Early Results from a New Atrocities Early Warning System

For the past couple of years, I have been working as a consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide to help build a new early-warning system for mass atrocities around the world. Six months ago, we started running the second of our two major forecasting streams, a “wisdom of (expert) crowds” platform that aggregates probabilistic forecasts from a pool of topical and area experts on potential events of concern. (See this conference paper for more detail.)

The chart below summarizes the output from that platform on most of the questions we’ve asked so far about potential new episodes of mass killing before 2015. For our early-warning system, we define a mass killing as an episode of sustained violence in which at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group are intentionally killed, usually in a period of a year or less. Each line in the chart shows change over time in the daily average of the inputs from all of the participants who choose to make a forecast on that question. In other words, the line is a mathematical summary of the wisdom of our assembled crowd—now numbering nearly 100—on the risk of a mass killing beginning in each case before the end of 2014. Also:

  • Some of the lines (e.g., South Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan) start further to the right than others because we did not ask about those cases when the system launched but instead added them later, as we continue to do.
  • Two lines—Central African Republic and South Sudan—end early because we saw onsets of mass-killing episodes in those countries. The asterisks indicate the dates on which we made those declarations and therefore closed the relevant questions.
  • Most but not all of these questions ask specifically about state-led mass killings, and some focus on specific target groups (e.g., the Rohingya in Burma) or geographic regions (the North Caucasus in Russia) as indicated.
Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

I look at that chart and conclude that this process is working reasonably well so far. In the six months since we started running this system, the two countries that have seen onsets of mass killing are both ones that our forecasters promptly and consistently put on the high side of 50 percent. Nearly all of the other cases, where mass killings haven’t yet occurred this year, have stuck on the low end of the scale.

I’m also gratified to see that the system is already generating the kind of dynamic output we’d hoped it would, even with fewer than 100 forecasters in the pool. In the past several weeks, the forecasts for both Burma and Iraq have risen sharply, apparently in response to shifts in relevant policies in the former and the escalation of the civil war in the latter. Meanwhile, the forecast for Uighurs in China has risen steadily over the year as a separatist rebellion in Xinjiang Province has escalated and, with it, concerns about a harsh government response. These inflection points and trends can help identify changes in risk that warrant attention from organizations and individuals concerned about preventing or mitigating these potential atrocities.

Finally, I’m also intrigued to see that our opinion pool seems to be sorting cases into a few clusters that could be construed as distinct tiers of concern. Here’s what I have in mind:

  • Above the 50-percent threshold are the high risk cases, where forecasters assess that mass killing is likely to occur during the specified time frame.  These cases won’t necessarily be surprising. Some observers had been warning on the risk of mass atrocities in CAR and South Sudan for months before those episodes began, and the plight of the Rohingya in Burma has been a focal point for many advocacy groups in the past year. Even in supposedly “obvious” cases, however, this system can help by providing a sharper estimate of that risk and giving a sense of how it is trending over time. In the case of Burma, for example, it is the separation that has happened in the last several weeks that tells the story of a switch from possible to likely and thus adds a degree of urgency to that warning.
  • A little farther down the y-axis are the moderate risk cases—ones that probably won’t suffer mass killing during the period in question but could more readily tip in that direction. In the chart above, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burundi all land in this tier, although Iraq now appears to be sliding into the high risk group.
  • Clustered toward the bottom are the low risk cases where the forecasters seem fairly confident that mass killing will not occur in the near future. In the chart above, Russia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia are the cases that land firmly in this set. China (Uighurs) remains closer to them than the moderate risk tier, but it appears to be creeping toward the moderate-risk group. We are also running a question about the risk of state-led mass killing in Rwanda before 2015, and it currently lands in this tier, with a forecast of 14 percent.

The system that generates the data behind this chart is password protected, but the point of our project is to make these kinds of forecasts freely available to the global public. We are currently building the web site that will display the forecasts from this opinion pool in real time to all comers and hope to have it ready this fall.

In the meantime, if you think you have relevant knowledge or expertise—maybe you study or work on this topic, or maybe you live or work in parts of the world where risks tend to be higher—and are interested in volunteering as a forecaster, please send an email to us at ewp@ushmm.org.

A Notable Year of the Wrong Kind

The year that’s about to end has distinguished itself in at least one way we’d prefer never to see again. By my reckoning, 2013 saw more new mass killings than any year since the early 1990s.

When I say “mass killing,” I mean any episode in which the deliberate actions of state agents or other organizations kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group. Mass killings are often but certainly not always perpetrated by states, and the groups they target may be identified in various ways, from their politics to their ethnicity, language, or religion. Thanks to my colleague Ben Valentino, we have a fairly reliable tally of episodes of state-led mass killing around the world since the mid-1940s. Unfortunately, there is no comparable reckoning of mass killings carried out by non-state actors—nearly always rebel groups of some kind—so we can’t make statements about counts and trends as confidently as I would like. Still, we do the best we can with the information we have.

