August 1, 2011  

The end of war

Nonstate violence is the new norm

In “The Invention of Peace,” British historian Michael Howard notes that it was the rise of the modern state, with powerful kings, that first brought the idea of “peace” to the Western world. So long as the king or government retained sufficient power, determining “peace” and “war” remained the prerogative of the state, to be managed as required. Hence, the marching armies of August 1914. In the beginning years of the 21st century, though, we are entering into a new historical period. The state no longer has a monopoly on violence, and national borders are not as inviolate as they were in the long-ago 20th century. No other concept for managing fractious relations between states has yet emerged. (Except, perhaps, the concept of “bigness,” as in, “I’m big enough to do this and get away with it.”)

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, constant conflict has been the norm not only for the U.S. but also for much of the world, whether because of ideological struggle (the Balkans and Southwest Asia), political conflict (the Middle East and Eurasia), tribal wars (the Balkans and Africa), criminal insurgencies (Mexico, Central and South America) or terrorism (global). The pat-down at your local airport is a sign that the world has changed. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Americans and Europeans used to vacation in spots where they would be beheaded today. In Central America — now the most violent region in the world — citizens report the social fabric that held their civic life together is disintegrating in the face of gang violence and government impotence.

Five global conditions that have grown exponentially since the end of the Cold War are challenging governments everywhere: first, the enormous growth in criminal wealth over the past two decades, fueled by drug money, human trafficking, illegal arms sales and other crimes; second, mass migrations of peoples from south to north, pressing in on developed countries; third, the Internet and other technology that has brought violent organizations into the same technical sphere as governments; fourth, the free flow of arms that supplies firepower equal (or superior) to government security forces; and, finally, the empowerment of violent extremists who use the first four conditions to attack states and their legal institutions, whether to overthrow them, neutralize them for criminal or other purposes, or out of simple nihilism.

If the state is losing its monopoly of violence, is war— as in a state of open, “legal” conflict between states — pretty well finished? Not quite. Certainly the potential for “conventional” war between states will continue to exist. A study by the Center for a New American Security, however, has concluded that, worldwide, crime, terrorism and insurgency are combining in new and dangerous ways. Violence has escaped national boundaries, and its scale and destructiveness are challenging fundamental Western practices and assumptions about the rule of law and the functions of government. While our best defense thinkers debate the differences between “terrorism” and “insurgency,” global violence is mutating to challenge civic life at its most fundamental level in villages and neighborhoods, where people’s faith in government is shaken by corruption and fear. It is this deterioration of order around the globe, rather than the rise of China or any of the more traditional geopolitical issues, that is the real threat today.


There have been tremendous changes in the West’s perceptions of government in the centuries since the Westphalia treaties, but the biggest change has been the institution of the rule of law above kings or political strongmen. In his “Terror and Consent,” Philip Bobbitt points out “the nation state exists to determine what will promote the well-being of the national people and to realize this through legal action.” Ordinary citizens need, above all, safety and security for themselves and their property; in the historic model of a state, that works: Police or a gendarmerie suppress crime under domestic laws while military forces fight for the country according to internationally accepted laws of war. But in country after country, the explosive growth of international and intrastate violence is challenging the historic model, which challenges legal systems based on past practices. As crime grows to such a scale that normal police forces are either outgunned or corrupted, military forces are often called in to supplement or replace the normal security organizations. If the security forces, including the military, are ill-trained and incapable of protecting the people from the effects of violence, and civic order begins to unravel as streets become unsafe, then the state begins to teeter on the edge of chaos. If the national legal system is inflexible or incapable of dealing with violence and crime on a scale not previously seen, security forces may begin to operate outside the law, leading to cycles of violence, government repression and alienation of the citizenry.

While effective security operations are vital to the survival of a “teetering” state, the real key to the state’s survival is the restoration of law and the institutions of lawful order. Those institutions include a legitimate framework of laws that protect both people and property, skilled security forces operating legally, honest courts and appellate courts, secure prisons and a process for reintegrating former criminals back into society. As the Colombian government has discovered in its long climb back from near-collapse a decade ago, the legitimacy of the government — a government operating effectively and under constitutional law — is the sine qua non for defeating extremists, quelling violence and restoring civic order.

It is increasingly clear that the greatest armed threat the U.S. faces is the attack on international civil order that violent extremists represent. The most likely use for U.S. armed forces in the coming century will be to help extend the rule of law to states struggling against extremists that also threaten the U.S. This does not mean the end of armored warfare, for example; future battlefields are impossible to predict. But the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts have already begun to align U.S. military thought toward the more complex world of the 21st century. Conflict changes both winners and losers, and the armed services’ world after Iraq and Afghanistan will not be a return to the good old days of predictable deployments and annual training cycles, any more than the Army in 1946 was able to go back to the garrisons of 1935. While the development of aggressive, highly skilled units and combined-arms capabilities is still very necessary, the uses to which they are put will change.

Here are four general observations:

First, while our special operations forces and some conventional units may continue to deploy tactically to “ungoverned spaces” where terrorists may muster, the long-term solution to global violence is to reinforce the rule of law and build effective security forces around the globe. Even “ungoverned” spaces belong to somebody, and U.S. troops will always be interlopers. If operations require killing locals, resentment against the U.S. will build. Killing may be required at a specific time to safeguard American lives, but local sovereignty, even under an ineffective and corrupt government, is a source of national pride. If conditions warrant, better to take the longer-term approach of nurturing effective local forces. This means U.S. ground forces will spend more time advising and assisting than previously.

Second, U.S. military doctrine must be sufficiently flexible to fit the particular needs of the host country, and not to impose solutions built around conference tables in Washington. In the past, the U.S. approach to “assistance” has too often overwhelmed host countries with directions from multiple agencies, floods of poorly trained advisers and expensive materiel too hard for the host country to maintain. We must become more sophisticated and learn to truly “partner” with the host country rather than dominate.

Third, military and police functions are merging at the margins and, after a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, many line officers of the ground forces have picked up an appreciation for police techniques. Host “security forces” will most likely combine those functions, and U.S. agencies — military and otherwise — must have cross-familiarity as well. Further, U.S. laws and statutes should change to reflect U.S. military assistance to hosts whose military forces include police functions.

Finally, U.S. doctrine should recognize that disarmament and reintegration of former criminals or insurgents back into host societies is almost as vital a piece of restoring the rule of law as the actual fighting. In the U.S., “DDR” (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) should come out of the doctrinal shadows. The process is expensive, long-term and absolutely necessary to restoring the rule of law in threatened societies. Colombia’s reintegration program, for example, is perhaps the most extensive in the world. According to experts there, it may take up to six years to rehabilitate a former insurgent — psychologically and educationally. For a struggling republic, a program like this represents a major expense. With large numbers of populations engaged in violence against governments in one form or another, reintegration is now a fundamental step in ending major conflicts, and reintegration programs will replace the (more satisfactory, to the military eye) signing of surrender articles on the deck of a battleship.

This is not an argument to stand down our conventional warfare capabilities. The potential for land, sea and air warfare will always exist, but their uses are mutating as rapidly as political and social norms around the word are changing today, and it is the political and social realms that change warfare. We are in a period of revolutionary political change, and securing and extending the rule of law in the coming century will be the greatest challenge our armed forces will face. AFJ

COL. BOB KILLEBREW is retired Army infantryman and a regular AFJ columnist.