Root of Conflict Podcast

Why are some places affected by violence and disorder while others enjoy peace and stability? Root of Conflict analyzes violent conflict around the world, and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. Harris Public Policy students meet with leading experts and key stakeholders to discuss what can be done to create more peaceful societies.

This series is produced by University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts, (UC3P) in partnership with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. 

Root of Conflict


Social Cohesion After Conflict | Salma Mousa

Can intergroup contact build social cohesion after conflict? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Salma Mousa, a political scientist studying social cohesion after conflict and what policies can build trust between groups. She talks about her latest study on building social cohesion between Christian and Muslim youth soccer players in post-ISIS Iraq and the challenges to achieving peace between groups.

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema, and you’re listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts.

You’re listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world.

Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

In this episode, Aishwarya and Wafa speak with Dr. Salma Mousa, a political scientist studying social cohesion after conflict, and what policies can build trust between groups. She talks about her latest study on building social cohesion between Christian and Muslim youth soccer players in post-ISIS Iraq.

Dr. Salma Mousa: As someone who grew up in the Middle East and who was also an immigrant in Canada for a while, the question of how someone's social identity conditions so much of what happens in their life, and how other people treat them, and how they see themselves, was always something that was very top of mind for me. I noticed different situations or environments where my nationality mattered or my religion mattered, and other environments where it didn't matter at all.

And this was all happening against the backdrop of the sporadic violence, especially when I lived in Saudi Arabia, which was targeted based on sect and based on nationality. And so, being in that kind of environment you start to think, okay, so my identity seems to matter sometimes a lot, and other times, it doesn't matter at all.

And so, how can we get identity to matter less? Because the Middle East is not necessarily a place where these social identities have always existed, number one. And number two, these identities have not been things that have structured conflict. It's not necessarily the case that we have to keep killing each other for these socially constructed things. And it wasn't the case for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, for many ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

So, how can we get those things to stop being fault lines, given that there's nothing inherent in our culture that suggests that it has to be that way?

Wafa Eben Beri: Thank you so much. It's a very interesting point that you are bringing your personal perspective into that and your interests professionally. For our listeners who are not familiar with your work, can you tell us about your study that is titled Building Social Cohesion Between Christians and Muslims Through Soccer in Post-ISIS Iraq and what the main findings were?

Dr. Salma Mousa: Sure. So, the study that you referred to was a field experiment in Northern Iraq where I was able to set up a series of soccer leagues, and I was able to randomly assign amateur Christian soccer teams to either receive fellow Christian players or receive some Muslim players, and then they train and compete for a two-month period.

And what I found was being assigned to a mixed team made Christians more accepting and tolerant toward Muslims in terms of their behaviors, but not really toward the Muslims, more broadly. So, what I mean by that is, I found this distinction between how you treat people you know from an outgroup compared to how you treat strangers.

And so, I found that this contact within soccer leagues was really effective at building these local social ties and improving tolerant behaviors toward your teammates and other guys you met in the league, but it did not extend to Muslims more broadly outside of that environment.

So, for example, being assigned to a mixed soccer team did not make you more likely to visit Mosul, which is a big Muslim-dominated city about 40 minutes away from the study sites. So, this suggests that this theory of intergroup contact can be promising in building this very localized community level social cohesion, but it's not necessarily achieving its goal of building generalized social cohesion and prejudice reduction.

Wafa Eben Beri: That's a very interesting point, because, based on my experience in Israel and working with Jewish groups, I found the same finding. The findings showed that the group contact didn't affect the perception of the participant toward the individual from the other group, and less affects the perception toward the collective group represented by the participant.

For example, someone would say, "When I meet this Arab guy, he's very nice, but not all the Arabs are like that, and he's an exception." Could you tell us, how can we expand social cohesion to a more broad level, to take this interaction that has happened between the participant and the individuals to a more collective level?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, now I know I need to read your work because this sounds very relevant to what I'm looking at right now. And you highlight a really important issue, which is that these kinds of contact interventions, they aim not to just improve how you feel toward the one or two people who you meet, or who you're friends with, but to actually generalize those positive feelings toward the entire outgroup.

And if that generalization doesn't happen, if you don't update your beliefs about the entire group based on a handful of interactions, then the contact theory is really a failure. It's really trivial. It's nice to build some friendships here and there, but it's just not nearly scalable enough that this is something that we should necessarily be turning to, especially in conflict zones.

So, this question of how can you encourage the generalization of effects, I think this is an open question. Social psychologists point to a few factors that might help. One is typicality. So, you need to view the contact partners as typical, or representative in some way, in order for you to infer something about the entire group.

And actually, I do have some work on this looking at a Muslim soccer star in England, Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool. And long story short, we do find that when you prime people to think about his Muslim identity and that he's a practicing Muslim, it makes Liverpool supporters, the fans of the club, more likely to say that Islam is compatible with British values.

So, this link, emphasizing this link between that one person and the whole group can help facilitate that process, but there's still really a lot that we don't know about it. I mean, people can still exceptionalize a handful of individuals who they like and choose not to see them as representative. So, the question is, is someone really objectively ever typical or representative, or is that actually a function of prejudice, whether you choose to see them as exceptional or not.

And there's this other tension between being representative, but also not confirming stereotypes. So, your group identity should be salient, but it shouldn't be salient in any negative way. You shouldn't be doing any stereotype-confirming behaviors because that won't work. So, there's some tensions, I think, here in the social psychological literature that need exploring.

Aishwarya Raje: So, I'd love to hear more about how you looked at soccer specifically as the framework for your work on social cohesion. I mean, I'm a huge fan of professional soccer, and I'm a terrible player, but I'm a huge fan, I mean, millions of people around the world are. I mean, what do you think it is about the sport, or perhaps team sports in general, that can potentially take a group of people beyond just recreation and competition, and actually build deeper connections on a more human level?

Dr. Salma Mousa: I think there's a few different routes through which sports can build social cohesion. I can think of a few just off the top of my head. One is that team sports naturally fulfill a lot of the conditions laid out by the contact hypothesis.

So, contact across group lines is supposed to reduce prejudice when the contact involves cooperating for a common goal, when it's endorsed by authorities who people respect, and when you are on equal footing, so there's not necessarily a hierarchy or an unequal power status. So all those conditions really lend themselves very nicely to team sports.

There's also, I think, an argument to be made about creating another identity as being fans of the same team or players on the same team. And so, it highlights this common third identity that's shared between people. And so, it highlights commonalities in that way, rather than differences. So, those are just two ways that I think sports – whether you're playing or whether you're watching – can actually... can build some social cohesion or erode some of the group boundaries.


Wafa Eben Beri: During my work I saw a lot of different types of group contact that can yield sometimes different results related to social cohesion. What I mean by that, such as the difference between groups that meet through soccer or food, This is something that sometimes we find something in common. And the group that meet, for example, I have examples in Ireland or in Israel, in bilingual schools or through activism or volunteering together. Can you tell us more about what you think, and if there are different results related to this group contact with different purposes?

Dr. Salma Mousa: Yeah, absolutely. So, this is something that's important, right? What kinds of settings and environments produce contact under those ideal conditions? Team sports is one that lends itself naturally to this, but there are a few others as well.

To some extent, classrooms. You don't have so much the element of having a common goal, but there tends to be some cooperation, having equal footing, having an authority figure that endorses the interactions. So, classroom settings can be positive, and we do find that in the literature.

What's even stronger, most of the time, tends to be roommate assignments. So there, you don't necessarily have cooperation as much, but it's that kind of environment where you have these mini-cooperative interactions and generally a positive experience. And that is also something that we found that is actually effective at reducing prejudice.

Military conscription is another one, military training. So, again, it's the roommate mechanism, but really that fighting with each other and relying on each other seems to be really important. And so, if you want to extrapolate the commonalities across these different settings where we have seen positive effects, and looking at studies that have found negative effects of contact – and there are a few of those – I’d say one of the most important conditions is that you are not competing, that you are cooperating and not competing.

The degree of cooperation, it's a little unclear how much cooperation you need, but definitely the presence of active competition is almost always negative. So, I'd say that if we're starting to move toward an understanding of what are the necessary conditions, I would say that's as close to a necessary condition as we found.

Wafa Eben Beri: I have a follow-up question. You said about the negative results, when we put competition or we don't have a common goal between the interactions of the groups. Can you tell us in which way the results will be negative, how the results are being presented when it's negative? Is it that people become more prejudiced? Can you talk more about that?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, we don't have a lot of very, I say, solid work about this, but I think there are some plausible explanations for why competitive contact is bad. I think the most common sense one to me is that it highlights otherness.

So, if you're put in a situation where you feel that you need to come compete with this group, either for jobs or for scarce resources or even in a sports game, you start to view that person and their group as being opposed to you, necessarily. You are against them. They are different. We have no preferences in common. Our goals are diametrically opposed to each other.

And that, I think, just stresses the sense of otherness and difference, rather than what you want, which is the opposite, where you want to feel like you have some things in common. At least you should have a common goal, even if you have nothing else in common.

I think the other plausible explanation is that there are some interactions that come along with cooperating, like you have to discuss, you have to compromise, you have to make decisions together. And that process, that negotiation process, and just the micro-foundations of actually working together can reveal things about people's personality, can humanize them more. It opens up more of what we call “friendship potential,” which is something that has been found to be very key to contact.

This kind of one-sided exposure where you just see someone in the subway or something – that can actually cause a backlash effect – but you need some space for friendship potential, some conversation in a not so emotionally charged environment. And so, I say those two things where that competition can emphasize otherness and, at the same time, it has very low friendship potential.

Aishwarya Raje: I'd be curious to hear your observations about how you've seen social cohesion play out based on gender. Of course, the study that you did focused on creating soccer teams for young men, but in a lot of context, I think we see women being the social backbone for their families and communities. So, I'm curious as to how you see those dynamics play out in a post-conflict context.

Dr. Salma Mousa: I don't have that much to say about this only because we have such little research that I'm aware of that looks specifically at social cohesion-building strategies that target women specifically. But what I can speak about is my own experience working in Northern Iraq.