With those definitions and caveats in mind, I would say that in 2013 mass killings began:

Of course, even as these new cases have developed, episodes of mass killings have continued in a number of other places:

In a follow-up post I hope to write soon, I’ll offer some ideas on why 2013 was such a bad year for deliberate mass violence against civilians. In the meantime, if you think I’ve misrepresented any of these cases here or overlooked any others, please use the Comments to set me straight.

Eye Candy for Social Scientists

A few great data visualizations have come across my virtual desk in the past 48 hours. I’ve already shared a couple of them on my Tumblr feed, but since no one actually looks at that, I thought I would post them here, too.

The first comes from Penn State Ph.D. student Josh Stevens, who has created a stunning set of maps and charts showing past and predicted conflict events in Afghanistan. This thing is great on a few levels. First, Josh has taken a massive data set—GDELT—and carefully parsed it to tell a number of interesting stories about where and when conflict has occurred and how those patterns have shifted over time. Second, he’s sticking his neck out and forecasting. That alone separates this visualization from almost every other one I’ve ever seen about political violence. Third, he’s done all this in a visual format that accounts for red/green color blindness. That condition is apparently pretty rare, but Josh’s attention to it is a nice reminder of the value of making your visualization broadly accessible.

Josh Steven's Visualization of Material Conflict Events in Afghanistan

Josh Steven’s Visualization of Material Conflict Events in Afghanistan

The next comes from software engineer Aengus Walton, who has built a web page that graphs hourly reports of air quality in several of China’s largest cities, a problem that I expect to play a role in future social unrest there. The graph is simple, pretty, and interactive. Users can toggle cities on and off and change the time period displayed from a single day to more than a year. What’s really cool about this graph, though, is what you don’t see. These data are reported by U.S. embassies, which tweet them every hour but don’t bother to chart them. Walton has written code that automatically pulls those tweets from the Twitter stream, scrapes them for the relevant data, and updates the graph in sync with the data bursts. I’d like to be able to do that when I grow up.

Aengus Walton's Graph of Air Pollution in China

Aengus Walton’s Graph of Air Pollution in China

The third comes from political science Ph.D. student Felix Haass, who gives us this animated GIF of African countries’ contributions to uniformed U.N. peacekeeping missions since 1991. (See here for the full post in which this was embedded.) I’m a sucker for animated maps, which suggest stories for further investigation that are harder to uncover from big lattices of static small multiples. This one, for example, nicely illustrates how the scale of UNPKO contributions has grown over time, and how a few countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Africa) have emerged as major contributors to these missions in the past decade or so.

Felix Haass' Maps of U.N. PKO Contributions by African States

Felix Haass’ Maps of U.N. PKO Contributions by African States

The last visualization isn’t social science, but I include it as a placeholder for a kind of page I could imagine creating some day. This is a screenshot from Forecast Lines, a weather site that aggregates data from several sources in an elegant way (h/t Trey Causey). The light grey lines show the component forecasts, and the black line shows the single-best forecast produced by an algorithm that combines them. You can toggle between temperature, precipitation, and other measures; you can see the component forecasts as you scroll over the lines; and each page includes forecasts on three time scales (hour, day, week).

forecast lines screenshot

Now: imagine a version of this showing daily forecasts of political conflict at the local level using batch-processed data from sources like GDELT and Bloomberg and Twitter, with the option of toggling over to a mapped version… I find that idea technically and theoretically thrilling and ethically ambiguous, depending, in part, on who is using it to what ends. Whatever you think of it, though, expect to see something like it on your mobile device in the next several years.

“State Failure” Has Failed. How About Giving “State Collapse” a Whirl?

Foreign Policy magazine recently published the 2012 edition of the Fund for Peace‘s Failed States Index (FSI), and the response in the corner of the international-studies blogosphere I inhabit has been harsh. Scholars have been grumbling about the Failed States Index for years, but the chorus of academic and advocacy voices attacking it seems to have grown unusually large and loud this year. In an admirable gesture of of fair play, Foreign Policy ran one of the toughest critiques of the FSI on its own web site, where Elliot Ross of the blog Africa is a Country wrote,

We at Africa is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can’t take it seriously: It’s a failed index.

