The independent resource on global security

3. Major armed conflicts



I. Introduction

II. The persistence of intra-state conflict

III. Protracted intra-state conflicts

IV. The volatility of intra-state conflict

V. Comprehensive peace processes

VI. The impact of the ‘war against terrorism’ on intra-state conflicts

VII. Conclusions


Read the full chapter [PDF].


In 2003 there were 19 major armed conflicts in 18 locations worldwide, the lowest number for the post-cold war period with the exception of 1997, when 18 such conflicts were registered. Only two of the 19 conflicts were fought between states: the conflict between Iraq and the multinational coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom and the long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Four of the 19 conflicts were in Africa and eight in Asia.


The principal source of major armed conflict in contemporary politics remains intra-state. The persistence of intra-state wars, and their resistance to quick solutions, was amply reflected in 2003. Longstanding conflicts in Colombia and Israel continued, despite the introduction of more offensive military strategies by the government parties in each country. While a more aggressive military stance thwarted opposition attacks and may have contributed to the reduction in fatalities in Colombia and Israel in 2003, it severely hampered efforts to facilitate progress toward peace in both.


The volatility of individual intra-state conflicts was sharply brought to the fore in 2003. The potential for sudden and rapid escalation of intensity was evident in conflicts such as Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Liberia and the Philippines.


This was also demonstrated in Afghanistan, a conflict that resists neat classification as ‘inter’ or ‘intra-state’. Taliban fighters regrouping and emerging out of Pakistan were increasingly active in 2003 against the US-led coalition in south-eastern Afghanistan. While the USA and its allies continued its campaign to root out al-Qaeda forces, the Afghan Transitional Authority, under President Hamid Karzai, sought to exert authority over Afghanistan’s powerful warlords and prepare the country for national elections in September 2004. The current international focus on the threat of terrorism continues to affect the conduct of intra-state conflicts and, in cases such as Indonesia and the Philippines, is directly impacting on the strategies, intensity and course of these conflicts.


The year 2003 demonstrated that intra-state conflicts can be brought to an end only through sustained and comprehensive external engagement. Outside actors cannot enforce peace on a state, as cases as diverse as Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq and Sri Lanka demonstrated. However, external assistance, mediation and support is vital to help bring warring parties to a negotiated end to conflict. Peace agreements in Liberia and Sudan in 2003 were forceful reminders of this.



Appendix 3A. Patterns of major armed conflicts, 1990–2003



Appendix 3B. Definitions, sources and methods for the conflict data


Full text Appendix 3A and Appendix 3B [PDF].



Dr Renata Dwan (Ireland) is Leader of the SIPRI Project on Armed Conflict and Conflict Management, an amalgamated new programme covering two previous SIPRI projects: Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution; and Armed Conflict and Peace Enforcement. Prior to joining SIPRI in 1999 she was Deputy Director of the EastWest Institute (EWI) European Security Programme at the EWI Budapest Centre. She is a former Fulbright scholar and former visiting fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies. Between March 2002 and August 2003 she served as Special Adviser to the EU Police Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Secretariat of the Council of the European Union. Her areas of study include conflict prevention, peacebuilding, international police operations and EU crisis management. Her most recent publication, as editor, is SIPRI Research Report No. 16, Executive Policing: Enforcing the Law in Peace Operations (2002).


Micaela Gustavsson (Sweden) was a Research Associate on the SIPRI Project on Armed Conflict and Conflict Management from November 2003 to March 2004. Prior to joining SIPRI, she worked as a Project Leader and Defence Analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London where she initiated and managed the development of the IISS Armed Conflict Database, launched in September 2003.


Mikael Eriksson (Sweden) is a Research Assistant on the Uppsala Conflict Data Project at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University. He is currently working on the Uppsala Conflict Data Project and the Stockholm Process on the Implementation of Targeted Sanctions.


Professor Peter Wallensteen (Sweden) has held the Dag Hammarskjöld Chair in Peace and Conflict Research since 1985 and was Head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University in 1972–99. He directs the Uppsala Conflict Program and the Stockholm Process on Targeted Sanctions. He has most recently published Understanding Conflict Resolution: War, Peace and the Global System (SAGE, 2002) and Making Targeted Sanctions Effective: Guidelines for the Implementation of UN Policy Options (Report from the Stockholm Process, Uppsala, 2003, with C. Staibano and M. Eriksson). He has co-authored chapters in the SIPRI Yearbook since 1988.