Fragmented civil wars


Published 26.06.17

Multilateral pacification policies can be effective in resolving civil wars, but arms embargoes can fail if targeted militias increase their activity

The typical Cold War era conflict, such as Korea or Vietnam, was a proxy war between two well-defined camps, each supported by antagonistic superpowers. The recent civil wars in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria are very different. They involve intricate networks of alliances and enmities. While some groups engage in active coordination (e.g., the Russian support to Assad’s Syrian armed forces), many linkages are shallow, informal, or intransitive. For instance, in Syria, Turkey, a NATO member, is the main sponsor of the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, which have allegedly cooperated with the Al Nusra Front, a group designated as a terrorist organisation by the US (Gurcan 2015).

In this new scenario, alliances are often of a tactical nature. According to Ghez (2011: 20), tactical alliances are formed "to counter an immediate threat or adversary that has the potential to challenge a state's most vital interests". Tactical alliances are different from both historical alliances, which are also informal but hinge on a historical tradition of cooperation, and natural alliances, which imply a more profound shared political culture and vision of the world. Fotini (2014) argues that in recent civil conflicts, alliances and enmities are more often shaped by the power dynamic than by identity and historical factors.

Understanding the structure of informal war networks is important, not only for predicting outcomes, but also for implementing policies to contain or end violence. These may be diplomatic initiatives promoted by international organisations to restore dialogue and reduce animosity between belligerents, or targeted military interventions of external forces against specific groups. In a recent study, we construct a theory of conflict focusing explicitly on informal networks of alliances and enmities, and apply it to an empirical study of the Second Congo War and its aftermath, a conflict where most alliances and enmities are tactical (König et al. 2017). 

The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The DRC is the largest Sub-Saharan African country. Its population of 68 million inhabitants comprises over 200 ethnic groups. After gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the DRC experienced recurrent political turmoil and wars that turned it into one of the poorest countries in the world, in spite of its abundance of natural resources. The Congo conflict involves many inter-connected domestic and foreign actors—three Congolese rebel movements, 14 foreign armed groups, and a countless number of militias (Autesserre 2008).

In 1996, a large coalition of African countries centred on Uganda and Rwanda supported a rebellion to depose the dictator Mobutu. After achieving its primary goal, the coalition collapsed. As the new leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, turned against Rwanda and Uganda, the crisis escalated into outright war in 1998. Rwanda and Uganda mobilised the local Tutsi population and armed a well-organised rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, that took control of Eastern Congo. The main Hutu military organisations that had fled from Rwanda sided with Kabila, who also received the international support of Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Officially, the Second Congo War ended in July 2003. In reality, stable peace was never attained and fighting still continues today. The conflict is highly fragmented. According to Prunier (2011: 187) "the continent was fractured, not only for or against Kabila, but within each of the two camps". The friendly relationship between Rwanda and Uganda soon dwindled. The DRC army itself is notoriously prone to internal fights and mutinies, spurred by the fact that its units are segregated along ethnic lines and often correspond to former ethnic militias or paramilitaries that got integrated into the national army. In summary, far from being a war between two unitary camps, the conflict engaged a complex web of informal alliances and enmities with many non-transitive links.

The impact of different policy interventions on the conflict model

Our analysis involves two steps. First, we construct and statistically estimate a conflict model of tactical alliances in the spirit of Tullock (1980) and Hirshleifer (1989), where multiple groups contest militarily over a prize (e.g., mines, taxation power). The groups’ relationships are described by a network of alliances and enmities, where each group is strengthened by its allies’ fighting activity and weakened by its enemies’ fighting activity. The network structure affects the overall conflict intensity. For instance, fragmented wars where many groups have multiple enemies tend to be especially virulent.

The model aims at explaining the variations over time in the number of clashes involving 80 armed groups, as recorded by the Armed Conflict Location Event Database. Because of the network externalities, the estimation requires the identification of an exogenous source of variation. Following the recent conflict literature (see, among others, Dell 2012 and Miguel et al. 2004), we focus on weather shocks. In line with the previous studies, we find that dry weather magnifies conflict. When rainfall is low, economic opportunities deteriorate making it is easier for militia to recruit soldiers. The econometric analysis confirms the key predictions of the theory—each group’s fighting effort is decreasing in the fighting effort of its allies and increasing in the fighting effort of its enemies. For instance, if a group’s enemies are hit by a drought, these groups fight harder, inducing the group to fight harder in response. Conversely, if its allies face rainy weather, they will fight less, inducing again the group to fight harder in response.

Next, we consider a number of policy experiments. First, we consider targeted policies that either induce some groups to drop out of the conflict or make it harder and more expensive for them to fight (e.g., arms embargoes). The analysis singles out groups whose decommissioning or weakening is most effective for scaling down conflict. Second, we study the effect of pacification policies aimed at reducing the hostility between enemy groups—for example, by bringing selected actors to the negotiating table. Since enmities tend to increase the conflict intensity, bilateral or multilateral pacifications tend to reduce violence. We find that the gains from pacification policies can be large. In some instances, the reduction in the level of armed activity is well in excess of the amount of fighting between the groups whose bilateral hostilities were placated.

The results highlight the key role of Rwanda and Uganda in the conflict, although some smaller guerrilla groups such as the Lord Resistance Army are also important drivers of violence. Arms embargoes that increase the fighting cost of groups without inducing them to demobilise are generally ineffective because the reduction in the targeted groups' activity is typically offset by an increase in the activity of the other groups. In contrast, targeted bilateral or multilateral pacification policies can be highly effective.

Finally, with the aid of a random utility model, we study the possibility that policy interventions reshape the network of alliances and enmities. For instance, removing a foreign state from the conflict may induce some of the armed groups sponsored by that state to make peace with the DRC government. The recomposition of the network boosts the effect of interventions targeting foreign groups. According to our estimates, removing all foreign groups reduces the conflict by 41%, significantly more than in the case of a fixed network (27%). These results are in line with the narrative that foreign intervention is an important driver of the DRC conflict.

In work in progress, we are extending the analysis to other fragmented conflicts such as the recent civil war in Iraq and Syria.


Autesserre, S (2008), "The trouble with Congo: How local disputes fuel regional conflict", Foreign Affairs 87: 94-110.

Dell, M (2012), "Path dependence in development: Evidence from the Mexican Revolution", mimeo, Harvard University.

Fotini, C (2012), Alliance formation in civil wars, Cambridge University Press.

Ghez, J (2011), "Alliances in the 21st century: Implications for the US-European partnership", Rand Europe, Occasional Paper.

Gurcan, M (2015), "After shooting down Russian jet, what's next for Turkey?." Al-Monitor, 26 November.

Hirshleifer, J (1989), "Conflict and rent-seeking success functions: Ratio vs. difference models of relative success", Public Choice 63: 101–112.

König, M, D Rohner, M Thoenig and F Zilibotti (2017), “Networks in conflict: Theory and evidence from the Great War of Africa”, Forthcoming in Econometrica.

Miguel, E, S Satyanath and E Sergenti (2004), "Economic shocks and civil conflict: An instrumental variables approach", Journal of Political Economy 112: 725-753.

Prunier, G (2011), Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and the making of a continental catastrophe, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Tullock, G (1980), "Efficient rent seeking", in J Buchanan, R Tollison and G Tullock (eds), Toward a theory of the rent-seeking society, Texas A&M University Press, Texas. 

Photo credit: GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images.