Category Archives: Armed Conflicts

Posts about war and conflict

Wars In Progress – Update

I’ve updated my “wars in progress” list (here) for use in my textbook update (Goldstein/Pevehouse International Relations, 10th edition update for 2013-2014).

There were no major changes in the state of the world’s wars. Syria became more lethal, with some tens of thousands killed last year. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia each saw flareups of fighting that have since abated somewhat. But Afghanistan became somewhat less violent, and Iraq remains far less violent than five years ago.

I added Mali to the list of wars in progress. Although the major French intervention succeeded quickly, there will probably be ongoing fighting for quite a while in the north of Mali.

I removed the Philippines from the list, as no regular fighting is taking place there anymore.  The government is still hunting down a few terrorists in remote places.

Several scary episodes of interstate skirmishing — actual military clashes between regular state armies — have taken place in recent years. These have occurred in India-Pakistan (most recently), Sudan-South Sudan, Cambodia-Thailand, North Korea-South Korea, and Israel-Lebanon, among others. In each case, although several people were killed, the situation did not escalate and some kind of cease-fire was restored. Even in a tense standoff such as Sudan and South Sudan, if there is a generally successful cease-fire and occasional breaches of it do not escalate to open fighting, the war is not “in progress” and not on my list.

In the big picture, the Uppsala world battle-deaths estimates remain at historic-low levels for the 11th year (since 2002, with 2012 being not recorded in the Uppsala data yet but certainly not that different from 2011). The levels of war deaths worldwide in each of the past 11 years are  lower than in any year since the 1950s. (America, however, had its decade of war during the world’s decade of peace, but is now joining the trend.) Will 2013 continue this decade of peace or bring new large-scale wars?

Benghazi — Truth vs. Politics

Call me old-fashioned but I still believe that truth and falsehood exist; that with some effort a nation’s policymaking and political establishment can determine one from the other; and that any nation that fails to do so when it comes to foreign policy — with such huge stakes and so many lives on the line — puts itself in mortal danger. I guess it’s my Realist streak.

Once upon a time, and here I reveal how old I am, American foreign policy managed, not always but often, to rise above politics. There was this quaint concept called the “bipartisan consensus” with its poetic mantra, “Politics stops at the water’s edge.”  The many erroneous or wrong-headed policies of the time generally came out of ignorance, especially of new developments in a changing world, rather than willful disregard of facts. It took a while to realize that nuclear weapons were not just very big artillery shells, that Vietnam was not the same kind of war as WWII, and that China and the Soviet Union might both be communist but not necessarily allied, for instance.

In the past decade or so, however, facts and truths seem to have gone out of style altogether. Partisan politics drives everything. Foreign policy discussions play out without questioning the underlying assumptions even when the latter are totally unfounded. And this is not happening just on minor or obscure issues, but the most important ones. When we invaded Iraq (leaving aside whether that was such a bright idea), the number of troops needed to occupy the country could be calculated based on past experiences, such as the forces that successfully kept the peace in the Balkans just a few years earlier. But when the head of the Army, Eric Shinseki, provided that number, the political leadership just pushed him aside and said, oh no, we don’t like that number, we’ll do it with far less. The result was a costly disaster for U.S. foreign policy.

Another example: political leaders and the public assume that levels of violence and threat in the world are increasing, when in fact hard evidence shows the opposite to be true (see my book). As a result, the USA spends more on the military than during the Cold War, spending that is helping drive the country into deep debt and economic malaise. It’s not just that we can’t afford it, but that we don’t need it. Yet political leaders talk on about the need to keep up military spending to face these terrible new threats. And speaking of new threats, our political leaders constantly harp on the threat from a rising China, conveniently forgetting that China has not fought a single military battle in 25 years. Not one. Why? It’s not in their national interest. Do we Americans remember that old concept, “national interest?”

