Environmentalists Against War
Home | Say NO! To War | Action! | Information | Media Center | Who We Are



Why Are Moderns Wars Costing More and Lasting Longer?

March 5, 2018
Associated Press & Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy & Barbara F. Walter / Political Violence at a Glance

According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, competing global alliances, cyber threats, scarce resources and multiplying political factions and armed groups are making modern conflicts more intractable. As a result, conflicts today last longer -- more than 20 years on average -- and often involve multiple armed groups competing for control of government institutions, natural resources and territory.


Wars Getting Longer, More Complex, UN Chief Warns
Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (December 2017) -- Conflicts today are longer -- more than 20 years on average -- and often involve multiple armed groups competing for control of government institutions, natural resources and territory, the UN chief said Wednesday.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres told a Security Council meeting on the growing complexity of challenges to international peace and security that "we are seeing not only a quantitative but also a qualitative change."

"The perils of nuclear weapons are again front and center, with tensions higher than they have been since the end of the Cold War," he said.

Guterres didn't name any countries but he has repeatedly urged North Korea to halt its escalating nuclear and ballistic missile tests. The secretary-general also said "cybersecurity dangers are escalating," climate change has emerged as "a threat multiplier" and water scarcity is "a growing concern." He further warned that inequality and exclusion are feeding "frustration and marginalization."

While there has been a long-term decline in the number of armed conflicts, Guterres said "conflicts have surged" in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Conflicts are also "becoming more intractable," he said, and they are becoming more regional and international. Guterres said political factions and armed groups are also multiplying, with hundreds of armed factions in Syria alone.

"External military and financial support to conflict parties prolongs civil wars -- and fuels wider tensions as local fights become proxies for larger rivalries," Guterres said. "Conflicts are more linked with each other, and with the worldwide threat of terrorism," he said. "And transnational drug smugglers and human traffickers perpetuate the chaos and prey on refugees and migrants."

Guterres said the UN must rethink its approaches to respond to the changing nature of conflicts -- and prevention must be the key.

He said achieving UN goals, such as ending extreme poverty, promoting economic development, protecting the environment, addressing climate change and achieving equality for women, are among the best "instruments of prevention."

Top 10 Reasons Why Wars Last Too Long
Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy

(September 1, 2010) -- When great powers intervene in minor countries, sometimes they win quick and fairly decisive victories. (Think US in Grenada). When this happens, the only short-term problem is where to hold the victory parade and how many medals to give out. But when a war of choice goes badly, then national leaders have to decide either to cut their losses and get out or to "stay the course."

If the opponent is an insatiable great power like the Third Reich, there may be little choice in the matter. But if the enemy is an insurgency in a relatively weak and unimportant state, and the challenge is nation-building in a society that you don't understand very well, it's a much trickier decision.

As we've seen in Iraq and are seeing again in Afghanistan, getting out of a quagmire is a whole lot harder than getting into one. Indeed, I'd argue that this is a general tendency in most wars of choice: they usually last longer than the people who launch them expect, and they usually cost a lot more. I'm hardly the first person to notice this phenomenon, which does make you wonder why it keeps happening.

In any case, now that we are (supposedly) leaving Iraq, here are my Top Ten Reasons why wars of choice last too long, and why it's so hard for politicians to wake up, smell the coffee, and just get out.

1. Political leaders get trapped by their own beliefs. All human beings tend to interpret new information in light of their pre-existing beliefs, and therefore tend to revise strongly-held views more slowly than they should. Having made the difficult decision to go to war (or to escalate a war that is already under way) it will be hard for any leader to rethink the merits of that decision, even if lots of information piles up suggesting that it was a blunder.

2. Information in war is often ambiguous. Another reason wars of choice last too long is that the case for cutting one's losses is rarely crystal-clear. Even if there is lots of evidence that the war is going badly, there are bound to be some positive signs too.

Remember all those "benchmarks" the Bush administration developed for measuring progress in Iraq? If you have enough of them, you can always find a few items on the list where things are looking better. When the evidence is mixed (as it usually is), leaders are even less likely to rethink their beliefs that the war is worth fighting.

3. The "sunk cost fallacy." Once a country has invested significant amounts of blood and treasure in war, decision-makers may erroneously believe that cutting losses would be "wasteful" and that it is necessary to fight on in order to redeem those earlier sacrifices.

