May 8, 2021, 7:00 a.m.
Wars never fit well in clean templates. But we can divide them into certain categories: wars of conquest, civil wars, rebel wars, wars of insurrection, wars of religion. In recent history there have also been proxy wars, preventive wars, regime change wars, and the post-9/11 global war on terrorism centered on Afghanistan and Iraq. Political philosopher Michael Walzer went a step further when he tried to determine the moral arguments behind the war and to divide them into "just" and "unjust" wars – that is, wars that should be waged for humanitarian reasons and those who are not.
Even more important is the analysis of the end of wars. There are many conflicts that we want to end, but the nature of war has changed, making resolution and peacemaking difficult. Wars can end with deep wounds that will lead to more excitement in the future, such as the Bosnian conflict. Or they can heal relatively peacefully. With a fading war in Syria and an uncertain future for Afghanistan, as well as ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Sahel, Libya, Venezuela and elsewhere, it makes sense to take a closer look at how wars can effectively end. One way is when there is a strong will to end conflict. Another is a relatively recent development in international negotiation, a mechanism known in diplomacy as "track two diplomacy".
An extremely instructive example of the use of will to end a war is one that even foreign policy readers may not remember. A successful British military intervention to end a brutal war took place in Sierra Leone in May 2000. This war was marked by appalling human rights violations, including amputations of civilians, mass rape, torture and torching entire villages. By the time the British forces arrived in their former colony, more than 50,000 civilians had been killed.
British Army Brig. David Richards, who later commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan and became the highest-ranking soldier in his country, arrived when the capital Freetown was about to fall into the hands of the United Revolutionary Front (RUF). Without the official approval of his superiors in London, Richards prevented a widespread carnage.
Richards would later say that he was responding to a natural soldier's reflex to protect frightened civilians. His troops secured the airport and pushed the RUF back. He created safe zones for civilians, one of the actions for which he was later worshiped by the local population, who posted signs across town with the slogan "Richards for President". Richards went to the jungle to meet with warlords and persuaded them to band together to fight the RUF. Then he managed to convince all parties, including the RUF, that the best outcome for all was an end to the fight. When the war ended, Richards and his men were tasked with disarming the various factions and training the new army in Sierra Leone.
Richards' successful mission, which originally began as a small reconnaissance operation approved only by London with the aim of evacuating British citizens, came to be known as Operation Palliser. The swift end to this war was almost the opposite of what happened in Afghanistan, where he later commanded the international coalition.
One reason Richard's improvised intervention was so successful in Sierra Leone was that he knew the country well. He had met most of the great actors on previous trips. He understood the map, the terrain, the people, the customs. More importantly, Richards was moved to help civilians. This may have been a crucial factor in his success in building a lasting peace in the country: his intervention was made for strictly ethical and humanitarian reasons. The end of the war was not due to commercial or strategic reasons such as the Iraq war, appeasing the wrong parties as the Bosnian conflict, or mostly domestic political reasons such as the war in Afghanistan.
The British Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, oversaw Operation Palliser – although Richards operated largely without permission. Blair would later use Sierra Leone as an example of a constructive solution to wars. However, he had already set out the parameters for a military intervention for humanitarian and ethical reasons in a 1999 speech in Chicago. The idea that there are humanitarian reasons compelling the international community to intervene came to be known as the Blair Doctrine.
Blair has never really been credited with this remarkable vision of peacemaking for the international community. Instead, his legacy was shadowed by his role in assisting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where he fully supported the Bush administration's ill-fated war.
The more important reason the vision of strictly humanitarian intervention never caught on was that it was controversial from the start. Humanitarian interventions, as they were often one-sided, as in Sierra Leone, were not always in line with international law. Indeed, the system of international law with the United Nations, at its peak, has not allowed humanitarian interventions to date. Only the United States Security Council has the legitimacy to order intervention – and the veto rights can usually be used to protect their genocidal clients.
