Washington Post writer, Shankar Vedantum, reports the findings of an interesting and disheartening study about why civil wars tend to be more deadly and harder to resolve than wars between nation-states. It's not just ethnic or cultural hatred that drives such wars. According to University of California at San Diego professor Barbara Walter, civil wars rage on because of the fear that one side will gain control of the post-war government and then use it to attack the other, now disarmed, side. To wit:
The reason civil wars end up being protracted, Walter found, is that unlike wars between nations, opponents in a civil war usually have to lay down arms before peace is reached. Once they do so, they both have to trust that the newly formed government will protect them. Since that government is likely to be under the control of the stronger side, however, the weaker side is left with no recourse if its erstwhile enemy breaks the peace agreement and decides to annihilate it.
Two nations at war, by contrast, can each pull their troops behind a border after a peace accord. Nations can break peace agreements, too, but that usually only means the conflict will resume where it left off. Being fooled in wars between nations, in other words, is unpleasant, but getting suckered in a civil war can be fatal.
"The payoffs are structured in such a way that there will be great gains for the stronger side to exploit your opponent and huge costs for the weaker side for being the sucker," Walter says about civil war antagonists.
With regard to the Iraq war, Vedantum further reports:
Civil wars that end peacefully, Walter found, invariably involve a third party that can enforce the terms of a settlement—if one antagonist breaks his word, the other now has someone to turn to. Walter is not saying the United States has to be this broker. In fact, it may be ill suited to the role not only because it is a party to the current conflict, but because successful civil war brokers are usually aligned with the weaker side, which has the most to lose by laying down weapons. The U.S. invasion toppled the minority Sunnis from power, and handed over the reins of government to the majority Shiites.
"We're supporting the stronger side, which creates disincentives for that side to make any concessions," says Walter. "We are empowering the Shiites to reach for a complete, decisive victory."
This suggests that partition, after the manner of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, should be revisited as a policy option.