Rethinking “Control” in civil wars

Territorial control has long been a central focus of policy analysis and scholarly research in civil wars, maps of Viet Minh influence in French Indochina to Stathis Kalyvas’ foundational 2006 book to a current generation of micro-level work in which the spatial distribution of control is, at minimum, a necessary control variable. But what exactly is control and how should we think about how it varies?

This is a provocative new think piece, inspired by Afghanistan, by Ibraheem Bahiss, Ashley Jackson, Leigh Mayhew and Florian Weigand on the complexities of “control.”

It’s full of useful insights but this is, to me, the most interesting takeaway:

“Territorial markers of control tend to be misleading, as many armed groups
exercise control over populations beyond areas where they are physically
present, shaping and influencing civilian life in the economic, social and
political spheres deep into areas thought of as ‘government controlled’.”

Give the whole thing a read.

Interesting documents on Abhilekh Patal

Covid has made travel for archival research tricky, plus I have two small kids so leaving Chicago for more than 3 hours is a byzantine logistical balancing act. I’ve been using online archives a lot (like the Cold War International History Project, FRUS, CIA FOIA records, etc), and want to highlight a useful, if admittedly constrained, source for accessing documents from the National Archives of India.

The Abhilekh Patal portal has some serious interface limitations (for instance, I can’t figure out a way to get a stable hyperlink to specific documents and the search engine can be exceptionally noisy – I end up filtering heavily by collection/type and then scrolling), but nevertheless hosts some very interesting digitized documents. It’s heavily colonial-era, but there is also a lot – largely uploaded in and since 2019 – on post-independence politics, especially foreign affairs. I am mainly interested in China/Nepal/Tibet/Burma dynamics for a current project, but there is also some fascinating stuff on relations with the US, assessments of the Northeast, and some on Kashmir. The View Full Screen option makes a huge difference in viewing, though requires fast internet for the bigger documents. For more open sources on India, see this twitter thread by Manoj Saxena.

A few documents I found interesting are below, with hopefully enough identifying information that others can find them:

1. “China Foreign Policy After Mao,” 1979, File No. HI/102(6)/79) – assessment of future trajectory of Chinese foreign policy and implications for India

2. “Indian Foreign Policy toward South East Asia,” 1976 (File No. HI/103(5)/76) – very interesting echoes of today

3. “Nepal-China (i.e. Sino-Nepal) Border,” 1980/88, File No. HI/107(i)/80

4. “Note on Sino-Nepal Boundary Protocol, 1979,” 1980, File No. HI/102/14/80 – both of these center on Indian assessments of Nepal-China interactions

5. “Indo-US Relations,” 1972, File No. WII-103/17/7

6. “Discontinuation of U.S. to India,” 1972, File No. WII/230/1/72 – about post-1971 war relations with the Nixon administration

7. “China-Indo Relations,” 1975,  File No. HI/121(1)/71

8. ” Setting up of an inter-departmental working group for studying building problems in Indo-Burmese relations,” 1958,  File No. 3(1)-BC(B)/58

9. “Notes prepared by the Ministry of External Affairs on Bangladesh,” 1973, File No. HI/103/12/73 – one of several documents on Indian assessments of dynamics in Bangladesh

10. “Foreign involvement in insurgency in North Eastern India- Preparation of white Paper on the subject by the Ministry of Defence,”  1972, File No. NII/102(33)/72

11. “Declaration of Naga National Council Federal Govt. of Nagaland and Naga Army etc. as unlawful- Original documents (Exhibits) returned by the tribunal,” 1975, File No. 14015/4/75-NE – lots on the Naga conflict

12. “Records of Discussion,” 1981, File No. Wii/122/31/81/VOL-II – anodyne title but full of meetings with Reagan administration officials.

13. “Statehood for Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya and connected problems of North-Eastern Region,” 1970, File. No. 10(31)/70 – 645 (!) pages of materials on the Northeast.

14. “Deployment of S.S.B. on the border along with Border Security Force,” 1980, File No.III-11039/18/80.G&Q.

15. “Tibet Policy: Top Secret notes on India & China on Tibet,” 1952, File No. 7 (1)P/52.

