Soldiers build world’s largest conflict database

Joe Felter Col. Dennis Eclarin of the Philippine Army Scout Rangers share a laugh after a ceremony honoring Felter's work in the Philippines.

Joe Felter Col  Dennis Eclarin of the Philippine Army Scout Rangers share a laugh after a ceremony honoring Felter's work in the Philippines
CISAC senior research scholar Joe Felter and Col. Dennis Eclarin, a commander of the Philippines' Army Scout Rangers, share a laugh after a ceremony honoring Felter's work as a defense attaché in the Philippines.
Photo credit: 
John Tronco

MANILA, Philippines – When Victor Corpus was an idealistic young military officer, he turned on his country to join the communist New People’s Army. He headed for the mountains and would face years of armed struggle, imprisonment and then a sentence to death.

What made the highly trained Philippine Army first lieutenant lead a bold raid to capture the weapons from his own armory at the Philippine Military Academy – one that would go on to make him a living legend and lead to a movie about his life?

“It was my realization that our society at that time was structured like a pyramid, where the wealth of the nation is controlled by about 100 families on top, where less than 1 percent of the population controls everything,” recalls Corpus, who is now 70.

When the Army ordered the 26-year-old officer and his soldiers to train the private militia of a wealthy warlord in the northern Philippines, a trigger was pulled.

“If you are a member of the Armed Forces and you realize that you are just being used as an instrument of the elite, to preserve and protect their interests, it makes you want to rise up and fight for what you believe are the true interests of the people,” he said.

“That is what made me go to the rebel side.”

It’s still a factor that makes young Filipino men and women pick up arms today: The gap between rich and poor, the government corruption, the dynasties that still rule the impoverished countryside.

By understanding this former rebel’s story – and thousands of others his team of researchers have collected over the last decade – CISAC Senior Research Scholar Joe Felter believes he can help scholars dive deeper into the causes of insurgency. He hopes to aid policy makers and military planners in determining how to best curb these conflicts and help reduce casualties and economic devastation.


“You were a real inspiration for me and made me want to learn more about insurgency and then study it and write about it,” Felter told Corpus over a recent breakfast in Manila. “I met Victor soon after I moved to the Philippines for a three-year assignment. It’s such an amazing story, and it captures so many of the challenges I’m researching."

The Southeast Asian nation is home to some of the most protracted insurgencies in the world. Muslim separatist groups on the southern island of Mindanao and Sulu Sea, known collectively as Bangsamoro, have resisted Christian rule since Spanish colonization of the archipelago began after Magellan arrived in the early 1500s. The Communist People’s Party and its armed wing in the New Peoples Army (NPA) continue to wage a classic Maoist revolutionary war across the country; and the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group – known to have links with al-Qaida and other international terrorist groups – is actively conducting terrorist attacks as well as kidnappings for ransom across the country’s restive south.

Felter, a career Army Special Forces officer, was a U.S. military attaché in Manila from 1999-2002. He traveled extensively throughout the Philippines and could see how widespread and debilitating the long-running insurgencies and internal conflicts were. After a spate of kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf Group in 2000 and 2001 that involved American citizens and other foreign nationals, he helped persuade U.S. authorities to increase its support for America’s former colony and Pacific ally.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks reinforced the U.S. commitment to build the capacity of the Philippine military to prevent their country from becoming a haven for extremists who might use the country to stage and plot another attack against United States’ interests.  

Felter helped the Philippine Army Special Operations Command (SOCOM) set up the country’s first counterterrorist unit. That elite Light Reaction Battalion has now been expanded to a regiment of 1,500 soldiers. Felter traveled to the Philippines in February to receive a medal in honor of his work in establishing this force.

Victor Corup and Joe Felter in Manila.

His work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as a military attaché, and dozens of trips back since, allowed him to get behind the scenes and make friends in the military and government. Those close relationships provided him unprecedented access to thousands of sensitive documents chronicling in micro-level detail the history of Philippine military and government efforts to combat insurgency and terrorism in the field.

“All counterinsurgency is local,” says Felter. “You need to study it at the local level to really understand it. And the Philippines is like a Petri dish for studying both insurgency and counterinsurgency because you have multiple, long-running insurgencies, each with distinct characteristics, and with an array of government and military responses to address these threats over time.”

Felter was in the Philippines in 2004 conducting field research as part of his Stanford Ph.D. dissertation when he was first able to gain access to what would become a trove of detailed incident-level data on insurgency and counterinsurgency in this conflict prone country. After bringing back the data and meeting with his faculty advisors – Stanford political science professors David Laitin and James Fearon – he realized the extensive incident-level data could be coded in a manner that would make it a tremendous resource for scholars studying civil wars, insurgencies and other forms of politically motivated violence.

