Saturday 25 May 2013

Blowback against Glenn Greenwald #1

I’ve spent many posts trying to explain why I don’t think foreign policy is really relevant in discussing the causes of terrorism. Without wishing to dwell on the point for too long, because I have addressed it, the language that one uses in these kind of discussions really tells you a lot. In essence, ‘explaining’ and ‘understanding’ terrorism amounts to excusing it. Glenn Greenwald in his most recent Guardian article states:

Basic human nature simply does not allow you to cheer on your government as it carries out massive violence in multiple countries around the world and then have you be completely immune from having that violence returned.

Human nature means that you are not free from people roaming your streets and beheading people. Perhaps I’m being overzealous, you can still say something human nature means x occurs (which, I’ll discuss below) and still say its wrong. And then came this exchange, pointed out to me by a friend:

So not only is it human nature, those who refuse to respond by beheading people and blowing people up on their way to work are meek, acquiescent.  If you do respond in such a way, there can still be a measure of civility. Anyone who wishes to see a clear example of excusing terrorism need look no further than Greenwald’s words.  But even on the human nature point, Greenwald is flat out wrong. I’ve already shown many studies, polls and historical examples of why his position is untenable, but I thought I’d beat a dead horse by giving one more major example from the literature and then attacking the logic of the argument.

Iraq and the Surge

After the violence spiked in Iraq in 2006, the U.S sent a ‘surge' of U.S personnel and there was a radical reduction in violence. I’ve changed my mind on the effectiveness of the Surge three times – in fact you can even see it on some of the posts I’ve written. In one I describe the idea that the surge had a reducing effect on violence as a ‘frankly propagandistic account’ because it did not take into account the Sunni cooperation with the coalition and the U.S diplomatic effort in curtailing human capital for Al Qaeda (hereafter, the ‘November account’). In another I stated that the Surge ‘largely quelled violence’ in Iraq (hereafter, the ‘September account’).

I changed my mind those times because I was following the weight of the evidence. The evidence, I believe, has changed again and so must my view. It should be noted, however, that if either one is correct, Greenwald is wrong. If the Surge had no effect, the fact that violence fell radically means foreign policy is mostly an irrelevance. If the Surge did have effect, then foreign policy is relevant but in the opposite way that Greenwald and his friends claim. In quite possibly the most comprehensive article on the Surge, Biddle, Friedman and Shapiro (2012, International Security put forward a new ‘synergistic’ model. They explain (at p.10-11):

Without the surge, the Anbar Awakening would probably not have spread fast or far enough. And without the surge, sectarian violence would likely have continued for a long time to come—the pattern and distribution of the bloodshed offers little reason to believe that it had burned itself out by mid-2007... [However,] without the Awakening to thin the insurgents’ ranks and unveil the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.

The evidence they provide for this position is incontrovertible: they utilise the declassified figuress of ‘significant activities’ (essentially all military and insurgent activity in Iraq by location, time and date), primary accounts of individuals involved and the Iraq Body Count casualty figures. They then map out the differing explanations and see if they match the pattern that was expected. The November account emphasises the role of the Anbar Awakening (Sunnis agreeing to fight Al Qaeda). Biddel et al explain that this is not the right view because between 2004-6, the Sunnis did try to reach out to the U.S. Indeed, the U.S even made payments – but each of these efforts failed because the Sunnis were not able to garner protection, militarily, from the coalition which meant a relentless onslaught by Al Qaeda. And ‘without this protection [that the Surge could provide], none of these efforts proved able to survive and spread in the face of insurgent counterattacks’ (p.19).

This goes to show why the November account cannot, by itself,  explain the decline in violence but this does not vindicate the September account. The Sons of Iraq (i.e., Sunnis who took part in the Anbar Awakening  by joining with coalition forces) are irrelevant to the September account; all that was important was American boots on the ground. This would mean that before Sons of Iraq involvement, the Surge should have worked to reduce the violence. Except thats not what we see in the data; these are a random few data points from the study (at p.29):

Each graph charts the rate of violence (y axis) over time (x axis) in different areas of operation. The dotted line is when the Sons of Iraq began involvement in those provinces with coalition forces. The data seems fairly clear: the Sons of Iraq did have an impact. As Biddel et al note, ‘the average rate of reduction before SOI standup was 2.5 percentage points per month; the rate after standup was 5.8 percentage points per month, or roughly two and a half times greater’ (p.28). (Incidentally, this is the kind of analysis that no blog can provide; simply mapping figures of troop numbers and fatalities as Loonwatch has done is the kind of crude ‘blog economics’ demeans rigorous academic study).  

But importantly, the SOI involvement was only made possible because of the Surge and the protection the Sunnis obtained. Furthermore, their involvement meant that the military component could properly work because it reduced the combatants the U.S had to fight and the Sons of Iraq could give them information on hideouts, positions and the locality. Neither the September account nor the November account are therefore sufficient, but both are necessary. This explains why much of the academic literature shows robust results in favour of the September view. Here are just two examples from my Twitter feed:

“The empirical results show that troop levels and other policy changes associated with the surge have a significant effect on reducing levels of civilian violence.”  - ‘Relative peace in Iraq : a policy evaluation of the surge in troop levels’ by Smith (2009)

“Using new panel data on development spending in Iraq, we show that violence reducing effects of aid are greater when (a) projects are small, (b) troop strength is high, and (c) professional development expertise is available.”  - ‘Modest, Secure and Informed: Successful Development in Conflict Zones’ by Berman et al (2013)

There is no need to deny these studies  according to the synergistic model – they make complete sense. But the empirical record must also take into account SOI stand up points. Which brings me back to the point of this post: U.S involvement was a significant part of the reduction in violence in Iraq. Again, this really shouldn’t be surprising: the whole point of these actions is to deter and reduce violence. There is no ‘blowback,’ the people of Iraq aren’t rushing to kill us all: the opposite occurred. We increased troops and involvement – and the Iraqis were better for it (in more ways than just a reduction of violence). Perhaps Greenwald thinks that the Iraqis, particularly the Sons of Iraq who experienced Al Qaeda’s brutal regime, are meek and acquiescent?

