where warning works (chibok, nigeria)

The kidnappings at Chibok, in northern Nigeria, are difficult to recount; it is a story of hiding, and not of telling. The initial subterfuge of Nigerian military officials, the unknown identities of the Chibok girls’ captors, the perpetual two-step of government diplomacy with Boko Haram, the girls’ captors–as weeks pass, with most of the Chibok girls no closer to home, these obfuscations appear more common than transparency. When–if–the girls return, they will bring many stories to narrate; likely, many fewer will be heard.

It is unexpected, then, that we might view the events at Chibok as a positive case of early warning. Not prevention, of course; the girls’ eventual abduction suggests as much. Still, the essence of effective warning–the continuous, accessible flow of accurate information to Chibok’s vulnerable civilians–was apparent in the hours prior to Boko Haram’s violent swarm. A rare wealth of reporting describes the kidnappings’ preceding events. At approximately 9:30 pm, on April 14, the chairman of the Chibok school’s Parent Teacher Association contacted the town’s designated military commander to warn of an impending attack, according to a Reuters investigation. An earlier report by Amnesty International places an even earlier time-stamp–7:00 pm–on the military’s knowledge of the town’s imminent danger. According to the Amnesty report, the first to learn of Boko Haram’s plans was a group of community militiamen in Gagilam, near Chibok, who communicated the warning via phone to Chibok officials. Local security officials paid the warnings little heed, likely because of widespread fear among appointed military units. Many fled to the nearby mountainside; the Chibok girls were taken.

We can speculate about possible reasons why Chibok’s warnings worked, prior to the abject failure of the Nigerian state’s local security forces. The first appears to be the now-robust growth of community militias in Borno state and its surrounding regions. These groups, sometimes referred to as “vigilantes” or the “civilian JTF” (Joint Task Force, the Nigerian military moniker for an ad-hoc domestic operation) are a form of “hybrid governance.” The militias fill gaps in the services of the Nigerian state–in this case, for better and worse, violence–but reject formal incorporation by state authorities. Their efforts to gather and distribute information about Boko Haram’s civilian violence have apparently become more sophisticated, especially in areas of greatest need. The militias are a human infrastructure; as their networks strengthen, their ability to warn vulnerable civilians multiplies.

The second feature may be unique to Chibok. The site from which the girls were abducted was a boarding school, which hosted students and, sometimes, parents from across northeastern Nigeria. Chibok is a node–there, the flow of information is a bidirectional event. Civilians who received warnings from Gagilam, the neighboring town, passed that information as far as Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state. In warning, networks matter, and Chibok’s–rather, its civilians’–was expansive.

Where warning is concerned, the circumstances are rarely as favorable as Chibok’s were. That local communities are an event’s first responders is a well-worn adage of early warning; still, the internal and external strength of these communities’ networks often vary. Where existing networks lag, international assistance may be useful. Global NGOs–Invisible Children, in LRA-affected communities in Central Africa, the Free Burma Rangers, in Burma’s Karen state, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Peace Direct, in Burundi–have developed extensive programs to strengthen information networks to vulnerable civilians in conflict zones. These are long-term initiatives, with long-term dividends. A short-term gap remains: among civilians who weather the immediate consequences of mass violence, but who lack a warning infrastructure like Chibok’s, where can local and global actors contribute?

#bringbackourgirls

The grand larceny of Chibok’s girls began under the cover of darkness, and there it has remained.

Three weeks ago, unknown insurgents, now widely linked to Boko Haram, a group active in Chibok’s surrounding Borno state, abducted dozens of schoolgirls, each reportedly preparing for their final exams. Of course, Boko Haram’s involvement is murky–its figurehead, Abubakar Shekau, has not claimed responsibility for his foot soldiers’ actions–but probable. Like the identity of their captors, the girls’ current location is unknown. Too-rare testimonies of exodus, such as that of Deborah Sanya, an eighteen year-old abductee, suggest the girls are located in the Sambisa Forest, the proximate site of multiple known Boko Haram training camps. Meanwhile, a grief-stricken “community leader” recently suggested that some girls, forcibly married to Boko Haram members, are now en route to either Cameroon or Chad, both of which closely border the group’s lightly forested territory.

Where Boko Haram’s violence are concerned, little is ever clear. Massive, brutal destruction is the only certainty of the group’s operations, and often of the government’s response as well. In the four years since Boko Haram’s violence has expanded, and the group’s eight years prior, thousands–perhaps tens of thousands–of civilians have died. The life of a civilian in northeast Nigeria is a constant gamble–in areas where Boko Haram is active, killing is a matter of when, and by whom. The anonymity of the disappeared is a common feature. Initially, the girls were one hundred; now, they are two hundred and thirty-four, perhaps more. For international observers, the numbers are immaterial: it’s a lot of girls, and very few names. Girls–women–like Deborah, whose suffering is known, are all too rare.

