movie shows that violence is still violence, and not pretty. While mentally I knew that there were others in the compound when the raid took place, it is different to know this than it is to see their deaths portrayed. There were wives and children in the compound. The movie goes out of its way to show that the children likely saw their parents being killed in front of them, and wives saw their husbands dying. The raiding team is shown as troubled by these aspects, even as they continue.
The conservative columnist George Will occasionally will argue that individuals have to make a determination for themselves as to whether it is possible to “economize violence,” to employ violence now in an effort to prevent greater violence in the future. But even if it is morally valid to employ violence for prevention or retribution, it doesn’t sanitize the violence. Violence damages people—both the victims and the perpetrators. I feel as if Zero Dark Thirty broadcasts that message, but no one is listening because they are too busy re-litigating torture controversies. The people killed and tortured in this movie are portrayed as people, even if their screen time is brief. The violence undertaken for U.S. interests is not elided or ignored by the director. Only bin Laden himself is never shown, and in a way denied personhood by Bigelow and Boal.
And how does the movie end? With a weeping Maya having accomplished her goal. She does not know what she is going to do or where she is supposed to go. The quest for bin Laden has destroyed her as a social creature, has taken her humanity. It is tough for me to square the images of Zero Dark Thirty with a conclusion that it glamorizes the hunt for bin Laden or vindicates decisions taken by the Bush administration. The movie shows U.S. choices as complicated and painful. By showing images of episodes too often described only as text in a CNN chyron, it forces us to “see” the choices our government makes. The next time you are reading of a drone strike in Pakistan or a raid in Yemen, visualize what the scene of violence actually looked like. The decision might still be morally valid, perhaps even morally praiseworthy, but the action almost certainly was not pretty or glamorous. People are people. Violence is violence.
Earlier this week PBS’s Frontline aired a powerful new documentary on Syria that lets viewers see the ongoing fighting up close and through the eyes of the rebels, the regime, and those trapped in the middle. It does a fantastic job of integrating the micro-level dynamics of the violence on the ground with the macro-level political forces operating in the country more broadly.
The Battle for Syria is gripping footage and courageous journalism. In the first of two segments, freelance cameraman Jeremiah Bailey Hoover joins The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as the two use smuggling routes to slip inside the country from across the Turkish border. They journey to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and meet a squad of rebel fighters engaged in street-to-street warfare against the tanks, snipers and air force of the regime.
The battle line cuts through the heart of Aleppo. Graves are dug in local gardens, waiting to receive the still-warm dead. The rebels retreat and advance. They kill a sniper and retrieve bodies lying in the street. They receive a defector and capture a spy who betrayed himself by mistakenly praising Assad at the rebel checkpoint. With the front line moving by the hour and death in the air, it’s not clear who controls the neighborhood.
The streets are typically deserted but civilians pop up here and there. In a telling scene, a man approaches the front with an absurd level of nonchalance as he walks hand-in-hand with his young children, ignoring the rebel’s entreaties to stay back, telling them that the regime snipers will not shoot as they walk on by. Another man shouts angrily at the rebels, cursing them for inviting the Government’s artillery and air power to bombard the neighborhood without discrimination.
Just as The Battle for Syria lays bare the micro-level uncertainties that prevail on the frontlines among civilians betwixt and between the two combatants, the film’s second segment recounts the macro-level narrative of how the fighting resulted from a series of increasingly polarizing events beginning with a few kids from the town of Daraa, who had the balls to spray-paint anti-Assad graffiti on the walls of their school.
The film traces how the torture subsequently suffered by the boys at the hands of the regime was recorded and shown on YouTube, quickly becoming a focal point for people to organize collectively and express their outrage. Although their demands were limited and relatively inchoate, the regime responded with a brutal crack-down. Even so, the examples of successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened the people and the protests gained momentum and the repression of the regime only served to empower those willing to use violence to meet the violence.
How is it that such a small spark could light this kind of fire and how does it relate to the broader structural forces that drive political instability in some countries but not others?
Timur Kuran has suggested one way to think about how broad structuralist forces interact with the individual determinants of opposition. In a famous analysis of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kuran distinguished between an individual’s private and public preferences. Citizens living under authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe were often afraid of expressing their true desires—i.e., opposition— publicly for fear of punishment. Instead, they behaved as though they supported communism in a form of “preference falsification,” cloaking such private truths with public lies.
Individual support or opposition to a political regime is not uniformly distributed throughout society. In Syria, for example, Sunni Islamists have a long history of resentment against the Assad regime and are die-hard opponents; others like the Alawite minority are die-hard supporters, many of whom fear for their lives were Assad to fall from power. Most people, however, are somewhere in between.
