Against support for rebellions

Edward Carpenter had a hard-hitting post at the Duck of Minerva recently about when it makes sense for the international community to intervene on behalf of rebel groups, and it hasn’t generated nearly the discussion it deserved.  He comes to several conclusions that run strongly against prevailing liberal norms of human rights protection and democratization:

The existing government may not be very good – but the alternative will probably be worse. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi – neither were model leaders by according to the liberal democratic ideal, but life for the majority of Iraqis and Libyans was better under their rule. The same can be said for Bashar al Assad and Nouri al Maliki, although in the latter case especially, “better” is a relative statement, since an average of over 1000 Iraqi civilians have died or been wounded every month as a result of internal violence (bombings, shootings, etc) during his tenure as Prime Minister.

No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm. Mali is a model for this type of intervention, using a Western QRF to buy time for state and regional forces to assemble, a combined effort to eliminate the opposing network, and a planned transition to a UN peacekeeping force as the method to ensure a stable outcome and continued international involvement.

Counterexamples come to mind quickly, of course.  Should the international community have attempted to defeat the RPF and keep the genocidal Habyarimana regime in power in Rwanda after April 1994?  Or come to Mobutu’s aid in 1997 when the old dinosaur was finally chased out of Kinshasa by Laurent Kabila?  These are both extreme cases – Rwanda for the scale of the violence perpetrated against an ethnic minority during the war, and Congo based on the sheer degree to which the state apparatus had been undermined and personalized during Mobutu’s rule.  It’s not clear to me how many similarities these countries share with pre-2003 Iraq or pre-2011 Libya.

Of course, after the rebels won in Rwanda and the DRC, their outcomes have been almost entirely divergent, with a stable, developmental state emerging in Rwanda and a violent, patrimonial status quo holding strong in the Congo.  Setting aside concerns about political repression by the RPF for the moment, the Rwandan example is basically the best-case scenario for the international community – a strong, organized rebel group comes in and puts the country back together after conflict’s end.  To use Carpenter’s metric here, life is probably better for the average Rwandan today than it was before 1994.  The Congolese case is close to the worst scenario, where armed groups continue to violently contest control of territory for years after the official end of the war, and the central state remains weak and corrupt.  For millions of people in eastern DRC, life has definitely gotten worse since the early 1990s, and in most of the rest of the country things have probably changed fairly little since that point.

So how to evaluate Carpenter’s proposal?  For many countries, I think it’s sound.  Violent political transitions can do an incredible amount of damage, and the likelihood that a new government will be substantially more democratic or development-oriented than its predecessor seems pretty low, so trying to keep active conflict to a minimum will probably be the single most helpful thing the international community could do to protect civilians.  But there’s also an obvious need to re-evaluate in the case of of genocidal violence or extreme state weakness.

Are Mexican cartels anything like Boston gangs?

As long as I’m busy comparing patterns of violence within the US and abroad, here’s another article worth a look.  At Foreign Intrigue, Dan Fisher writes that Mexican authorities might do well to replace their failed tactic of taking down cartel kingpins with an approach targeted at suppressing only the most violent cartels.  This strategy was used to successfully reduce armed violence by Boston gangs in the 1990s.

A different, and potentially more effective, approach would be to focus enforcement on the most violent DTOs, and on the most violent individuals within those DTOs.[iii] Such an approach would represent a permutation of the highly successful Operation Ceasefire, which involved a whole-of-law-enforcement and judicial system effort to pull all available “levers” in order to reduce gang-related gun violence in Boston, MA.  … Operation Ceasefire accounted for a 60% decline in youth homicide victimization in Boston. To achieve this outcome, authorities publically announced a new enforcement strategy targeting the most violent street gangs. The strategy accounted for the fact that a relatively small number of youth were the most prone to killing or being killed, reflecting an iteration of the Pareto Principle described earlier. The public announcement was coupled with conversations with gang members, in order to communicate that acts of gun violence would be prioritized for enforcement. This, along with the “pulling levers” approach, produced a substantial deterrence effect, resulting in the aforementioned significant decline in youth homicide victimization.

