"At least 50 percent of the time in our simulations a changeover from military to civilian rule would trigger war and nuclear explosions," says Lustick. "As we see it, it's not Muslim fundamentalism that Pakistan has to worry about, but the civilian handoff." (Although, in light of the two assassination attempts on President Musharraf's life in late 2003, it's currently an enormous challenge simply to maintain the strongarm status quo, let alone manage a democratization.)
Virtual Pakistan is part of an emerging programming discipline called agent-based modeling, whose most enthusiastic proponents include Lustick, who was responsible for the Middle East while briefly a State Department analyst from 1979 to 1980 and who has written many highly regarded books on conflict in the region. Lustick has run hundreds of simulations of the infinite ways in which big trouble can happen, not only in virtual Pakistan but in an extraordinarily complex simulated Middle East nation that resembles Egypt or Jordan but isn't. Lustick shares these models with policymakers at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, who watch his work keenly.
The Pentagon needs 21st-century analytical tools to replace the outmoded war games of yore, which, despite improvements in computer power, are still one-dimensional, culturally blinkered and of small use in devising strategies for so-called asymmetric warfare in a world of Afghanistans, Iraqs,
al Qaedas, smart bombs, Predators and the threat of bioterror. And so it has earmarked well over $100 million to determine whether the agent-based models produced by Lustick and
others can advance the strategic game.
It is no slam dunk, of course. Consider Will Wright's explanation of the Sims -- that the reality we ascribe to sim life is mostly a construct of our imaginations. Much more complexity is being claimed for agent-based models, and, of course, much more goes into the programming of sim politics. But it's far from certain that models of nuanced cultural and political systems -- foreign systems, embodiments of the other -- can be built. Lustick's Pakistan is a construct of his own devising and his experience in the Middle East. He has programmed the personalities and behaviors of the characters and forces in the model, basing them on his experiences, research and, presumably, biases. Critics outside the Pentagon argue that Lustick and others have produced simplistic simulations of individuals and cultures about which they have insufficient information.
Even proponents of agent-based modeling concede the enormous challenge. "These virtual political models should be a big part of the future of military simulation," says Col. George Stone, deputy director of the Army Model & Simulation Office. "But before we get there, we really have to understand human behavior better."
One challenge is the speed with which things change in the real world -- which is faster than any programmer can absorb. "If you look at what is going on in Iraq, we constantly have to learn the tactics of the enemy and alter our strategy to respond," says Stone. "But by then, the enemy has a new twist that we must react to. The question we must answer is, Can we ever know enough to program such uncertainty?"
In an agent-based model, each character, or agent, is assigned a set of simple behavior rules, which are based on the beliefs and goals that have been ascribed to that character. The agent stands in for one
or hundreds or thousands like him in a region or country; the world in which the agent operates is sometimes known as an "artificial life environment." The idea is to create a sufficiently varied group of agents with a sufficiently broad set of traits that adequately simulate the behavior, thoughts and interests of the population at large. In the agent-based models of interest to the U.S. military, psychological profiles for each agent are built from research, field data and interviews with experts who study the motives and
allegiances of factions within a political reality. In simulating conditions in Afghanistan, for example, an agent might be programmed to be the Afghan father of a son who was killed by a U.S. bomb. Like a real person, this sim Afghan is complex: not only a tragically stricken father but a devout Muslim, a local village council member and a dissatisfied former follower of a moderate mullah. He has, in a sense, multiple identities -- aggrieved father, peaceful village leader, potential recruit for a more radical mullah -- and the part of his personality that he "activates" or presents to the world depends on a rich stew of factors: with whom he associates, how others reward his various identities, and the political or social events that shape his world.