Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: December 2009

INSS Iran simulation

The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University has now posted its own account of its November Iran nuclear simulation:

US-Iran Negotiations: Simulation Exercise at INSS, INSS Insight No. 154, December 29, 2009

Asculai, Ephraim, Landau, Emily B., and Malz-Ginzburg, Tamar

Despite the tendency to denote any simulation exercise on security issues a “war game,” the recent simulation designed and held at INSS did not focus on the option of a military attack. Rather, it developed the scenario of a bilateral US-Iranian negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program. With Barack Obama – in line with his self-imposed end of the year deadline – currently poised to assess the progress made with his diplomatic outreach to Iran, the importance of understanding the implications of a possible direct bilateral dynamic comes into sharper focus.

The purpose of this exercise was to estimate the trends of a possible US-Iranian negotiation dynamic in order to evaluate the best response policy for Israel. Taking part were current and former senior personnel from the Israeli defense establishment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the academic world, including experts from INSS. The three main teams that took part in the exercise simulated the US, Iran, and Israel. The American and Iranian teams were further divided into upfront negotiations teams and behind-the-scenes “decision makers.” Joining them was a large group of additional players representing Europe, Russia, China, the GCC, Egypt, and the IAEA.

The opening scenario created the conditions for the onset of a bilateral US-Iranian negotiation sparked by the nuclear crisis, but which would include a broader set of issues that went beyond the nuclear issue per se.

As the exercise developed, however, it became clear that the participants limited the declared general scope of the game, and became fixated on the situation as it was in early November. As such, the proposed Vienna Agreement on the supply of fuel to the Tehran Research Reactor took center stage in discussions. This persisted in spite of attempts by game coordinators to expand the talks to the more general issues, including the suspension of enrichment in Iran.

At a later stage in the exercise, an explosion was reported at the Arak heavy water production plant in Iran, and although whether this was an operational accident or deliberate sabotage was undetermined, the Iranian team turned the incident to its advantage by claiming Israeli aggression against Iran.

Although the event was a simulation exercise only, some important insights into the real world emerged.

Regarding Iran, its main strength is that it has a clearly defined ultimate aim: obtaining nuclear weapons capability. This aim guides its tactics in confronting the international community. In contrast, while in general terms the US as well as Israel wants to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state, it lacks well-defined aims and consolidated strategies for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. What we observed is that this situation played to Iran’s advantage, allowing it to determine to a large degree the pace and even the content of the talks. It used tactics of playing for time and flooding the US with vast amounts of irrelevant information to delay substantive discussion. Iran was also minded to form international coalitions and acquire allies, and demonstrated much flexibility to changing situations.

The findings are, in many ways, not dissimilar to those reported from the Harvard simulation, in that the Iranians generally felt free to puruse their nuclear agenda, with US pressure limited and unable to bring about a fundamental change in regime policy, and Israel’s unilateral military options strictly limited. The simulation left open (or, perhaps, the participants all assumed) the actual goals of Iran’s nuclear program: is it to develop an operational weapon, the capacity to produce a weapon on short notice, the “breakout” capacity to develop a weapon in future free from external constraints, or something more limited? In this case, with the simulation very much focused on the current context, it made not have made much difference, however, since most or all of these options require that Iran maintain significant nuclear enrichment capacity.

and, yes, ANOTHER Iran nuclear simulation…

Initially this was reported it as taking place at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but in fact it was conducted at the Brookings Institution. Laura Rozen has a few sparse details on here foreign policy blog here.

At this rate, soon we’ll be simulating Iran nuclear simulations!

another Iran simulation

Iran seems to be all the rage for high-profile crisis simulations these days–first the simulation at Harvard (blogged about below), and now news of a similar simulation at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. According to a Reuters report published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz:

Think-tank: U.S. will sideline Israel in Iran nuclear dispute

By Reuters

Israel will find itself diplomatically sidelined and militarily muzzled as the United States pursues a nuclear deal with Iran next year, according to a closed-door wargame at Israel’s top strategic think-tank.

Not even a warning shot by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the simulation featured an undeclared Israeli commando raid on Iran’s Arak heavy water plant – would shake U.S. President Barack Obamas’s insistence on dialogue.

Israel’s arch-foe, meanwhile, will likely keep enriching uranium, perhaps even winning the grudging assent of the West.

