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Leading Indicators

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Over the weekend protesters in Yemen became convinced that the government was using some sort of nerve agent against them. They’ve even filed an official request for the WHO to come investigate, though the chances of that happening whilst there is tense and active violence remains small. The evidence for this claim is, typically, fairly thin:

“The material in this gas makes people convulse for hours. It paralyzes them. They couldn’t move at all. We tried to give them oxygen but it didn’t work,” said Amaar Nujaim, a field doctor who works for Islamic Relief.

“We are seeing symptoms in the patient’s nerves, not in their respiratory systems. I’m 90 percent sure its nerve gas and not tear gas that was used,” said Sami Zaid, a doctor at the Science and Technology Hospital in Sanaa.

Mohammad Al-Sheikh, a pathologist at the same hospital, said that some of the victims had lost their muscular control and were forced to wear diapers.

“We have never seen tear gas cause these symptoms. We fear it may be a dangerous gas that is internationally forbidden,” Al-Sheikh said.

Those symptoms generally match with some symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. But it sounds wrong—sarin exposure, for example, usually starts with pupil contraction and shortness of breath, then leads to involuntary bodily functions like salivation, urination, and defecation, and eventually to convulsions which result in asphyxiation, coma, and death. I hate to say it like this, but if someone got a dose of nerve agent that was strong enough to knock them into a coma for several hours, they wouldn’t be angrily giving quotes to reporters soon afterward.

That doesn’t rule out any nerve agent, it just sounds weird (contrasted with Aum Shinrikyo attack on Tokyo’s subway, for example, the symptoms sound dissimilar). There are nerve agents beyond sarin, and it’s worth investigating.

What’s more worrying is how this is subtly changing the tone of the protests. Even accusations of using chemical weapons moves the conflict across some sort of red line, and when we consider those still-uncorroborated stories with the government’s expulsion today of four foreign journalists, it’s hard not to wonder what’s coming down the line. Those reporters had been covering, in depth, the violence the Saleh regime has used against protesters.

So, assuming both events a) happened and b) have meaning, what can we actually expect in Yemen? It’s not yet certain. What seems inescapable, however, is that the U.S.’s policy of detached neutrality probably makes less and less sense as events proceed.

Written by Joshua Foust

March 14, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Analysis

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Evidence for Jihad Studies

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In January, I had a brief—and very enlighteningᾹexchange with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross about “jihadi ideology” and what it means, and how we analyze it, and so on.

Something leapt out at me, namely how we “measure” the ways in which people can become radicalized. I understand there is some psychological process, and it’s related to social and physical environment, and so on. But when we look back on someone who’s been arrested, or who just committed (or tried to commit) some heinous act like blowing up an air plane, we usually cannot point the exact moment where that person changed from “normal” to “radicalized.” It’s like describing someone as rich, or some visual work as pornography: you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it, and there are extremes at which you can meaningfully distinguish the two.

The difficulty in pointing to the exact process and stepping stones toward radicalization is, of course, very important for Central Asia. Even ignoring the whole Afghanistan thing (something I wish I could do, given my mental exhaustion on the topic, but which I apparently cannot given my continuing obsession about the war), we’re left with two broad genres of “Jihad in Central Asia”: the Uzbeks Are Scary school, and the Central Asians Will Radicalize & Destroy Us All movement. There is, of course, overlap between the two.

But what strikes me is how, in general, the sourcingᾹthe evidence—for arguing the presence or increase or danger posed by radicalization is incredibly difficult to come by. You can discuss speeches and Mosque sermons, for however influential they may be. You can talk about things on the internet, though we don’t know what role they really play in radicalizing people. We can even, if we’re lucky enough to have keen investigators, discuss communications between the target of radicalization and the radicalizer, though this, too, falls into the trap of maybe meaning nothing.

At the end of the day, people talk, they brag, and they bluster. In my personal life, I know I do—I think most people do, it’s normal. But when it comes to Islam, we seem to have a difficult time distinguishing between bluster and explicit plans for action. Not an impossible time, mind you, but a difficult one.

Which brings me to this post by our friends at neweurasia.net about Islamists in Turkmenistan. Try as I might, their argument amounts to “some guys on the internet talk about stuff.” The evidence for this actually being an Islamist Movement, like Hizb-ut Tahrir actually setting up shop and working a branch in Ashgabat or something, is really thin.