I initially wanted to actually have an intervention targeted at women and bringing women from Muslim and Christian groups together, and it became clear very quickly that the social norms in Northern Iraq were not really conducive to this. This is because there's this unofficial system where women are not really permitted to be out in public, and especially in areas with unfamiliar people if they don't have their brother or their husband with them.

So, you would need the permission of the husbands, or the brothers, or the dads in order to be in these new spaces where they're going to be mixing across group lines with people that are unknown or strangers from the out-group. And so, because of the difficulty of actually arranging that contact, I then decided to focus more on men.

And so, this, I think, is an important question of how should we target these kinds of interventions, and I think there is a case to be made that you want to target potentially norm changers or norm leaders when it comes to prejudice. And we should be doing more work to understand how social cohesion operates among women. But, at the same time, there is one benefit of targeting whoever the norm leaders are in society, often, it's men, in that you might actually accelerate some of the change potentially.

Wafa Eben Beri: Can you tell us how group context affects the general political situation or the leadership in the country and vice-versa?

Dr. Salma Mousa: This is the million-dollar question. We have a lot of tools at the grassroots level for building social cohesion. So, things like intergroup contact, empathy-building interventions or education, perspective-taking exercises, and they seem to work, under some conditions, at the grassroots level. But the question is, how are these things affecting the structural barriers to social cohesion?

There are reasons why groups are in conflict, or one group is explicitly being oppressed. And these kinds of grassroots interventions, they're great at building this community level social cohesion – and that's a good thing – but are they really going to address the structural roots of conflict that cause this situation in the first place? And I'm much more skeptical about that.

So, can things like contact overcome barriers to integration like residential segregation, like ethnic entrepreneurs or political entrepreneurs who start stoking tensions between groups? These kinds of more environment-level barriers to cohesion, I think, are much harder to overcome without policy tools.

I think the ideal recipe would be a mixture of both. I think you need stuff happening at the grassroots level and policies at the structural level to really build lasting and sustainable peace. One of the reasons, actually, why this is important, is that if you just do the policy-level intervention, and you don't have grassroots support at least, or acceptance of the intervention, it might not actually have a positive effect.

I'm thinking, for example, some east Asian countries where they actually have very progressive immigration policies, but on the ground, there was not acceptance by the host population. And they're like, “Oh, why are you giving preferential treatments to immigrants?” So, actually, it can go the other way. So, ideally, you need, I think, a mix of those two things, but how you aggregate up from the grassroots level to the policy level, I think, is still unclear.

Aishwarya Raje: And that's a really great segway into my next question, because I know another element of your research interest is migration policy and refugee resettlement and integration.

And I'm curious, would you say that this model of building sports teams between perhaps host populations and refugee populations could facilitate greater refugee integration into the host countries? And how translatable do you think this model is to contexts that are not necessarily post-conflict, but in contexts that are generally just lacking a lot of social cohesion?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, there are some reasons why the theory of change around social cohesion might be different in post-conflict societies and in recently post-violent societies.

I think the distrust towards strangers is higher. The averseness to risk is also higher. The lingering effects of personal trauma, psychological trauma, and community-level trauma is also very high. So, I think for all these reasons – and just baseline prejudice is probably high too. So, for all these reasons, you have a really hard case when you're going into recently post-conflict societies and trying to conduct these kinds of grassroots-level peace-building tools.

At the same time, I think there is a lot of overlap in what we do in peacetime and what can be done in post-conflict societies. So, for example, this idea of intergroup contact, positive contact actually reducing prejudice, it depends to the extent to which you see some of these cleavages in the West as being post-conflict or not, or actively antagonistic.


For me, it's not obvious. For example, if we're looking at law enforcement and minority groups in the US, that's an actively antagonistic situation in a lot of cases. So, I think a lot of these distinctions between post -conflict and peacetime or West and Global South are not necessarily that relevant when you start looking on a case-by-case basis where you do have this active antagonism and hostility, and oftentimes violence as well.

What I would just say is that any time you have that situation where it's active conflict, you are setting things up to be harder, where you have to take a lot more precautions, not least of which from an ethical perspective, before getting into these kinds of grassroots interventions and getting people together, who are not necessarily ready to be brought together yet. So, there's just this extra layer of precautions that need to be taken.

Wafa Eben Beri: How can your research findings can shape the policies in a country in post-conflict, and especially in the context of peacebuilding?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, I've done a few studies now looking specifically at this idea of contact. Generally, it looks like the effects are positive, but they're much more limited in post-conflict or active conflict settings.

So, what I would suggest to policy makers is any environment or space that you have control over where people are mixing or have the potential to mix across social lines, try to optimize those interactions so that they create the kind of ideal conditions for contact that we know to be generally positive. So, try to avoid competition, try to make the interactions recurring, not a one-time thing, try to get the endorsement of communal leaders who are respected. So, those spaces that you do have control over, optimize them for positive contact.

At the same time, I don't think you can rely only on grassroots tools alone for sustainable peace. So, we need to be addressing the structural roots of either oppression or intergroup conflict, depending on the setting. And so, we need to address things like residential segregation. That's causing people not to interact in the first place, for example. We need to address the kind of national rhetoric or the rhetoric of politicians that demonize certain groups.

So, you can't really just rely on the grassroots level. There has to be support at the policy level as well.

Wafa Eben Beri: Thank you so much.

Dr. Salma Mousa: That was really fun.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Salma Mousa. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh.

Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


Refugee Mental Health | Aimee Hilado

Refugee populations face unique challenges to mental health and overcoming trauma in resettlement. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Aimee Hilado, a clinical social worker and researcher specializing in immigrant and refugee mental health and Associate Professor of Social Work at Northeastern Illinois University. Dr. Hilado is the founder and director of the RefugeeOne Wellness Program, a mental health program established in 2011 for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in Illinois.

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema, and you’re listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You’re listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects.

In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

In this episode, Aishwarya and Marina speak with Aimee Hilado, a clinical social worker and researcher specializing in immigrant and refugee mental health.

Aishwarya Raje: My name is Aishwarya Raje, and I'm a graduate student at the Harris School of Policy where I'm also a fellow with the Pearson Institute. And on this episode of Root of Conflict, I'm joined by my classmate Marina Milaszewska to sit down with Dr. Aimee Hilado. Dr. Hilado is an expert on refugee and immigrant mental health. She's also an Associate Professor of Social Work at Northeastern Illinois University, and she's the founding clinical director of the RefugeeOne Wellness Program, which is a mental health program established in 2011 for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in Illinois. Dr. Hilado, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Thank you for having me.

Aishwarya Raje: So, just to dive right in, what led you to focus your career on mental health and wellness for conflict-affected populations and those who have experienced trauma, and why are these issues that should be prioritized when it comes to working with these populations?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I'm the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines. And so, thinking about how to navigate adjusting to life in a new country was really part of my upbringing, watching my parents navigating life in the US. Now, every immigrant story is very different, but there was something about that draw. That draw of understanding, “How do people adjust to life in a new country.” And as time had progressed, I realized that the nature of folks that are coming to the United States is because they have no choice, because they are forced to leave their home countries, that their experiences were unique. And that services in the field didn't adequately address some of the mental health issues that come when you are forcibly displaced.

And that really was what opened my eyes to this work. I'm a clinical social worker by training. I'm an academic researcher, as you said, an immigrant and refugee mental health and much of my career has really focused on how do we think about supporting the health and mental wellbeing of forcibly displaced immigrants and refugees who are in the United States, while elevating their stories to inform policies that are made that do directly impact those that we serve.

Aishwarya Raje: So, later today, you'll be presenting at an event here at Harris, which is organized by the Pearson Institute and by Rotary International, which is focused on evidence-based approaches to working with conflict-affected populations, which makes a lot of sense because we're here at Harris where our slogan is “Social impact down to a science”. So, can you speak to some of the evidence-based approaches that you use when working with these populations, and how do those approaches potentially change depending on the cultural context of the populations that you're working with?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: So, as part of my work, I started a mental health program for immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers called the RefugeeOne Wellness Program. This is a program that's nested in a larger refugee resettlement program, RefugeeOne, and we've been in operation since 2011. We've been resettling refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors from all over the world. And really for me, in thinking about how to effectively operate a program, we had to have a deep understanding of who we were serving.

And so, we integrated a lot of ongoing data collection methods to really get to the heart of what's the need: Who are we serving? What's their story, and what treatments are most effective? And so, we have been tracking what are the symptoms based on region of the world, length of time displaced, gender, age, level of education, because all of that directly impacts the treatment modalities that we use. And over time, in the eight years we've been doing this, some of it is just by what we do, what we learn while we're in the field, but also very intentional studies, descriptive studies, randomized controlled trials, to really understand and document services, needs, and impact.

And that's been part of the work of the Wellness Program. To illustrate, I think about some of the things that we just learned by surprise. When we were resettling refugees from Bhutan, from Southeast Asia, from Africa, we would do universal screening. I wanted that to be part of our programming because I wanted to remove the stigma of mental health. So, rather than say, “Okay, someone looks like they've got needs,” let's ask them, “Have you been sad? Have you had difficulty sleeping?” We said any adult that arrives is going to be asked questions about their health and wellbeing. We would ask you questions about your mood, about your appetite, about your sleep and your relationships with others.

And even with that data, we were able to see trends based on country of origin. How long were they displaced? Where were they displaced? And we used that to inform our treatment modalities. As we started to provide services, we realized that different communities responded to therapy very differently. I think therapy is very much a Western approach to addressing mental health problems and we'd have clients that would come to the first session and they would be supremely polite. And then they wouldn't come back to the next session. And we realized that the one-on-one, face-to-face was just too intense for them.

I would say generally, this was the case with our refugees and asylum seekers coming from Southeast Asia and from Africa, where culturally they're used to being in a collective, they're used to telling their story, their needs within a community-based kind of setting, within groups of people, not one-on-one with someone who's definitely not from their own community. But when it came to other communities, specifically those coming from the Middle East, from Syria and Iraq, what we noticed is that privacy was very important to them. That they weren't ready to share their needs, especially with a stranger who's not from the community. They didn't want to share that with others within their community. And so, we had to tailor their services.