As Ross and many others argue, the core problem with the FSI is that it defines state failure very broadly, and in a way that seems to privilege certain forms of political stability over other aspects of governance and quality of life that the citizens in those states may prize more highly. In a 2008 critique of the “state failure” concept [PDF] that nicely anticipated all of the recent sturm und drang around the FSI, Chuck Call wrote that

The ‘failed states’ concept—and related terms like ‘failing’, ‘fragile’, ‘stressed’ and ‘troubled’ states—has become more of a liability than an asset. Foundations and think tanks have rushed to fund work on ‘failing’ states, resulting in a proliferation of multiple, divergent and poorly defined uses of the term. Not only does the term ‘failing state’ reflect the schoolmarm’s scorecard according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian endstate, but it has also grown to encompass states as diverse as Colombia, East Timor, Indonesia, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Iraq, and the Sudan.

In that essay, Call advocates abandoning the now-hopelessly-freighted concept of “state failure” in favor of a narrower focus on “state collapse”—that is, situations “where no authority is recognisable either internally to a country’s inhabitants or externally to the international community.” I agree.

In fact, in 2010, while still working as research director for the U.S. Government–funded Political Instability Task Force, I led a small research project that aimed to develop a workable definition of state collapse and coding guidelines that would allow researchers to know it when they see it. The project stopped short of producing a global, historical data set, but the coding guidelines were road-tested and refined, and I think the end results have some value. In light of the FSI brouhaha, I’ve posted the results of that project on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) in hopes that they might be useful to a broader audience.

In those materials—a concept paper and a set of coding guidelines—I argue that we can get to a more workable concept by moving away from Max Weber’s aspirational vision of modern states as legitimate and orderly bureaucracies. Instead, I think we get further when we recognize that real-world states are a specific kind of political organization associated with a particular realization of global politics. That realization—the “Westphalian order,” or just “the international system”—constitutes states and delegates certain forms of political authority to them, but national governments in the real world vary widely in their ability to exercise that authority. When internationally recognized governments cease to exist, or their actual authority is badly circumscribed, we can say that the state has collapsed. That kind of collapse can happen in two different ways: fragmentation and disintegration.

When the failure to rule involves the national government’s territorial reach, we might call it collapse by fragmentation. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes final authority within a specific territory and international recognition of that authority, so situations in which large swaths of a state’s territory are effectively governed by organized political challengers whose authority is not internationally recognized represent a form of collapse. In practical terms, these situations usually arise in one of two ways: either 1) a rebel group violently pushes state agents out of a particular area, or 2) a regional government unilaterally proclaims its autonomy or independence and becomes the de facto sovereign authority in that region. In either situation, the rival group directly and publicly challenges the national government’s claim to sovereignty and effectively becomes the supreme political authority in that space. State military forces may still operate in these areas, but they do so in an attempt to reassert control that has already been lost, as indicated by the primacy of the rival organization in day-to-day governance…

State collapse also occurs when the national government fails to enforce its authority in the absence of a rival claimant to sovereignty. This type of failure might be called state collapse by disintegration. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes that a central government is capable not just of making rules but also of enforcing them. Dramatic failures of a state’s enforcement capabilities are indicated by widespread lawlessness and disorder, such as rioting, looting, civil violence, and vigilantism. In the extreme, central governments will sometimes disappear completely, but this rarely occurs. More often, a national government will continue to operate, but its rules will be ignored in some portions of its putative territory.

To distinguish state collapse from other forms of political instability and disorder, we have to establish some arbitrary thresholds beyond which the failure is considered catastrophic. Saying focused on the core dimensions of domestic sovereignty—territory and order—I do this as follows:

A state collapse occurs when a sovereign state fails to provide public order in at least one-half of its territory or in its capital city for at least 30 consecutive days. A sovereign state is regarded as failing to provide public order in a particular area when a) an organized challenger, usually a rebel group or regional government, effectively controls that area; b) lawlessness pervades in that area; or c) both. A state is considered sovereign when it is granted membership in the U.N. General Assembly.

If you’re interested, you can find more specific language on how to assess challenger control and lawlessness in the coding guidelines.

Applying this definition to the world today, I see only a handful of states that are clearly collapsed and just a few more that might be. In the “clearly collapsed” category, I would put Libya, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. In the “probably collapsed” category, I would put Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Those judgments are based on cursory knowledge of those cases, however, and I would be interested to hear what others think about where this label does (Chad? Haiti? Ivory Coast? Sudan? South Sudan?) or does not (Afghanistan? Mali?) fit. Either way, the list is much shorter and, I believe, more coherent than the 20-country sets the Failed States Index identifies as “critical” and “in danger.”

More important, this is a topic that still greatly interests me, so I would love to have this conceptual work critiqued, put to use, or both. Fire away!

Assessing the Risks of Risk Assessment

Tuesday’s Washington Post reports that a U.S. government task force now recommends “men should no longer receive a routine blood test to check for prostate cancer because the test does more harm than good.”

