Our innate desire to be free: The science of civil war

On May 9, 2012 by stratagem

Phantom Report Notes:

 Foreign military forces conducting combat missions against indigenous armies in unfamiliar terrain using state of the art technology to lead the way will lose. I do not care if NATO forces receive intelligence from Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, global positioning satellites, satellite images, computer predictive programs or the god damn X37B orbiting earth. If you do not know the terrain as the natives know the terrain, you lose substantially. Does Afghanistan ring any bells? No need to diverse into the military operations conducted by the Russians or US/NATO forces. We know the outcome of the Russian campaign, as well as predicting the latter military campaign. Computer predict projects such as Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine (SCARE), Riftland, Condor, Epidemiological Modelling of the Evolution of Messages (E-MEME), Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (W-ICEWS) will never be able to predict human emotion. Our innate desire to be free.

 

FOR the past decade or so, generals commanding the world’s most advanced armies have been able to rely on accurate forecasts of the outcomes of conventional battles. Given data on weather and terrain, and the combatants’ numbers, weaponry, positions, training and level of morale, computer programs such as the Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model, designed by the Dupuy Institute in Washington, DC, can predict who will win, how quickly and with how many casualties.

Guerrilla warfare, however, is harder to model than open battle of this sort, and the civil insurrection that often precedes it is harder still. Which, from the generals’ point of view, is a pity, because such conflict is the dominant form of strife these days. The reason for the difficulty is that the fuel of popular uprisings is not hardware, but social factors of a type that computer programmers find it difficult to capture in their algorithms. Analysing the emotional temperature of postings on Facebook and Twitter, or the telephone traffic between groups of villages, is always going to be a harder task than analysing physics-based data like a tank’s firing range or an army’s stocks of ammunition and fuel.

SCARE tactics

One of the best-known projects in this field is SCARE, the Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine, developed at the United States Military Academy at West Point by a team led by Major Paulo Shakarian, a computer-scientist-turned-soldier. SCARE operates at the most militarily conventional end of the irregular-conflict spectrum: the point where an army of guerrillas is already in being and is making life hard for a notionally better-armed army of regular troops. That, of course, has been the experience of American forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Major Shakarian and his team have analysed the behaviour of guerrillas in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and think they understand it well enough to build reliable models.

Their crucial insight is the local nature of conflict in these countries. In particular, bombs directed at occupying forces are generally planted close to the place where they were made, and on the territory of the bombmaker’s tribal kin or co-religionists. That is not a surprise, of course. Kin and co-religionists are the most reliable allies in wars where different guerrilla groups may not always see eye to eye about objectives, beyond the immediate one of driving out foreign troops. But it does give Major Shakarian and his team a convenient way in. Using the co-ordinates of previously bombed sites, data from topographical and street maps, and information on an area’s ethnic, linguistic and confessional “human terrain”, SCARE is able to predict where guerrillas’ munition dumps will be to within about 700 metres. That is not perfect, but it is close enough to be able to focus a search in a useful way.

Moreover, SCARE’s focus should soon become more precise. Major Shakarian’s latest trick is to include data on phone-traffic patterns in the calculations. An upgraded version of the program, employing this trick, will be created next month.

All of which is useful for dealing with a conflict once it has started. But it is better, if possible, to see what may happen before things get going. And for that, America’s navy has a project called RiftLand.

RiftLand is being developed on the navy’s behalf by Claudio Cioffi-Revilla, a professor of computational social science at George Mason University in Virginia. It is specific to the part of East Africa around the Great Rift Valley (hence the name). That this area includes Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, each of which has been the scene of present or recent civil strife, is no coincidence. But the ideas involved could be generalised to other parts of the world, with due alteration for local conditions.

Read More: The Economist

 

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