Research

Political Economy of Conflict

The Logic of Insurgent Electoral Violence. With Luke Condra, James Long, and Andrew Shaver. American Economic Review, November 2018.

Abstract

Competitive elections are essential to establishing the political legitimacy of democratizing regimes. We argue that insurgents undermine the state’s mandate through electoral violence. We study insurgent violence during elections using newly declassified microdata on the conflict in Afghanistan. Our data track insurgent activity by hour to within meters of attack locations. Our results suggest that insurgents carefully calibrate their production of violence during elections to avoid harming civilians. Leveraging a novel instrumental variables approach, we find that violence depresses voting. Collectively, the results suggest insurgents try to depress turnout while avoiding backlash from harming civilians. Counterfactual exercises provide potentially actionable insights for safeguarding at-risk elections and enhancing electoral legitimacy in emerging democracies.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.



Civilians, Control, and Collaboration during Civil Conflict. With Luke Condra. International Studies Quarterly, August 2019.

Abstract

What affects civilian collaboration with armed actors during civil war? While theory and evidence confirm that harm by armed actors influences when and with whom civilians collaborate, we argue that collaboration is also a function of civilians’ perceptions of armed actors’ efforts to minimize collateral casualties. We test this argument using a series of nationwide surveys of Afghan civilians conducted quarterly between 2013 and 2015. Our data record civilian willingness to report roadside bombs to government authorities and perceptions of government and Taliban efforts to minimize civilian harm. Civilians are less (more) willing to collaborate with the government when they perceive the government (Taliban) carelessly using force, even after accounting for political sentiment, local security conditions, and a range of additional confounding factors. Moreover, our evidence suggests that perceived carelessness in the rival’s area of control influences collaboration. We discuss how these empirical results inform broader literatures on collaboration, conquest, occupation, and control.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.


Attacks on Energy Infrastructure Targeting Democratic Institutions. With Rebecca Lordan-Perret, Peter Burgherr, Matteo Spada and Robert Rosner. Energy Policy, September 2019.

Abstract

To what extent can energy infrastructure become a tool for insurgents? Non-state, insurgent actors have increased attacks on critical energy infrastructure over time (Giroux et al., 2013). As critical energy infrastructure becomes more complex and interconnected, attacks on this infrastructure can have far reaching consequences not only for the economy but also for social institutions. Leveraging exogenously scheduled elections in Colombia and microlevel energy infrastructure attack data, we use multivariate linear regression to show that insurgent groups, Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación (ELN), time attacks on critical energy infrastructure in the months before an election. We find that the likelihood of an attack on electricity transmission lines and substations increased by 34% in the lead up to election months and that the number of attacks increased by 37% during election months. We further find these attacks are correlated with reduced voter turnout, indicating that infrastructure attacks may undermine participation in democratic institutions. These findings are particularly interesting as democratic societies—burgeoning and established—try to identify the unintended vulnerabilities to society that accompany the benefits of increased interconnectedness.

Paper is here.


Places to Hide: Terrain, Ethnicity, and Civil Conflict. With David B. Carter and Andrew Shaver. Journal of Politics, October 2019.

Abstract

Terrain is central to understanding why some countries experience contentious ethnic divisions and civil war. While existing research specifies a direct effect of rugged terrain on civil war (i.e., it impedes state efforts to counter rebellion), we argue that terrain has an overlooked indirect effect on civil war via its historical in fluence on the distribution and political status of ethnic groups. We argue that access to variable rugged terrain facilitated the development and survival of more distinct ethnic groups by both restricting interaction among communities in rugged areas and complicating state repression. Both arguments suggest that groups in rugged areas face greater risk of political marginalization. Using geocoded data on civil war, terrain, and the distribution and political status of ethnic groups, we demonstrate that up to 40% of rugged terrain’ s effects on civil war are mediated by its indirect effect on the exclusion of politically relevant ethnic groups.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.


Security Transitions. With Thiemo Fetzer, Pedro CL Souza, and Oliver Vanden Eynde. American Economic Review, July 2021.

