How can governments effectively combat insurgency, and what are the factors that constrain their ability to do so? My research in this area advances and tests a theory outlining the strategic nature of insurgents’ use of violence, focusing on how civilian abuse resulting from violence conditions the sharing of valuable information with counterinsurgents.

Can civilians in civil wars reward and punish armed actors for their behavior?
If so, do armed actors reap strategic benefits from treating civilians well and pay for treating them poorly? Using precise geo-coded data on violence in Iraq from 2004 through 2009, we show that both sides are punished for the collateral damage they inflict. Coalition killings of civilians predict higher levels of insurgent violence and insurgent killings predict less violence in subsequent periods. This symmetric reaction is tempered by preexisting political preferences; the anti-insurgent reaction is not present in Sunni areas, where the insurgency was most popular, and the anti-Coalition reaction is not present in mixed areas. Our findings have strong policy implications, provide support for the argument that information civilians share with government forces and their allies is a key constraint on insurgent violence, and suggest theories of intrastate violence must account for civilian agency. (Condra & Shapiro 2012)

Placard on EMERGENCY’s Kabul hospital grounds (2012)

But while these patterns of insurgent violence are consistent with a theory of competitive governance in civil wars, whereby civilians condition their sharing of sensitive information with the government on their treatment at the hands of combatants, they do not constitute direct evidence of it. Drawing on tens of thousands of newly declassified military records of insurgent attacks that resulted in civilian casualties in Afghanistan between 200-2014, as well as incidents of civilian information sharing with Afghan and coalition forces, we provide direct and systematic empirical evidence that civilians share more information with the government following civilian casualties occurring in the course of insurgent attacks on government forces. We use a novel instrumental variable approach to identify the causal effect of harm on information sharing, adding confidence to the quality of our estimates, and we argue that features of the Afghan conflict suggest these dynamics are likely to exist in other irregular asymmetric insurgencies. (Wright et al. 2017)

What shapes insurgents’ use of electoral violence?

Market on outskirts of Kabul (2010)

Competitive elections are essential to establishing the political legitimacy of democratizing regimes. Recognizing the symbolic value of voter participation, we argue that armed actors who lack institutional power try to undermine the state’s mandate through electoral violence. We study the logic of such violence, focusing on the crucial balance between disrupting elections and minimizing harm to potential supporters of the rebellion. We theorize when and where insurgents attack around elections. To test the observable implications of our theory, we perform a quantitative assessment of insurgent electoral violence in Afghanistan. This assessment incorporates novel geo-referenced data on polling stations, data on the ethnic composition and locations of villages, and newly declassified micro-data on insurgent activity. Our results show that insurgents significantly increase the intensity of violence on election days during the hours before (and as) voting centers open, but harm relatively fewer civilians than non-election periods. Insurgents also deploy improvised explosive devices along roads connecting voters and polling stations, but rarely bomb these roads multiple times. We instrument for the timing and spatial distribution of attacks using early morning wind conditions and nighttime cloud cover and show that insurgent electoral violence effectively undermines voter participation. Our results provide important insights for safeguarding at-risk elections in emerging democracies. (Condra et al. forthcoming)