The parents of Chibok now speak in their daughters’ stead. The protests are mounting: against Boko Haram, but also against Nigeria’s government, for its bumbling response; international media, for its lagging coverage; and, international governments, for standing by. As during most crises, the response of President Goodluck Jonathan’s federal administration has been duplicitous at best. Two days after the initial abduction, Nigeria’s defense ministry claimed its troops in Borno state–its “joint task force” and their handy paramilitaries–had recovered the girls, then one hundred and twenty-nine, and both Nigerian and international media were quick to believe them. But the government’s deception quickly collapsed, and a half-hearted search-and-rescue has continued apace.

If international media has been slow to catch up, this is no longer the case. Unfortunately, no greater clarity has followed the abductions’ new global spotlight. As John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, observed last week, the basic facts of the crime are no clearer than they have been. Despite a multi-week swarm of local information-gathering, credible information about the girls’ location, or about their captors, is in short supply. Like any violent group, Boko Haram is an organization in name only–the culprits may be linked to Shekau, or they may not be. In a criminal sense, we know little about the captors’ motive. International media reports reference the group’s Hausa-language name–in English, it roughly translates to “Western education is a sin”–as an implicit clue; others, such as Nicholas Kristof, suggest the girls’ abduction is a human-trafficking event. Neither are certain: Boko Haram’s Islamist ideology is rarely a useful guide to their violence, and neither ransom nor illicit sales seem to fund the group’s operations at any scale.

Despite this information gap, international op-ed pages have now arrived at the What is to be done? stage of international coverage. As is often the case, recommendations follow protests by local groups and concerned members of the Nigerian diaspora, but scarcely align with these protests’ proposed actions. Some protestors suggest negotiations between the Nigerian government and the as-yet unknown captors; this proposal appears uncommon among Western op-eds. Instead, columnists like Nicholas Kristof recommend a more aggressive response. They lean on the blunt instrument of Nigerian military force, a reliable but often counterproductive instrument of counterterrorism. To assist the Nigerians’ efforts, Kristof suggests, intelligence-sharing–satellite imagery and ground-level information alike–should be frequent and unfettered. However, the recent surge of Nigerian military resources in Borno state, prompted in part by international outrage, likely does more to deepen the crisis than to resolve it. According to Amnesty International, Nigerian military violence killed more civilians in 2013 than did their insurgent adversaries.

The proposals of local protestors may be similarly misguided: one can imagine a scenario in which negotiation encourages more future abductions rather than fewer, whatever its immediate appeal. Given these two poles, each unattractive in their own right, I’m not confident that the solution to Chibok’s crisis is any clearer than our knowledge of its details.

al-shabaab, mass violence, and the politics of weakness

In the days since al-Shabaab’s assault on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, Western observers have seized on the Somali group’s violence as a variable display of organizational strength. As Joseph Young discusses, this conversation centers on a basic question: What do the deaths of 61 civilians tell us about where al-Shabaab’s been, and where they’ll go? Does the Westgate attack precede a violent renaissance, as counterterrorism observers suspect, or, as Somalia observers suggest, will a drowning al-Shabaab soon gasp its waning breaths? Though external, post-Westgate events will likely shape the group’s evolution, this (false) choice offers an opportunity to probe the political meaning of “strength,” and what it tells us about an organization’s use of mass violence.

When we say “al-Shabaab is strong,” what do we mean? In colloquial terms, we probably suggest that the organization has the capacity to wreak havoc, despite an external actor’s (Kenyan military forces, the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the Somalian government in Mogadishu) best preventive efforts. Unfortunately, “capacity to wreak havoc” doesn’t tell us much about the organization, its capabilities, or the scale of planned violence. “Strength” depends on several political characteristics, which combine to shape an organization’s actions:

  • Strength-as-technology: At Westgate, al-Shabaab fighters used several technologies to achieve mass violence. In a potential display of sophisticated planning, the group likely rented a Westgate shop to survey the mall’s layout. According to post-attack reports, al-Shabaab ferried assault rifles across the Kenya-Somalia border, using corrupt networks of Kenyan security officials to facilitate weapons caches in Nairobi. To carry out the attack, the organization amassed a lot of weapons, gathered sophisticated, action-ready intelligence, and tapped the correct trafficking networks. The Kenyan government could not thwart these technologies; at the technological level, therefore, al-Shabaab appears strong.
  • Strength-as-organization: An organization’s internal strength relies in large part on its ability to coerce its own authority. In some organizations, like an ideal-type syndicate, this authority may rest on collective decisions across a horizontal plane; in others, like an ideal-type autocracy, this authority may stem from a small group of individuals. Either way, someone makes the rules, and the organization’s survival depends on whether the group’s component parts follow them. In the Westgate context, al-Shabaab’s internal organization is probably the most opaque form of strength, and, as a result, the most susceptible to speculation. The group’s sophisticated planning may imply streamlined decision-making, but its external outcomes are a mere proxy for internal processes. The fog of spectacular violence, too, renders al-Shabaab’s internal strength indeterminable. From an external perspective, we cannot confirm whether the group’s leadership expected 61 civilian deaths, rather than 40; or, whether its leaders perceive the deaths of Muslim civilians as a justifiable mistake, rather than a punishable offense.
  • Strength-as-reputation: As I discussed, al-Shabaab exists as an organization, or a collection of people, working together, to identify and achieve goals. The group also exists as a “brand,” a crass term-of-reference for an organization’s reputation. Al-Shabaab displays a specific set of collective values to its social counterparts, including its like-minded allies (e.g., al-Qaeda’s disparate parts, Kenya’s sympathetic ethnic Somali cells) and its adversaries (e.g., regional peacekeeping organizations, Kenya-sponsored militias in southern Somalia). As a social phenomenon, reputation is a relative construct. At a beach without bodybuilders, Charles Atlas would’ve been content as a 97-pound weakling:

    If al-Shabaab were a comic-book advertisement. (via Boing Boing)

    If mass violence were a comic-book advertisement. (via Boing Boing)

  • Strength-as-relation: By the same token, an organization’s strength exists in a political society, where its counterpart’s relative strength matters. As counter-al-Shabaab efforts become more sophisticated, al-Shabaab’s relative strength decreases; as those efforts weaken, the opposite may occur. As Jay Ulfelder implies, these relationships are hardly one-to-one; system-level factors always come into play. Consider the issue of organizational financing, which transnational money-laundering efforts have recently thrust into the international spotlight. Facing increasingly sophisticated sanctions, al-Shabaab cells may use cash to complete commercial transactions, including weapons purchases and bribery payments. When this occurs, international currency rates–a system-level factor–may impose varying financial burdens on the organization. In most cases, these burdens will be incremental: a G3 assault rifle may cost 70,000 Kenyan shillings on Tuesday, and 71,000 on Wednesday. In some, as in the aftermath of European debt crisis, currency fluctuations may have dramatic effects on the organization’s fiscal strength.

Why do variations in different types of organizational strength matter? In a previous, longer essay on the politics of mass violence, I described a “mass atrocity” as a tentative symptom of organizational weakness, the definitional opposite of strength. The “too long, didn’t read” version: well-controlled organizations don’t want too perpetrate mass violence, because mass violence corrodes the perpetrator. As Joseph Young observes in a previously-referenced piece, insurgencies like al-Shabaab talk, walk, and act like states. They want a state’s territory and control over people, resources, and funds, and contained violence–repression–is an effective way to achieve both. The benefits of repression, however, rely on a repression al-Shabaab can control. As violence scales, the core group’s ability to limit its destructive outcomes declines; the organization’s basic infrastructure crumbles. All of that to say: if the consequences of Al-Shabaab’s strength appear grave, the consequences of a weaker organization may be even greater.

grand blog tarkin: there and back again: middle earth’s insurgency and the organization of violence

This post, on Thorin Oakenshield’s counter-Smaug insurgency, was originally published at Grand Blog Tarkin, a poliscifi blog.

“Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!,” bellows the Dragon, as the nimble-footed Hobbit scampers from his gold-bedecked lair. So begins Bilbo’s brief encounter with Smaug, the scourge of Dwarvish civilization. According to Tolkien’s legendarium, Dragons have maintained a mixed relationship with Sauron’s dark powers, reflecting a diversity of motives for inter-civilizational violence. Smaug’s seizure of Thror’s Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, stems from opportunistic banditry, as distinct from his successors’ annihilationism. Smaug’s intentions, however, have little impact on the scale of his invasion, which terrorized Erebor’s Dwarvish inhabitants, as well as the Men of Esgaroth, the valley’s township. For one-hundred and fifty years, Smaug slept, and napped, and dozed, and every-so-often, preened himself on his kleptomania.

As compelling as Peter Jackson’s computer-generated dragoneering may be, Tolkien’s death of Smaug is, by all readings, a marginal event. Bilbo’s intelligence-gathering effort, mentioned above, is operationally successful, revealing the Dragon’s physical vulnerabilities. Smaug seeks vengeance against the Men of Dale, whom the Dragon casts as disruptive Quislings. In an unusual occurrence in Middle Earth warfare, Smaug’s assault is a limited engagement, as Bard the Bowman pierced the Dragon’s underbelly. Of course, Bard’s defense of Dale permits limited relief; soon after Smaug’s death, an Orc horde swarms Erebor, prompting the Battle of Five Armies. If Smaug’s death bore local relevance, the impact of the Battle of Five Armies was cataclysmic. According to Tolkien’s narration, the Elves, Men, and Dwarves vanquished more than three-quarters of the North’s Orc population, a decisive victory. The counter-Orc coalition’s warfighting logic transforms a century of Middle Earth’s geopolitics, as Jon Jeckell’s survey of the War of the Ring details.