Abstract

How do foreign powers disengage from a conflict? We study this issue by examining the recent, large-scale security transition from international troops to local forces in the ongoing civil conflict in Afghanistan. We construct a new dataset that combines information on this transition process with declassified conflict outcomes and previously unreleased quarterly survey data of residents' perceptions of local security. Our empirical design leverages the staggered roll-out of the transition, and employs a novel instrumental variables approach to estimate the impact. We find a significant, sharp, and timely decline of insurgent violence in the initial phase: the security transfer to Afghan forces. We find that this is followed by a significant surge in violence in the second phase: the actual physical withdrawal of foreign troops. We argue that this pattern is consistent with a signaling model, in which the insurgents reduce violence strategically to facilitate the foreign military withdrawal to capitalize on the reduced foreign military presence afterward. Our findings clarify the destabilizing consequences of withdrawal in one of the costliest conflicts in modern history, and yield potentially actionable insights for designing future security transitions.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.


Insurgent Learning. With Francesco Trebbi, Eric Weese, and Andrew Shaver. Accepted, Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, September 2020.

Abstract

Over the past decade the United States has invested substantial economic resources in protecting its troops against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Yet we know little about the impact of these investments on combat tactics and soldier safety. We introduce a model of insurgent learning where combatants adapt during an asymmetric war using defensive and offensive technological innovation. We test comparative statics of the model using declassified military records on individual IED explosions in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2014. Consistent with insurgent learning, we show that detonation and casualty rates did not decline during this period. This microlevel evidence is also consistent with the qualitative historical record from other substate conflicts. We conclude by decomposing variable input costs for defensive and offensive innovation presented in military documents.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.


Information Operations Increase Civilian Security Cooperation. With Konstantin Sonin. [BFI Working Paper No. 2019-130][Conditionally accepted: The Economic Journal].

Abstract

Information operations are considered a central element of modern warfare and counterinsurgency, yet there remains little systematic evidence of their effectiveness. Using a geographic quasi-experiment conducted during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, we demonstrate that civilians exposed to the government’s information campaign resulted in more civilian security cooperation, which in turn increased bomb neutralizations. These results are robust to a number of alternative model specifications that account for troop presence, patrol-based operations, and local military aid allocation as well as a series of novel placebo tests and latent radio signal propagation approaches. The paper demonstrates that information campaigns can lead to substantive attitudinal and behavioral changes in an adversarial environment and substantially improve battlefield outcomes.

Paper is here.


Televising Justice during War. With Andres Uribe and Stephen Stapleton. [Forthcoming: Journal of Conflict Resolution].

Abstract

Television is an overlooked tool of state building. We estimate the impact of televising criminal proceedings on public use of government courts to resolve disputes. We draw on survey data from Afghanistan, where the government used television as a mechanism for enhancing the legitimacy of formal legal institutions during an ongoing conflict. We find consistent evidence of enhanced support for government courts among survey respondents who trust television following the nation’s first televised criminal trial. We find no evidence that public confidence in other government functions (e.g. economy, development, corruption) improved during this period. Our findings suggest that television may provide a means of building state legitimacy during war and other contexts of competition between political authorities.

Paper is here.


Rebel Capacity and Combat Tactics. With Konstantin Sonin (and J. Wilson*). [BFI Working Paper No. 2018-74] [Preparing revision: American Journal of Political Science].

Abstract

Classic and modern theories of rebel warfare emphasize the role of unexpected attacks against better equipped government forces. We test implications of a model of combat and information-gathering using highly detailed data about Afghan rebel attacks, insurgent-led spy networks, and counterinsurgent operations. Timing of rebel operations responds to changes in the group’s access to resources, and main effects are significantly enhanced in areas where rebels have the capacity to spy on and infiltrate military installations. Results are supplemented with numerous robustness checks as well as a novel IV approach that uses machine learning and high frequency data on local agronomic inputs. Consistent with the model, shocks to labor scarcity and government surveillance operations have the opposite effect on attack timing. In addition, we investigate the impact of attack timing on battlefield effectiveness and find that it reduces soldier efficiency during missions to ‘find and clear’ roadside bombs and increases bomb-related casualties to government troops.

Paper is here.


Economic Shocks and Rebel Tactics. [HiCN Working Papers 232].

Abstract

Rebel tactics vary significantly within insurgencies. I argue the local technologies of rebellion are constrained by three factors: rebel capacity, outside options, and state strength. I test the argument with microdata on rebel violence in Colombia and exploit plausibly random shocks to local income using newly released data on government-led coca interventions and a novel method for the retrospective estimation of crop production. I find evidence that economic shocks substantially affect rebel tactics. When rebel capacity increases, insurgents favor conventional tactics. Alternatively, when state strength increases and outside options improve, rebels favor irregular tactics. These results are robust to accounting for numerous potential sources of bias, including atmospheric dispersion of illicit crop herbicides, and violence spillovers from drug trafficking.

Paper is here.