Kuran’s second point is that the mere sight of people collectively engaging in public defiance can inspire those on the sidelines to take part. He suggests that the die-hard opponents who mobilize early in protest can lower the threshold of others who, though privately sympathetic, would otherwise remain on the sidelines out of fear or social pressure. The participation of these individuals, in turn, add to the size of the protest movement and make it even easier for even more reluctant yet privately dissatisfied individuals to join in. This process is further accelerated if dramatic events like the torture of children can serve as focal points to channel public dissatisfaction. Subsequent repression by the regime that results in additional casualties can raise grievances and lower thresholds even further. Such a cascading effect helps explain how seemingly minor incidents can have major repercussions. Though apparently unpredictable in advance, they seem obvious in hindsight.
Preference falsification helps us see why authoritarian regimes seems so stable until the eve of their disintegration. In Eastern Europe, when citizens realized that there were thousands of others who were just like them, the regimes collapsed remarkably swiftly. This, according to Kuran, is why seemingly strong dictatorships are actually highly vulnerable to the public expression of political opposition. Indeed, as Lisa Wedeen has shown, fears of public unrest drove a remarkable effort by Bashar’s father, Hafez, to build a cult of personality. That pretty much everyone privately knew this cult was ridiculous missed the point: ensuring the mere semblance of outward support was enough to keep citizens engaging in docile preference falsification and unaware of the true scale of discontent.
In a cruel irony, The Battle for Syria recounts Bashar’s elderly mother, Anisa, chiding her son for lacking the firm hand of his father.
It’s been an eventful month so far in Egypt, to put it mildly. On the heels of rising instability and fatal violence in North Sinai pitting militants against both the Egyptian and Israeli states, on Sunday President Mohamed Morsy announced significant changes to both the leadership of the armed forces and the structure of the political system.
Clashes in the north of Sinai are nothing new, but the attack on August 5 — an operation that resulted in the deaths of 16 Egyptian border guards, as well as the theft of vehicles then used to penetrate Israel — was shocking in both its magnitude and audacity. (See The Arabist for Issandr El Amrani’s exceedingly useful summary of the initial attack in Sinai, posted August 6.) The area has since seen additional violence, including Egyptian airstrikes that` reportedly killed 20, and further armed clashes initiated by both militants and Egyptian armed forces.
As the situation in North Sinai has continued to boil over, the jockeying over power at the national level doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat. President Morsy (who captured the presidency as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, although since his election victory he has formally left the organization and its political party) recently moved to assert his authority in a two-pronged maneuver, as laid out in an August 12 article in The New York Times:
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement on Sunday of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and other senior generals, moving more aggressively than ever before to reclaim political power that the military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he took office on June 30, that had gutted the authority of his office. On Sunday, he replaced it with his own declaration, one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and, potentially, a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt’s still unfinished new constitution.
This came after a different shakeup earlier this month in direct response to the attacks in Sinai. As for what this all means, there isn’t exactly consensus. The August 12 NYT story following the more recent personnel changes noted:
For his new defense minister, Mr. Morsi chose the head of military intelligence, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was seen as close to Field Marshal Tantawi… Gen. Mohamed al-Assar, a member of the military council, was named an assistant defense minister. He told Reuters that Mr. Morsi’s decision was “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.”
While the retirements marked at least a symbolic end to the military’s dominant role in Egyptian politics, Mr. Morsi’s abolishment of the constitutional declaration posed a more fundamental challenge to the military. It also raised the possibility of a new confrontation with one of Egypt’s highest courts.
After offering a caveat regarding the preliminary nature of his impressions, El Amrani presented his initial perspective on the moves in a Sunday post. In the piece, he breaks down Morsy’s decisions into two categories, dealing first with the military personnel changes:
The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity…
With recent high-profile blows to the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad and his allies — including last month’s bombing in Damascus that killed and wounded a number of key regime figures, the metastasis of the conflict into Aleppo and Damascus (both of which were largely quiescent previously, while other parts of the country were being ravaged by the war), and continuing defections, including the prime minister’s escape to Turkey earlier this month — the rebels appear to be gaining significant ground. But is this an accurate assessment, and what can we expect moving forward?
