Recent articles on conflict

Here’s a handful of interesting articles & books that have passed through my huge pile of unsorted PDFs neatly tagged Evernote notebooks recently.  I’ve included links to ungated versions when available; please let me know if you have access to a free version of any of the gated texts.

  • Chris Blattman’s lecture notes on what American political scientists know about the connection between poverty and violence.  A quick, thought-provoking slide deck.
  • Danielle Beswick on the paradoxes of military capacity building in Rwanda (published version appears to be available for free right now).  Nothing new here if you’ve been watching Rwanda and M23 for a while, but the focus on the risks of a strong military is a useful addition to policy discussions of security sector reform.
  • I haven’t read Severine Autesserre’s Peaceland yet, but it’s high on my list.  Another article covering similar territory to Autesserre’s last book is Jens Stilhoff Sörensen’s piece on the failure of statebuilding.  Key quote: “In its aim to secure, I argue, contemporary state-building and global liberal governance contribute to social and spatial fragmentation in different forms, rather than reconciliation and re-integration.They do so by dismantling previously existing frameworks and introducing market relations where the state has few instruments for attracting cross-sectarian loyalty” (p. 49).
  • Michael Gilligan et al. on how conflict affects social cohesion at the community level in Nepal.  Key point: “We find that violence-affected communities exhibit higher levels of prosocial motivation… We find evidence to support two social transformation mechanisms: (1) a purging mechanism by which less social persons disproportionately flee communities plagued by war and (2) a collective coping mechanism by which individuals who have few options to flee band together to cope with threats” (p. 604)

Puzzles about FDLR disarmament

Africa Confidential had a very good article recently on possible motives for the FDLR’s upcoming disarmament.  Quoting at length here for readers without a subscription:

Rwandans sceptical about the FDLR’s true intentions believe it is buying time to reorganise and recruit, fending off the threat of the FIB by pretending to surrender while continuing to prepare militarily. The interim report of the UN Group of Experts on Congo-Kinshdsa, dated 25 June but made public on 3 July, says as much: ‘In contrast to claims that it is ready to disarm, FDLR continues to recruit and train combatants, including children.’ It adds that two high-ranking officers, Colonel Hamada Habimana and Lieutenant Col. Ferdinand Nsengiyumva, have returned to the FDLR, having respectively deserted and been arrested by the FARDC. The report also says that, far from seeking political dialogue, the leaders’ objective remains to attack Rwanda.

The mixed and competing ambitions can be partly explained by the fact that the FDLR is far from a coherent, single-minded entity. The loyalties of its fighters are split, fairly evenly, between Byiringiro and Sylvestre Muducumura. Byiringiro is exploring political avenues as a means of achieving his goals while Muducumura, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (which spells his name Mudacamura), remains committed to military action.

The UN Experts’ report shows how the FDLR’s political wing has struck alliances with Rwandan opposition parties in Rwanda and in Belgium. In July 2012, it formed the Front commun pour la libération du Rwanda (FCLR-Ubumwe) with the Parti social Imberakuri (AC Vol 51 No 14, The assassin’s hand). Byiringiro is President of the Front commun. On 1 March, discussions in Brussels led to the formation of the Coalition des partis politiques rwandais pour le changement, consisting of two more Rwandan opposition parties, the Rwanda Dream Initiative-Umugambi Rwanda Rwiza of ex-Premier Faustin Twagiramungu and the Union démocratique rwandaise, as well as FCLR-Ubumwe. Byiringiro is FCLR-Ubumwe’s coalition representative.

State violence and historical memory in Rwanda and China

I’m off to spend three weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam today, so blogging will be light aside from a few scheduled posts.   While this isn’t specifically a research-oriented trip, I chose these countries in part because I wanted to see what life looks like in places that had experienced civil wars and are about 20 years farther along in their recovery than the places I study in Africa.  As evinced by a few of my recent posts (here and here), I’ve been trying to get outside of my tendency to focus narrowly on central Africa and work towards doing more cross-regional comparison.  Africa is often discussed as a continent uniquely predisposed to violence, but I’m quite convinced that this isn’t true, and I’m looking forward to beginning to build my familiarity with other areas.

I was recently discussing my rationale for this trip over dinner with a friend who’s also spent some time in Rwanda.  He made the excellent point that if I were interested in looking at the ways in which governments work to shape historical memory of traumatic events, the apt comparison would actually be between Rwanda and China.  In his view, both the scale of the violence (during the genocide in Rwanda and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China) and the degree to which state culpability for these events has been whitewashed and manipulated to suit current political realities seem comparable.

I know very little about Chinese history beyond what I’ve gotten from Wikipedia, and I haven’t really started looking into the implications of this statement yet.  But it’s got me thinking: why doesn’t more literature look for commonalities across categories of political violence rather than within them?  By this I mean that genocides are compared to other genocides (as in this paper by René Lemarchand [PDF]),  civil wars to other civil wars, and terrorism to other cases of terrorism.  My understanding of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution suggests that neither was primarily aimed at the genocidal elimination of ethnic minorities, as occurred in Rwanda in 1994.  And yet all of these episodes were about states using various types of violence to attempt to remake society in their preferred image, be it as an industrialized nation or a nation free of Tutsis and MDR supporters.  Both the Cultural Revolution and the Rwandan genocide were episodes of violence that took place largely in response to political uncertainty among national elites.  And in both cases, the scale of violence was explained in large part by the existence of a relatively strong and centralized state.  (By comparison, there’s a lot of ongoing violence in the DRC today, but it’s perpetrated by a wide range of actors, rather than being state-led.)

Of course, Rwanda and China are incredibly different in most other ways, starting with the fact that Rwanda’s entire population is a rounding error in Chinese statistics.  But maybe there’s something to be said for avoiding the tendency to group like with like – Africa with Africa, civil war with civil war – and see what might be learned from unexpected comparisons.

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.