washingtonpost.com
Wariness, Not Hatred, Keeps Civil Wars Raging

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, May 7, 2007

Here is a measure of the state of the war in Iraq: The number of Iraqis dying each month now rivals the total number of people who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

When you look at the history of human warfare, civil wars always stand out. They invariably last longer than wars between nations, and they often claim more lives. When they end, they are more likely to result in one side having annihilated the other.

Pundits and political scientists have long believed that civil wars are deadlier than wars between nations because they involve ancient historical and ethnic animosities. Conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq or between Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia have always existed, according to this argument, and the violence has been punctuated only by brief interludes in which a Saddam Hussein or a Marshal Tito ruthlessly suppresses the fighting.

But Barbara Walter, a scholar at the University of California at San Diego, has a different take. Between 1940 and 2005, 54 percent of the wars between nations ended in negotiated settlements whereas only 24 percent of civil wars did.

When Walter studied the details of each conflict, however, she found that far from the picture of ruthless enemies intent on fighting to the finish, adversaries in 94 percent of the civil wars had drafted cease-fire accords. Nearly half these conflicts involved serious peace negotiations. Why did the vast majority of these opponents fail to find peace?

"The argument you usually read is that these people just hate each other," says Walter, a political scientist. "That is an easy and intuitive argument to make, but I actually think it is wrong."

When you look at civil wars closely, Walter says, what you find is that the adversaries have actually spent the vast majority of their history not fighting one another. Violence is the exception, not the norm. This turns the puzzle on its head -- instead of asking why adversaries in civil wars do not reach peaceful settlements, it makes more sense to ask what makes them fight.

The reason civil wars end up being protracted, Walter found, is that unlike wars between nations, opponents in a civil war usually have to lay down arms before peace is reached. Once they do so, they both have to trust that the newly formed government will protect them. Since that government is likely to be under the control of the stronger side, however, the weaker side is left with no recourse if its erstwhile enemy breaks the peace agreement and decides to annihilate it.

Two nations at war, by contrast, can each pull their troops behind a border after a peace accord. Nations can break peace agreements, too, but that usually only means the conflict will resume where it left off. Being fooled in wars between nations, in other words, is unpleasant, but getting suckered in a civil war can be fatal.

"The payoffs are structured in such a way that there will be great gains for the stronger side to exploit your opponent and huge costs for the weaker side for being the sucker," Walter says about civil war antagonists.

Walter's research is discouraging to both supporters and critics of President Bush's plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq. The history of civil wars suggests that the surge in U.S. troops will likely not make much of a difference, says Stanford University political scientist James Fearon, who makes an argument similar to Walter's.

Combatants in Iraq and other civil wars, Fearon told a congressional hearing last year, fear their opponents will use force to grab power, even as they themselves recognize that a power grab could get them all the spoils: "These fears and temptations are mutually reinforcing. If one militia fears that another will try to use force to grab control of the army, or a city, then it has a strong incentive to use force to prevent this. The other militia understands this incentive, which gives it a good reason to act exactly as the first militia feared."

But also contrary to what advocates for a U.S. troop withdrawal say -- "let Iraqis figure out the solution to their civil war themselves" -- Walter's research shows that this is precisely what adversaries in civil wars are unable to do.

Civil wars that end peacefully, Walter found, invariably involve a third party that can enforce the terms of a settlement -- if one antagonist breaks his word, the other now has someone to turn to. Walter is not saying the United States has to be this broker. In fact, it may be ill suited to the role not only because it is a party to the current conflict, but because successful civil war brokers are usually aligned with the weaker side, which has the most to lose by laying down weapons. The U.S. invasion toppled the minority Sunnis from power, and handed over the reins of government to the majority Shiites.

"We're supporting the stronger side, which creates disincentives for that side to make any concessions," says Walter. "We are empowering the Shiites to reach for a complete, decisive victory."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company