This reasoning is faulty: it only makes sense to continue a war if doing so is likely to lead to a better outcome at an acceptable cost. But politicians may not see it that way, especially if there are domestic constituencies that will remind them of the price that has already been paid and accuse them of squandering earlier sacrifices.

4. Political leaders have little incentive to admit mistakes and reverse course. President Bush took a huge gamble when he decided to invade Iraq in 2003. He naively believed a bunch of unreliable advisors, exaggerated the threat that Iraq posed to US interests, and thought the invasion would "transform" the Middle East cheaply and quickly.

When his calculations proved woefully wrong, admitting he had made a mistake would have been politically suicidal. Instead, like other leaders, he decided to "gamble for resurrection," in the hope that things would turn around and justify his original decision.

5. The people who got you into the war aren't the ones who can get you out. What goes for leaders goes for their subordinates too: was there any chance that the people who led Bush into Iraq (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rice et al.) would suddenly rethink their positions and help him get us out? Of course not.

The literature on war termination shows clearly that ending a war usually requires getting rid of the team that got you in and it sometimes requires replacing the entire leadership coalition itself. It is no accident that US strategy in Iraq didn't improve until Bush got rid of Rumsfeld and most of the neoconservatives, thereby making a change of course possible.

6. Great powers can always fight on. Another reason great powers fight "wars of choice" too long is simply because they can. The costs may be far greater than the benefits, but great powers are rarely driven from the field by a complete military collapse, especially when they are fighting much weaker adversaries.

True, the Iraq war was a costly blunder, but the United States could have stayed in for another year or two or three if it absolutely had to. And we see the same phenomenon in Afghanistan: what's another $100 billion when your GDP is $13 trillion and when you can borrow the money from foreigners and make future generations pay for it?

To make matters worse, powerful states can always come up with new strategic innovations and convince themselves that this holds the key to victory. Commanders can be replaced, the field of battle can be expanded, new weapons can be developed and employed (drone wars, anyone?), or new tactics can be developed and implemented.

And to be fair, in some cases strategic innovation will turn the tide and lead to victory. But the ability to keep trying something new also makes it harder for political leaders to conclude that the war just isn't worth continuing, because there will always be someone telling them that they have a clever idea that will win the war.

7. The military hates losing. We expect our military services to focus on winning, and we want them to execute assigned missions with enthusiasm and dedication. The uniformed services are often less prone to favor war than civilians are, but once they are sent in harm's way, they are probably the last institution who will want to admit that things aren't going well or recommend getting out short of victory.

How many generals will tell the president that they simply can't win (or that they can't do so at an acceptable cost)? Plus, the Pentagon is bound to worry that it will be blamed for failure, even if it wasn't really their fault. The result is that the most politically powerful institution on matters of war and peace is going to be strongly biased toward "staying the course."

8. The people at the top may not know how bad things really are. This problem is a corollary of No. 7. In most bureaucracies -- including the military -- there's a tendency for good news to flow uphill and for bad news to get suppressed. Subordinates want to make themselves look good and are likely to spin their own performance in a positive light.

The generals charged with prosecuting the war are likely to present an upbeat picture, partly to sustain troop morale, partly to bolster public support, and partly because they know that is what their civilian leaders want to hear. If this tendency is not countered, however, wars keep going because those responsible for the ultimate decisions do not have an accurate sense of what is really going on.

9. Exaggerated concern for "credibility." Great powers often stay in losing wars not because the stakes in a particular conflict are so large, but because they fear that withdrawal will have profound effects on their reputation and far-reaching repercussions elsewhere. The scholarly literature on this issue suggests that these concerns are usually exaggerated, but that doesn't stop pundits from making this claim and doesn't stop politicians from listening to it.

This was a common refrain during the Vietnam War, of course, and we hear loud echoes of it now. If we get out of Afghanistan, we are told, al Qaeda will be emboldened, its recruitment will soar, and our allies around the world will conclude we are wimps and abandon us.

Of course, getting out of Vietnam didn't have any of these effects (the United States won the Cold War, remember?) and it is just as likely that getting out of Afghanistan would undercut jihadi narratives about Western imperialism and allow the United States to focus its military efforts on places that really matter. Indeed, US credibility may suffer far more if it keeps squandering its power on costly but unnecessary conflicts.

