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Chapter 3 of "The Georgian - South Ossetian Conflict



3 The Dynamics of Ethnic Conflict

t has been shown that wars defined as ethnic conflicts on an average have a significant longer duration than other types of war; that more frequently ethnic conflicts do not end by negotiated solutions but by outright military victory by either side, and finally that ethnic civil war is of a more vicious nature (though not necessarily more destructive) than other forms of conflict (King 1997, p.13 and 24-25 and Scherrer 1997, p.42). The common explanations for this intractability and protracted nature of ethnic conflict have often been ascribed to the uncontrollable irrational behaviour motivated by deeply rooted ancient hatreds and incompatible deeply felt values and identities of the belligerents in ethnic conflict (King 1997, p.13 and 52).

In this chapter I shall look for alternative explanations to the nature of ethnic conflict. Looking specifically on the structure of conflict or armed conflict/warfare to be more precise; determining structural factors that can help explain the protracted nature and intractability of ethnic conflict in another light than the above mentioned. Some of these factors may be applicable to inter-state conflicts and other intra-state conflicts as well. The purpose of this chapter is however, not only to determine and characterise the specific nature of ethnic conflicts but in fact mainly to focus on conflict dynamics of ethnic conflict contrary to the previous theoretical chapter which focused on ethnicity and nationalism. The specific characteristics or relevant differences between ethnic conflict and other kinds of intra-state conflicts I shall return to at the end of this chapter, for now I will use the different terms for intra-state conflicts more or less indiscriminately.

A final opening remark should be made about the fact that despite that most of the wars since 1945 has been intra-state conflicts there exist little, if any, comprehensive theoretical research on the dynamics and even the causes of intra-state conflicts (Scherrer 1997, p.50 and Nielsen 1997, p.2). This is therefore based mainly upon working papers and articles and should therefore be seen as theoretical reflections rather than as a coherent theoretical chapter in comparison to the previous theoretical chapter on nationalism and ethnicity. 

3.1 The Scene of Conflict

One of the most distinguishing features of ethnic conflict is that it is typically a non-state conflict wholly or partly (Hobsbawm 1993, p.41). The main characteristic of intra-state conflict is the absence of a state structure or the existence of a weak one. They are mainly taking place in either collapsing states or emerging states in the process of state building. This is according to all the authors I have encountered in this field the key to an understanding of intra-state conflict (Brown 1993, p.6, Møller 1996, p.20, King 1997, p.50-51, Vorkunova 1997, p.49, Hobsbawm 1993, p.41-42 and Snyder 1993, p.86). This factor may not be sufficient for conflicts to break out, but definitely makes them possible, and of interest for the present purpose, determine the specific course of these conflicts (Brown 1993, p.12).

Hobsbawm writes in an article that almost everyone, who have experienced both civil wars and ordinary inter-state wars, are likely to think that civil wars are worse:

“The major reason why this should be so lies precisely in the disappearance of the accepted mechanisms of public order. The Hobbesian argument that, however deficient and unjust the state, it is better than its absence, the Hobbesian “state of nature” or public anarchy, carries substantial force, as many people in ex-Yugoslavia and the ex- USSR will confirm” (Hobsbawm 1993, p.42).

Eric Hobsbawm sees the existence of a functioning state as the most important condition or perhaps as indispensable for the control of ethnic conflicts. Here it is not so much the question whether the institutional anarchy is a cause of ethnic conflict or a prerequisite, this I will return to later. But that it is in this anarchical setting that ethnic conflict unfolds and this determine the dynamics and nature of this form of conflict. As Michael Ignatieff writes:


“Thomas Hobbes would have understood Yugoslavia...There is one type of fear more   devastating in its impact than any other: the systemic fear which arises when a state begins to collapse. Ethnic hatred is the result of the terror which arises when legitimate authority disintegrates” (Ignatieff 1994, p.16).

