America’s Wars: Thinking Beyond Terrorism and Insurgency



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Thinking Beyond Boundaries:

Contemporary Challenges to U.S. Foreign Policy



America’s Wars:

Thinking Beyond Terrorism and Insurgency
What we can expect in the future is that potential adversaries—be they terrorists, insurgents, militia groups…will seek to frustrate America’s traditional advantages, in particular our ability to shoot, move, and communicate with speed and precision… The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq—invading, pacifying and administering a large third-world country—may be low. But in what General Casey has called ‘an era of persistent conflict,’ those unconventional capabilities will still be needed at various levels and in various locations. Most critically to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises, which require costly—and controversial—large-scale American military intervention.

  • Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, February 20111

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 generated much reflection about the Global War on Terror and America’s subsequent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of this line of thought centered on America’s political and military approaches to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations. Commemorations of 9/11 also stimulated reflection on America’s reactions to the event, the efficacy of those reactions, and how the event shapes our perspective and actions. In light of this hallmark anniversary, Osama bin Ladin’s recent demise, NATO operations in Libya, out-of-control gang warfare in Mexico, and an uncertain future for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, there is much discussion and debate about non-traditional global threats and the challenges posed by civil wars that no longer remain sequestered within state borders.

A recurrent theme in these discussions was the evolution of America’s thoughts on the nature of national and international security threats in the 21st century. For years after 9/11—in part due to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—the focus of the U.S., its military, and the world, largely centered on insurgent and terrorist activity. Asymmetric, unconventional armed groups and non-state actors waging wars of insurgency were thought by many to be the greatest threat of the future.2 Others argue that power transitions between the world’s most powerful states will lead the world into another great-power war, though smaller-scale proxy wars will persist.3 Still others see yet another shift in the nature of world conflict in which a globalization has empowered armed groups that could once be locally contained such that containment is now impossible.4 Regardless of the outcome of these debates, it is clear that the spectrum of the “persistent conflicts” referenced by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his February 2011 address to the Corps of Cadets is far broader than terrorism and insurgency.

Among the “persistent conflicts” that US policymakers can expect to encounter in the future are civil wars. This paper outlines the scope and nature of civil war – i.e., its causes and outcomes; it also discusses intervention and the various actors involved in historical and contemporary civil wars. It aims to illuminate a number of questions facing contemporary policymakers: What are the hallmark characteristics of civil wars? At what juncture and how should the United States and/or the international community intervene to prevent their continuance? Which actors play the most prominent role in civil wars and how do they shape their duration and outcomes? How should America and its partners address, harness or counter these actors to preserve national and international security?


Civil War and the Demand for Change

By definition, civil wars are conflicts in which at least two “organized non-state groups” engage in armed conflict inside the borders of a state.5 Some civil wars are conventional, force-on-force wars; others involve revolutionary forces, insurgents, terrorist organizations, or organized guerilla militias. Still others are waged between the state and organized criminal elements resembling mafias and gangs. Regardless of construct, all civil wars share a common, basic theme: they generate dynamics in which citizens of the same state—sometimes neighbors who had seemingly amicable or even intimate relations beforehand—want to kill one and other.6 It is this visceral characteristic that makes civil wars so startling to the international community.

While civil wars are not new phenomena, there has been an increased incidence of civil war since the end of WWII and particularly since the end of the Cold War. There are several hypotheses as to why this is the case. The most prominent hypothesis suggests that civil wars views are byproducts of worldwide demands for equality, demands that have increased as nationalist, democratic and socialist movements have spread.7 All of these movements share a common thread – a demand for socio-political and economic change.

Most civil wars emerge when segments of a state’s society believe themselves to be disenfranchised socially, politically, and economically. These groups are likely to resort to violence when alternative, non-violent means for them to address their concerns are unavailable, and when their ability to survive as individuals or a group is threatened. Ted Robert Gurr developed a formula that explains this basic tenet of civil war initiation: “the greater the intensity of the discontent, the more likely is violence.” When citizens see a gap between what they think they should have, what they think they are capable of obtaining, and the inaccessibility of these options due to political, social or economic discrimination, political or violent rebellion ensues.8 At some point, the demand for change in a state reaches a tipping point, causing civil wars of varying scope and intensity.

