A Theory of Indiscriminate Violence in Civil War



My dissertation, A Theory of Indiscriminate Violence in Civil War, is a book-length project about why governments and rebels use violence against their own populations. Indiscriminate force, after all, violates the basic logic of coercion: when punishment is not conditional on a target's behavior, the target has few incentives to cooperate. For this reason, indiscriminate violence is often attributed to warped personalities, miscalculations and idiosyncratic factors. Yet the repetition of these practices over time and place makes such explanations insufficient.

With the help of cross-national historical evidence and new micro-level data on insurgency and policing, I show that civilian victimization is an inefficient, but rational response to informational asymmetry.  The identification problem of irregular war -- the inability to correctly locate and punish one's opponents -- compels the side with an informational disadvantage to compensate for inefficient targeting by escalating violence. Where coercive leverage is lacking due to an inability to selectively administer reward and punishment, indiscriminate military force becomes a logical alternative to bargaining, rather than a continuation of the bargaining process.

Part one of the dissertation develops a new theory of indiscriminate violence. Chapter 1 surveys the current state of knowledge and the terms of the debate in research on civil war, rebellion and international security. Chapter 2 offers a deeper theoretical discussion of coercive logic in irregular war, and the influence of information asymmetries on the selectivity and intensity of violence. Chapter 3 uses a mathematical model of popular support dynamics to show that successful coercion is difficult to achieve in irregular conflicts, particularly for governments fighting guerrilla opponents.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, this diminished ``power to hurt'' neither moderates the intensity of violence, nor assures defeat in continued fighting. Rather, it creates powerful incentives to escalate -- even in the presence of normative, doctrinal and other constraints on the use of force.

Part two evaluates these propositions empirically using cross-national and subnational data on insurgency and civil war. Chapter 4 explores force employment trends in over 300 counterinsurgency campaigns since 1816, and finds that the most repressive and indiscriminate policing practices were implemented where information asymmetries were likely to be most acute -- in frontier and expeditionary conflicts, where government forces were unable to credibly protect their supporters or identify their opponents. Chapter 5 finds similar results in a disaggregated study of Russian counterinsurgency in the North Caucasus. Using a new, village-level dataset of over 38,000 insurgent attacks and counterinsurgency operations in 2000-2010, I find that Russian forces relied on indiscriminate technologies of violence -- artillery shelling and air strikes, massive detentions and ``mop-up'' operations -- in localities where territorial control was limited and information was most difficult to obtain. Such actions have proven inflammatory and even counterproductive, particularly when compared to more selective tactics like individual arrests and assassinations.

Part three extends the theoretical discussion in a new direction: if information problems indeed create incentives for escalation, why doesn't all political violence devolve into mass killing and genocide? Chapter 6 offers a formal discussion of two conditions under which violence can be moderated in equilibrium: where a combatant can offer a competitive package of private goods to her supporters, and where she can physically disrupt the flow of labor and capital to her rival. I consider three examples of the latter: the forcible disarmament of civilians, the forcible resettlement of civilians, and the use of siege tactics to reduce the population's mobility. All three population control measures operate by limiting opportunities to mobilize a military challenge, without necessarily attempting to shape incentives. I extend the theoretical model to account for these additional sources of leverage, and derive comparative statics on how they are likely to impact government and rebel activity.

Chapters 7-10 feature three detailed empirical studies of private goods and population control in the Soviet Union and Russia, using tens of thousands of declassified war diaries and incident reports from the archives of Soviet army intelligence, secret police (NKVD), and human rights organizations. Chapter 7 explores the use of private goods -- in the form of resource rents -- to attract support in Russia's North Caucasus. Chapter 8 explores the use of forcible disarmament operations in Chechnya in 1921-26. Chapter 9 provides a similar statistical analysis of forcible resettlement during counterinsurgency operations in Ukraine in 1943-1955. Chapter 10 explores the contemporary use of roadblocks, cordons and other types of mobility restrictions in Russia's North Caucasus. In all four cases, I find that private goods and population control diminished the state's reliance on coercion where more conventional counterinsurgency approaches fell short -- where the government's territorial control was tenuous, her intelligence was deficient and her technology of violence would otherwise have been very indiscriminate. In such circumstances, private goods and population control permitted the government to achieve brute force pacification despite a deeply unfavorable operating environment.

Part four discusses the implications of my argument for counterinsurgency strategy and crisis forecasting. Chapter 11 contends that the logic of indiscriminate violence is not unique to any particular political regime type, historical period or geographic region. Using evidence from contemporary conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, I show that a diverse array of counterinsurgents regularly attempt to substitute firepower for intelligence, often to disastrous effect. I argue that positive inducements in the form of private goods offer the best alternative to indiscriminate force, and discuss the ethical dilemmas posed by population control for governments unable to offer sufficient rewards. In Chapter 12, I extend the policy discussion to the domain of crisis forecasting, using event-level data from 21 armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa to build a predictive model of civilian victimization. Insofar as embattled combatants believe that -- to achieve victory -- more repression may be better than less, it is essential to understand when and where such dangerous ideas are most likely to be put to practice.