Almost funny. This is what a floundering empire looks like (via Wired):
Insurgencies are amongst the hardest conflicts to predict. Insurgents can be loosely organized, split into factions, and strike from out of nowhere. But now researchers have demonstrated that with enough data, you might actually predict where insurgent violence will strike next. The results, though, don’t look good for the U.S.-led war.
And they’re also laden with irony. The data the researchers used was purloined by WikiLeaks, which the Pentagon has tried to suppress. And the Pentagon has struggled for years to develop its own prediction tools.
That data would be the “Afghan War Diary,” a record of 77,000 military logs dated between 2004 and 2009 that were spilled onto the internet two years ago by WikiLeaks. In a paper published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers used the leaked logs to (mostly) accurately predict violence levels in Afghanistan for the year 2010. (Behind a paywall, alas, but a summary is available for free in .pdf.)
It sounds simple. Take six years’ worth of data, plug in the right formulas, and out comes results that give a “deeper insight in the conflict dynamics than simple descriptive methods by providing a spatially resolved map of the growth and volatility of the conflict,” the researchers write. In practice, it’s maddeningly complicated — and suggests that the insurgency has successfully withstood the recent surge of U.S. troops.
One of the keys to accurate prediction, the report says, is a robust sample size. Though the military’s records almost definitely don’t contain every violent outburst that’s occurred in Afghanistan since 2004, and the events included range widely from “elaborate preplanned military activity and spontaneous stop-and-search events,” it’s better than relying on inaccurate or incomplete reports from NGOs or the media.
And yet the military has spent millions developing predictive tools. They don’t work very well. Darpa’sIntegrated Crisis Early Warning System actually predicts few crises. Its predecessors, which date back to the 1980s, were arguably even more inaccurate. But those seek to predict big, sweeping geopolitical events. Researchers have had better luck estimating expected fatalities from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But predicting violent events with news reports as data? #Fail.
Two takeaways from the study won’t comfort the military. It would appear that the insurgency resisted the Obama administration’s surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, at least in the first year. “Our findings seem to prove that the insurgency is self-sustaining,” Guido Sanguinetti, a computational scientist and the study’s lead author, told the Los Angeles Times. Even with a new offensive, “this doesn’t seem to disturb the system,” he said.