Peak Insurgency

In the early 1990s, with the Cold War over and a rash of small but brutal conflicts breaking out in the Balkans and throughout Africa, it seemed the world was entering an age of irregular conflict and civil war. But, according to a new working paper by two Yale University political scientists, the truth is ...

MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images

In the early 1990s, with the Cold War over and a rash of small but brutal conflicts breaking out in the Balkans and throughout Africa, it seemed the world was entering an age of irregular conflict and civil war. But, according to a new working paper by two Yale University political scientists, the truth is just the opposite: The number of civil conflicts reached a high point in 1991 and has been dropping steadily ever since. The percentage of those conflicts that could be described as an "insurgency" -- an asymmetric conflict between a rebel group and central government -- has also dropped. So much for the "coming anarchy" that journalist Robert Kaplan predicted in 1994. Instead, the researchers declare, insurgency is "a historically contingent political phenomenon that has already peaked." The authors, Stathis N. Kalyvas and Laia Balcells, think the Cold War's dynamics benefited insurgents far more than central governments, as superpowers gave aid to rebel groups that fought as their proxies. The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that currently have Western policymakers tied up in knots are arguably throwbacks from another era. Conflict could make a comeback, but mostly as something the researchers call "symmetric non-conventional" civil war. This type of fighting, such as the ongoing chaos in Somalia, is often inaccurately described as guerrilla warfare but actually involves two sides that are evenly matched but poorly equipped. In other words: Goodbye, Baghdad; hello, Mogadishu. 

In the early 1990s, with the Cold War over and a rash of small but brutal conflicts breaking out in the Balkans and throughout Africa, it seemed the world was entering an age of irregular conflict and civil war. But, according to a new working paper by two Yale University political scientists, the truth is just the opposite: The number of civil conflicts reached a high point in 1991 and has been dropping steadily ever since. The percentage of those conflicts that could be described as an "insurgency" — an asymmetric conflict between a rebel group and central government — has also dropped. So much for the "coming anarchy" that journalist Robert Kaplan predicted in 1994. Instead, the researchers declare, insurgency is "a historically contingent political phenomenon that has already peaked." The authors, Stathis N. Kalyvas and Laia Balcells, think the Cold War’s dynamics benefited insurgents far more than central governments, as superpowers gave aid to rebel groups that fought as their proxies. The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that currently have Western policymakers tied up in knots are arguably throwbacks from another era. Conflict could make a comeback, but mostly as something the researchers call "symmetric non-conventional" civil war. This type of fighting, such as the ongoing chaos in Somalia, is often inaccurately described as guerrilla warfare but actually involves two sides that are evenly matched but poorly equipped. In other words: Goodbye, Baghdad; hello, Mogadishu. 

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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