Insurgency: an example of learning by doing

This paper (published this week in Science) seems to be an important contribution to our empirical understanding of civil conflicts.  To date, most work in the field has focused on the onset and duration of conflicts.  In contrast, this paper examine the rates at which specific conflicts escalate.

The extraordinarily interdisciplinary team (including but not limited to a political scientist, a physicist, a biologist and an engineer) makes the point that successful insurgent activity at a specific location has a non-stationary inter-arrival time that follows the approximate power law:
Basically, insurgents learn how to fight more effectively with time. This may not be a surprising point, but the regularity of the statistical structures is remarkable.  Furthermore, insurgents in different locations exhibit different apparent rates of "learning."  The authors hypothesize that some of this heterogeneity can be explained by how opposition to the insurgents (occupying forces) learn how to defend themselves from insurgent attacks.

Pattern in Escalations in Insurgent and Terrorist Activity
Neil Johnson, Spencer Carran, Joel Botner, Kyle Fontaine, Nathan Laxague, Philip Nuetzel5, Jessica Turnley, Brian Tivnan

Abstract: In military planning, it is important to be able to estimate not only the number of fatalities but how often attacks that result in fatalities will take place. We uncovered a simple dynamical pattern that may be used to estimate the escalation rate and timing of fatal attacks. The time difference between fatal attacks by insurgent groups within individual provinces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and by terrorist groups operating worldwide, gives a potent indicator of the later pace of lethal activity.

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