I’m trying to think through whether this type of strategy would also be applicable to rebel groups – the analogy doesn’t seem exact to me, but I’m still trying to figure out why not.  Would love to hear others’ thoughts as well!

Is Mosul anything like Chicago’s South Side?

I’m no expert on Iraq.  I opposed the American invasion in 2003, and have spent most of the last decade shaking my head at news coverage of the war rather than following its progress closely.  It’s only been in the past few weeks, as the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul has displaced the crises I was paying attention to (South Sudan and CAR) in the major Western papers, that I’ve finally started reading articles and commentary on Iraq instead of skipping past them.

For a number of reasons, I don’t find it very plausible that the crisis could have been averted if only American troops had stayed in Iraq past 2011.  US troops might have been in a better position to engage IS militarily, but it’s not clear to me that they could have prevented the group’s formation or successfully promoted the professionalization of the Iraqi military, let alone overcome the politicization of religion and ethnicity in order to create a stable, Western-style democracy.  There’s a huge body of literature on why building strong and inclusive states is a lengthy and often violent process, with or without foreign intervention, so the fact that the US hasn’t been able to fundamentally transform the political realities of Iraq after one decade of war is really not surprising.

What does interest me about all of this is why foreign policy hawks continue to believe that this type of transformation is possible.  I don’t just mean “why haven’t they read their history” or “why are they so arrogant,” but rather “through which causal mechanisms do they believe that American money and troops can overcome sectarian divides, build a strong state and prevent violent rebellion?”  There’s probably some literature on this question – the specific beliefs that policymakers hold about processes of social change, and their implications for enacted policy – but a few trips around Google Scholar haven’t helped me find anything useful.

This question has stayed with me as I’ve been reading about violence in a very different social context: the stubbornly high rates of armed assault on Chicago’s South Side.  The area made the news recently for a large series of shootings over the 4th of July weekend, and features prominently in Ta-Nehesi Coates’ excellent article on the case for slavery reparations, as he points out that segregation and endemic poverty in places like the South Side are the results of decades of overtly racist government policies.  This is violence taking place in the heart of one of the world’s most advanced democracies.  It is a place where the state is unquestionably strong, the police well-equipped, and the shootings themselves carried out not by an invading army but by street gangs.  In short, the American state has all the characteristics we have been trying to build into the post-invasion Iraqi state, and yet even here there are pockets of continuing violence.

It’s informative to compare the way that violence in a major American city and a major Iraqi city are discussed on the American op-ed circuit.  (Most American policymakers still get their information from newspapers, so this isn’t a case of looking at the chattering classes in isolation from actual policy.)  My morning skim of the New York Times and a number of political science blogs suggests that voices in favor of US intervention in Iraq – that is, people who believe the US has the capacity to reshape the state and control conflict there – are still prominently represented.  By contrast, as Gene Demby has noted, most of the mainstream discourse around the shooting deaths of black and Hispanic men in places like Chicago’s South Side presents this type of violence as saddening but inevitable – a natural phenomenon that can’t be controlled by government policy.  The place where the US government should in principle have the most policy leverage is where violence is depicted as uncontrollable, while the place where US leverage is limited by Iraqi sovereignty and, oh yes, the fact of being an invading force, is where American policy is expected to be most transformative.

I’d like to see the people in favor of a renewed or continued US military presence in Iraq grapple seriously with this issue.  Is it easier to have an external actor build democratic institutions in a state weakened by years of war than it is to provide quality educations and reform sentencing laws for drug crimes in one’s own country?  What about the challenges of creating a professional army in the face of continued incentives for politicization, as opposed to trying to avoid obvious racial profiling by a police force that’s otherwise pretty well-trained?  Everything on this list is difficult, but in general I suspect the domestic policy goals could be achieved more quickly and durably than the foreign policy ones.

