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You Can’t Win with Civil Wars (but You Can Lose)

UC San Diego’s Barbara F. Walter has a piece in today’s LAT entitled, “You can’t win with civil wars: History teaches that conflicts like Iraq drag on and rarely produce peace deals.” If the title weren’t depressing enough, the inside is even more stark.

Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of all civil wars since 1945 is 10 years. Conflicts in Burma, Angola, India, the Philippines, Chad and Colombia have lasted more than 30 years. Wars in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Lebanon, Sudan and Peru have lasted more than 15 years. Even Iraq’s previous civil war, fought against the Kurds, lasted 14 years.

[…]

Another lesson from history is that the greater the number of factions involved in a civil war, the longer it is likely to persist. Iraq simply has too many factions, with too much outside support, to come to a compromise settlement now. Not only is there no Shiite or Sunni who can speak for all of his side’s factions, but the parliament seems incapable of stopping the violence between these groups.

[…]

Civil wars rarely end in negotiated settlements. In research for a book on the topic, I found that 76% of civil wars between 1945 and 2005 ended only after one side had defeated all others. Only 24% ended in some form of negotiated solution. This suggests that the war in Iraq will not end at the bargaining table but on the battlefield.

[…]

One of the things learned over the last 60 years is that peace settlements in civil wars only work when backed by a third party willing to enforce the terms and to protect the weaker side from exploitation. This is why 40,000 NATO troops were stationed in Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton accords were signed, and why the accords in Rwanda eventually fell apart.

The problem in Iraq is that no third party is likely to be willing to guarantee any settlement that is reached. Nobody believes that the United States will stay in Iraq much beyond 2009, or that the Europeans or the United Nations will step in when the United States leaves.

Kevin Drum picks up on that last point and wonders, “Does anybody seriously think that we’re going to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq for the next 10 or 20 years? And if we’re not, is there any point in staying for one or two?”

While I would note that there is not even an expert consensus that “civil war” is even the right paradigm for analyzing Iraq at this point, let’s presume it is for the sake of argument. In a widely cited 1997 article for International Organization, “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement,” Walter concluded that:

Between 1940 and 1990, enemies in civil wars have almost always failed to reach successful negotiated solutions to their conflicts unless an outside power guaranteed their safety during the ensuing transition period. I argue that civil war opponents avoid negotiated settlements because this requires them to relinquish important fall-back defenses at a time when no neutral police force and no legitimate government exist to help them enforce the peace. Knowing they will enter a period of intense vulnerability, neither side can credibly commit to an agreement that becomes less attractive once implemented. Evidence from forty-one civil wars between 1940 and 1990 shows that civil war adversaries do, in fact, require the added reassurance of outside security guarantees before they willfully implement peace treaties. This suggests that resolving the underlying issues over which civil wars are fought is not enough to bring peace to war-torn states. Both short-term security guarantees and long-term institutional arrangements seem necessary to ensure stable and durable settlements.

So, certainly, Walter would agree that the Iraqi mess is unlikely to solve itself. If the EU and the UN aren’t going to step in anytime soon — and they’re not — that pretty much means the US and NATO. Which, in any case, essentially means the US (NATO isn’t going to do it without the US providing the lion’s share of the manpower).

The Iraqis are, reasonably enough, skeptical of our long term commitment. Then again, none of the serious Democratic contenders for the presidency will commit to getting out by 2013. By which point, incidentally, we’ll have been in Iraq for 10 years. Which, I’m given to understand, is the average length it takes to end one of these things.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. The three rules of getting involved in a foreign civil war:

    1. Never get involved in a foreign civil war.
    2. If you ignore rule #1, choose a side.
    3. Make sure your side wins.

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  2. whippoorwill says:

    So, certainly, Walter would agree that the Iraqi mess is unlikely to solve itself.

    These folks have been fighting civil wars for thousands of years and have settled everyone of them to date. What makes you think they can’t settle the one in Iraq? It may not be to our liking with all that oil at stake, but to say an outside power must help flies in the face of history.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    to say an outside power must help flies in the face of history

    One of the things learned over the last 60 years is that peace settlements in civil wars only work when backed by a third party willing to enforce the terms and to protect the weaker side from exploitation.

    […]

    Between 1940 and 1990, enemies in civil wars have almost always failed to reach successful negotiated solutions to their conflicts unless an outside power guaranteed their safety during the ensuing transition period. I argue that civil war opponents avoid negotiated settlements because this requires them to relinquish important fall-back defenses at a time when no neutral police force and no legitimate government exist to help them enforce the peace. Knowing they will enter a period of intense vulnerability, neither side can credibly commit to an agreement that becomes less attractive once implemented. Evidence from forty-one civil wars between 1940 and 1990 shows that civil war adversaries do, in fact, require the added reassurance of outside security guarantees before they willfully implement peace treaties. This suggests that resolving the underlying issues over which civil wars are fought is not enough to bring peace to war-torn states. Both short-term security guarantees and long-term institutional arrangements seem necessary to ensure stable and durable settlements.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. whippoorwill says:

    Between 1940 and 1990, enemies in civil wars have almost always failed to reach successful negotiated solutions to their conflicts unless an outside power guaranteed their safety during the ensuing transition period.

    In order to do this, Mr. Walter seems to be saying that an occupying foreign police must be present to enforce a settlement. That sounds a little like modern imperialistic paternalism to me. I was taking history back a ways further and would submit that these civil wars have their own ecologies that have developed over a long period of time. And basically they become settled when people quit killing each other at least for the time being. Sometime with formal agreements between sides sometimes not.

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  5. Tlaloc says:

    In order to do this, Mr. Walter seems to be saying that an occupying foreign police must be present to enforce a settlement. That sounds a little like modern imperialistic paternalism to me. I was taking history back a ways further and would submit that these civil wars have their own ecologies that have developed over a long period of time. And basically they become settled when people quit killing each other at least for the time being. Sometime with formal agreements between sides sometimes not.

    I think what he’s saying is that without a third party to keep the peace these civil wars rage on until one side is basically wiped out/flees.

    Instead of US North vs. US South, think US vs. the native americans.

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  6. whippoorwill says:

    I think what he’s saying is that without a third party to keep the peace these civil wars rage on until one side is basically wiped out/flees.

    Sunni’s and Shiite’s have been fighting bloody civil wars for 1400 years and neither has been wiped out.

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  7. Tlaloc says:

    Sunni’s and Shiite’s have been fighting bloody civil wars for 1400 years and neither has been wiped out.

    They certainly have in specific locales.

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  8. whippoorwill says:

    They certainly have in specific locales.

    Not in Iraq.

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  9. Triumph says:

    So, certainly, Walter would agree that the Iraqi mess is unlikely to solve itself. If the EU and the UN aren’t going to step in anytime soon — and they’re not — that pretty much means the US and NATO. Which, in any case, essentially means the US (NATO isn’t going to do it without the US providing the lion’s share of the manpower).

    This is exactly why we need to strike Iran immediately.

    We can leave enough troops in Iraq to maintain our dominance, but move the extras over to Iran.

    If we control BOTH Iran and Iraq, all of the internal hulabaloo will quickly subside.

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  10. bob in fl says:

    Triumph, are you for real? We don’t control the ground in Iraq now, & we are forced to reduce troop strength because we have run out of replacements. Further, WE are losing ground in Afghanistan. So where, pray tell, are these “extras” going to come from? Blackwater?

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  11. Michael says:

    bob,
    Triumph is very rarely “for real”. He’s here to take outlandish positions with a serious face to make it obvious how foolish those holding similar ideas actually are.

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