Excerpt: Deadly Conflicts

Return to "Deadly Conflicts."


The recurrence of deadly conflict in the post cold-war era, has put prevention on the foreign policy agenda. While the number of studies and organizations focused on prevention have proliferated, prevention needs to develop readily usable tools and capacities in order to become a credible technique of foreign policy. Early warning mechanisms are indispensable to prevention-especially to "operational" prevention.  

Most deadly conflicts can be foreseen: the 1994 case of Rwanda, many pointed out, tragically emphasized this fact and fostered a reflection on the disconnection between early information and early action. Rather than a lack of information, the difficulty of early warning resides in the adequate processing of existing data-i.e. its gathering, compiling and interpretation, and the adequate link between warning recommendations and preventive action.

The purpose of this workshop was to foster an exchange between practitioners, researchers and academics working on prevention on the following issues:

  • How to conduct early warning successfully in a complex environment of uncertainty?
  • How to connect early warning to decision making processes that support appropriate early action?


The discussions explored a number of early warning mechanisms currently used by practitioners in the U.S. government, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and private contractors.  


The U.S. Intelligence Community Watch List  

  • The Nature of the List Process:

    In recent years, the National Intelligence Council has developed a "watch list" process, characterized by one of the participants as "strategic warning"-e.g. allowing time for preventive action to be taken or for the government to prepare for the consequence of inevitable crises. The watch list process is a collaborative endeavor, whose objective is to foster debate and agreement among experts within the intelligence community on which regions of the world and international issues should be present on the "watch list."

    While the list only featured standard political and military issues during the Cold War era, today new two new lists have been added: the first monitors significant advances in weapons of mass destruction in various countries, the second-referred to by some as "atrocity watch"-monitors potential major humanitarian crises. Efforts to create an additional list to predict the major breakthroughs in science and technology with potential military applications are also underway.

  • Steps in the List Process: The Case of the Political and Military List

    The Strategic Warning Committee-composed of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the NSA, the State Department (INR) and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency-under the auspices of the Director of Central Intelligence first sets the list time frame. Following a 1992 Presidential directive, a 6-month outlook was considered to be within the scope of possible action by policymakers. Three steps determine the selection of countries on the list:

    • First, using experts' educated guesses, the committee lays out potential scenarios.
    • Second, it determines the likelihood of their occurrence on a four-level scale: low, moderate, high and very high.
    • Third, it evaluates the impact of a given event against the harm to US national interests by answering the question: "Why should the U.S. care?"

    While the State Department handles warning mainly on the basis of individual expertise, the D.I.A's system includes a model which tracks indicators with specific warning levels in almost all countries.

  • National Interests: a Selection Criteria?

    Laundry lists" do not constitute useful policy tools. Watch lists, many participants emphasized, need to be parsimonious and respond to policymakers' priorities. The process thus requires the intelligence community to make a convincing argument about "why a potential crisis would matter to the United States" before a warning is sent and a dialogue started between the intelligence community and the decision-makers.

    Determining what constitutes a "threat" to the U.S., a participant noted, was the most controversial part in the development of the 2001 list. There is a need, some argued, for a wider debate to occur on the role of the U.S. in the world and its strategic interests in the post-Cold War era.

  • Lists Updating

    The military and political list is reviewed weekly whereas the proliferation list, due to the slower pace of proliferation, is reviewed only four times a year.

Early Warning at the UN

  • A Sensitive Issue

    Early warning, some pointed out, is a sensitive issue within the United Nations. Many member states, mostly from the South, regard early warning and the information gathering process it entails as a potential infringement on their national sovereignty.

  • The Framework for Coordination Team

    Nonetheless, the inadequate dialogue between departments during the Somalia crisis prompted the establishment of a "framework for coordination team" in the mid 1990's as a means to enhance interdepartmental interactions. The framework team -which initially only included the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), grew to include the United Nations Development Program and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and developed interagency task forces.

