Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 10/12/2009

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.

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