“The Iranians came out feeling better than the Americans, as they were simply more determined to stick to their objectives,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser who played Netanyahu in the Nov. 1 wargame at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, a former chief of Israel’s military intelligence who played Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, envisaged Tehran staying on its nuclear track “unless facing a threat to the survival of the regime”.

“That just wasn’t forthcoming from the Americans or their coalition,” Zeevi-Farkash said, adding that “Obama” should have buttressed negotiations by boosting the U.S. naval deployment in the Gulf or persuading India to slash its business ties to Iran.

According to Zeevi-Farkash, Iran would be unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, preferring to use such weaponry to protect against invasion and wield regional clout. As such, a preemptive Israeli strike could spur Iran to get the bomb.

Walt on the Harvard Iran simulation

Following on from my earlier blog post on Harvard’s recent Iran nuclear simulation, I’ve come across additional pieces on the simulation by Gary Sick (who participated as part of the Iran team) and Stephen Walt (who participated as part of the US team). Both provide additional detail on what transpired during the exercise.

What is especially interesting from a PaxSims point-of-view, however, are Walt’s comments on how the technical design of the simulation may have shaped the validity of its outputs. Given their broader applicability to simulation design, they are worth quoting at length:

In my view, what one might call the “external validity” of the game was limited by three unrealistic features.

First, the timetable of the game was extremely compressed. In effect, we were trying to simulate a full year of negotiations in a mere six hours. Thus, each hour of the game covered two months, which meant that a team could send a message to another team and receive a reply in due course, only to discover that a month or more had passed and the original message was now effectively obsolete. More to the point, the breakneck pace of the game did not allow for any time for reflection, for the weighing of alternatives, or even the formulation of clear or novel strategies. (Each team was given about twenty-five minutes to plan its approach before the game began, and I like to think U.S. leaders do a bit better than that in real life. Heck, Obama just spent several months deciding what to do in Afghanistan). Yes, time is a precious commodity and policymakers are often forced to juggle multiple commitments, but I believe a more realistic timetable would have produced very different results.

Second, trying to simulate a complex multiparty negotiation with four or five-person “teams” was problematic, particularly when some team members (myself included), had to leave the game temporarily to teach their regular classes. This constraint required me to be absent for 90 minutes, which in terms of the game’s timetable meant that the U.S. Secretary of Defense was effectively incommunicado for three “months.” The same problem sidelined the person who played the Secretary of State for a similar period. Moreover, given that team members had no staff and thus no subordinates to give orders to, there was no one to delegate to and it was impossible to conduct continuous consultations with all of the relevant parties, even when both sides may have wanted to. What must have looked to some like Bush-era “unilateralism” was instead simply an unavoidable artifact of the game’s structure.

Third, the composition of the different teams was unavoidably slanted. The U.S., Russian, Chinese, Iranian teams were all populated with and led by Americans, while the Israeli team was made up entirely of Israelis and the EU team was composed of Europeans. To have confidence in the validity of the results, therefore, you have to assume that each of the teams actually played the way that their real-life counterparts would have. That might be true in the case of the U.S., Israeli, and European teams (though I wouldn’t assume it), but it’s obviously more of a stretch with the others.

These difficulties are not the fault of the game’s organizers, who faced obvious constraints in putting the exercise together. Ideally, such a simulation would have been played over a long week-end and covered a shorter time period, but it would have been far more difficult to assemble an equally impressive array of participants for an entire weekend. Putting together a genuinely multi-national participant list (including appropriate Iranians?), would have been even harder if not impossible.

The bottom line is that one ought to be exceedingly wary about drawing any conclusions about what this artificial exercise actually teaches. To me, its real value is not as a crude crystal ball that allows us to divine the future, or even as an analytical device that helps us identify particular barriers to resolving some thorny diplomatic problem. After all, it’s not exactly headline news to discover that resolving the Iranian nuclear issue isn’t easy, that there are certain tensions within the P5+1, or that Iran’s objectives are at odds with those of the other participants.