In trying to understand the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, as well as its possible trajectories, the initial step must be to nail down exactly what we’re looking at. In this effort, disaggregation is one of the strongest potential tools at our disposal. Media coverage of Syria and other conflict situations often suffers from a lamentable tendency to lump all different sorts of civil wars together, a habit that hinders understanding of the conflict dynamics in specific cases. But there is actually more than one sort of civil war — and determining which category Syria falls into is essential to generating a more thorough understanding of the conflict.
In a 2010 article, political scientists Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells show that,
insurgency (“guerrilla” or “irregular war”) is neither the only technology available to rebels nor is it as time invariant as assumed. In addition to irregular warfare, [they] identify two overlooked technologies of rebellion: conventional warfare and symmetric non-conventional (SNC) warfare. (Kalyvas et al. 2010, 415)
These technologies of rebellion take into account variation on both the challenger and incumbent sides, and each type is characterized by a unique constellation of joint capabilities — as well as distinctive internal wartime dynamics.
The focus on technologies of rebellion has several advantages. It allows the study of civil wars as an evolving and dynamic historical phenomenon rather than one that remains constant over time. We show that the relative balance of power between contending forces determines the war-fighting strategies of the respective sides. We also indicate that the three technologies of rebellion reflect distinct military, social, and political dynamics, and affect differentially the strategic logic of conflicts, including their tactics, ideology, recruitment practices, and relations with the civilian population, among others…
Conventional civil war takes place when the military technologies of states and rebels are matched at a high level; irregular civil war emerges when the military technologies of the rebels lag vis-à-vis those of the state; and SNC war is observed when the military technologies of states and rebels are matched at a low level. (Kalyvas et al. 2010; 415, 418)
It seems clear that the Syrian conflict up till now fits into the irregular war category. Rebels remain lightly armed compared to the regime, which still has yet to unleash the full force of its military capabilities in its brutal campaign against its own people, including many noncombatants. (There was some very limited use of heavy weapons by the insurgents in Aleppo earlier this month, but for the most part they fit the profile of lightly-armed fighters).
Foreign Policy is carrying an excerpt from the new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by the Washington Post’s always insightful Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It’s essential reading and does more than anything else I’ve read recently to capture what made the Obama administration’s ‘civilian surge’ in Afghanistan so unfocused, short-sighted and counterproductive. While the focus here is on the flawed American effort, unfortunately, from personal experience I can testify that the pathologies Chandrasekaran identifies were endemic to the international engagement much more broadly and with very few exceptions.
Chandrasekaran raises several factors that defined the lives of many people working on the civilian side. Among them:
- Restrictive security measures that virtually imprisoned aid workers and political officers in their offices. Getting out to actually meet Afghans and see funding projects was often impossible. The self-imposed fog of war induced bureaucratic narcosis: ever-growing reams of working documents cross-referenced one another with an ever-weakening link to a reality ‘out there.’ Progress, such as it was, became defined by the holding of meetings and the drafting of papers rather than the concrete achievement of real-world objectives.
- Dysfunctional and sclerotic hiring procedures. Identifying and making use of high-quality people was a perennial challenge, assembling and maintaining a corporate knowledge-base all but impossible. To make matters worse, the personal sacrifices entailed by working in a crisis zone meant that promises of high pay and promotions were used to attract high-quality people. Unfortunately, this often had the effect of attracting people more concerned with high-pay and promotions than the fate of Afghans.
Faced with these frustrations, people grew despondent and often found solace in diversions. At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul,
Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent…The most common salve, however, was booze. For those not lucky enough to be invited to a private party in one of the apartments, the Duck and Cover — whose logo featured a duck wearing a combat helmet perched atop sandbags — was the place to go. On Thursday nights, staffers crammed shoulder to shoulder in the pub, downing cans of Heineken, glasses of cheap Australian white wine, and bottles of hard lemonade. The place remained hopping until last call at 2 in the morning, when everyone stumbled back to his or her hooch.
Forget grappling with how to ensure basic security in this war-torn country, even getting right the logistics of the 2010 Mardi Gras celebration on the grounds of its own embassy proved too much for American administrative capabilities:
Hundreds of revelers, including thick-necked security contractors, raggedy aid workers, and suit- wearing diplomats from other countries, packed into a tent next to the main embassy office building. The organizers had procured more than enough liquor, but the partygoers had access to only two restrooms. The queue for the toilets grew so long that inebriated attendees began to relieve themselves elsewhere. The deputy Turkish ambassador urinated on the wall of the chancery building. So did two American men who worked at the embassy. A female staffer pulled off her underwear and squatted on a patch of grass near the flagpole. [U.S. Ambassador] Eikenberry couldn’t do anything about the Turk, but both of the American men were sent home. When the woman was hauled into her supervisor’s office the following day and told she would be disciplined, she claimed to have a small bladder and threatened to lodge an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. She was allowed to finish her tour in Kabul. The following week, the word came down that there would be no more blow-out parties until the Marine Corps birthday ball that fall, and alcohol purchases at the embassy convenience store would be limited to two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day.