“This comprehensive conflict dataset, when it becomes public later this year, is going to be the Holy Grail of  micro-level conflict data,” Felter says. “It promises to be an unprecedented resource for scholars and policy analysts studying the foundations and dynamics of conflict. It has the potential to drive a significant number of publications, reports and analyses, and enable conflict researchers to develop insights and test theories that they would not have been able to do before.”

They also hope to help journalists do a better job of analyzing conflict.

Jim Gomez, the AP’s chief correspondent in the Philippines, says there is little access to detailed data about the conflicts he has been covering for two decades.

“There is a natural contradiction between military, police, intelligence and other security agencies which, by nature, operate in secrecy,” says Gomez, who has been on the front lines of many battles in his homeland. “The database is one step toward satisfying the need of journalists to be able to write stories with more accurate and in-depth detail and context. It allows for better comparative analysis and can give insights to emerging patterns like those found in the southern Philippines. Better access to information, to my mind, is always a boon to better security policies.”

Coding Out the Data

Felter coordinated with senior leaders in the Armed Forces of the Philippines to gain approval to access and code the unclassified details from tens of thousands of individual conflict episodes reported by Philippine military units in the field dating back to 1975. Most of data were gleaned from the original hand-typed records maintained by the Philippine Army. Felter worked with contacts in the Philippine military to build a team of military and civilian coders to scan and input data from the only existing copies of these original incident reports.

In 2009 – while a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution prior to his final deployment in Afghanistan – Felter invited his colleague, Navy veteran Jake Shapiro, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, to join him as ESOC’s co-director. Shapiro and Felter were graduate school classmates and worked together at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center where the vision for ESOC was first articulated. Felter and Shapiro formally established the Empirical Studies of Conflict (ESOC) project and began to build comprehensive databases on multiple political conflict cases around the world.

Eli Berman, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, joined the team soon after. Today he is research director for international security studies at University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and professor of economics at UC San Diego.

“I'm fascinated by how economic development is best achieved in places where property and people are insecure. Unfortunately, that's true of many Philippines communities,” Berman said. “Joe is the perfect partner for that research. He brings insights that come from years of thoughtful experience and local knowledge. The team he has assembled and the data they bring are a joy to work with.”

ESOC members also include David Laitin, James Fearon and Jeremy Weinstein, all from Stanford’s political science department, as well as affiliates and a growing cadre of current and former post-doctoral fellows.

The Empirical Studies of Conflict Project website was launched last year. It highlights some of the key initial findings from ongoing data collection efforts in the Philippines as well as Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam. The site includes geospatial and tabular data as well as thousands of documents, archives and interviews. Ultimately, nearly all of the releasable data Felter is compiling on the Philippines case will be made available via the ESOC website. The non-digitize materials such as hardcopy records and taped interviews will be housed in the Hoover Institution’s Library and Archives.

“This will be the gold standard for micro-level conflict data. The planets aligned for us in many cases,” Felter said. The team also has had unprecedented access to data sources in Iraq and to some degree from Afghanistan, Columbia, and Mexico.

“What’s unique about ESOC is that we’re trying hard to make it easier for others to study conflict by pulling together everything we can on the conflicts we’ve studied,” says Shapiro. “On Iraq, for example, the ESOC website provides data on conflict outcomes, politics, and demographics, in addition to maps, links to other useful information sources, and all the files ESOC members have used in their research on Iraq.”

Shapiro says researchers working for the Canadian Armed Forces, the World Bank and the U.S. military have already turned to ESOC as a resource for data on Iraq “because it’s so useful to have everything in one place.”

The West Point Connection

Many of these documents, some dating back to 1975, were withering in the heat and humidity of an old building at army headquarters before Felter and his Philippine military team arrived to scan and record them.

Felter’s chief Filipino partner in compiling and analyzing the data is another West Point grad, Lt. Col. Dennis Eclarin, an Army Scout Ranger commander who led many of the counterinsurgency missions that he would later come to analyze. Eclarin conducted 1,500 hours of videotaped interviews with rebels who gave up their arms and surrendered.

Eclarin recalls being a lieutenant fresh out of West Point and negotiating the surrender of 20 communist rebels.

“I got the chance to interview the rebel commander of this very elite group, against whom I had been fighting in 2000, and when I interviewed him he said: `You know what? If you had just given us one water buffalo each, we would not have been fighting you, we would have just gone out and tilled our land,’” Eclarin recalls.

He would go on to interview hundreds of rebels and their commanders, such as the Islamic militant chief who talked tactics with him, then revealed that his greatest tool was his men’s belief that Allah was waiting for them on the other side.

