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The Reality of Civil War

4 minute read
Niall Ferguson

While supposedly waging a war on terrorism, in reality the U.S. today finds itself embroiled in multiple civil wars: Iraq, Afghanistan and now Somalia. Some die-hard proponents of liberal interventionism would like to see Sudan added to the list. But does anyone in Washington really understand what the American military can achieve in such situations, when Sunnis are fighting Shi’ites or warlords are fighting Islamists?

Say the words civil war to Americans, and they instinctively think in terms of their own, from 1861 to 1865. A big principle (slavery) was at stake. In ethnic, religious and linguistic terms, the two sides were remarkably similar, although not identical. Big and well-equipped armies fought large battles. The whole thing lasted almost exactly four years. No foreign power became officially involved. And it was never repeated.

But not many civil wars are like that. More typically, civil wars are fought over the smaller issue of who runs the country, not how it is run. The sides are often (although not always) divided by ethnicity, religion and language. Usually the armies involved are small, as are the engagements they fight (the standard political science classification of a civil war is an internal conflict that causes 1,000 or more deaths in battle a year, a relatively modest baseline). Such wars tend to drag on for much longer than four years. And foreign powers often get involved.

Why do civil wars break out? Oxford economist Paul Collier and his collaborators argue that economics is a large part of the story. Surveying more than 70 civil war outbreaks since the 1960s, they show that poor countries–with low per capita incomes and low growth rates–were significantly more likely to suffer civil war than richer countries. Put simply, it’s easier to recruit people to rebel armies when the alternative to grinding axes is grinding poverty. At the same time, countries that rely heavily on exports of primary products (such as oil and diamonds) are prone to civil war because such commodities are easily appropriated and traded by rebel leaders. As Collier puts it, “Diamonds are a guerrilla’s best friend.”

Although there are exceptions (Somalia is one), civil wars are more likely to afflict countries that are divided by ethnicity, religion and/or language. (Think of Bosnia as well as Iraq.) They are also more likely to break out where a substantial proportion of the population is male and from 15 to 29 years old. And, interestingly, mountainous countries (Afghanistan) are more likely to suffer civil war than flat countries.

The bad news is that civil wars in places like these tend to last a long time and very often recur. According to Stanford political scientist James D. Fearon, the average post-1945 civil war has lasted more than a decade. In effect, the cycle of violence becomes a way of life.

This helps explain why so many of the world’s civil wars today are taking place in Africa. It’s not that Africans have some inherent weakness for internecine war. It’s just that African populations are more likely to be poor, reliant on commodity exports, ethnically divided, young and so on. Think back to medieval and early modern times, when Europeans were not much better situated. The English had their Wars of the Roses, the French their Wars of Religion.

Can anything be done by outsiders to stop civil wars? One key finding by Collier is that, until recently, former French colonies in Africa were less likely than comparably poor countries to experience civil war. That was because the French (unlike the British) effectively gave informal security guarantees to the new governments, promising to use French troops to quash rebellions. But in the absence of such postcolonial arrangements, is it possible for foreigners to stop a civil war?

The answer is yes, but seldom because foreigners are able to impose a nice power-sharing agreement between the warring parties. More commonly, foreign intervention ends a civil war by helping one side defeat the other. That was essentially what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, when NATO finally intervened against the Serbs. The British ended the civil war in Sierra Leone by beating the rebels. Something similar just happened in Somalia.

Although he no longer expects a “surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship,” President Bush insists that victory in Iraq is still attainable. He may be right. Unfortunately, history suggests that the only kind of victory within reach is an American-assisted Shi’ite victory over the Sunni minority. And that is likely to be both protracted and very ugly indeed. •

Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University

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