16. “Political Notes prepared by the Historical division Parts I, II & III,” 1971, File No. HI/121(1)/71.

17. Finally, there are numerous large files with monthly reports from various embassies – wording is often something like “Reports of other than Annual from Kathmandu (Nepal)” – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Afghanistan all appear at least occasionally, and tons from US, China, USSR, and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Enforced disappearances in Bangladesh

This is a very good, sobering report on enforced disappearances in Bangladesh by Ali Riaz, published by the Centre for Governance Studies:

“In the past decade, Bangladesh has witnessed a growing number of incidents of enforced
disappearance, that is ‘the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of
liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the
authorization, support or acquiescence of the state.’ At least 522 people have become
victims of enforced disappearance between 2009 and 2018, according to various human
rights organizations. This project gathered detailed information including the names and
professions of the victims, places of disappearance, and alleged involvement of law
enforcement agencies of an additional 71 cases between 2019 and 2021″

The Politics of Opposition in South Asia

Milan Vaishnav and I have been editing a series of essays on the politics of opposition in South Asia. Opposition in this context is meant very broadly, from hard-line anti-government insurgents to mainstream political parties to civil society. It’s an effort to broaden our discussion of regime and opposition dynamics in general, and to bring a set of cases, countries, and authors into the US policy/analytical discussion on South Asia that are too often ignored.

You can find the three essays thus far here on the Carnegie site, examining the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh, the TTP in Pakistan (also the subject of my last blog post), and the Brihat Nagarik Andolan in Nepal. There are several more essays lined up for the months to come, so please keep an eye out. And many thanks to the authors who have written or agreed to write!

Two recent pieces on the TTP

The Taliban seizure of power in Afghanistan has opened many questions about the trajectory of the TTP, which operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here I want to highlight two recent pieces analyzing the group and its political context:

  1. Abdul Sayed’s essay for Carnegie South Asia examines the history of the TTP, its resurgence, and where it goes from here. This is part of a series that I am co-editing with Milan Vaishnav on the politics of opposition (expansively defined) in South Asia; more on this series in the coming days.
  2. Asfandyar Mir’s piece for the United States Institute of Peace focuses on how the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP will affect Pakistan, the Taliban’s broader relationships in the region, and US counterterrorism in the region.

My book is shipping

It’s taken quite awhile to write, but my new book Ordering Violence: Explaining Armed Group-State Relations from Conflict to Cooperation is now shipping from Cornell University Press. I’ve been working on it in some capacity since 2012, though with several long breaks along the way, so it’s gratifying to see it out in the world. The Social Sciences Division at UChicago was kind enough to provide an overview of the book’s core themes. If you buy it directly from Cornell, use discount code 09FLYER to receive 30% off.

Crony Militarism in Myanmar

The war in Myanmar has continued to escalate since the February coup (for recent overviews of the state of play, see here by Anthony Davis and here by Hannah Beech), with over 1,000 dead, fundamentally driven by large-scale, intensive military repression.

This has raised the question of what holds Myanmar’s military together. There are a number of reasons – the historical legacy of past conflicts, ideology (a particular version of nationalism fused with military exceptionalism), fear, and greed all have a plausible role to play.

One interesting aspect is the political economy of the military. Military economics matter greatly in Egypt, Pakistan, and Thailand, among other cases (historically, a crucial issue in Turkey and Indonesia for instance), and are certainly relevant to the Tatmadaw as well.

I’ve come to think of the Myanmar situation as one of “crony militarism,” in which economic resources are fused with a deeply authoritarian and militarized regime, providing reasons for internal compliance as well as advancing military interests within a crony-ized “private” economy. These kinds of blends of military power and economic exchange can occur at the level both of comparatively local dynamics (like the “ceasefire capitalism” Kevin Woods has so valuably analyzed) and at the elite/national-level. The question of the Tatmadaw cohesion involves both, though elite/factional rifts would be more dramatic and with more rapid effect than a steady drip of low-level defections (which also can be important, to be clear).