10. National pride. Nationalism is a very powerful force, and great powers usually have lots of reasons to be impressed by their own accomplishments. When you're very wealthy and very powerful, and when your national history is mostly one of great good fortune (e.g., like the United States), it is hard to believe that there are some military tasks that you may not be able to accomplish at an acceptable price tag.

Lyndon Johnson just couldn't quite believe that "Asians in black pajamas" could defeat the mighty United States, and it must be hard for many Americans to figure out why we can't sort things out in Afghanistan, defeat the Taliban once and for all, and round up bin Laden while we are at it. On any list of the reasons why wars last too long, hubris deserves a prominent place.

None of this is to argue that great powers like the United States should never send troops in harm's way, or that sometimes they have to fight on even when things aren't going well. Instead, this list is a reminder that unleashing the dogs of war is an unpredictable business, and that is a whole lot easier to get in than it is to get out.

Please remember that the next time someone comes up with a clever scheme for how the United States can solve all of its problems through some swift and surgical military strike. When a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Why Civil Wars have Gotten Longer,
Bloodier, and More Numerous

Barbara F. Walter / Political Violence at a Glance

(July 5, 2017) -- A series of alarming trends are converging in the world of civil wars. Since the early 2000s, the number of civil wars around the world has significantly increased. There are now more civil wars than at any time since 1999. The average number of armed factions fighting these wars has also grown. In 1950, the average number was 8; in 2010, it was 14.

The current wave of civil wars also tends to include more external involvement such as Russia and Iran's extensive intervention in the Syrian civil war. Finally, more civilians are being killed in these wars than in the past.

No explanation has yet been offered for why civil wars are becoming more frequent, bloody, fractious, and internationalized. In a new paper "The New New Civil Wars," I argue that these changes are due in part to the advent of the Web 2.0 in the early 2000s. Today's civil wars are the first to be fought in an era of global, instantaneous communication, and this is the reason they are changing.

There are 5 big ways the Internet is likely to transform civil wars:

1. A Greater Number of Civil Wars: The Internet has made it easier for individual citizens to organize protests, and harder for authorities to stop them. It has also made it easier for rebel entrepreneurs to mobilize armed factions. Rebel entrepreneurs used to have to rely on local support to get their movement off the ground. Now any individual with an Internet connection can begin to recruit internationally, and tap into individual donors around the globe.

2. More Armed Factions Fighting These Wars: The Internet has also made it easier for warring factions to sustain themselves over time since there is a greater variety of financing that they can access and tap. This means that rebel groups can survive longer than in the past, with less need to cooperate with each other over time. The result would be a greater number of independent rebel groups competing with each other throughout the war.

3. More External Involvement in these Wars: The Internet has created incentives for warring factions to frame their struggle in global terms in order to attract the widest audience of supporters. This creates greater opportunities for outside states to become involved in the war to try to influence the outcome.

4. Longer Civil Wars: Studies by Cunningham, Balch-Lindsay & Enterline, and Regan have all revealed that more warring parties means longer civil wars. This means that as the number of armed factions increases due to the increased ease of mobilization (#2), and as the number of external actors increases as a result of global campaigns (#3), the duration of civil wars should also increase.

5. More Civilians Being Killed: Finally, because the Internet allows rebel factions to shift their focus from a domestic audience to an international one, it untethers them from the local population.

Studies have found that rebel groups that rely heavily on the local population are less likely to engage in human rights abuses. By freeing combatants from the need to solicit local support, the Internet may be freeing them to engage in more civilian abuse.

The current civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Central African Republic (to name a few) are exhibiting all of the characteristics of Internet-era conflicts. All of these wars broke out post-2003. All of them are being fought by multiple armed factions (on both the government and rebel sides).

All of them include extensive involvement by outside states. All of them have resisted negotiated settlement and appear likely to last a long time. All are distinctive for their brutality toward civilians.

We do not know for sure if our new ICT world is the source of these new trends; empirical studies have yet to be done to confirm or refute this. But from what we know about the Internet, we can ascertain the effect it is likely to have. Everything we are currently seeing in these "new new" wars suggests that the Internet is likely to be far more transformative than any of us had imagined.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




Stay Connected
Sign up to receive our weekly updates. We promise not to sell, trade or give away your email address.
Email Address:
Full Name:


Search Environmentalists Against War website


Home | Say NO! To War | Action! | Information | Media Center | Who We Are