Tell it to the troops on the ground, not to mention the indigenous population. They know that war can go on even after it has “ended.”

On May 1, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared that major combat in Afghanistan had ended for the 8,000 U.S. troops in country. Yet on June 3, television showed pictures of substantial military units scouring the hills along the border with Pakistan for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Elsewhere in the country, militias of regional “governors” (also known as warlords) still clash with each other over who controls what turf–and which people.

Also on May 1, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” Since then, more than 30 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died, many in armed clashes with Iraqis. The number of troops, instead of falling, has risen to between 160,000-165,000, and the 3rd Infantry Division’s scheduled departure from Iraq has been postponed indefinitely. As Lieutenant General David McKiernan, coalition ground forces commander, said May 29, “The war has not ended. These operations happened in a combat zone and it is war.” Significantly, his comments don’t address communal conflicts within Iraq.

The phenomena of cyclical fighting and resurgent wars should not be as much a surprise as it seems to be for U.S. officials. In its May 22 issue, the highly respected Economist magazine noted three very startling statistics: (1) counting only conflicts involving more than 1,000 deaths from violence, one in eight countries worldwide has a civil war; (2) on average, these conflicts last eight years, twice the length of wars before 1980; (3) 50% of all countries that achieve peace fall back into civil war within a decade.

Direct and Indirect Links to Resurgent Wars

The patterns highlighted above can be complicated by direct (troops, creation and protection of “safe” zones) or indirect (money, arms, training) involvement of outside powers. During the cold war, the usual choice was indirect support, with the obvious exceptions of Korea and Vietnam for the U.S. and Afghanistan for Russia. Of these three, only Korea escaped a plunge back into a wrenching war. Vietnam attacked Cambodia in 1978, remaining there for a decade, and fought with China over their mutual border in 1979. Afghanistan experienced virtually no respite after the fall of the post-1989 communist puppet regime until 1996, when the Taliban swept to power everywhere but in the Panjshir valley. But the new ruling clique failed to bring peace, and four weeks after September 11, 2001, full-scale war, this time led by the United States, descended once again on Afghanistan.

The 1991 Gulf War, coming three years after the end of the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war, conformed to the overall pattern of recurring warfare cited by the Economist. In fact, Iraq in 1991 reflected the uncertainty in international affairs as the cold war ended: the war was direct action, while the encouragement of the uprisings of Marsh Arabs and Kurds reflected the indirect–indeed a very distant and indirect–approach by the U.S. that persisted until March 19, 2003. On another level, peace–as much a sense of personal security as the absence of fighting–never came to Iraq. Throughout the 1990s, the Iraqi people suffered under international sanctions and the brutality of their own government.

The same hesitancy evident in dealing with Iraq in 1991 persisted in the interventions in Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo. In Haiti, with foreign soldiers gone, Haitians were subjected to virtual civil war. The police could not or would not curb the unending series of political and criminal killings. Many analysts believe that Bosnia and Kosovo did not revert to full-scale civil war due primarily to the continuing presence of large, armed, multinational forces in each.

Elsewhere, especially in Asia, a number of recent efforts at peaceful resolution of intranational disputes seem suddenly to be on the brink of confirming the timelines for renewed carnage. After six months of negotiations facilitated by Norway, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government are at an impasse. The situation is complicated by a split within the government. The president’s party objects to Oslo’s involvement in an “internal matter” (a concern echoed by the Tigers) while the prime minister’s party, which is driving the peace talks, wants Norway’s help. And while fighting has not resumed, the failure to set a date to resume talks, together with the possibility the prime minister might lose his parliamentary majority, opens a window for new violence by any group or faction opposed to the peace talks.

In Indonesia, peace lasted only six months. A truce between the Free Aceh Movement and Jakarta signed December 9, 2002 fell apart in mid-May when 40,000 Indonesian troops moved back into Aceh to battle an estimated 5,000 guerillas in the reconstituted, pro-independence movement. Some government and military leaders reportedly have justified renewing the civil war by pointing to the U.S. use of force rather than diplomacy to resolve disputes. The death toll in the first week was over 100, including civilians.

On May 30, in Myanmar (Burma), the military junta detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) officials after a violent clash between NLD and pro-government supporters. Government officials said only four died, but NLD sources cited in media reports put the number at around 70-80. Each side blamed the other for the violence, which came during a road trip by Suu Kyi. Although no major uprising has occurred since 1988, widespread student demonstrations in 1996 so alarmed the military that all university campuses were closed and remained shut until 2000.

In Africa, periodic civil war seems to be a fact of life (and death) in Sudan, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and other countries. A May 2003 World Bank study found that the most common characteristic of intra-warring countries throughout the globe is poverty: four-fifths of the civil wars are concentrated in countries with the poorest one-sixth of the world’s population. The Bank concluded that this concentration of wars in impoverished societies was a result of the increased opportunity to find causes–some real, such as corruption and incompetence; some imaginary–for which people would take up arms.

And then there is the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), a country where, over the past five years, fighting always seems to be going on somewhere and where the estimated deaths in these years number 3 to 3.5 million.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Congress is set to give the Pentagon more than $400 billion to spend on war preparations and now, it seems, on the “non-wars.” Once again, the U.S. sets a poor example for other countries, especially those that only recently resolved internal wars. These governments heap scarce funds on their militaries to ward off future rebellions. Ironically, such spending increases the chances for war because it scoops up resources needed for bettering people’s lives and suggests that those in power foresee and are planning for renewed warfare. So the killing never stops, and what is left for the poor is recycling war.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.