If you have some free time today, spend it watching this documentary:
Produced by Vice, this remarkable documentary on violence in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, begins with the statement, “in 2011, more than three times as many people were killed in Karachi than the number of people killed in American drone strikes in the tribal areas.”
Over the course of 42 minutes, Vice founder Suroosh Alvi and his co-host Basim Usmani take us into the heart of the slums of Lyari town, accompany a police operation ostensibly targeting the Taliban, join a Pakistan People’s Party politician on his first visit in four years to his hostile constituency, question heroin users on their addiction and, in a goosebump-inducing finale, share a ride with a self-proclaimed target-killer.
Complete with a catchy soundtrack, a heavy dose of sarcasm, and a fair share of cursing by Alvi and Usmani, the documentary effectively showcases the numerous problems which are facing Karachi simultaneously. Sectarian strife, ethnic tension, extreme poverty, mafia, drugs and a political situation dominated by political parties who regularly turn to violence and targeted killings – you name an ailment, Karachi suffers from it.
While the documentary fails to adequately address the nuance of most of the topics covered (any elaboration on the nature of religious extremism in the city is particularly lacking, with blanket references to the “Taliban”), the level of access Alvi was provided into areas that have been deemed “no go” is both remarkable and admirable. And some of the scenes really do capture a striking – and depressing – reality. As the police complete their “operation” against the Taliban, for example, the police deputy turns to his aides and asks “which tv channel was covering this operation?” Uzair Baloch’s “pimped out compound” (Alvi’s description) stands in complete contrast to the squalid existence of the residents of Lyari, his supporters.
I found the scenes at the landfill and with the heroin addicts particularly chilling. One of the young heroin addicts interviewed states in a matter-of-fact tone, “Really sir, we should just be shot.” Another, when asked if he is HIV-positive, at first shakes his head, only to give it a moment of thought and says, “Actually, who knows, I might be at this point.”
The documentary is available on YouTube and is divided into five segments, each about ten minutes in length. While it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a definitive assessment of the current situation in Karachi, it’s a gripping watch and captures some pretty significant moments. (You can read interviews of Alvi here and here)
Is Narendra Modi, the man who was responsible for India’s worst riots since independence, going to become one of the main candidates for the 2014 elections? Ten years after the deadly communal riots broke out in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, with Narendra Modi as Chief Minister, continues strong, having won the past two state elections with over two-thirds majority. This raises two sets of puzzling questions: Why do voters continue to view Modi in a positive light, despite the knowledge that he colluded with state police to assume a passive role during the course of the riots? And how has the nature of party politics in India allowed such deficiencies in the democratic process to persist?
Sworn in as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001, Modi watched as a carnage was committed in broad daylight by Hindu mobs. Mobilized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a volunteer-based Hindu nationalist organization, a large number of Hindu mobs attacked and looted Muslim homes. The precipitating event for these bloody massacres was said to be an attack by radical Islamists on a train containing VHP activists.
A 2011 report attested that two ministers sat in the police controls, remaining deliberately oblivious to the riots raging outside. Much earlier in 2003, a senior police officer and minister were murdered for having said that the police was instructed by Modi not to intervene. This is not the only blot on Modi’s record as Chief Minister. Gujarat has also become infamous for its extrajudicial killings, commonly referred to as ‘staged encounters’, where the security forces in the state target ‘terror suspects’ even when they do not have a criminal record.
Despite this, in a poll conduced by India Today, one of India’s leading magazines, in February 2012, 24% voted that they wanted Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister of India, with Rahul Gandhi, his nearest rival, getting 17% of the votes. This number is astonishing given that, in another online poll, Modi received the highest number of ‘no’ votes on The Times’ 100 most influential people, making him the most disliked person on the list. How has Modi managed to gain such popularity despite the obvious doubts cast about him when he presided over the carnage in 2002? Much of his popularity seems rooted in economic performance. In 2008, the Tata Group, one of India’s biggest industrial giants came to Gujarat. This marked a turning point as it gave a positive signal to investors. Soon after, Ford and Peugeot also followed. This carefully crafted image of a state open to FDI, which focuses on improving the welfare of its citizens via economic growth, has its fair share of supporters.