Wars ever really end

New wars

Jochen Hippler

To person

Dr. sc. pol., born 1955; Private lecturer at the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF), University of Duisburg-Essen, Geibelstrasse 41, 47057 Duisburg.
Email: [email protected]

Most current wars are increasingly fought for the loyalty and support of the population, and military force has become less important. The decisive instrument for ending the war is the creation of functioning and socially accepted governance structures.


It is well known that the overwhelming majority of modern wars no longer take place between states, but within the societies concerned. It therefore has a fundamentally different character than classic, interstate wars. [1] The two politically most important and most common forms of war or major violent conflict today are:
  • Insurgency wars (uprisings and counterinsurgency / counterinsurgency) in which - also, but not only violently - the distribution of power in a country is fought for. As a rule, one or more insurgency movements and a government face each other. It is not uncommon for one or both sides to be supported by foreign governments or non-state actors. The wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s are classic examples. Special cases exist in the case of uprisings / counterinsurgency against - real or perceived as such - occupation forces (such as in Afghanistan or Iraq, under other conditions in Palestine).

  • In addition, there are armed conflicts or major violent conflicts in the context of failed states, in which a functioning state apparatus either no longer exists, has become irrelevant or has fallen to the level of warlords or militias and various groupings (warlords, ethnic or ethno-religious groups , "Violent entrepreneurs", etc.) fight for power or resources. Somalia or Afghanistan in the 1990s are examples.

The differences between these types of war, while significant, are often overestimated. Both are rarely managed conventionally, even if conventionally armed military units are often involved. In both cases, ending wars through military "victories" is extremely rare and often impossible, at least before one side has already lost politically. In addition, it should not be overlooked that the two types do not have to represent opposites, but can be linked to one another: wars of insurrection can lead to the weakening or fragmentation of already fragile statehood and open the gate to a failing state. Or a war of insurrection - if such a form of war is already taking place in the context of a failing state - can lead to the final breakup or failure of a state apparatus, for example if insurgents massively weaken the state, but do not gain power themselves, but rather the (armed) fragments of the state apparatus become independent and independent actors. The boundaries between the two types of war are therefore quite fluid.

In the case of wars of insurrection and wars in failed states, it is noticeable that the gain or loss of territory and the size and firepower of the armed forces are of far less importance, and that even the violence and destructive power of war are of subordinate relevance in the decision-making process than in classical ones Obtain. At this point it should be noted that the terms "victory" or "war decision" have a different meaning than in conventional wars. Since there are hardly any "decisive battles" or direct military victories in these forms of war, success must be defined differently here. The only criterion for success or "victory" can be whether one party to the conflict succeeds in enforcing the political intentions on which the war or violent conflict was based. This can be about gaining state power, enriching a leadership group or exploiting natural resources, or enforcing a veto position over central decisions, the destruction of a political or ethnic group, self-determination, autonomy or independence. Such goals can be achieved by combining political and military means even if a war is not "decided" militarily - in certain cases even perpetuating the war can be a strategy to achieve a goal. Many insurgents have "won" wars politically by not losing them to overwhelming military superiorities.

The core of most current violent conflicts and "wars" therefore no longer lies in the dismantling or destruction of the opposing armed forces. Although this goal is often pursued further, it is often either impossible to achieve or only of low priority - since insurgents seldom go to battle in larger formations, but rather undertake surprise attacks from ambush in small units. "Decision battles" are hardly possible in this way. As long as they are supported by relevant sectors of the population and are often indistinguishable from them anyway, a "military victory" over them can usually only be achieved through ethnic cleansing or genocide.

That is why the essentially "political" war has become even more politicized and is increasingly being waged around the loyalty or the tacit tolerance of the warring parties by the population. This becomes both the means and the goal of warfare; the hierarchically organized military is becoming less important in both respects. There are strategic and tactical reasons for this: Such violent conflicts are primarily fought over political power in a country, and not, only indirectly or secondarily, to impose its own will on a foreign government (e.g. ceding a province) or to reorganize the enforce intergovernmental relations. Intra-social "power" may have an important violent or military dimension, but it is far more complex than defeating a foreign army. (Although domestic power struggles can certainly have an interstate dimension, and this is strongest when they are carried out with the participation of third countries. With regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, this is obvious.)

Then as now, in war it is important to break the will and the ability (the two are obviously closely related) of the opponent to continue the conflict. But while in the past both depended mainly on the functionality and strength of one's own armed forces, this is only very limited or no longer the case with many of the new forms of war. In the case of the two types of war mentioned above, this is usually achieved primarily by depriving the opponent of the political, social and economic basis for conducting the war. The current manual of the US Army and the US Marine Corps on counterinsurgency puts this in a nutshell: "It is easier to separate an insurgency from its resources and let it die than to kill every insurgent." [2] Such a separation may be physical or take place politically and psychologically - in both cases the aim is to cut off the opponent from his material and political resources. Only then can military action against such an opponent be successful. Military violence is not insignificant, but it often turns from a strategic to an - albeit important - tactical variable.