Now comes the latest doomed stand for Truth — the dispute over the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Was it a protest against the anti-Muslim video that went wrong and turned violent?  Or was it a premeditated attack by al Qaeda timed for the anniversary of 9/11?  This debate goes on and on and on, the Energizer Bunny of inane foreign policy discussions.  Politicians and media, please just shut up and listen!  We know the answer!  It’s not a debate, it’s not a mystery, and it’s not exactly either of the above stories.

We’ve known the full story for at least six weeks, since New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick published it after interviewing the eyewitnesses and participants in Benghazi. Yes, published it not in a fly-by-night blog or a partisan rag, but in the New York Times. Does anybody read it anymore? “To those on the ground, the circumstances of the attack are hardly a mystery,” he wrote.

And this is what happened:  A local prominent Islamist armed militant group called Ansar al-Shariah has openly operated in Benghazi for some time. They are radical Islamists like al Qaeda, but are focused on local aims, not global attacks on America. “Other Benghazi militia leaders who know the group say its leaders and ideology are all homegrown,” wrote Kirkpatrick. Because Libya does not have good governance yet, after the overthrow of its longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi last year, there are many of these armed militias roaming around and controlling various territories within the country.

Last September 11, without a thought to the meaning of that date and without prior planning, the members of Ansar al-Shariah watched news coverage of a protest in Cairo against the offensive anti-Muslim video. They became enraged, grabbed their automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and attacked the American consulate. The hundreds of attackers overwhelmed the defenses and burned the building. U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was inside and died of smoke inhalation.

In the context of Libya, it was not such a strange action — a similar attack hit the Italian embassy in 2006 after a perceived Italian insult to the prophet Mohammed. But it did not in any way represent the Libyan people. After the attack, Libyans in Benghazi who realized they’d lost a great friend in Ambassador Stevens were outraged at Ansar al-Shariah, marching on its headquarters and throwing its members out.

Was it a terrorist act? Sure. A protest gone wrong? No. Was it a premeditated attack timed to 9/11? No. A spontaneous reaction to the video? Yes. An al Qaeda plot? No. Mysterious and complicated? No!

And by the way, what does any of this have to do with our UN ambassador Susan Rice, who repeated CIA talking points on Sunday talk shows (points that had omitted references to Ansar’s phone calls, in which they bragged to their ideological cousins in “al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” [North Africa], so that Ansar wouldn’t know we’re listening in)?

Author Tom Ricks (The Generals) went on Fox News recently and offered that  the Benghazi story had been “hyped” by Fox. They booted him off the air instantly. Ricks has also been making the media rounds in the wake of the Petraeus sex scandal, arguing that we should assess generals based on how well they fight wars, not their private lives. (His take is that Petraeus was a good general but that the same can’t be said for a lot of our other top brass who led us through Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Personally I’m ready to lay off the sex scandals, the political talking points, the ideological certainties, and have an adult conversation about some big issues our country faces. Like the war that’s still going on in Afghanistan. Like the defense budget. Like the Arab uprisings in Libya and across the region that have left unstable places groping their way toward democracy and prosperity. Unstable places where maybe an ambassador gets killed trying to help — but that’s not even the main point. Let’s start from facts and look to the big picture.

The world’s first published Realist was the Chinese military advisor Sun Tzu in ancient times (The Art of War). His idea of the best general was not the one who had the good character to resist sexual temptation, nor the most brave or aggressive one, nor the most cautious one. It was the general who could cooly calculate the costs and benefits of each course of action. And realize the other side was doing the same thing.

Costs and benefits. National interest. Fact-based assessments. Bipartisan consensus. These are the best elements of Realism, a school of thought that has many deficiencies but some enduring strengths as well. I’m not a Realist overall, but we could use a dose of it right now.

Back to the UN

Lost in the current focus on the Gaza conflict is the vow of the Palestinian Authority to seek an upgrade in the UN General Assembly from observer status to “nonmember state.” That campaign is supposed to start November 29. Israel calls it “unilateral” and has threatened drastic actions, and the U.S. Congress threatens to cut off funding to the UN if it happens.