I think there are two coherent responses to those questions.  One is, “yes, the domestic goals might be more feasible, but structural racism means that we don’t want to spend money on them; we think Iraq will be different because we’re willing to throw billions at it.”  The second is, “hmm, it seems to be hard to design effective policies to reduce violence and find the political will to implement them even in a place with a generally strong and capable government.”  If returning US troops to Iraq seemed likely to lead to a lasting reduction in the amount of violence experienced by Iraqis and an improvement in their standards of living, I would support it in a heartbeat, but so far I haven’t heard a convincing explanation of the mechanisms by which this could occur.

What explains peace?

In case you missed it, Jon Temin had a great article at Foreign Policy last month asking a critically important question: “Why don’t the policymakers and practitioners looking to end the world’s deadliest wars spend more time studying peace?”  This could mean peace at the country level (he compares Niger’s peaceful relationship with its Tuareg minority to the fraught relationship in neighboring Mali), or within a single country (as shown by the surprising stability of the state of Western Equatoria in South Sudan).  At an even more granular level of analysis, one could look at the case of Butembo – a Congolese city which has remained fairly insulated from conflict despite its location in restive North Kivu province.  But the question in any case is the same: why do some places fall into conflict, while others with similar characteristics manage to avoid it?

There’s a large body of literature in political science looking at cases where civil wars have occurred, but much less looking at war’s absence.  Based on my reading of the conflict literature, here are three factors that the study of peace might start exploring.  (Update, 14 July: read the comments, they’re quite good.  I’ve also added a fourth item here based on feedback from Digitaldjeli.)

  • Regional conflict complexes.  Peter Wallensteen (PDF), Idean Salehyan & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (PDF), and many others have pointed out that many civil wars are not sui generis, but are linked to conflicts in neighboring countries, often through the mechanisms of refugee movements and state support for armed groups next door.  The canonical example is the way that conflicts in Rwanda have spilled over into and exacerbated conflicts in neighboring DRC.  The obvious question here is why some refugee host countries get drawn into the wars of their neighbors, while others (like Ghana, which hosts a number of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire) manage to avoid this.
  • Ideological collective action.  In The Order of Genocide, Scott Straus finds that Rwandan provinces with administrators who belonged to the ruling MRND party acted quickly to start carrying out genocidal killings after the order came down from Kigali, while administrators who belonged to the opposition were sometimes able to delay the start of violence in their area.  The tactics they employed to do this included organizing self-defense militias for vulnerable communities, threatening to punish people who carried out genocidal attacks, and dispersing groups of men who gathered to start hunting victims.  This, of course, touches on the age-old question: why do some groups of people espouse violent ideologies, while others in the same society do not?  And to what degree are peaceful places peaceful because citizens actively worked for peace, as opposed to simply not having the right preconditions for war?
  • Land tenure policies.  Cathy Boone’s recent book Property and Political Order in Africa argues that places where land tenure rights are assigned by the state are more likely to see both violent and non-violent conflicts scale up to become quarrels with the central government.  By comparison, in places where land tenure is administered by tribal leaders or other local groups, conflicts over land tend to stay “bottled up” at the local level, and are less likely to become national political issues.  Boone stops well short of making the claim that systems of land tenure can explain the prevalence of civil war, but I think there are some ideas here that are worth digging into more deeply.  For example, the highly politicized process by which the state granted land use rights in the Kenyan highlands has created lasting and sometimes violent grievances there, while the politicized process of agricultural collectivization in neighboring Tanzania hasn’t led to large-scale violence (as far as I know).  What mitigated against the violent resolution of land access disputes in Tanzania?  And more generally, are places with tribal or other local systems of land allocation less likely to have civil wars?  This would be an interesting counterpoint to the idea that “tribalism” lies behind many conflicts.
  • Stationary bandits.  Digitaldjeli’s point was that “peace” in Butembo looks more like a protection racket, but the idea that protection rackets can grow into (peaceful, Westphalian) states is actually a classic in the American political science literature.  Mancur Olson (PDF) builds on work by people like Charles Tilly (PDF) to argue that the type of mafioso running the racket matters – “stationary bandits” will protect the people and territory under their control so they can continue to tax them in the long run, while “roving bandits” will steal everything they can from people in the short run, and offer no protection.  Put differently, decisions by political elites can matter a lot for the types of violence that occur within a state.  The million dollar question is why some elites are able to look past the short term gains of roving banditry and decide to make longer term investments in protecting their territory.