Rather, the potential value of such an exercise lies in forcing participants to take on different roles and see how a problem looks from a wholly different perspective. With hindsight, I wish we had mixed things up a lot more: with some Israelis on the Iran team, with real Russians, Chinese or EU citizens playing on the U.S. or Israeli side, and so forth. That might have taught us about some of the sources of misunderstanding that have made this issue so hard to resolve, whatever the actual “outcome” of the game might have been.

simulating civilian populations in war

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology 6, 4 (October 2009) has an article in on it by Jonathan K. Alt, Leroy A. ‘Jack’ Jackson, David Hudak, and Stephen Lieberman on “The Cultural Geography Model: Evaluating the Impact of Tactical Operational Outcomes on a Civilian Population in an Irregular Warfare Environment”—or, in plainer language, how one might set about modeling the politico-military behaviour of a civilian population amidst an insurgency:

The civilian population has been described as ‘the center of gravity in irregular warfare’. Understanding the behavioral response of the civilian population in irregular warfare operations presents a major challenge area to the joint modeling and simulation community where there is a clear need for the development of models, methods, and tools to address civilian behavior response. This paper provides a conceptual and theoretical overview of the Cultural Geography (CG) model, a government-owned, open-source agent-based model designed to address the behavioral response of civilian populations in conflict environments. With an embedded case study, we describe the development of cognitive modules to represent the civilian population and their implementation as Bayesian belief networks (BBNs), the social structure module implemented using homophily, the process of adjudicating the effects of tactical level outcomes on a population segment within the model, and a sample case study analysis using a designed experiment.

Despite the array of variables that the model uses to generate agent behaviour—age, gender, education, tribe, political affiliation, with various social, economic, and political orientations associated with each of these—I remain dubious about the extent to which one can then determine collective behaviours as a consequence. This is partly because the range of actual variables shaping behaviour is so large, the relationship between them contingent and unclear, and the high probability of exogenous variables arising that haven’t been anticipated. Then again, is there really any other way of trying to get a simulation handle on the behaviours of large groups of individuals over time, especially in a way that lends itself to use as either a training or operations planning tool?

As work on such issues continues, and computing power continues to grow, it is inevitable that we will see more of this. The critical issue may be only in part how the simulations are constructed, how agents are modeled, how attitudes and behaviours are correlated and aggregated, and how the complex interactions between these operate. Just as important may be the pedagogical approach that is used in utilizing such simulations, and how they are framed as heuristic learning devices. If they are used as a substitute for critically interrogating social assumptions, they run the risk of abstracting from reality in dangerous ways. If, on the other hand, the simulation itself is used as an entry into larger discussions of how we understand social, economic, and political dynamics in societies—and the limits of our knowledge (what I’ve earlier termed “simhumility“)—it could prove a much more useful approach.

Harvard KSG Iran simulation

The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University recently held a simulation examining Iran and the nuclear weapons issue, with the key roles played by a rather impressive list of former officials and subject matter experts.  The Israeli paper Haaretz has a quite extensive summary of the outcome:

Haaretz, 10 December 2009


Experts say Iran has clear path to nuclear weapons

By Yossi Melman

Last week the Harvard Kennedy School held a simulation game of the Iranian nuclear crisis, and Israel should be very concerned about its course and its outcome.

The game made it clear: Iran will not stop on its path to producing nuclear weapons. The United States will not embark on a military action and will find it difficult to enlist support at the United Nations for imposing more severe sanctions, while relations between Israel and the United States will deteriorate.

Prof. Graham Allison, a leading analyst of American security policy for decades, conducted the game, whose participants were representatives from countries and organizations likely to be affected by the real outcome.

Israel was represented by Dore Gold, former ambassador to the United Nations, and Dr. Shai Feldman, currently at Brandeis University, and by a former brigadier general and a nuclear physicist. Their decisions were made by consensus. The U.S. team, headed by Nicholas Burns, who was an assistant to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice during the administration of George W. Bush and was responsible for the “Iranian portfolio,” included Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command from 2007-2008.

Iran was represented by Prof. Gary Sick of Columbia University, who was a member of the U.S. National Security Council under Jimmy Carter.

Also participating were American and European academics (some of them former government officials), representing Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar). Also present as observers – the game lasted an entire day – were journalists David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Singer of The New York Times, who “played” the media. All the participants promised to maintain secrecy about the game and not to reveal the identity of the participants, but details have leaked in the United States and now here as well.

Conclusions: The U.S. will not attack Iran. Russia and China will not agree to imposing serious sanctions. The U.S. will pressure Israel to prevent it from attacking Iran, and so a serious crisis is liable to develop between the two countries. Under these circumstances and in view of operational capability, Israel does not in effect have a real option of attacking Iran. If it so desires, Iran can produce nuclear weapons.

