Crime, Low-Intensity Conflict and the Future of War in the Twenty-First Century

Editor’s Note: The following summarizes Vanda Felbab-Brown’s latest book chapter in Failed States and Fragile Societies: A New World Disorder? (Ohio University Press, May 2014).

In the chapter “Crime, Low-Intensity Conflict, and the Future of War in the Twenty-First Century,” Vanda Felbab-Brown argues that an increasingly prominent type of intrastate violence is that which involves a web of criminal groups, illicit economies, and the state actors undertaking anticrime operations. This argument—as well as a broader discussion of law enforcement, military and political responses to violent conflict and human security challenges—is presented in Failed States and Fragile Societies: A New World Disorder? (Ohio University Press, May 2014), edited by Ingo Trauschweizer and Steven M. Miner.

“Crime, Low-Intensity Conflict, and the Future of War in the Twenty-First Century” opens with a discussion of how the theories and patterns of war have evolved since the end of the Cold War. The post-Cold War period has been characterized by many shifts in how countries perceive threats, define interests and evaluate their motivations for becoming involved in violent conflicts, Felbab-Brown argues. She discusses the analytical focus of the 1990s on intrastate warfare and the greed-versus-grievance arguments that downgraded ideology and highlighted instead economic profit motivations for war, only to be confronted by the rise of salafi jihad and religious fundamentalism. With it came the reemergence of insurgency and counterinsurgency—relegated to the back burner or outright trash bin in the 1990s—as well as the return of special operations forces as a key tool of foreign policy and intelligence actors, more militarized than even during the Cold War. The rise of new technologies and precise off-shore platforms and the expansion of foreign policy objectives for which military instruments could be used, including concepts such as responsibility to protect, for a while created a sense that war could be sanitized, discriminated and precisely calibrated. The Iraq and Afghanistan war eviscerated appetites for large-scale military engagements abroad, further privileging tools and tactics such as special operations forces and building up “partner” capacity while souring a desire to influence the internal politics, governance and strategies of partners and enemies abroad.

Yet Felbab-Brown warns against discounting the possibility of large conventional war and intrastate conflict, despite the asymmetric nature of warfare and a retrenchment tendency in U.S. foreign policy. Developments in East Asia, including rivalries among its powers or a collapse of North Korea, could yet trigger conventional wars; India and Pakistan’s rivalry could even escalate into a (perhaps uncalculated) nuclear confrontation.

The very large spectrum of the shape of military conflict in the 21st century will also increasingly feature the complex and influential role of criminal groups. Criminal violence can surpass intensity levels of military warfare; domestic crime can lead to low-intensity conflict or even urban warfare; in intrastate warfare, criminal groups and crime lords can be powerful and key actors; and in many countries around the world responses to crime increasingly feature a militarized response. At the same time, in large parts of the world, and particularly in those with increasing urbanization, governance too will often be criminalized or delivered by criminal groups. Calibrating the proper state response is especially crucial because the threats that crime poses to the state are often highly complex, with crime and illicit economies being the principal sources of human security for many marginalized populations even as they pose key threats to states. Effective anti-crime responses in such contexts need to be multifaceted efforts to unlink human security from criminality while strengthening the bonds between citizens and the state.

Felbab-Brown closes with a review of policy responses for dealing with crime and illicit economies in the context of violent conflict. She emphasizes that the staying power of international efforts to combat internal illicit economies will always be inherently limited, and that policies to suppress these economies and the criminal actors associated with them will only be sustainable if the local population (and its political representatives) have lasting economic, political and security incentives to support such efforts:

“If outside military forces and their civilian counterparts decide to promote ‘good’ governance and undo existing criminal enterprises and illicit economies and prevent the emergence of new ones, they need to plan for and take on this effort early in the mission. The immediate and early postintervention, post-military-operations period is the critical and optimal time to shape the political and criminal environment in the country.”

Felbab-Brown’s chapter in Failed States and Fragile Societies is one of seven to discuss how countries respond to threats from armed state and non-state actors. In two chapters discussing the phenomenon of state failure, David Carment and Yiagadeesen Samy write about the future of war in “Understanding Fragile States and What to Do About Them,” and David Curp discusses “Human Rights and Wrongs in Failed States: Bosnia-Herzegovina, the International Community, and the Challenges of Long-Term Instability in Southeastern Europe.” Joining Felbab-Brown in the section on the use of force are Jonathan House with “The Past and Future of Insurgency: Protracted Warfare and Protracted Counterinsurgency” and James Carter with “The Lessons of the Last War Are Clear: The Military-Industrial Complex, Private Contractors, and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The book concludes with chapters on systemic responses, with Robert Rotberg’s “Odious and Failed States, Humanitarian Responses” and Ken Menkhaus’ “State Collapse and Local Response in Somalia.”

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