Weekly Insights and Analysis

Modern Conflict is Not What You Think

December 10, 2014

By Iain King

Research has transformed medicine, agriculture, and sanitation, and has helped lift many millions out of poverty. Most of the extremely poor people in the world now live in states suffering from conflict. Scholars have studied wars for millennia, but are usually concentrated on how to win them. So does a new focus on the impact of conflict, combined with modern research methods, offer hope? It does.

Mindanao Conflict

The observation that conflict persists where politics has failed remains true. But sustainable peace almost always requires an inclusive political settlement: giving key players an incentive to work together. Photo/Karl Grobl

Here are 12 lessons we have learned so far:

  1. Facts elude. It has always been hard to know what’s happening on battlefields – the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote about “the fog of war” two centuries ago. But modern conflict tends to haunt even more inaccessible places – from the jungles of South Sudan, to half-destroyed tracts of Syria. Research techniques may have improved, but getting high-quality data remains incredibly difficult.
  2. No research method can succeed alone. Statistics are alluring, but most camouflage complexity in simple definitions. Modern technology – from satellite imagery to web analytics – can tell you what’s happening, but not why. Interviews offer a more human approach, but they can miss the big picture. The best conflict research uses an alliance of approaches.
  3. Military history beguiles. History is fascinating and important, but the character of conflict changes too fast to learn solely from the past. War documentaries on TV won’t tell you that individual acts of violence now kill nine times more people than conflict between groups, or that almost all armed conflict is now within states, not between them. We need to study contemporary conflict if we are to overcome it.
  4. …But resolving conflict is still mostly about politics. The observation that conflict persists where politics has failed remains true. People fight for several reasons, including self-interest, to protect their group, and feelings of unfairness and humiliation. But sustainable peace almost always requires an inclusive political settlement: giving key players an incentive to work together.
  5. Cognitive bias fuels conflict. Most instigators of conflict over-rate their chances of success, while most participants underrate their chances of injury. Misjudgements like these are commonplace in other situations – for example, some 94 percent of drivers think they’re better than average, and university professors routinely over-rate their own IQ. But in war, the stakes are much higher. What psychologists call illusory superiority is one of several cognitive biases, which make conflict worse.
  6. We need to understand “Groupthink.” Groupthink leads to catastrophic military decisions, spurs warriors to fight, and enables conflict to persist. But the attitudes that keep peaceful countries free from large-scale violence are also a form of groupthink. Understanding conflict means understanding social attitudes and group psychology.
  7. Modern conflict is not just about “state failure.” Simply boosting state capacity proves to be a very risky remedy, and helping a government to provide more services for its citizens rarely buys that government legitimacy. This finding runs against orthodox counter-insurgency doctrine.
  8. Identifying and tackling the “root causes” of a conflict isn’t enough. Even if a conflict has a “root cause,” it will get lost in the fight. Organized violence transforms societies; it creates “war economies” with their own networks, interests, and incentives, which all have to be addressed as well.
  9. Other common assumptions about conflict are wrong, too. Even though conflict is incredibly costly, most people involved in it have chosen the best option available to them – in other words, they’re as rational as you or me. Also, few people living through conflict rate it as the most important determinant of their livelihoods or well-being – even though conflict usually entrenches their poverty.
  10. Conflict has multiple causes, not simple explanations. Conflict is more likely in countries with natural resource wealth, where there has been conflict before, where key elites are excluded from power, and where groups perceive inequalities of wealth or power. But even these correlations disguise the real story of conflict, which often takes place at several levels at once.
  11. Anticipating, preventing and resolving conflict can be done, but never perfectly. Peacekeeping can stop about three-quarters of conflicts from relapsing, and people outside the fighting can have a big influence on war, in both good and bad ways. Predicting conflict is harder, since conflict actors invariably disguise their intentions.
  12. We need to learn how to learn. Many lessons have already been identified on how we should best overcome conflict. For example, a high-powered 2013 report highlighted the importance of setting feasible goals, of engaging with local governments, and of donors to coordinate with each other. Sadly, exactly the same lessons were also identified by similar lessons commissions in 2005, 2002, 1969, and 1949. We haven’t yet learned how to learn. Once we do, we might unlock the conflicts that kill thousands, and still enslave more than half-a-billion people in poverty.

Iain King CBE leads the UK Department for International Development’s (DFID) research on conflict and development. He tweets @Iainbking. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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