After reviewing the available scientific evidence, the task force concluded that such testing will help save the life of just one in 1,000 men. At the same time, the test steers many more men who would never die of prostate cancer toward unnecessary surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, the panel concluded. For every man whose life is saved by PSA testing, another one will develop a dangerous blood clot, two will have heart attacks, and 40 will become impotent or incontinent because of unnecessary treatment, the task force said in a statement Monday.

This recommendation will sound familiar to any American who was within earshot of a TV or radio a few years ago, when the same task force updated its guidance on breast cancer to recommend against routine screening for women in their 40s. That recommendation raised a ruckus in some quarters, and the new guidance on prostate-cancer screening may do the same.

Whatever you think of them, these recommendations are useful reminders that applied risk assessment can have a downside. Because no screening system works perfectly, attempts to identify high-risk cases will always flag some low-risk cases by mistake. In statistical jargon, these mistakes are called “false positives.” For mathematical reasons, the rarer the condition–or, in many policy contexts, the rarer the unwanted event–the larger the number of false positives you can expect to incur for every “true positive,” or correct warning.

This inevitable imprecision is the crux of the problem. To assess the value of any risk-assessment system, we have to compare its benefits to its costs. In the plus column, we have the expected benefits of early intervention: lives saved, suffering averted, crimes preempted, and the like. In the minus column, we have not only the costs of building and operating the screening system, but also the harmful effects of preventive action in the false positives. The larger the ratio of false positives to true positives, the larger these costs loom.

In the case of prostate cancer, epidemiologists can produce sharp estimates for each of those variables and arrive at a reasonably confident judgment about the net value of routine screening. With political risks like coups or mass killings, however, that’s a lot harder to do.

For one thing, it’s often not clear in the political realm what form preventive action should take, and some of the available forms can get pretty expensive. Diplomatic pressure is not especially costly, but things like large aid projects, covert operations, and peace-keeping forces often are.

What’s more, the preventive actions available to policy-makers often have uncertain benefits and are liable to produce unintended consequences. Aid projects sometimes distort local markets or displace local producers in ways that prolong suffering instead of alleviating it. Military interventions aimed at nipping threats in the bud may wind up expanding the problem by killing or angering bystanders and spurring “enemy” recruitment. Support for proxy forces can intensify conflicts instead of resolving them and may distort post-conflict politics in undesirable ways. The list goes on.

If a screening system were perfectly accurate, the costs of those unintended consequences would only accrue to interventions in true positives, and we could weigh them directly against the expected benefits of preventive action. In the real world, though, where false positives usually outnumber true positives by a large margin, there often won’t be any preventive benefits to counterbalance those unintended consequences. When we unwittingly intervene in a false positive, we get all of the costs and none of the prevention.

Improvements in the accuracy of our risk assessments can shrink this problem, but they can’t eliminate it. Even the most accurate early-warning system will never be precise enough to eliminate false positives, and with them the problem of costly intervention in cases that didn’t need it.

We also know that social scientists still don’t understand the dynamics of the political and economic systems they study nearly well enough to speak with confidence about the likely effects and side-effects of specific interventions. (That’s to say, we shouldn’t speak with great confidence on cause and effect, but that doesn’t stop many of us from doing so anyway.) As Jim Manzi surmises in a brilliant 2010 essay, the problem is that, with social phenomena, “the number and complexity of potential causes of the outcome of interest”–what Manzi calls “causal density”–is fantastically high, and the counterfactuals required to untangle those causal threads are rarely available. As a result,

At the moment, it is certain that we do not have anything remotely approaching a scientific understanding of human society. And the methods of experimental social science are not close to providing one within the foreseeable future. Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably. Until then, we need to keep stumbling forward with trial-and-error learning as best we can.

In short, we’re stuck in a world of imprecise early warnings and persistent uncertainty about the consequences of the interventions we might  undertake in response to those imprecise warnings. It’s like trying to practice medicine with a grab bag of therapies and nothing but observational studies of one small population to guide choices about who needs them when, and what happens when they get them.

So what’s an empiricist to do? It’s tempting to throw up our hands and just say “fuggedaboudit,” but, as PM observes in a recent post at Duck of Minerva, “The alternative to good social science is not no social science. It’s bad social science.” In the absence of systematic risk assessment and cautious inferences about the consequences of various interventions, we won’t forego risk assessment and preventive action. Instead, we’ll stumble ahead with haphazard risk assessment and interventions driven by anecdote or ideology. Confronted with this choice, I’ll take fuzzy knowledge over willful ignorance any day.

That said, I do think the breadth of our uncertainty in these areas obliges us to concentrate our preventive efforts on two kinds of interventions: 1) ones that we understand well (e.g., vaccinations against infectious diseases), and 2) ones that are so small and simple that any side-effects will be inherently limited.