Sometimes civil wars arise from conflict-ridden trade in a particular commodity. In Mexico, Central and South America, for instance, competition over the narcotics trade has driven civil wars.9 At other times, civil wars arise in response to unequal access to economic resources. When weak governments compete with armed groups for revenue over scarce national resources and the revenue they provide—diamonds in Africa, for example—civil wars are likely to begin and continue indefinitely.10 And commodities and revenue are rarely the sole source of the discontent; rather, it is the interaction between a state’s ability to govern and these “economic agendas” that propels states into civil war.11

Whether the violence is political or economic in its origins, civil wars seem likely to continue to arise in the future. These sources civil war are particularly worrisome, since the world’s growing income gap ensures that actual and perceived inequality—and, thus, the propensity for violence and civil war—is likely to increase in the next decade.


Intervention and Civil War

Another key debate in the realm of civil war is the usefulness of outside intervention. The only points on which discussants of this topic agree is that the presence of intervention forces directly impacts civil war duration and outcomes, and that intervention forces face a number of difficulties in civil wars that are generally absent in conventional inter-state war.

There are two primary reasons why states or and the international community use to justify violating a state’s sovereignty to intervene in civil wars: the presence of a direct threat to national or international security, or for humanitarian reasons. The former is the more traditional justification – states intervened in civil wars to serve their own security interests. Classic cases of this type of intervention include Vietnam, the U.S. intervention—at the invitation of the Columbian government—against the FARC, and, of course, the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Intervention for humanitarian purposes was codified much more recently with the “Responsibility to Protect”—a recognized set of international norms and principles that supports preemptive intervention by states or a community of states to protect civilian populations from annihilation. By adopting the “Responsibility to Protect,” the United Nations and the international community affirmed that sovereignty entails a government’s responsibility to protect its people.12 Failing that, the international community has just cause to violate that sovereignty and intervene.

Justified or not, intervention in a civil war is a messy business. Most prominent of the difficulties intervention forces face is the “reality of the occupation” after the initial shock and awe of combat. Apart from the challenges associated with operating in an alien land and culture, intervention forces are subject to the whims and, more importantly, the impatience of their domestic constituencies as conflicts become more prolonged. As a result, the armed groups fighting the intervention force on behalf of the incumbent government can wage war with only limited objectives. Their adversaries, on the other hand, are usually mobilized to wage total war because failure for them translates to annihilation.13 It is this imbalance in objectives, which favors the armed groups fighting against an intervention force, that renders intervention so complicated.

America’s record of success with intervention is mixed. In the early 20th century, the U.S.—in partnership with the Philippine government—achieved some success in the Philippines against a communist uprising. However, the U.S. was less successful in Vietnam.14 Operations in Somalia in the early 1990s proved disastrous in the long run despite some short-term successes. Civil wars in Somalia and other states in the Horn of Africa persist to this day and feed threats to U.S. National Security. In Bosnia and Kosovo, however, the efforts of U.S. and NATO-led coalitions were ultimately successful. 15 U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan appear to be undergoing significant and varied difficulties. And although the U.S. experienced some success in Iraq, those achievements may be short-lived for a number of reasons. The question of how or why the U.S. was successful or unsuccessful in these particular conflicts remains a matter of debate, the outcome of which will shape the U.S.’s future interventions in civil wars.

International organizations also have a mixed record when it comes to intervention in civil wars. NATO had some success restoring stability to Bosnia and Kosovo. The outcome of NATO operations in Afghanistan—particularly as the U.S. and Great Britain scale back their troop commitments—remains to be seen. The United Nations’ record of intervention in civil wars has been even less sanguine. Some contend that UN peacekeeping forces have been, at best


…passive spectators to outrages and massacres, as in Bosnia and Rwanda: at worst they collaborate with it, as Dutch UN troops did in the fall of Srebrenica by helping the Bosnian Serbs separate men of military age from the rest of the population.16
The UN peace monitoring force in the Sinai has been less destructive, but no more capable of stopping either side from continuing the conflict.

NATO’s involvement in Libya and its aftermath may set a new, perhaps dangerous, precedent for more successful interventions. Since the intervention in Libya was conducted ostensibly for humanitarian purposes against a known dictator who had previously threatened international security, condemnation of Western actions was more muted than the protests that hounded the U.S. intervention in Iraq. NATO’s involvement in Libya also differed from some previous interventions because even with limited objectives, NATO allied itself with a rebel force whose objectives in the conflict were total; NATO concentrated on selective bombing of military and logistical targets, while the rebel force conducted the bulk of the hard fighting. As in the conflict so in post-conflict political reconstruction, NATO and the international community expect the Libyans to do the “heavy-lifting.” 17 There is still much to do in Libya, however.