So, what I'm describing is lessons learned that we've collected and tracked to really inform our modalities. Tested the impact of different treatment approaches, whether it's narrative approaches, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness practice, we've seen the level of effectiveness. We track our clients based on pretest and post-test to see is their symptom reduction around the areas that they struggle with most, with the hope of always moving them forward on that pathway to healing.

Marina Milaszewska: Hoda Katebi of Because We've Read and JooJoo Azad fashion blog utilizes economic empowerment to improve the refugee experience in Chicago. Her sewing factory in the Chicago area is called Blue Tin Production Co-op and employs immigrant and refugee women who may otherwise be barred from employment due to language or legal barriers. What do you think is the role of economics and personal finance in the mental health of refugees?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I think it's incredibly relevant that oftentimes, when we think about how people arrive into the United States, we think about their migration story and their story doesn't begin just when they arrive. We think about their experiences abroad, the time in which they are traveling to their next destination, whether that's a week, whether that is decades. And then we think about their experiences upon entering the United States.

For those that we're serving, and I think about the RefugeeWellness program, and I think of who we're serving right now, many of them have been displaced on average 17 to 20 years. And so, when you think about that time, just waiting for a resolution to come to the United States, when they come here, the first priority for them is not to talk about mental health. It's about getting the job. It's about learning the language and rebuilding their lives because no matter where our refugees are coming from around the world, the United States is still a beacon of hope.

They hear about the American Dream, and that is a priority for them. We also know that the policies, the funding that's allocated to US refugees, the State Department, is really not enough. That there is a housing allocation that really is just about three months of housing funds, where there is an expectation that new arrivals are going to be able to become self-sufficient in a very short period of time. And so, there is that driving force to stabilize themselves with jobs, stabilize the economics, and so, it is so critical.

We are lucky that we are in a time where there are more employment opportunities. We have, in the resettlement program, specific services, where we have employment staff that work with local companies, hotels, factories, the airport services, to make sure that they can serve as liaison for those that maybe had been farmers in their own home countries. Because really, the stress of not being able to put food on the table, the stress of not being able to pay the rent is overwhelming and it actually takes priority before they start talking about previous past trauma symptoms. It's in the here and now, and that's relevant survival. I think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. We're not going to get them to talk about past trauma if they're worried about their most basic needs being met. So, very critical.

Aishwarya Raje: Just going back a little bit to what you were saying about the different cultural context that you work with: in addition to managing personal finance and mental health, given the gender breakdown of the populations that you work with, what do you see as some of the unique challenges that women face? Whether they're trying to find employment or accessing mental health services or being a young mother, what are some of the challenges and maybe automatic obstacles that some of the women that you've worked with face?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Majority of our arrivals are women and children. When we think about those that are forcibly displaced, they tend to be the most vulnerable. And so, in terms of immediate challenges, we've been resettling over the last eight years very large families where dual income is critically important. Those coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, we've got a lot of single mothers. And what's hard in the current workplace is that we don't have standard shifts, second shift, third shift that operate from afternoon to late evening. We have to balance transportation that's available. Standard ordinary typical daycare programs that run from 7 to 6 oftentimes don't fit with the schedule of those that are seeking employment now. And the costs are also quite high for high quality childcare.

So, that's a barrier that's there, but we address that barrier by working with the community. Oftentimes we pair families together so that one parent, one family can watch children while another person takes a shift so that we can work it around some of those barriers so that it doesn't keep people from being able to get a job and to be able to provide for their families.

One of the trends that we've seen is that actually women are finding an easier time getting a job because especially during the summer months, even in the winter months, there's a lot of work around hospitality, and oftentimes they're looking for female employees. Women are not always seen as the viable candidate for factory jobs. It's a lot of hard labor. The challenge with that is potentially changing family dynamics. What happens when in cultures where the women never worked before, now they are the breadwinner? What's the power dynamic that we need to address in the family system as a result of that?

So, I think the challenges look different. They cut across ethnic groups, but in the spirit of looking for gainful employment and becoming self-sufficient, these are challenges, real challenges that directly impact how families function, how individuals function, and also a cumulative impact and the influence on mental wellbeing.

Marina Milaszewska: That's so fascinating how those roles are possibly getting flipped right now. So, for any students who are interested in doing some of the work that you are doing or similar with refugees and immigrants placing a focus on mental health and wellness, what do you think are some important experiences to grasp outside the classroom?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I would say getting to know the communities, because I've shared a number of the arrivals that are coming to the United States and they're incredibly diverse. And with each community, there are just different belief systems, different cultural traditions, different experiences. And so, to really be able to do this work well, we have to get to the heart of the uniqueness of each family.

I think generalizations are always helpful, but really starting where clients are and recognizing the uniqueness of their immigration story and their experiences is really at the heart of being able to do this work well. I think culture humility is a huge part of what we do. Recognizing that we don't know all the answers, and we've got to be ready to apologize and ask to learn and become partners in this work and recognizing that the people that we serve, they're incredibly resilient. I think when we oftentimes talk about conflict afflicted people, vulnerable populations, forcibly displaced populations, we put them into a box of having needs that they're at greater risk, that we need to pity them in some way.

And what I will say, the stories that I get to hear in therapy, the privilege of being able to serve these populations, they're so incredibly resilient. That they speak 5 to 10 languages in some cases where many of us probably speak only one to two, if we're lucky. That they have overcome insurmountable challenges and yet they're strong, and they're positive, and they're hopeful. And I think we just can't lose sight of the fact that they bring inherent strengths to our communities. And so, what we do in terms of our work with them is really just support them on that pathway to really thriving in a new country.

Marina Milaszewska: As you just mentioned, refugees face trauma due to loss of familiarity in space, place, routines, and family. When you are working with refugees and immigrants as a mental health practitioner, how do you take care of your own mental health?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Really good discipline. I think that secondary trauma is not something we talk about enough for immigrant and refugee mental health providers. That, to do our work well, we have to be able to be vulnerable and to take in the stories, but there's always a cost to that. And so, for me, it's really putting self-care as a high priority. To not wait to when I start to feel burnt out to the point that I'm not finding joy in the work. To be disciplined in making connection, to reflect on all the gains, to be able to seek services, my own therapy services, reflective supervision, to process what I'm seeing in the field, because really it is about sustaining yourself in the hard work, that's so incredibly important.

For students in the social work program in which I teach, that's also one of the lessons that we emphasize. Self-care, and even more so than that, a focus on mindfulness, that mindfulness is gaining quite a bit of attention, not only as an effective treatment modality for trauma-experienced populations, but for the professionals that are serving them. Learning how to quiet your mind so that you're less reactive and more responsive. I think that's something that's a skill that all of us need have, and certainly part of my ongoing practice so that I can be in the field for as long as I have been.

Aishwarya Raje: And we couldn't let you go without asking a public policy question. So, given the relatively resistant rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration towards refugees, immigrants, we're seeing things like Muslim ban and families being separated at the border. What do you see, especially gearing up for the 2020 presidential election, as the biggest policy challenges facing the issues that you work on?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Unfortunately, there are consequences to the anti-immigrant heated rhetoric out there, that there are populations that absolutely feel vulnerable as a result of the policies. And so, one of the charges we've put forward to clinicians and all of those that are advocates for immigrants and refugees is to tell the story. Because I think that oftentimes, we don't have an opportunity to control the narrative, that the narrative that's being spewed is one with a lot of hateful rhetoric.

And so, one of the things that we focused on at RefugeeOne is to show the positive side of what immigrants and refugees bring to the community. How they contribute to the economy, how they contribute to relationships, how they contribute to our schools. And the hope is that as we continue to spread this information that, that creeps up into the policy discussion, that they're not seen as a liability, they're not seen as a threat, but they're seen as contributing members of society that pay taxes. They want to rebuild their lives with dignity and safety, and that hopefully the policies reflect the wonderful contributions that they're making to our communities every single day.

Aishwarya Raje: Well, thank you so much Dr. Hilado for joining us and for all the incredible work you're doing.

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Thank you.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter

Root of Conflict


Evaluating Peacebuilding Interventions | Ada Sonnenfeld

How do researchers assess the impact of peacebuilding interventions? And what can we learn from examining existing literature as a whole? In this episode, we speak with Ada Sonnenfeld, a former Evaluation Specialist with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie). She talks about her work managing systematic reviews and evidence gap map projects, which can help policymakers make more informed decisions about how to use evidence – to make sense of what we know and learn from what has been done before. We discuss her recent review, where she and her colleagues synthesize evidence on programs that promote intergroup social cohesion in fragile contexts.

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast. You’re listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

How do researchers assess the impact of peace building interventions? And what can we learn from examining the existing literature as a whole? My name is Reema and, in this episode, Mwangi and I speak with Ada Sonnenfeld, a former evaluation specialist with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation.

Ada Sonnenfeld: So, I have a technical background in impact evaluations and other types of program evaluations for international development, with a focus on evaluations and evidence in fragile contexts, particularly peace building and governance.

Reema Saleh: She talks about her work, managing systematic reviews and evidence gap map projects, which can help policymakers make more informed decisions about how to use evidence to make sense of what we know and learn from what has been done before. We discuss her recent review where she and her colleagues synthesize evidence on programs that promote intergroup social cohesion in fragile context. So, first off, what is an impact evaluation?


Ada Sonnenfeld: So, an impact evaluation is an evaluation of a project, program, policy, that tries to establish not only what changed, but what part of that change can be attributed to the policy, program or project. And so, this might be done through statistical means where you can say, using either randomization or quasi-experimental designs, use econometrics, to identify what of that change you can say with some reasonable level of certainty was due to what you did or what you're evaluating, rather than all of the other factors at play.


