New wars – Counter-insurgency or human security

Peace & Security28 May 2009Mary Kaldor

Contemporary conflicts are very different from the conflicts of the twentieth century like the two world wars and the Cold War. Yet it has taken a long time for policy makers to realize that these ‘new wars’ require a different policy approach. Even in the case of US policies, a form of new thinking has emerged in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Petraeus doctrine, which gives priority to ‘population security’, is not the same as the human security approach that is emerging in Canada, Japan and the EU. Old wars, or counter-insurgency concepts, still prevail in Afghanistan, and, more recently, in Pakistan.

The ‘new war’ literature can broadly be said to draw on three disparate sources. One group of researchers, including John Keegan and Martin Van Creveld, from within the tradition of strategic studies, have been preoccupied with the decline of what they call ‘Clausewitzean war’ – classic wars fought between states in which battle was the decisive encounter. A second group, including Mark Duffield, David Keen and Alex de Waal, who are closer to the fields of development studies and anthropology, were greatly influenced by the wars in Africa over the last two decades and, in particular, the importance of private militias or warlords and economic agendas. And a third is a group of political scientists, including Donald Snow and David Horowitz, who emphasized the rise of ethnic conflict.

The ‘new wars’ thesis

My own work draws inspiration from all three bodies of thought. I used the term ‘new wars’ partly to draw attention to the need for new approaches in addressing contemporary conflicts, and partly because I was dissatisfied with other terms that have been proposed. One common proposition is that ‘new wars’ are civil wars or intrastate wars. It is widely asserted that, while interstate wars have declined, intrastate wars have increased. However, outside actors, including states, are involved in the ‘new wars’, which are both global and local. Indeed, the difference between what is external and what is internal begins to break down in ‘new wars’. Another favourite term is privatized war. But although it is true that non-state actors are an important part of the landscape of new wars, as are economic motivations, ‘new wars’ also involve states or parts of states. As with civil wars, it is the distinction between what is public and what is private that is breaking down. Yet another term is post-modern war, which has a certain intellectual attraction because it can be argued that these are the wars that come after modernity, but I felt the term ‘post-modern’ would have less traction with practitioners and would require considerable explanation. Finally a more recent and equally applicable term is ‘hybrid war’, which draws attention to the complex combination of the local and global, traditional and modern, state and non-state, terrorist and guerrilla, and the criminal and ideological.

My central point is that these are the types of wars that are characteristic of today’s global times. These wars have something to do with the impact of globalization on formerly authoritarian regimes. They are wars that are the consequence and cause of what today are variously called ‘weak’, ‘fragile’, ‘failed’, ‘failing’ or ‘collapsing’ states, where the binary distinctions characteristic of the modern state – between internal and external, civil and international, public and private, civilian and combatant, political and economic, and even war and peace – are breaking down. Even the term ‘war’ is perhaps problematic because, as I argue, these wars are a mixture of war (political conflict), human rights violations (political repression) and crime (economically motivated violence).

No Clausewitzean wars

I argue that new wars differ from ‘old wars’ in the nature of the warring parties, the political goals, the methods of warfare and how the wars are financed. By ‘old wars’ I mean what Keegan and Van Creveld describe as Clausewitzean wars – wars between states where the warring parties are armies, the goals are geopolitical, the main method is the military capture of territory through battle, and the wars are financed through increased taxation and the mobilization of a centralized self-sufficient war economy.

By contrast, in ‘new wars’ the warring parties are networks of state and non-state actors organized in loose horizontal coalitions rather than hierarchical military organizations. These can include regular armies and police or parts of the state security services, party militias, warlords, bandits, mercenaries, private security companies, insurgents, self-defence groups and so on. The political goals are largely about identity politics – that is to say, the claim to access to power and to the state apparatus on the basis of a label, be it ethnic, tribal or religious (Serb versus Croat, Sunni versus Shi’ia, Hutu versus Tutsi) as opposed to geopolitical (control of the seas or access to oil) or ideological (to promote socialism or democracy).