Even though he implies the collapse of state-structure as a reason for conflict (which we for now will keep in mind), the main point here is his emphasis on terror - or in other words the brutal way this kind of conflict evolves - the way anarchy prevails (Brown 1993, p.6).

This, which by some has been called the institutional anarchy of civil war (King 1997, p.51), brings me to a description of the nature of conflict.

3.2 The Nature of Conflict

Inter-state wars can be characterised by more or less clear-formed parties, not necessarily of same strength, but of same structure. It is fought between recognised states and their respectively subordinated regular armed forces, which usually are identifiable from each other and from the civilian population (Wallensteen 1994, p.74). The application of the Geneva Convention is unproblematic (Scherrer 1997, p.8, though not always followed I would add), and the conflict is taking place in an overall international state-system where certain rules are followed and observed.

In the institutional anarchy of intra-state war, which of course can be of different degrees, there is a lack or absence of organisational or institutionalised practises. No sharply defined borderlines, which simplify inter-state confrontations, even when it comes to the uniforms or other identifying marks which, distinguish combatant from non-combatant (Hobsbawm 1993, p.41).  

In intra-state wars we are not dealing with two or more ‘national’ armies. Combatants in civil wars are most often of a very non-traditional nature without a ‘traditional’ military line of command. This is again often exacerbated by the fact that the communication network is in a bad shape or even non-existing. Guerrilla fighters, child soldiers and soldier bandits can moreover, in contrast to professional soldiers or conscripts, be very difficult to control (King 1997, p.33-35 and Møller 1996, p.iv).

In short intra-state wars tend to be more messy and bloody, even just because of the fact that at least one of belligerents is a non-state actor, operating under more permissive rules than states tend to (Møller 1996, p.23). However, as another author points out, its is not only, or in fact it is often, the states (read weak states) rather than the insurgents, that are the main actors in a not spontaneous but organised brutal warfare (Scherrer 1997, p.47).  

Furthermore, in comparison to inter-state conflicts it is often more difficult or sometimes made deliberately difficult to determine who the belligerent sides are in intra-state conflicts. Who are the leaders in charge or spokespersons, who represents the real interests at stake in the conflict and who are entitled to negotiate, compromise and enforce of reached decisions (Møller 1996, p.39 and King 1997, p.33).

This may be further complicated by the fact that factionalism is likely to be more intense in intra-state conflicts. The argument here is that intra-state conflicts overall is about legitimacy and/or sovereignty and once this has been questioned, factionalism can continue to the smallest nucleus (Rana 1995, p.9 and King 1997, p.34). Several parties and likely leaders can emerge and the question is then who should and can sign a final peace-agreement. This of course also deepens mutual suspicions and prolongs the way to peace (Møller 1996, p.39).

The above mentioned factors makes an assessment of military costs and benefits with the overall political objectives extremely difficult. Superior logistics is the hallmark of wars like the Gulfwar, lack of logistical sophistication would be an appropriate characteristic of civil wars and the kalashnikov its hallmark. These armies, or more likely groups, are often poorly equipped and provisioned and rely on foraging and banditry rather than supplies from the headquarters. A scenario like this can best be characterised as being highly fluid and uncertain, weighing the short-term cost and benefits rather than thinking on the overall political objectives (King 1997, p.36, Rana 1995, p.12 and Møller 1996, p. iv).

The inter-state war concepts of front and rear have often very little meaning in intra-state conflicts (Møller 1996, p.iii). When frontlines exist they often run through highly densely populated areas, cutting through cities, towns or even neighbourhoods (Brown 1993, p.16). The distinction between combatants and civilians has been blurred, the war is fought by recently formed or recently augmented militias composed of ordinary civilians. The fighting can not only be characterised as highly irregular but also sporadic and spasmodic. The war becomes a permanent situation, which blend in with everyday life. The division of labour between fighters and the productive segments of society has broken down and the war tends to be fought by whoever is around, including women and children (Møller 1996, p.i-ii). Hence it is not only the difficulties in distinguishing combatants from non-combatants that makes intra-state wars more messy but also the mere fact that everything and everyone is considered a legitimate target - thus civilians are explicitly targeted.        