Mwangi Thuita: Why would someone want to do an impact evaluation? Why are they important?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Impact evaluations help us understand what impact we are having. So, you would want to do this if, for example, you're a government, and you're trying to understand whether your policy to reduce inequality is having an effect on inequality. Or whether your policy to keep more children in school is actually keeping more children in school. Especially for government policies, these tend to be very expensive. And so, you want to make sure that the money that you're spending is having the expected results. Impact evaluations are expensive, so there are many types of programs that may not be conducive for impact evaluation, where it may not be the most relevant type of evaluation. But in general, you would want to do this to be as sure as you can be, that your impact is what you think it is.


Mwangi Thuita: Some people describe the increased popularity of impact evaluations as part of the measurement revolution and development. Aid and development organizations, they now expect impact evaluations for a lot of projects they fund. Does this expectation of evaluation affect the program design? Does it improve things?


Ada Sonnenfeld: There's a lot of things within that question. So, there are definitely more impact evaluations that are happening. 3ie has a repository of impact evaluations that at this point has over 4,000 international development programs and that is rapidly growing. When we look at the number of impact evaluations published per year, particularly around 2009, you see a big uptick in evaluations from lower- and middle-income countries that are published. So, that's great, because that means that we're growing the rigorous evidence base. Whether that means that programs are being designed differently, well, you can either say, “Are programs being designed in order to be conducive to evaluation?” And you also have another question on whether or not they are using the findings from those evaluations in order to improve design. I don't think we can answer either of those questions with any degree of certainty. We work really hard to try and get impact evaluations read and used by relevant stakeholders from implementers, policymakers, other academics working on the topic. But it's hard to track that.


Mwangi Thuita: What definition of social cohesion do you use for the systematic review? I know you said it varies, but what do you use for your review?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Social cohesion has been defined by many people in many different ways. And we adapted a definition from some work that was done by Chan et al. in 2006. And then we added to that some insights from Paletta and Cullen from 2000 and Kim et al. from 2020, which was some recent work that Mercy Corps was doing with the World Bank on social cohesion. So, fundamentally social cohesion is about the state of relationships between people, institutions, government, within a society. And you can think about social cohesion as a universe in many ways. You have the vertical relationships between the state and the society, between government and its citizens. And then you have horizontal relationships about people in institutions within civil society. For the purposes of our review, we focused just on the horizontal element of social cohesion while recognizing that for building sustainable peace, vertical social cohesion is also extremely important.


Within these sorts of horizontal and vertical spheres, you also have different types of ties between individuals and groups, and those might be bridging about intergroup, or across group ties and also bonding, within groups. Again, for this review, we're focused on bridging intergroup social cohesion. So, trying to understand how you can affect the relationships between social groups.


Finally, there are five different dimensions of social cohesion that we identified from those three main sources within the literature. And that is trust, a sense of belonging, a willingness to help, and a willingness to participate and an acceptance of diversity. And that last one, acceptance of diversity, is the one that is probably the most controversial within social cohesion discourse. There are lots of authors who have argued that it is a potential effect of a socially cohesive society rather than a necessary component of it. So, we decided to take a bit of a theoretical stand and say that, especially when you're thinking about fragile contexts, an acceptance of diversity actually does have to be a component of your conceptualization of social cohesion, because otherwise you could think of an authoritarian state that only allowed for a certain type of citizen to live their life freely, as a socially cohesive place.


And I think if people from different groups don't all feel a sense of belonging, then you don't have social cohesion. And it doesn't matter, even in the most homogenous state in the world, there is still diversity there. And whether that's people with disabilities or LGBTQ people or whomever, there are lots of different ways in which people are diverse, and nobody has only one identity. And so, you have to be able to have some level of acceptance for different identities within a community in order for something to be cohesive.


Mwangi Thuita:  What about fragility?


Ada Sonnenfeld: The definition of fragility that we used for the review was a very nuanced one. So, because within a systematic review, we have an explicit ex-ante. So, before we start the review, we say, “This is what we're going to include in this study.” And anything that meets these criteria we'll include. So, we wanted to focus on fragile contexts, and in order to operationalize a definition of fragility that would allow us to screen all of the potential records against consistent criteria, we focused on saying that either it would be in context in which the fragile states index had given the country a score of 90 or above, or it would be in all in lower- and middle-income countries, we're focused only there.


Or it would be a situation in which tensions between two groups were identified as being the driving rationale for the intervention. So, this allowed us to look also, for example, for studies that might have targeted the relationships between two different gangs in Central America, or we included studies from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are no longer classified as a fragile state, but the tensions between the two groups are still very present in society there. And there's still a lot of work trying to address the aftermath of the nineties. So, we had a definition of fragility that tried to recognize that fragility is not constant, either over time or within a country. And by saying that the focus of the study had to be tensions between groups that either were recently or were seen as at a risk of becoming violent, was the way that we tried to find relevant contexts.


Reema Saleh: What's unique about doing an impact evaluation in a conflict or a post-conflict setting?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Any kind of work that is happening in a conflict or post-conflict setting is going to be a little bit tricky because you have to be cognizant of the fact that your actions are going to interact with the context in a way that might have an impact on the conflict or the tensions or the potential. So, whereas all interventions should have some basic level of making sure that they do no harm, that bar becomes increasingly difficult to reach in a conflict-affected area, because the potential for doing harm becomes increased, because even something that you might think looks like a good intervention at first glance, such as giving vouchers to refugees in an area might have unintended consequences that create harm for those people. If, for example, you don't provide any support to vulnerable members of the host community.


Mwangi Thuita: You and your team at 3ie did a systematic review of impact evaluation literature, which covered 37 papers, I believe, and 31 unique interventions or intervention arms. So, could you tell us briefly about the systematic review, what motivated it and what were some of your main findings?


Ada Sonnenfeld: So, that systematic review grew out of an evidence gap map that we did of interventions that aim to build people and societies in fragile context. And so, the evidence gap map had identified a cluster of programs measuring the effects on social cohesion, but it took a wide range of different approaches in order to have that kind of impact. So, the social cohesion review identified five different groups of interventions ranging from radio dramas and media for peace to classroom, school-based peace education to intergroup contact through sports, to very complex, comprehensive, large scale programs that combined a number of different approaches. Overall, the review identified a pattern of small effects on social cohesion. But that's not really very surprising, because as we've said, interventions in fragile context tend to interact with the conditions for peace, but there's a lot of other factors that go into determining the relationship between two different social groups.


And so, we don't think it's that surprising that a social cohesion intervention alone doesn't have a very large effect on the relationships between groups and fragile contexts. However, we think it's really exciting that we're able to identify a pattern of small, positive effects that you could identify and see that well actually, these programs do have a place in the peacebuilding toolkit. They just are not going to solve all of the problems, which I think makes sense. That's a very headline finding. Within the review, like I said, we identified five different groups of interventions and we looked at the impact within each of those intervention groups. And we found, for example, that radio dramas tend to have on average, a positive impact on trust, and another group of interventions related to comprehensive multi-component programs that included elements of peace education, where they would hold workshops with community members.


And then from that workshop, they would then set up opportunities for people from the different groups to interact with each other, such as through negotiation committees or early warning systems. And then they would add to that an element of economic support. So, a way for people to work together by identifying a program, a small intervention that they could do in their community that would benefit both groups. And those kinds of comprehensive programs, we found an average and positive impact on trust and a willingness to participate. Amongst the school-based peace education interventions, the ones working with children, we identified positive impacts of the programs when they measured effects on the children who participated. There was one study that measured the effects on parents who did not participate, and we didn't find any effects there. And what we think that means is likely that such a school-based peace education program, working with children, might have a lot of capacity to influence how the children and the youth or the teenagers see each other, but that might not be sufficient for changing the way that the adults see each other, and you likely need to engage them directly.


Reema Saleh: So, one of your findings is that standalone interventions may not be enough to build resilient, social cohesion in fragile contexts without complementary interventions. So, what kind of complementary interventions do you have in mind? Is it realistic to expect major changes to group relationships without them?


Ada Sonnenfeld: I think it's not realistic to expect major changes to group relationships only through social cohesion interventions. I think they have a clear role to play, but fundamentally, the drivers of conflict in any situation are rarely identified as purely being about deep-seated intergroup prejudices. Prejudices are held by everybody, everywhere, but they don't tend to turn into violence except when there are other triggers at play. And so, I think having interventions that address those systemic drivers of conflict is very important. What those might look like will vary a lot on the particular context you're looking at.


So, there might be one context where there are major economic inequalities in that striving groups. Or there are even just perceived inequalities between how different groups are treated by the government and that might be driving tensions. In other situations, it may be tensions over the way that land is used. One type of community may want to use it in one way, another might want to use it in a different way.


So, there's often something else that's driving conflict. And that's why it's important to be very cognizant of the local context in which you're working and understand how your intervention may interact with those situations, but also to be realistic then about what you may or may not be able to change. When it says, “We need these complementary interventions addressing structural drivers of conflict,” that is not something that it's likely that any one actor can influence. And that's where you need the peace building community more as a whole, in a given context to say, “These are the different drivers that we can identify.” Is there a way that we can say, “Okay, this funder might focus on this element?” This funder might focus on that one and try and build a program and just coordinate in terms of how you're doing the various approaches, and more coordination might help.


Mwangi Thuita: Your findings also suggest that social cohesion programs that identify bottlenecks to intergroup social cohesion and carry out conflict assessments tend to have a larger and more positive effect. So, this kind of seems obvious, but it's also important to understand whether or not a particular context actually needs an intervention and the lack of relevance or appropriateness to the context can be at least part of the reason for seeing no impact. Did you find that most impact evaluations do comprehensive assessments like these and if not, why?


Ada Sonnenfeld: We're always working within systematic reviews from a place of imperfect information. So, what we do in order to identify the papers is we do a really extensive search of academic databases, websites from different actors, such as the World Bank and relevant implementers and donors. And we try to find all of the impact evaluations that we can that meet our criteria. And then we do an additional search for every study that we find that meets our criteria to identify other documents written about that program, to help us get as much information as we can about what they did. But we often can't find that information. And so, while within our study, we found only one or two impact evaluations that were clearly based off of conflict analyses and based on context assessments, that doesn't mean that none of the others did that. It just meant that we weren't able to find those studies and they didn't mention having done them.