None of that means that there is no Islamist movement in Turkmenistan. But before we fly off talking about conspiracies within conspiracies, I think we owe it to ourselves to be very explicit about what we’re seeing, and not seeing, and fairly analyzing.

Written by Joshua Foust

March 8, 2011 at 2:24 pm

The Action Bias and Responsibility

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Congressional leaders are pushing for some sort of American response to the growing violence in Libya. It is the usual litany of easy-sounding policies, like no-fly zones and surgical strikes against certain Libyan assets, that always feel emotionally satisfying but carry enormous costs.

This sort of reaction seems born out of a particularly American political mindset: the sense that if a problem exists somewhere in the world, then America must be the one that solves it. Our urge to solve problems often overpowers our urge to operate within our budgetary and capability limits—framing things in terms of good versus evil, or vague notions of balances of power, rather than a sober and explicit conversation of our interests and the resources available to secure them.

There is a very understandable motivation for such a tendency. Politicians get blamed for whatever happens on their watch. It is why so many think George W. Bush is in some way responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or Barack Obama is in some way responsible for the current recession—even though both had their roots in processes and events from years before they came into office. Politicians are terrified of being blamed for something happening on their watch, and go to enormous extremes to avoid being seen as complacent whilst evil unfolds.

At the same time, many in office seem blithely unaware of the serious costs that accompany American meddling, along with a quasi-religious belief in the inherent ability of the U.S. military to accomplish all things. The resources needed to set up a no-fly zone over Libya, for example, are substantial, and run the very real risk of starting a shooting war with the Libyan military. Tragic though it may be to see Libyan protesters get bombed, the U.S. has no interest in risking its troops, equipment, or money to end the crackdown. The benefits simply don’t match the costs involved—and besides, that is not America’s fight. It is Libya’s fight. And what good would a no-fly zone do when there are still tanks and soldiers and secret police moving around? There’s no reason to believe a no-fly zone would be any more effective at stopping Qaddafi’s crackdown than it was in stopping Saddam Hussein’s own brutal repression of his people. In fact, we know that a NFZ was ineffective at doing that, since it didn’t stop it.

There are other things the U.S. government can do—cut off aid, end military-to-military cooperation, recall its ambassador—that are not coercive, per se, but do register American distaste at what the government is doing. The rebel areas in Libya are suffering rather severe food shortages (and it appears that Qaddafi is using a food embargo as a weapon to degrade the rebels’ ability to resist his military). The U.S. can supply food aid to the rebels, which can keep American investment in the civil unrest where it should be—minimal—while still making American preferences in outcome crystal clear.

The desire to take action—any action—in the face of what seems to be obvious evil is understandable and human. But it must be tempered with a sense of what is possible, wise, and in the country’s long-term interests. Sending in the military to do something militarily, which seems to be Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C of many in the government, just doesn’t make any sense.

Written by Joshua Foust

March 7, 2011 at 10:34 am

Posted in Analysis

Why I Am Skeptical about Data Visualizations

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A visualization was posted recently on gephi.org showing “a preliminary result of the network of retweets with the hashtag #jan25 at February 11 2011, at the time of the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.” Each dot on the visualization is a person with a twitter account. Each line between points is when one of those people retweeted something the other person tweeted that had the hashtag #jan25 in it. The video to which the site links shows about an hour of monitoring the hashtag usage, showing relatively connections at first and then showing a burst of activity about the time that Egypt’s vice-president announced that Mubarak had resigned.

The visualizations themselves look impressive, but I’m just sort of skeptical about how useful they are. Every visualization like this evokes the same response in me: “so…a bunch of people communicate with a bunch of other people? Information spreads through networks?”

I feel like social-media mapping is the new globalization. Back in college when the term “globalization” was first coined, everyone started talking about how we could see globalization everywhere. Look at the

Bedouin with a cell phone! Look at people in Vladivostok selling things to people in Milwaukee! All of the examples only served to drive home the point that, yes, people could interact a lot faster at much less individual cost than they could before. But that’s all.