In ‘new wars’ battles are rare, and most violence is directed against civilians. This can be deliberate, as in wars of ethnic cleansing (Bosnia and Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh and Baghdad) or in genocides (Rwanda and now Darfur), or because it is impossible to distinguish combatants from non-combatants (as in counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Kashmir). For this reason, the techniques of ‘new wars’ directly violate international humanitarian and human rights law. And finally, in ‘new wars’ taxation falls, and the wars have to be financed by a variety of methods that are dependent on violence. These include looting and pillaging, kidnapping and hostage-taking, skewing the terms of trade through checkpoints, the ‘taxation’ of humanitarian aid, outside support from the diaspora, smuggling of valuable commodities such as oil and diamonds, and other transnational criminal activities. Whereas ‘old wars’ were state-building, increasing the revenue base and the power of the state, ‘new wars’ are ‘state-unbuilding’. They establish a ‘new war’ economy that is exactly the opposite of the ‘old war’ economy – one that is globalized, decentralized, criminalized and in which employment is very low.

These four characteristics, I argued, meant that, in contrast to ‘old wars’, which often had decisive endings, ‘new wars’ are very difficult to end. The warring parties share a mutual interest in the enterprise of war, either for political reasons or because violence helps to solidify the polarization of identity by spreading fear and hate; or for economic reasons, because their sources of finance depend on violence. Moreover, the various parties to the conflict emerge from it stronger than before. Some scholars suggest that the motivation for ‘new wars’ is economic. But my own view is that it is difficult to distinguish between those who engage in criminal activities to raise money for their political causes and those who use a political cause as a cover for their criminal activities.

The ‘new wars’ are also very difficult to contain. They spread through refugees and displaced persons, through the virus of identity politics and through the transnational criminal links established during the conflict. This is why we observe regional clusters of war, such as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, the Balkans or the Caucasus, Central Asia, Central and East Africa.


The ‘new wars’ thesis attracted a number of critiques. Perhaps the most persistent criticism was that new wars are not new and that the ‘new wars’ literature lacks a historical perspective. Most of the characteristics of new wars (banditry, population displacement, rape and other human rights violations) were present in earlier wars. The dominance of the Cold War, it was argued, masked the continuing prevalence of ‘small wars’ or ‘low-intensity wars’, which were much the same as ‘new wars’. While much of the historical argument relied on anecdotal evidence, there were also some statistical critiques that suggested that although ‘old war’ definitely is declining, there is no evidence of an increase in ‘new wars’. On the contrary, since the end of the 1990s, there has been a decline in all types of conflict and in the number of people killed in battle. There is some dispute about whether the ratio of civilian to military casualties is increasing, because civilian casualty statistics are notoriously poor. But it is grudgingly conceded that the level of population displacement per conflict is increasing, although the overall level is decreasing along with the decline in conflicts.

Of course, it is true that many of the characteristics of ‘new wars’ can be found in earlier wars, especially wars that took place outside Europe during colonial times and during the Cold War. But what the historical criticism misses is that my aim was to change the way policy makers and policy shapers perceive these conflicts. The dominant understandings of these conflicts among Western policy makers were of two kinds. On the one hand, there was and still is a tendency to impose a stereotypical version of war, based on an ‘old war’ conception of war. In such wars, the resolution is either through negotiation or victory by one side, and outside intervention takes the form of either traditional peacekeeping – in which the peacekeepers are supposed to guarantee a negotiated agreement and the ruling principles are consent, neutrality and impartiality – or traditional war-fighting on one side or the other, as in Korea or the Gulf War. On the other hand, where policy makers recognized the shortcomings of the stereotypical conception of war, there was a tendency to treat the wars as anarchy, barbarism or ancient rivalries, where the best policy response was containment – protecting the borders of the West from the malady. I wanted to demonstrate that neither of these approaches was appropriate, that these were wars with their own logic, but a logic that was different from ‘old wars’ and which, therefore, dictated a very different policy response.

Nevertheless, I do think that the ‘new wars’ argument does reflect a new reality – one that was emerging before the end of the Cold War. This reality has to do with the huge destructiveness of all types of military technology and the difficulty of fighting what the US calls ‘symmetric war’; the dramatic transformation in communications, which has affected all aspects of war (identity politics, network forms of organization, methods of warfare and the use of conspicuous atrocity, as well as criminal techniques); and the way all these phenomena come together in what we call globalization and its impact on the nature of the state.