3.3 The Asymmetry of Conflict

Fundamentally intra-state conflict are mainly characterised by an asymmetrical relationship between the contesting parties which function as structural obstacles to a negotiated settlement of conflict and help to explain their intractability and protracted nature (King 1997, p.40 and Møller 1996, p.17).


Parties in a civil and ethnic conflict are mostly composed by an insurgent force or part of the population against the government and/or the majority of the population. The difference in commitment is best explained by the fact that in most cases one part is representing the central state authority and therefore holds a whole range of responsibilities or at least have a whole range of other concerns (like economic development, social services, foreign relations etc.) that have nothing to do with the insurgents. If the insurgents do not pose an immediate threat to the stability and/or unity to the state then it might be less of a priority to the government in comparison to other concerns. For the insurgents this is however their chief raison d’être, most likely their all-consuming goal. The level of commitment can thus be of quite different dimensions. It is often the case that the very existence of the ‘rebel group’ itself, depends on its commitment, or in other words to rebelling (King 1997, p.40-41).

However, it is not the level of commitment on either side that is the issue but rather the asymmetry of commitment between the parties. The point is that if the commitment of both sides were uniformly low, the parties would presumably soon seek to end the hostilities and find common ground. On the other hand if commitment were uniformly high a ‘winner’ would soon be found. So in either case the conflict will be settled quicker, one way or the other, than in the instance were the commitment of the parties are relatively unequal.


Under favourable conditions both parties would be well structured with strong and identifiable spokespersons, clear structures of command and clear boundaries of group membership. This would reduce uncertainty and suspicions and thus create a better environment for negotiations to take place.

In intra-state conflicts, the level of organisation often varies considerably between the parties, creating confusion, uncertainty and increase suspicion. The military forces on the government side are often well organised with a clear chain of command, composed by conscripts, professional soldiers or mercenaries. The insurgents are often composed by, what is called non-traditional combatants or irregulars, with no clear line of command and with little or no logistical or institutional backup, making the combatants more concerned about survival than long-term strategic objectives. It should however be stated that this situation can be reverse, the insurgent forces being better equipped and organised then the government forces (King 1997, p.44-45).

As in the case of commitment it is stressed that it is not the absolute levels of organisation on both sides that is the issue but rather the asymmetry of organisation. Hence in a case where the military and political structures are clear and well formed, identifiable and legitimate spokespersons are available and there is little threat of intra-party rivalries, then both parties are likely to be more prone to negotiations as a solution. In a situation where both parties share relatively low levels of organisation a negotiated solution is also likely to be the outcome. This if neither parts can field an effective fighting force, get international support, decide on a single legitimate spokesperson or master a united war-effort in order to win the conflict through military means. Then moderate factions on both sides have an incentive to make contact and to seek non-military solutions to the conflict (King 1997, p.47).


Asymmetry of status refers to the way the parties to the conflict perceive each other and how they are perceived by external powers. First of all incumbents normally enjoy international recognition, a seat in the United Nations and organisations like the OSCE and diplomatic and trade relationships with foreign governments. Insurgents can of course also be supported by external powers, openly or covertly, but lack the institutionalised relations.

Of most importance is the fact that the insurgents are not seen as legitimate representatives of distinct group interests but rather seen as illegitimate adversaries and their right to participate in the conflict is thus often questioned, being characterised as bandits or foreign agents. In this way it will be difficult for the government to approach the negotiating table as this will be recognition of the insurgents. Overcoming this asymmetry of status can be a very difficult hurdle to overcome even before getting to the heart of the conflict, and can thus account for why most intra-state conflicts are so protracted (King 1997, p.47-49 and Møller 1996, p.39).