It’s tempting to think that bigger interventions will yield bigger benefits, but the benefits of these big schemes are often unproven, and the unintended consequences are likely to be larger as well (Exhibit A: U.S.-funded road-building in Afghanistan). There are a lot of ways that international politics isn’t like medicine, but the ethical concept of “First, do no harm” is undoubtedly relevant to both.

Peace *and* Elections in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is slated to hold its next national elections in the not-too-distant future. Presidential balloting is due in 2014, and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2015. As it happens, that’s about the same time NATO is supposed to hand over full responsibility for security in the country to the Government of Afghanistan.

The coincidence of these inflection points has some people worried, and it should. For a while now, international interventionists of various stripes have portrayed democratic elections as catalysts of peace in countries beset by civil wars. The thinking goes something like this: Civil wars are really just domestic politics by other means–in other words, fights over governance. To resolve these fights, you need to get to a government that all parties to the conflict consider legitimate. Free and fair elections are the only way to get to legitimate government nowadays; ergo, you can’t get to conflict resolution without going through elections.

In an important recent paper, however, political scientists Dawn Brancati and Jack Snyder argue that elections held soon after civil wars end are more likely to spur renewed fighting than they are to cement the peace. “Bringing quantitative evidence to bear on this heretofore largely qualitative policy debate,” they write, “we find that the skeptics are correct in their central claim: holding elections too soon after a civil war raises substantially the risk of war occurring again.”

This outcome isn’t inevitable, of course. From their statistical analysis, Brancati and Snyder also conclude that “decisive victories, demobilization, and peacekeeping diminish the fighting capacity of former combatants who might otherwise be tempted to return to war when faced with unfavorable election results.” Importantly, they also argue that international actors can help bring about these more propitious conditions, or at least to avoid pressing for the unfavorable combination of unstable peace and quick elections.

International involvement has often pushed for early elections in risky conditions, when recently warring factions remain well armed and able to use violence to contend for power. Indeed, international actors have helped create these conditions in the first place by pressing warring factions to reach settlements before one side has defeated the other. However, international actors can sometimes create conditions that mitigate the risk posed by early elections when they provide robust peacekeeping, facilitate the demobilization of armed forces, back power sharing agreements, and help build robust political institutions. Thus, we argue that international pressure in favor of early elections strengthens peace when it provides these stabilizing instruments, but it undermines peace when it is not backed by effective means to achieve stable democracy.

Unfortunately, none of the “favorable conditions” identified by Brancati and Snyder exists today in Afghanistan. For starters, there isn’t yet a peace agreement. It’s possible that a peace deal negotiated between now and 2014 might involve a power-sharing government, but that outcome would actually be in tension with the commitment to free and fair elections. Either the next elections are fair and competitive, in which case the power-sharing deal is essentially dead on arrival; or the power-sharing deal trumps the elections, in which case the balloting is an exercise in wasted spending and dashed expectations. Either way, the two processes seem to be working at cross purposes.

Some observers are already talking about how to put these processes on more complementary tracks. In a recent blog post for Foreign Policy in Focus, writer Conn Hallinan sees a cease-fire, a government of national unity, a constitutional assembly, a regional conference, and continued development assistance as the ingredients most likely to produce a successful exit from this messy tangle.

Hamish Nixon and Caroline Hartzell put more meat on some of those bones in a December 2011 report for the U.S. Institute for Peace, arguing that “any negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict should involve a set of transitional arrangements to govern the period between the signing of a peace settlement, a cease-fire, and the entry into force of more permanent institutions for conflict management.” That transitional period would involve negotiations over long-term institutions, the form of which would not necessarily be proscribed by the existing constitution. In their view,

A wide range of potential measures could create opportunities among the conflicting parties to share influence, as well as balance that influence with more roles for noncombatants, civilian political actors, and vulnerable groups.

Power sharing and reform are not mutually exclusive approaches to addressing the political dimensions of the conflict. A combination of power-sharing, power-dividing, power-creating, and power-diffusing mechanisms can provide groups within divided societies with assurances that they will not be permanently excluded from state power and resources, while generating more effective and accountable governance and establishing the foundations for a more capable, accountable, and resilient state.

In Afghanistan, this might include clarifying or even redefining the powers of the president, National Assembly, and the courts, modifying the relationship between the central government and provincial and district administrations, or creating and diffusing decision-making authority among new or existing institutions over issues such as appointments.

I don’t know whether either of these approaches would work, and I don’t know what other options might exist. I do know, though, that we should be dubious of the assumption that the upcoming elections will automatically advance the causes of peace and development in Afghanistan, as long as they’re sufficiently clean and well-run.