In light of these historical and more recent experiences, should America, international organizations, and the international community more broadly continue to sanction intervention in civil wars? If so, what is the appropriate justification for that intervention? If intervention does occur, how should reconstruction responsibilities be allocated between the actors directly involved in the conflict, the state’s recognized or emerging government, and others in the international community?
Actors in Today’s Civil Wars: The Old, the Revisited, and the Emerging

In addition to states and international organizations, a number of other actors participate in and impact the length and outcomes of civil wars. Terrorist groups are one such actor. Those groups espousing religious, apocalyptic or identity-based militancy can be found in every corner of the world, from the jungles to the Philippines to the mountains of Peru and Columbia, from the ungoverned regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and, sadly, even in mainstream America. Although America has avoided large-scale attacks on its home soil since 2001, terrorist groups have conducted devastating attacks against several key U.S. allies like the United Kingdom, India, and Spain. Several terror plots were uncovered and foiled in New York, Denver and Dallas in the past three years, and other attacks—including the 2009 Christmas Day attempted bombing on Northwest Airlines Flight 283, the attack by a lone Muslim dissident on Fort Hood, Texas, and the attempted bombing in the heart of Times Square in May 2010—serve as tangible proof that the terrorist threat abroad and at home is still very real.18

Non-governmental organizations or NGOs are another prominent actor in today’s civil wars. The internecine violence inherent in civil wars drastically impacts local civilian populations, whose suffering evokes a response from myriad international aid organizations. These organizations respond with a combination of humanitarian relief supplies and, later on, personnel and materials to support long-term development goals. Unfortunately, the aid packages do not always reach their targeted recipient audiences, which is a serious problem since inadequate or inappropriate application of aid can prolong civil wars. For example, Serb militias and Somali warlords in Bosnia and Somalia respectively profited from the sale of given or appropriated relief supplies flowing in from the international community and used the proceeds to support their forces. This practice persists in the world’s other civil wars. Because armed groups can benefit from stealing and selling relief supplies, they sometimes attack civilian populations with the specific intent of encouraging NGOs to send additional aid. In this way the efforts of NGOs to alleviate civil wars can sometimes prolong civil wars.19

The need to monitor and secure aid packages, the logistics lines of intervention forces, and senior-ranking military and civilian personnel, has re-introduced another actor onto the civil war battlefield: the Private Military Contractor. Previously known as “mercenaries” in the annals of inter-state war, the role of private contractors in current conflicts—particularly after the Blackwater incident in Baghdad in 2007—has been a hot topic of debate in recent years. Proponents of contractor involvement contend that these actors have always been present on the battlefield and that their continued presence is a matter of acceptance rather than a decision. In addition, private military contractors often deliver security services more efficiently and effectively than state militaries and international intervention forces. 20 Detractors counter that contractors detract from the legitimacy of an intervention, and, absent proper legal controls, might work to further civil wars in order to keep themselves in business.21

Globalization has increased the number and types of actors who involve themselves in civil wars. Improvements in communication, for example, have made social media a particularly powerful actor into today’s conflicts. Twitter, Facebook, and other social-networking sites figured prominently in news reports about civil unrest and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, China and Libya. As with so many other spheres of life, civil wars are now available in mainstream and real-time: the forced consequent increase in transparency can preclude repression, but can also be a dangerous addition to conflicts of the future if not properly addressed.

NGOs, Private Military Companies and social media / networking are established instruments of modern-day conflicts, among others. Which of these actors play the most critical and prominent roles in civil wars? What is the true nature of the relationship between NGOs, private contractors, and social media, and the conduct, duration, and outcome of civil wars? Have these actors become permanent fixtures in civil wars? If so, how should incumbent governments and intervention forces relate to them?


Conclusion: America’s Role in Contemporary Civil Wars

Even ten years after 9/11, America and its allies continue to orient their foreign policy towards the prevention of similar incidents. As a result, civil war, intervention, and the new actors emerging onto the globalized battlefield will remain prominent issues for both America and the international community to address. There is significant common ground in policies addressing insurgencies, terrorism, and the “persistent conflicts” associated with the world’s civil wars. However, policies that work in one conflict may not be applicable to others. What, then, should America’s role in contemporary civil wars be? What role should international organizations and the international community play?