  • Focusing on Early Warning

    Urgent ongoing crises, some emphasized, soon took precedence over warning in the process. A decision was thus taken to re-center attention on warning and pre-crisis issues. In 1999, the membership was doubled. The current membership includes the following agencies and organizations: OCHA, DPA, DPKO, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Department of Disarmament Affairs (DDA), UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR, FAO, WHO, ILO, and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). The World Bank has an observer status. This increased the pre-crisis focus -through the increased expertise on complex emergencies and armed conflicts-and reinforced the field presence.

  • How the Process Works

    The Framework for Coordination currently includes two types of consultations: "process" meetings and Country/Situation Review Meetings.

    "Process" meetings, in effect a kind of steering committee meetings, are held monthly and include various activities. First, Framework team members go over actions taken on countries for already reviewed, and determine additional actions when required. Second, they prioritize new countries/situations requiring in-depth country review meetings. Lastly, they focus on ways of strengthening the Framework process, including the methodology and tools used for country review meetings.

    Review Meetings are convened for countries or situations that "process" meetings have determined to warrant special early warning attention. Held at the UN headquarters in New York, they are attended by representatives of the geographic section-for organizations based in New York, or liaison officers-for organizations based elsewhere. In preparation for these meetings, UN Resident Coordinators in each country under consideration are contacted in order to ensure that they are part of the process and can facilitate participation by the members of the UN Country Team. The objectives of the Review Meetings are:

    • to share information on the country/situation in question;
    • to seek consensus on the level of risk of a potential crisis (in particular a complex emergency) occurring in the next 6-12 months;
    • to identify possible preventive and/or preparedness measures that can be undertaken by the UN or other key actors;
    • and to agree on appropriate follow-on actions regarding intensified early warning monitoring, preventive actions, or preparedness measures.


Initiatives are being pursued by a variety of actors to try to develop better tools for early warning. Some of these focus on using customized software and networking technologies to enhance the capacity of policymakers to anticipate, assess and address conflicts. Two examples of such initiatives were discussed during the workshop.

The Genoa Project: Applying New Technologies to Conflict Prevention

  • Genoa's Purpose

    The Genoa project is a research program of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) aimed at enhancing the ability of the U.S. National Security Community to preempt or mitigate crises.

  • The Genoa Approach

    Genoa uses new technologies to develop tools to support "informed, collaborative, structured argumentation-building on the best work of the past." The policy making process is conceptualized around five interacting levels:

    1. the real world in which information is gathered by private and governmental collectors;
    2. the analysts, a conglomeration of intelligence and policy analysts filtering the information and building an argumentation while setting collection requirement;
    3. policymakers who design policy using
    4. the virtual collaborative environment;
    5. decision-makers who elect options.
  • Supporting Technology

    Virtual Collaborative Environments use intranet and e-commerce concepts to support the creation and activities of virtual teams with the necessary diversity of experience and knowledge.

    Knowledge Discovery is a program which provides tools to retrieve information relevant to a given situation by searching and filtering unstructured media sources.

    Structured Argumentation makes the process of analysis and discussion transparent by highlighting the principal facts and assumptions underlying the analysis. "From evidence to conclusion each hypothesis is visibly linked to its supporting evidence and inference for review and comparison."

    Corporate Memory allows the user to access past practices and their rationale. It aims at storing knowledge, processes and expertise.

Some participants expressed concerns that instead of enabling high-level analysts and decision-makers to evaluate the reliability of the information, such an elaborate structure might in fact discourage them to do so, precisely because of its complex nature.

Combining Expertise and Technology:

The Conflict Assessment System Tool (C.A.S.T) of the Fund For Peace.

C.A.S.T is a computerized analytical model of internal conflict and state collapse developed to provide analysts with a capacity for both early warning and assessment of recovery. The model, using a medical analogy, identifies the symptoms of state collapse and provides a "diagnostic" for the risk assessment of violent crises and recovery.

