In 2008, the conclusion of the Congolese Civil War, one of the bloodiest conflicts since the Second World War that had claimed over 5 million lives, supposedly ended a decade of violence. As the Congolese queued to cast votes for the first time, an electrifying optimism swept the country. However, the country found itself unable to escape the quagmire of violence, poverty, and half-measures. Despite some success from the United Nations Intervention Brigade, militias continue to run rampant, leaving a trail of rape and death, as a UN peacekeeping force of roughly 20,000 soldiers is tasked to police a population of 75.5 million, covering over 2 million kilometers. Beyond superficial interventions, the international community has averted its gaze from the never-ending nightmare of the Congo. The Congolese saga is reminiscent of so many modern conflicts – Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Columbia, and the Central African Republic. Tragically, modern conflicts no longer end; they are caught in a perpetual cycle of enormous illicit profits, superficial interventions, and endemic violence.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, continues to enlist drug-frenzied child soldiers – “leaving a trail of hacked-off limbs and sawed-off ears” across central Africa. In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State continues its macabre jihad, creating a social media spectacle of bloody beheadings. In Columbia, the fifty-year-old conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which displaced more than 5 million lives, remains open-ended. And the ceasefire between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces seems more like a political farce than a step towards sustainable peace, as the city of Debaltserve shortly fell to rebel control.
The days of pitched decisive battles between states are a relic of a bygone era. Violent non-state actors like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and lengthy low-intensity campaigns characterize today’s conflicts. Admittedly, the world has not endured another existential total war since the end of the Second World War. However, modern conflicts are increasingly intractable, complex, and self-sustaining. A shadowy network of arms dealers like Viktor Bout, nicknamed the Merchant of Death, provide an endless supply of illicit weapons to the world’s festering conflicts zones. Before his arrest in 2010, Bout’s clientele included the Taliban in Afghanistan, the war criminal Charles Taylor of Liberia, and the narco-traffickers of the FARC. At the same time, violent non-state actors have leveraged technology from satellite phones to suicide vests with deathly consequences. During the US occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi insurgency employed several forms of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) such as cell-phone activated munitions and pressure plate roadside bombs. Often comprised of commercially available components, IEDs proved to be extremely lethal and the weapon of choice of the Iraqi insurgency. Tragically, technology and globalization have reduced the costs of waging war, exporting violence globally.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary profits of modern conflicts make peace improbable. The world’s insatiable desire for illicit commodities from illicit drugs to elephant tusks fund violent non-state actors from Somalia to Mexico. Michael Braun, a former US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) chief of operations, estimated the FARC annually produced somewhere between $1 and $2 billion from the narco-trafficking. Consequently, there is growing skepticism the FARC, despite peace talks, will simply walk away from a billion dollar business of violence and narcotics, spanning half a century. In 2014, the Islamic State produced more than $2 million per day from captured oil fields. Similarly, the United Nations estimated UNITA, an Angolan rebel group, exported an annual worth of $700 million in conflict diamonds, which accounted for roughly 10% of the global diamond trade. Amidst the chaos of modern conflicts, a myriad of actors perpetuate the violence for profits – from European arms dealers, African warlords, and Latin American drug traffickers. War has become more profitable than peace.
As modern conflicts have become easier and exceedingly profitable, the international community has grown weary and cautious about interventions in foreign conflicts. After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States remains hesitant to be embroiled in another potentially costly engagement with the Islamic State. Consequently, the US aerial campaign against the Islamic State provides a superficial response aimed at imposing tactical damage, instead of meaningful resolution. In Europe, the European Union remains divided on a response to the Ukrainian conflict, employing a series of ineffectual sanctions on Russia, while the fighting in eastern Ukraine intensifies. Meanwhile, the majority of the world’s perpetual conflicts remain ignored or forgotten by the international community. After the NATO-led aerial campaign in Libya, the civil strife has only escalated, leaving a shell of country ruled by roaming militias and extremists. In Yemen, the Houthis, a Shia rebel group from Yemen’s northern region, seized power and dissolved the Parliament. Shortly after, the United Kingdom and the United States hastily evacuated their embassies in Yemen, abandoning the country. Over the years, the international community has adopted a policy of inaction and ineptitude to the world’s conflicts – allowing the death toll to rise and the possibility of peace to grow ever more dim.
There is no easy answer to this new age of perpetual conflicts. The long list of failed interventions from the 1993 United Nations intervention in Somalia to the US-led Iraq War demonstrates the complex nature of today’s conflicts. Successful resolutions will require tremendous time, resources, coordination, and dedication from the international community. None of which seem likely in the near future. For now, today’s perpetual conflicts will rage on, as they always have – far from the public’s view.