Civilian Harm, Wartime Informing, and Counterinsurgent Operations. With Luke Condra, Jacob Shapiro, and Andrew Shaver. [TPI Discussion Paper no. 42] Under Review.

Abstract

A rich body of theory suggests that civilian support is central to the success of counterinsurgent campaigns. Yet there have been few direct tests of the claim that harm to civilians, and who harms them, influences when and with whom non-combatants collaborate. We provide three novel pieces of evidence on this score. First, we review the historical evidence from 59 asymmetric civil wars since 1970, showing that civilian cooperation was important to combatants in the majority of them. Second, drawing on newly declassified military records and large-scale survey data, we demonstrate that civilians responded to harm suffered in insurgent-initiated attacks by providing intelligence to security forces in Afghanistan. Finally, we show that these tips improved the success of subsequent counterinsurgent operations.

Paper is here.


Profiling Insurrection: Characterizing Collective Action Using Mobile Device Data. With David Van Dijcke. [BFI Working Paper No. 2021-13].

Abstract

We develop a novel approach for estimating spatially dispersed community-level participation in mass protest. This methodology is used to investigate factors associated with participation in the ‘March to Save America’ event in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. This study combines granular location data from more than 40 million mobile devices with novel measures of community-level voting patterns, the location of organized hate groups, and the entire georeferenced digital archive of the social media platform Parler. We find evidence that partisanship, socio-political isolation, proximity to chapters of the Proud Boys organization, and the local activity on Parler are robustly associated with protest participation. Our research fills a prominent gap in the study of collective action: identifying and studying communities involved in mass-scale events that escalate into violent insurrection.

Paper is here.


Losing on the Home Front? Battlefield Casualties, Media, and Public Support for Foreign Interventions. With Thiemo Fetzer, Pedro CL Souza, Oliver Vanden Eynde. [BFI Working Paper No. 2021-52].

Abstract

We study the impact of battlefield casualties and media coverage on public demand for war termination. To identify the effect of troop fatalities, we leverage the otherwise exogenous timing of survey collection across 26,218 respondents from eight members of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Quasi-experimental evidence demonstrates that fatalities increase coverage of the Afghan conflict and public demand for withdrawal. Evidence from a survey experiment replicates the main results. To estimate the media mechanism, we leverage a news pressure design and find that major sporting matches occurring around the time of battlefield casualties drive down subsequent coverage and significantly weaken the effect of casualties on support for war termination. These results highlight the crucial role that media play in shaping public support for foreign military interventions.

Paper is here.


Political Consequences of Fear during War. With Luke Condra and Stephen Stapleton.

Abstract

What are the political consequences of fear during war? Prior work on crime and conflict suggests that traumatic events may trigger strong emotional responses, which can increase political participation in a number of ways. Fear is also associated with anxiety, depression, and loss of cognitive and social functions, which may lead to political withdrawal. We present evidence of a link between past exposure to violence and heightened feelings of fear using a large-scale national survey. We find consistent evidence that fear significantly reduces political engagement. These findings provide evidence of a psychological mechanism largely absent from prior work in politics and challenges the notion that survivors of trauma are politically activated by their experiences with violence.

Paper is here.


Refugee Return and Conflict: Evidence from a Natural Experiment. With Christopher Blair. [BFI Working Paper No. 2021-82] Under Review.

Abstract

We estimate the causal effect of a large cash assistance program for refugee returnees on conflict in Afghanistan. The program led to a significant increase in repatriation. Leveraging historical returnee settlement patterns and previously unreleased combat records, we find that policy-induced refugee return had cross-cutting effects, reducing insurgent violence, but increasing social conflict. The program's cash benefits were substantial and may have raised reservation wages in communities where returnees repatriated. Consistent with this hypothesis, returnee encashment had heterogeneous effects on insurgent violence, decreasing use of labor-intensive combat, while also reducing the effectiveness of counterinsurgent bomb neutralization missions. Additionally, kinship ties and access to informal institutions for dispute resolution significantly offset the risks of refugee return for communal violence. These results highlight unintended consequences of repatriation aid and clarify the conditions under which refugee return affects conflict. Building social capital and legitimate, local institutions are key antecedents for safe refugee repatriation.

Paper is here.


Economic Competition and Civilian Support for Rebel Reintegration. With Amanda Kennard and Konstantin Sonin.

