Terrorism, Dynamic Commitment Problems, and Military Conflict

The forthcoming article “Terrorism, Dynamic Commitment Problems, and Military Conflict” by Navin A. Bapat and Sean Zeigler is summarized by the authors here:

The invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks set a precedent for how states could respond to transnational terrorism, with several other states initiating their own ‘wars on terror’ in the following decade. Policymakers justified these military actions as necessary to protect their populations from the grave threat of terrorism. However, terrorism is generally responsible for fewer fatalities than traffic accidents and most terrorist organizations do not achieve their objectives. The disproportionate use military force therefore appears puzzling, especially when we further consider that military interventions typically fail to completely disarm terrorist groups. This raises the question: if terrorists remain unlikely to succeed or cause significant damage, why do states commence costly wars with poor prospects of success in an effort to defeat them?

This study addresses this question by investigating the interaction between the macro- and micro-levels. We argue that while terrorism appears insignificant at the macro-level, terrorists can exercise greater influence at the micro-level in smaller geographic stretches, such as towns, villages, or provinces. Such influence may enable groups to seize control of these smaller regions and prevent governments from extracting valuable resources from areas under their control. Moreover, if these territories are strategically valuable, the group could weaken the government’s capability by denying it access to critical resources. We therefore argue that the risk that landless terrorists seize territory creates a commitment problem between governments fighting terrorists and their neighbors. This dynamic process can generate two types of ‘wars on terror.’ First, governments may initiate what we describe as ‘preventive wars’ against terrorists within foreign states to preclude the terrorists from consolidating their gains within the government’s own territory. Alternatively, a ‘predatory war’ occurs when the seizure of territory by terrorist groups weaken a government to the point where it becomes an attractive target to its rival states. Rivals may strategically use the specter of terrorism to justify wars by claiming that the government is a weak state that cannot protect its territory from the terrorist threat.

We test this argument by examining conflicts in the African state system from 1990-2006. The African states’ revenues during this period primarily come from oil, gold, minerals, and/or rare earths, making control over primary commodities critical to maintaining power and protecting sovereignty. We hypothesize that states are more likely to initiate preventive conflicts when terrorists threaten their resources, but are more likely to opportunistically exploit terrorism in neighboring rival states to engage in territorial expansion. Our analysis demonstrates that African states facing resource losses due to terrorist activity are on average 383% more likely to initiate preventive conflicts against neighboring states. On the other hand, neighboring states are 200% more likely to use the specter of terrorism as a pretext to seize territory from their rivals via military action.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.