All Politics and Civil War is Local: Helmand’s Micro-Conflicts

Chris Cramer opens his excellent book on civil wars with (and takes his title from) a powerful quote from Leonardo Sciascia’s novella, Antimony. A Sicilian miner, drafted by Mussolini to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, remarks:

A civil war is not a stupid thing, like a war between nations, the Italians fighting the English, or the Germans against the Russians…a civil war is something more logical, a man starts shooting for the people and the things that he loves, for the things he wants and against the people he hates; and no one makes a mistake about choosing which side to be on…

In the latest issue of the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, I have a new article: ‘The Micro Level of Civil War: The Case of Central Helmand Province‘ (pdf). I wrote this article as a reaction against the way that civil wars and Afghanistan in particular are commonly depicted in the media, by our political leaders, and by senior military officers. The narrative of the war in Afghanistan has NATO’s International Security Assistance Force on the side of the Afghan state against the Taliban and Haqqani Network.  When I worked in Helmand as a member of a Human Terrain Team, I saw how Afghan politics – both violent and non-violent – was driven by the aggregation of what I called ‘micro-conflicts,’ – localised and enduring conflicts and rivalries.   Most were not choosing sides and fighting based on the causes of the Taliban or the government.  Rather, their primary motivations seemed to revolve around decades-old factionalism, land and water disputes, and competition over the narcotics trade.

This isn’t peculiar to Helmand or Afghanistan.  We see this now in Syria, as policymakers and intelligence analysts struggle to understand a civil war that seems to pit the ruling Alawites against a majority Sunni population. The reality, however  is far more complex and contingent on local political dynamics, which are inevitably rooted in local history.  Jon Lee Anderson’ recent New Yorker article provides an effective treatment of localism in the Syrian case.

What are the implications for those of us who study war?  As I argue in my article, civil wars are best understood by a two-fold approach that examines alterations in social relations over time.  This approach: 1) assesses local conflicts at the micro-level and understands how these aggregate into larger-scale conflict and effects; and 2) shows how macro-level political shifts destabilize existing social relations at the micro-level.  Without using both avenues of analysis, our understanding of any civil war will be incomplete.  For those of you who read Charles Tilly and Roger V. Gould, this isn’t a new construct as it applies to larger sociological and historical questions.  But, with a few exceptions, this approach hasn’t yet seeped into the study of civil wars.

Enjoy the article!

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4 thoughts on “All Politics and Civil War is Local: Helmand’s Micro-Conflicts

  1. Pingback: IB Online (2/10): eine kleine Netzschau « Bretterblog

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