Abstract

Economic considerations play a critical role in combatants' participation in civil conflict. We bring novel evidence to bear on a related, but under-studied question: do economic considerations impact civilian support for conflict termination? Reconciliation depends on successful reintegration of ex-combatants into the peace-time economy. However, competitive considerations may undermine civilian support for reintegration. We provide evidence for this claim employing a quasi-experimental approach, leveraging localized effects of the 2015 Hindu Kush earthquake and individual-level survey data on support for Taliban reintegration. The earthquake reduced support for reintegration into disproportionately impacted economic sectors. We find no change in support for reintegration into unaffected sectors. The results are robust to a battery of tests including a novel spatial randomization with geocoded fault line segments representing the universe of counterfactual earthquakes. Our findings provide new insight into the economics of conflict resolution: economic considerations may undermine civilian support for rebel reintegration.

Paper is here.


Political Economy of Crime

Border Walls and Smuggling Spillovers. With Anna Getmansky and Guy Grossman. Quarterly Journal of Political Science, July 2019.

Abstract

A growing number of states are erecting physical barriers along their borders to stem the illicit flow of goods and people. Though border fortification policies are both controversial and politically salient, their distributional consequences remain largely unexplored. We study the impact of a border wall project on smuggling in Israel. We use the initial phase of the wall construction to causally estimate spillover effects on cross-border smuggling, especially vehicle theft. We find a large decrease in smuggling of stolen vehicles in protected towns and a similar substantial increase in not-yet-protected towns. For some protected towns, fortification also arbitrarily increased the length of smuggling routes. These township-level shocks further deterred smuggling (6% per kilometer). Our findings suggest that border fortification may have uneven distributional consequences, creating unintended winners and losers.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.


Political and Environmental Risks Influence Migration and Human Smuggling Across the Mediterranean Sea. With Kara Ross Camarena, Sarah Claudy, and Jijun Wang. PLoS ONE, July 2020.

Abstract

Since 2007 the number of refugees fleeing conflict and violence has doubled to more than 25 million. We leverage high frequency data on migration, sea conditions, and riots to investigate how political and environmental risks influence migration and human smuggling across the Mediterranean Sea. We report results from two observational studies. A high frequency time-series study demonstrates that risks alter migration patterns. An event study design demonstrates the effectiveness of a policy intervention that targeted Libyan militias engaged in human smuggling. The results highlight the important role of environmental and political risks in transit countries and their implications for migration and human smuggling.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.


Corruption and Political Mobilization: Evidence from a Natural Experiment. With Luke Condra. [BFI Working Paper No. 2021-59] Under Review.

Abstract

How do voters react to news of political corruption? Information about corruption may mobilize citizens to demand political and institutional reform, but existing empirical evidence is mixed. We argue that the effects of information about corruption on citizen attitudes and voting behavior is moderated by political efficacy (perceived influence of activism on political outcomes), which varies considerably across and within emerging democracies. To test the argument, we draw on survey data from Afghanistan collected during the 2010 Kabul Bank crisis, which revealed corruption in the formal banking system. The unanticipated scandal unfolded midway through the collection of the survey, allowing us to adopt a novel quasi-experimental approach. The scandal led to an increase in perceived corruption in government and heterogeneous effects on voting via a political efficacy mechanism. Our argument and results clarify an important puzzle in the cross national literature on corruption and voter mobilization.

Paper is here.


Aid Fragmentation and Corruption. With Travers Child and Yun Xiao. [BFI Working Paper No. 2021-69] Under Review.

Abstract

Effectiveness of development aid is widely perceived to suffer in the presence of multiple donors with overlapping responsibilities. We test existing theory on aid fragmentation by studying aid provision under numerous donors throughout Afghanistan from 2006-2009. Our study leverages granular military data on aid and conflict, and household survey data on corruption and public opinion. We conduct the first micro-level analysis of aid fragmentation. When delivered by a single donor, aid appears to curtail corruption, boost public opinion, and reduce conflict. But under donor fragmentation, the benefits of aid are significantly reduced. Our results suggest under high volumes of aid provision, fragmentation facilitates corruption and thereby erodes aid’s ability to win hearts and minds in the fight against insurgents. At moderate levels of aid, however, fragmentation may actually benefit the quality of institutions. Our findings remain stable when accounting for a rich set of observable confounds. Moreover, we obtain robust estimates when correcting for bias likely arising from the omission of unobservable factors

Paper is here.


Internal versus External Social Control: Reporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. With Patrick Bergemann. Under Review.