These reactions are way over the top for an action that would make little tangible difference to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship (which has much bigger problems currently, if you hadn’t noticed). We’re talking about the status held by the Vatican, giving Palestine modest rights to participate in some international bodies. Mostly it would give the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, something to show for his moderation after being sidelined in recent days by far more radical factions, primarily Hamas.

Are folks freaking out because Palestine would have the word “state” next to its name? Silly. The two-state solution, a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, is supported at least in theory by the Israeli government, the Palestinian government, the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Americans, the UN…  Who am I leaving out here?  (Oh right, it’s opposed by Hamas and the other radical groups shooting missiles at Israel. ) So if you favor a two-STATE solution, why not put STATE next to Palestine?  Nobody will die — which is more than you can say for current policy.

I supported using the UN to address the Palestine issue a year ago, when it sought full membership. If we had passed a resolution then affirming the two-state solution, we might have headed off some of the trouble now engulfing Israel and Gaza. If we use the UN now and support Abbas, we might get ahead of the next wave of troubles that’s sure to hit.

In a recent interview I talked about the UN and peace, so in preparation for the upcoming “nonmember state” discussion at the UN I’m posting it here.

Note:  After completing the “Global Challenges in 2030” series, there wasn’t much of the semester left, so I’m blogging irregularly while focusing on a couple of book projects.

Charli Carpenter — Securing the Seas

[By Charli Carpenter. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

Forget Johnny Depp. Real-life maritime piracy is no laughing matter. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 78 vessels were boarded and 39 hijacked worldwide in the first half of 2009—an increase of nearly double from the previous year. Unlike the pirates of yore, today’s sea bandits use satellite technology to track their prey; sneak up alongside ships in speedboats; are armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenades; and board vessels with grappling irons. Once aboard, pirates plunder or ransom cargo and terrorize crews.

All kinds of ships—yachts, freighters, cruise ships, supertankers—fall victim to attack. In 2008, a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with Russian tanks, ammunition, and other military equipment was captured by pirates and later ransomed for $3.2 million. Humanitarian shipments to famine-ravaged lands are favorite targets off the Horn of Africa, meaning piracy is not just bad news for maritime crews and arms merchants but also for hungry civilians—not to mention the entire system of international trade, since 90 percent of what consumers use travels by water. And there are significant concerns about the connections between piracy and international terrorism.

“Ultimately, action at the global level is necessary to protect shipping lanes and empower legitimate international actors to stamp out piracy.” Here, Turkish commandos in 2009 arrest pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Commentators have different views as to what drives this problem: grinding poverty that makes piracy look like easy money, technological changes that make it easy for non-state actors to take on states and corporations, the collapse of state governance in many parts of the world. But an important contributing factor is the simple lack of global coordination to address the problem. States are responsible for policing their coastlines, but much piracy occurs on the high seas—outside of any one state’s jurisdiction. Because the  oceans are a radically transnational, ungoverned space, no one state has the power or authority to quell piracy on its own.

Governments acting in concert in specific contexts have shown that maritime piracy can be controlled. Four years ago, the Straits of Malacca were the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world. Then a coordination regime between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore reduced piracy markedly. But piracy hotspots move. At the same time that piracy declined in South Asia, it spiked off the Horn of Africa as marauders sought a more lawless region to ply their
trade. A coalition of 45 nations is now policing East Africa. But Somalia is not the only hotspot today: piracy remains a problem in South Asia and off the
coast of Nigeria.

Ultimately, as with other global problems, a global response is required. Unfortunately, no international organization exists whose responsibility is to protect shipping lanes globally or punish offenders once caught. The UN has no global police force, and was primarily designed to prevent territorial aggression among middle powers, not solve transnational security threats. In fact, the UN Charter is part of the problem: ships on the high seas cannot  legally pursue pirate boats into the territorial waters of sovereign countries. On a case-by-case basis, the UN Security Council can authorize exceptions to this rule, but this approach has not worked well in Somalia, partly because governments also need to be required to do the actual policing. And Security Council resolutions regarding Somalia cannot be transplanted to other  contexts.

