The Forever Wars: Author David Keen discusses how global conflicts are deliberately sustained

David Keen

David Keen

David Keen is the author of the controversial new book Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important Than Winning Them. Here he discusses conflicts in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and investigates the way these conflicts are wilfully sustained and the methods used to perpetuate them.

Article by David Keen

My book Useful Enemies is really an exploration of the nature of war, and some of its origins lie in an investigation I conducted in the late 1980s into a human-made famine in central-southern Sudan – an area suffering at the time from a bitter civil war and still subject to violence and famine today.

The famine in 1988 saw some of the highest mortality rates ever recorded, and had a number of additional characteristics that were profoundly disturbing. First of all, it was driven by government-supported militias who were being used by Khartoum to conduct a cheap counter-insurgency operation (against the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army) whilst also avoiding the necessity of a politically-unpopular draft. It was a tactic that has been repeated several times since then – not least in Darfur.

Second, the famine areas correlated significantly with those areas that were richest in oil. Famine represented a way of depopulating resource rich areas so that the Khartoum government, weighed down by international debts that reflected in part the surging price of oil in the 1970s, could gain forcible access to this oil even in the face of rebel opposition.

Third, the price movements that surrounded – and helped to create – the famine were also yielding beneficiaries. Army officers and merchants were colluding to restrict flows of grain to the south, sometimes bribing railway workers so that they would not deliver this aid. Meanwhile, the officers and traders were involved in selling overpriced commercial grain in famine-stricken towns and in prioritising the delivery of military supplies on what were supposed to be ‘relief’ trains. Meanwhile, livestock traders – some of them involved in funding the militia - were buying Dinka cattle at drastically reduced prices; and the labour of captured Dinka was also sometimes available for free – effectively a re-birth of slavery.

A fourth notable and disturbing aspect of the crisis was that the militia raiding was often directed against areas that had little or no connection to the rebel SPLA (but nevertheless significant resources, whether cattle, grazing land or oil). These raids tended to be militarily counterproductive insofar as they created rebel recruits, but the raids nevertheless served important economic functions. Even the expansion of the SPLA may have conferred some surprising benefits, since it provided a growing pretext for this exploitative economic system.

Finally, the international community was afflicted by damaging ‘blind spots’. One was the Cold War lens that posited Khartoum as an ally and the rebels as ‘Communist’. Another was the prevailing technical approach to relief – essentially a matter of counting numbers of ‘needy’ and numbers of displaced people, dispatching an equivalent amount of food to the general area, and hoping that they would receive it. In circumstances where famine was being artificially and intentionally fostered by the government, this strategy was not only doomed to failure; it also ended up playing into the government’s hands – particularly when relief was effectively positioned right on the edge of the zone that Khartoum wished to depopulate. Meanwhile, even a failed relief operation, I came to realise, could be made to look like a success – for example, by covering up information on relief diversion or by presenting the non-arrival of relief as a successful attempt to prevent ‘dependency’!

My interest in the paradoxical nature of modern war – and the proliferation of goals other than winning - was further stimulated by research in Sierra Leone at the height of the civil war there (in 1995) and again when the situation was calming down (in 2001). The Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone had been widely – and rightly – condemned for their brutality against civilians, which included amputations and rape. But what most actors – including the major ‘players’ in the international community – seemed to be missing was just how pervasive was the complicity of a variety of powerful actors in the rebellion that they claimed to be opposing or suppressing.

One element of this complicity was when politicians from the ousted single party regime (the All People’s Congress) gave covert support to the rebels. Another was when families aspiring to the post of village chief supported rebels that were attacking their local rivals. A third element (and the most significant) was when government soldiers - generally poorly trained, poorly paid and poorly equipped - were drawn into a strange kind of symbiotic relationship with the rebels that included selling weapons to rebels in exchange for diamonds. Government soldiers would also engage in attacks on civilians (sometimes dressed as rebels with red bandanas) and they frequently proved more interested in taxing agricultural produce and in diamond mining than in confronting the elusive rebels. Battles were rare, and ‘both sides’ engaged in widespread attacks on civilians that predictably attracted support for ‘the other side’. At the same time, a climate of violence to which many government soldiers were contributing helped to legitimise the troops’ lucrative presence in resource-rich areas. Meanwhile, siphoning off international aid also became a significant part of this exploitative economic system.