A final comment to the above mentioned asymmetries is that it is often seen that the weaker part in conflict situations may compensate their inferiority in terms of status and organisation with that of commitment, hardening their position, increasing solidarity and thus the will to fight. This may in turn narrow the space for compromise and make the finding of common ground on which to build a negotiated settlement all the more difficult. Hence the asymmetry can work as a vicious circle (King 1997, p.49-50).

3.4 A Life and Logic of its Own  

Once started a conflict often gains its own momentum. Here we are again speaking of the conflict’s inherent dynamics and not runaway irrationality whatever that might be. The grievances experienced in the course of conflict may put both leaders and individual fighters in a position where there is no way back.

Leaders become prisoners of a growing dilemma in the face of unspeakable suffering which makes compromising increasingly difficult (Møller 1996, p.33 and King 1997, p.43-44) The fighting may be prolonged in order to justify the costs, with little concern for the additional costs to come if fighting continues. As Charles King puts it: “The potential benefits of continuing to fight tend to be analysed prospectively, while the potential costs are normally viewed retrospectively” (King 1997, p.43). Furthermore it is often seen that the root causes to the conflict becomes subordinate to the grievances experienced during the cause of conflict. Grievances committed by the other part can become a major point of contention between the belligerents, either side refusing to negotiate because of actions taken during the course of the conflict (King 1997, p.43).

Leaders or elites are often under pressure from domestic constituencies and/or opposition demanding military success or no or least compromising, pushing the leaders for a tougher stand in the struggle. The stakes in civil wars are frequently seen as all-or-nothing, leaders on both sides therefore have an incentive to gamble on the chance of attaining a military victory, even if the odds of winning are relatively low. This exactly because a military defeat or a compromise can mean their removal from office at the least or at the most exile or death, thus there exist a strong incentive to continue fighting even with bad odds (King 1997, p.31-32 and Møller 1996, p.33)[1].

For the warrior, having lived the life of a warrior for some time, there may be no normalcy to return to, having lost home, land, possessions, friends, family, job, etc. Some may even have grown accustomed to the life of a warrior, with all the excitement and ‘male bonding’ it involves (Møller 1996, p.33). In intra-state wars, with more or less autonomous bands of warriors, this has a great saying in the difficulties of laying down weapons and enter negotiations. Furthermore the fact that intra-state war is being fought between people that used to co-exist, maybe even as neighbours, you often see it degenerate into blood feud-like vicious circles of revenge (Møller 1996, p.v).

War can create a momentum of its own but also special interests. As Charles King writes:

“In many civil wars, the over-arching political objectives that prompted the turn to violence can become lost amid the grievances and interests produced by war’s  prosecution” (King 1997, p.37)

The original political goals of the belligerents can thus recede into the background by the actual experience of war making. An extreme may be that the parties to the conflict actually may have an interest in continuing fighting or at least in not reaching a final negotiated solution. Insurgents, or factions of it or factions within the state/government, may benefit economically from a war-like situation. Having gained control of resourceful areas, gaining wealth from the lawlessness that rules in such a situation, or benefiting from responses by international organisations to what they term ‘complex human emergencies’ in the form of aid (King 1997, p.37-39). Or to quote another author:

“Some wars has begun to live on itself and become a system of social reproduction. In  these cases war is costly for the population but profitable for a small minority. With the collapse of the state, violence becomes the essential resources to gain economic profits. Besides weapons and drugs, timber, minerals and even human labour force are export goods of societies at war. Even foreign aid has become an important source of income for war-waging militias” (Jung 1997, p.10).

Sometimes this can even lead to a point where the lines between belligerent forces fade away and they end up co-operating in exploiting non-combatant populations (King 1997, p.17).

The nature of intra-state conflicts has made some scholars describe these conflicts as medieval wars fought with modern weapons[2] (Møller 1996, p.21 and Ignatieff 1994, p.28) bringing to the scene actors that have not been seen in Europe since that time: the warlord. 

“They appear wherever nation states disintegrate: in the Lebanon, Somalia, northern   India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia. With their carphones, faxes and exquisite weaponry, they look post-modern, but the reality is pure early medieval” (Ignatieff 1994, p.28).