So, just with that caveat in mind, I did think nonetheless, that it was surprising that very few of them mentioned having been based on conflict analyses, but I don't know if that's just because it wasn't reported or if it actually didn't happen. To your point as well, in terms of why they may not do that or why they may, I think it is surprising, but I also think it's not uncommon. It's not unique to social cohesion interventions or peace-building interventions. Other work that I've done for other types of interventions in fragile and in non-fragile context has also identified a similar finding around how often the bottleneck seems to have been misidentified. And that might relate to the fact that the intervention was wrong, in the sense that they were trying to implement something that wasn't needed in that context. But another potential source of that is that what they were measuring might not have been quite right.


That's where things get really complicated, because what social cohesion means is very context dependent. And so, you can take the example of Nigeria, where we had four different studies that took place in Nigeria, and two of them measured farmer and pastoralist communities, one targeted Christians and Muslims, and the third targeted people from different ethnic groups in the country. And so, those are three different types of social cleavages that different interventions were targeting just within a single country. So, what the social cleavages that you're targeting and how your intervention changes perceptions across that cleavage, is going to be very context dependent, and then how you measure it will also change. So, what it means, for example, to measure acceptance of diversity, a lot of people looked at whether or not people had friends from the other group, but they measured that in different ways. And they didn't always measure that in ways that were necessarily relevant.


And that's really tricky because maybe one way to deal with that is to say, “Oh, well, let's all measure the same thing.” but then, what if what you're measuring doesn't make sense for that particular context? So, you end up in this situation where there's an issue with bottleneck identification, but it's hard for us to say whether that's because they didn't do good baseline assessments of what the conflict dynamics were and what the needs were or whether it's because they weren't measuring things quite correctly. All I can tell you is that we couldn't find evidence of conflict assessments having been done. And we think they probably would be useful.


Mwangi Thuita: Given that social cohesion is often very contextual, so if you need a theory of social breakdown in each case that you're looking at, which involves contextual information – does that have implications for how generalizable the findings of impact evaluations are across the board?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Absolutely. I think one of the conversations that we've been having with Ray and with a lot of other actors who are looking at social cohesion as a way of working towards sustainable peace in fragile contexts, is that there's a need for a framework that is general enough that everybody can say, “Yeah, this is what we mean when we're talking about it,” but that the indicators can be hyper contextualized. And so, that you know where on your framework your indicator feeds in, but the indicator itself is based off of the local context. And that might help us move to a place where we can say, “Okay, this change in this context represented a big leap in the relationships between the two groups.”


Whereas in this context, all they measured was something that actually was quite a small step and that can help having a sense of where something maps onto a common framework would help us interpret the findings across contexts and help us better figure out how to use the findings from one impact evaluation in another context. Because that might say, “Okay, this evaluation, this intervention in this context actually had a really big impact on trust.” And maybe that helps us see why and how we can take that to another place.


The realist in me likes to always say that interventions themselves can't be replicated, but mechanisms can be transferred. And what we mean by that is the design will always have to be contextualized of your intervention. But the reactions that your design is trying to trigger in the people it targets, you can try and learn from that. So, if you can get people to work together collaboratively, that's a mechanism that you might be able to replicate, even if the way that you get them to work together, and the context, the setup might be very contextualized.


Reema Saleh: Do you think that evaluations are useful for testing assumptions about how development interventions affect change?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Yes. [Laughter] I do think they are useful for testing assumptions. I think they're very useful. Specifically impact evaluations can give us a lot of information about that, but it depends on how the impact evaluation is designed. I think increasingly we see impact evaluations being theory-based and using a theory of change. And that's incredibly important because that means that they have thought about. “All right, in order to get to social cohesion, these are the steps that need to happen.” And then you can see if, for example, you find a positive impact on an early-stage outcome, but not on a later stage, you can see where your theory of change might break down and then you can test your assumptions to try and see why that might be. Some really clever impact evaluations have done specific tests of different mechanisms to try and see what was driving change. And those are really interesting.


But you still have a lot of programs that just measure those sorts of high-level impact outcomes. And then you don't really know what goes on in the middle. And that's what we often call the black box of a randomized controlled trial, for example, is a classic one where you don't really know why you're seeing the results you're seeing. And so, what we would say is that that's why mixed methods are so important. You have your statistical methods to answer one part of your question, but that alone is likely not going to be enough without some kind of process evaluation, qualitative information, trying to see why you're seeing those results to help you interpret them correctly.


Mwangi Thuita: Would you say that these impact evaluations do a good job of measuring intermediate effects?


Ada Sonnenfeld: I would say that very few of the studies in our systematic review measured intermediate outcomes and effects on intermediate outcomes. So, whether they are capable of doing a good job, yes, they are very much so, but it's not often that they do. And that's I think really where I would like to see the field moving towards is “Okay, we're getting to the point where we recognize that having a theory of change is really important for any type of evaluation, impact evaluations and other types, because it can really help structure what kinds of questions you ask.” But what I often see is that evaluations, even where they have a theory of change at the beginning, will not revisit that theory of change after they have their findings to say what do these findings actually mean for my theory of change? Do they validate it? Do they challenge it?


Do they suggest actually it should be refined in this way? And maybe this is what the theory of change should look like. So, I often feel like that last step of closing the loop. And “All right, here's our initial theory of change.” This is what we thought was going to be happening. We measured outcomes against X, Y, and Z steps. So, intermediate steps and final impact outcomes. This is what we found and they'll often leave it at that. But that can sometimes be difficult if they then don't tie that back, because it can be really hard to interpret why you might see positive effects on some indicators and null effects or mixed effects on others. And so, you really need the researchers who are working with the program team. They're the best place to then say, “Okay, what does this mean for the theory of change?” And that will also help us when it comes to understanding how the findings from that study might inform future studies as well.


Mwangi Thuita: And one thing that I think was intentional in your review is you don't include interventions that aim to build sustainable peace by providing economic support for things like job training. So, like cash transfers also. Could these be some of the complementary interventions that you were talking about earlier?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Yes and no. I mean, the reason that we didn't include those was not because we don't think they are a relevant approach to building social cohesion, but rather it's because the evidence gap map that I mentioned earlier actually identified a large number of ongoing studies of cash transfers that are trying to measure outcomes on social cohesion. And so, that would have meant that, for us to have synthesized that literature now would be a bit premature because there are so many ongoing studies, those findings would change within the next two or three years. And so, that was the rationale behind excluding those from our study. I think it will be really interesting to synthesize that literature in about two or three years, not right now. I mean you could right now, but it's likely to change.


Whether or not those address underlying drivers of contentions between the communities, I think is a slightly different question that that synthesis will probably have to answer. Cash transfers can be really important in humanitarian aid context and in addressing short-term needs. Whether they are the structural changes that you need in order to shift the situation for those communities in the long run is a question that's still open.


Reema Saleh: I was curious why there were a lot of countries that never had impact evaluations.


Ada Sonnenfeld: Why that might be?


Reema Saleh: Yeah. I was curious kind of why it's kind of uneven.


Ada Sonnenfeld: It's very uneven. I mean, the evidence gap map is maybe a better source of that than the systematic review, but you can see there that some of the analysis we did, there's not an obvious correlation between, for example, how fragile a country is or how much ODA it receives, how much official development assistance it receives, and how many impact evaluations there are. You have quite a large number comparatively of impact evaluations from Afghanistan and DRC than plenty of other places like Syria that receive a huge amount of ODA. And Yemen. So, I don't know why there haven't been evaluations in those places. That's not a question that our research was able to ask. You would have to do a lot of stakeholder research and asking all of the different donors and all of the different universities why they don't research those areas.


But what we try to do is just say, hey, there's some really important geographic gaps where we don't have rigorous evidence. And maybe hopefully people will read the evidence gap map and see that and say, actually it would be really beneficial, not just to our own programming, but to the global evidence-base to build evidence from those less well-studied contexts.


Mwangi Thuita: Yeah. Well, thanks. Thanks Ada so much. Thanks for all your time.


Ada Sonnenfeld: You're very welcome.


Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Ada Sonnenfeld. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh. Check our show notes to access the full report discussed in this episode. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


How Corruption Fuels Violence and Disorder | Gretchen Peters

The relationship between illegal financial flows and state-level violence is present in conflicts around the world, and is especially pronounced in Afghanistan. In particular, the country’s thriving drug market based on the opium trade has proven to be a major economic factor that has been fueling the ongoing conflict. In this episode of Root of Conflict, Pearson Fellows Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita speak with Gretchen Peters, Executive Director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime (CINTOC) about why the political economy of the war in Afghanistan is so poorly understood, and the connections between criminal networks, weakened institutions, and breakdown into disorder.

Eduardo Ortiz: Hi, my name is Eduardo Ortiz, and you are listening to University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.


Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research Institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.


Aishwarya Raje: The relationship between illegal financial flows and state level of violence is present in conflicts around the world and is especially pronounced in Afghanistan. In particular, the country's thriving drug market based on the opium trade has proven to be a major economic factor that has been fueling the ongoing conflict. My name is Aishwarya Raje, and in this episode of Root of Conflict, Mwangi Thuita and I speak with Gretchen Peters, Executive Director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime. Drawing on her role at CINTOC as well as her decades-long career as a writer and journalist, Gretchen talks through why the political economy of the war in Afghanistan is so poorly understood, as well as the connections between criminal networks, weakened institutions and breakdown into disorder.


Mwangi Thuita: Gretchen, thank you so much for joining us today.


Gretchen Peters: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.


Mwangi Thuita: So, to start, can you tell us about the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime, and what your role as Executive Director of the organization looks like?


Gretchen Peters: Sure. I had worked for several years as had my colleague and co-founder Kathleen

Miles. We had both worked as consultants to the Defense Department and to U.S. law enforcement.

