Civil Wars: The Fights That Do Not Want to End – By GRAHAM BOWLEY (New York Times)

May 23rd, 2009 Print Print Email Email

Last week, after more than 25 years of conflict, the Tamil separatists of Sri Lanka admitted defeat in their war for an independent homeland. And so ended Asia’s longest-running civil war, one of some 20 civil conflicts burning around the globe, from Colombia to Iraq to Pakistan. (more…)

Last week, after more than 25 years of conflict, the Tamil separatists of Sri Lanka admitted defeat in their war for an independent homeland. And so ended Asia’s longest-running civil war, one of some 20 civil conflicts burning around the globe, from Colombia to Iraq to Pakistan.

Which raises some questions: How long do most civil wars last? What is a civil war, anyway? And how, finally, are they ended?

According to Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, a civil war is one fought within a society, but there are two kinds. In one, rebels seek to take over a region (as in Sri Lanka); in the other, they aim to control the whole state (like the FARC in Colombia). But as Mr. Boot points out, the distinction has been contentious throughout history because inclusion in the first category depends on whether you think the society is a single entity — not the point of view of rebels seeking to carve out an independent territory.

“If you had asked the Confederates in the American Civil War, that’s not what they called it,” Mr. Boot said. “For them it was a war of Northern aggression. They saw themselves as an independent state being assaulted by another independent state.”

But if you accept the general definition of a civil war as one fought within internationally recognized borders, then throughout history civil conflicts have tended to outlast international wars by a factor of about 20, according to Paul Collier, a professor at Oxford University and author of “Wars, Guns and Votes.”

“Typically,” he said, “they last 7 to 15 years on average, while the average for international wars is about six months.” On the face of it, such persistence must be a function of deep grievance felt by the warring parties, right? Implacable foes, brothers even, divided over ideology or religion or the thirst for justice or ethnic representation, fight to the bitter end.

One extreme forerunner of this would be the interminable wars between the Scots and the English, which lasted for more than four centuries. In the more modern category is the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, fought by “right-wing rebels fearful their Spain of church and king was being liquidated by the left,” according to the Coluumbia University historian Simon Schama, author of “The American Future.”

According to Mr. Collier, however, the true reasons for longevity in civil conflicts are more prosaic, at least in modern times. While they may begin by professing noble sentiments, insurgents sooner or later become self-interested fighting organizations, which want mainly to preserve themselves and the resources they command. He estimates, for example, that the Tamil Tigers had a revenue base seven times the roughly $30 million a year that supports Britain’s Conservative Party.

Another reason civil wars drag on is what economists call the time consistency problem: a government has no credibility in negotiating an end to a civil war because the rebels know that even if they lay down their arms, the state will keep its military. So the fight goes on, as long as neither side can crush the other.

This was something of the case in the Russian Civil War, a conflict between two armies, the Bolsheviks and the Whites, who fought for power into the 1920s, after the old regime collapsed in 1917.

It was also the case in one of the bloodiest civil wars in the past 50 years, in Ethiopia. There, a succession of insurgencies dragged on from 1974 to 1991 largely because the government was never strong enough to win, says Mr. Collier. The fighting ended when rebels took the capital.

Charismatic leaders matter too, said Paul Stares of the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the government can decapitate an organization, that can also tip the balance.” That happened with the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru.

In Sri Lanka, the rebel leader died in the final battle, but Mr. Collier said the real tipping point had already been reached — when rebel financing from Tamils abroad was squeezed while the government could buy new weapons and expand its army.

This has parallels in Angola, where guerrilla forces held diamond mines but were defeated when the diamond revenues were cut off at about the same time the government was investing burgeoning oil revenues in a much mightier military.

Similarly, many cold-war-era civil conflicts — like El Salvador’s — faded when the shadow protagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union, withdrew financing.

Civil wars can be ended by outside intervention, as in the Balkans. But according to Edward N. Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, such intervention may in fact only prolong wars. “It leads to congealed wars,” he said. “In Bosnia now there is very little economic development or reconstruction, because actually it’s a frozen war. The best way is when people just exhaust themselves and run out of energy to fight.”

Then there are the wars that seem to go on forever, in which the protagonists never seem to run out of a capacity to confront each other — as in Lebanon, a civil war currently in abeyance but where clan and sectarian conflict is periodically stoked by the revolving strategic rivalries of neighbors and major powers. “It is a cold civil war,” said Ghassan Salamé, a former Lebanese minister of culture and a political science professor in Paris.

And there are wars that seem to really end only long after their official conclusion. In the United States, said Mr. Schama, “the Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow segregation years were a kind of weird after-victory for the South, and probably only ended with Obama in the White House.”

Comments are closed.