The pros and cons of Wikileaks disclosures

In a post on The Monkey Cage, Josh Tucker invites colleagues to debate the pros and cons of using the classified documents posted on Wikileaks in their research. For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue over the last few days, as well as in the aftermath of previous releases of documents over the last few months.

While I was initially torn about the extent to which the first two sets of leaks (the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs) actually harmed US national security, I firmly believe that the leaking of the diplomatic cables is a horrible act that will damage not just US policy but will actually harm international relations and increase the likelihood of conflict in the world in the future. There are two obvious harms: 1) US diplomats will fear that their cables will be leaked in the future and will be less forthright in their assessments. 2) Leaders and diplomats around the world will fear future leaks and will be less candid in their private conversations — preventing potential future diplomatic breakthroughs.

Having said this, I think it would be silly to avoid using the data now that it has been released. This would be kind of like the official position of the Defense Department, which states that the material found on Wikileaks is still considered classified and therefore should not be accessed from an unclassified computer by anyone with a US security clearance. It seems to me that this puts such people, all of whom can freely access these documents (and many others just like them) on their classified computers,  in the slightly silly position of being the only people around who cannot actually look at the documents. I wonder if they should also skip reading the front page of the New York Times for the next two weeks….

One might argue that there is a moral hazard issue — if one uses the data, it would encourage Wikileaks to release more data. But I think that the extent to which the data is used is irrelevant to the motivations of Assange and Co. They believe that the  “US is essentially an authoritarian conspiracy and … that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind.” Given this mentality, they are going to post anything they can get their hands on, regardless of whether academics use it in their analysis or not. So we might as well make the best of it.

One excellent example of the kind of work that can be done with this data can be found in a recent article by the political geographer John O’Laughlin using the Afghanistan war logs data to perform a geo-spatial analysis of where violence has occurred. It seems to me that this type of analysis will benefit not just scholarship, but also the US military operation itself, allowing it to better understand trends in violence, etc.

Perhaps there would be benefit from the government releasing this type of information in a controlled format — a database of events, without the sensitive personal information that puts people in danger or has a negative effect on various diplomatic efforts. This would address the argument of many critics of the US government’s tendency toward excessive secrecy and over-classification of documents whose release, many argue, would not actually harm US security. Of course, this seems highly unlikely in the current political environment, where the Wikileaks disclosures are likely to prompt more secrecy on the government’s part. Of course, greater secrecy will likely make it more difficult for those who have a legitimate reason to access classified documents in the course of their work to do their jobs, thus potentially making the US less secure….

Is Tatarstan Facing a Surge of Religious Extremism?

I am now blogging occasionally at the Atlantic Sentinel on broader Russia-related issues. I’ll cross-post here for ease of access. Here’s a post on religious extremism in Tatarstan.


I recently came across an article that argues that Tatarstan is facing an Islamization scenario akin to what has already occurred in Ingushetia and Dagestan. It reports on a talk given at a conference on ethnic and religious tolerance recently held in Kazan. Rais Suleimanov, the deputy director of the Center for Eurasian and International Studies at the Kazan Financial University, points out that youth comprise 40 percent of people who regularly attend mosque in the region. Yana Amelina, the head of the Caucasus department at the Center and another conference participant, notes that radical Islam has over the last few years replaced ethnic separatism as the dominant anti-state ideology in the Caucasus and is now spreading into the Volga region.

When I was last in Kazan two years ago,  I was struck by the sheer number of young women wearing “Islamic” clothing and young men with those beards that act as markers of Islamic identity in the FSU. This was in stark contrast to previous visits, when everyone (and especially young people) wore European style clothing and hair styles. The number of people with such Islamic markers was also much higher in Kazan two years ago than in my visit to Baku last week.

Of course, wearing traditional clothing or a beard is not a sign that one is a wahhabi extremist (though it might be interpreted as such a sign by the local authorities). But I think there is no doubt that young people are more religious now than they were 5-10 years ago and that the religion they are following is not the “traditional (Hanafi) Islam” of the area but less moderate imports from the Middle East.

But this does not mean that they are all ready to take up arms against the government or support some kind of Islamic Caliphate. The authorities would take that interpretation at their own peril — if they start repressing religious Tatars, they may end up promoting more violence than if the people were left alone to worship as they please.

The proposal in the article that the government should reject any attempts at dialog with the “wahhabi lobby” in Russia and instead ban all “wahhabi activity” seems to be particularly counterproductive in this regard. This is the kind of thing that was tried in places like Kabardino-Balkaria 5-6 years ago and only led to more people taking up arms against the authorities, because of a desire for revenge against authorities who humiliated them or repressed their relatives. Those who follow this topic may well remember the story about Russian interior ministry operatives going into mosques and forcibly shaving people or carving crosses into their hair. The net result of these actions was a rapid increase in anti-government attitudes, followed by Islamic radicalism, and then a spike in violence in the region.

