Drought had left people hungry and desperate, ethnic hatreds were burning and Islamic extremists were growing stronger. The U.S. officials facing the looming crisis in West Africa were thankful for one thing, though.
It was just a game.
As the U.S. deals with increasingly complex, interlocking security risks -— from disruptive technologies to climate-driven food and water shortages and virulent extremism and nationalism —- some officials are borrowing a tool from the military in an effort to identify the triggers for instability. The aim is to defuse them before they become threats.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is reinventing military war-gaming -- an ancient concept -- to prevent wars rather than win battles. Instead of maneuvering virtual armies, the nation’s main foreign aid agency is staging peace games and deploying data to map the many elements that can tip a country into chaos and war.
“That has been a sea change in how we’re thinking” about averting instability, said AID Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg. Poring over maps and gaming out scenarios with an array of officials from AID and the military allows her agency to “think in a much more comprehensive way about what the real problems are here. You map it out, you get a very different, comprehensive picture about what the solutions might be.”
For millenia, generals have fought make-believe battles, moving colored stones, or the miniature replicas that First-Century Romans preferred, around a grid, or plotting over the Seventh-Century Indian game Chaturanga, an ancestor of chess. In the 18th Century, Prussians played board games with more than 1,600 squares.
Today’s commanders, facing threats that have grown to include pandemics such as Ebola, water wars and metastasizing mega-cities, use mathematically driven computer simulations.
“This is new,” said Peter Pham, who heads the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. “A couple of years ago, we didn’t see any of this.”
Traditionally, analysts and government officials “have invested a great deal in war-gaming, in thinking about how conflict might unfold, but there had been no investment at all in the flip side,” said Steven Heydemann, a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded, nonpartisan policy group in Washington.
New threats require new ways to counter them. The peace game staged by AID and Defense Department officials last summer on a 200-year-old military base in Washington emerged from a 2012 conversation between AID Administrator Rajiv Shah and the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Navy Admiral William McRaven, who’s now chancellor of the University of Texas system, about cooperating in a region that concerns them both.
The two initially decided to map the dynamics across 17 countries of Africa’s Sahel region, including the flow of guns, people and drugs, the places where humanitarian needs are most acute, and where food and water are scarcest.
“You see an extraordinary amount of alignment,” said Shah, who’s departing AID next month. The shared analysis allowed AID and the Pentagon “to work together in ways we really never had before” and see things in new ways, Shah said.
He described having “four-star guys” in his office saying, “‘Boy, we need more family planning programs in these areas, and more food and security investments in these areas, and that’s critical to our national security.’”
Surrounded by trouble
Then Pentagon officials suggested the game. It focused on Niger, a relatively stable, uranium-rich country in a shaky region. Militant groups are corroding Libya to its north. Neighboring Mali is an unwilling host to terrorist groups including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In parts of oil-rich Nigeria to the south, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram poses a serious threat. The region has been wracked by drought, and to the west, several countries struggle with Ebola.
The game projected forward to 2017, assumed Nigeria’s 2015 elections wouldn’t lead to a change in government and factored in ethnic differences, smuggling activity, food scarcity and other elements.
A Bedouin takes water from a well near Nema, southeastern Mauritania, on May 4, 2012.
A “blue cell” represented protagonists and decision-makers, a “red cell” stood for the antagonists, which included drought, high birth rates and extremists. In the “white cell” were referees and managers. One scenario was run using current resources. In a second “blue sky” option, AID had more money and fewer congressional constraints on how it could be spent.
The game yielded valuable lessons, said AID staff members, highlighting ways they could better use their resources. For one, it suggested that sustainable agriculture is key because there’s a correlation between failing crops and the growth of extremist groups. Humanitarian disasters also could be reduced if more funds were spent helping communities grow drought-resistant crops instead of on humanitarian aid, they said.
AID is already active in Niger, in the traditional ways that international development agencies have long tried to tackle humanitarian, agricultural and economic weaknesses. Agency officials and staff said their peace game based on the country is part of an effort to emphasize proactive steps instead of constantly responding to crises.
Even a partial shift in focus could be difficult, though. AID and the State Department, of which it’s a part, are struggling to persuade Congress to maintain their funding. AID gets less than 1 percent of the federal budget, according to the agency’s website. In addition, Congress decides how a good deal of that money can be spent.
Ounces of prevention
Working-level officials involved in the peace game said it was designed, in part, to show lawmakers the benefits of taking preventive action and allowing AID greater freedom to spend money where it sees the greatest needs, they hope in time for the 2017 federal budgeting process.
Prevention is the heart of conflict resolution, said Heydemann of the U.S. Institute of Peace, but increased funding for it will probably be a hard sell. “There are so many other priorities,” he said. “Every administration has fifteen ways to spend every dollar at its disposal.”
The result, he said, is that “we end up neglecting a lot of opportunities to prevent situations in which we only have bad options, in which violence has already broken out, in which conflicts have reached a scale in which it’s very hard to know what to do.”
A peace game helps you see glaring weaknesses before that point and tangible ways to remedy them, said Michael Berkowitz, a former deputy commissioner of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.
‘Focus the mind’
“War-gaming or peace-gaming really does focus the mind about what kinds of specific things can be useful,” said Berkowitz, who runs the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project, which helps cities worldwide plan and prepare for a range of shocks.
He and others flag some weaknesses of games, one being players’ failures of imagination. Once people have faced a certain threat, their attention “often gets turned toward making themselves less at risk for that one problem,” Berkowitz said.
Pham of the Atlantic Council said that for now peace games lack the specificity of war games, in which “the resources with which you work are very concrete. If your job is to play a battalion commander, you know how exactly how you’re armed, how many people you have. The metrics are much more concrete than when you talk about aid or goodwill.”
Pham -- who spoke after taking part one Friday in a second annual peace game organized by Foreign Policy magazine and the U.S. Institute of Peace, where AID’s Lindborg will become president in February, and then a Pentagon war game the following Monday -- said peace games may have “less detailed parameters and constraints,” but are only in their infancy.
They’ll probably grow in depth, specificity and granularity the more agencies undertake them, he said, and in the meantime “you can draw out big lessons and generate insights.”
Pham played the part of Boko Haram in the Institute of Peace game. As it opened, he said, everyone played their assigned parts, “which meant that the international community waved its arms, the African Union issued a statement, the Nigerian government dithered and Boko Haram won successes,” taking more territory and imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.