Tolkien’s sprawling, grand-strategic analysis of the Battle of Five Armies overshadows a micro-perspective towards discreet violence. Tolkien’s Hobbit, the Five Armies’ chronicle, is quick to highlight the post-Five Armies unity of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, forged against the Orcs’ assault. The counter-Orc coalition equitably distributes Erebor’s spoils, recaptured from the Dragon’s lair. The successful conclusion of the Battle of the Five Armies reaffirms the existence of a “free peoples of Middle Earth,” an infrequent conglomeration of Elves, Men, and Dwarves. If we backtrack, however, corrosive, if justified resource squabbles comprise the aftermath of Smaug’s demise, a marked contrast to the triumphant, trans-civilization harmony of the post-Five Armies scene. Throughout the Quest of Erebor, Thorin’s Dwarvish company lays claim to both their mining kingdom and its riches. The Dwarves’ hereditary authority bears little relevance to the Men of Dale, who request a compensatory share of Erebor’s gold, due to the Dragon’s rampant, wanton destruction of Esgaroth. When Thorin rejects Bard’s claim, the Lake-men lay siege to Erebor, requesting assistance from Thranduil’s Wood-Elves. While Tolkien introduces the subsequent scuffle as a prelude to the Battle of Five Armies, the siege of Erebor is likely more revealing of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal politics.

Tolkien describes the fragmentation of the counter-Smaug insurgency as a moral failure: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world,” laments Thorin, following the Battle of Five Armies. In this way, Tolkien occupies a stark posture towards the civil conflict literature: greed, rather than grievance, drives Middle Earth’s violence. As Michael Ross conveys, the early civil conflict literature’s greed/grievance dichotomy is dated, both in its underemphasis on the particularism of resource types, as well as how violent organizations manipulate illicit economies. While gold’s influence is apparently significant, the counter-Smaug insurgency’s organizational structure may prove more significant, in keeping with recent scholarship on the “organization of rebellion.”

The Dwarvish company–Thorin Oakenshield, Gloin, Oin, Ori, Nori, Dori, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur–is a familial organization, crafted in accordance with a broad edition of Thorin’s family tree. From a non-fantastical perspective, we can draw parallels to a criminal mafia, which often relies on hereditary networks to distribute resources, facilitate violence, and shape strategic decision-making. Thorin’s Dwarves create a formative nucleus of the counter-Smaug insurgency, which in its initial form maintains dual objectives: Smaug’s eradication, and the seizure of Erebor’s riches. As Bilbo burglars Smaug’s lair, the Dwarves form a temporary, informal coalition with Bard’s Lake-men, who possess the manpower with which to vanquish Smaug. The insurgency organization, however, lacks an “overlapping social base,” which Paul Staniland describes as a prerequisite for cohesive politics–the partnership relies on rent-seeking opportunism, rather than a communal logic. As the organization’s decentralization mounts, the incoherence of the insurgency’s political organization gives way to its second objective, prompting infighting and internal fragmentation.

In keeping with Tolkien’s moralistic standpoint, Bilbo’s crafty extraction of the Arkenstone, the crown-jewel of Erebor’s cache, allows Middle Earth’s free peoples to reach a negotiated settlement. Consistent with BlogTarkin’s recent tack towards alt-history, further poliscifi researchers may find it useful to conceptualize alternative trajectories of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal conflict mitigation.

mexico’s drug violence: a mass atrocities approach

I read Patrick Keefe’s recent operational analysis of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel with significant interest, not simply as an insightful understanding of one of Latin America’s largest transnational social networks, but also as a nuanced, complex handling of the sub-state politics of mass atrocities. As topically-focused atrocity watchers, the atrocities prevention community has a tendency to ignore, minimize, or dismiss Mexico’s drug violence as a “different issue”; a brief survey of atrocities/R2P-focused human rights organizations demonstrates that, with the exception of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, which has recently expanded its atrocities prevention work to Latin America, Mexico’s atrocity-laden violence remain entirely unaddressed.