And what we realized was that a lot of efforts to fight organized crime and violence around the world were perhaps well-intentioned, but were having the opposite effect than wasn't what was intended, and we felt that it was important to establish a center that would be focused on fighting the systems that support crime and corruption. The corruption had to be taken into account in any program to counter organized crime. My 20 years or so working as a journalist before I became a consultant to the U.S. government, I worked as a journalist for many different parts of the world.


And what I found was that what was often the dominant narrative of why people were fighting

each other in conflicts that never ended, whether it was Sunni's fighting with Shia, or Muslims fighting Christians, or some other thing that was going on, was really just a smokescreen for powerful forces that were often funded by elicit activity, that had in many cases, corrupted powerful institutions of the state or had in some places that I've worked, replaced the state or certain aspects of it, either as insurgents or warlords or just major power brokers that sort of operated from the shadows. These shadow economies prevented the violence and the conflict from going away because the shadow economies depended on the lawlessness for their business to go well. A good example of that would be the opium trade in Afghanistan.


I'm convinced that one of the reasons that peace process after peace process collapses is because there are so many constituencies that benefit from the horrific continuation of violence there – they don't want the war to end. There's almost always a spoiler that takes out the peace process, just when it's starting to reach progress. More recently, Kathleen and I have done a lot of work in Africa

and what we're seeing there, it's distinct from Afghanistan, but we're seeing these often foreign

criminalized forces coming in and really hollowing out institutions of states, in multiple countries.

It's been sort of most famously documented in South Africa with a state capture by a number of groups. But the most famous was an Indian family that became very close to the former ruler. But we're seeing similar things, and in some cases, it involves East Asian and generally Chinese groups. In some cases, there's been Russian groups. We've tracked the involvement of Iranian and Lebanese criminal groups in other parts of central Africa, and they almost seem to operate from the same playbook. It's fascinating to study but the impact it has on societies is devastating. It implicates education systems, the economy, healthcare, all sorts of stuff get negatively impacted by it.


Mwangi Thuita: And on the topic of Afghanistan, in your book, Seeds of Terror, you illustrated a really vivid picture of a thriving drug market built by the Taliban, where they make millions of dollars every year from the opium trade. Can you talk us through the political economy of this conflict and why you think it's so poorly understood or poorly represented, when we talk about the war in Afghanistan?


Gretchen Peters: One issue that I think is most poorly understood, and this is not unique to

Afghanistan, we've seen the same thing in places like Mexico and Columbia and other parts of the world, is that human beings have the intuitive response of fighting crime and fighting problems where they see them, where they're most visible. And the most visible aspect of the drug trade – well, there's two aspects that are visible. One is the farm areas where the crops are grown, and another area is if at the other end of the drug supply chain, if there are people dying and there's street markets and corners, where drug dealers sell drugs, those are the visible things that law enforcement tends to go after. But often, the real power brokers that control the supply chain, they're certainly not the farmers in any drug, and they're certainly not the guys selling dime bags on street corners. They're the traffickers who are in the middle, and in particular, they're the folks that finance this trade and those people almost virtually never go to jail. Occasionally, you might see law enforcement arrest a drug kingpin, and certainly, there've been a number of drug kingpins in Afghanistan, like Haji Juma Khan, Haji Bashir Noorzai, Haji Bas Mohammad that were arrested and have been in those three cases brought to the United States to face jail time. But the money around the Afghan drug trade has virtually never been investigated.


I've done consultations with U.S. intelligence. I've met with the Brits about this. It's quite clear that the money related to the opium trade, which is billions and billions of dollars annually, is not under a mattress in Kandahar. Some of it is in Pakistan and Iran, some of it is in the UAE and banks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But quite a lot of it is in Europe, it's in the United States. I, at one point, when I was working for the DOJ and the Defense Department, I mapped out a money laundering operation that the Taliban were running that extended as far from Afghanistan as Northern California. And nobody had ever looked into the financing of the Taliban beyond Afghanistan. And that's a ridiculously myopic view of how that insurgency is financing itself.


If we’re looking beyond what's going on in Afghanistan, we're not understanding the full scale of how the Taliban as an organization - and the Taliban has many different factions so I’m simplifying a bit – but no one's getting a full picture of how the insurgency finances itself without looking at the full supply chain that is funding the insurgency through drugs and other criminal activities. Some factions and within those factions, some commanders within the Taliban are making the enormous amount of money from supporting and facilitating the drug trade, or in some cases running drugs themselves. And other parts of Afghanistan where there's not as much or no narcotics grown, we see insurgent commanders funding themselves through kidnapping regimes, through controlling illegal mining operations, through all sorts of extortion rackets. And again, this is common to insurgencies around the world. This is not something that is unique to Afghanistan, and it's also important to acknowledge in Afghanistan that there are a lot of warlords and local commanders that are on the government’s side that are engaging in the same criminal activities. And so, the people stuck in the middle are the Afghans, ordinary Afghans that are just really between Iraq and a hard place. And it's a tragedy.


Mwangi Thuita: Can you walk us through the process of tracking and mapping these networks and maybe

some of the political hurdles that come into play when you're trying to disrupt the flow of money and undermine these criminal operations?


Gretchen Peters: Yes, that's quite a big question. So, in terms of how we map these organizations, we first start out usually by reading as much as we can that's available in the public record or depending we're working with the government, they might have government reports that aren't available to the public that we're able to read or to look over. So, we first try to learn as much as we can. We then try to figure out from those documents and public records, who seems to know about what's going on and who we can speak to. And then we will go out and conduct typically dozens of interviews, usually structured interviews to try and figure out. We have about a 12-page set of interview questions that go through the different phases of a criminal supply chain, or really any supply chain, to understand how goods move in one direction, how money moves, and how financing of transactions occurs.


We will then, to what extent possible…[…] it depends on the commodity, for example, we've done a lot of work trying to understand the illegal ivory trade between Africa and Asia. And so, we've looked at drug seizures and mapped out down to who owns the trucks that delivered shipments that later turned out to have ivory in them, tracing back the license plates, and then, the ownership of who owns the home where the truck was registered, to see if we can start to piece it together. And some of it will be deadends, but sometimes, eventually, I should say, we're almost always able to put together a picture of who we believe the criminal network is. And then that also provides   us with more leads of people we can speak to.


So, this can often in and of itself be a six-to-nine-month process. To map something like that out can take an enormous amount of time. And when I was writing Seeds of Terror, and I was trying to map out the Taliban, or my understanding of the Taliban, that was about a five-year process. And over the course of that process, it became less and less possible to function and to operate in some of the areas where I needed to be. And so, I fortunately had worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for a long time. So, I was able to do things that many foreigners wouldn't be able to because I had local friends and they would take me in. So there reached a point when the guys I was working with said, well, we can't drive you down there unless you sit in the backseat and wear a burka.


And then they started saying, well, you can't come down. We're not going to be able to take you in there. We can't take you in there, but we can bring people out or we can't take you in there at all, or it's just not going to happen. And in those cases, I would then send one of my local research assistants to conduct an interview. but we did have to be very careful, and it created significant barriers to the project. But one thing that I have found really in most places that we've worked, I mean, as long as we have trusted local researchers and partners that we're working with…people are so frustrated by this, in any place we've been, nobody likes to live in a place that is infested by crime and corruption.


People often ask me if we're scared to do this work. And the answer is of course. Sometimes it's scary and we're very nervous about going into a place or meeting with a certain person. But I'm more scared about not doing anything about this and not trying to figure it out and not trying to figure out solutions. I'm more afraid of what's going to happen to our planet and our communities if we don't. And so, we have been very, very lucky, but I think part of it is that we are in there earnestly, trying to figure out how the system works, and people seem very grateful to talk to us. And we haven't ever exposed anybody that didn't want to come out, so I suppose that helps us too. But over time, we then are able to build a map to say, these are the roles and functions in the supply chain that move commodities.


And then we created a separate map, usually going the other way. When I say map, I mean like a

diagram. It’s often laid out in a combination of like Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, just because those are programs that lots of people have. We've used network analysis programs as well, but I mean, I can do it with post-its and string on a wall…it’s just to sort of show the progression and to explain how stuff moves from one place to another, and how money oils that system. What we found in a number of places…I did a project a few years ago in Gabon, in Central Africa, which was really interesting looking at the ivory trade. And I was working with the Gabonese government and their national parks and the anti-poaching unit within their national park system.


And we spent months mapping out the poaching gangs, I guess you'd call them the criminal groups that were poaching elephants. And then on top of that, we mapped out the networks that were

exporting ivory, and they were also in many cases, exporting rosewood and other endangered

timber. And what we realized, the Gabonese commander and I, what we realized was that he and his guys were going out into kind of remote jungle areas that were dangerous, if nothing else,

because there's yellow fever and Ebola and etc. but also armed poachers. And within days, they would be arrested. And so, then we set off in a project to map the corrupt networks that existed on top of the criminal supply chain.


Because what was happening, was that every time they'd go out and launch an operation to arrest

Somebody, within three or four days, they'd be released on some technicality. And so, we were later able to map out all the judges and more senior officials that were on the take and the country. It was a really fascinating project. And I spoke to him, I think it was about six months ago and asked him how it was going. And he said, “It’s still very difficult,” and I said, “Well, what’s your biggest problem? Is it crime or corruption?” And he said, “Without a doubt, it’s the corruption.”


So that's become in many ways for me, more of a focus than the criminals themselves. If you have a government that's clean, that's functioning effectively, criminals don't really have much room to operate. Corruption really is the grease that keeps the machine going.


Aishwarya Raje: So you talked about the importance of having local friends and working with

local researchers. And I think often times in academic circles, when they talk about conflict resolution, it's told from a very kind of high-level analytical perspective, and often misses out on the perspective of local voices and local communities. So, can you share some experiences that you've had with local communities that you've worked in, whether in Afghanistan or anywhere else you've conducted field work that perhaps challenged what you thought you knew about the conflict, or made you think about the conflict differently?


