Follow-up comments on Mosul and Mexico

After I published posts on patterns of violence in Mosul and Chicago and Boston and Mexico this summer, John Bertetto, the managing editor at Foreign Intrigue (which published the original Boston/Mexico piece), wrote to me with some great comments.  Republishing his email here, with his permission (and slight edits to the formatting).

In re: Boston and Mexico:

Combating DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] is a huge endeavor, obviously, but one fraught with opportunity to be successful. As vertically integrated organizations, they provide ample means for intervention. Focusing on the drugs will never be sufficient; they are traffickers, and traffickers traffic. What those items are, that’s another matter. DTO derive substantial profit because they currently traffic their own product, but experience has shown that when times are lean or when other markets provide greater profits they will diversify into other things, particularly humans. But trafficking networks can be broken, and a comprehensive strategy to target DTOs should include operations that focus on this, as well as on all other aspects of the trade – from financing to production, packaging, transportation, trafficking, wholesales, and economic diversification (using illegal revenues to create legitimate businesses) – provides many avenues from which we can intercede and work inward, dismantling the organization. What is missing, typically, is coordination and political will/lack of corruption. I do like the idea Dan offers of vetting and training local autodefensas – not so much as a paramilitary force but as a community watch group. This empowers locals and helps embolden them to report activities. Concurrently I’d get the military out of the DTO fighting business. This is an LE issue, and should remain one. Use of the military sends the wrong message to both the community and the criminals. The community feels as though their is no law and that their is a war going on, and the criminals feel like soldiers. They should feel like the criminals they are, and everyone should feel that their is a sense of law.

Street gangs are differently primarily because they are not vertically integrated. Strategies should include isolation from needed criminal resources as well as alleviation of conditions that lend themselves to criminal activity. I’ve written a bit on dealing with street gangs, including pieces specifically addressing targeting considerations and dealing with complexity.

In re: Chicago and Mosul:

I wrote a piece at Foreign Intrigue that may be on interest to you, if you have not already seen them. In “Undergoverned Spaces” I talk a bit about some of what you address, specifically what comparisons we can make between places like Chicago and Mosul. For me, right now there is a fundamental taxonomy problem. We have this dichotomy of governed v. ungoverned that lets us frame many issues incorrectly, and from there it’s all downhill. The first question should not be “Is there governance or is there not governance,” but rather “Is there sufficient governance, is there insufficient governance, or is their no governance.” If we look at some areas of Chicago, saying their is sufficient governance is clearly incorrect, but saying their is no governance or lawlessness is equally incorrect. The issue is more profound when we look at places like Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the Ukraine – an excellent example now because we have not walked all over it and the issues like we have Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of “un/undergoverned” makes us ask of foreign countries “What would be our role here: building a government or supporting one already in place?” This has cascading effects across everything else, from how we craft our IR policy, how we deliver or messaging, what kind of support we lend, the size of our commitment, if we are going to deploy US forces and, if so, what and how large. For domestic US cities, the answer will always be “undergoverned,” and from here we conduct a systems analysis to determine which areas of governance are lacking and determine how to bring those up to par.”

As you might imagine, I am totally on board with this point of view on governed vs. ungoverned spaces.

Is fighting rebel groups the only way to defeat them?

Here’s another great paragraph from the same article I discussed in my last post, by D’Errico, Kalala, Bashige Nzigire, Maisha and Malemo Kalisya:

Community-led initiatives for mitigating or removing the risk of exposure to [violence in eastern DR Congo] also exist. … In Kitutu, a rural community located next to a forest used as a base by soldiers of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – FDLR) who have inflicted numerous acts of rape and violence on community members for nearly a decade, residents have lobbied United Nations’ officials to escort them to FDLR camps so they can invite the soldiers to come and live among them. They have also offered to build houses for the soldiers. According to respondents, integrating the soldiers into community life is the only way to resolve the violence. They believe the community plays a more important role in this process than international agencies, since they are genuinely willing to invite soldiers to live with them, with the prerequisite that they lay down their weapons.

How many Western assumptions about conflict does would this strategy upend?  Communities are passive victims of rebel groups.  Peacekeepers should provide a buffer between armed groups and civilians.  Rebels must be militarily defeated or made to sign peace treaties.  I suspect this type of local-level negotiation is actually very common, and probably has more to do with how rebels behave than political scientists tend to think.

Highlights from APSA

I had a fantastic time at APSA last week.  Early-stage PhD students, it’s definitely worth attending even if you’re not presenting.  Here are some of the papers that really stood out to me:

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.