  • Assumptions:

    C.A.S.T rests on two assumptions: first, contrary to the common notion that ethnic conflict causes state collapse, it is actually state collapse that usually fosters ethnic conflict-not the other way around. Therefore preventive responses should aim at rebuilding the state to provide enduring stability rather than simply conducting hasty political settlements or economic shock therapies.

  • Core Concepts of the Model

    The model defines collapsing states as states that loose physical control of their territory, forfeit authority to make collective decision, lack monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and cannot interact in formal relations with other states as fully functioning member of the international community. Such states lack sustainable security, defined as the ability of a society to solve its problems peacefully, without an external military or administrative presence.

    The immutable core of a state rests on four institutions necessary to achieve sustainable security:

    1. a competent police force and correctional system,
    2. an efficient civil service,
    3. an independent judicial system working within the rule of law,
    4. a professional and disciplined military accountable to a legitimate civilian government.

    When these institutions are not functioning or have not recovered before the international community pulls out-in peacekeeping cases-crises are likely to occur or reoccur.

  • The Five Analytical Stages of a Conflict Life Cycle:

    The model provides a conceptual framework for assessing the risk of violence in the life cycle of a conflict.

    1. Root causes: This requires identifying societies with a predisposition for internal conflicts, such as colonial legacies or a high degree of fixed social stratification or a history of communal clashes. The International Community's role at this stage includes prediction and early warning.
    2. Immediate causes of conflict: This refers to such specific events that precipitate conflict-including coups d'état, assassinations, natural disasters, and rigged elections, etc. The international community's usual role at this stage is preventive diplomacy. When tensions build up, a society faces a crucial decision point, a phase at which it may tip towards a violent or non-violent track, highlighting the importance of local leaders.
    3. A transition period: If the violent path is pursued, it leads to full-scale conflict, secession, ethnic cleansing or disintegration of the state. If the non-violent track is chosen, it leads to negotiation, reforms, and power-sharing. Unfortunately, the violent stage is usually when the international community intervenes, with military peace-enforcement or peace-making. Outside intervention may in fact be most useful at an earlier stage.
    4. The transformation stage: This refers to the actual transformation of the state, resulting either in military victory, ethnic domination, warlordism, or fragmentation on the violent track or elections, conflict resolutions mechanisms, and new state structures being built on the non-violent track. The international response at this stage involves peace-keeping or peace-building.
    5. Outcome: The outcome can vary along a continuum bounded by two polar opposite : conflict can result in either chaos or constitutionalism. The role of the international community revolves around post-conflict economic and political reconstruction. Some participants emphasized that because conflict is a dynamic process, countries can skip tracks several times. The model provides for this, depicting the capacity of a state to progress, backslide or relapse among or between these stages over time.
  • Twelve Top Indicators:

    The model uses twelve top social, economic, political and military indicators that have historically been recorded in collapsing states including both quantitative and qualitative variables. They are grouped into three classes of indicators, each one of which can be assessed based on "measures" or data collected from a variety of sources:

    • The social indicators are mounting demographic pressures, massive movements of refugees or internally-displaced persons creating complex humanitarian emergencies, a legacy of vengeance-seeking, group grievance or group paranoia, and chronic and sustained human flight.
    • The economic indicators include uneven economic development along group lines, and sharp or severe economic decline.
    • The political/military indicators include the criminalization/delegitimization of the state, the progressive deterioration of public services, the suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violations of human rights, a security apparatus that operates as a state within a state, the rise of factionalized elites and intervention.
  • "Stings":

    The Fund For Peace model also can account for factors not captured by the twelve indicators.

    • Surprises (e.g.currency collapse)
    • Triggers of violence (e.g. assassinations, coups d'état, disputed elections)
    • Idiosyncrasies (e.g.capacity of a society to absorb violence)
    • National Temperaments (e.g.cultural/religious perspectives)
    • Spoilers (e.g.disgruntled followers, excluded parties)
    • Trend lines:

      The model creates trend lines based on expert ratings of the indicators, providing an assessment of a country's situation.

