Complex Solutions are Required for the Complex Problems of Armed Conflict

John Siebert Armed Conflicts

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2010 Volume 31 Issue 3

The myth of the Gordian knot appeals to the dreamer in many of us. No one can untie the knot until the strong man comes and, with a mighty swing of the sword, the knot is undone. We yearn for such simple solutions to complex problems, but complex problems actually require complex solutions.

The cycle of violence

As the 2010 Ploughshares Armed Conflicts Report confirms (see pp. 22-23), wars in the 21st century continue to be virtually all internal conflicts. They are usually begun by insurgents, who draw their support from minorities excluded from the benefits of political and economic participation in their countries, and fuelled by governments, from within and without, which respond with the bold stroke of military might and such slogans as: “Hit them hard,” “Keep them on their back foot,” Kill the murderers and scumbags.”

But the swing of the sword rarely works as intended. In fact, a harsh military response usually complicates and extends the misery. There are unintended consequences or “blowback,” as the military calls it. For every insurgent killed another 10 are recruited to carry on the struggle. Bridges, markets, and irrigation systems are destroyed, further setting back the possibility that people can meaningfully participate in economic and social development. As a result, their commitment to the fight increases and debilitating stalemates set in.
There is no need to romanticize these armed struggles. The tactics used by governments and insurgents, with the savage results visited mostly on civilians, represent fundamental violations of human rights and moral decency.

Conflict in microcosm

Field research in 2008 among warring pastoralists in Kenya and Sudan (Siebert & Epps 2009, pp.24-26) illustrates in a microcosm the failure of single-stroke responses to violence. What we found were not situations of insurgency war per se, but endemic, culturally based cattle raids between communities, which spiralled out of control with the introduction of automatic weapons.

Deaths and injuries among pastoralists in remote areas in the Horn of Africa often exceed those of war zones, but are not widely reported. In Southern Sudan alone in 2009 there were approximately 2,500 deaths and 300,000 people displaced because of pastoralist violence. Bold-stroke solutions such as forced disarmament by the military have been tried. The result is that violence has increased and communities have quickly rearmed, propelling the cycle of revenge.

A complex peace

One exception to the escalating violence among pastoralists documented in the 2008 research was the relative peace that had been negotiated between the Marakwet and Pokot communities in the North Rift Valley of Kenya. In personal interviews, no fewer than 10 interdependent factors emerged as critical to establishing peace.

The Marakwet diversified their agricultural practices (1), growing more vegetables to lessen dependence on herding animals. Markets were established (2) for increased and complementary commercial exchanges between the Pokot and Marakwet. Cultural practices among the Marakwet, such as requiring marriage dowries paid with cows – the traditional inspiration for raids – were modified (3), leading to increased intermarriage with the Pokot, thus building inter-communal ties (4). Traditional peacemaking rituals using beaded belts worn by mothers were used in conflict resolution (5) between the two communities. The Marakwet increasingly embraced formal education (6), leading to increased employment diversity and less dependence on animal husbandry.

Nongovernmental organizations provided training to peace committees (7) in both communities and supplied cell phones (8) so elders could communicate before raids to prevent them or after raids to set up compensation and thereby interrupt the revenge cycle. Women were specifically engaged in village-level peace discussions (9), helping to build a social consensus among both the Marakwet and Pokot that the advantages of peace were greater than the gains from raids. Finally, the election of a new national government in Kenya in 2002, and particularly the election of a local female Member of Parliament who actively supported peace, created a reinforcing political environment (10) for sustaining the Marakwet-Pokot peace.

The road to peace is not simple or easy

A complex range of initiatives was required to build and sustain peace. Small arms disarmament efforts by the military and police had been unsuccessfully tried with the Marakwet and Pokot prior to the establishment of peace. Coercive disarmament was not considered even a minor factor in the functional peace that was built; however, the Marakwet reported social control mechanisms on the handling and use of guns that were internally generated instead of externally imposed by the police or military.

One case, as illustrative as this one may be, does not a complete argument make. Complex solutions to situations of violence also require money to fund the range of programs and alternative approaches required in each unique conflict setting, as well as time for the communities engaged in violence to build internal support for peace. In places such as Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, extensive political negotiations with multiple actors plus cease-and-desist measures by foreign actors may be part of an even more complex mix of initiatives that lead to peace.

The point is that the simple solution represented by the bold stroke of military power to untangle complex conflict knots remains a fetching but false myth. That it still seems to excite our imaginations and enthral great and some small powers can be seen in the 2010 Armed Conflicts Report, which records 28 wars in the world in 2009. A realistic approach to international relations will stop depending on the false promises of single-stroke military intervention and invest in the broad array of political, economic, and social responses required for complex solutions to complex wars.

Siebert, John & Kenneth Epps. 2009. Addressing Armed Violence in East Africa: A Report on World Vision Peacebuilding, Development and Humanitarian Assistance Programmes. World Vision Canada.

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