Magazine Article - Prospect

Nasty, Brutish and Long

April 2009

Northern Ireland apart, many new civil wars drag on because we don't let anyone win

It’s a busy time for civil wars. The Sri Lankan army has pushed far into Tamil territory, seeking a decisive victory. The killings in Northern Ireland show how spoilers try to gain advantage over rivals in any political process. Then there is the threat that recently pacified civil wars, such as those in Iraq and Sudan, will come back, while the global recession may push new ones forward.

First, the good news. If public opinion in Northern Ireland is a guide, the violence will fail. The murders are widely perceived as criminal, while sympathy for the victims runs deep. The same isn’t true, however, of Iraq or Sudan. In the latter, vital provisions of the 2005 peace deal have still not been implemented. In the former, a stable peace seems unlikely any time soon. Most worryingly of all, there’s every indication that Pakistan’s domestic disputes may slide into all-out civil war.

More is known today about how such wars begin and end. Since 1940, the world has seen over 130 civil wars. Most have ended; only around a dozen rumble on, in countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, and Congo. But the manner in which they have ended has been transformed. Before the end of the cold war, more than 90 per cent of civil wars ended in outright victory, either for the government or rebels—this is the kind of definitive conclusion the Sri Lankan government is hoping for. (Rebels won in roughly half of the wars.) But since the fall of the USSR, about half of all civil wars have been ended by negotiation. Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday agreement is a good example.

This transition has occurred in part because the causes of civil wars have changed. Old civil wars tended to be about land, or money. Today, power and resources have given way to the ability to practise a faith, speak a language and determine who is your neighbour.

So many identities are in play in civil conflicts that it makes generalisation difficult—and therefore makes their study an unpopular choice for academics, who know that grand theories, rather than local knowledge, make for good careers.

But in recent years politicians and academics have begun to accept a grim truth: that the 130-odd civil wars since 1945, averaging roughly 22 per decade, have killed between 14m and 33m people (precise figures are hard to come by)—an average of 91,000 to 187,000 deaths each. Such figures show that civil wars are both more destructive and more difficult to stop than wars between countries fought over ideology or wealth. They also last longer and tend to get more complicated as they go on (think of Congo or Colombia).

Identity-based civil wars, though, are the worst of all, not least because identity—be it national, ethnic or religious—can act as a hair-trigger in starting civil wars, but also because ending such conflicts requires a credible threat of harm and promise of benefit to the warring parties.

This leads us into a peculiarly painful modern dilemma. We know that, traditionally, civil wars end when someone wins. We also know that today’s identity-based civil conflicts are especially deadly. But governments no longer support military interventions as a credible means of securing negotiated settlements. Instead, they rely on good offices and bribes. This means that an increasing number of civil wars now reignite after a few years of troubled peace.

The seemingly more enlightened approach of negotiated settlement adopted since the 1990s is three times more likely to break down than an old-fashioned imposition of force. The Sudanese civil war is a case in point. Even years of painfully obvious brutality on the part of Khartoum have not been sufficient to prompt liberal democracies into making a credible threat of harm.

What will happen in Iraq, and perhaps in Pakistan, thus remains an open question. Iraq is ripe for continued civil war. The US is pushing a weak negotiated settlement but the Iraqi government is fragile and mistrusted on all sides. The country’s transition to stability will be rough—beset by divisions between Kurds, Sunni and Shia, but also within each of these communities. Moreover, each community occupies and dominates particular regions of the country; they are no longer intermixed, so each group has a base of operations. Worst of all, Iraq is poor, but has lots of oil—making it worth fighting over.

Pakistan is a problem for different reasons. Civil wars typically happen during power transitions, especially in countries without a history of stable transfer of power. The Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Iraq after the first Gulf war show this pattern. Pakistan is going through a similar transition—a domestic political crisis, but one simultaneously being played out on the international stage due to Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and Iran. Add to this the country’s struggles with national pride and identity, not to mention its possession of a nuclear arsenal, and you have a recipe for trouble.

Ending today’s civil wars is therefore a paradoxically difficult task. We aren’t willing to step in to stop them, or help one side to win quickly. But we make securing peace more difficult because we rarely let one side win either. As a result, the world’s new civil wars are nasty, brutish and long. Against this backdrop, Northern Ireland is likely to remain a rare success story. As we have seen throughout history, a new civil war is always round the corner. With the global recession deepening, they may come more quickly still.

Monica Toft is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Toft, Monica. “Nasty, Brutish and Long.” Prospect, no. 157. April 2009.