And yet, the fact of mass atrocities persists. Violence between Calderon’s security forces and drug cartels has killed approximately 50,000 people since 2006, when the Calderon administration escalated its operations against Mexico’s organized crime syndicates; to add anecdote to statistic, instances of mass violence against civilians are particularly, creatively gruesome. Geographical evidence suggests that, far from random lawlessness, Mexico’s escalating spate of murders represents a systematic characteristic of intrastate violence: between the end of 2006 and mid-2010, seven percent of the country’s municipalities experienced 80 percent of reported murders, according to the Inter-American Dialogue. Security-force and drug-cartel violence has continued to erode popular perceptions of civilian security, and persistently undermine public confidence in Mexican law enforcement, in spite of Calderon’s public-facing, U.S.-supported counter-crime campaign.

Calderon’s security approach has yielded few positive results for Mexico’s populace, and instability has worsened, rather than improved, under his administration; in the absence of an effective interlocutor, the international community will have to wait until Mexico’s upcoming presidential transition to facilitate a shift in security, counternarcotics, and stabilization policies. With that said, Mexico’s drug violence will likely get worse before it improves; the evolution of atrocity events will, unfortunately, follow the same path. According to Greg Weeks, cartel-related violence has also metastasized: as cartel networks become more diffuse, related murders have occurred in a wider variety of Mexican municipalities. In spite of Mexico’s economic growth, its institutional capacity to mitigate the acute and structural factors of cartel violence will remain limited, absent a decisive shift in political consolidation. In the meantime,  an atrocities prevention-infused framework for conflict assessment and early warning may prove useful. A preventive approach necessitates a thorough understanding of indicator signposts: that is, how do we know when atrocities are likely to escalate, and in which circumstances?

A broad range of atrocities indicators and forecasting models have emerged over the past fifteen years; most frameworks have centered around an intent-related “genocide and politicide” classification, as articulated by political scientist and Political Instability Task Force adviser Barbara Harff. Gregory Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide and the UN Office of the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide (UNOSAPG)’s analysis framework incorporate similar criteria, defined by an escalatory, intra-societal trend in political, ethnic, religious, or social fragmentation. More recent efforts, however, including Jay Ulfelder’s (unfinished) public early warning system and Chris Blattman’s Liberia-oriented conflict prediction research, have centered on a more general range of political institutions and indicators. The indicators to follow will use the latter approach, given ethnic fractionalization’s secondary role in cartel dynamics. Additionally, the indicators focus on Mexico’s internal politics, despite foreign drug consumption’s well-established contribution to Mexico’s illicit narcotics supply chain. In the interest of brevity, I selected two qualitative indicators, culled from Keefe’s analysis of Sinaloa operations, Mexican politics, and intra-organizational dynamics:

Corruption: As Keefe’s interviewees indicate, corruption is the primary driver of continued cartel mobilization in Mexico. As Michael Busch suggests in his recent, excellent post on organized crime and international relations theory, the Mexican state bears a striking similarity to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “disaggregated state,” an amalgam of transnational networks, political institutions, and illicit trafficking operations. Under a “disaggregated state” model, illicit actors conduct dynamic interactions with legitimate, established institutions, seeking to wield influence within local, regional, and international political spheres. As Mexico’s corruption levels increase, drug operations expand; as the cartels’ networks emerge, bolstered by their infiltration of Mexican political and security institutions, incentives for violence–against rival cartels, as well as security forces–increase. Mexican security forces may step up their operations, capacity, and reach, but if corrupt practices continue to persist, there’s little hope of restoring basic security to Mexico’s citizens.

Cartel Fragmentation: Since 2006, instances of localized cartel fragmentation have functioned as flash-points for violent upticks, with substantial consequences for proximate civilian populations. The evolution of Tijuana’s cartel violence, as described by Vanda Felbab-Brown, provides an instructive example. The Arellano Felix cartel–or, more popularly, the Tijuana cartel–operated widely between the 1960s and early 1990s, when Mexican and U.S. security agencies began to crack down on trafficking in the Mexican border town. The cartel hit its low point in 2008, when, following its organizational demise, the Tijuana organization fragmented: one faction merged with an ally of the notorious Zetas; the other, with the Sinaloa cartel. A Tijuana turf battle ensued, due to Tijuana’s essential role as a logistical hub for U.S. trafficking operations. The cartel violence, much of which affected Tijuana’s civilian populace, served a number of purposes, not the least of which was a signaling mechanism: we’ll pick up the operational pieces, or you’ll face this level of brutality. While a manpower-heavy police operation stabilized Tijuana, Sinaloa was able to claim operational victory, securing its cartel monopoly throughout the city. Since 2010, Tijuana has encountered a measure of stability; as rogue cartel groups emerge, however, contained outbreaks of violence persist on the city’s outskirts. The lessons are scalable: Sinaloa’s operational dominance throughout Mexico will fragment, as occurs with all diffuse, networked organizations; when it does, atrocity-heavy, inter-organizational violence is likely to resume.