Surprise! Anthropologists Give Western State-Building in Afghanistan Poor Marks

Coburn does not romanticize the ways of Istalif–the quiet the town has enjoyed since the end of the Taliban regime is highly tenuous, and largely the result of tacit agreements among bitter rivals over what to forget and ignore. Whatever the fragility of such an arrangement, Coburn implies that it is preferable to the modernizing plans of even the most thoughtful state-builders. The attempt to create impersonal, merit-oriented bureaucracies and to spread liberal beliefs about gender, religion or criminal punishment is as likely to exacerbate conflict as to resolve it. Stability is created with the resources at hand, not from on high or far away (“The state does not live here,” Istalifis like to say).

That’s from a thought-provoking review in Sunday’s New York Times of three new books on Afghanistan, two written by Boston University anthropologists Noah Coburn and Thomas Barfield and one by the now-uncategorizable Rory Stewart and co-author Gerald Knaus. Here’s another bit of the review, by senior editor Alexander Star, on Barfield’s book:

With some irony, Barfield shows that Afghan rulers of the last 150 years anticipated Karzai in their combination of anti-foreign rhetoric with a reliance on outside assistance; one king after another cast himself as the essential preserver of Afghan independence and tradition while depending on British subsidies. Meanwhile, life in the countryside was little affected: the most successful rulers “declared their governments all-powerful but rarely risked testing their claim by implementing controversial policies.” After the Taliban’s departure, “the enthusiasm for restoring a highly centralized government was confined to the international community and the Kabul elite that ran it.”

The review also addresses the claim that the whole state-building endeavor in Afghanistan could have gone much better, if only Western agents of modernization had arrived with deeper “local knowledge.”

Understanding Afghanistan’s social and cultural diversity has proven little easier than mastering it…The trouble, it seems, is that a little local knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Western soldiers meet with village councils, or shuras, and work to strike deals with local elders; and the methods of counterinsurgency may well give them a greater capacity to do so. But what if the shura is largely ceremonial, with real power exercised behind the scenes? And what if the elders are not all they seem? What if they exaggerate their own authority, or seek to establish that authority through prominent meetings with easily impressed outsiders? What if the elders, like everyone else, are anxiously hoarding their power, refusing to take risks, and preparing for an unpredictable future in which it’s equally plausible that mullahs, militias or Kabul bureaucrats might each gain more power? What then is to be done?

I said my piece on Western state-building efforts in Afghanistan on this blog a few months ago, and I’m sure I found this review so appealing, in part, because I already agreed with the conclusions the authors and reviewer have reached. I’m not an Afghanistan expert, so I don’t expect my thoughts on the subject to move many readers.

That said, I wish everyone calling for MOAR STATE-BUILDING as a way to end the war in Afghanistan, or to stabilize “fragile” and “failed” states anywhere else, would engage more seriously with these deep, first-hand accounts of how and why the most intensive (and expensive) attempts to do so in recently history have fundamentally failed. If you’re going to argue that externally motivated and funded programs can build functioning states while making peace and advancing liberal values, you can’t just wave your hands at these kinds of failures or claim they can be overcome with another twist of some knob (More local knowledge! More stakeholder involvement! Faster training!). The failure is systemic, and MOAR STATE-BUILDING is part of that system.

State-Building in Afghanistan

The purpose of America’s war in Afghanistan, President Obama said in public remarks after his 2009 comprehensive policy review, is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” State-building is an essential part of NATO’s strategy for achieving that goal. To defeat al Qaeda, the president has told us, NATO forces  not only have to kill or capture fighters affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban or to disrupt their operations; they must also “enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

It’s not hard to see why countries threatened by al Qaeda might seek to enhance the capabilities of the forces ostenibly standing alongside them in that fight, including Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s. What deserves more critical reflection than it gets, I think, is the expectation that investments in those countries’ “governance and economic capacity” will also help to achieve the same end.

In my view, the U.S. Government’s commitment to state-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan is motivated by an ideology which is so pervasive in contemporary wealthy societies that we have come to accept many of its premises as facts. In his brilliant 1998 book, Seeing Like a State, the interdisciplinary scholar James Scott labels this ideology “high modernism”. He writes (pp. 89-90) that,

[High modernism] is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws. High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity…The high-modernist state began with extensive prescriptions for a new society, and it intended to impose them.

As Scott shows, high modernism has been manifested historically in all kinds of state-led schemes, from standardizing traders’ weights and measures and establishing legitimate forms of personal identification to declaring and delineating private ownership of previously communal resources, planning urban areas, and establishing compulsory education. The immediate aim of these schemes has often been to facilitate taxation, and they all entail some degree of coercion. At the same time, these schemes have also been suffused with idea that a rational reordering of society along lines prescribed by technical experts would substantially improve the welfare of the affected citizenry.