      Trend Lines by aggregate ratings of all indicators show how a conflict is moving through time.

      Trend Lines broken down by Indicators show the evolution over time of each variable, allowing policymakers to determine where to direct resources in order to prevent violence or enhance recovery.

    • How to Use the Model:

      The model is operationalized by collecting data from different sources, verifying the information, developing a chronology, completing a trend line assessment, assessing the "core four", the "stings" and the leadership.

C.A.S.T may be used in the short-term to produce "peace audits", country updates that track developments over time, and provide warnings in sufficient advance to use preventive measures. In the long-term, using additional data, it may produce correlation analyses identifying how indicators react under different conditions, how they may fuel conflict and how they may affect specific issues such as AIDS, child soldiers, etc.



Warning the Policymakers: What Goals?

Participants noted that early warning has two functions for Policy makers:

  • Protecting policymakers from surprises by raising awareness of potential foreign developments with adverse impact.
  • Identifying the resulting policy options.

Warning Policymakers: What Really Matters?

  • Impact vs. Probability:

    Rather than the exact probability of events, policymakers are most interested in the impact of given events on their country.

  • Evolution vs. Probability:

    Many participants emphasized that the probability of a particular crisis is less important than the evolution of a given situation. Underlining developments, pointing out whether a situation is getting better or worse, as well as the key elements contributing to its evolution, are what policymakers expect of early warning.

  • The Need for Scenario Exercises:

    Irrespective of probabilities, the process of thinking through scenarios to deal with events likely to occur is useful, some argued, because when events do occur, policymakers need to respond very quickly. Scenarios are also useful in assessing the consequences of given events-even unlikely ones. However, a participant noted that the intelligence community, due to the scarcity of its resources, is often reluctant to explore scenarios for low probability situations and tends to focus on high probability events.

  • List vs. Dialogue:

    A consolidated warning list, some pointed out, is often less important for policy makers than the dialogue that such a process generates between the relevant interlocutors in the intelligence and the policy-making communities.

  • Short-Term vs. Long-Term:

    Some participants argued that reports, such as "Global Trends 2015" conducted by the U.S. government, which focus on long-term dimensions of problems and trigger discussions on long-term policy responses, are the most useful kind of warning. While not providing decision-makers with exact predictions of where and when a crisis will occur, they allow for crucial strategic policy planning.

From Warning to Action:

Several reasons were brought up to explain the difficulty of relating early warning to policy making. The major ones included:

  • Lack of Time:

    Participants pointed out that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time people have to focus on a given issue and how high they rank in hierarchy. "Making it to the president" may appear from the outside to be the appropriate the yardstick to measure the success of an early warning, but President is usually consumed by pressing current issues and has very little time to deal with potential future ones. Warning should thus not be uniquely or primarily directed towards the highest office but should target actors at the relevant levels from which actions could be initiated.

  • Indeterminacy:

    Low probability events, even those with enormous impact, are unlikely to prompt action by policymakers because of their indeterminacy relative to the political cost that preventive action might incur.

  • A Resources and Cultural Gap:

    Some participants pointed out that the intelligence community is often lacking the human, financial and technical resources required to satisfy policymakers such as scenario building for low probability events. Therefore the community tends to dedicate its resources to the issues defined as important by the policymakers, while policymakers-some argued-expect the intelligence community to be proactive in the definition of these issues. It was pointed out that while the Cold war gave the intelligence community clear direction about what needs to be watched, the post-Cold War era has made early warning more difficult because of the complexity of issues at stake and lack of definition of strategic interests.

Additionally, the traditional culture of objectivity, predominant in the intelligence community, has made agents reluctant to be proactive in evaluating possible options and suggesting policies.