As people continued to focus on showing examples of globalization, they failed to explore the issues that were actually interesting and important – how does people’s interaction, no matter how or over what distances it takes place, affect the things they actually do? How do previously unavailable resources change the constraints on behavior? Very few people bothered to explore these issues, because (at least, it seemed to me) they felt those were old questions that didn’t fully appreciate the new dynamic of globalization. I feel like social media is falling into the same trap. Like globalization, a focus on social media itself is sort of a stagnant topic. Now, using social media as a tool to look at the same sort of behavior that we’ve always tried to understand, that’s an endeavor I could support…but that would require a recognition that social media itself is not the thing we need to understand. Social media is one way to measure behavior. Over-emphasis on visualizations risks losing sight of that fact.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:49 am

Posted in Analysis

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Political Correctness, Ideology, and Bad Analysis

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Politico came out with a piece a couple weeks ago titled “Right fractures over Islam.” The author of the article quotes David Horowitz at CPAC:

“We are also faced at home and abroad with a mortal threat in political Islam. Political Islam is a totalitarian movement that seeks to impose Islamic law on the entire world through the seizure of states by stealth and electoral means where possible and by terror where necessary and sometimes by a combination of the two. There are hundreds of millions of believers in political Islam.”

Apparently CPAC featured a panel on “the threat of sharia law” as well as on the “ground zero mosque.” A small panel discussion about religious freedom moderated by Suhail Khan, the only Muslim board member of the American Conservative Union, was interrupted repeatedly with questions about Khan’s possible ties to or sympathies toward (and his parents’ ties to or sympathies toward) the Muslim Brotherhood.

Khan pointed to activists Pam Geller and Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer as two prominent proponents of the idea that radical Islam is the enemy and that many, if not most, Muslims are suspect by association. The two paid for one panel at CPAC where “concerns about Islam itself as a faith were openly voiced by both audience members and panelists.” For example:

“For 10 years, people have been asking for moderate Muslims to speak up,” said Spencer. “We’re going to be waiting for those guys until doomsday.”

“Moderate Muslims don’t exist,” said one audience member at the Geller and Spencer event. “Muslims are not able to be moderate — or they are speaking against what is written in the Koran.”

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all that rhetoric isn’t just political posturing. I think that’s a fairly safe assumption since there appears to be a lot of people who look at connections between Islam and extremism without, apparently, ever trying to score political points from the endeavor (see here for an example). For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to these kinds of connections as ideological explanations of behavior.

I’m opposed to ideological explanations of behavior, not because they aren’t politically correct, but because they represent really shamefully bad analysis.

It’s impossible to connect ideology to extremism on the basis of empirical observation alone. To do that, we’d have to see that a lot of people who espouse a certain ideology engage in the behavior that concerns us (in most cases, violence). Rhetoric like the stuff seen at CPAC show that the case can be made that we do, in fact, see that connection between ideology and behavior. However, those kinds of observations aren’t enough to claim that we have evidence of a connection. We would also have to show that many people who do not espouse the ideology do not engage in the behavior, and that few people who espouse the ideology do not refrain from the behavior. In other words, our assertions about cause (ideology) and effect (extremist behavior) need to create few false positives and false negatives.

Ideological explanations of behavior don’t do that. Even if we define “Islamist” ideology ridiculously narrowly (violent salafist jihadist” or whatever), those definitions invariably result in false positives and false negatives – people who do not engage in the behavior despite their espousal of an ideology, and people who do engage in the behavior despite their ignorance or even rejection of an ideology.

Now, we don’t technically need a false-positive-less and false-negative-less  set of observations to connect a purported cause and a purported effect. Smoking causes cancer but if we use the fact that people smoke to predict who is going to die of cancer, we’re going to end up with a lot of false positives and false negatives, because a lot of other things can mitigate smoking’s carcinogenic effects or have carcinogenic effects regardless of whether a person smokes. However, in cases where effects are determined by so many interacting causes that a clear empirical line cannot be drawn between an individual cause and an individual effect, good analytic practice demands that we define actual mechanisms by which the purported cause can produce the effect.

Mechanisms aren’t just stories. It’s easy to say something like, “If a person has an ideology the defines one group of people as an enemy, then you will be more likely to be hostile towards members of that group and less likely to feel empathy with those people.” Sound very plausible. But what reason do we have to believe it? I have yet to see an attempt to define a mechanisms by which ideology elicits behavior that goes beyond these kinds of just-so stories.