The historical and statistical evidence does not actually refute this argument. My thesis never implied that new wars were necessarily increasing. The decline in battle deaths supports the argument. My thesis also implies that overall casualties per conflict are decreasing, because ‘new wars’ are much less intense than ‘old wars’, though more pervasive and longer lasting. On the other hand, the ‘new war’ argument does suggest that the ratio of civilian to military deaths is increasing, although it is often difficult to distinguish between military and civilian deaths, and civilian deaths are inadequately counted. The statistics on population displacement are probably the most significant indicators of the pattern of violence in ‘new wars’, and these support the argument. A typical technique in new wars is to carry out terroristic or conspicuous atrocities against a small group and magnify their effect through the reach of communications so that others will flee in fear and panic.

Long wars

A second set of criticisms focused on the claim that ‘new wars’ are post-Clausewitzean. This criticism came from scholars of Carl von Clausewitz who wanted to claim the continuing relevance of Clausewitz’s masterpiece, On War. Keegan and Van Creveld had suggested that contemporary wars were no longer Clausewitzean because they are not fought by states, while Donald Snow suggests that ‘new wars’ are not rational. The defenders of Clausewitz argue that Clausewitzean wars do not necessarily have to be fought by states, and that ‘new wars’ are rational in the sense of instrumental rationality. Thus ethnic cleansing is a rational way to win elections on the basis of ethnicity. But it is not reasonable because reason implies a certain element of morality.

I agree with this criticism, but I think that new wars are post-Clausewitzean for another reason. The essence of Clausewitz’s thinking was his theory that war tends to go to the extreme and this he derives logically from his definition of war as ‘an act of violence intended to compel an opponent to fulfil our will’. This is what I believe has changed. The huge destructiveness of all military technology makes what economist Thomas Schelling called ‘compellance’ very difficult nowadays. For Clausewitz, battle was the centrepiece, the decisive moment in war, and he compared battle to the act of exchange in economics. In ‘new wars’, battles are very rare; new wars, as I argue, are better understood as a mutual enterprise in which both warring parties gain rather than an attempt by one side to impose its will on the other. The logical outcome of this definition of war is not extreme war but long war.

I have come to the view that this is the essential difference between ‘new’ and ‘old’ wars. Of course, the different definitions are about motivations, which is very difficult to establish empirically. The point is rather what understanding of war seems to fit reality better, and therefore gives us a better guide to policy. Thus Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush describe Global Jihad and the War on Terror in ‘old war’ terms in which each side tries to defeat the other. This is, of course, a recipe for a long war without a decisive ending. But if we think of the War on Terror from a ‘new war’ perspective, as a mutual enterprise in which American military industrial elements justify their actions in terms of the threat of Al Qaeda, which, in turn, legitimizes itself in terms of American attacks, then it is possible to develop an alternative approach.

Finally, an important set of criticisms largely from the policy-making community is that ‘old wars’ are still important and may be even more so in the future. For many observers, the events of 9/11 seemed to suggest a return to sovereignty. The War on Terror represented an ‘old war’ response to what was perceived as an attack on the US. Moreover, the military power of China and Russia and new concerns about energy security suggest that geopolitics is still important. The US military often singles out China as a potential peer competitor, and it is often said that we may see the return of interstate war in the future. These arguments are used to explain why is it important to continue to acquire sophisticated weapons systems and why the US has to maintain its military pre-eminence.

To this set of criticisms, I have two answers. There is indeed no guarantee that ‘old wars’ will not be repeated but, given the immense destructiveness of such wars, which could nowadays literally kill the planet, they have to be avoided at all costs. The prohibition against war in the UN Charter has to be continually reinforced, and all efforts have to be made to manage geopolitical competition peacefully. However, preparing for such wars could make them more likely; this is why multilateral agreements of all kinds, including disarmament and arms control, are so important.