The faulty logic of blowback

The logic of blowback appeals to human intuitions: you’ve been hit, so why don’t you hit back? But there is no way that those human intuitions can be applied to modern day terrorism. I have already shown Palestinians (here), Pakistanis (here) and Iraqis (above) do not respond by blowing people up nor supporting it – so it clearly is an empirically false statement. But even the  logic of it is faulty for three reasons. Firstly, the bulk of these grievances are caused by the terrorist groups themselves.  I can’t be bothered to write it out again, so here’s what I’ve previously written:

According to a study by King’s College London looking at civilian deaths from 2003-2008 concludes that of the 92,000 civilians deaths recorded by Iraq Body Count, 12% were attributable to coalition forces. 74% were carried out by “unknown perpertrators” described as “are those who target civilians (i.e., no identifiable military target is present), while appearing indistinguishable from civilians.”... [In Afghanistan,] civilian deaths caused by pro-government forces decreased by 24% from 2009-2010, making them responsible for 15% of civilian casualties.

And yes, those numbers have barely changed and are still accurate in 2013. So why not attack the Taliban or Al Qaeda? Perhaps this is what the Sons of Iraq did when they turned to the U.S - against Al Qaeda? I don’t think so. As Loonwatch (without realising what this idea entails) helpfully reminds us: the support for attacks against civilians is roughly the same around the world (and if anything, lower in Muslim-majority countries). It seems being a victim of terrorism, or a nation which is the victim of terrorism has little to do with supporting or carrying out violence. In fact, there are many examples (that I haven’t already mentioned) of individuals feeling aggrieved and not becoming violent: families of homicide victims and support for the death penalty (see research here and here); the Tibetans whose rates of violence match their oppression (see a ridiculous attempt to make the opposing argument here); the black communities after the reconstruction period etc. etc. Even if we step back – away from terrorism – being anti-American is not related with foreign policy. In the seminal The Political Economy of Hatred, Glaeser (at p.46) rehteorically asks ‘why would 34% of French but only 27% of Vietnamese have an unfavorable opinion of the United States?’

Secondly, even if we just focused on the minority of Western-linked grievances, terrorism involves attacking innocent third parties. Even if you want to grant (which I don’t), that individuals become violent when they become aggrieved – why would you attack someone innocent? This is why the human intuition point should strongly be countered: you do not attack an innocent civilian (be it man, woman or child) because someone who you consider guilty attacked you. To be fair, there is a common response:  there is no other way for them to respond. This is commonly given in the context of Israel – they have nothing but rockets and suicide jackets and so they cannot target the military. Leaving aside for the moment that there may be ways of attacking military targets, this is still faulty. It is faulty for terrorist groups because they make it their modus operandi to target civilians. They have time to think about their best method and they choose terrorism. Why does this mean the argument is faulty? Because the empirical record is emphatic that terrorism does not work:

This graph is taken from a lecture by Peter Neumann (at 5:32) and is representative of the academic literature (Abrams (2006), Harmon (2011) and Neumann (2008)). It might be said that this is an academic, not emotional/real response – but that has already been shown to be a ridiculous argument by the empirical record: the overwhelming majority of people can feel aggrieved, and their emotional response is not one of terrorism. I noted how this is precisely what happened after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 – and, surprise surprise, humans continue to have morals after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2013.

Thirdly, the logic is flawed because it will leave us paralyzed from doing good. The Woolwich terrorist said that ‘I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan’ (see the first element above). I have already spelt out the benefits of liberation of Afghanistan but I want to add two things. Why are these Islamist terrorist more aggrieved than the local population? As Bergen notes, ‘favorable views of the Taliban in polling across Afghanistan over the past several years are consistently no more than 10 percent.’ Second, the government we are working with to fight against these unpopular terrorists is a democratically elected government which has the support of its people (75% of whom give the central government a positive assessment). We needed to carry out the liberation of Afghanistan – not just for the eradication of Al Qaeda’s training ground but the liberation of the Afghan people. If (and as should be obvious by now, this is only an if), there is a response from those who seek to maintain these Talibanised states, then we should accept it and continue to fight against it.   

1 comment:

Alex said...

You post an awful lot of pseudo-objective and cherry-picked data to try to prove that Western foreign policy has not been a recruiting agent for terrorist groups in recent years, but bury the actual evidence right at the end - namely that Woolwich terrorist saying "I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan". There you have it, the words of the perpetrators themselves, incontrovertible evidence that Western foreign policy is being used as recruitment for terrorism.

Now, as for your final point that which is essentially "so what, let's just accept the increased risk because liberating Afghanistan is a good thing", a few responses:

1) "Liberating Afghanistan" is not why we were told we were going there, it was supposed to be about getting the terrorists after 9/11. If you want a different policy, fine, but governments should at least be honest about that, rather than hiding it behind something that doesn't work.

2) It's not entirely clear we are especially good at liberating Afghanistan, given we've been there for 16 years with no end in sight... how long does a war have to go on for before you decide that maybe it is unwinnable? Surely there has to be some data point at which you go "enough is enough, a different strategy is needed".

3) Even to the extent that what you say applies to Afghanistan, it most certainly does apply across the board to all the other Middle Eastern wars we've been involved in. For example, we've gone into Iraq and Syria recently to tackle ISIS, but if this intervention actually increases the threat from ISIS then this argument falls *on its own terms*.