While America searches for the right “formula” of military, diplomatic, and financial means to affect the outcomes of these conflicts in its favor, the only certainty is that civil wars will continue to out-maneuver the world’s traditional, established borders and boundaries. The U.S. should seek to benefit from multilateralism and the comparative advantages other states and other actors—including international organizations – can bring to the fight. Careful reflection on the nature of civil war, the factors that contribute to it, and the circumstances that allow it to increasingly transcend traditional boundaries is a good place to begin this effort.

Recommended Reading
Gurr, Ted Robert. Why Men Rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
Kalyvas, Stathis N. The Logic of Violence in Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Keen, David. “The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars.” In Adelphi Papers 38:20. London: Routledge, 1998.
Shy, John, and Thomas W. Collier. “Revolutionary War.” In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

1 Address to the Corps of Cadets. As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, 25 February 2011, http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1539 (accessed 1 September 2011).

2 There are a number of sources from the 2001-2007 timeframe addressing counterinsurgency and counterterrorism as the primary threats of the future, including a portion of the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2010.

3 John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2003), 361-3. Mearsheimer contends that that the end of the Cold War has not eradicated a great power propensity for war and sees great power war as the outcome of the continued security competition between these great powers.

4 There are two notable works written about a decade apart that discuss the impact of globalization on world conflict. One is Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), pp. 322-8. Freidman discusses how globalization has empowered angry youths to join groups that can then take action on an international scale. David Kilcullen articulates a similar argument in The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). He offers that globalization makes angry young men more aware of cultural incursion and inequality, which then causes them to rebel against their fate.

5James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War,” in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 (February 2003), pp. 75-77.

6 Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 330-6. Kalyvas has a telling discussion of how intimacy can lead to violence in civil wars.

7 Friedman and Kilcullen again both address this notion in The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The Accidental Guerilla respectively.

8 Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 13-16, 23. Gurr discusses how the size / amount of “relative deprivation” within a society can impact the magnitude and scope of political violence observed.

9 Robert C. Bonner, “The New Cocaine Cowboys,” in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 4 (July / August 2010): 20-47.

10 Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” in The Center for the Study of African Economies Working Paper Series, No. 160, (Berkeley: Berkeley Electronic Press, 2002), 1-10.

11 David Keen, “The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars,” in Adelphi Papers, Vol. 38, No. 320 (London: Routledge, 1998), 24-5.

12 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, “Summary of the Responsibility to Protect,” found at http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/R2PSummary.pdf (Accessed 6 September 2011).

13Andrew Mack, “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict, in World Politics, Vol. 27., No. 2 (January 1975), 181-2, 184. Mack argues that “the process of political attrition of the metropolitan power’s capability to continue to wage war is not the consequence of errors of generalship…in a total war situation guns would get automatic priority…the protagonists of a limited war have to compete for resources—human, economic and political—with protagonists of other interests—governmental, bureaucratic, interest groups, and so forth.” Although his analysis applies to great power intervention, it is also appropriate for coalition and international organization intervention forces as well.

14 Andrew J. Birtle, “Persuasion and Coercion in Counterinsurgency Warfare,” in Military Review (July-August 2008), 41-51.

15 David D. Laitin, “Somalia: Civil War and International Intervention,” in Civil Wars, Insecurity, and Intervention, eds. Barbara F. Walter and Jack Snyder, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 146-149, 160-163.

16 Edward N. Luttwak, “Give War a Chance,” in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 4 (July-August 1999), 38.

17 “Going, going…the fall of Muammar Qaddafi will transform Libya, the Middle East and NATO,” The Economist, (August 27-September 2 2011), pp. 11-12.

18 Bryan Price and Jeanne Hull, “Terrorism, Civil War and Internationalized Internal Conflict,” unpublished manuscript for SCUSA 62, October 2010.

19 Keen, “The Economic Functions of Violence,” 59-61.

20 Shadow Company: Soldier, Mercenary, Private Contractor, directed by Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque (Vancouver: Purpose Built Film / Purpose Films DVD, 2006).

21 Keen, “The Economic Functions of Violence,” 61.


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