There has been some change in the world’s wars and armed conflicts – notably Syria is now on the list – so it’s a good time for a summary of the world’s wars. In the aggregate, the world remains in a sustained lull in armed conflict, with fewer, smaller, and more localized wars than in the past. But in the past year some have gotten better, some worse.
The world’s biggest war is the fight of regular state armies against armed Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. This biggest war is far smaller than Vietnam was, and also considerably smaller than the recent Iraq War in terms of both military and civilian casualties. The war is winding down for the United States over the next year and a half, but the overall prospects in both Afghanistan and western Pakistan are unclear. We can hope that President Obama is right that a new day is dawning for the Afghans. The poor country has been at war more or less continuously since the Soviet invasion 33 years ago. Yet the problem of armed Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all its complexities and shifting alliances, seems no closer to solution overall than it was years ago.
Somalia is the second place in the world where fighting is taking place on a daily basis between armed forces that each control territory. After decades of civil war, with most of the country controlled by the Islamist militant group al Shabab, the official government with military clout from the African Union has finally extended its reach from a few blocks of the capital to encompass all of the capital, Mogadishu. Kenya’s armed forces entered Somalia from the south, and Ethiopia’s from the west, to push Shabab out of Somali territory. The capital is currently enjoying a resurgence. In the north, however, two autonomous regions, Somaliland and Puntland, add to Somalia’s unresolved problems (but are not at war).
In southern Sudan, the Sudanese government has for months been fighting rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces who sided with the South Sudan side during the long civil war. The government appears to be committing war crimes against the populations there. Recently the regular armies of Sudan and South Sudan have been skirmishing along the border, though this has died down somewhat in the last week. Sporadic fighting still takes place in Darfur in the west of Sudan, where earlier war crimes led to an indictment of Sudan’s current president by the International Criminal Court. So Sudan has been seeing persistent armed conflict, though at the moment the fighting is small-scale and intermittent. There is a big danger of a big war between regular state armies, and the Security Council has told both sides to knock it off.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo currently a sizable militia that had theoretically integrated into the national army has recently split off and is fighting against the national army in the Wild East of the country, near Rwanda and Uganda. The leader of that militia is under indictment by the International Criminal Court. That conflict has escalated to active fighting, but it hasn’t gone on for long yet. Outbreaks like this have been taking place in eastern Congo (where elements of the genocide perpetrators from Rwanda still are holed up) for the past decade as the rest of the country has maintained a fragile but durable peace. Like Sudan, the fighting is low-level but persistent.
Syria is the fifth serious armed conflict at the moment. As the Free Syrian Army (FSA) gains strength and holds neighborhoods, the situation more and more resembles a civil war, though it’s still unclear what direction the country will go in. Most of the deaths to date appear to be from government violence against civilians, though the number attributable to fighting between the government and FSA is growing.
So these are the five places where sizable armed forces are actively fighting each other on a daily basis — Afghanistan/Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, eastern Congo, and Syria.
In a number of other countries, lower-level fighting takes places, at smaller scale and not as regularly. I count the following small but somewhat consequential armed conflicts on my “wars in progress” list:
Iraq (including Sunni-Shi’ite conflicts internally and Turkey’s battles with Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq)
Yemen (Islamist militants hold territory in the south, plus a different conflict in the north)
India (government vs. Maoists, though one major group is now in a cease fire)
Colombia (long guerrilla war running out of steam),
Burma (or Myanmar, where one long-running ethnic conflict has a cease-fire but others continue)
Philippines (occasional fighting on remote islands to track down terrorists)
Thailand (some fighting with Islamist rebels in far south).
Nigeria (fighting sporadic in delta oil region but becoming more regular with Islamists in north)
Israel-Palestine (world’s longest-running armed conflict; low-level but persistent violence)
The Uppsala/PRIO data maintained in Sweden and Norway define wars and armed conflicts somewhat differently than I do, going down to lower levels of violence. They include both Russia (occasional terrorist attacks in the Islamic south near Chechnya) and Algeria (remnants of a nasty civil war with Islamists a decade ago). The Uppsala/PRIO data also include “global al Qaeda” as a war. The data also count conflicts with fewer than 100 battle deaths in a year, which generally do not make my list. They include the hunt for Joseph Kony in central Africa, and conflicts in Tajikistan, Iran, Mauritania, Ethiopia, and Peru. (Uppsala peace researchers writing in SIPRI Yearbook 2011 listed 15 “major armed conflicts” in 2010, close to my total “wars in progress” but not entirely overlapping.)
In addition, I had Libya on the list last year but have since dropped it, although fighting among town-based militias still occurs from time to time. To me it’s not organized enough to call a war, but you can argue it. There was also a war in Mali earlier this year where armed rebels who had fought for Gaddafi in Libya took over the north part of the country. It seems likely that fighting will start up again when the government recovers from an ill-advised coup and gets an African Union force together, but meanwhile there is a stable cease-fire and it’s not a war in progress in my view.
So that’s the world of armed conflict today: Five small wars, nine smaller and more sporadic armed conflicts, several other borderline cases where intergroup violence bubbles up on occasion, and several more with casualty levels below 100 deaths/year.
I’ve been keeping a list of wars in my textbook International Relations for 20 years. The first edition showed 26 wars in progress worldwide in 1992, including some especially large and brutal ones such as in Angola, the former Yugoslavia, and Sri Lanka. The latest edition had 13 wars as of January 2012, and I’ve since added Syria for 14 total.
I’ve been pretty consistent in defining wars over time, and the decline in number by half does accurately reflect the peaceful trend of the past twenty years. Also the geographical shrinkage of the world’s war zone is evident in the changing map of wars in progress. Wars 20 years ago were dispersed, with 3 in Latin America, 2 in Europe, 2 in the former Soviet republics, 3 in the Middle East, 8 in Africa, 4 in South Asia, and 4 in Southeast Asia. Today’s map shows one war in Latin America (Colombia, quickly dwindling), none in Europe or the former Soviet republics, and all the rest packed along a single arc from Democratic Congo to Iraq and Afghanistan to Burma (and thinning out into small conflicts in Thailand and the Philippines). Warfare is literally shrinking across the face of the earth.
Sometimes the tone of political discourse implies that the world is awash in wars, violence is out of control across the world and getting worse and worse. If you look at the reality of wars today, as this post has, the picture is quite the opposite. The number of wars of the size and intensity known for most of history is now zero. Only a handful with ongoing serious fighting are taking place, and the list of even smaller armed conflicts barely makes it into double digits. Of the world’s 7 billion people, the number living in war zones is on the order of 100 million. You can quibble with the details, but clearly something like 98 percent of human beings are living in regions of peace today.