The international community is also missing global rules about how to punish or deter piracy. As a crime of universal jurisdiction, piracy on the high seas is in theory punishable by any state that captures a pirate. But such trials are rare: no country wants to set a precedent for trying pirates in domestic courts, and be faced with a backlog from others bringing their own captured pirates to its jurisdiction. The International Criminal Court offers a potential venue for trying and punishing pirates, but at present its jurisdiction includes only the other universal jurisdiction crimes—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Given this political and legal vacuum, shippers are fending for themselves these days with acoustic weapons and private security personnel, in some cases arming merchant crews in their own self-defense. But these remain band-aid solutions—and they create additional risks to human life and  maritime security. Ultimately, action at the global level is necessary to protect shipping lanes and empower legitimate international actors to stamp out  piracy.

International institutions have been created to solve other global problems: nuclear proliferation, ozone depletion, pandemic disease. What might a “regime” for combating piracy look like? Whatever the means chosen, governments will need to seriously rethink the governance of the ocean over the next two decades if they are to stem the rising tide of high seas brigandry.


CHARLI CARPENTER teaches international relations at the University of  Massachusetts-Amherst, and blogs about war law and human security issues at Duck of Minerva and Current Intelligence. She is the author of Innocent Women and Children: Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate  Publishing, 2006).

Shibley Telhami — Understanding Attitudes on Middle East Peace

Shibley Telhami photo[By Shibley Telhami. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

One of the striking observations in the Middle East throughout the turbulent first decade of the 21st century is that people in the region, both Arabs and Israelis, continued to support a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that envisions two states, Israel and Palestine, roughly separated by the border that preceded the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Certainly, there remained important differences on details, but most embraced the principle of two states.

What is equally striking is that, behaviorally, there has been little indication of these attitudes: Israelis dumped the center-left from power and elected rightwing-led governments, and  Palestinians elected the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, to lead their government. Across the Arab world, public opinion polls continued to show that militant leaders like Hassan Nassrallah of the Lebanese Hezbollah party were far more popular than conciliatory leaders like King Abdullah of Jordan.

In looking closely at public attitudes, one can get a better sense of what has been driving people’spositions. In six Arab countries in which I poll annually (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates),1 people’s openness toward a political solution has been matched by deep pessimism about the prospects for peace. Half of those polled in 2009 said peace will never come, and only 6 percent believed it will come within five years. While only about a quarter of the Arab public were in principle opposed to Israel, a majority of those who accepted a two-state solution did not believe the Israelis would ever accept it. This is a pattern that other polls found among Israelis and Palestinians as well, and one I found in a summer-2009 poll among Arab citizens of Israel.

The assessment of the prospects of failure to reach an agreement based on the two-state solution is another measure that sheds light on the public’s outlook. The vast majority of those polled believed that, if such a solution was not reached, the Middle East would face years of violence and instability. The net result of this deep pessimism was that many on each side assumed that the other will understand only the language of toughness and violence—and each felt a need to better position itself in case of failure.

These attitudes can be contrasted with the prevailing mood in the 1990s, when seemingly promising, if sometimes troubled, peace negotiations were seen by most as likely to lead to a peace settlement. Even those who were not especially happy with the kind of settlement that appeared likely had to prepare themselves to accommodate it. Preparing oneself for failure and preparing oneself for success entail dramatically different attitudes and strategies.

Prevailing public attitudes present extraordinary challenges to mediation diplomacy. At one level, the impact of public opinion is obvious: In places where free elections are held, such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, public attitudes affect the election outcomes and thus the governing coalitions. Following the collapse of the Clinton administration’s mediation efforts in July 2000, bloody confrontations ensued and Israelis elected a tough right-wing government headed by General Ariel Sharon. Among Palestinians, the failure of diplomacy to end Israeli occupation partly led to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 legislative elections, with subsequent conflict and territorial divide among the Palestinians.

