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But I am somebody who is very anxious to have the Afghan government and the Pakistani government have the capacity to ensure that those safe havens don’t exist. And so it, I think, will be an important reminder that we have no territorial ambitions in Afghanistan; we don’t have an interest in exploiting the resources of Afghanistan. What we want is simply that people aren’t hanging out in Afghanistan who are plotting to bomb the United States.

Obama said this in an interview with NPR (transcript.)  He actually says “hangin’ out” but the transcriber apparently wanted to maintain an air of formality and wrote “hanging.”  You can hear it here, around the 12:30 mark.  He chuckles a bit when he says it.

These are conspicuoulsy different ways for a President to talk, especially about something as serious as terrorism.  It says something about the man himself and it also draws a sharp contrast with Bush, whose standard catch phrase at these moments would be “rout out the terrorists.”

Previous installment in the series.


The main logic of torture is to inflict so much pain that the victim reveals all his information to make the pain stop.  Incentives for truth-telling in this situation are eerily similar to those in the bank stress tests.

All banks want to report that they are healthy.  To distinguish the lying sick banks from the healthy ones there has to be some verifiable information.  Healthy ones have this information (e.g. they passed the stress test) and the sick ones do not.  The healthy banks have to have the incentive to reveal the information.  This is all too clear for the healthy banks: by revealing their results they can avoid bank runs, get liquid, start lending etc.

In the torture analogy, a healthy bank is an informed terrorist with real information of an attack and a sick bank is someone, say an uninformed terrorist, with no information.  The assumption of the pro-torture people is that the informed terrorist will have the incentive to report his information to avoid pain.  But an uninformed terrorist has the same incentive.  To tell one from the other, the informed terrorist’s information has to be verifiable.  For example, there has to be “chatter” on Al Qaeda websites that can be used to cross-check the veracity of the torture victim’s confession.  If this information is out there anyway, one might ask why torture was necessary in the first place.  Presumably, the information is vague or ambiguous.  The torture victim’s information brings some clarity.

This process seems heavily error-prone.  False confessions may also cross-check by accident.  The information is so noisy that a lead that is very weak may be thought to be strong.  The more noise there is, the more the victim’s report is uninformative cheap talk – it contains no true information as informed and uninformed terrorists all give information, false and true and impossible to distinguish.

There is a second problem.  Once a healthy bank releases the stress test information, the game is over – the market has the information and responds correspondingly.  A torture victim faces further torture.  There is no way for the interrogator to commit to stop torturing.   If the victim knows this beforehand, the victim lies in the first place as there is no way to stop the torture.  If the victim finds this out between episodes of water-boarding, the victim might start lying to contradict their earlier true confessions.

The efficacy of torture relies on verifiability of information and the ability of the torturer to commit to stop if good information is revealed.  Both properties are hard if not impossible to satisfy in practice.

This story reports that Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, puts different terrorist groups into different categories:

American officials said that the S Wing provided direct support to three major groups carrying out attacks in Afghanistan: the Taliban based in Quetta, Pakistan, commanded by Mullah Muhammad Omar; the militant network run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; and a different group run by the guerrilla leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, recently told senators that the Pakistanis “draw distinctions” among different militant groups.

“There are some they believe have to be hit and that we should cooperate on hitting, and there are others they think don’t constitute as much of a threat to them and that they think are best left alone,” Mr. Blair said.

The Haqqani network, which focuses its attacks on Afghanistan, is considered a strategic asset to Pakistan, according to American and Pakistani officials, in contrast to the militant network run by Baitullah Mehsud, which has the goal of overthrowing Pakistan’s government.

Note that the main distinction is whether the terrorism is aimed inwards into the country or outwards against others, as my earlier post suggests.

When will the median voter in a country support terrorist activity?  It depends on whether the terrorism is directed inwards into the country, or outward against an opponent.

For example, the terror acts emanating from Pakistan and directed towards India or vice-versa might be supported by the average citizen in each country.  India and Pakistan have a Cold War mentality that makes the average citizen hostile towards the other nation.  Democratic leaders who fight cross-border terrorism may alienate the voters.  A dictator can survive in power even without the average citizen’s approval.  This implies that an outsider like the U.S. which does not want cross-border terrorism (perhaps it also generates attacks on the U.S.) favors a dictatorship in Pakistan over democracy.  This is the kind of rationale behind a preference for Musharraf over Nawaz Sharif.

