What’s So Civil About War Anyway?

May 24, 2009

Those of you who know me know that I am addicted to the near-constant stream of information I receive over the internet.  Fortunately, here in Afghanistan I’ve had some small degree of luck in finding and maintaining a proper connection, so I’m able to feed my habit without undue frustration.

One of the primary sources of daily information is the New York Times, despite it’s less-than-sterling reputation for tilting slightly to the left.  The “Grey Lady” still has one of the best foreign desks in the business (sorry BBC, you guys pretty much suck), and their correspondents based in places like Kabul and Baghdad are the elite of the journalism world.  Dexter Filkins and C.J. Chivers pop to mind, but there are many others of note as well.

In addition to robust foreign coverage, the New York Times has not forgotten that one of the primary strengths of a daily newspaper is in it’s ability to properly and exhaustively analyze stories, rather than just report them.  Any schmuck can get a quote at a press conference in Kabul; the trick is to put that quote into context and provide the analysis that makes it meaningful and useful.

Anyway, that’s enough of a hagiography for the NYT.  the point of all this is to direct you to an interesting little piece by Graham Bowley about the nature and duration of civil wars.  In it, Bowley asks the questions, “How long do most civil wars last? What is a civil war, anyway? And how, finally, are they ended?”

The answer to the question of duration, Bowley mentions the usual suspects, including the overlooked “time consistency problem” favored by classically trained economists.  However, the key point (at least as it applies to the ongoing conflict here in Afghanistan) is probably the evolution of self-interest among combatants.  Basically, the bad guys fight for so long that they become more interested in maintaining their existence as a cohesive organization than in finding an actual settlement, largely because the of funding and financial incentives that go along with it. (Think Taliban and the opium trade).

Note that in this one short piece, Bowley manages to include quotes from Max Boot, Paul Collier, Simon Schama and Edward Luttwak.  That’s a pretty impressive source list for a throwaway piece on the civil war without any direct reference to ongoing stories.

And by the way, I nominate Luttwak’s phrase “congealed war” as a worthy successor the often mis-used (and always overused) standby “frozen conflict.”  There’s just something more poetic about the idea of wars congealing rather than freezing over.