In addition, ‘old war’ thinking in ‘new war’ situations simply makes them worse. This is what happened with the War on Terror. The attacks of 9/11 can be viewed as an extreme variant of ‘new war’ types of violence. George W. Bush responded in Afghanistan and Iraq as though the US had been attacked by a foreign state. The effect on what were very weak states was to stimulate new wars. In the second edition of my book, New and Old Wars, I have added a chapter on Iraq showing how the effort to impose an ‘old war’ model led to a new war, both by contributing to ethnic and religious polarization and by speeding up the dismantling of the state and the legitimate economy. A similar argument could be applied to the Russian intervention in South Ossetia and Georgia in the summer of 2008.


The implication of ‘new war’ thinking is that a new way of addressing contemporary conflicts is needed. In my book, I argue for a cosmopolitan approach to ‘new wars’, which would make individual rights and the rule of law the centrepiece of any outside intervention. I argue for the establishment of legitimate political authority in place of weak states, based on an inclusive ideology open to global engagement, building on what I call ‘islands of civility’. I also argue for a new kind of peacekeeping that is more like human rights enforcement than either war-fighting or traditional peacekeeping; and for a new approach to reconstruction that directly addresses the illicit ‘new war’ economy and focuses on legitimate ways of making a living.

This is a very ambitious agenda. A focus on individual rights would mean a much greater commitment to implement international law. It would mean serious efforts to protect civilians who face large-scale human rights violations and to arrest those who violate these rights. This would mean a new kind of peacekeeping that is neither war-fighting (defeating enemies) nor peacekeeping (separating sides and maintaining ceasefires). It would be more like policing, but more robust because it would have to protect people directly and to arrest those who threaten stability. Perhaps the nearest example of what I am talking about is the role of the British armed forces in support of the police in Northern Ireland after 1974. It would involve not just soldiers, but a mixture of military, police and civilians, and it would mean a much greater global commitment to this kind of operation.

Moreover, this kind of human rights enforcement needs to be backed by legal institutions, both domestically and internationally. At present, the International Criminal Court is at risk of being discredited, both because it lacks the capacity to arrest those it indicts or to undertake sufficient investigations, and because it can easily be seen as biased. In the end, it is local institutions that have to enforce human rights, and that is why the construction of legitimate political authority is so important. It involves much more than simply trying to establish a functioning state apparatus. It is about the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, and must involve an intensive process of dialogue and reconciliation. In places such as Sudan, Serbia or Iraq it may mean regime change, but through a bottom-up process rather than through military action. The most that military action can do is to create stability, to create space in which a political process can be established.

This kind of approach also implies a different economic approach. Current high levels of humanitarian assistance are not only an expression of the failures of economic development, but also contribute to the problem by providing a source of funding for the warring parties. Young men, in most war zones, have little choice but to join a criminal gang or paramilitary group as a way to survive. In Iraq, official studies of insurgents show that most low-level insurgents depend on the income they earn through fighting. That is why a focus on jobs through public works or the reconstruction of infrastructure is so important.

In recent years I have used the term ‘human security’ in a series of reports written by the Human Security Study Group, which I convene and which reports to Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Our version of human security, which is a little different from the way it is used by the United Nations or in Canadian and Japanese discourse, has, to some extent, found its way into official EU documents. I do not want to suggest that the European Security and Defence Policy was directly influenced by the ‘new war’ literature. Rather, practitioners were influenced by their practical experience, especially in the Balkans, the South Caucasus and Africa. The ‘new war’ literature offers a language and a way of framing these new approaches.

‘New thinking’ in the US was similarly influenced by the direct experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. US General David Petraeus had always been part of the ‘small wars’ thinkers – a minority in the US Army and Marines. The ‘new thinking’ bubbled up from a number of officers who had been active on the ground in these wars but it was Petraeus who made it mainstream in the surge in Iraq and subsequently in Afghanistan. As in Europe, the new thinkers turned to the ‘new wars’ literature in order to frame their new approaches. However, ‘new thinking’ in the US is not quite the same as human security thinking in the EU. The US insists that their new approach is counter-insurgency. While counter-terrorism means ‘killing enemies’, counter-insurgency, they say, means ‘population security.’ The implication is that the goal is still to defeat the enemies of the US, and that ‘population security’ is a means to that end rather than an end in itself. In this sense, there is still a significant streak of ‘old war’ thinking – something that Petraeus himself readily admits.