Even beyond elections, public anger can be consequential. At the extreme end, it can be used by militant groups to spoil a possible deal they oppose. It can also sometimes lead to policy change. One such episode took place in the Fall of 2009 when the Palestinian Authority decided to ask the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to postpone a vote on the “Goldstone Report” prepared by a commission headed by South African Judge Richard Goldstone to assess human rights violations in the 2008–2009 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. The report accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes. Mindful of Israeli and American positions, and with an eye on reviving peace negotiations, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, asked the UNHRC to postpone considering the report. The public reaction was so vociferous that Abbas reversed his position quickly and asked for an emergency session of the UNHRC to vote on the report.

One of the challenges to governments in the region is that their ability to shape public attitudes is diminishing by the day. Polls indicate that most people in the region get their news from media outlets, especially satellite television, outside their own countries, so that their government’s narrative is an increasingly small part of the information they get. And Internet use is rapidly expanding, making public attitudes harder to control or even predict.

The net result of prevailing public attitudes is that incremental approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are unlikely to succeed. In theory, if a grand deal is put on the table that meets the basic needs of both sides, it could be embraced by majorities of Arabs and Israelis. The challenge is how to get to that point. Even in the 1990s when a sense of the inevitability of peace was common, incrementalism turned out to be problematic. Postponing key issues worked only to create opportunities for spoilers who helped undermine confidence instead. Leaders on both sides were less inclined to make short-term gestures as they feared giving up the leverage they needed to tackle the toughest issues down the road.

Public attitudes, even hardened ones, can of course change. But the sort of dramatic events that can lead to profound change are hard to anticipate. And given the moods of the Israeli and Palestinian publics and the complexity of their domestic politics, drama is unlikely to come from their leaders. That’s why the focus has been on international mediation, especially American—and aimed at the toughest issues from the outset, while striving for a comprehensive deal.


SHIBLEY TELHAMI is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Stakes: America and the Middle East (Westview Press, 2004).

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. — Diversifying American Power

Joseph Nye photo[By Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

The American National Intelligence Council projects that American dominance will be “much diminished,” by 2025. Many foreign leaders also suggest that American power has passed its mid-day. How would you know if these predictions are correct or not?

First, beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Nations are not like humans, with predictable life spans. For example, after Britain lost its American colonies at the end of the 18th century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain’s reduction to “as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia.” He failed to foresee that the Industrial Revolution would give Britain a second century of even greater ascendency. Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power. Even then, Rome did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed for all the fashionable predictions of China, India, or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threats to all states may come from modern barbarians and non-state actors. The classical transition of power among great states may be less of a problem than the rise of non-state actors. In an information-based world of cyberinsecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.

da Silva, Obama, Hu photo

“On many transnational issues, empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals.” Here, in 2009, the leaders of Brazil, the United States, and China work together, with others, to coordinate actions for global economic recovery.

At an even more basic level, what resources will produce power in the next two decades? In the 16th century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain
the edge; 17th-century Netherlands profited from trade and finance; 18th-century France gained from its larger population and armies; while 19th-century British power rested on its primacy in the Industrial Revolution and its navy. Conventional wisdom has always held
that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be that the state (or nonstate) with the best story will win. Soft or attractive
power becomes as important as hard military or economic power. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal.” Smart power means the combination of the hard power of command and the soft power of attraction.

In today’s world, power resources are distributed in a pattern that resembles a complex, three-dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar and the United States is likely to remain the only superpower for some time. But on the middle chessboard, economic power has already been multipolar for more than a decade, with the United States, Europe, Japan, and China as the major players, and others gaining in importance.