You’ll also find a report on the simulation from David Ignatius of the Washington Post (one of the participants) here.

SIMUTools 2010

The 3rd International ICST Conference on Simulation Tools and Techniques will be held in Torremolinos, Malaga, Spain – March 15-19 2010:

SIMUTools 2010 is the Third International Conference on Simulation Tools and Techniques. This edition, which builds on the success of 2008 and 2009, will focus on all aspects of simulation modeling and analysis. High quality papers are sought on simulation tools, methodologies, applications, and practices.

The aim of the conference is to bring academic and industry researchers together with practitioners (from both the simulation community and from the numerous simulation user communities). The conference will address current and future trends in simulation techniques, models and practices, and foster interdisciplinary collaborative research in this area. While the main focus of the conference is on simulation tools, the conference also encourages the submission of broader theoretical and practical research contributions.

Sponsored by the Institute for Computer Sciences, Social-Informatics and Telecommunications Engineering, the conference–not surprisingly–focuses on the hardware end of things, with some attention to agent-based modeling. To get a sense of typical content, have a look at the programme from last year’s conference.

International humanitarian law and electronic gaming

While this recently-published report by Pro Juvente and TRIAL isn’t really about the use of simulations for peacebuilding, it does intersect the topic enough that I’ll stretch the PaxSims mandate and post it anyway. Moreover, I’m enough of an academic and a geek to find the material interesting:

Frida Castillo, Playing by the Rules: Applying International Humanitarian Law to Video and Computer Games (Geneva: Pro Juventute and TRIAL: Track Impunity Always, October 2009).

In computer and videogames, violence is often shown and the players become “virtually violent”. While much research has been done on the effect of such games on the players and their environment, little research exists on whether, if they were committed in real life, violent acts in games would lead to violations of rules of international law, in particular International Humanitarian Law (IHL), basic norms of International Human Rights Law (IHRL) or International Criminal Law (ICL).

Pro Juventute Switzerland and TRIAL (Track Impunity Always), a Swiss NGO assisting victims of grave violations of human rights and aiming at the promotion of international criminal law, have tested various computer and videogames for their compatibility with internationally valid and universally accepted rules of IHL and IHRL. The question they posed themselves was whether certain scenes and acts committed by players would constitute violations of international law if they were real, rather than virtual.

The selected games were played by young gamers under the auspice of Pro Juventute and TRIAL and the legal assessment of the critical scenes was done by three lawyers, particularly trained in the areas of IHL, IHRL and ICL. Professor Marco Sassóli from the University of Geneva, a well known expert in the area of IHL, supervised the legal analysis.

The aim of the study is to raise public awareness among developers and publishers of the games, as well as among authorities, educators and the media about virtually committed crimes in computer and videogames, and to engage in a dialogue with game producers and distributors on the idea of incorporating the essential rules of IHL and IHRL into their games which may, in turn, render them more varied, realistic and entertaining.

If I did teach an IHL course–which I don’t–it would be interesting to assign a fairly realistic military simulation of first person shooter, and have students prepare an IHL analysis of it—including those grey areas within existing IHL and the laws of war (regarding military proportionality, for example).

Georgetown crisis simulation in Qatar

The Gulf Times (25 November 2009) had a recent report on simulation activities at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service campus in Qatar:

Students turn diplomats to resolve ‘crisis’

Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar (SFS-Qatar) and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) at Georgetown hosted a crisis simulation exercise for students at Education City recently.

The two-day event, centring on a fictional stalemate scenario between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh, gave 21 SFS-Qatar students and a select group of top secondary school students a unique opportunity to personally explore the process and dynamics of conflict resolution and hone their skills in negotiation, diplomacy and critical thinking.

Participants were divided into seven groups, each representing parties to the conflict – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh – along with representatives of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the US, with the aim of conducting intensive negotiations in an effort to reach a settlement over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The exercise, administered by SFS-Qatar assistant dean for academic affairs Daniel C Stoll, as well as James P Seevers and Col Bryan P Fenton of ISD in Washington, DC, was organised as part of an ongoing series of simulations held each semester at SFS-Qatar.

More at the link above.

new simulation links

I’m buried under end-of-term grading at the moment and haven’t had much chance to post to PaxSims. I have, however, added a few new links to our list on the right, including these:

If there are ever any links that readers think should be added to the list, please send us the URLs!

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