Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Returning from the Contested Crescent

Tim Wilkie as President for the Contested Crescent Sim.

It only took me a Metro Ride and about four hours of observation to visit the US Embassy in Iraq and get a first hand look at the US response to the ISIL threat, courtesy of the nice folks over at Strategic Crisis Simulations / Insight Simulation Services LLC. On a beautiful Autumn Saturday they were running a simulation for 77 student participants at George Washington University modeling how the US National Security Council might develop a containment and response strategy for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They invited me to act as a mentor/observer for the humanitarian/ development/ diplomacy actors along with 16 other subject matter experts to act as mentors and observers for other offices. Though I have visited the Embassy and various Ministry offices in Baghdad, I was hardly qualified to mentor on diplomacy or statecraft in the region, but was happy nonetheless to comment on the actions within the simulation and the simulation itself and will continue my pontificating with some further reflections on the simulation experience and the simulation engine here.

If you haven’t seen it in action yet, the Insight Simulation Engine is an intriguing and powerful piece of software that could be a very useful engine for running professional simulations for large groups. Basic functionality is what you might expect for running a sim: it includes messaging between participants and control, submitting actions to control and automating information releases and injects (to all or some participants), as well as a nice map interface with various views depending on security clearance and the fog of war. Actors have drop down list of actions, depending on their office and role and Control can quickly review submitted actions and approve them – determining what the effects are from that action, impacts on the map, responses from “non-player” actors, etc. With a lot of the built in functionality that a game master needs, preloaded documents, files and multimedia, controls on who can interact with whom, pre-programmed injects and scripted actions and reactions, the engine can deliver the realism and complexity needed for a truly immersive world. Another nice feature was the built in analytics, some results are shown in the figures that follow below, showing activity over the course of the four+ hour sim (representing the month of November in simulation time).

It should be acknowledged, though, that pulling off a sim of this scale comes with a price beyond the engine – the school kindly allowed Strategic Crisis Simulations to use more than a dozen classrooms and halls and the team running the thing was 14 hard-working and dedicated folks, “writers” who had clearly put a lot of work into developing the sim and delivering it, serving as control as well as playing the parts of various red and green party actors (Iraqi government, Iran, Kurdish regional government, ISIL). Watching them in action was not unlike watching a play from backstage, sure, there were actors playing out scenes in person and online, but there were also stage managers running around and making sure things were proceeding according to plan and on schedule, even one of the directors delivering rationed cookies purchased on a thin budget to people too engaged in the sim to take a break for food. Also, they had asked along 17 mentors and observers, all more qualified than me, who donated their time to advising the students in role and out.

And the simulation didn’t go off without a hitch. There were a couple misunderstandings within Control that led to vagaries or odd results from the 350 actions attempted and 728 messages sent during that day that confounded the players and were, unfortunately, distracting, including Iran kind of accidentally capturing a town near the Syrian border in an effort to save an operative and ISIL trying to make a small feint to distract joint forces command and create unrest, but instead somehow creating a foothold in Shia dominated area of Iraq.

But these were minor glitches in an otherwise very successful simulation. What was truly amazing about the simulation is that it was well-written and challenging enough that all of the 77 participants were really, really engaged, whether they were acting at the most tactical level in theatre in the Embassy or the Joint Forces Command or at the most strategic level putting together the national security council plan for the president. I observed a number of rooms and there wasn’t a single one where any of the participants were not actively engaged with their own challenge (whether it was sending drones out on strikes, negotiating where a refugee camp would be located or unpacking the semantics of what “boots on the ground” in the President’s speech really means). Some of this was selection bias – people that signed up for the sim weren’t getting course credit that I know of, they chose to dress up in their suits and roleplay government policymaking indoors on a rare cool, crisp October day in DC, but the design of the sim engaged those participants for the entire day and they stayed actively engaged through the debrief.

One side note on role play. In observing the official visits from the Ministry of Interior and Sunni Imams to the Embassy, I appreciated that the simulation organizers had set up independent actors to play these roles. Though I have to say that I think the actors playing these roles may have been a bit overwhelmed by their responsibilities in the sim to actually deliver the nuances of political economy demanded for their roles – there was absolute trust from the government and Imam actor of the US Embassy and pretty high (and rather unlikely) willingness to cooperate and share information, despite a number of alternative incentives that might prevail, from personal interests to distrust of the foreign hegemon to simple fear for their own safety for meeting with the US. Still, as Tim Wilkie (mentor/observer playing the President for the sim) and I observed on reflection during debrief, this best case scenario for the sim demonstrates how hard all this work is even when everyone is cooperating and one doesn’t have to worry about corruption and ulterior motives – this is as easy as it gets and it is still really damn hard.

In the end, the NSC developed and delivered a plan by their 5 pm deadline (end of fictional November), but there was still huge divergence between the Defense and State vision of “best response” and the intelligence vision. I have to say, I was much more swayed by the players from the intelligence community’s interpretation of both the situation on the ground and their assessment of the likely outcomes of any of the US interventions leading to sustainable peace in the region. True to real life, all three actors, State, Defense and Intelligence (if I can lump all of the various parts of these actors together) were using the hammers they had at their disposal and picking the nails they could do something about, often neglecting the nails (or screws or hinges or Johnson rods or whatever hardware metaphor works best) that were really necessary to reach a workable solution vis-à-vis ISIL and/or a sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria. As an American who worked at the World Bank for a decade and now works for a Swedish think tank, it was culture shock to see what a Washington conversation this was – the UN and the rest of the world as actors were little more than an afterthought to the development of the plan by the actors (and seemingly in the simulation) – but perhaps that is more realistic than my worldview?

Lastly, I should note that you can get a glimpse of the Insight engine on the website linked above, but you can only really see it in action at one of the sims. The developers have made it proprietary and I wonder how this will play out – I don’t know the business model they have in mind or the market they envision for their engine, but this run of the simulation demonstrates that the value in the engine is as much in the context and knowledge of those running it as it is in the programming. The folks behind Insight will need to figure out how they package subject matter expertise, knowledge of the way the world works and wisdom about actors and effects that complement the engine during a sim to be successfully packaged for export to other trainings and analytical exercises. But there are a bunch of smart people working on this and they definitely have the energy – looking forward to seeing where this engine goes.

If you’d like more information about Insight or the Strategic Crisis Simulations Group at GWU or if you would like to attend future events as a participant, observer or mentor, you can contact Scott Chambers.

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