In the anarchical setting of intra-state conflict a privatisation of security occurs and the warlord will be in clover, for he can provide security, vengeance and wealth (Ignatieff 1994, p.30 and Møller 1996, p.i). In this way Ignatieff describes the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing not as racial hatred run wild but the Hobbesian setting taken to its logical conclusion. In this way the warlord not only offers protection but a solution. If you cannot trust your neighbours, drive them out. Ethnic cleansing is the ‘rational solution’ to the war of all against all. “Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and my boys to protect you” (Ignatieff 1994, p.26-30).   

3.5 The Security Dilemma

Some scholars have driven the argument of the Hobbesian state of nature a step further using the notion of the security dilemma. This notion is a basic concept from the realist tradition of international relations theory used to describe the relationship between states in the international environment characterised structurally by anarchy, meaning absence of a sovereign or central authority, contributing to an environment of distrust/uncertainty and thus the likelihood of non-intended conflict (Viotti 1993, p.48 and 582).

The main point in a discussion of the security dilemma, in international relations, is the existence of complete anarchy, meaning the absence of a central authority. In intra-state relations this is first of all never completely the case. Contending groups rarely find themselves in a situation of complete anarchy in this sense. Anarchy can however be approximated. From the complete collapse of central government to the challenge by certain groups of the government’s legitimacy and its control over territory (Kaufman 1996, p.151). A special case is represented by the collapse of imperial/colonial regimes or federations which profitably can be viewed as a problem of emerging anarchy (Posen 1993, p.103-104). Furthermore, as will be discussed later, intra-state conflicts are seldom completely internal conflicts therefore different degrees of regional/international anarchy should also be taken into account, especially if the government or different groups within the state are dependent on outside support, be it moral, financial or military support (Brown 1993, p.6).

The security dilemma occurs in this environment of declining authority or collapse of central authority (anarchy) when individual groups will start to look for ways of securing/defend themselves (self-help), which in turn can threaten and/or diminish the security of other individual groups (Posen 1993, p.103-105 and Brown 1993, p.6). Ethnic conflict can change the nature of the political system, making it resemble that of international relations. This when anarchy reaches the point where the government cannot control its territory enough to protect its citizens or is challenged by groups of citizens that seek this protection via ethnic organisation, thus attaining attributes of sovereignty  (Kaufman 1996, p.150-151).  

Once fighting has erupted the anarchical situation and security dilemma helps to explain the protracted nature of these conflicts. First of all there are no impartial institutions to enforce the commitment of warring sides to desist from fighting and enter negotiations (King 1997, p.50). The security dilemma is set in motion and can become self-sustaining; every action taken by the other side to defend itself is seen as a threat and justifies further escalation (Kaufman 1996, p.170). There are no overarching institutions to guarantee security and thus to provide credible security guarantees, hence the unwillingness to lay down arms and proceed to the negotiating table (King 1997, p.51).

There has been raised certain criticism towards the usage of the notion of security dilemma on intra-state conflict. First of all it can be theoretical questioned if you can talk of a structural security dilemma after the outbreak of violence. Then it is not in itself the cause of conflict but ‘merely’ explains escalation (Roe 1997, p.15). Furthermore debate has also evolved around the question if anarchy is a cause or a necessary condition for the security dilemma to occur. The bottom line here will be, as many have concluded, that whether it is a cause or a necessary condition it is clear that its role is important (Roe 1997, p.5). 

Criticism has also been raised about the fact that the notion of the security dilemma is used to describe a situation of unintended conflict. When there is talk of malign intentions you cannot talk of a real security dilemma. Several of the quoted scholars (Posen and Kaufman) have used the anarchical situation of the collapsing Yugoslavia, and the thus inherent security dilemma, as an explanation for the eruption of violent conflict there. Criticism has been raised as to the fact that in the Yugoslav case there were plenty signals of malign intend, and you can therefore not talk of a real security dilemma but of either an intended activated security dilemma or simply of a security problem/spiral (Roe 1997, p.6-11).          