But there is a second effect.  If a leader starts fighting terrorists, they can turn violence inwards.  Al Qaeda in Iraq started fighting not only the US forces but attacking the population.  Eventually, the population turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq.  At that point,   a democratic leader has a better incentive to control terrorism than a dictator.  The dictator may fear for his own life and is not subject to election.  He has all the incentive not to eliminate terrorism.  If he deal with it too effectively, it eliminates his main reason for being in power in the first place.  A democratic leader has to respect the wishes of the average citizen to survive in power.  If the average citizen suffers from inward-directed terrorism, a democratic leader has to deal with it to survive in power.  This effect favors democracy over dictatorship if the objective is to eliminate terrorism.

There are two countervailing effects in even this simple theory.  In any program of democratization to reduce terrorism, we have to make sure the median citizen in the country being democratized shares our preferences.  This is the simple fact that was overlooked when Palestinian elections were encouraged and the American administration was surprised as Hamas won the election.

What is the incentive of the Pakistani government to catch terrorists and hoe does it depend on how democratic the government is?

A democratic leader’s incentives are driven by the desire to get re-elected.  Suppose voters vote retrospectively – that is they are backward looking and punish the leader for bad performance.  (This can be made forward-looking by adding some story about political competence revealed  by performance.)

If terrorism adversely affects the “voters” but voting is not occurring as the country is a dictatorship, it’s optimal for the U.S. to promote democratization.  A leader motivated by re-election has better incentives  to reduce terrorism.  But if terrorists are supported by the median voter, there is no incentive to promote democratization.  In fact, if the dictator is threatened by terrorists, it is better to have a dictator in place.

So, a realist perspective suggests only partial support for spreading democracy.  The “model” above is very simple  but would already suggest checking the preferences of the average voter before pursuing democratization.  Hamas anyone?

This is only a sketch but there are alkso sorts of more subtle incentive issues that come out of it.  Future posts.  Maybe Jeff can get in on the game?

The New York Times describes the Israeli strategy in the recent war in Gaza as follows:

The Israeli theory of what it tried to do here is summed up in a Hebrew phrase heard across Israel and throughout the military in the past weeks: “baal habayit hishtageya,” or “the boss has lost it.” It evokes the image of a madman who cannot be controlled.

“This phrase means that if our civilians are attacked by you, we are not going to respond in proportion but will use all means we have to cause you such damage that you will think twice in the future,” said Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser.

It is a calculated rage. The phrase comes from business and refers to a decision by a shop owner to cut prices so drastically that he appears crazy to the consumer even though he knows he has actually made a shrewd business decision.

I think the word “consumer” should be replaced by the word “entrant” for this passage to make complete sense – consumers like lower prices, entrants do not.  Then, the Israeli strategy becomes the classic story about predation:  When an entrant dares to enter a market, the incumbent may want to prove he is “tough”, cut his price drastically and drive the entrant out of the market.  This will also help the entrant “to think twice in the future” as they say above and deter future entry.  This assumes the entrant has nothing to prove.  But Hamas also want to prove its tough.  If it backs off now, then Israel will learn that Hamas is soft and will surely push the advantage in a future war.  So, Hamas has the same incentives as Israel and will not back down.  That is, the possibility of future war and the reputation each player wants in that war makes both players tougher.  So the war can be very very terrible.  For a preliminary model along these lines see my paper “Reputation and Conflict” with Tomas Sjöström.  For the Prime Minister this is a ” ‘el harb el majnouna,’ the mad or crazy war”.  And it’s all unfortunately quite rational:

Shlomo Brom, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a retired brigadier general, said it was wrong to consider Hamas a group of irrational fanatics.

“I have always said that Hamas is a very rational political movement,” he said. “When they use suicide bombings, for example, it is done very consciously, based on calculations of the effectiveness of these means. You see, both sides understand the value of calculated madness. That is one reason I don’t see an early end to this ongoing war.”

I say unfortunately because I hope (irrationally?!) that rational behavior can be taught and irrationality eliminated.  But if crazy behavior is rational, what are we to do?

This show is meant to be related to my research so I’m trying to get into it.  But it’s really hard!  There are sequences with kinetic violence. They remind me of the the Michael Mann movie Heat (better than his later movie Miami Vice!).  But it’s so strategically unsophisticated it gets boring. Yesterday’s main dilemma was whether to get a double-agent to get to reveal his information by threatening his innocent wife and kid.  Nice people say  No but Jack Bauer says Yes.  That’s the usual dilemma explored by 24, apparently one of John McCain’s favorite shows: Do we have to become as bad as the terrorists to beat the terrorists?  It would be nice if sometimes Bauer was wrong and a “be nice” strategy pays off. I haven’t seen too many episodes – I got bored last season and have been more focused on cooking shows and referee reports this season.  But are there any episodes with any moral or strategic complexity other than the obvious dilemma I described?

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