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Think tanks

Targeting hearts and minds

by Will Swanson
Relying on traditional military concepts in pursuit of peace has led to the perpetuation – and even exacerbation – of conflict. A better awareness of the nature of contemporary warfare may result in more effective strategies for achieving lasting peace, German scholars argue.

Ceasefire agreements in places like the Middle East, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Afghanistan are often just temporary lulls between storms of violence. As political scientist Jochen Hippler writes: “A mere reduction in violence does not necessarily signal the end of a war. In the course of a conflict, the degree of violence often fluctuates or comes in cycles.” In order to be significant, peace must last.

Achieving such lasting peace is the focus of Friedensgutachten 2009 (“peace survey 2009”), an annual publication by five German think tanks. The contributors take a deliberate step back from the headlines in order to consider issues long-term. Based on historical analysis, they offer strategies for achieving lasting peace in chronically war-torn regions.

Hippler’s opening contribution lays the conceptual ground for the region-specific analyses that follow. Tracing the mutation of warfare from the “classic” conflicts that predate the French Revolution to today’s “unconventional” wars, he argues that, in order to be effective, strategies for peace must change along with war. Today’s unconventional wars occur primarily within a single society – typically as a result of an insurrection or of the general lawlessness typical of “failed states”. A better understanding of the nature of these conflicts would result in a less militaristic approach to their resolution.

Classic wars resemble games of chess: two clearly defined and hierarchically organised parties engaged in conflicts beginning with a formal declaration and ending with a formal treaty. Victory and defeat were decided on the battlefield. Participation of the people was limited to powerless spectatorship and mute suffering. In the words of war theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “In the 18th century, war was still strictly an affair of the Cabinet; the public took part only as a blind instrument.”

Things changed with the French Revolution and the introduction of drafting men into the army during the Napoleonic Wars. The general populace now assumed an active, participatory role in warfare. Such public ownership transferred the power to decide victory and defeat away from generals on the battlefield. As the resilience of Hamas in the Gaza Strip shows, military defeat is no longer sufficient to end a war. Instead, as set down in the US Army and US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Handbook: “The decisive battle is for the people’s minds.”

In today’s insurrectionary movements, military efforts have a primarily tactical significance. They play a supporting role in a movement’s general struggle for legitimacy. Similarly, the civil wars that ravage failed states are often part of a general struggle for popular acceptance of a monopoly on the use of force, a prerequisite of sovereignty. The overarching goal in both cases is the achievement of a desired political reality; military campaigns remain subordinate to that goal. Consequently, effective strategies for lasting peace would also centre on the attainment of a desired political reality – namely, legitimate and effective governance structures.

Nevertheless, according to Hippler, the traditional military mindset continues to dominate counterinsurgency and peacekeeping efforts: “Conventionally trained military officers and many civilian politicians are inclined to bank on conventional military superiority, considering it the most important tool for success in warfare.” In this respect, argue Michael Brzoska and Hans-Georg Ehrhart, US President Barack Obama’s revised Afghanistan strategy, with its greater focus on development efforts than that of his predecessor, is an improvement, but it still subordinates development efforts to the conventional goal of victory in military terms over al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Will Swanson