There was the Roman Catholic nun who was running guns and money for the communists and the young college freshman recruited with the promise of $40 a month to support her family.
Eclarin heads up the team of coders supporting ESOC in the Philippines. Erwin Agustin, a Staff Sergeant in the Scout Rangers, does data entry – when he’s not out fighting rebels.

“The interviews and the coding has changed me – and it’s changed the perception of the Armed Forces, too,” Eclarin says. “We just appreciate data; we see it in a new light. We were just thinking short term, but the data allows us to look long-term and more strategically. Where are the hot zones we must avoid? What time of day are they likely to attack?”

Eclarin heads up the team of coders supporting ESOC in the Philippines. Erwin Agustin, a Staff Sergeant in the Scout Rangers, does data entry – when he’s not out fighting rebels.

“One time I was coding and was amazed to see the records of some of our comrades who had been ambushed and killed,” Agustin says. “Being a member of the Scout Rangers and seeing those who are missing – you hurt. But you must push through because you’re giving them a voice. They gave their lives for the Army, they sacrificed their lives for their families – and we are going to give them a voice.”

Erwin Olario, a civilian and the lead coder of Eclarin’s team, says the data is agnostic.

“We don’t take sides; we’re not out to prove anything. But, hey, if we could possibly contribute to bringing about peace one day – that would be something.”

The coders are now doubling back over the dataset from 1975 to 2012, to make sure it’s accurate and cleaned of classified details before it goes public. The data are the basis for two of Felter’s ongoing book projects and multiple journal articles, including a recent article in the American Economic Review entitled, Aid Under Fire: Development Projects and Civil Conflict.”

Denis Eclarin and Joe Felter at a military ceremony outside Manila on Feb. 8, 2014. ©John Tronco


Development and Civil Conflict

Another of Felter’s longtime Filipina friends is Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, cabinet secretary for the Philippine government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development. They go back to 1997, when the two were classmates working on their master’s in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The two caught up on classmate gossip during a recent meeting in her Manila office. She was on a rare break from her work in the south, where Typhoon Haiyan had claimed more than 6,200 lives in November.

Soliman tells Felter she used a study based on ESOC data to help demonstrate the efficacy of her department’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. This flagship development program attempts to reduce poverty by giving cash to families falling under poverty thresholds, conditional on enrolling kids in school and getting them regular medical checkups and vaccines.

Soliman and her staff used the study conducted by Felter – and Benjamin Crost at the University of Illinois and Patrick B. Johnston at the RAND Corporation – in which they took an existing World Bank experiment in the Philippines that separated villages into those that would receive the cash transfers and those that would not. The scholars incorporated measures of violence from the ESOC data to estimate the effect of the CCT program on conflict intensity. They found cash transfers caused a substantial decrease in conflict-related incidents and, using their data on local insurgent influence, they determined the program significantly reduced insurgent influence in the villages that received the cash transfers compared with those that did not.

“Your results were very, very important and it had such a strong impact with the legislators, and in particular the budget, because they saw the program is not just about education and health,” Corazon tells Felter. “They saw it even has impact on peace and security.”

“That’s just great,” Felter says. “That’s what motivates our team to engage in this type of work and really what you want to hear. It’s such a privilege for us to support you in this capacity.”

A Rebel’s Redemption

Felter led the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT) in Afghanistan, reporting directly to Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petaeus, before becoming a senior research scholar at CISAC and retiring from the military in 2012.

While he misses his time on active duty and the sense of purpose that comes with serving in combat, he believes his ESOC research will make a difference and have an impact in stabilizing conflict areas and setting conditions for development and governance efforts to be effective.

“In the last decade, the United States and the international community have devoted tens of billions of dollars towards rebuilding social and political order in troubled countries,” Shapiro says. “Thousands of families today are mourning loved ones lost in those efforts. ESOC is devoted to learning from that experience, and to making it easier for others to do so as well, so that we can all do a better job helping such places in the future.”

Traveling back to the Philippines often to meet with Eclarin and his coders keeps him tied to the men and women who are on the ground. And close to old colleagues such as Corpus, who was pardoned by President Corazon Aquino and went on to become the nation’s head of intelligence.

“Here’s the irony: The intelligence service was one of the organizations that was running after me, and then I was eventually assigned to head this very organization. Only in the Philippines,” says Corpus, whose counterinsurgency plan drafted in 1989 was hugely successful.

The communist New People’s Army is estimated to have approximately 5,000 rebels today, down from its high of 26,000 in the mid-1980s. And the government signed a hard-sought peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in last spring, which grants the Muslim areas of the southern Mindanao region greater political autonomy.

Still, many don’t believe the accord will hold and separatists from Moro National Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyef Group continue to threaten stability in the south.

“As long as the root forces remain – the income gap between the rich and the poor – there will always be rebellion,” says Corpus.