New Conflict Forecasting Website

Wardlab is the working group run by Michael D. Ward. The lab has a new website: You can find out about our ongoing projects, download software packages, or follow the Conflict Forecast blog.

The team includes some really smart people, several of whom have their own websites.

The site is still in a beta version, but many in this blog’s audience are interested in political forecasting and conflict, so I thought I would go ahead and share.

H.R. McMaster on War

Last Thursday evening I had the privilege of attending Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s keynote address to the ISSS/ISAC conference. General McMaster is the author of Dereliction of Duty and currently serves as the director of the US Army’s Manuever Center for Excellence. His speech touched on numerous interested topics, illustrated the breadth and depth of his understanding of warfare. Here I include paraphrases and summaries of his answers to several audience questions.

How do assumptions about the nature of warfare affect strategy?

One of the major assumptions that strategists–and instructors–have to make is whether war is a fundamentally certain or uncertain process. If war is uncertain, you will employ fire-and-maneuver tactics. Commanders will lead from the front. Planners will leave room for error in the plan, remaining flexible in light of changing events rather than sticking with a predetermined course of action. If you think the enterprise of war is certain, you will use precision fire strategy. Commands will come from the rear. Plans will be exact and inflexible, requiring unwavering commitment rather than flexibility and adaptation.

What do you think of network-centric warfare?

Reshaping an organization is not the same as achieving a political goal. At the same time, we need greater integration of law enforcement personnel like the US Treasury Department and the FBI to combat threats like transnational terrorism and organized crime.

What are the causes of war?

This goes right back to Thucydides–fear, honor, and interests:

And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterward came in. (Book One, 432/3)

When we see the fatigue or breakdown of combat forces (e.g. in Vietnam), what are the causes and how can practitioners address it?

One potential explanation is ignorance. This could be ignorance of military standards of conduct, or of the local situation. The answer to ignorance is understanding. In this case, it would be an understanding of applied ethics, or of gaining sympathy for the local population.

Another cause is uncertainty. As I said before, I believe war is a fundamentally uncertain enterprise. But operating in an uncertain environment can be draining. It also leads to the fourth reason, which is fear. Aristotle understood this:

[I]f they are to feel the anguish of uncertainty, there must be some faint expectation of escape. This appears from the fact that fear sets us thinking what can be done, which of course nobody does when things are hopeless. (Rhetoric, Book II, Chapter 5, 1383a)

The fourth and final cause is combat trauma. Rage or individual prowess are unacceptable motivations for combat. Losing friends can encourage this. So can coming in to the military after a lifetime of watching movies and playing video games. In real life, the only acceptable motivators are the mission and the protection of your fellow soldiers.

N.B.: Although these are paraphrases and summaries, I have stayed as close to Gen. McMaster’s original comments as possible. As you can see, he reads widely and thinks deeply.

Modeling Third-Party Intervention in Civil Wars

Inspired by the 2011 coalition action in Libya, Shahryar Minhas and I recently developed a new agent-based model of third-party intervention in civil wars. If you are attending the ISSS/ISAC conference in Chapel Hill, you will get a chance to hear about the project this afternoon. If not, our slides are here.

We model civil war as a gambler’s ruin problem. Rebels start out with a fixed proportion of territory, always less than or equal to fifty percent. Depending on their relative strength, the long run expectation is that they will lose, just like you will lose to the “house” if you go for broke at a Vegas casino. Intervention can change the game, though: it would be like winning on black and half of the red spaces on a roulette wheel. Our model is a bit more detailed than that (particularly with how we model states’ decisions to intervene) but that’s the gist.

Here are the long-run probabilities of beating the government, given a certain percentage of territory occupied and a certain strength ratio, based on the gambler’s ruin:

And after 1,000,000 simulations, here is how intervention affects conflict duration:

So the takeaway is that we predict intervention to increase conflict duration; but if the outcome is more desirable for the intervener, it may be worth it.

Do Targeted Killings Work?

Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations rounds up answers from Daniel Byman (sometimes), Joshua Foust (maybe), Sarah Holewinski (probably not), Patrick Johnston (yes, if targeted selectively), and Pir Zubair Shah (probably, at least in Pakistan).

I have explored this question myself, as it pertained to Osama bin Laden (both before and after his death) and the removal of cartel leaders in Mexico. The latter question–whether leadership removals in Mexican drug-trafficking organizations leads to more or less violence–is the topic of one of my current working papers (somewhat outdated draft).