The purpose of this section is not to get caught up in the theoretical discussion if we can talk about a real security dilemma or not. That is if were talking about malign intent or conflict as a tragedy, that would require if not another thesis then a separate paper. My purpose is here to show that the anarchical setting provides an inherently problematic security situation whether it is that of a dilemma or a problem, which creates a certain dynamic of intra-state conflict. In the analysis I will try to see what this concept can tell us about the Georgian - South Ossetian conflict taking the above-mentioned criticism into account.

However, a final critique, that will be useful in the coming analysis should be mentioned here. Realist theory of international relations have always been criticised for putting too much, or rather only, emphasis on the state and too much emphasis on military aspects of these relationships. Especially in the article of Barry R. Posen, and less in the article by Stuart J. Kaufman, I am inclined to state the same. First of all you can almost hear the counting of if not the warheads then kalashnikovs. Secondly the usage of the security dilemma, with all reservations in mind, on intra-state conflicts, should make it possible to open up for a more differentiated understanding of both security and actors, instead of returning to the traditional focus on military security and jump to the one-sided conclusion that ethnic groups rebelling makes them equivalent to state actors.

Here it will be appropriate to introduce the notion of societal security as something different from state security. The basic argument is that the existence of states depends on its sovereignty, the existence of an ethnic group on the other hand largely on its identity (Roe 1997, p.16 and Wæver 1993, p.25). Ole Wæver, looking mainly at ethnic groups and nations, defines societal security as:

“...the ability of a society to persist in its essential character under changing conditions and possible or actual threats. More specifically, it is about the sustainability, within acceptable conditions for evolution, of traditional patterns of language, culture, association, and religious and national identity and custom” (Wæver 1993, p.23)[3].

If these are threatened then it would be appropriate not only to look at military means for the defence of the community. Non-military means of defence such as the strengthening of identity will be of particular interest (Roe 1997, p.18). In this way an action-reaction process on identity can unfold whereby we can talk, if not of a societal security dilemma, then of a societal security problem. Before getting too entangled in this discussion, which I of course will return to as I commence, let me round off this chapter with the difference between ethnic conflicts and intra-state conflicts.

3.6 Ethnic Conflicts and Intra-State Conflicts

In this chapter I have so far not made any distinctions between the notions civil war, intra-state war, internal war or (armed) ethnic conflict. This I have done on purpose since the structural inherent dynamics, I so far have described, more or less are the same. There are however certain differences that are important to mention.

First of all one have to be careful in using the term internal conflict since no conflict is ever completely without either external interference or influence nor does conflicts necessarily stop at borders. The question of (forced) migration, ecology, natural reserves and the world economy as such are all issues that makes this notion questionable and the notion intra-state conflict more useful (Scherrer 1997, p.7).  

The term intra-state conflict is however also not a straightforward notion. A distinction in two main types of intra-state conflicts may be profitable. One being conflicts over the state/government, its policies and political programmes or simply the office. The other conflicts about state building or the structure of the state, constitutionally or specifically territorial.  

Conflicts about state-power are mainly of political/ideological character and thus a territorial borderline between the belligerents cannot be drawn since that would mean that the state would be divided. Domination, access to influence or power-sharing seems to be ‘solutions’ to this kind of conflicts. In conflicts about state-building power-sharing seems out of the question since the opposition does exactly not strive for ‘a piece of the cake’ but its own ‘cake’, i.e. its own state-structure. Thus more complex constitutional arrangements or secession seems to be the answer (Wallensteen 1994, p.76-77)

Armed intra-state ethnic conflict can both be about state-power or state building and of cause have a varying degree of external interference or develop into an inter-state conflict or vice versa. An important thing to make clear is that ethnic conflicts are special because of the fact that ethnic groups constitute whole societies and potential political units. Speaking about primarily ethnic groups and nations Ole Wæver phrase it in the following way:

“...a societal identity is one that is not only robust enough in construction, and comprehensive enough in its following, but also broad enough in the quality of identity it carries, to enable it to compete with the territorial state as a political organizing principle. A societal identity is able to reproduce itself independently of the state and even in opposition to the state’s organisational principle” (Wæver 1993, p.23).