Gretchen Peters: Yeah, totally. I mean, first of all, I'm alive and in one piece today because of my local colleagues in multiple different countries. The number of times I have been physically rescued or pulled out of a situation when it started to turn, I could maybe count on two hands the number of times that's happened. But I certainly would not be alive today if it weren't for my local friends and colleagues who in many cases were taking far greater risks than I was to, to go out in these communities and ask these questions. I think one of the things that was hardest for me to understand at first was the extent to which you can have battlefield enemies in a place like Afghanistan. But we also saw this in the Balkans that were literally killing each other by day and yet at night would be collaborating to traffic drugs.


And so, that was something that took me a long time to get my head around, and yet I've learned that it's incredibly common in conflict that enemies will still get along when they need to. When there's opportunity for money to be made, they will find a way to reach a solution. And I think it's an important lesson for us in terms of peacebuilding approaches, that you have to understand the political economy of conflict, and if you can help opposing sides reach a solution that is economically acceptable to them, where both sides are going to make money or both sides are going to see themselves getting some kind of financial slice of the pie at the end, where their communities and their backers will be supported financially and will be able to survive. It can provide you a pathway towards some sort of conflict resolution.


Mwangi Thuita: That’s a great segway into my next question, which is about how to deal with the conflict elite. So, in Afghanistan and with respect to the Afghanistan war right now, there are peace talks going on in Doha that are attempting to resolve this dispute and pave the way for a U S withdrawal. Now, I mean, the chances of that actually happening, many people would say are low. But from your perspective, in terms of incorporating what we know about the political economy of conflict, why is it important to think about a peace dividend for the conflict elite, when sometimes it seems like there's more pressing, more important issues?


Gretchen Peters: Well, it's a really good question. And I’m also impressed when anybody else uses terms like conflict elite because it's something that I obsess over, and that I think that a lot of people think about or even identify, but it's certainly a case in Afghanistan, that that was a country that many of the power brokers, many of the conflict elite are precisely that. They became powerful as a result of the conflict and their families or their tribes were not powerful before. And so, they will potentially see themselves as losing influence, losing income at the end of the conflict. So, I think one of the most important things to do, whether you're trying to investigate, say, our messed up

healthcare system in this country, or why a conflict is continuing in a place like Mozambique or

Afghanistan, nothing seems to solve it.


For me, the first order of business is to figure out who's benefiting from it continuing to happen, Who’s making money off of the conflict and the perpetuation of the conflict. And if you can get those people who are benefiting from it to agree for it to end, then I think you're on the road to recovery. Even if you can just figure out who they are that’s benefiting from it, you're halfway to a solution, but in Afghanistan, I think we're seeing now with the explosion of violence that's happening, and in particular in Helmand province, which is the number one province for producing poppy in Afghanistan, that there's forces at work that don't want this peace deal to go through. They're not complying with the ceasefire.


So, I don't have a lot of optimism about where this is going. There’s going to have to be some kind of settlement with the Taliban, but I don't think a settlement that involves bringing the Taliban into the government is a good idea. So, I think that the international community should be negotiating with Afghanistan's moderates, of which there are many, instead of their violent drug trafficking extremists of which there are few. So, I think it's unfortunate the decisions that have been made around the Doha Accord.


Mwangi Thuita: In closing, I want to ask a broader question about how you see the causal relationship between the kinds of illegal financial flows that we're talking about and violence and disorder. That is, after all, the theme of this podcast. So, do you think it's more the case that the criminal networks are simply exploiting weakened institutions that have brought about civil conflict and violence, or do their activities actually precipitate a breakdown into violence and disorder?


Gretchen Peters: I think the issue you're talking about goes in both directions. I think that the illicit financial flows can both be part of the asymmetric warfare campaign for insurgent and violent groups.They can help to finance attacks. They can help to finance corruption. They can have a very corrosive impact. Plus, the strength of insurgent or criminal gangs perpetuates or pushes the belief among the community that the government is weak and ineffectual. I think that the illicit flows can have a very damaging impact on a variety of levels. The other issue is that, and there's a group here in D.C. called Global Financial Integrity that does a lot of really good work tracking this issue, but it lists that financial outflows from a lot of countries in the developing world, in particular, they've done some really great work in Africa, are often 7 to 10 times higher than aid and development inflows and foreign direct investment. And so, at the same time that there are efforts to try and stabilize unstable countries, the outflow of cash is really just sucking the place dry, sucking its bone marrow out.


Aishwarya Raje: Well Gretchen, you’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you so much for speaking with us.


Gretchen Peters: Thank you. Aishwarya. Thank you Mwangi.


Aishwarya Raje: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Gretchen Peters. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of the series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the Pearson and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


Is There Hope for the Afghan Peace Process? | Laurel Miller

The war in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion in 2001 is almost two decades old. In recent years there’s been a growing appetite for a non-military resolution to the conflict. In this episode, Pearson Fellows Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita speak with Laurel Miller, Asia Program Director at International Crisis Group and a former U.S. State Department official working on Afghanistan and Pakistan, about the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government in Doha and how the U.S.’s goals in Afghanistan have evolved over the course of the war. 

Nadia: This is Nadia and you're listening to University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.


Root of Conflict Interviewers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research Institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.


Aishwarya Raje: The war in Afghanistan has ravaged on for decades and peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban officials during that period have often broken down, time and time again, with a number of foreign actors involved in the conflict and in the negotiations, the most prominent being the United States, reaching a comprehensive peace agreement has proven to be exceedingly complex. But now, with a new set of negotiations taking place in Doha, we may be seeing a window of opportunity to make progress towards peace. My name is Aishwarya Raje, and in this episode of Root of Conflict, Mwangi Thuita and I speak with Laurel Miller, the Asia Program Director at International Crisis Group. Laurel discusses the intricacies of the war in Afghanistan and how they've evolved over the years, and the best-case scenario for what a peace agreement can look like. Laurel, thank you so much for joining us today.


Laurel Miller: My pleasure to be with you.


Aishwarya Raje: Your topic during the Pearson Global Forum was, of course, a case study on Afghanistan, which is undoubtedly a very complex conflict. We could probably do an entire podcast series just to talk about it, but can you give us, or lay out for us who the main players have been in this conflict? And from a U.S. perspective, how have our goals in Afghanistan changed over the last 20 years?


Laurel Miller: Sure. And, and I should say I came to this position at International Crisis Group already having focused quite a bit in recent years on policy issues related to Afghanistan. It's one of our priority areas within my current job, which I've been doing not even for two years now, but, had done some analytical work of my own when I was at the RAND Corporation related to Afghanistan.


And I also served in the U.S. State Department from 2013 through the middle of 2017 as the deputy, and then the Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and was working on issues related to War and Peace in Afghanistan at that time. So that’s what I drew on in my presentation at the Pearson Forum, and in other work that I do. So, the conflict there, it's multi-sided and complex, and it has both internal and external dimensions. Often, from an American political and popular perspective, we think of the war in Afghanistan as the war that has been there since after 9/11, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and toppling of the Taliban regime there. And that is one dimension of the war, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan at the end of 2001, because the Taliban regime had harbored Osama bin Laden and had refused to hand him over.


The U.S. took the position at that time that it needed to not only endeavor to capture or kill bin Laden and his associates, but also make an example of the Taliban regime in order to say that, state sponsorship, state harboring of terrorists will not be tolerated. So, one dimension of the conflict in Afghanistan is that the United States invaded and gradually built up the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan over several years. After having wiped away the Taliban regime, it was one of the key actors in installing a new government there, putting in place a new constitution, elections, et cetera. But then the Taliban regrouped, from safe havens in Pakistan. Across the border from Afghanistan, the Taliban regrouped as an insurgency and the United States then became embroiled in a counterinsurgency war against the Taliban.


So that's one dimension. Rolling a little bit back further in time, Afghanistan was not a fully peaceful place before 9/11. There had been a civil war in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union withdrew from the country and the U.S., which had been heavily engaged in supporting the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, including bin Laden, decided to exit the region and the country descended into a civil war in the early 1990s, which then created the opening for the Taliban to sweep to power and hold power in the later part of the 1990s. The Taliban had by and large consolidated control of the country, but not complete control of the country, and there were dimensions of warfare that were still going on related to that fight even before the U.S. invaded after 9/11.


And so, there's a war still going on in Afghanistan that has a lot to do with what was happening in the 1990s, even before the U.S. invaded. That's another dimension and layers to the conflict in Afghanistan. And then, Afghanistan also is surrounded by some meddlesome neighbors, it's in a very difficult neighborhood. The key players in this regard are both Pakistan and Iran, but others too have over many decades sponsored, favored, proxies and clients in the country, and have, have helped to perpetuate warfare there through these relationships. And as I mentioned, Pakistan, in particular, is consequential in that it gave safe haven to the retreating Taliban figures who then regrouped as an insurgency. And so, there's another dimension to the conflict and the set of actors in Afghanistan that has to do with the external players within the neighborhood, not to mention the United States and NATO as external players further afield, and Russia and China too have interests and involvement in Afghanistan. So, it's a particularly complex conflict because of these both internal and external dimensions that overlap, but also represent distinct sets of interests on the part of all of these players.


Mwangi Thuita: So, what has changed in the last few years, so that there's now more of an emphasis on a negotiated settlement as opposed to achieving a military victory, as a precursor to U.S. withdrawal, even though there's still, like you mentioned, during your panel, a low likelihood that, a peace agreement will be agreed upon and implemented properly.


Laurel Miller: So, I think you have to look a little bit back in time to see how the U.S. came to this point of being focused on negotiating a settlement and negotiating directly with the Taliban. Initially in Afghanistan, the U.S. saw itself as being initially after the invasion as outright victorious, militarily. It didn't capture bin Laden. He famously escaped and later was caught and killed in Pakistan. But the U.S. did very quickly topple the Taliban regime over time and was able to pretty much decimate the Al Qaeda presence in the region and saw itself in those first few years after the invasion as having really utterly defeated the Taliban. From the time when the Taliban began to reconstitute as an insurgency, gradually, certainly by 2005, 2006, it was clear that there was an insurgency.