At this point I’m actually coming up against the precise problem that Temin highlights: the region I’ve studied most thoroughly, central Africa, is comprised exclusively of countries that have had civil wars, and I’m running out of non-war cases to use for comparison.  What other hypotheses or case studies can you think of that might explain instances of peace in regions seemingly predisposed to war?

The international roots of civil war

Dropping briefly by to point to a few recent articles which offer up variations on this theme.  At Dart-Throwing Chimp, the essential Jay Ufelder has a very good post reviewing the academic literature on international involvement in civil wars in light of recent events in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.  Key points:

Strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.  In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. … In the Central African Republic, it’s Chad that’s played “an ambiguous and powerful role” in the conflict that has precipitated state collapse and ethnic cleansing there.

Ludicovic Lado’s post on arms trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa at Africa Up Close has an interesting example of how foreign involvement can also be (to some degree) unintentional:

The proliferation of arms in Africa has been a longstanding threat to the security and the stability of states and the situation has worsened since the fall of Kaddafi, former Libyan president, prompting an ongoing heated debate in African circles as to whether this widely supported move by western powers was strategically beneficial for Africa. … Most analysts agreed today that the dismantling of Kaddafi regime has benefited a good number of militia in the Sahel region, thereby boosting both arms trafficking and the rebellion business.

Stephen Weissman’s Foreign Affairs article on the true extent of the CIA’s involvement in Congolese politics over the first decade of independence is also worth a read.  He draws on a number of recently-declassified documents to reevaluate the CIA’s role in propping up Mobutu, concluding:

We now know that even though the threat of communism in Congo was quite weak at the time of Congo’s independence, the CIA engaged in pervasive political meddling and paramilitary action between 1960 and 1968 to ensure that the country retained a pro-Western government and to help its pathetic military on the battlefield. So extensive were these efforts that at the time, they ranked as the largest covert operation in the agency’s history, costing an estimated $90–$150 million in current dollars, not counting the aircraft, weapons, and transportation and maintenance services provided by the Defense Department.

Not only was U.S. involvement extensive; it was also malignant. The CIA’s use of bribery and paramilitary force succeeded in keeping a narrow, politically weak clique in power for most of Congo’s first decade of independence. And the very nature of the CIA’s aid discouraged Congolese politicians from building genuine bases of support and adopting responsible policies. The agency’s legacy of clients and techniques contributed to a long-running spiral of decline, which was characterized by corruption, political turmoil, and dependence on Western military intervention. So dysfunctional was the state that in 1997 it outright collapsed — leaving behind instability that continues to this day.

One must wonder what would have happened to Mobutu, Lumumba, Mulele and the rest if they’d been allowed to carry out their fight for political dominance on their own, rather than having the field tipped towards Mobutu by the US and later France.

Who is supporting Boko Haram?

I’m fascinated by the investigative work that goes into uncovering the funding sources of rebel groups.  The M23 graph I wrote about last month shows the complex web of connections between the group and its funders.   Shelby Grossman recently blogged about a similar chart for Boko Haram, which focuses on the types of support that the group has received from different sources.

bokoharamThe chart comes from a June 2012 World Policy piece by Carlo Davis.  It would be fascinating to see an update to account for changes in financing sources over the last two years, especially from established political parties.

