Voice

How Wars End

The shifting nature of war has made peacemaking more difficult. A new kind of back-channel diplomacy can help.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
An Indian soldier watches a British Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter at the United Nations' headquarters in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on May 9, 2000.
An Indian soldier watches a British Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter at the United Nations' headquarters in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on May 9, 2000. PETER MACDIARMID/AFP via Getty Images

Wars never fit neatly into clean templates. But we can divide them into certain categories: wars of conquest, civil wars, rebel wars, insurgency wars, religious wars. Recent history has also seen proxy wars, preventive wars, regime change wars, and the post-9/11 global war on terrorism, centered on Afghanistan and Iraq. The political philosopher Michael Walzer went one step further when he tried to determine the moral arguments behind war, dividing them into “just” and “unjust” wars—that is, wars that should be fought on humanitarian grounds and those that are not.

What is even more crucial is analyzing how wars eventually end. There are many conflicts we want to end, but the nature of war has shifted, making resolution and peacemaking more difficult. Wars can end with deep wounds that will lead to more agitation in the future, such as the Bosnian conflict. Or they can heal in a relatively peaceful way. 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 end effectively. One way is when there is a strong will to end conflicts. Another is a relatively new development in international negotiating, a mechanism known in diplomatese as “track-two diplomacy.”

One highly instructive example of using will to end a war is one that even readers of Foreign Policy might not recall. In Sierra Leone, a successful British military intervention to end a brutal war there took place in May 2000. That war was characterized by appalling human rights abuses, including amputations perpetrated on civilians, mass rape, torture, and the torching of entire villages. More than 50,000 civilians had been killed by the time British forces arrived in their former colony.

British Army Brig. David Richards—who would go on to command NATO forces in Afghanistan and become his country’s highest-ranking soldier—arrived as the capital, Freetown, was about to fall into the hands of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Without official sanction from his superiors in London, Richards prevented an all-out slaughter.

Richards would later say that he acted on a natural soldier’s reflex to protect terrified civilians. His troops secured the airport and pushed back the RUF. He created safe zones for civilians, one of the actions for which he was afterward adored by the local population, who posted signs throughout the city with the slogan “Richards for President.” Richards went into the jungle to meet with war lords, persuading them to join together to fight the RUF. He then managed to convince all parties, including the RUF, that the best outcome for everyone was an end to fighting. When the war ended, Richards and his men were put in charge of disarming the various factions and training the new Sierra Leone army.

International law, the U.N. system, and especially the U.N. Security Council often mitigate against humanitarian interventions and sustainable peace.

Richards’s successful mission—which started initially as a small reconnaissance operation sanctioned only by London with the objective of evacuating British citizens—became known as Operation Palliser. The rapid closure to that war was almost the opposite of what happened in Afghanistan, where he later commanded the international coalition.

One reason for the success of Richards’s improvised intervention in Sierra Leone was that he knew the country well. He had met with most of the significant actors on previous trips. He understood the map, the terrain, the people, the customs. More importantly, Richards was moved to help civilians. This might have been one crucial factor for his success in bringing a lasting peace to the country: His intervention took place on strictly ethical and humanitarian grounds. The ending of the war wasn’t driven by commercial or strategic reasons as the Iraq War, appeasement of the wrong parties as the Bosnian conflict, or mostly domestic political reasons as the war in Afghanistan.

Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair oversaw Operation Palliser—although Richards largely operated without permission. Later, Blair would use Sierra Leone as an example of resolving wars in a constructive way. But he’d already laid out the parameters for military intervention on humanitarian and ethical grounds in a 1999 speech in Chicago. The idea that there are humanitarian grounds that oblige the international community to intervene became known as the Blair Doctrine.

Blair has never truly been given credit for this remarkable vision of peacemaking for the international community. Instead, his legacy has been shadowed by his role in backing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where he fully supported the Bush administration’s ill-fated war.

But the more important reason that the vision of strictly humanitarian interventions never took hold was that it was mired in controversy from the start. Humanitarian interventions, because they were often unilateral as in Sierra Leone, weren’t always in compliance with international law. Indeed, the system of international law with the United Nations at its pinnacle has failed to enable humanitarian interventions to this day. Only the U.N. Security Council has the legitimacy to order an intervention—and the veto powers can usually be counted on to protect their genocidal clients.