Fact is, we have no reason to believe that ideology influences anything at all. We can talk about ideological influences that seems to make intuitive sense, but intuition is a lousy way to conduct analysis. The Islam-related rhetoric that came out of CPAC ranged from politically incorrect to plain-old bigoted, but that’s largely beside the point. The point is that it’s bad analysis.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:48 am

On the Impotence of Historical Comparisons

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As the demonstrations in Cairo progressed and it started to look like Mubarak might actually step down, various media outlets and pundits started asking questions like “is Cairo Tehran 1979 or Berlin 1989?” (see here and here).

Timothy Garton Ash, writing for the Guardian, remarked that Cairo 2011 was neither Tehran 1979 nor Berlin 1989. It was Cairo 2011.  I think Ash was right, but I think his argument glossed over a point that often seems to be lost on commentators, journalists, and probably a great many politicians as they try to make sense of world events. The point is this: historical comparisons are never appropriate tools for making sense of protests, wars, rapid social change, legislation, or pretty much anything else that regularly makes the news.

All historical comparisons, when they are used to try to explain something, make two implicit assumptions:

1. There exists a very limited number of conditions that determine the outcomes the comparison is supposed to explain.

2. We know what the grand majority of those conditions look like for both the historical scenario that is supposed to explain, and for the current scenario that is supposed to be explained.

I have never seen a situation where these two assumptions are valid in attempts to explain events of the scale we saw in Cairo. That doesn’t mean these assumptions may not be valid in some situations. It just means our belief in those assumptions ought to be explicitly justified before we make them. To assume that years of oppressive rule an great numbers of protestors are the only relevant conditions is obviously wrong. But to what additional considerations do we turn our attention to adequately explain the events? Status and loyalty of the military? Foreign involvement? Local economic conditions? Communication’s technologies? There are all plausible influences upon the outcome.

That’s the problem.

The list of plausibilities doesn’t really end. I think we feel pretty safe assuming that “oppressive regime” belongs in the “relevant” category and that “last year’s TV ratings for the Grammy awards” doesn’t belong in that category. But everything between those two extremes is one big gray area.

If we can’t define beforehand what the majority of relevant conditions are, then there is no way to pick an apt historical comparison. I’ve seen no reason to believe that anyone following or analyzing world events has the slightest clue as to what the majority of relevant conditions are. Historical comparisons are by their very nature worthless, at least so long as we know so little about what causes large-scale behavioral changes.

An opinion piece in the New York Times recently quipped that “Egypt’s path does not have to follow Iran’s.”

The thing is, Egypt’s path cannot follow Iran’s. It’s impossible. That path doesn’t exist anymore, and it probably won’t ever exist again. There may be similar paths, but I haven’t seen any evidence that any of us who analyze world events know how to recognize those paths when we see them.

This isn’t just about protests and regime change. It’s just as inappropriate to ask if Obama is Clinton or Carter as it is to ask if Egypt is Germany or Iran. It’s also inappropriate to ask if Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, or any other country experiencing protests is Egypt. Historical comparisons are impotent.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:45 am

How Can We Understand A Complex Operation?

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I have a new article up at PBS Need to Know, discussing how we can really know what’s going on in Marjah, Helmand:

ISAF, however, doesn’t see things that way. By May of last year, three months after the start of the campaign to “win” Marjah, General McChrystal had declared the Marjah area a “bleeding ulcer” that was distracting him from his goal of winning Kandahar. Even months after new leadership took over the war (when General McChrystal was suddenly replaced by General Petraeus), Marjah was described only in terms of constant combat. “The Taliban are still here in force,” said an AP reporter in October, “waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.” By December, however, ISAF declared Operation Moshtarak “over,” an example of their success in routing the insurgency.

In a way, this was to be expected — as with the Afghanistan War Review, General Petraeus has been up front in his desire to proclaim only good news about the war, regardless of what the intelligence community believes. But it also leaves nothing but questions about how one could evaluate the current situation in Marjah. Since October there have been very few (if any) reporters to visit Marjah — and even then, they’re not reporting on Marjah so much as peripheral issues like cross-dressing interpreters. While senior officials talk of “progress,” and “shifting momentum,” there aren’t any means by which one could actually say these things are happening.

That’s really the gist of it. In brief, public data say one thing, while officials say another. How do you de-conflict them? I don’t have a meaningful answer to that just yet. But what we do need is a consensus about what deserves measurement, what the changes in those measurements mean, and what our reactions to those changes will be. That has never taken place in Afghanistan, and I suspect that is why our policy remains the same regardless of what specific bits of news emerge from the war.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm