The independent resource on global security

2. Major armed conflicts



I. Introduction

II. Internationalized intra-state conflicts

III. Features of contemporary intra-state conflicts

IV. Iraq

V. Conclusions


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All the 19 conflicts recorded as ‘major armed conflicts’ in 2004—those causing over 1000 battle-related deaths in any one year—were classified as intra-state conflicts. Only three of these—the conflict against al-Qaeda, the conflict in Iraq and the conflict in Darfur, Sudan—are less than 10 years old. However, in a globalized world, intra-state conflicts are increasingly becoming international in nature and in effect. The complexity and diversity of these conflicts challenge the distinction between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’, in turn calling into question the basis on which conflicts are classified and addressed.


Contemporary intra-state conflicts—the diversity of warring parties and their multiple grievances; the evolving tactics in conflict and their consequences for civilians; and the shifting location and containment of intra-state conflict—complicate traditional approaches to their analysis and management. While greater attention to the interconnection with the international community is welcome, it is also important not to overstate the global dimension of intra-state conflict.


Although a number of conflicts in 2004 had international dimensions in terms of motivations, warring parties, location, funding and resolution efforts, many were also noteworthy for their localized nature—‘small’ wars with big costs—as developments in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia (Aceh) illustrated. Conflicts in Burundi, Colombia and Sudan indicated how a multiplicity and irregularity of rebel parties, as well as inter-rebel hostility, can complicate conflict dynamics and efforts to manage and resolve them.


Paradoxically, the long-standing and recurrent nature of many conflicts may make them less visible internationally, as is illustrated by conflicts in Nepal and Uganda, both of which inflicted heavy costs on civilian populations but attracted scant media attention in 2004.


In a reversal of the classic spill-over of conflict from intra- to inter-state, developments in Iraq during 2004 raised the prospect of an international conflict creating a fully-fledged civil war. Although the Iraqi conflict eventually displayed many features common to conflicts elsewhere—a diversity of warring parties, deliberate targeting of civilians, use of unconventional tactics and the local focus of conflict zones—its particularities in origin and trajectory merit separate consideration.