Three recent pieces address different aspects of crony militarism and Tatmadaw cohesion. Ye Myo Hein has a very long and interesting article in Frontier Myanmar that tackles a number of issues around the past, present, and future of military cohesion, including crony militarism:

“This institutional unity is reinforced through economic interest. The Tatmadaw has created an entrenched patronage network using resources acquired through its prolonged monopoly over the most lucrative sectors of the national economy since the 1950s. 

Senior military leaders and their families use their control over the Tatmadaw’s long-accumulated wealth and assets to draw potential rivals into their own patronage networks, in the process helping to silence any opposition to the supreme leader. The distribution of rewards and benefits rarely stretches to the rank and file, however, who continue to live and work in deplorable conditions. 

These patronage networks have been reactivated since the coup. Informed sources within the business community say that family members and affiliates of the generals have been using this time as an opportunity to expand their business empires and expand their economic interests”

A group of excellent Reuters journalists (Poppy McPherson, Reade Levinson, John Geddie, Wa Lone, Simon Lewis, and Stephen Grey) have written a fascinating piece in on the family connections of the Tatmadaw:

“Corporate filings and a military procurement document reviewed by Reuters, as well as interviews with friends and associates of the family and with five defence contractors, show that the couple are part of a young generation of military families with business interests across the economy.

Besides his son and daughter-in-law, the air force chief’s nephew and niece have also prospered: They own a company that supplies the country’s aviation sector, corporate filings and media interviews show. Two defence contractors, a business associate and a former Myanmar airline executive told Reuters that the nephew was also involved in deals to supply the armed forces.

Maung Maung Kyaw, 57, was promoted to head the air force in 2018 and has presided over a modernisation program, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on upgrading aircraft used to support a military that for decades has been accused of human rights abuses. These included mass killings in 2017 of the Rohingya Muslim minority with “genocidal intent,” according to United Nations investigators. The military has denied this, saying it was waging a legitimate campaign against militants who attacked police.”

Finally, veteran journalist Bertil Lintner writes in Irrawaddy about changes that he believes occurred within the Tatmadaw as it has expanded, benefited from ceasefires, and then been forced back into actual war-fighting:

“Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the strength of the Tatmadaw in terms of manpower and equipment is way above that of the 1980s. But, because of the old ceasefire agreements, which lasted for nearly two decades, that also means that a generation of troops have very limited fighting experience. They are, as a source said, better at parades showing off their new uniforms and guns than at combat. And then, the embrace of the market economy that followed the 1988 uprising gave the officers ample opportunities to earn vast amounts of money. As one Myanmar source wrote on social media: “the army officers are only interested in taking bribes and making business deals with the cronies, they don’t want to fight battles anymore, they joined the army to get rich quickly.” Or, as a retired Tatmadaw officer once told me: “luxury when I was in the army consisted of a badminton set and a bottle of army rum, and I was a colonel. Now even captains and lieutenants have more than one car, several sets of golf clubs, and at least two mistresses. And they don’t have to fight.””

US public opinion on the Afghanistan withdrawal

What has the US public thought about the withdrawal from Afghanistan? Nathaniel Rakich had a valuable overview in FiveThirtyEight on August 20, 202 of polling toward the Afghanistan withdrawal in the US, Frank Newport at Gallup has a summary of both recent and past surveys, and Amber Phillips looks at trends since 2002 in the Washington Post.

Below I’ve pulled out key figures from several recent surveys.

Ipsos/Chicago Council (August 23-26); the link also points to prior surveys on this question:

Washington Post/ABC (Aug. 29-Sep. 1):

CBS News/YouGov (August 18-20):

Pew Research Center (Aug. 23-29):

The regional composition of India’s armed forces

This Rajya Sabha (Unstarred Question No. 2097, March 15, 2021) answer provides a state-level breakdown of the current composition of the Army, Navy, and Air Force (caveat: without Army officers). The PDF I downloaded is here; I first noticed it via this Tribune article. Steven Wilkinson’s 2015 book is the most up to date and detailed historical treatment of this issue. Drew Stommes and I have tried to back out the average historical regional composition of the BSF and CRPF here. I’m slowly organizing some Assam Rifles data as well that I hope to post soon.