High modernism associates order and progress with the presence and power of a certain kind of state. A high-modern state is expected to provide an array of public goods, starting with the maintenance of public order and extending to the administration of justice and commerce, the promotion of public health, the provision of education, and the protection of civil and political rights. As constructivist theories of international politics keep trying to remind us, this kind of state is not a natural occurring entity. Instead, it is an organizational form that has emerged only recently in human history, and that has become and remained dominant in global politics through the deliberate and persistent efforts of powerful actors. The system those actors have constructed acknowledges the sovereign authority of a specific organizational form (the national government) within an officially recognized territory (state borders) with the expectation that those governments will take responsibility for certain governance tasks—the public goods associated with the modern state—within those borders.

The flip side of the high-modernist coin is the expectation that the absence of state authority results in disorder, stagnation, and backwardness. In contemporary policy jargon, patches of land where internationally recognized governments lack authority are called “ungoverned zones.” States with large ungoverned zones are tagged as “failing,” and according the National Security Strategy released by the White House in May 2010, “Failing states breed conflict and endanger regional and global security.”

To prevent these unwanted consequences, the thinking goes, we have to build up the states responsible for those lapses, to help them extend and deepen their writ throughout the entire territory assigned to them by the community of states. Consistent with high modernism’s fundamental assumptions, the problem of state weakness is construed as a technical one, amenable to technical solutions. The state is understood as a series of interconnected systems serving specific governance functions that are universal to all states. Because those functions are universal, the thinking goes, weaker states can enhance their capacity by mimicking governance practices and structures present in more “successful” ones. Foreign governments can facilitate that process through technical guidance and financial support—in other words, knowledge and money.

A crucial lesson from Scott’s book, however, is that grand schemes rooted in high-modernist ideology have often ended badly, in large part because their implementers failed to recognize just how disruptive they usually are. State authority is fundamentally political, not technical. State-driven modernizing schemes inevitably disrupt local customs that are often deeply embedded and functional in their own right, albeit in ways that may not match the modernizers’ objectives. Because they are so disruptive, these schemes often trigger intense and usually hostile reactions from the people they are supposed to benefit. In fact, Scott uses comparative analysis to draw specific lessons about the conditions under which state-building schemes are most likely to end poorly. In his book (pp. 4-5), “the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering” have occurred when four elements have come together: 1) state-led plans to reorder society for administrative purposes, motivated partly by 2) a deep faith in the high-modernist ideology; 3) an authoritarian state willing and able to use its coercive power to push those plans on its subjects-cum-citizens; and 4) a civil society too weak to push back.

I have never set foot in Afghanistan, served in the military, sat in a meeting of policy principals, or implemented an aid program. Still, as a distant observer, I am struck by the similarities between the nature of, and the responses to, the schemes Scott describes and the accounts of state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Arguably, all four elements of the state-building tragedies of the past are present in Afghanistan today For starters, U.S. and European leaders sometimes talk facetiously about how they don’t expect Afghanistan to transmogrify into Switzerland, but the breadth and depth of the social engineering they have undertaken there are still extraordinarily ambitious. Foreign-funded programs have sought to build the “capacity” of the central government to do just about everything a modern state is supposed to do, from patrolling its borders and policing its streets to collecting taxes, supplying electricity and potable water, expanding access to pharmaceuticals for health care, establishing and protecting property rights, holding elections, writing laws, promoting gender equality, and collecting economic statistics. The agenda from which those programs spring is spelled out in the Afghanistan Compact forged in London in 2006 between the putatively national government led by President Hamid Karzai and donor nations. In that document, the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and “the international community” resolve “to overcome the legacy of conflict in Afghanistan by setting conditions for sustainable economic growth and development; strengthening state institutions and civil society; removing remaining terrorist threats; meeting the challenge of counter-narcotics; rebuilding capacity and infrastructure; reducing poverty; and meeting basic human needs.”

The gradual elevation and expansion of these myriad objectives in the NATO-led campaign against al Qaeda that began in September 2001 has arguably turned foreign assistance to Afghanistan into one of the most ambitious social-engineering endeavors of all time. A 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that, since 2001, the United States alone has appropriated more than $52 billion in assistance to Afghanistan through the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. (This total does not include the direct costs of the combat effort, which a March 2011 CRS report estimated at $6.7 billion per month.) Approximately 56% of those funds have been spent on training and equipping Afghan forces; the other $25 billion or so were targeted at “development and humanitarian-related activities from infrastructure to private sector support, governance and democratization efforts, and counter-narcotics programs.” And, again, these are funds from the United States alone; total assistance over the past decade is presumably much higher.

We don’t talk about it much in the United States, but there is also a deeply authoritarian streak at the core of our governments’ capacity-building endeavors. For the most part, needs and remedies are identified and prioritized by foreigners who are not known or accountable to the Afghans they purport to assist. These programs are expected to benefit Afghans, but their core purpose, our representatives have told us time and again, is to advance the interests of the citizens in donor countries. All the while, the government with which donor countries “partner” in Afghanistan was itself chosen in elections marred by widespread fraud. In short, profound decisions about the world Afghans ought to inhabit and the things that need to be done to bring that world into existence are being made by people who are formally and informally unaccountable to most of the citizens those decisions will affect. That absence of accountability is the definition of authoritarian rule.

