Thursday, 19 April 2012

Ride the Lightning-II

Attackerman's collection of F-35 music videos is pretty spectacular.
Watch irony and authenticity incinerate themselves in the F-35's afterburn. Bonus points for the Nirvana and "Keep Austin Weird" stickers.
The first one, F-35 Hispters, is like a worse version of Theory of a Deadman, which is itself a worse version of Nickelback, which is itself a worse version of Creed, which is itself a version of Pearl Jam, which is a legitimately great band. My only qualification is that they're not that much worse than Theory of a Deadman, but I suspect that there may be a Bad Rock Music Asymptote.

I'd actually been shown one of these videos, F-35 Flight Test Highlights, by an awfully enthusiastic DND guy. Actual statement: "Look at the curves on that baby." At that stage, my medulla oblongata seized up, and I couldn't process the rest of his remarks, so I might not be getting this right, but they were taping the session and I got to see it afterward:

Afghanistan: scenarios for the ANSF after 2014

Hey there, 122,000 army and police in a war-torn country. How about you hand those guns over, then? Oh, you say you might need them?

Both Afghan Defence Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak [NYTand NATO commander Gen. John Allen, earlier this monthconcur that the Afghan National Security Forces can be reduced in size from 352,000 this year to 230,000 by 2017.

 There is some wiggle room. Both generals acknowledge that the size of the force would be contingent upon the challenge faced from the strength of the rebellion. But this statement sounds like splitting hairs: it is difficult to sustain the claim that the Taliban is likely to be much weaker in 2014 than it will be late this year, a rather large gamble on the success of the surge.
 The troop reduction has instead to do with a reduction in resources, from $7 billion annually to $4.1 billion (the former figure includes one-time equipment costs, though, so the effective drop in money to pay troops and keep them equipped may be of lower magnitude). And, as it turns out, that $4.1 billion would require non-U.S. foreign donors to triple their total contribution to $1.3 billion, so it isn’t even guaranteed, despite President Obama’s appealsAnd the U.S. appears to be having some trouble raising the money. 

I wonder where those 122,000 guys are going to go. Off on their own: that would be fun. Home, disarmed? Maybe; but disarmament, demobilization and reintegration hasn’t exactly been a stunning success in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Where could President Karzai turn if US patronage doesn’t give him the force he thinks he needs to remain in power? His big lack would be cash. Conveniently, there are rather a lot of individuals in Afghanistan with access to a fair amount of that, and, also conveniently, they already pay a certain number of guys with guns. Karzai already gets along pretty well with themSince Karzai is likely to depend on warlords all the more after 2014, where does this leave the 122,000 demobilized soldiers? Basically a glut on the labour market for force: a fairly straightforward recruitment base.

I suspect, then, that we may be seeing the outlines of a scenario similar to post-1989 Afghanistan under Najibullah, after the Soviet withdrawal: the army gradually declines and gets folded into militias. At the same time, the decline in the size of ANSF means that the central government will be less able to keep those militias in line through force. Najibullah had to grant all sorts of concessions to local militia leaders to keep them in his coalition, and in the end he still suffered major defection problems over the course of the next three years. Barnett Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan and Abdulkader Sinno's Organizations at War give a really good rundown of that period, while Seth Jones has a recent reportindicating that the effectiveness of local militias in Afghanistan has depended on the strength of the central force. Of course, despite what Glenn Beck might tell you, the United States in 2014 is unlikely to be the Soviet Union in 1989. It should be able to sustain a much larger financial commitment much longer. 

External support might represent moral hazard, inducing Karzai not to make institutional changes that might help over the long term. But the thing is, the logic of moral hazard here actually rests on the prospect that external support is effective in the short run. Karzai would prefer reliable security forces. Moral hazard just suggests that he’s interested in methods of getting those forces that are low-cost (to him, anyway).

To be clear, I’m just attempting to identify likely consequences, rather than deliver a definitive judgment about what NATO powers ought to do. That’s a decision that will have to account for considerably more than what will happen to the ANSF, such as the terms of negotiation with insurgents, perceptions among Afghans of NATO’s involvement, and the organization’s broader priorities.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Syria, Violence, and Identity

Steve Saideman has a good post today about the reasons the violence in Syria will go on. I agree with everything in it. I would merely pile on another reason for pessimism: the narrow base of the Syrian regime, with Alawites dominating the armed forces and security services.

Steve argues that Bashar al-Assad cannot make a credible commitment not to use violence. I think this is true, but I also think commitment problem cuts both ways here. I argued in a paper [gated; sorry; working on ungated version] in 2010 in Comparative Politics that narrow regimes in the Middle East, Syria included, have been able to limit military defection, because the in-group basically gets locked into loyalty. Since being an Alawite (or a Christian) is a relatively reliable predictor of one's support for the regime, Alawites are likely to suffer serious political marginalization if ousted from power. I (and others) have seen this continue in the Arab Spring. I suspect this is even more true given a divided opposition, in which competing factions may have incentives to appear more thoroughly anti-ancien-regime.