Indeed, the nature of international law, the United States system, and especially the United States Security Council, often work against humanitarian intervention and sustainable peace. Andrew Gilmour, the executive director of Berlin's Berghof Foundation, said this was a result of what he described as "appalling behavior" by the veto powers, which "is increasingly preventing an agreement, including on how the United Nations itself should act." , namely preventing or ending wars. "
All of these problems are coming to a head in Syria, where the war will eventually end and a broken country will have to be rebuilt. This grueling conflict cannot end soon enough, but how it ends is as important as when. Can all sides be convinced that peace is in their interests? Or are they being forced into a flawed arrangement that keeps the bitter past alive and festering? With half a million Syrians dead and millions of refugees, will there be any kind of transitional justice? Will the sanctions be lifted to relieve a starving population – but to help a mass murderer, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
With the war going on and with no negotiated solution in sight, the path to sustainable peace may require a review and revision of the traditional negotiation process, which brings together the parties to the conflict and relevant external powers to reach a formal agreement.
In Syria, for example, in addition to external mediators – the United Nations and, more recently, Russia – representatives of some conflicting parties were also negotiated. However, this process has not only excluded key Syrian actors, but also non-state actors who are involved in the outcome and could contribute to the implementation of the peace, such as non-governmental organizations, religious leaders, civil society groups and individuals. Some conflicting parties are excluded from negotiations on principle – for example when diplomats say that they will not speak to terrorists. In the case of Syria, where opposition forces have been increasingly broken, it would be useful to reach out to all sides.
The reason for all of these parties to be involved is that many of them – faith-based leaders, women's groups, community activists – hold the key to the peacemaking process. You don't just have access to critical levels of power. They are also the ones who will live in the post-conflict society, not the diplomats who parachute in for a round or two of negotiations.
This is where track two diplomacy comes into play, a term coined by US diplomat Joseph Montville in 1981. (“Track One” is the traditional negotiation process between the main conflicting parties.) This type of informal diplomacy expands the network of parties that are brought to the table. It is often done in secret so that any concerns can be raised. Outside the media limelight and beyond public policy, these informal talks are not convened by the United States or major powers like Russia, but often by NGOs and other neutral institutions specializing in conflict resolution. These include the Gilmour Berghof Foundation, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva and the European Peace Institute in Brussels. Berghof, for example, conducts discreet diplomacy in Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan. Interestingly, each of these three organizations is headed by a former senior US official who witnessed the failure of the traditional system to end conflict at close range.
Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution Program and Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute in Washington, helped facilitate such contacts behind the scenes in Tajikistan in the 1990s, where the government was fighting an Islamist uprising. When she began her work, it was one of the first times that a post-Soviet government spoke to Islamists – without their participation in some form of peace little chance would stand. Slim said the process was slow and often frustrating to begin with, but has resulted in great progress. She and her team created the back channel that laid the foundation for a formal US-mediated political process. The two tracks, official and unofficial, continued to work closely together, which eventually led to a peace agreement in 1997. Slim cited these conversations as a good example of what track two diplomacy can do and how the two tracks can come together.
One question that cannot be avoided is whether or not to "speak to terrorists". The future of the war is likely to involve more insurgent groups and other violent non-state actors – and we need to be able to speak to them, or at least understand them. Jonathan Powell, Blair's former chief of staff and negotiator in the Good Friday peace talks that ended decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, was only successful because he was willing to speak to the groups involved, including representatives of the Irish Republican Army, for terrorist attacks in Britain responsible. Had these conversations been known to the media, there would have been a storm of indignation among the contacts that in all likelihood derailed peace. Since then, Powell has led successful diplomatic efforts to pursue other conflicts in Colombia and elsewhere. He insists that in order to end conflict we need to understand insurgent groups – and the only way to understand them is to meet with them.
If second track diplomacy promises real results, why is it no longer being used? According to my conversations with negotiators working on back-channel talks in Yemen, Libya and Syria, one of the answers is that it takes time. It requires more dialogue and mediation than traditional peacemaking. It requires experts who know the country well and are committed to lasting peace, not bureaucrats who just want an agreement to be signed. It requires trust and secrecy. It takes into account human rights violations and the justice that needs to be addressed.
Wars don't always end in victories. You certainly end up with abused countries and traumatized populations. To create lasting peace, survivors of such horrors must be recognized, whether through restorative or temporary justice. The damage caused by war crimes must always be repaired. Otherwise, the roots of these wars will inevitably – and terribly – return.