New Feature: Reading Lists

Several colleagues have recently asked me to curate reading lists for them, either to brush up on an unfamiliar subject or as the basis for part of a survey course. I have decided to include these lists on a new page, and to generate new lists from time to time.

To kick off this feature, I have included two lists. The first is a basic overview of economics and economic history. This list is intended for someone who already has a basic familiarity with the topic, but wants to refresh their knowledge or consider some other perspectives. The second is a brief survey of the security studies literature, with multiple options in each sub-category. It is intended as an introduction to the topic at the undergraduate level. Graduate students or professors who use this list should note that many of the works on the list are controversial.

Suggestions for amending the existing lists or topics for future lists are welcome in the comments section.

What Can Hacking Teach Us About War?

Map Illustrating Details of the Honan Hack, from Varonis Blog

Mat Honan recently described the ‘epic’ way that his Amazon, Apple, Gmail, and Twitter accounts were all successively hacked. Once the hacker(s) had access to his Apple ID, they used the ‘Find My iPhone’ and ‘Find My Mac’ features to wipe his devices’ hard drives clean, erasing every photo of his young daughter along with untold other data. In the end, it seems the hackers mainly wanted access to his Twitter username (@mat) simply because it was only three characters long.

If you haven’t already, go read Mat’s post before continuing. After that, go set up two-step verification for your Gmail account. If you are not convinced that two-step verification is necessary, read this. I’ll wait…

OK, now that you’re back–what does all this have to do with politics? When I read about Mat’s hacking experience, one of my main takeaways was “all that for a Twitter account?” The vandals could have taken so much more, including financial information and valuable contacts.

If all they wanted was his Twitter username they did not need to go to all the work. I am relatively certain that if the hackers contacted Mat asking for his username and showing that they were capable of destroying his online life, he would have turned it over without much of a fight to avoid all of the headaches that came with the security breach. But the hackers did not want to take the easy way–they wanted to show off.

This incident provides a great counter-example to an almost universal assumption in the conflict/security studies literature: that conflict is costly, so actors would rather avoid it. Dan Reiter summarizes (pdf, ungated) the idea this way:

In modern bargaining-model scholarship… this logic gets translated into the critical assumption that war itself—the actual fighting, aside from the political issues at stake—is always costly.

One prominent example of this assumption is James Fearon’s (1995) “Rationalist Explanations for War.” (pdf, ungated) In his words,

My main argument is that on close inspection none of the principal rationalist arguments advanced in the literature holds up as an explanation because none addresses or adequately resolves the central puzzle, namely, that war is costly and risky, so rational states should have incentives to locate negotiated settlements that all would prefer to the gamble of war.

Fearon gives three reasons why states still go to war even though it is costly (summary presentation here). First, there are information problems about which side is stronger. This does not apply in the Honan hacking case; although he did lack crucial information about some security flaws, he described the feeling of “kicking himself” for not doing more to protect his passwords. Second are commitment problems. Even if the hackers had promised not to violate Honan’s personal accounts if he turned over his Twitter username, he had no reason to trust them. The third problem is issue indivisibility: you cannot give access to “half” of a Twitter account, making the contest here an all-or-nothing proposition.

Even though the hack seems to have been relatively easy for the attackers, exploiting vulnerabilities in Amazon and Apple’s customer service protocols, this still presents a hard case for the rationalist assumption that negotiated settlements are to be preferred to conflict. Mat Honan could have turned over his username and avoided losing all of his data, and the hackers could have saved themselves some trouble. The fact that they chose not to go this route indicates that they derived pleasure from the attack itself. Assuming that conflict is costly might lead us down the wrong road.

Wednesday Nerd Fun: The Science of Batman

Batman is a particularly entertaining superhero because he is in some sense the most realistic. There’s no need for an alternate universe or an elaborately fictional back story: he’s a guy with a cause and enough money to acquire the tools he needs. This premise was violated by certain plot elements in The Dark Knight Rises (see here), but the basic believability of Batman remained.

It turns out that Scientific American has not one but two posts on the science of Batman. The first piece, from 2008, answers such questions as, “How long would Bruce Wayne have to train to become Batman?” and “How would Batman get enough rest?”

In the more recent post, Paul Zehr tackles questions like “Why are Joker and Bane so difficult to beat anyway?” and “What revisions to the Batsuit are needed to protect against… concussion and spinal cord injury?” If these thoughts keep you up at night, you might also be interested in Paul’s book, Becoming Batman.