The 2004 Armed Conflicts Report

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2004 Volume 25 Issue 2

In 2003 the number of armed conflicts totalled 36 in 28 countries. These numbers are a slight decline from 2002 which saw 37 armed conflicts in 29 countries. The drop continues a general downward trend since a peak of 44 conflicts in 1995 and involves the fewest number of states hosting wars since Project Ploughshares began tracking armed conflict in 1987. Five states experienced more than one conflict in 2003, with four armed conflicts in each of India and Indonesia, and two wars in each of Sudan, the Philippines, and Iraq. The Israel-Palestine conflict is reported as a single conflict taking place on the territory of two states, Israel and Lebanon. All but five of the 36 armed conflicts of 2003 are more than two years old, almost two-thirds (23) have been fought for more than 10 years, and eight of the current armed conflicts have endured for over 25 years.

The US-led invasion of Iraq that dominated headlines in 2003 was in several ways an exception to the prevailing experience of current armed conflict. The Iraq war captured widespread and detailed attention, fed by reports from thousands of journalists “imbedded” with Pentagon troops or from more independent positions, in contrast to the vast majority of the 35 other armed conflicts in 2003 which received much less media and political scrutiny. The Iraq invasion also was the sole international war in 2003. While it was a war fought on the territory of a single state, it was nevertheless a war between states – Iraq against the United States and its coalition partners. All other armed conflicts in 2003 were internal wars, typically pitting armed insurgent or opposition groups against government troops.

In 2003 armed conflict remained a pervasive phenomenon. The geographical regions of Africa and Asia hosted most wars – together accounting for more than four-fifths (84 per cent) of the total – but other regions were also affected (see table below). Based on a tabulation of the proportion of countries experiencing conflict, the Middle East in particular was also a significantly affected region, although on a more positive note the proportion of Middle Eastern countries hosting conflict declined from 29 per cent in 2002 to 21 per cent in 2003. Europe and the Americas were again the regions least affected by war with only 5 and 2 per cent of their respective countries suffering armed conflict in 2003.

The slight change in the total number of conflicts masks a significant turnover in the individual conflicts of 2003. Five new armed conflicts began during the year and six others ended. In the states of Iraq and Angola in particular, 2003 saw both the end of one armed conflict and the beginning of another. In Iraq the new multi-state war was heralded long before it began in March while more than ten years of conflict between Iraqi government forces and Shia Muslim rebels ended quietly following two years of few reported casualties. In Angola, the peace process first negotiated in Lusaka in 1994 saw an effective end to more than a quarter-century of war between the government and UNITA rebels in 2003. Meanwhile, the latest phase of a secessionist conflict in the region of Cabinda doomed Angola to remain on the list of countries hosting war.

Elsewhere, conflicts ended in Guinea, where a second consecutive year saw few reports of fighting between government troops and rebels, and in Rwanda, where clashes between the Rwanda army and Hutu rebels based in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo were much reduced from earlier years. Similarly, in Indonesia the number of conflicts within the country declined from five to four as the brutal communal violence on the island of Kalimantan came to an end. In Iran, the conflict ended when US forces disarmed Mujahedeen Khalq rebels based in Iraq that were opposed to the Iranian government. This followed two years of sporadic reporting of only a few incidents of violence.

Meanwhile, Africa experienced the beginnings of three additional conflicts in 2003. In Côte d’Ivoire, an outbreak of violence in 2002 resulted in over one thousand deaths by early 2003 as rebel groups fought for control of the country against government troops and militias, with mercenaries fighting on both sides. In Ethiopia ethnic groups fought each other in the Gambella region where, in particular, Nuers targeted the Anuak civilian population that was reportedly collaborating with the Ethiopian military. Also in the Horn of Africa, a major humanitarian crisis emerged as a result of the war in the Darfur region of Sudan. Janjaweed militias, armed and supported by the Sudanese military, undertook retaliatory attacks against rebel groups and civilian populations, resulting in several thousand civilian deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Full descriptions of all armed conflicts of 2003, as well as those recently ended, are available in the Armed Conflicts Report 2004 section of the Project Ploughshares website. The 2004 edition of the wall poster depicting armed conflict can be ordered soon.

Geographic distributions of armed conflicts in 2003

Region # of
countries
in region
# of
conflicts
in region
# of
countries
hosting
conflicts
% of
countries
in region
hosting
conflicts
% of
world
conflicts
Africa
50
15
14
28
42
Asia
42
15
8
19
42
Europe
42
2
2
5
5
The Americas
44
1
1
2
3
Middle East
14
3
21
21
8
World Totals
192
36
15
15
100

 

 

1 Defining armed conflict: For the purposes of the annual Armed Conflicts Report an armed conflict is defined as a political conflict in which armed combat involves the armed forces of at least one state (or one or more armed factions seeking to gain control of all or part of the state), and in which at least 1,000 people have been killed by the fighting during the course of the conflict. An armed conflict is added to the annual list of current armed conflicts in the year in which the death toll reaches the threshold of 1,000, but the starting date of the armed conflict is shown as the year in which the first combat deaths included in the count of 1,000 or more occurred.

The definition of “political conflict” becomes more difficult as the trend in current intrastate armed conflicts increasingly obscures the distinction between political and criminal violence. In a growing number of armed conflicts, armed bands, militia, or factions engage in criminal activity (e.g., theft, looting, extortion) in order to fund their political/military campaigns, but frequently also for the personal enrichment of the leadership and the general livelihood of the fighting forces. Thus, in some circumstances, while the disintegrating order reflects the social chaos resulting from state failure, the resulting violence or armed combat is not necessarily guided by a political program or a set of politically motivated or defined military objectives. However, these trends are part of the changing character of war, and conflicts characterized more by social chaos than political/military competition are thus included in the tabulation of current armed conflicts.

In many contemporary armed conflicts the fighting is intermittent and involves a very wide range of levels of intensity. An armed conflict is deemed to have ended if there has been a formal ceasefire or peace agreement and, following which, there are no longer combat deaths (or at least fewer than 25 per year); or, in the absence of a formal ceasefire, a conflict is deemed to have ended after two years of dormancy (in which fewer than 25 combat deaths per year have occurred).

The above definition builds upon, but differs in some aspects from, the definitions of other groups producing annual conflict tabulations, notably reports by Peter Wallensteen and Margareta Sollenberg of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University (Sweden), published annually in the yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

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