Academic Papers

Is Inter- State war still the most important form of contemporary violence?

urban conflict

In the decades following the end of the Cold War, there have been fundamental changes in the use of violence around the world. We have seen a move away from the classical or ‘Clausewetzian’ type of interstate conflict and into the less easily defined areas of intrastate conflict. Added to this has been the rise of non- state actors participating in conflict situations. According to Scherrer (2003), less than one in twenty conflicts that have occurred in the world since the 1990’s has been interstate, a shift that can be attributed to the changing nature of global politics and security (Dannreuther, 2013: 129- 246). This essay shall attempt to understand the relevance of interstate warfare in the world today and its importance to global security.

In order to clarify the concepts being addressed in the question, the first half of the essay will try to classify global mass violence into war, and non- war categories (like genocide and large-scale massacre). The main source of classification used in this essay will be derived from definitions of violence as proposed by Scherrer (2003). The essay will then explain why certain forms of violence have greater importance than others. To do so, it will look at the impact that various forms of violence have on the world. It will also examine the role of violence in changing geopolitical equations around the world. Dannreuther’s text (2013), on the changing character of war, will be the primary source for this examination. Finally, the essay will make the argument that the nature of war has changed significantly over the last few decades and interstate war is no longer the most important form of violence in the world today.

The second half of the essay will support this argument by examining two developments in the nature and conduct of warfare- the decrease in interstate warfare and the increase in intrastate conflicts; and the increasing number of conflicts between state and non- state actors.

The essay will also use two case studies to make the above argument. The first case study examines the character of conflict between India and Pakistan. The essay will argue that conflict between these two nations has changed from armed military conflict to insurgent warfare that targets civilian populations. It will also argue that this change has had a greater impact on the geopolitics of the area than conventional warfare. The second case study examines the civil war in Sri Lanka between the Singhalese Sri Lankan government and the northern Tamil people. The conflict generated a great deal of violence and insecurity despite being entirely intrastate.

According to Dannreuther (2013), the concept of international security has been continuously evolving since the end of the Cold War. Before the end of the Cold War, there were clearer definitions of the enemy, and the threat was primarily from the militaries of inimical states. The theories of war and security were based on the ideas of total war that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the end of the Cold War, however, this clarity of focus has been lost. The scope of security studies has also expanded to include dimensions of security hitherto unconsidered like individual security, subnational security, and ethnic security. There has also been a sharp change in the nature of conflict since the early 1990’s. Violence has moved away from being largely inflicted by states upon states, and has increasingly, begun to acquire intra- state dimensions. Less than one in twenty conflicts since the 1990’s have been interstate (Scherrer, 2003: 4).

Scherrer uses the Ethnic Conflict Research Index (ECOR conflict index) to expand upon classical definitions of warfare and classifies violence into seven categories- anti- regime wars, political conflicts (state versus non- state actors); ethnic and nationalistic conflicts (state versus nationalities); Interstate or classical warfare (State versus state); Decolonisation war or occupation by foreign states; Inter- ethnic conflicts (non- state actors versus non- state actors); Gang wars, organised criminals and terrorists, who operate in weak and failed states (non- state actors, religious extremists etc.); genocide and state sponsored mass murder and crime. Scherrer then makes the argument that the amount of violence generated by classical warfare is far less than the amount of violence generated by the other six categories. He says that ethnic- nationalistic has been the dominant form of war since the mid-1980’s and therefore has a far larger impact on the nature of security around the world.

Igwe (2012) also challenges the notion that inter-state violence has the most impact on global security. He writes instead, about the concept of discrete violence. Discrete violence, according to Igwe, is carried out by individuals who lack the resources available to nation states. He says that while violence on a mass scale is a feature of nation-states, the outcome of such violence would be so great that no nation would do more than posture and threaten. However, the tensions and insecurity created by the posturing often trickle down to smaller conflicts, therefore, giving them a global platform. The discrete or small-scale violence that occurs in the wake of such conflicts will end up having disproportionately large repercussion. The overall impact of such discrete violence, according to Igwe, is greater than the impact of nation-state posturing. The contrast between discrete and nation-state generated violence will be further examined with the Indo- Pakistan conflict case study presented below.

The case studies presented below examine two dimensions of conflict which have had a greater impact on the security of the nation states concerned that the classical forms of warfare. The first case study examines the nature of the conflict between India and Pakistan since the end of the Cold War. The second case study looks at the nature of conflict within Sri Lanka, between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil nationalists/separatists. The significance of these case studies is to show that classical understandings of security and warfare do not sufficiently explain the various types of violence prevalent in the world. These case studies also show that state versus state warfare does not account for human security in situations that do not involve armed conflicts between state militaries. Finally, the case studies will try to highlight the importance of human security in the study of global security.