The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations that cross borders outside of government control, and it includes non-state actors as diverse as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets at one extreme, and terrorists transferring weapons or hackers threatening cyber-security at the other. It also includes new challenges like pandemics and climate change. On this bottom board, power is widely dispersed, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, hegemony. The soft power to attract and organize cooperation will be essential for dealing with transnational issues.

The problem for American power in the 21st century is that there are more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful state. Although
the United States does well on military measures, there is increasingly more going on in the world that those measures fail to capture. For example,  international financial stability is vital to the prosperity of Americans, but the United States needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Global climate change too will affect the quality of life, but the United States cannot manage the problem alone. And in a world where borders are becoming more porous than ever to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, America must help build international coalitions and build institutions to address shared threats and challenges. In this sense, power becomes a positive sum game. It is not enough to think in terms of power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish goals. On many transnational issues, empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of relevant power. The problem of American power is less one of decline, than realizing that even the largest country cannot achieve its aims without the help of others.


JOSEPH S. NYE, JR. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of The Powers to Lead and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

Wars of the World

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.

North Korean Nuke Test Less than It Appears

North Korea is reportedly preparing for its third nuclear test. Here’s why I’m not worried about it.

My reaction is not dictated by complacence about nuclear proliferation, which I consider about the most serious problem there is in the field of war and peace. North Korea’s ability to master nuclear weapons technology and share it with others for a price is a serious danger. Also, I worry about the North Korean regime in general since it is unpredictable, bellicose, and prone to acts of aggression — like sinking a South Korean warship two years ago, killing 46.

But let’s put a third nuclear test in perspective. First of all, it’s anomalous and just marks North Korea as a rogue, outlier state (as if we needed further evidence). That’s because the north’s two (about to be three?) nuclear tests are the only nuclear explosions set off in the current century, 11+ years. Even though the USA hasn’t ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the treaty might as well be in effect in terms of behavior. Nobody is testing anymore. Except North Korea.

The first nuclear test in 2006 did not surprise me. North Korea had operated a nuclear reactor and extracted plutonium, reportedly enough for something like 8-10 bombs. But would the bomb design work? One thing about dictators is that they’re somewhat paranoid about the people who work for them, so I can imagine Kim Jong Il wanting to know if the thing worked. They tested one and it fizzled. So the second test in 2009 was also not a surprise. They had to see if they’d corrected whatever was wrong. They had, and the explosion had a force about equivalent to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Since then, since North Korea had destroyed its reactor during one of the peace deals, it’s plutonium supply has been quite limited, and western governments would be happy to see it used up in tests, leaving a smaller arsenal each time.

Then it turned out North Korea had a separate program to enrich uranium for a bomb. They showed it off to a U.S. scientist in 2010, and he was impressed. But here’s the thing: Getting plutonium is easy but making a plutonium bomb is quite difficult, whereas getting enriched uranium is hard but making it into a bomb is easy. So having mastered a plutonium bomb, the North Koreans hardly need to test a uranium bomb to know it will work, if they have the uranium. As a matter of fact, when the United States invented atomic bombs in 1945, it tested the first plutonium bomb in New Mexico and dropped the second one on Nagasaki. U.S. leaders dropped the first uranium bomb on Hiroshima  without testing it. They knew it would work.

And North Korea knows their uranium bomb will work. So either they test it just for show, or they test another plutonium bomb while reducing their plutonium stockpile (albeit developing a smaller weapon more ready to mount on missiles). Either way, who cares?  It’s sabre-rattling.

As for long-range missiles, North Korea definitely broke agreements including UN Security Council resolutions when it test-fired one recently. But the test failed, as have previous ones. It still moves their program forward to test a missile and have it crash (lessons learned), but it’s not exactly a clear and present danger to the USA.

North Korea’s real threat is not its nuclear or missile programs but its artillery massed within range of Seoul. In the first hours of a new Korean War, the south’s capital would be flattened. However, in the next few days the north would be overwhelmed, invaded, and its regime overthrown. The new young leader Kim Jong Un would probably be dead. Dictators don’t like that. So it just seems very improbable that the north would go beyond smallish provocations and slip into a real war.

