Is Darfur a Low-Intensity Conflict?

What is a ‘low-intensity conflict’? It is still a conflict. Even though lethal violence is low, the other other dimensions to the conflict may continue with a high intensity, including a risk of high-intensity violence.

In this posting I will examine the debate around the question of how to define a ‘low-intensity conflict’ and what this means for Darfur. It’s an important policy question because it helps determine what should be the right strategy for UNAMID, especially given the recent request by the UN Security Council that UNAMID define its strategy and benchmarks for success.

When Joint Special Representative Rodolphe Adada made his presentation to the UN Security Council on 27 April his use of the term ‘low-intensity conflict’ sparked controversy.

He said that the situation had changed from the period of intense hostilities in 2003-04, when tens of thousands of people had been killed, to a low-intensity conflict. According to UNAMID data, from 1 January 2008 until 31 March 2009, there had been some 2,000 fatalities from violence, approximately one third of them civilian. 573 combatants had died. A further 569 people had died in intertribal fighting and UNAMID had lost 14 of its members.

The controversy focused on the figures. It is now widely accepted that Adada’s numbers are broadly correct. The question is how to interpret them, and what else is going on.

There is no numerical threshold for a ‘low intensity conflict.’ The Uppsala conflict database classifies Darfur in 2007 and 2008 as a ‘minor’ conflict.

According to its definition of ‘intensity level’, this variable ‘is coded in two categories: Minor: At least 25 but less than 1,000 battle-related deaths in a year, i.e. civilian and military deaths associated with the conflict. War: at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in a year.’

If the level of fatalities is nearer to 1,500 per year then perhaps Uppsala should upgrade Darfur from ‘minor’ status. On the other hand, if a substantial number of these deaths are due to criminality and these reflect some kind of ‘normal’ baseline for criminal homicide, then Darfur’s conflict-related ‘excess’ homicide rate may be lower than 1,000 per year (see the debate on this in response to UNAMID’s June figures.) Whatever is the correct decision, the bigger point here is that Darfur is close to this borderline.

There is no numerical threshold for defining a ‘low-intensity conflict.’ The U.S. Army Field Manual, ‘Military Operations in Low-Intensity Conflict,’ (FM 100-20, 1990), defines ‘low-intensity conflict’ in relation to threats to U.S. interests and in particular identifies them as protracted struggles in the Third World which are somewhere between outright war and normal peaceful competition between states. In the introduction to the Manual, the army authors write:

‘The term low intensity conflict reflects an American perspective. Indeed, the term is a misnomer. To peoples more directly affected, the threat is immediate and vital. To us, it is subtle, indirect, and long-term; but potentially it is just as serious. The actions which take place in low intensity conflict are distinguishable from those in conventional war, more by differences in kind, than by degree of intensity.’

In the last few years, political scientists have begun extremely productive quantitative investigations into levels and functions of violence in civil conflict. The seminal work in the field is Stathis Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006). What Kalyvas demonstrates is that levels of violence can vary hugely from time to time and place to place during a civil conflict, depending on the calculations of risk and benefit among the different actors. The front line may be a relatively quiet place to be. This accords with the experience of internal conflicts in Africa, which may have long periods of stasis or stalemate characterized by an appearance of normality.

Ethnographic accounts of civil wars confirm and elaborate this. An excellent example is Burundi, as described by Peter Uvin, in Life After Violence: A People’s Story of Burundi (2009). He recounts how a war which, for long periods, involved relatively few killings, involved profound and lasting social disruptions. The history of Burundi also suggests that unresolved political and ethnic dispute contains the potential for explosive violence, which may overtake the country in very short order. Hakan Seckinelgin and colleagues also detail this, focusing on the status of women and girls, their strategies for survival during long periods of insecurity, and the implications for HIV/AIDS.

The textbook description of Burundi is that since 1991 it has been a low-intensity conflict with intermittent high-intensity episodes. According to Seckinelgin, ‘This view does not reflect the experiences of people who lived through this period.’ It is, he argues, ‘misleading’ because it does not capture the way in which the armed groups mobilized across the country, the large-scale and protracted displacement of the population, and the enduring militarization of society. Above all, this description does not reflect women’s experience of exacerbated gender disparities. Always a patriarchal society, the years of conflict led to women being further disadvantaged. A focus on sexual violence would also fail to capture the myriad ways in which women are compelled to navigate their weak and subordinate status, for example seeking protection through partnerships with members of armed groups.

It is perhaps no coincidence that these writers explicitly adopt a gender perspective. Combat may be the defining feature of conflict from a masculine perspective, but the adverse disruption of social relations may be women’s defining experience.

This analysis points us not only towards sexual violence but also women’s wider experience of armed conflict. Rape is certainly underreported in Darfur, as everywhere. I have not used the UNAMID figures for (reported) rapes because I am sure they are both too low and not representative. But the indications that exist are that the pattern of sexual violence is not dissimilar to the pattern of violent deaths: it is not a centrally orchestrated campaign but rather a mixture of rampant criminality and war-related actions. Rape is both common and horrible but is not, I suspect, the defining experience for most Darfurian women. Rather, in line with the ethnography of the Burundian war, the conflict is experienced chiefly as traumatic disruption and insecurity, in the broadest sense that includes lack of a dignified livelihood and social changes that generally increase uncertainties and undermine status. (On the other hand, some changes associated with camp life, such as women’s possession of ration cards and their capacity to resist arranged marriages at young ages, are less adverse.)