The Indo- Pakistan conflict over Kashmir has raged on almost since the birth of both countries in 1947 (Hiro, 2015: 130). However, even from its inception, the conflict has defied many of the conventions of classical warfare (Hasnain, 2016: 152). The very first act of war over Kashmir took place between the Indian Army and a group of insurgents. Though the Indian and the Pakistani Army came to blows soon after, the Kashmir conflict has long been characterized by the use of non- state actors (Hiro, 2015). This became especially significant after the end of the Cold War when mujahedeen from Afghanistan began participating in the conflict as insurgents or by running training camps for Pakistani militants (Jaffrelot, 2015: 20). These mujahedeen were behind one of the most significant acts of violence in the Indo- Pak conflict, the attack on Mumbai on the 26th of November 2008 (Jaffrelot, 2015: 251).

When examined, the Indo- Pak conflict, showcases three, or perhaps even four, of the seven categories of violence on the ECOR index. There is state versus non- state actors in the case of the Indian government and the mujahedeen fighting for Kashmiri independence; state versus ethno- nationalists in the form of Kashmiri separatists e.g. the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front; and classical warfare, naturally, in the many clashes between the Indian and Pakistani armies (Hiro, 2015). It can even be argued that the Indo- Pak conflict displays traits of a decolonization war or a war of foreign occupation, due to the presence of Indian and Pakistani armies in Indian and Pakistan occupied territories of Kashmir, respectively.

India and Pakistan have not been involved in any significant military conflict since the Kargil war in 1999, and since both countries have nuclear capabilities, are unlikely to engage in total war in the future. However, both countries continue to exist in a state of high insecurity, and militarization, due to the possibility of an attack by non- state actors (Jaffrelot, 2015; Chandra et. al., 2008). There has also been a high rate of civilian casualties in this conflict, due to the actions of terrorists (as in the case of the Mumbai attacks) and the actions of counterinsurgent forces (Hiro, 2015). All these factors are highly important to the developing of the Kashmir situation, yet they cannot be classified as interstate violence.

The second case study is the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the secessionist Tamil movement, especially non- state actors such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  An ethnolinguistic conflict, the secessionist movement it originated in the 1970’s as a protest movement against discrimination on the basis of ethnicity (Gunasingam, 1999).  This conflict made Sri Lanka one of the most insecure nations in Asia, despite the fact that independent Sri Lanka has never been to war with any nation-state (Balasundaram, 2016: 40).

The Sri Lankan civil war can be classified under two ECOR index categories- as an ethnolinguistic nationalist conflict between the Singhalese state and the Tamil people and, as a political fight for regime change by the LTTE militants. It is therefore both a conflict between the state and non- state actors, and an intrastate conflict. The circumstances of the Sri Lankan civil war can also be seen occurring across nations like Rwanda, where there was a similar conflict between the predominantly Hutu government and the refugee Tutsi people. In both cases, the civilian population was often targeted, and there was no interstate dimension to the conflict.

A common theme across both case studies and examples mentioned earlier is the impact of warfare on civilian populations. This is in direct contrast with the nature of warfare in the early and mid-20th century. According to UNICEF, civilian fatalities during wartime have gone from 5 percent at the turn of the century, to 90 percent in the 1990’s (Impact of Armed Conflict on Children). This targeting of civilians not only indicates a change in the fundamental rules of engagement, it also adds a dimension of security beyond that of the state. Earlier, the state was the sole focus of security studies, because states were the primary target of violence, but now the focus of violence has become more widespread (Creveled, 2002: 5). War can now be waged against individuals, or groups of individuals, within a state eg. sectarian, communal or ethnic violence. There is, therefore, a need to expand the scope of security studies to include the dimension of human security.

To conclude, the argument made by this essay is that the nature of warfare has moved beyond the classical ideas of interstate conflict. States still hold the power to inflict widespread violence but it is also possible for smaller groups of individuals to wage war against states. In fact, states often choose not to engage in direct conflict with other states due to the possibility of large-scale destruction on both sides, for example using nuclear weaponry, and wage war through proxies or non- state actors. There has also been a marked increase in violence based on intrastate conflict, especially ethno- nationalist conflict, while interstate conflicts have reduced. Finally, the sharp increase in civilian casualties during wartime, over the last century, suggests that the focus of violence is changing and there needs to be an accompanying change in the general understanding of security. Therefore, this essay concludes that interstate warfare is no longer the most important form of violence in the world today.

Pranav Ramesh

BA History and Politics (Hons.)



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One comment
  1. Gerald

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