What am I missing? As Michael Busch observed, there’s not enough research taking place on the intersection between organized crime and international relations theory; the same applies for organized crime, trafficking operations, and mass atrocities, as Central America’s gang violence trends demonstrate. As this blog’s content demonstrates, my regional focus tends towards sub-Saharan Africa–insofar as Latin American conflict and atrocities dynamics persist, however, I’d like to diversify my regional base. Comments from Latin Americanists are most welcome.

nick fury’s ambiguous civilian protection approach

First, a sincere apology to my readership: between final examsmy girlfriend‘s Georgetown graduation, and the first few weeks of my summer internship, I haven’t had much time to blog throughout the past month. My summer blogging schedule will be light, and I’ll stick to broader, conceptual pieces, which require summer levels of mental clarity, rather than periodic, frustrated comments on the Shortsighted Sudan Column of the Week. In the meantime, a number of excellent, young blogs have appeared on the Interwebs: Ben Brockman’s travelogue, which will chronicle his experiences as an international development consultant in Zambia; Sean Langberg’s “Tower of Babel,” which centers on critical geography, human rights advocacy, and community organizing; and, not to be missed, Adam Elkus and Dan Trombly also blog at former House-of-Exum Abu Muqawama, and have brought a youthful, insightful perspective to CNAS’ digital discussion of military strategy, disruptive technologies, and policymaking processes.

Last night, I went to see Joss Whedon’s Avengers–my second viewing, and my girlfriend’s first. The first time around, I wrote up a short review, highlighting the Marvel dialogue’s Universe-wide whimsy, Whedon’s sober, humanistic approach towards superheroism, and A.O. Scott’s infernal wrongheadedness. A full month later, I’ve been thoroughly briefed into the Whedon community–if not the fandom, per se, certainly a loose constituency of novice enthusiasts. Taking full advantage of my newfound affection, Hayes proposed a blog concept: reconcile the S.H.I.E.L.D’ counter-alien mobilization, alien military operations, and the Avengers’ unwavering commitment to civilian protection. After a series of Firefly-dependent weeks, a Serenity night, and my second Avengers viewing, Whedon’s prioritization of civilian lives, the relationship between heroism and protection in conflict, and ethical, responsible stabilization operations is evident (see, “Heart of Gold“). As the saying goes, when Hayes gives you lemons, make Mudder’s Milk:

The emergence, over the last decade, of the U.S. and international atrocities prevention movement has, in some respects, both complicated and simplified our understanding of “civilian protection,” its functional purpose, and its relevance to the practice of international human rights policy. Advocates, myself included, often blur rights-related dynamics of political violence, highlighting a pervasive need for civilian-minded approaches to conflict resolution, prevention, and mitigation. However, as Hugh Breakey observes in his excellent literature review of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and “protection of civilian” framework, civilian protection (as policymakers understand it) and R2P (as advocates perceive it) represent two distinct, if potentially reconcilable policy planes. Under R2P, civilian protection is a policy priority, subject to the myriad whims of intrastate politics: territorial control, operational dominance, and military strategy, among others; in an international-institutional context, civilian protection has encountered a broader normative evolution, ranging from ethical boundaries in warfare to humanitarian procedures. The latter’s humanitarian and peacekeeping iterations, as Breakey indicates, are notable for their veil of impartiality, which prioritizes the fact of life-saving over the complex slog of political violence.

Now, Hayes posits that, more than any other component of their warfighting approach, civilian protection underlines the Avengers’ efforts against Loki’s alien invasion. From a purely objective perspective, this statement is not in dispute. The Avengers’ operational approach is clear: a containment perimeter, which focuses the battle around an already devastated, largely evacuated Pershing Square Plaza, restricts the civilian costs of violent conflict. Instead, civilian protection’s role is more discrete: the question is not whether, but how civilian protection operates, and how the Avengers’ approach conflicts with S.H.I.E.L.D’s.

As Nick Fury’s wanton endorsement of Phase 2 weapons development demonstrates, the S.H.I.E.L.D director adopts a maximalist understanding of his agency’s mandate, particularly as concerns the complex processes of (human) civilian protection. At the beginning of the movie, Fury actively demonstrates his interest in weaponizing the tesseract, which he intends to use as a technical platform to protect the Earth’s population from divine interventions, alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, and the like (well, not the third one). As Tony Stark is quick to observe, Fury adopts a prototypical “technology rules” fallacy: if Earth’s elites can harness divine technologies, demigod hoards stand little chance of planetary takeover, civilian destruction, and mass subjugation. Of course, Fury is hopelessly incorrect, and soon finds himself before the Shadow Council, defending the strategic, operational, and morale value of the Avengers’ (mostly) human strike force. But, before he adopts a counter-Phase 2 approach, Fury’s civilian protection concept is clear: it’s about the policy, and Fury is willing to use whatever means are most effective to achieve his short-term goals, regardless of their long-term consequences. The Shadow Council’s political leadership is an inherently limiting force, restricting Fury’s civilian protection priorities to the Council’s strategic objectives.