Indeed, the nature of international law, the U.N. system, and especially the U.N. Security Council often mitigates against humanitarian interventions and sustainable peace. Andrew Gilmour, the executive director of the Berlin-based Berghof Foundation, said this is a result of what he called the veto powers’ “appalling behavior,” which “increasingly prevents agreement, including on how the U.N. itself can act in the way it was supposed to, namely preventing or ending wars.”


All these issues come to a head in Syria, where the war will eventually end and a broken country will need to be rebuilt. That murderous conflict can’t end soon enough, but how it ends is just as important as when. Can all sides be convinced that peace is in their interest? Or will they be muscled into a flawed agreement 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 sanctions be lifted to relieve a starving population—but aid a mass murderer, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

With the war ongoing and no negotiated resolution in sight, the route to sustainable peace might require examining and revising the traditional negotiating process of bringing the conflict parties and relevant outside powers together in the hope of reaching a formal agreement.

In Syria, for example, negotiations have included representatives from some of the conflict parties in addition to outside mediators—the United Nations and, lately, Russia. But this process has excluded not only key Syrian stakeholders but also nonstate actors that have a stake in the outcome and could help implement peace, such as nongovernmental organizations, religious leaders, civil society groups, and private citizens. Some conflict parties are excluded from negotiations out of principle—such as when diplomats say they will not talk to terrorists. In the case of Syria, where the opposition forces grew increasingly fractured, it would be useful to reach out to all sides.

The reason to include all these parties is that many of them—faith-based leaders, women’s groups, community activists—hold the key to the process of peacemaking. Not only do they have access to power at crucial levels. They are also the ones who will be living in the post-conflict society, not the diplomats who parachute in for a negotiating session or two.

The future of war will likely include more insurgent groups and other violent nonstate actors—and we need to be able to talk to or at least understand them.

This is where track-two diplomacy, a term coined by the U.S. diplomat Joseph Montville in 1981, comes into play. (“Track one” is the traditional negotiating process between the main conflict parties.) This kind of diplomacy, done informally, casts the net wider in the parties that are brought to the table. It is often done in secret so that all concerns can be aired. Out of the media spotlight and away from public politics, these informal talks aren’t convened by the U.N. or major powers like Russia but often by NGOs and other neutral institutions that have specialized in conflict resolution. These include Gilmour’s Berghof Foundation, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, and the European Institute of Peace in Brussels. Berghof, for example, is engaged in discreet track-two diplomacy in Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Interestingly, each of these three organizations is headed by a former senior U.N. official who has witnessed the failure of the traditional system to end conflicts from close quarters.

Randa Slim, the director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, helped facilitate such behind-the-scenes contacts in the 1990s in Tajikistan, where the government was battling an Islamist insurgency. When she began her work, it was one of the first times a post-Soviet government had talked with Islamists—without whose involvement in some form peace had little chance. Slim said the process was slow at the start and often frustrating but resulted in great progress. She and her team created the back channel that laid the groundwork for a formal, U.N.-mediated political process to be launched. The two tracks, official and unofficial, continued working in close coordination with each other, eventually resulting in a peace agreement in 1997. Slim cited these talks as a good example of what track-two diplomacy can do and how the two tracks can come together.

One question that can’t be avoided is whether or not to “talk to terrorists.” The future of war will likely include more insurgent groups and other violent nonstate actors—and we need to be able to talk to or at least understand them. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff and lead negotiator in the Good Friday peace talks that ended the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland, only succeeded because he was willing to talk to the groups involved, including representatives of the Irish Republican Army, which had been responsible for terrorist attacks in Britain. Had these talks been known to the media, there would have been a storm of outrage at the contacts, in all likelihood derailing peace. Since then, Powell has led successful track-two diplomacy efforts to end other conflicts in Colombia and elsewhere. He insists that in order to end conflicts, we must understand insurgent groups—and the only way to understand them is to meet with them.


If track-two diplomacy promises real results, why is it not used more? 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 crafting a lasting peace, not bureaucrats who just want an agreement signed. It requires trust and secrecy. It takes into consideration human rights abuses and the justice that must be dealt.

Wars do not always end with victories. They certainly end with battered countries and traumatized populations. Crafting a lasting peace requires survivors of such horror to be recognized, whether through restorative or transitional justice. The harm caused by war crimes must always be repaired. Otherwise, the roots of those wars will inevitably—and terribly—return.

Janine di Giovanni is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the winner of multiple journalism awards. Her last book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria, was translated into 28 languages. Twitter: @janinedigi