Abstract

In many settings, witnesses of wrongdoing can report crimes to internal authorities such as social control agents within an organization, or to external authorities such as the police. Yet why they report to one or the other is not well established. In this paper, we introduce the concept of alignment to show that witnesses’ categorization of perpetrators as in-group or out-group members and prevailing categorizations within the social environment matter for reporting behavior. When wrongdoers are viewed as in-group members by witnesses and other group members, individuals tend to report to internal authorities. When wrongdoers are viewed as out-group members by witnesses and other group members, individuals tend to report to external authorities. When views are misaligned, reporting is less likely to occur at all. We evaluate this theory using unique data detailing villagers’ reporting of illegal Taliban activity across thousands of villages in Afghanistan. When individuals observe such crimes, they can report the behavior to external authorities such as the Afghanistan National Army or National Police, they can report to internal authorities such as local village elders, or they can not report at all. By situating individuals within their social context, we show how responses to wrongdoing arise from the interaction between self and environment, as wrongdoing becomes defined as either a local or more general problem.

Paper is here.


Political Economy of COVID-19

Poverty and Economic Dislocation Reduce Compliance with COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place Protocols. With Konstantin Sonin, Jesse Driscoll, and Jarnickae Wilson. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, November 2020.

Abstract

Shelter-in-place ordinances were the first wide-spread policy measures aimed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Compliance with shelter-in-place directives is individually costly and requires behavioral changes across diverse sub-populations. Leveraging county-day measures on population movement derived from cellphone location data and the staggered introduction of local mandates, we find that economic factors have played an important role in determining the level of compliance with local shelter-in-place ordinances in the US. Specifically, residents of low income areas complied with shelter-in-place ordinances less than their counterparts in areas with stronger economic endowments, even after accounting for potential confounding factors including partisanship, population density, exposure to recent trade disputes, unemployment, and other factors. Novel results on the local impact of the 2020 CARES Act suggest stimulus transfers that addressed economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic significantly increased social distancing.

Paper is here. Appendix is here.


Science Skepticism Reduces Compliance with COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place Policies. With Adam Brzezinski, Valentin Kecht, and David Van Dijcke. [Forthcoming: Nature Human Behavior] [BFI Working Paper No. 2020-56].

Abstract

Physical distancing reduces transmission risks and slows the spread of COVID-19. Yet compliance with shelter-in-place policies issued by local and regional governments in the United States is uneven and may be influenced by science skepticism and attitudes towards topics of scientific consensus. Using county-day measures of physical distancing derived from cellphone location data, we demonstrate that the proportion of people who stay at home after shelter-in-place policies go into effect is significantly lower in counties with a high concentration of science skeptics. These results are robust to controlling for other potential drivers of differential physical distancing, such as political partisanship, income, education and COVID severity. Our findings suggest public health interventions that take local attitudes toward science into account in their messaging may be more effective.

Paper is here.


Political Economy of Crisis Response. With Arda Gitmez and Konstantin Sonin. [BFI Working Paper No. 2020-68] Under Review.

Abstract

We offer a theoretical model in which heterogeneous agents make individual decisions with negative external effects such as the extent of social distancing during pandemics. Because of the externality, agents have different individual and political preferences over the policy response. Personally, they might prefer a low-level response, yet would vote for a higher one because it deters others. In particular, agents want one level of slant in the information they base their actions on and a different level of slant in public announcements. The model accounts for numerous empirical regularities of the early public response to COVID-19 in the U.S.

Paper is here.


Unmasking Partisanship: Polarization Undermines Public Response to Collective Risk. With Maria Milosh, Marc Painter, Konstantin Sonin, and David Van Dijcke. [BFI Working Paper No. 2020-102] [Preparing revision: Journal of Public Economics].

Abstract

Political polarization may undermine public policy response to collective risk, especially in periods of crisis, when political actors have incentives to manipulate public perceptions. We study these dynamics in the United States, focusing on how partisanship has influenced the use of face masks to stem the spread of COVID-19. Using a wealth of micro-level data, machine learning approaches, and a novel quasi-experimental design, we establish the following: (1) mask use is robustly correlated with partisanship; (2) the impact of partisanship on mask use is not offset by local policy interventions; (3) partisanship is the single most important predictor of local mask use, not COVID-19 severity or local policies; (4) president Trump’s unexpected mask use at Walter Reed on July 11, 2020 and endorsement of masks on July 20, 2020 significantly increased social media engagement with and positive sentiment towards mask-related topics. These results unmask how partisanship undermines effective public responses to collective risk and how messaging by political agents can increase public engagement with policy measures.

Paper is here.