The Avengers, generally speaking, take a different tack. On the Awesome Floating Fortress Thing, the Avengers engage Fury in a heated, Loki-infused debate over Phase 2 arms proliferation, gamma deterrence, and the effectiveness of technical approaches to civilian protection policy. The Avengers, in their extensive wisdom, recognize an essential truth of civilian protection’s implementation: sometimes, settling for an operational framework, therefore avoiding the complications of doctrine, is the best we can hope for. When, at the end of the film, the Shadow Council overrides a nuclear-armed F-35, sending a wave of tactical destruction towards Manhattan, the Avengers seek to destroy the missile, at the potential expense of S.H.I.E.L.D’s operational success. The Avengers prioritize civilian protection, but it’s the civilian protection of a peacekeeping organization, approximating the impartiality expected of UN forces. In an idealized approach, the Avengers circumnavigate the Shadow Council’s politics, ensuring civilian security within their operating environment.

There is, admittedly, a missing link, which Whedon is quick to address at the end of the film: accountability, and its inextricable role in ensuring effective civilian protection policies, operational procedures, and norms. In much of the Marvel Universe’s historical narrative, the Avengers function as a standby peacekeeping force, with a charter to boot. In Whedon’s film, the Avengers are an ad-hoc team, mobilized outside of the formal institutional framework of an accountable organization. S.H.I.E.L.D is depicted as a covert initiative, with few oversight capabilities. However, particularly in the context of superheroism, accountability remains a persistent challenge, and one which should underline the Avengers’–and our–perceptions of responsible civilian protection approaches.

let’s talk about kony

On Monday, the human rights advocacy organization Invisible Children released “KONY 2012,” its latest documentary on the nine year-old student movement to end mass atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In approximately twenty-four hours, the Kony documentary received more than one hundred thousand views on YouTube; when I last checked (2 am EST, 3/7/12), Kony-related hashtags occupied six of Twitter’s ten “global trending” spots (the hashtags, in order: #stopkony, the leading campaign hashtag; Invisible Children; Action Kit, the primary platform for anti-LRA activism; Cover the Night, referring to an upcoming national wave of guerilla flyering events; Uganda, the LRA’s country of origin; and, lastly, LRA). Depending on whose Twitter account you’re watching, whose Facebook friend appears in your live feed, and whose listserv emails you receive, Kony fervor has likely occupied a fair share of your evening’s Internet traffic. Suffice it to say that the Kony documentary has mobilized a remarkable wave of emotional uproar, from the most remarkable constituencies: on any given day, I see a handful of Facebook updates about human rights in sub-Saharan Africa; today, the numbers are in the tens, potentially hundreds–from STAND students, as expected, but also from my younger brother’s high school friends and Facebook acquaintances from esoteric Jewish advocacy retreats.

To add a fifth question to the Passover repertoire, why is this night different from all other nights? Why, on this night of all nights, do we post human rights videos throughout the social media sphere?

From an organizing perspective, the answer is simple: Invisible Children’s messaging, narrative, and network resonate with us. Organizing literature refers to the entry-narrative as the “story of self”–that is, the compelling, values-based narrative that motivates activists, organizers, and otherwise passive citizens to action. The most effective “story of self” I’ve heard comes from Kristen Dore, a curriculum specialist at the Marshall Ganz-inspired New Organizing Institute: Kristen tells the story of her college experiences visiting her father in prison, building a local, engaged constituency for prisoners’ rights in southern California. Kristen’s story evokes values of fairness, justice, and community, values which mobilize concerned activists the world over. Kristen uses her story to underline her participation in something larger than herself–in her case, President Obama’s 2008 campaign. In building a temporary, values-based constituency (her active listeners), Kristen mobilizes a “story of us” and a “story of now”: a way to recognize the broader community’s role in local mobilization, and a way to convey the urgency of political action.

Invisible Children’s Kony documentary is an organizing narrative, to a tee. From a purely quantitative perspective, KONY 2012 is not about the LRA, Joseph Kony, or political violence in northern Uganda. Rather, it’s a story of one man (Jason Russell, Invisible Children’s co-founder and the documentary’s director), scaled up to the story of common humanity (young students, mobilizing their communities in support of justice, human rights, and peace in northern Uganda) and the urgency of active action against LRA atrocities in Central Africa (“This movie expires on December 31, 2012”). Invisible Children’s effectiveness as a grassroots organization stems from this fundamental, narrative pattern: it’s about atrocities, yes, but more than that, it’s about what our mobilization against these atrocities suggests about our common virtues, transnational connections, and moral strength. Invisible Children’s success is predicated upon its ability to convey these stories, to manifest individual challenges within a broader narrative, and to maximize the political, social, and organizational potential of a transnational voice.