The international community should not freak out about the north’s behavior, especially if there is a nuclear test soon. Nobody will die in that test, it won’t lead to a war, and it’s irrelevant to the real problem of proliferation. Six-party talks on resolving the North Korean nuclear problem are still the best hope, and we should be probing whether, beneath the bluster, the new leader may want to play Let’s Make a Deal.

Sudan at the Brink of War

The situation on the border of Sudan and South Sudan continues to worsen [Latest articles from NY Times and BBC], now teetering on the brink of an all-out war between two regular state armies, something that hasn’t happened in years and would be quite bloody (also probably indecisive).

In recent days South Sudanese forces have either withdrawn, or been forced out of, the Heglig oil fields just north of the border. That is good, as the UN Security Council had demanded such a pullout. Despite South Sudan’s claims to the territory, the Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled it on Sudan’s side and the international community supports that border. The international community also wants the south to halt military aid to rebels allied to the south but living north of the border. It wants the north to stop air and ground attacks against the south. The north has also waged a brutal campaign against those rebels, reminiscent at times of the genocide in Darfur in western Sudan, for which Sudan’s president remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Last week I speculated that South Sudan might just want to destroy the Heglig fields so that Sudan couldn’t enjoy the oil revenue that South Sudan can’t have (the pipeline from the South through Sudan being shut down in a dispute about pricing). Now, satellite photos show significant damage to the Heglig fields following the South’s visit.

The north meanwhile has bombed a market in a border town in the South, the latest of a string of northern air attacks on the south.  One can only assume the South will get its hands on some of the thousands and thousands of portable anti-air missiles looted from Colonel Gaddafi’s stockpiles in Libya last year. That could somewhat restrain the north’s air dominance.

Most worrisome is the massing of ground forces against each other along the border. The tit-for-tat raids and skirmishes — at heart a bloody dispute over oil transit fees — could at any moment tip over into all-out war fueled by religious divisions (north Muslim, south Christian and animist) and by the fresh wounds of decades of civil war before last year’s independence.

The rhetoric out of the Sudanese government in recent days has gone red-hot, with the president calling the southerners “insects” and vowing regime change there by force, while a spokeperson said that it was a mistake to allow the south to become independent. This rhetoric aside, the fact is that the north did not manage to suppress the south by force over several decades of civil war, and will be even less able to do so now that the south is an independent member of the UN. (No member of the UN since its founding has ever been overrun and annexed by a neighbor.)

Folks, this is a terrible war that does not need to happen. The international community needs all hands on deck — the Chinese leaning on the north and the Americans on the south — to get both sides to comply with the recent UN Security Council mandate for a pullback 5 km from the border on each side. There is already a UN mission in South Sudan, but it is relatively small and weak in the circumstances. We should be rushing in more peacekeepers, equipment, and money to get stability back along the border. We should also be setting up a process including arbitration and financial monitoring to support the two sides in reopening the oil pipelines and sharing the revenue. The shared oil infrastructure gives the two countries a strong interest in cooperation, and we can only hope that with international support cooler heads will prevail and both countries can address their desperate poverty and not their threatening neighbor.

Two Places to Worry About

Right now two places in the world could get slowly better or rapidly worse. In Syria, the Kofi Annan peace plan brought together all the great powers in the first binding UN Security Council resolution on the year-old Syria crisis (Resolution 2042). The resolution endorses the Annan Plan and authorizes an unarmed UN monitoring force to be the world’s eyes on the ground and represent physically the international community and the Annan Plan. The first six people (of 30)  arrived Sunday night, with the plan to expand to 250 monitors if Syria allows it.

