The Changed Nature of War

Prem Chandavarkar
Aug 10, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo Credit: Hasan Almasi at

Our conventional notion of war is one that is fought between nation states, by uniformed armies, where the battles usually take place in open countryside. This has not been the case in the last few decades. Wars are rarely between nation states, and one or more of the parties are what has been termed as “non-state actors”. And the battles take place more often in the heart of cities.

Why has this change taken place? I do not see much coverage in the media on this question. I suspect it is because of the rise of proxy wars where nations do not directly fight each other but pursue their interests through assistance to non-state actors who are targeting the enemy nation. Proxy wars have a long history, but became established international practice during the Cold War. Neither side could directly confront each other because of the threat of mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons. Therefore, they started covert wars by funding and supporting non-state actors who were willing to fight a common enemy.

Non-state actors rarely have an air force or a navy, and would be hard pressed to have a huge army with heavy weaponry. They are better suited to fight guerrilla battles in urban contexts, with automatic rifles and improvised explosive devices as the primary weapons. Once war becomes institutionalised with non-state actors, it very easily deteriorates into a perpetual condition.

Non-state actors have motives that are very different from nation states: they are driven to fight because of a perceived injustice they feel cannot be resolved by political or diplomatic means. Since their attempt to seek justice is driven by violence, state actors unleash their own violence to contain them. This war is driven by guerrilla action rather than major battles, and is therefore extremely difficult to effectively suppress in the long run. The line dividing fighters from the general population is blurred and thin, so the impact of violence spills on to those who are not participants in the war. Non-state actors claim their cause to be morally just, and this means that even if losses are suffered on the military front, this produces a martyrdom that enthuses fresh recruits, a condition facilitated by the intertwining of fighters and civilians. This spiral of violence is difficult to suppress.

Once the spiral of violence begins to feed on itself, the question arises of how one can bring about an end to war. This can only happen if the cost and trauma of war becomes so sapping that the major parties find it unsustainable to continue. Non-state actors are faced with a dilemma when war ends without an outright victory to either side. When the war is between nation states, after a peace treaty (or some other reason for the war to end) each side has a territory to retreat to. A non-state actor has no territory to retreat to and begin life again. It can conceive of an end to war only when one or more of the following conditions exists: (i) it recognises or accepts that the cause that originally motivated it does not exist anymore, which can only happen through politics and diplomacy and rarely ever through war; (ii) it is provided with a territory to retreat to, which is almost certainly unacceptable to the nation states that constitute the battleground); or (iii) it finds a new enemy that validates its raison d’etre and also creates new opportunities for support. If war ends because of changing priorities of the nation state that was the original patron, it is not unusual for the non-state actor to turn around and bite the hand that was originally feeding it. This means that the earlier history of war, where the lines were clearly drawn and periods of conflict were interceded with periods of peace is no longer possible. When non-state actors are primary players in wars, whichever side you may be on, it is hard to draw definitive lines between the good guys and the bad guys, and who is on which side. These lines keep shifting, even the territories of battle become highly fluid, and the cycle of war becomes a chronic condition.

The other question that does not receive coverage is how non-state actors equip and fund war, especially after they have stopped receiving direct aid from nation states. It is said that during its prime ISIS ran a huge oil business through which they funded their activities. How did they produce and sell oil, and to whom did they sell it? How did they receive payment? How did they buy their weapons, and from whom did they buy them? Clearly they would have had to tap into supply chains beyond themselves. And these supply chains must interlock on the global stage with the official ‘legal’ economy. Why has media not attempted to uncover these supply chains in any major way? Possibly, since powerful nation states have been the instigators of proxy wars, unravelling these chains will lead to uncomfortable revelations that could rock established international order. And therefore, establishment media is unwilling to touch such issues.

It appears we face an urgent need to radically restructure our international institutions and covenants such as the United Nations and Geneva Convention, and redesign them to be focused on the implications of proxy wars.

Note: This is a reworked version of an older piece written over three years ago. The major points made then are worth repeating in today’s circumstances.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade