The Many Faces of War: As the Nature of Conflict Changes, Traditional Definitions of Warfare Fall Short

Tasneem Jamal Armed Conflicts

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2010 Volume 31 Issue 4

Between July 30 and August 4 this year, fighters of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and elements of the Mai Mai, a local militia, entered Luvungi and surrounding villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and, in one extended weekend, raped 150 to 200 women and children, including a number of baby boys. They then looted the area and moved on (Kaufman 2010).

News of the assaults did not reach international media outlets until weeks later, and when the UN then investigated, it established that the number of rapes in the reported incidents was actually 242. However, investigators also learned of another 267 rapes in the district that had not been previously reported (Globe and Mail 2010).

The context was the ongoing civil war in the DRC, but somehow the term “war” doesn’t come close to capturing the scale of horror of Luvungi. The rapes are beyond extreme by any measure, but as part of the chaos and fighting that have engulfed the DRC since 1990, the Luvungi victims represent but the tiniest fraction of the war’s human toll. Five million deaths in the DRC are directly attributable to the war. Hundreds of thousands have been raped; untold millions are internally displaced. According to UNICEF, there are more than four million orphaned children in the DRC.1

Contemporary war is largely “unofficial” and often unacknowledged. It is rarely declared; flags and bugles don’t herald its approach. The march to war is replaced by the gradual (or sometimes rapid) disintegration of order in severely troubled societies and the inexorable descent into political and criminal public violence.

Indeed, “public violence” may well be the more apt, though still emotionally inadequate, term for many of today’s armed conflicts. Public violence is invariably linked to longstanding social and political grievances that remain chronically unaddressed and are allowed to fester and undermine confidence in public institutions and processes. In turn, widespread rejection of public institutions is transformed into lawlessness and armed violence when ignored grievances are joined by a ready access to small arms – the pre-eminent hardware of public violence.

When a state finds itself in that deadly combination of circumstances – pervasive grievance, loss of confidence in government, and abundant supplies of user-friendly small arms – it finds it difficult to avoid the descent into chaos and the public violence that must finally be recognized as war.

Counting the wars

Since 1987 Project Ploughshares has been tracking global armed conflicts and issuing annually an Armed Conflicts Report. In 1987, there were 37 wars taking place on the territories of 34 states – Indonesia, the Philippines, and Iran were each the scene of two separate armed conflicts. Twenty-three years later, 2009 ended with a total of 28 wars on the territories of 24 countries – with the Philippines and Sudan both the scene of two separate wars, while Indian territory hosted three armed conflicts.

That is a welcome 25 per cent drop in the number of active armed conflicts, but it is a decline that masks a dynamic quarter-century of public violence and war in which many new wars began as others were ending.

In addition to the 37 conflicts under way in 1987, 44 new conflicts broke out in the ensuing 23 years, for a total of 81 separate wars during this period. Of those, 58 were resolved, but in 11 of those cases the peace didn’t last and war resumed (of the 11 resumed wars, six subsequently ended). All told, the planet thus hosted a total of 92 wars during the last quarter-century.

Not only do some conflicts reignite, but wars generally last a long time. Fully one-third of the conflicts under way in 1987 remain active today. Of the current 28 conflicts, only six are less than a decade old. Six have been under way for more than three decades, another seven for more than two decades, and nine for more than one decade.

When public violence means war

While war is eminently recognizable, defining it is not so simple. Because contemporary wars are not declared and because, in most cases — especially civil/intrastate wars — they do not follow from a clear or official decision to go to war, it is often not at all obvious whether a country is “at war” or not. So, any effort to count wars must obviously include the application of some reasonably objective, measurable criteria for determining when a war begins and when it ends.

The tabulation of wars for the annual Ploughshares Armed Conflicts Report (2010b) is based2 on three characteristics:

  • It is a political conflict;
  • It involves armed combat by the armed forces of a state or the forces of one or more armed factions seeking a political end, such as gaining control of all or part of the state;
  • At least 1,000 people have been killed directly by the fighting during the course of the conflict.

In many contemporary armed conflicts the fighting is intermittent and involves widely varying levels of intensity. Afghanistan and Iraq experience persistent and ongoing armed clashes and attacks. Rwanda went from political tension to unprecedented levels of violence and back down again in a relatively short period of time. The wars in the Philippines and Burundi are examples of ongoing but relatively low-level conflicts, with annual combat deaths now often as low as about 100 – but, of course, with political, economic, and social disruption well out of proportion to the intensity of action on actual battlefields.

The definition of “political conflict” obviously cannot be technically precise. Nevertheless the distinction between political and criminal violence is significant and discernable. There are clear instances in which escalating violence that is clearly criminal becomes so extensive that it takes on significant political overtones and complications. The Mexican drug “war” is perhaps the most prominent case in point. The fundamental dispute is clearly not political – it is a matter of organized crime – but the impact on the country and on Mexico’s relations with its neighbours, including the US, is such that it engages government at the highest level, as well as the armed forces of Mexico.

Still, criminal violence remains distinct from the armed conflict of war, and Mexico is not included in the Ploughshares count of current wars. Criminal organizations employ violence in the pursuit of profit, not in pursuit of a political program. And while groups engaged in politically driven combat often pursue criminal activities for economic gain, the more basic objective of such groups, and the basic point of the violence they practise, is still the pursuit of military and political goals (Ballentine & Nitzschke 2005, pp. 4-5).

Types of war

A relatively simple typology of armed conflict relies on four basic categories: international or interstate war plus three overlapping types of intrastate war (state control, state formation, and state failure).3

Interstate wars

An interstate war is a war between two or more states and, for purposes of Ploughshares reporting, must also meet the 1,000-combat-death criterion. Though rare, international wars are not yet banished from history. But the distinction between interstate and intrastate violence is often obscured. Interstate wars are frequently fought on the territory of just one of the states in the conflict –as in the 2001-2002 US-led attack on Afghanistan and the 2003 US-led attack on Iraq. On the other hand, it is obviously also the case that virtually all civil or intrastate wars include extensive international involvement.

Intrastate wars

There are three basic types of intra-state conflicts.

State control wars obviously centre on struggles for control of the governing apparatus of the state. State control struggles are typically driven by ideologically defined revolutionary movements or decolonization campaigns, or are simply the means by which power transfers from one set of elites to another. In some instances, communal and/or ethnic interests are central to the fight to transfer power; in other instances religion becomes a defining feature of the conflict; and in others the differences are more ideological.

State formation wars centre on the form or shape of the state itself and generally involve particular regions of a country fighting for a greater measure of autonomy or for outright secession. Communal ethnic or religious claims are frequently an element of such wars.

Failed state wars are conflicts that are neither about state control nor state formation, but are focused on more local issues and become violent in the absence of effective government control. The primary failure is in the lack of government capacity, or sometimes will, to provide minimal human security to groups of citizens. Pastoralist communities in East Africa, for example, usually live well beyond the reach of the state. There are virtually no state security services or institutions present and no political means of mediating disputes over cattle raiding or access to grazing lands and water. Communities come into conflict; with access to small arms, an escalation of violence is almost inevitable. The violence is political, although it is over local issues and none of the parties has state-control or state-formation objectives. Such conflicts are included in the Ploughshares count when the threshold of 1,000 combat deaths is reached.

Of the 81 wars that occurred during the last 23 years, 51 per cent included state control objectives, 35 per cent included state formation objectives, 25 per cent reflected failed state conditions, and 11 per cent included interstate dimensions.4

How wars end

No fewer than 64 wars ended during the past 23 years. In five cases governments defeated rebels or insurgents. In four cases the insurgents prevailed on the battlefield and had their demands met.

Thirty-three conflicts (52 per cent) ended through negotiated settlements. This does not mean that what happened on the battlefield was not a significant factor in shaping the outcome. Military force certainly influenced or even determined the outcomes of negotiations. For example, in many cases rebel groups would never have gained a place at a negotiating table without an armed campaign. But negotiators took over and reached a political conclusion.

In the remaining 22 cases (34 per cent), the fighting essentially dissolved. While the conflicts were not resolved, the fighting gradually dissipated. In Guinea, for example, fighting by the Revolutionary United Front was supported by Liberia, but Guinea gradually persuaded both Liberia and Sierra Leone to end their support of the rebels, leading to a gradual decline in violence.

War prevention a collective responsibility

It is tempting to blame the current and still high levels of internal or intrastate wars on the inability of states to build conditions that serve the social, political, and economic welfare of their people. But those failures to achieve human security at the national level are heavily shaped by external factors, notably the creation of international economic and security conditions that shift benefits prominently toward dominant economic and military powers.

Thus war prevention, including the prevention of civil wars, is a collective international responsibility. And a world in which 28 wars still rage, and in which the rapes of Luvungi are not an isolated horror, is a world that is not close to meeting its responsibility.



  1. More information about the number of rapes and orphans can be found on the UNICEF website.
  2. This definition builds upon, but differs in some aspects from, annual conflict reports by the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University (2010).
  3. These types were drawn from the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, although it does not now use them.
  4. The total is more than 100 per cent because 12 conflicts involved a combination of types.


Ballentine, Karen & Heiko Nitzschke. 2005. The Political Economy of Civil War and Conflict Transformation. Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management.

The Globe and Mail. 2010. Prosecute to help stop rape in Congo. Editorial, September 4.

Kaufman, Stephen. 2010. Clinton – Rape of civilians was ‘horrific attack’. AllAfrica.Com, August 26.

Uppsala University. 2010. Uppsala Conflict Data Program.

Spread the Word