Afghan Wikileaks War Diary Part 3: Cycle of Violence?

Yesterday, I posted an excellent paper on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the paper, the authors used econometrics techniques to determine whether Israel reacts to Palestinian attacks, Palestine reacts to Israeli attacks, or both.

A few months ago, I had posted a series of analyses on the War Diaries posted on Wikileaks detailing a number of actions throughout the Afghanistan War. To reiterate, the database contains meticulous records of every military action from 2003 to the end of 2009. Within each record, is the number of military killed or wounded, the number of civilians killed or wounded and the initiator of the conflict, be it friend or enemy. There is other important and detailed information, but mostly, I am concerned about civilian casualties and who was responsible for the conflict.

The time series, detailing civilian casualties from 2003-2008 is below. There are two, of course, one representing enemy initiated conflicts (red) and the other friendly initiated conflicts (blue). Note the difference in scales.

Now the question is, do friendly initiated actions resulting in civilian casualties encourage enemy retaliation, do enemy initiated actions induce friendly retaliation, or both? Basically, I would like to know if the American presence agitates conflicts which result in civilian death or if the opposite is true. Using the MSBVAR package in R, I made use of the impulse response function, which tracks the level increase in one time series (response), given a change in another (shock).

In essence, what this will tell us, is the excess number of persons killed or wounded in a subsequent conflict, given an action by either side. As an example, assume that the American military conducts a military action and that action results in civilian death. Does that action result in an enemy lead to a retaliation which will also results in civilian death? Let’s check out the plot below:

What we can see here, is that an enemy lead action, will result in an extra 15 civilians being killed the following day in another enemy lead action. Enemy lead actions result in an approximately .3 extra persons dying three days later in a friendly lead conflict. Friendly lead actions do not result in enemy lead action, but friendly lead conflicts do result in a number of people dying in another friendly lead conflict the following day. From a probability standpoint (and a separate and not noted here graph), an enemy lead action will mean that there is a 50 percent chance of a civilians dying in an enemy lead conflict the next day and a 15% probablity that a civilian will die in a friendly lead conflict three days later. Friendly lead conflicts do not appear to result in more civilian deaths later on from enemy lead actions, but do lead to a 50 percent chance of someone dying in a friendly lead action.

What does this mean? Well, assuming that the categorization of “friendly” and “enemy” lead actions is correct, this means that action lead by the American military do not provoke enemy retaliation as the common wisdom would suggest, but that enemy attacks are self-determined events lead for their own interests (which could include ejecting us from their country). Of course, this methodology only tracks temporal sequences and does not indicate causality, nor does it provide insight into big picture attitudes and motivations of Taliban battle tactics. It’s likely that our presence may motivate attacks, but that our military actions do not. This question, however, cannot be evaluated through data.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

One response to “Afghan Wikileaks War Diary Part 3: Cycle of Violence?”

  1. Ferunando-Sama says :


    This is interesting. Maybe avoiding retaliation is an effective way to confuse your enemies. We should do some further analyses using game theory and get the stuff published in Nature 😉

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