As my angry Twitter timeline suggests, Invisible Children’s public narrative relies on basic, nigh unavoidable failings. Let’s start with the flip-side of the human rights coin: the recognition that, despite their constructed nature, perceived ethnic, cultural, and historical boundaries exist across nations, states, and physical borders. Colonialism’s historical baggage matters, and the competition for voice-representation is, for all intents and purposes, a zero-sum game. Ugandan civil society participants, particularly the ones engaged in the non-Invisible Children-affiliated reconstruction, reconciliation, and post-conflict development work, are noticeably absent from Jason Russell’s narrative. In two and a half years of grassroots advocacy work, I’ve met enough intelligent, morally sensible advocates to know that monolithic accusations of neo-colonialism, Africa-saving, and cultural condescension are, frankly, tripe. At the same time, we’re not doing enough to define the terms of empowerment, to balance our advocacy perspectives with an understanding of civil society mobilization in conflict-affected areas, and to establish meaningful, sustained cross-cultural linkages that prioritize empathy, rather than sympathy. It’s quite simply a matter of changing the conversation, and I’m not sure that Invisible Children’s Kony documentary gets us there.

Next, there’s the morality question. To be “that guy,” I’ll link to two compelling TED videos on the social-scientific and cultural shortcomings of public storytelling: first, from Tyler Cowen, the economics wiz blogger; the second, from Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist. The bottom line: stories can inspire. At the same time, inspiration runs the risk of perpetuating problematic, unintended cognitive biases. A “single story,” as Adichie calls it, can obscure a complex, multi-layered web of perceptive analysis, underscoring cultural stereotypes and simplifications. Fundamentally, the question is moral, rather than cognitive: How do we perceive the morality of conflict in northern Uganda and, more recently, Central Africa? Once we answer that question, how do we mitigate the moral consequences of our actions, to ensure that atrocities do, in fact, end? Invisible Children’s activism, added to the political lobbying of Resolve and the Enough Project, resulted in the deployment of approximately one hundred U.S. military advisers to Central Africa. The advisers’ purpose: to assist and, well, advise the Congolese, Central African (from CAR, rather than the region), Ugandan, and South Sudanese military forces in an escalated counterinsurgency campaign against the LRA throughout the region. Frankly speaking, the military advisers’ presence will likely improve, rather than deteriorate, the implementation of human rights norms in the multinational military campaign. The United States has likely learned its lessons, recognizing the counterproductive nature of Operation Lighting Thunder, a U.S.-backed 2008 “campaign of attrition” against the LRA in northern Uganda. That said, the U.S. operational partnership with the Ugandan, Congolese, Central African, and South Sudanese forces remains a political, moral, and social firestorm. The documentary’s purpose is not to delve into the complex, nuanced dynamics of military conflict, but, as it stands, day-to-day advocates for “action” have few platforms for the critical discussion of action’s moral consequences.

Lastly, let’s talk about the limits of policy intervention against the LRA. This isn’t a new conversation: as Bec Hamilton has detailed, the human rights advocacy community encountered the same challenge at the peak of Darfur mobilization. Come 2008, Darfur advocates began to talk about “Darfur fatigue”: the conflict in Sudan’s western provinces had grown more complicated, atrocities continued (albeit at a significantly lower rate), and the day-to-day advocates weren’t quite sure why. Part of the problem, of course, is the notion of the “story of now.” The public narrative’s third pillar works within the context of local organizing–limited labor-union resources demand quicker solutions, contract negotiations have deadlines, and infrastructure projects work on schedule. Foreign policy activists can’t say the same for violent conflict: the LRA has conducted a low-intensity insurgency against the central government in Kampala since the late 1980s, without any tangible reconciliation. So while the video has an expiration date of “December 31, 2012,” the LRA insurgency, the multinational stabilization campaign, and the marginalization of constituencies in Uganda’s Acholi region, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan certainly don’t. If urgent, military action against the LRA is part of the solution–and, in spite of the potential moral costs, it probably should be–it’s only a part. And, as Mark Kersten’s field research has suggested, the peace/justice dilemma is perhaps more complicated in northern Uganda than in any of the other six situations currently under review by the International Criminal Court.

What does this mean? In order to move past #KONY2012, to promote credible approaches to conflict resolution in Central Africa, anti-Kony advocates need to be prepared to move past the public narrative, past the sexy, and past the action kit. On March 6, hundreds of people told me to take thirty minutes out of my evening to watch Invisible Children’s Kony documentary. If, on March 7, you’re not taking thirty minutes out of your evening to read the International Crisis Group’s November 2011 report on the way forward for stabilization and conflict resolution in LRA-affected areas, you’re not doing your job correctly.