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In Conflict Zones, Elusive Facts

In Conflict Zones, Elusive Facts

Guy Gunaratne and Heidi Lindvall interview Sri Lankan military official (credit:

In the maelstrom of conflict reporting from different corners of the globe, and its analysis and resultant policy-setting by major powers, the local scorecard is often unclear. If insurgents control six out of ten villages in a district, are they winning? Many would say yes. But if we knew that this was two fewer than they occupied last month, the answer is different. Yet again, if there had been scores of defections to the rebels in that same month, we would be still more uncertain.

Gauging the meaning of events in conflict zones, and finding substantial data, are painstaking tasks for researchers and analysts. The “fog of war” that faces conventional militaries becomes for journalists and analysts a nebulous mist. In this article I will use Afghanistan as an example, though lack of infrastructure and governance, which complicates information retrieval, characterizes most conflict areas and hence its analysis.

The information mentioned above is usually available to journalists and researchers, yet the art lies in crafting a conflict narrative, backed up by factual events, to show which side has the upper hand. The classic barometer is allegiance of the masses, through polls (if people are accessible) in a cross-section of urban areas (if surveyors can reach them).

Yet what drives public opinion? In a democratic, industrialized nation, a poll reveals aggregate tendencies for an amalgamation of individuals. However in a tribal-based society, where sub-groups often decide issues unanimously to maintain group cohesion, respondents may not want to answer differently than their family members or neighbors. Moreover, respondents may respond with what they believe a surveyor wants to hear, believing he/she is with the government, introducing a second-guessing dynamic that further complicates assessment.

Polling and surveys are only one aspect of data retrieval challenged by realities in the conflict zone. Others include:

1. The sheer amount of information available. Given a lengthy conflict and global attention, not to mention fat contracts for firms and individuals operating in an unsafe environment, which in turn spawn more information, everyone with internet access is blog posting about their “unique” work. While this is informative, it muddies the stream for professional prospectors, and obscures sources. Last week I came across three different tribal maps for Helmand province, with little overlap.

2. Reality depends on to whom one speaks. Analysts must uncomfortably bridge the gap between the often pessimistic stance of international journalists, on the one hand, and the positive, upbeat tone struck by aid agencies (and coalition military for that matter) “on the ground” that need to show and tout progress. Journalists may indeed have a fresher set of eyes, and the experienced ones an ability to get at the marrow, yet spending a week or two criss-crossing a country yields much less insight than the input of an NGO manager who has lived there six months.

In February, the Syrian army laid siege to Homs for 26 days. When the event subsided the city’s chief of police estimated deaths at 3,000, while foreign correspondents reported twice as many.

3. Last week’s bread is stale (and may not even be bread). Given the time it takes for news of events and political nuances to travel from hinterlands to urban areas, an alliance may have shifted by the time an analyst publishes in a monthly periodical. A civilian aid worker who leaves a rural post for the capital and returns six months later may find a new set of government actors, with different tribal backgrounds than the former, or ideas about development. Insurgent influence can fluctuate just as quickly, with significant bearing on provincial security and policy.

Arsene Bwenge, writing about the Democratic Republic of Congo in Researching Conflict in Africa (2005, UN Press), relates how “reports by the local press and radio stations, and by human rights and environmental activists, and development agencies, are taken as the means of expression by the eyewitness population.” With limited access to insecure areas, firsthand accounts become muddled and diluted by the actors relaying the story back to national capitals and home offices.

The best way to counter these challenges is to have unmitigated access to an individual or team locally placed who can inform on local developments. In Afghanistan, coalition military bases host civilian political and development officers, who through engagement with provincial, district, and tribal leaders maintain adept ears to the ground. When a canal dries up or mudslides destroy houses, these officers know it, and can be in contact with their superiors in Kabul for further action, if necessary, or simply just to report. Most analysts do not have this luxury. The respected analysis NGO, Afghan Analysts Network (AAN), based in Kabul, would do well to staff its own provincial offices.

Sound, measured guidance is found in the US Institute of Peace (USIP) instructional manual Conflict-sensitive Approaches to Development, Humanitarian Assistance, and Peacebuilding, which reminding researchers that ““good enough” thinking is required. This means accepting that the analysis can never be exhaustive, nor provide absolute certainty. Conflict dynamics are simply too complex and volatile for any single conflict analysis process to do them justice.”



Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.