 

Peacekeeping by proxy in Uganda

The ever-insightful Ken Opalo had a great post last week about why the US has been putting so much military aid towards the hunt for Joseph Kony in Uganda, even as it’s tried to avoid getting involved in the much more pressing humanitarian emergency in the CAR.  Key point:

The US recently announced new military aid to Uganda, including four CV-22 Ospreys and an additional 150 Special Operation troops (to join the 100 deployed in 2011) in an effort to step up the hunt for Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kony is suspected to be in hiding in the border regions CAR, the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan. Of course this rather bizarre decision (is Kony really that much of a priority right now in the Great Lakes Region?) is motivated by the need to keep the Ugandan military in top shape and ready to fight in places the US doesn’t want to set foot.

I tend to assume that US aid to other countries’ militaries is always driven by foreign policy concerns.  In this light, assisting in the hunt for Kony doesn’t make much sense.  But it’s quite interesting to consider that the Defense Department might be concerned about stability in Africa more broadly, beyond the immediate threat they see (xenophobically) from Muslim armed groups.

(Thank you to Scott for pointing out that I forgot to link to Ken’s post!)

 

Property and political order in Africa

I recently finished Cathy Boone’s excellent new book, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics. She’s motivated by the observation that, while disagremeents over access to land are endemic in Africa, some areas see the issue become highly politicized or spill over into violent conflict, while others end up with low-level disagreements that never escalate.  In seeking to answer this, she looks at the way that different types of land tenure systems created by the colonial and post-colonial state tend to “bottle up” land conflict at the local level, or encourage it to escalate to the national political realm.

A very brief rendering of her argument is that land tenure systems in which chiefs or lineage heads are given the right to allocate land (often along ethnic lines) tend to keep conflict local, because no one above this level of regional governance has the right to challenge the chief’s allocation of land.  Thus, people who are unhappy with their access to land can’t make claims about it within the national political system.  Examples of this type of system include western and central Ghana, northern Cameroon, and western Kenya.

A chiefly or lineage-based land tenure regime contrasts with statist systems of land allocation, where the government directly assigns land to farmers, often for the purpose of raising cash crops (and frequently involving the importation of labor from elsewhere in the country).  Because access to land isn’t mediated by any type of local government, people with complaints about their allocation take the issue directly to the national government.  Examples of this type of system include southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya’s Rift Valley, eastern DRC, and southeastern Rwanda.

I found this analysis very useful in understanding some of the persistent conflict dynamics of the Great Lakes.  In both the DRC and Rwanda, government policies led directly to the displacement of thousands of people from the colonial period onwards.  This seems to have created lasting grievances in both countries that have played off each other in very harmful ways, from cycles of ethnic violence in Rwanda to the way that persistent insecurity of land tenure in eastern Congo has led to the creation of an endless array of militias.  In Ghana, by comparison, chiefly land tenure systems prevailed, relatively few people were forced off their land, and land allocation does not seem to be a highly salient national political issue today.  To be clear, Boone is not claiming that land tenure regimes are the only or even the primary explanatory variable for violent conflict, but her analysis of the ways that land tenure arrangements can mute or amplify tensions within a political system is insightful in ways that simple claims about ethnic rivalries are not.

What’s the right analogy for Rwanda?

As the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide approaches on April 7, people who don’t usually pay much attention to African politics will be seeing two main types of commemorative stories about the country.  The first will focus on the incredible progress that Rwanda has made in areas like fighting corruption, promoting economic growth, and rolling out universal health insurance.  The second will acknowledge these domestic policy achievements, but note that Kagame’s government has also been repressing political expression, physically attacking its opponents, and fostering rebellions in the neighboring DR Congo.   Underlying some of these concerns about domestic repression is the fear that ethnic grievances from the genocide era have only been partially addressed, and that these could spill over into renewed conflict in the future.