Further, I suspect that the narrowness of the elite means that an offer to Assad and his inner circle for exile and immunity is unlikely to be effective. It's not only they who need the sort of a credible commitment that exile affords. It's about 10-20% of the population, including elite units of the Syrian armed forces. They can act as a veto player over any arrangement where they get cut out.

It's for similar reasons that James Fearon finds that civil wars that arise out of commitment problems last longer than others. And Lindsay Heger and Idean Salehyan find, in addition, that the narrower the base of an autocratic regime, the more violent a response they pursue against armed opposition.

The argument above is really about why the regime will be difficult to oust, short of military defeat or an extreme of exhaustion. What about the ceasefire plan, though? I think that it's unlikely to work by extension. Members of the Syrian opposition intend, as makes sense, to use the ceasefire to take to the streets again. If violence is actually off the agenda, it's a clear win for the side with the military disadvantage. It is hard for me to see the Syrian regime giving up its advantage here.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Bottom Brass

It is pretty worrying that Mali’s coup of March 21st  was led by junior officers. Your standard-issue general-led coup obviously doesn’t say great things about the military leadership’s basic willingness to subordinate itself to civilians, but a junior-officer coup says terrible things about the structure of the army itself. 

To complement some great work on structural preconditions in Mali—see below—this piece  by Bruce Whitehouse has some sharp thoughts on proximate causes and process. The junior officers’ motivations seem to go beyond the war itself, to broader issues of corruption and mismanagement in the top brass. (Whether this is because the putschists are noble, civic-minded guardians of probity or because they wanted their cut is, of course, another issue.) This makes sense to me. The success of the Touareg after the coup should have been relatively easy to anticipate, so it’s hard to buy the line that the coup was an attempt to rescue the war effort.

So we have to look for some other explanations, and the institutional weakness of the Malian military seems like an obvious candidate. Consider the previous experience with military regimes led by junior officers like Master Sergeant Samuel Doe in Liberia in the 1980s and Valentine Strasser in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. You have to have a pretty undisciplined army for a junior officer to mount a coup. And Whitehouse argues pretty convincingly that Captain Sanogo basically blundered into supreme executive power. It’s hard to imagine how a group of junior officers could just stumble upon power in a relatively professional army.

This might also help explain Capt. Sanogo’s relatively quick turn to civilians. Regimes led by the bottom brass, according to research by Barbara Geddes [PDF] tend to be particularly unstable and require a lot of effort to expand the ruling coalition in order to survive. There’s a new interim president in Mali, but it looks like the putschists will have a pretty strong, lingering influence

This basically adds an institutional reason—an undisciplined military—to the general sense that Mali’s got some serious and persistent risk of political instability. Mali’s coup came in the context of a food crisis and a rebellion. In addition, there were signs of risk visible last year, despite the general perception that Mali was a relatively stable regime. Jay Ulfelder has been a must-read on the coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, putting them into clear statistical context. Statistical trends help us to identify surprisingly likely (or unlikely) cases, and Mali was pretty high up Ulfelder's rank-ordering of coup risk in 2012. 

I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that ongoing instability in Mali is overdetermined. But overall, we have pretty good reason to expect continued, and potentially quite severe, military fractiousness. And the rebellion is likely to remain in charge in the north for the foreseeable future. The new interim president talks a big game, but I don’t see a chaotic army really able to dislodge the Touareg.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


Hello and welcome. I do research about security studies.

Right now I’m working a lot on civil war and civil-military relations. I think this stuff is fascinating: what happens when a rebel leader or a government gives someone a gun, or tells him he can order around a bunch of other guys with guns? What does he do then? I think it’s a particularly important question when there’s a civil war going on in the background, the future isn’t clear and your loyalties are divided. It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him, as we'll be hearing a lot more later this year.

So I'm starting a blog mainly to sublimate my occasional thoughts on these subjects. With any luck, I'll be posting about civ-mil and conflict news around the world, developing ideas, and publicizing research. 

Oh, and talking pop culture. Everyone loves pop culture. Especially pop culture references in poli-sci blogs. You can’t escape. Well, the lords of TV scheduling have decreed—oddly—that Season 2 of Game of Thrones start now that winter is going away, but at least there’s plenty of crazy to talk about.

In my own research, I look at why and when combatants in civil wars desert, defect, and split off to start their own factions, what their leaders do to try to stop them, and how well that works out for them. Hence the weathervane. But it’s a bit of a mistake: armies don’t just blow with the wind. Think of it as a weathervane with its own ideas of where to point.

The title of the blog comes from here