What sets ethnic intra-state conflicts apart from ideological/(political) intra-state conflicts is thus primarily the fact that ethnic groups constitute potential whole societies. The war in Peru, between Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian government is primarily political and ideological in nature. Conflicts like these are about the state or more specifically about the office of government and/or its policies and political programmes (Wallensteen 1994, p.145 and Brown 1993, p.5). Ethnic intra-state conflicts can also be about the seizure of state power, but because they can and often want their own governance, these conflicts are unique. If the parties to an intra-state conflict are political parties or classes, territory does not matter; if the parties on the other hand are ethnic groups, territory is very important since it stands as the ‘optimal solution’ in accordance to the previous treated theories of nationalism (Forsberg 1997, p.24). Some ethnic conflicts may not have territorial solutions if the populations are too intertwined and the conflict may go on till some sort of balance have been found - an extreme ‘solution’ may be that of genocide, mass population exchanges or ethnic cleansing, as we unfortunately have experienced. 

3.7 Summing Up and Conclusions

In this chapter we have identified certain inherent structural factors, which helps to account for the intractability and protracted nature of armed ethnic intra-state conflict. Factors quite apart from the usually ascribed, such as irrationality, deeply felt values/identities and deeply rooted ancient hatreds by the belligerents. 

Ethnic intra-state conflicts are typically non-state conflicts wholly or partly. It is played out in an institutional anarchy characterised by the absence of a state structure or the existence of a weak one. There is a lack or absence of organisational and/or institutionalised practises, they are fought with less permissive rules and without sharply defined borderlines.

They are characterised by an asymmetrical relationship, in commitment, organisation and status between the contesting parties, which function as structural obstacles to a negotiated settlement of conflict. Internal factionalism is also likely to be more intense in intra-state conflicts. Several parties and likely leaders can emerge and the question is then who should and can sign a final peace-agreement.

The combatants are often of very irregular nature without a traditional military line of command, operating without much co-ordination or often on their own. An assessment of military costs and benefits with the overall political objectives is thus extremely difficult. The armies or groups, are often poorly equipped and provisioned and rely on foraging and banditry rather than supplies from the headquarters.

The fighting can not only be characterised as highly irregular but also sporadic and spasmodic. When front lines exist they often run through densely populated areas, cutting through cities, towns or even neighbourhoods. The war often becomes a permanent situation, which blend in with everyday life.

Furthermore, once started a conflict often gains its own momentum. The original political goals of the belligerents can recede into the background by the actual experience of war making. Either by grievances experienced during conflict, or simply because there is no normalcy to return to, or even because the state of war/anarchy provides a profitable situation. Thus some wars begin to live a life of themselves and become a system of social reproduction.

In short intra-state wars tend to be more messy and bloody, even just because of the fact that at least one of belligerents is a non-state actor. By this I am not saying that per definition the insurgents are to be blamed for the irregular warfare and the brutalities, it might as well be the incumbent group/government, or more likely both exactly because of the asymmetrical structure of conflict. The conflicts evolves in an anarchical setting best described by distrust, mutual suspicion and uncertainty, being highly fluid and spasmodic, often weighing the short-term cost and benefits rather than thinking on the overall political objectives and often developing a life of its own.

These factors have a great saying in determining the specific course and nature of armed ethnic intra-state conflict, and have to be considered in an analysis of these conflicts. Not just jumping to the easy conclusion ascribing the intractability and protracted nature to the irrationality, deeply felt values/identities and deeply rooted ancient hatreds by the belligerents.