The regional authorities could shoot themselves in the foot by taking excessively harsh measures against non-violent but pious Muslims who reject the traditional Islamic leadership in the region in favor of strands of Islam imported from the Middle East. In that case, one could see the formation of violent bands whose goal is revenge against those who humiliated or hurt them.

If, on the other hand, followers of Salafi Islam in Tatarstan are monitored but not persecuted, the chances for a significant surge of religiously-based violence in the region is pretty remote.

Violence in the Caucasus is due to a combination of religious extremism, a hopeless economic situation, and a perception that the local authorities are all crooks. Tatarstan may have more religious extremists than it used to, but its economic situation is pretty good by Russian standards and its authorities are less blatantly corrupt than those in the North Caucasus. Unless we start seeing massive unemployment among young Muslim men in the Volga region, I don’t think we should worry about the kind of violence and instability that we see in Dagestan or Ingushetia spreading to Tatarstan.

There will be occasional disenchanted Tatar extremists who want to fight, but they will continue to do what they have been doing for the last decade — they’ll go off to the Caucasus, or to Afghanistan, and fight there. Tatarstan itself, as well as the entire Volga region, will become more religious, to be sure, but will nonetheless remain fairly stable and non-violent for the foreseeable future.

Women in the Russian Military

In last week’s NVO, Mikhail Bogoslovskii argues for solving the Russian military’s manpower problems by introducing conscription of women. There are currently around 10-15 countries in the world that conscript women into the military, out of around 90 that have some kind of conscription.  The most prominent of these is Israel, where women serve for 21 months.

Bogoslovskii bases his argument on notions of equality and fairness, noting that conscription is essentially a tax on the poorest and least socially connected young men in Russian society. The costs of this tax, he argues, include the feminization of higher education and therefore the entire education system, as many men who serve in the military and then go straight to the working world would otherwise attend university. (I’ll skip over the sexist generalizations about how this damages Russia by depriving it of the “brainier” male part of society. ) He cites research that having a son conscripted into the military lowers a family’s income by 15 percent, without taking into account the decrease in earning potential through work experience (or education) not gained during that year.

Bogoslovskii then focuses on some of the positive aspects of having women serve in the military. He notes that though they are on average physically weaker than men, they have higher stamina. He makes various other arguments, often self-contradictory, about benefits women would derive from serving in the military. These boil down to women gaining experience and self-confidence from serving in the military.

But rather than focusing on Bogoslovskii’s arguments, I want to address the general question of whether this is a potential solution for the Russian military’s manpower problem and, if so, how this would impact the Russian military and Russian society. In terms of pure numbers, having women serve would certainly help solve the manpower problem. Right now, there are about 900,000 18 year old men in Russia. Of these, only around 300,000 are draft-eligible, given current regulations and exemptions. The Russian military at its current strength needs about 800-850,000 enlisted soldiers, including both conscripts and contract soldiers. There are currently around 200,000 contract soldiers in the military. If we assume that the number of draft-eligible 18-year old women in Russia would be approximately equal to the number of men, adding 300,000 women conscripts would pretty much solve the military’s manpower problem.

What would be the impact of such a solution? First of all, we should make clear that women already serve as contract soldiers. In fact, if Bogoslovskii’s data are right, they already comprise 50 percent of Russian contract soldiers. There are also a number of female officers, though in percentage terms, this is a pretty low number. Most Western military services have integrated women over the last several decades, and though the road was not always smooth, there are now many roadmaps on how to do this successfully. Many female Russian emigres (and their daughters) have been conscripted into the Israeli military, so Russian military leaders could use that experience as a model.

Clearly, such a step would be a huge cultural shift for the male-dominated world of the Russian military. But it might have a lot of positive consequences. First of all, I would imagine that such a step would decrease the ubiquitous problems with hazing. There have been a number of studies that have shown that the presence of women in a social group reduces intra-group aggression, and there seems to be no reason to think that the Russian military would be any different in this regard. Furthermore, problems with alcoholism may also decline, as Russian women on average drink less than men. While unit cohesion may initially be affected by the presence of women, in the long run, the decline of hazing should lead to improvements in this sphere as well.

Overall, while this would clearly be quite a radical step for the Russian government to take, it has the potential of both solving the manpower problem and improving the conditions for conscripts. It would certainly be easier politically than extending the length of conscription service back to 18 months or two years.