To me, an outsider who has never visited the country, the question of the capacity of civil society in Afghanistan seems to be a complicated one. In contemporary American and European political discourse, the term “civil society” usually refers to non-governmental organizations that advocate for traditionally liberal causes, including but not limited to the defense of human rights and civil liberties, protection of the natural environment, and the expansion of economic “freedoms.” As I see it, though, this definition is endogenous to high-modernist ideology, in that it legitimates organizations that complement the capacity-building agenda while marginalizing ones that might reject or resist it. Viewed through a wider lens, “traditional” non-state organizational forms such as “tribal” councils, religious courts, and informal agricultural cooperatives can also be construed as elements of a civil society, albeit one based on an alternative conceptualization of social participation in governance. Seen in this light, it seems reasonable to construe at least some of the violent responses to state-building interventions from Kabul and abroad as the kinds of civil resistance Scott’s historical survey leads us to expect in response to “internal colonization.”

Surveying the scene from a distance, then, I think it is not a stretch to say that all four of the conditions Scott associates with the most tragic failures of social engineering in the modern era are present in Afghanistan today. The point of this observation is not to claim that U.S.-led efforts to build an Afghan state are doomed to fail to secure foreign interests or to improve Afghans’ welfare, although I do believe they face long odds on both counts. By calling out the ideological foundations of these efforts, I hope to help create space for alternative views on the appropriate aims of foreign governments in Afghanistan and the best ways to achieve them. We know that the war we have chosen to fight in Afghanistan is extremely costly: more than 1,500 American lives lost so far, orders of magnitude more American lives permanently altered by severe injury and post-traumatic stress, close to $10 billion per month in American spending, and—important not just morally but also pragmatically—hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives disrupted or ended.

What we can learn by seeing the world through Scott’s lenses, I think, is that a war effort predicated on large-scale social engineering is also likely to be self-perpetuating. Contemporary counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy guides us to build state capacity as we “clear” areas of enemy fighters in an effort to draw sympathy away from that enemy and build up a durable alternative order that will rebuff the enemy’s attempts to return. A deeper awareness of the ideological foundations of the civilian side of the COIN coin and the consequences similar programs have produced in other contexts can help us understand the challenges these efforts face and the reasons they are so unlikely to succeed. Even if we are right to think that the emergence of a “modern” state in Afghanistan would significantly reduce the risk Americans face from terrorist attacks, we ought to be more honest with ourselves about how the construction of a “modern” state is not necessarily an unmitigated good for Afghans and—more important—whether or not it can be done at all.


This New York Times story on a USAID-funded road-building project is a sad and interesting piece of anecdotal evidence about the kinds of problems I have in mind. Road-building is one of the activities Scott discusses at some length in his book.

A recent Slate story looks at this question through the work of the U.S. military’s 27 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). According to author Maura O’Connor, “Research shows that support for government significantly increases when security improves and only a little when development of infrastructure or services gets better. If U.S. forces are going to win the counterinsurgency before a full withdrawal in 2014, they may need to shift their strategy from ambitious electricity plants and large hospitals to smaller development projects in individual villages where the allegiances of local elites can be co-opted.”

Christopher J. Coyne (George Mason University) and Adam Pellillo (West Virginia University) have written this unpublished academic paper that applies Scott’s ideas to Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and reaches some conclusions similar to my own.

Norwegian social scientist Astri Suhrke published this paper , entitled “Reconstruction as Modernization: The ‘Post-Conflict’ Project in Afghanistan,” in the journal Third World Quarterly in 2006. In it, she concludes that, “The conflation of post-war reconstruction with a broader agenda for reconstruction and modernisation has brought out a wide range of tensions associated with social change…As a result, the entire project shows signs of severe contradictions that are adding to the problems caused by the growing insurgency.”

Stephen Krasner, former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State and professor of international relations at Stanford University, writes in a recent issue of Prism about the impossibility of quickly building fully functional states in some poorly governed countries, and about the other forms of sovereignty the international system establishes to try to fill the gaps. He concludes that, “Policy could be more effectively framed if decisionmakers abandoned their commitment to conventional sovereignty and recognized the variety of authority structures, not only horizontally within states but also vertically between them, that exist in the contemporary international system.” You can find a PDF of the article here.

Finally, for a thoughtful discussion of the unintended effects a strengthened Afghan state might have on international relations in South Asia and beyond, see this recent blog post at Slouching Towards Columbia.

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