As for the security dilemma discussion, it is important to note that armed ethnic intra-state conflict is special in the way that ethnic groups constitute whole societies and that they are potentially able to compete with the territorial state as a political organising principle. An ethnic community or society within the state represents an alternative societal relationship. Either only in terms of identity or if regionally based also in terms of territory. It would thus be appropriate to make some linkages to the previous theoretical chapter on nationalism and ethnicity.

Inherently nationalism is conflictual in a multiethnic setting. Nationalism can generate security and insecurity in as much as it can both strengthen and weaken societal identity. Nation building can be perceived by the minorities of a state as a threat to their societal security - to their identity. This more so if it is grounded on an ethnic interpretation of the nation, less if it is grounded on a civic interpretation of the nation. On the other hand the ethnicity of the minorities can also be perceived as a threat towards the nation-state and its nation-building project as it, as mentioned, represent an alternative societal relationship and if regional based it can even represent a threat to the territorial integrity of the state.

Societies are constituted by identity; a society will not survive without its identity. As we have seen in the chapter on nationalism and ethnicity, national and ethnic identities are not objective entities, constructed or imagined yes, but nevertheless social realities. They are defined subjectively around selected “objective” elements. Elements like language, names, dress, religion and other cultural practices. If what constitutes the collective identity is threatened, not ‘only’ by deportation or killing of members of ethnic minorities, but also by e.i. forbidding the usage of language, religious practices, changing of names, closure of places of education or the revoke of cultural or political autonomy, then an obvious defensive response will be to strengthen the societal identity.  

The state may response by a harsher assimilation policy and thus a societal security spiral may be set in motion. One may also talk of a societal security dilemma. This if the concern of an ethnic community only is to defend their identity within the state via cultural rights and/or autonomy and not secession. This can be interpreted by the state or majority group as a first step towards secession and therefore a threat towards not only state security, in form of violation of the territorial integrity, but also to their societal security as some members of the majority group would become a minority in a new foreign state.

In this way nationalism can function in the same way as arms in the ‘classical’ security dilemma. The emergence of an ethno-nationalist coalition coming to power is a threat to the societal security of the other ethnic groups. 

In continuation of the distinction between civic-nationalism and ethno-nationalism (section 2.1), where the first is based on institutions and the latter on culture/ethnicity you can further broaden the security discussion not only speaking of arms, territory and identity but also social and economical security.

When institutions collapse or do not fulfil people’s basic need they will look for satisfactory alternative structures to provide social and economic security. The ethnic community represents precisely such an alternative societal relationship. Security should hence not only be understood in physical/military terms or in terms of identity but also in less existentialist terms such as social and economic security, which however of cause can become a question of survival.    

[1] The role of key leaders in conflicts can pose a mayor obstacle in reaching a settlement in several ways. First of all their personal attitudes and preferences or even devotion to the cause can make them incapable of compromise. The leaders, or elites, can be so committed to the cause or the retaining of their positions that this may make a lasting solution very difficult to reach. Furthermore, the distinction between the leaders, their personalities and preferences, and the aims of the struggle can as the conflict drags on, begin to fade so that the two are seen as inseparable. The leaders can thereby be identified with the struggle itself and both the leaders and their followers will not accept any negotiated solution that would diminish the status of the wartime leadership. In some instances the struggle itself has lead leaders to power and without the struggle their power might diminish. This can also work in the opposite direction in the way that the opposing side may see the enemy leadership as the mayor obstacle to settlement and demand the removal of the opposing elite or leader as a precondition for settlement or even negotiations (King 1997, p.30-31). 

[2] In some instances post-modern wars fought with premodern weapons (Møller 1996, p.21). 

[3] In relation to the theoretical chapter on nationalism and ethnicity one might criticise Wæver for approaching a rigid understanding of these collective identities, it is however also important to acknowledge the social reality and perceptions on behalf of the ethnic groups and in a conflict situation where ones identity is threatened identity often becomes non-negotiable.  

Chapter 4