The need right now is to get the UN observers in as strongly and quickly as possible. Cease-fires are extremely fragile around the world, and in the past the UN has acted too slowly and war has reignited. That happened in Sierra Leone in 1997 when a cease-fire agreement ended a very brutal civil war. The UN was slow getting to the scene, months dragged on, and the agreement broke down as rebels attacked and army officers staged a coup. It was four years later before a stable peace arrived in Sierra Leone, backed up by a very successful peacekeeping mission.

In 1960, Ralph Bunche was able to assemble 3,500 peacekeepers and have them on the ground in the Congo in four days after a Security Council decision. He felt that speed of arrival was more important than quality or size of the force. The UN’s presence in Syria signals all Syrians that the Annan Plan is the legitimate blueprint for what should happen. The odds are stacked in some ways against the plan’s success, given the Assad regime’s past behavior, but the United States needs to throw its weight fully into using the UN in Syria and thus working with, not against, Russia in solving the Syria problem. A cease-fire is the most important first step, so maintaining and improving it is the top priority. Russia must press Syria hard to stop its use of violence.

The second place to worry about right now is South Sudan. Here the Americans, UN, and international community have been very involved for years in trying to bring about a peaceful separation of South Sudan from Sudan. The effort came to fruition with South Sudan’s indepence last year, but then relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse and have gone further downhill this year.

The first big conflict was about armed opponents of the Sudanese government, who sided with the south in the long civil war but whose communities ended up on the north side of the border in the peace agreement. Sudan harshly suppressed these rebellious areas and the UN was not large or strong enough to do anything. Some cross-border skirmishing resulted. Next South Sudan said that Sudan hadn’t paid for oil from the south that transits the north to get to an export port. The south shut off its oil production, depriving both itself and the north of desperately needed revenue. Meanwhile there is a border town whose status was not quite nailed down in the peace agreement, and where Ethiopian UN peacekeepers are now trying to keep a calm. And on top of that, the area is prone to large-scale cattle raiding among rival tribes, now involving automatic rifles and occasional massacres of hundreds of civilians.

Recently the two regular armies, north and south, have begun fighting directly. The south occupied an oil field just over the border, perhaps just to complete the shutdown of oil through Sudan. The north bombed a strategic bridge in the south. So while the level of fighting is still restricted to skirmishing, it is in imminent danger of escalating to all-out fighting.

On Friday the UN Security Council issued a statement demanding that South Sudan withdraw from the oil town it occupies in the north, and that both sides pull back military forces 5 km from the border. The president of South Sudan says he refused the “order” of the UN secretary-general to withdraw, responding that “I’m not under your command. … I’m head of a state, an independent state…”

Precedent is a cause for worry. After Eritrea split off peacefully from Ethiopia in 1993 (after 32 years of fighting), the two fell into conflict again and ended up fighting a years-long war that killed 50,000. It was artillery-duelling trench warfare over an insignificant disputed piece of territory in the middle of nowhere.

It was also the last time two regular state armies fought a sustained war in that way. In 2003 the U.S. and Iraqi armies fought for a few weeks, and in 2008 the Russian and Georgian armies fought for five days. Since then, the only fighting between regular state armies has consisted of short skirmishes that do not escalate. North Korea sank a South Korean ship, and later shelled civilians on an island. Thailand shelled Cambodian troops near a disputed spot on the border, with sporadic fighting between the two sides lasting for months (now abated after an unusual intervention by the World Court). Israel and the Lebanese army exchanged lethal fire on a very small scale not long ago. But on the great majority of days in recent years, no fighting took place anywhere in the world between the regular armies of the world’s states — a remarkable change from most of history.

Currently the fighting between the north and south in Sudan is ongoing, though still sporadic. Will it deescalate like Thailand and Cambodia, or escalate like Ethiopia and Eritrea? The UN is in South Sudan trying to support the peace agreement, but could use a lot more support. The United States should work to mobilize that support from the international community.


Note: Kofi Annan’s brilliant career at the UN is described in a chapter of my book Winning the War on War. And remember, pronounce it Annan to rhyme with cannon.