A cosmopolitan or human security approach that follows from a ‘new war’ analysis would put population security first, because it would treat Afghans or Iraqis as human beings and not as enemy civilians. It might be necessary to defeat attackers (or better still to arrest them) in order to provide human security. But the priority is stopping violence rather than winning. ‘New wars’ are illegitimate and so they have to be ended. Counter-insurgency implies the possibility of ending a war through victory, although in a new war context, this will merely lead to a longer war.

The war in Afghanistan offers a good example of how a human security approach might work. Human security is different from counter-insurgency, both rhetorically and, in practice. US President Barack Obama is urging the European allies to make a greater commitment to Afghanistan on the grounds that Al Qaeda is a greater threat to Europe than to the US. The problem is that European fear that the war against Al Qaeda is making the threat more likely. Every successful strike against Al Qaeda results in new recruits. If Obama called on European allies to make a greater commitment to Afghanistan because we have a responsibility to the Afghan people to help stabilize Afghanistan and protect ordinary people, his pleas might be more convincing. This is not just about narrative.

There is a fundamental difference between counter-insurgency where population security and reconstruction are a means to an end (defeating Al Qaeda) and a human security strategy where the military is used together with other instruments to keep people safe. A human security approach would put the emphasis on Afghan security and thus would rule out strikes against insurgents that cause so-called collateral damage. It would mean focusing on local security, local governance and the rule of law. It would mean rebuilding legitimate political authority in Afghanistan from the bottom up and rebuilding a legitimate economy by finding alternatives to illicit opium production either through legalization or through alternative livelihoods.

There is a real risk at present that the predator strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, touted as hugely successful by the Americans, could result in the destabilization of Pakistan. That would mean a long war and an increase in terrorism. Europeans should agree to a greater commitment only if there is a genuine change of strategy towards a human security approach.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. Keegan, J. (1993) A History of Warfare. Hutchinson; Van Creveld, M. (1991) The Transformation of War. Macmillan.
  2. Keegan, J. (1993) A History of Warfare. Hutchinson; Van Creveld, M. (1991) The Transformation of War. Macmillan.
  3. Human Security Centre (2005). Human Security Report: War and Peace in the 21st Century. Vancouver: Human Security Centre.
  4. Eppler, E. (2002) Vom Gewaltmonopol zum Gewaltmarkt? (From the Monopoly of Violence to the Market of Violence?). Suhrkamp.
  5. Coker, C. (2001) Humane Warfare. Routledge.
  6. Keen, D. (1998) The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars. Adelphi Paper 320. Oxford University Press; Berdal, M. and Malone, D.M. (eds) (2000) Greed and Grievance. Lynne Rienner; Reno, W. (2000) Shadow states and the political economy of civil wars, in B. Mats and D.M. Malone (eds) Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars. Lynne Rienner.
  7. Newman, E. (2004) The ‘New Wars’ debate: A Historical Perspective Is Needed. Security Dialogue, 35(2): 173–189; Kalyvas, S.N. (2001) ‘New’ and ‘old’ civil wars: A valid distinction? World Politics, 54: 99–118; Henderson, E.A. and Singer, D. (2002) ‘New wars’ and rumours of ‘new wars’. International Interaction, 28(2).
  8. Human Security Centre (2005). Human Security Report: War and Peace in the 21st Century. Vancouver: Human Security Centre.
  9. Smith, M.L.R. (2003) Guerrillas in the mist: Reassessing strategy and low intensity warfare. Review of International Studies. 29: 19–37.
  10. Kagan, R. (2008) The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Atlantic Books.
  11. Kaldor, M. (1999) New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era. Stanford University Press (second edition, with a new foreword, published in 2001).
  13. Kuhne, H. (2008) European Parliament Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy and ESDP (2008/2003(INI), Committee on Foreign Affairs, A6-0186/2008; European Union (2008) Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy – Providing Security in a Changing World. S407/08.
  15. Sambanis, N. (2004) What is civil war? Conceptual and empirical complexities of an operational definition. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 48: 814–58.
  16. Collier, P. (2007) The Bottom Billion. Oxford University Press.