These two sets of stories present such diametrically opposed visions of the country that I think many people will feel that they can’t both be equally true.   One must trump the other in the final analysis, right?  Either the big development goals are being met, at the short term cost of lesser goals like freedom of speech, or these gains are secondary to the threat posed by the RPF’s willingness to use violence to achieve its ends.  I too find myself struggling with this tendency to weigh the two narratives against each other.  I am generally concerned about the patterns of repression that can be seen today, but I’m also aware that this leads me to discount some amazing development achievements that I’m sure I would be endlessly commending if they had took place in, say, Ghana.  It feels uncharitable at best and dishonest at worse to look past these accomplishments.

Since it’s hard to weigh the situation in Rwanda on its own merits, it’s common to try to explain it through analogy.  Kagame himself is fond of saying that he’d like Rwanda to be the Singapore of Africa – a tiny country that punches far above its economic weight.  Singapore, of course, has achieved its own growth through a similar combination of good governance and repression of dissent.  However, when most foreigners think of Singapore today, I suspect they’re contemplating its role as an international financial hub, its insanely expensive rents, and its great culinary diversity rather than its freedom of the press.  The obvious conclusion here, if you believe that Rwanda really is on a path to emulate Singapore, is that in 50 years no one will care about a spot of repression today, because it won’t have any negative long term effects.

On the other hand, there are analogies which express more concern over the RPF’s authoritarianism.  Laura Seay tweeted last month that “Rwanda today is terrifyingly like Rwanda circa 1992.  Power held by a tiny minority, no real freedom.  Development is better, but fragile.”  The point here is not that Kagame’s government is using its power to start planning a genocide, as the Habyarimana government was doing in 1992 – whatever its faults, the RPF is definitely not out to kill every citizen it perceives as a threat to its power.  Rather, the point is that extreme concentration of power can be politically destabilizing, and potentially lead to renewed conflict.  In 1992, Rwanda was in the middle of a civil war between the Hutu-led Habyarimana government and Kagame’s RPF, at that point a rebel group based in Uganda.  Kagame and many of his companions were the children of Tutsis who had been driven out of Rwanda when a Hutu government came to power at independence in 1962. Lacking any impartial or democratic means to redress these ethnic grievances, they formed an armed group instead, and invaded in 1990 after a series of economic crises had weakened Habyarimana’s authoritarian control.

There are several implications of this analogy.  Most obviously, it suggests that there’s a problem with the RPF’s ban on discussions of ethnic identity, which means that ethnicized grievances among both Hutu and Tutsi can’t be openly resolved.  At this point both sides have complaints about everything from the RPF’s behavior during and after the genocide to contemporary land policy.  It’s by no means guaranteed that these issues will spill over into violent rebellion, of course – they might simply simmer at a local level, or even fade away as shared economic growth and the passage of time reduce some of the sting of current grievances. However, the other lesson of this analogy is that conflict doesn’t always happen immediately.  After 1962, exiled Tutsis made a handful of attempts to invade Rwanda, but it was nearly 30 years before the RPF succeeded.  Authoritarian stability today doesn’t necessarily predict stability in the future.

So which is the “right” analogy?  I still don’t really know.  For a number of reasons, I think it’s harder to finance a violent rebellion in most African countries today than it was in the mid-1990s.  The RPF’s control of the countryside is strong, as is the Rwandan military.  It’s hard to imagine how they could become sufficiently disorganized that other armed groups could form within the country, or even pose a real threat across its borders.  Of course, if a severe schism formed within the party (as happened with the SPLM in South Sudan recently), this could change the balance of power.  Ultimately, the analogy you prefer may come down to your tolerance for risk.  Mitigating the chance of a worse-case outcome under the “Rwanda in 1992″ analogy may seem like a better policy choice for some people than trying to maximize the chance of high economic growth under the Singapore scenario.