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[liberationtech] Using data to fight political violence

Yosem Companys companys at
Fri Aug 5 12:43:20 PDT 2011

 Photo Credit: Courtesy Joseph Felter

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July 21, 2011 - *CISAC, FSI Stanford In the News*
Using data to fight political violence

For just more than a year, U.S. Army Col. Joseph
Felter<> traveled
around Afghanistan in a role his supervisors described as "a directed
telescope." His job: go to the different provinces and neighborhoods in
Afghanistan, talk to military personnel at all levels, and report back with
his observations and conclusions directly to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who
headed Afghan operations until June 2010, and then Gen. David Petraeus, who
took over McChrystal's post.

Felter says the experience provided critical insight into what was happening
in Afghanistan, and what was working, or not, with the U.S.
counterinsurgency strategy. He found that the most effective units were
those that understood the population with whom they were living and could
work closely with local security forces. "Counterinsurgency is such a local
enterprise," he says.

For instance, one area might be dominated by a single tribe, which would
mean that U.S. aid and assistance would benefit the entire population.
Another might have competing tribes or power brokers; aid could potentially
empower one group or individual over the other. Village stability required
that U.S. forces and the young unit leaders recognized and managed the
difference. "The complexity of the threat environment is so extraordinary,"
he says.

Now Felter will be using his analytic skills in a different sort of role. In
September, he will join the Center for International Security and
Cooperation as a senior research scholar, bringing his expertise in
counterinsurgency, special operations, terrorism, and conflict to bear on
research conducted alongside scholars from Stanford and other major
universities across the country.

His primary project, the Empirical Studies of Conflict program, which he
co-directs with Princeton's Jacob
will collect, disseminate, and analyze conflict data from a variety of
nations including Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, the Philippines, Northern
Ireland, and Pakistan. He says he hopes the program, funded by a five-year,
$8.6 million grant from the Defense Department, will help make reliable,
difficult-to-obtain, or once-classified data about conflict and insurgencies
available to the academic community, which has the resources and tools to
analyze it effectively.

The project, now in its third year, has already yielded some important and
even counter-conventional insights. Felter and other scholars have found,
for instance, that in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Philippines, high rates of
unemployment are not necessarily associated with greater political violence.
Research also showed that in conflict-ridden nations, small monetary aid
projects that focus primarily on localized populations tend to have a far
greater effect on reducing violence than big gifts, which can lead instead
to corruption and graft."Felter will build and lead a research program on
counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, working closely with CISAC scholars
and others from around Stanford.

One source of data for the ESOC project is the Sinjar records, which Felter
has described as a cache of more than 700 files discovered in Northwest Iraq
that detail the origins of the fighters al Qaeda in Iraq brought to the
country to combat coalition forces. In an
 for*Foreign Policy* earlier this year, Felter and a co-author said the data
collected from these files revealed that "at least 111 Libyans entered Iraq
between August 2006 and August 2007" and that the "vast majority" of them
came from the region where the rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi is
centered. The Sinjar documents, they conclude, "suggest some ideas for how
we might best respond to the country's civil war and its aftermath."

At CISAC, Felter will build and lead a research program on counterinsurgency
and counterterrorism, working closely with CISAC scholars and others from
around Stanford. In one project, he plans to draw on data on insurgencies in
the Philippines that date back to the mid-1970s. This research will also be
informed by his on-the-ground military experience there. Both before and
after Sept. 11, he served as a liaison between the U.S. embassy and the
armed forces of the Philippines, and supported efforts to rescue hostages
being held by terrorist groups. He had previously earned a Master of Public
Administration degree from Harvard, with a focus on negotiation and conflict
resolution, and with a team of Harvard-trained experts, he also worked on
the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

>From a scholarly perspective, he says, the country is particularly
interesting because of the diversity in types of insurgents, as well as the
government's responses to the threat.

In some ways, Felter's CISAC appointment is a homecoming. A graduate of the
U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he was awarded, while still serving in
the army, a PhD in political science at Stanford in 2005. His dissertation
examined how the quality and structure of internal state security forces
affected their ability to combat insurgency and terrorist organizations.

That year, he returned to West Point to direct the Combating Terrorism
Center, where one of his goals was to encourage the declassification, where
possible, of top-quality information about terrorist networks so it could be
analyzed by the academic community. He also continued his work overseas.
During his tenure in the army, he has served with a light infantry unit on
the DMZ in Korea, participated in the 1989 invasion of Panama as an army
Ranger, and later transferred to Special Forces, where his missions tended
to be several months in duration and entailed capacity-building exercises
for local governments and militaries.

These missions tended to emphasize the importance of learning and
understanding local cultures and languages, and in this role, he worked with
special forces in Indonesia, in southern Thailand to help the military
against a low-level insurgency, and in the north to interdict the drug trade

His goal now is to bring some of these experiences to research that might
aid understanding of political violence and terrorism. In Congressional
testimony in 2007, he noted that a terrorist organization once published an
online book entitled *39 Ways to Participate in Jihad*. He argued that the
U.S. must create at least as many "opportunities for Americans with a wide
array of expertise to quietly participate in the fight against terrorism."
Among them: academics, "who have critical expertise on Jihadi theology and
the history, sociology and political context of the current fight."

    Related Links
    *Joseph Felter*
   Senior Research Scholar

    *Jacob N. Shapiro*
   CISAC Postdoctoral Fellow (former)

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