I think it's fair to say from that point on the war from a U.S. perspective has never gone well. The U.S. from that point began to increase the number of forces steadily. Even before Obama came into office, there were already a series of surges. And then there was what was literally called a surge in the beginning of the Obama administration, to at the peak, there were 100,000 American forces deployed in Afghanistan. In 2002 it was like tiny numbers, a few thousand at most, and then to a 100,000 American forces in Afghanistan at the peak, plus NATO forces for a total of between 140 and 150,000, plus in any military deployment like this, you then have to multiply several times more contractors, including doing military-like tasks in addition to this number of troops on the ground.


The reason why the numbers kept going up is because the war wasn't going well, and the U.S. saw the U.S. military advocated for the application of more resources to try to turn it around, to change the trajectory. From the peak period, already by 2013, 2014, the number of U.S. forces was diminishing because the idea was that the surge of forces in the Obama administration was supposed to be temporary, and so there was a plan to surge up and then come down. And at the same time, there was an emphasis placed on building up the capabilities of Afghan security forces to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban, but still with the U.S. engaging in counter-terrorism efforts. But even with this sort of peak, and then initial decline of U.S. forces there, it was never really turning around.


The Taliban was steadily gaining ground and even with the enormous devotion of American resources to building up the Afghan security forces, they still hadn't and still haven't today proven capable of entirely on their own handling the counterinsurgency without American backing. From around 2015, when the number of U.S. forces really began to dip, it became even harder for the Afghan security forces, and there were even more gains by the Taliban. And even today, with the numbers of U.S. forces almost down – by next week, it's supposed to be down to 4,500 – obviously the Afghan forces are carrying much more of the burden of the fighting, much, much more, but still, in really the most exigent circumstances, they need American military support, particularly air support, meaning they need the bombing of Taliban positions in order to not be overrun by the Taliban.


And the Taliban has continued to improve its position. So that's the trajectory of the war fighting. And I mentioned that in answer to your question about the peacemaking, because it's the explanation. If the U.S. had been militarily successful in partnership with the Afghan government, and eliminating the Taliban insurgency, then I don't think anyone would be talking about a political settlement, or they'd be talking about one that's really just negotiating the terms of the Taliban surrender. But that's not the case. There are many people who think if the U.S. started being serious about a negotiation much earlier, it could have negotiated on much more favorable terms, but as the Taliban has gained strength, we are nowhere there in negotiating the terms of the Taliban surrender. It was more than a decade ago now that some American policymakers recognized that the war was not winnable and that there had to be an effort to begin trying to negotiate a political settlement of the conflict.


But for many years, that effort was in fits and starts. It was, “We're going to keep going with the war effort, and this is something we'll do on the side.” And it doesn't usually work out very well if you don't put something that hard at the center of your efforts. And so, it was very ebb and flow of attention to this, changing more affirmatively, more concertedly in the direction of trying to negotiate a political settlement only around the end of 2018. Even in the Trump administration, for the first year, there was a mini-surge, again, trying to turn around the war and negotiate from a position of strain. It didn't happen that way. There wasn't a positive change from an American perspective in the war, and so, efforts were redoubled in early 2018, not coincidentally, because you have a president who campaigned on and seems to still want the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan as a policy priority.


Aishwarya Raje: So, given that context, how consequential is the upcoming US presidential election going to be on the peace process? What are some differences we could expect from four more years of Donald Trump versus a new Biden administration?


Laurel Miller: Yeah, the short answer is very consequential, potentially, even though I'm not expecting a major change of direction if Biden wins. If Trump wins the second term, then based on the recent trajectory of the policy efforts, as well as the recent public statements by Trump himself and the tweets and his national security advisors’ comments, which suggest a plan to reduce U.S. forces even more by another half, down to just 2000, around there by January. I think that's a pretty safe bet that that would continue and that the ability of U.S. diplomats to try to negotiate a decent political settlement will be much reduced if Trump wins, because the policy will be a policy about troop deployments, not a policy about Afghanistan. I think Trump has pretty clearly shown that, because he said he really doesn't care about Afghanistan.


He doesn't see the risk or threat there, or issues of U.S. credibility, or what do allies think about, it's really just about troops, no troops. And so, I think that you would see a push to just make as fast and dirty a deal as you can, so that you least have a fig leaf for a complete withdrawal. If Trump loses, we have a question as to what happens in the period of time while he's still president after that loss. And there, I think we're all expecting if Trump loses, to have all of oxygen sucked out of the air by litigation of what the result of the election was. He's already relitigated it. So, people post litigate it too.


And so the question in my mind, then is, did he just lose interest in what he said about Afghanistan, and it's all really just about litigating the result of the election, literally and figuratively litigating, and is Afghanistan just off the radar and forgotten about, and nothing happens between that and the inauguration? Or, does he decide he's just going to burn it all down? And now, his legacy is “I said I was going to do it, and now I'm just going to do it.” That's possible to be too. I think the bureaucracy would have ways of slowing down anything serious that happens between the election and the inauguration, but not necessarily to a great degree. So, there's a lot of uncertainty about that period. If Trump loses and, we get through the November to January period without too much happening with the status quo being essentially preserved, then I think there's an opportunity for the Biden administration to do a bit of resetting, first of all, to kind of re-energize the peacemaking effort, which is right now, pretty much stalled because of the U.S. election – other factors too - but neither side of this negotiation is foolish enough to think they can count on what will happen after an American election.


So, they are being very careful. We're not going to take any risk by entering into any agreements that they're not sure about. So, things are stalled right now because of the election, and if they stay stalled, there'll be an opportunity for Biden administration to re-energize its peacemaking efforts, to maybe repair some of the gaps, to probably take a little more time and be a little more orderly about it. I think they will still be focused on peace process, but the issues themselves are not going to get any easier, and the prospects of ultimate success in a peace negotiation are not going to be orders of magnitude higher, even with a more orderly American foreign policy.


Mwangi Thuita: So, there've been some efforts to imagine alternative histories of the war in Afghanistan, how U.S. strategy could have been implemented a bit better. Last year, Harris professor, Ethan Bueno de Mesquito wrote in the Boston Review that we were always going to lose the war in Afghanistan because, and I want to quote him, here, “Counterinsurgencies are wars of attrition. Wars of attrition are won through resolve and the side facing an existential threat will always have the greater resolve.” He suggested that what could have been a successful, narrowly defined counter-terrorism operation became an unwinnable counter-insurgency moving forward. Do you think the U.S. has learned the right lessons about counterinsurgencies?


Laurel Miller: I largely agree with what you just described from that position, but with some caveats, because I'd want to know what that alternative looked like to getting embroiled in the counterinsurgency. To say we just go in, we talk with the government, and then we say, see you later, that doesn't work particularly well either in terms of stable outcomes. So, there there's a lot to unpack about what that alternative history really looks like. In terms of whether the U.S. has learned the lessons, I'm not sure at all. I don't think the lessons have even been drawn fully yet about Afghanistan, much less learned. And what I think we've seen happen in recent years within the U.S. military establishment is simply sticking your fingers in your ears about counterinsurgency. It's like, “Oh, we just don't talk about counterinsurgency, we don't do counter-insurgency anymore. We're not going to do it again. So why should we bother to think too much about what went right and what went wrong?” I’m exaggerating slightly. The military does have its procedures for doing lessons learned, but it's only a partial exaggeration. There's just been such a rapid swinging away from the notion that we're ever again be in a counterinsurgency, just like happened after Vietnam when it was “Well, we're not going to do that again.” And then lo and behold, we did do that again. That inhibits really learning the lessons. What I do agree with is the idea that the United States could be a successful counter insurgent in Afghanistan, without the Afghans themselves being successful counterinsurgents. That to me is highly problematic.


And if you look at the literature about counterinsurgency doctrine and the supposed success stories of counterinsurgency, that the doctrine is drawn from, the successful examples are not of external powers being the primary counterinsurgents. They are of the internal power being the successful counterinsurgent. And so, to me, that was the fundamental flaw of the U.S. strategic approach to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, was the idea that without the Afghans, that we could be the primary determinant of success in the counterinsurgency. Now, I don't mean to suggest that no one paid attention to the Afghan forces – there was also an effort to build up their capability – but I think there was a lack of realistic appraisal of how quickly and successfully you are going to be able to build up the indigenous Afghan capability to fight the counterinsurgency.


Aishwarya Raje: So finally, in the context of the peace process, you've talked about how any peace deal being brokered in the immediate future is highly unlikely, but what would a successful peace deal look like for Afghanistan? Part of the answer might be depending who you ask just based on the number of actors that are involved in it. But, let's say for example, if we look at Afghanistan and the U.S., how do we align our best-case scenarios?


Laurel Miller: Yeah. So, first to be clear, I'm a proponent of the peace process in Afghanistan. And I think the chances of success are not zero, and the payoff is high enough that the efforts should be made. Even if you can't say that the likelihood of success is high, from an American perspective, I think the bottom line needs to be what the Afghans themselves can agree to. So, I don't think the U.S. should be that particular about what some of the details of a political settlement look like, even in terms of issues like hot-button issues, like women's rights in Afghanistan. Now, I feel comfortable saying that because there's enough diversity of voices and participants that I don't think that anything that the current Afghan government would agree to would be too compromising on issues like that. But I don't think that the U.S. should have red lines about what the exact nature of the state and governance looks like.


Let’s imagine for instance, that the state structure that emerged looked like Iran. Should we really have a negative view on that? It would be better than Saudi Arabia, if it did, just to be realistic, it would be better than any of the monarchies in the Gulf that we're perfectly friendly with. It would potentially even be not worse than Turkey. So, to my mind, the highest value is in ending the violence and enabling Afghans to live their lives in relative peace. And, from an American perspective, I think that in terms of the details, of what the structure of the state and governance looks like, there's a lot that should be sacrificed for that highest value.


Aishwarya Raje: Well, Laurel, you've been very generous with your time today. Thank you so much for speaking with us.


Laurel Miller: Well, it was my pleasure to join you. Thanks for that.


Aishwarya Raje: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Laurel Miller. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the Pearson and follow them on Twitter.