While the lethal violence in Darfur is ‘low-intensity’, that is not a complete description of the conflict, in three respects. First, the unresolved war has the potential for ‘spikes’ in violence. Second, the political repercussions of the unresolved conflict are very high, not only for Darfur but for Sudan and neighbouring countries. Third, the experience of traumatic disruption is anything but ‘low-intensity’—it is the defining life experience for millions of Darfurians. To be fair to Adada, he also made these points, though they were lost in the publicity over his label, ‘low-intensity conflict.’

This analysis has far-reaching implications for the kind of strategy that is needed to protect civilians, improve the humanitarian situation, and promote a political settlement. Last week, the UN Security Council requested UNAMID to produce a strategy with benchmarks for success. Evidently, the kind of data provided by Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC) is one of the most important measures of success or failure, and the analysis of what these numbers mean (and don’t mean) should underpin any medium- and long-term strategy for the Mission.

The kind of peace support mission needed for a situation of high-intensity conflict, defined by mass killing and destruction, is very different from one of reduced lethal violence, but protracted traumatic disruption to ways of life with particular stresses and vulnerabilities for women. As Moudjib Djinadou of UNAMID’s JMAC points out in his most recent comment, it is the police contingent that makes the most consistent day-to-day contact with the Darfurian civilian population. The civilian police also play a very important role in managing the day-to-day threats to the people. Meanwhile, it is the Civil Affairs Department that takes the lead in engaging with the community leaders and local authorities to try to manage the local conflicts which comprise a large proportion of the burden of armed violence in Darfur. These are all considerations that should help determine UNAMID’s strategy. I will follow up on that shortly.

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3 thoughts on “Is Darfur a Low-Intensity Conflict?

  1. There has much focus on the word ‘low-intensity’ in relation to Darfur recently, perhaps like the word genocide and the mortality debate in the past. It risks being interpreted out of context, by the GoS and its allies as ´see it is not too bad´, by UNAMID as ´we are succesful´ and advocacy movements as a rallying cry to attack the deniers of the impact of the war.
    As Alex writes an ethnographic approach might be more useful; it shows what the people affected are going through.
    But how do we measure those that are affected by violence? The UN figures of war-affected seem to be related to those receiving food aid and/or are in IDP camps.
    Those that have been affected by direct violence are probably fewer; the crisis in food security and livelihoods also caused people to be affected according to the UN definition. So how many people fled/left their villages or stopped their nomadic lifestyle because of violence, how many witnessed violence, how many lost family/friends because of violence, how many live with physical and psychological damage as a result of the violence. Are those born in IDP camps the last few years the victims of violence?
    If we look at the psychological effects on children of concentration camp survivors of that conflict we can think of the effects on the children born out of rape and their lives in Darfur.

    I would like to offer two demographic perspectives as well. When mortality is compared between conflicts absolute numbers are only moderately useful but relative rates are less looked at. What percentage of men between 15-50 in Darfur have died as a result of violence? we don’t know.
    That 500/3500 people died in Nauru in WW II gave it a much higher rate of deaths (14.7%) than the USA (0.32% or 418,500) .
    The duration and end of a conflict is also important in the effect it has on a population. A short intense war (say Kuwait in 1990) with clear resolution is very different to a long drawn-out one without one. As long as there are so many UNAMID troops in Darfur deemed necessary violent conflict and future outbreaks of high intensity violence are a distinct possibility.

    So, the concept of low-intensity conflict has little meaning for the past and for the future, and just a little for the immediate present. Therefore it is important to discuss what it means so it does not gets misused to argue for or against the political action that is necessary to move forward.

  2. The concept of a “low-intensity conflict” is military and not political, and insofar as it is military, it is only in a tactical or operational sense. War in the sense of violent conflict is only one possible manifestation of political struggle. At present, the primary theater in which the struggle in Darfur is being pursued, by both state and insurgents, is a political realm that focuses on the IDP camps and U.S. policy. The battlefield is ancillary to that. In most parts of Darfur there is a de facto ceasefire in effect and most violence is criminal in nature, not political. This may change at any moment, for example if JEM responds to its marginalization in the peace process with a military attack, that would be intended to ensure its return to a central role in a peace process, or if there is a political realignment in Chad. Although UNAMID was designed to cope with an entirely different set of circumstances, it is to its credit that it has analyzed the dimensions of the conflict correctly. Despite this, as currently constituted, the international engagement is not capable of understanding these political factors, let alone addressing them. As a result, the UN including the P3 are reluctant to admit the low level of armed violence, for fear that this would lead to a diminution of political commitment and financial backing for UNAMID. Lacking the political-economic analysis that would allow for a correct definition of the character of the Darfur conflict, they are simply clinging to a set of mechanical measures of conflict and crisis which are less and less appropriate. The paradoxical outcome of this is that the political positions taken by the international actors are more entrenched and less flexible than those of the Sudanese parties. As I have emphasized many times, the international engagement is increasingly retrogressive. This is not because I support the NCP regime (to the contrary) but because the only forces capable of enacting political change in Sudan are domestic ones, and as long as any potentially progressive domestic forces are ensared by these international actors, they are doomed to impotence.

  3. If the measures for deciding whether a conflict is “high” or “low-intensity” are socio-economic, rather than derived from numerical data for lethal violence, this would appear to blur the boundary between “armed conflict” and “crime”, if the latter is to be taken as a sociological or general (statistical or epidemiological) phenomenon rather than a collection of individual transgressions. This would also blur the distinction between “war” and “peace” insofar as peace agreements often involve levels of disruption, dislocation and violence (short of killing), at least for a transitory period.

    What should we be measuring?

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