Is there an ‘emboldenment’ effect?

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Here’s an interesting article from Harvard University’s Belfer Center and Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences which attempts to model mathematically the effect of the media on insurgent attacks in Iraq: Is There an “Emboldenment” Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq. The authors attempt to empirically test whether negative press coverage or public statements of resolve (or lack thereof) leads to increased insurgent activity as would be suggested by theories that insurgents treat political will as the centre of gravity.

Overall, the results presented in this paper suggest several important facts. First, the findings suggest that there is an explicit and quantifiable cost to public debate during wartime in the form of increased attacks. Based on these results, it appears that Iraqi insurgent groups believe that when the U.S. political landscape is more uncertain, initiating a higher level of attacks increases the likelihood that the U.S. will reduce the scope of its engagement in the conflict. However, the magnitude of the response by Iraqi insurgent groups is relatively small. To the extent that U.S. political speech does affect insurgent incentives, it changes things only by about 10-20 percent. The estimated effects, while consistent in direction across different specifications, also vary considerably in magnitude. Given the relatively large standard errors and the potential lack of robustness to specification, these coefficients should be interpreted with caution—more dispositive of the cost-sensitivity of insurgents than a precise estimate of their elasticity to increased costs.

Second, the insurgent response to low resolve periods may not represent an overall increase in the total number of attacks, but rather a change in the timing of attacks. Because it may be difficult and costly to increase the frequency of attacks in a particular time period, insurgent groups may only seek to do this when the returns are sufficiently high. New information about U.S. cost-sensitivity increases the perceived return to violence and thus insurgent groups condense the violence they would have committed over several weeks into a shorter time horizon. To the extent that these additional attacks represent timing decisions designed to manipulate U.S. public opinion, simply recognizing this fact reduces some of the strategic value of that substitution.

Third, regardless of whether the observed effect represents an overall increase or intertemporal substitution, the evidence in this study indicates that insurgent groups are strategic actors that respond to the incentives created by the policies and actions of the counterinsurgent force, rather than groups driven by purely ideological concerns with little sensitivity to costs. There appears to be a systematic response of Iraqi insurgent groups to information about the U.S. willingness to remain in Iraq and/or public support for the war. U.S. counterinsurgency strategy should recognize that incentives, whether in the form of deterrence or inducements, can be effective in reducing both insurgent recruitment and the willingness of individuals to participate in attacks, and in encouraging individuals to collaborate with the government or withhold passive support to the insurgents. Support for the view that insurgent groups respond in part to incentives set by U.S. politics also provides insight into understanding the strategy and relative importance of different insurgent objectives. Insurgent groups may be willing to trade off destabilizing the Iraqi National Government for imposing increased costs on the United States (in the form of attacks) in order to reduce U.S. participation. It is apparent that the insurgency does not believe the ING is capable of credibly maintaining internal security independent of U.S. support.

The arguments and evidence presented in this paper suggest that insurgent groups do appear to respond to U.S. cost-sensitivity. The result is that insurgents attack more frequently and kill or injure more U.S. service men and women. This paper presents ample evidence that insurgent groups appear to respond rationally, and to that extent counterinsurgency should be considered an exercise in deterrence and incapacitation rather than simply in terms of search and destroy missions. To the extent that U.S. wishes to effectively combat the continued insurgency, future consideration regarding the production function of violence by insurgent groups and potential costs which may reduce violence are of paramount importance and left as areas of future research.

It is not surprising that insurgent groups are rational strategic actors; that much is quite evident from qualitative research. The contribution of this paper to the empirical base is significant, however. The tough question, what to do about it, is left unanswered:

From these results it is not possible to determine the benefits or costs of public debate.Without knowing the effect of changes in policy generated by this debate and the nature of changed perception of the insurgents about US casualty sensitivity, it is not possible to determine if criticism of U.S. policy is on balance bad. Thus, the direct consideration of how to adjust political speech to address this issue is a complex and the results of this paper do not bear directly on this question.

(Crossposted to KOW)

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2 Responses to “Is there an ‘emboldenment’ effect?”

  1. Is there an ‘emboldenment’ effect? « Kings of War Says:

    [...] (Crossposted to IRG) [...]

  2. David Ucko Says:

    While I only skimmed through the article, I wonder how you can even begin to quantify this supposed correlation without disaggregating the term ‘insurgents’. The adversary is not monolithic, yet I see no attempt in the article to identify specific groups, regions of activity, etc. In the absence of such specificity, the calculations and formulae would quickly seem to lose meaning.

    On a hunch, I would suggest the patterns of attacks and casualties could be more readily explained in terms of conditions on the ground, opportunities for attack, etc.

    That is not to see that the emboldening effect doesn’t exist. In the end, however, I still agree with Hedley Bull that, in this field, “grand structures of quantification and algebra too often produced banality or obscurity, or both”.

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