SPLA fighters posing with a downed fighter jet

SPLA fighters posing with a downed fighter jet

A psychological element to the war also began to suggest itself. By talking with civilians, ex-rebels or ‘rogue’ government soldiers, I got a sense of how their self-righteousness and of how the violence of fighters on ‘both sides’ had been intensified when these fighters – particularly some government soldiers who had started with good intentions - were subjected to blanket criticism by civilians (who were increasingly arming themselves in opposition to the army and the rebels). In his book Violence: Reflections on Our Deadliest Epidemic, psychiatrist and prison reformer James Gilligan draws on his interactions with violent criminals in the US and observers that nearly all of them were using violence in response to a perceived threat of humiliation or shame. Exploitation in Sierra Leone generated a threat of shame, which tended to redouble the violence.

Meanwhile, even the civil defence fighters, nurtured as a valuable counter to the ‘twin threat’ of rebels and government soldiers, were sometimes sucked into this whirlpool of abuse. So too were many West African peacekeepers, sent by countries such as Nigeria in an attempt to restore some kind of order. Civilians began to recount how the lure of diamonds was encouraging both the civil defence and the West African peacekeepers to ‘take their eye off the ball’; meanwhile, a gathering chorus of civilian criticism was helping to harden the hearts of even those civil defence members and international peacekeeperes who had initially been well intentioned.

Within and beyond Sierra Leone, the dangers in assuming that war is ‘all about winning’ seemed to me to be more and more pressing. It became more clear to me that the aim in a war may not be to win so much as to maintain a state of emergency in which the pursuit of economic exploitation and political repression can take place with a high degree of impunity. In that sense, the enemy may be profoundly useful – and the incentive to eliminate the enemy may be surprisingly weak. Meanwhile, tactics that predictably create new enemies (like attacking civilians) become more explicable. Rather than dismissing them as ‘irrational’ or as ‘mistakes’, it may be possible to explain them.

If war has important political and economic functions, these are likely to spill over into peacetime. This became especially clear to me during a research visit to Guatemala in 2003. Strictly speaking, the country’s long civil war was over. But various actors associated with the counterinsurgency – especially the military and a number of retired Generals – found cover for repression and renewed exploitation under the cover of a ‘war on crime’ and a ‘war on drugs’. When you take seriously the many functions of war (rather than assuming that the only aim is to win), the boundaries between war and peace begin to blur.

Information coming out of diverse crises around the world – from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Afghanistan, for example - was making it increasingly obvious that many local actors have benefited from the impunity provided by a publicly (and often internationally-backed) war against this or that ‘demon’ enemy. Such enemies included the militias linked to the Rwandan genocide (the demon enemy in DRC), the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in Uganda, and the Taliban rebels in Afghanistan.

In the DRC, the major role of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments in fuelling conflict (a conflict that killed perhaps 5.5 million people in the decade from 1998) was obscured by an international focus on reviving post-genocide Rwanda and on the need to confront groups linked to the Rwandan genocide. Yet Rwandan and Ugandan troops often proved much more interested in making money than in confronting the ‘genocidaires’.

In Afghanistan, conflict and aid have been manipulated for the benefit of actors linked to the Afghan government, and this mirrored an earlier manipulation of conflict and aid during Vietnam War (where aid similarly served as an incentive for prolonging armed conflict). Yet aid continues to be posited as something that can ‘win hearts and minds’ in the midst of a ruthless insurgency confronting a deeply corrupt government – an example of wishful thinking that would be crazy if it were not also serving to legitimise unwinnable wars and to protect the budgets of official Western aid agencies. These agencies have defended themselves against government cuts by insisting that aid is a key route to security (whether Western security or security in a country like Afghanistan).

Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has proven to be an extremely useful enemy for many powerful players – not least for repressive governments in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We have heard about the failure of the Pakistan government to capture or kill Osama bin Laden when he was living a short distance from a major military base. Rather than being an isolated example, this ‘failing’ seems to reflect a surprising (and often functional) ‘incompetence’ in relation to demonized enemies in many parts of the world. Expressing hostility towards a given enemy may be far more useful than actually capturing him.

Taliban fighters - a useful enemy?

Taliban fighters – a useful enemy?

Even the Sudan got some benefits from expressing a readiness to help with operations against bin Laden. The Khartoum government got some degree of impunity for its abuses in Darfur from cooperating with Washington over the ‘war on terror’ (including tracking the finances of bin Laden, who had earlier lived in Sudan). Meanwhile, with the Cold War waning, a huge military and numerous related industries in the US in particular found a renewed justification for their existence in the new threats of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and (particularly after 9/11) al Qaeda. My research among US veterans disillusioned with the Iraq war underlined the futility of this enterprise – again, a predictably counterproductive one when it came to ‘winning’ – as well as the diverse functions that such a ‘failing’ enterprise appears to be serving.Meanwhile, influential writers (like Thomas Barnett in The Pentagon’s New Map) have been peddling their vision of ‘endless war’, a world where the US has the right to declare ‘pre-emptive’ war on pretty much anyone in the name of confronting demon enemies. It is as if the US, like many repressive governments in poorer countries, has declared a permanent ‘state of emergency’ that gives it great leeway to do whatever it wants.

The impunity generated by a ‘war on terror’ was underlined when I visited Sri Lanka during the Sri Lankan government’s ruthless military campaign against the rebel Tamil Tigers and associated civilians in 2009. The Tigers had been labeled as ‘terrorists’ in the US and the European Union and in the ‘war on terror’ tactics like indefinite detention of terrorist suspects had been embodied at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. In this context, it became very difficult for Western governments to object to the ruthless elimination of the Tigers and perhaps 40,000 civilians in 2009, and the Colombo government found an opportunity to present the indefinite detention of some 290,000 Tamil civilians as somehow normal and a necessary ‘anti-terrorist’ measure. Meanwhile, the intensified war yielded major electoral pay-offs for Mahinda Rajapakse (who became President in 2005) as well as for nationalist Sinhalese parties.

Significantly, when the war against the Tamil Tigers was declared over, the state of emergency continued and the government actually increased the size of the army – saying it was necessary to deter terrorism and to promote development. Whether you can actually defeat a separatist movement by humiliating and incarcerating virtually an entire ethnic group (as well as wiping out thousands of civilians) is very much open to question – particularly since any revival of violent protest among the Tamils is likely to get strong support from an incensed (and often wealthy) Tamil diaspora.

Looking at all these crises together, it becomes possible to discern a pernicious ‘war system’ where abusive and exploitative wars at the local level are reinforced by self-interested global wars. Counterproductive tactics (whether it is attacking civilians in Sierra Leone or attacking Iraq in the ‘war on terror’) have been so prevalent and so persistent that one eventually has to abandon the assumption that the aim in a war is to win.

Useful Enemies

Useful Enemies by David Keen

Where a particular enemy is reviled as the embodiment of evil (whether Communism during the Cold War or terrorism today), the opportunities for abuse and enrichment by those who claim to eliminate this evil are manifold. And these abuses, for the most part, have been systematically covered up. Meanwhile, analysis – like that of Paul Collier – which pins virtually all the blame for civil war on rebel groups risks feeding this damaging impunity. It is high time we moved beyond pointing the finger at some readily identifiable ‘evil’ and began to recognise that many different groups – often linked to governments, including our own – have benefited from abusive war systems.

In other words, we need to recognise just how useful ‘the enemy’ has become – both in a practical sense and as a means of not taking responsibility for our own role in global violence.

David Keen, professor of complex emergencies at the London School of Economics, is also the author of Endless War?, The Benefits of Famine, and Complex Emergencies. He lives in Oxford.

Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important Than Winning Them is available now from Yale, and has been chosen as one of the 21 Books to Read in 2012 by Foreign Policy Magazine

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