More Civil Wars, And More Players, Too

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, June 25, 2007

A few days ago, Hamas fighters stormed Fatah strongholds in Gaza that were allied with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and effectively took control of one of the two pillars of the evolving Palestinian state. Fatah groups struck back in the West Bank, the other Palestinian pillar, and unleashed a campaign of kidnapping and intimidation against Hamas, a radical Islamic group.

Hamas and Abbas's secular Fatah party were supposed to be part of a unity government, so the fighting looked like a civil war. Israel and the United States immediately weighed in on the side of Fatah. Egypt, which has a border with Gaza and could pay heavily if the situation collapses there, also got involved and will host an Arab-Israeli summit today. Iran, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were said to be backing Hamas.

The Palestinian conflict may not meet David Singer's threshold of what constitutes a civil war, but it does speak to an important conclusion the political scientist has reached about war in general: In contrast to the last two centuries, intrastate conflicts nowadays are far more likely to be internationalized.

Not only are other states and sub-national groups likely to get involved in the fighting in a lot of civil wars, they are far more likely to add new dimensions to the conflict, Singer has found.

If you consider the civil war that is raging in Iraq: the Sunnis are fighting the Shiites on religious grounds; U.S. and coalition forces are fighting a geopolitical war; Iran and Turkey have territorial, economic and ethnic reasons to get involved; al-Qaeda and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party are waging an ideological struggle; and at least some Iraqi nationalists are waging an old-fashioned campaign for independence.

In Colombia's decades-old civil war, multiple conflicts have raged simultaneously around the drug trade, money laundering and an insurrection by indigenous peoples.

"A lot of civil wars now don't have just two sides," said Singer, a political scientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who helps run one of the world's most comprehensive databases on the history of war.

"In Congo and Colombia, you often had three, four, five protagonists," he said. "The world has become much messier. You have a much larger diversity of actors -- some in government, some in anti-government, some sub-government, multinational corporations and new mercenary groups that have access to money and weapons and personnel."

Singer believes that the complexity of claims of civil war protagonists makes these wars much harder to end. (Others disagree, and argue that having a multiplicity of goals and combatants might make for quicker resolutions, since each party is pulled and pushed in multiple directions.) In one analysis, Singer and colleagues Meredith Reid Sarkees and Frank Whelon Wayman found that civil wars, especially internationalized civil wars, were a big reason the world is such an unsafe place. The rise in these wars has come about even as open conflicts between major powers have become increasingly rare.

"The main reason for the recent surge in overall amounts of war is that civil wars are breaking out at an all-time record rate," the political scientists noted. "However, in addition to the significant increase in civil wars since the 1960s, the data also reveal the increasingly international component of civil wars."

In their analysis of wars over the past 200 years, Singer, Sarkees and Wayman found that every decade since the 1960s has produced more civil wars, and more internationalized civil wars, than every decade since the start of the 19th century. Before 1960, only 12 percent of 129 civil wars were internationalized. In the 85 civil wars that the scholars counted in the last four decades of the 20th century, nearly 31 percent of the wars were internationalized.

Part of the reason could be that the number of sovereign states has increased dramatically over the past two centuries, from 23 in 1816 to around 190 today -- there are simply more agendas in the world than ever before. Singer said the increasingly international nature of civil wars means that people in wealthy Western nations can take little comfort in the reduction of traditional wars.

While it is indeed true that France and Germany are highly unlikely to go to war again, every decade since the end of World War II has seen war deaths that rival or exceed the average of war deaths over the last 200 years. The scholars found that more than 2 million people have been killed in war in each of those decades.

Singer said the aim of his project was to count wars accurately in order to guide policymakers and public opinion about international policies. But he said the data have also left him with a more personal conclusion.

"It is almost never a good idea or an ethical idea to go to war," he said in an interview. "A lot of guys in my business think of war as a rational instrument of national security, and I don't -- and I served in the Navy in two wars."

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