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Reconceptualising war

What if defeating the enemy was the justification for war, but not its real goal? What if its goal was a certain kind of power-brokerage?

Clausewitz defined war as an ‘an act of violence designed to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.’ From that definition he derived his theory that war tends to extremes as each side tries to crush his opponent. I agree with much that has been written in the openDemocracy debate about conflict transformation and liberal peace but it seems that underlying the debate is an implicit assumption that war or armed conflict is indeed a  contest of wills.

I want to suggest an alternative definition. War is ‘an act of violence involving at least two organised groups framed in political terms.’ Defined in this way, war can either be a contest of wills or a mutual enterprise. If it is the latter, wars are likely not to be extreme but to be long and difficult to end.

Generating insecurity

A mutual enterprise could be political or it could be economic or it could be both. Violence is a way in which groups win political power not through defeating the enemy but through mobilising support on the basis of fear. Such groups construct ideologies to explain deep-seated social frustrations – poverty, insecurity, lack of opportunity – and to place the blame on the ‘other’. They turn themselves into protectors by generating the insecurity from which people need to be protected. Defeating the enemy is the justification not the goal of war. Indeed the warring parties share a mutual need for justification and consequently, they may actually reinforce each other. Through war and violence, the armed actors transform themselves from marginal extremists into mainstream power-brokers. By producing fear and hatred, they construct exclusive ethnic or religious ideologies that underpin their power. Understood in this way, war is not about genuine grievances or ‘root causes’- it is about manipulating and instrumentalising grievance.

This interpretation can be applied to sectarian conflicts between, say, Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia or Shi’ia and Sunnis in Iraq. The different parties are trying to carve out separate areas that they control politically rather than destroy each other. Indeed the existence of the other is necessary to justify their behaviour. They very rarely have battles. Violence is directed against civilians, not the so-called enemy. The main aim is to frighten, kill or expel those who disagree or who have a different ethnicity or nationality. In Bosnia Herzegovina, ordinary people understood the difference between ‘Chetniks’ (militant Serb nationalists) and Serbs or between Ushtashe (militant Croat nationalists) and Croats. In Baghdad, Sunni and Shi’ite groups did not actually attack each other. Sunni suicide bombers would enter a Sh’ite area and this would justify Shi’ite death squads who would kill ordinary civilians and take over Sunni parts of Baghdad.

Or take for example, Israeli attacks on Hamas. Israel cannot actually eliminate Hamas any more than Hamas can defeat Israel. Attacks on Hamas (that mainly kill Palestinian civilians including children) will not achieve security for Israel, only a permanent conflict that benefits the Israeli right and the defence industry. And vice versa, terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians do not bring a Palestinian state any nearer; they merely provoke further Israeli attacks that strengthen extremism. By attacking Hamas, Israeli governments are seen to be doing something and vice versa.

A profitable mutual enterprise?

Some of the mutual benefits may be economic. Contemporary conflicts are financed from a variety of means – loot, pillage, kidnapping, setting up check points, criminal activities like drug smuggling or human trafficking, ‘taxing’ humanitarian assistance or mobilising remittances from the Diaspora. It is often not clear whether these activities are about financing the war or whether war provides a cover for carrying on these activities. Is the war in Afghanistan really a contest of wills between the Karzai government and the Taliban? Or are the warlords in the government colluding with the Taliban in a profitable mutual enterprise based on drugs?

Of course most wars are probably a mixture of both. And the parties to the conflict probably believe they are engaged in a contest of wills; they certainly claim that is what they are doing. The point of redefining war in this way is that it offers quite different recipes for conflict transformation and peace-building. Because the so-called international community tend to think of war as a contest of wills they focus on reconciling the extremists rather than bringing together ordinary people. Indeed they hardly ever talk to ordinary people, partly because of their colonial mentality so vividly described by Oliver Richmond, and partly because they think that the extremists are the power brokers, which, in turn, reinforces their preset view of the war as a contest of wills. The paradox is that by so doing they legitimise the people with guns and disenfranchise everyone else.  If we think of war as a mutual enterprise, then a different strategy is required aimed at marginalising the extremists. It has to involve lifting the pall of fear so that ordinary people can discuss their needs and their future and can base their strategies on the everyday needs rather than cumbersome unworkable compromises among extremists, which is the typical outcome of this kind of approach. Dayton and Oslo are good examples.  Diana Francis offers us moving examples of what happens when young people from Bosnia Herzegovina or from Georgia and Abkhazia come together in situations where they are not afraid.

Both Diana Francis and Paula Green suggest that the problem in Kosovo is Kosovisation; the idea that the international community has favoured the Albanian majority and neglected the Serb minority. My view is that the problem is almost the opposite. The international community have been obsessed with ethnic relations, power-sharing and the issue of status and have totally neglected everyday needs. After ten years of international rule, Kosovo still does not have 24 hour electricity and water; unemployment is 70%; and there are no proper arrangements for garbage collection. Moreover, ethnic polarisation is even more entrenched. As Albin Kurti, the firebrand student leader, put it, UNMIK was obsessed with multi-ethnicity rather than people:

‘There are no people in Kosovo. There are only different ethnicities. Multi-ethnicity is the concept with which the lenses of the international community are built. What in modernity were ‘tribes’, in post-modernity are ‘ethnicities’. Since the year 1999 onwards, the approach as well as the starting point was ethnic. UNMIK identified, like in a terra nullus: Albanians, Serbs, Roma, Turks, Egyptians, Bosniaks, and Ashkalis. Therefore, it started from ethnic belonging, not from what is common, what is universal among people – not from their need for freedom, dignity, jobs, qualitative education, healthcare and social insurance.’

Fashionable solutions

It is now fashionable to argue that instead of imposing international norms, the international community should help to strengthen local structures. I agree with Shahrbanou on this issue. Very often what the international community regards as traditional structures are new institutions established by the warring parties. Both Kosovo and Afghanistan have been transformed by war and conflict and what was tradition has often been totally uprooted and reinvented in ways that may often be even more oppressive and violent especially to women and minorities than in the past. Kosovars, for example, ended blood feuds during the period of non-violent resistance; now blood feuds have been reinvented. Of course, there do have to be hybrid structures - people have to design their own institutions - but, in my experience, many ordinary people in conflict zones do not necessarily want to return to the past and welcome international support if it is about meeting needs and respecting human dignity and if it enables people to deliberate without fear.

This analysis also has implications for dealing with the greed element of contemporary conflict. Establishing a legitimate economy is often the key to ending violence. The Kimberly process for diamond certification was a hugely important factor in ending the wars in West Africa. What about the legalisation of drugs as a way to undercut the war in Afghanistan?

Actually violence is the opposite of conflict, as the French sociologist Michel Wievorka argues, “Violence shuts down conflict and makes it more difficult to address genuine grievances and ‘root causes’”. I agree, of course, with all those who say we have to eliminate war. But a way to start is to reconceptualise the nature of war.

Quoted in ‘Transitional Justice in Kosovo’, 28 May 2008. www.



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